Video Game Review: Little Nightmares

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It’s no secret that, upon first glance, Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares evokes similarities to Playdead’s Limbo and Inside. Ever since Limbo‘s release in 2010, the indie game community has been impacted significantly. Not just because of its quality, but because it took what people expected from a platformer and achieved something wholly unique. The monochrome presentation has been used countless times since then and other developers have attempted to mimic the same discomforting atmosphere that the game is perhaps best known for. While Little Nightmares does follow this particularly niche trend of dark, eerie platformers with a child as the protagonist, labeling Tarsier Studios’ new title as a Playdead wannabe would be undermining the more unique elements that they’ve conjured up.

Released in April, Little Nightmares is described as a “puzzle-platformer horror adventure game” in which you play as Six – a young girl trapped in a a mysterious vessel called The Maw. Throughout the experience, the player navigates different sections of The Maw, each distinctly different and frightening. I don’t want to give any of these away, because every section introduces a distinct new theme that progresses the game’s narrative through clever world building. Each section also features stealth sequences in which Six must avoid a specific monster/creature. These stealth sections are a large bulk of the game, especially in the later levels. While some puzzles require the player to act stealthily in order to complete them, the game emphasizes horror much more than a platformer such as Inside, which explored its themes in a more abstract manner.

These stealth sections are successfully unnerving and very fun to play, thanks to responsive controls. The puzzles themselves are straightforward – even the most inexperienced at puzzle-solving will have little trouble. In fact, the only time I ever found myself stumped during the experience was due to me assuming the solution was far more complicated than it really was.

The game also doesn’t play like a traditional 2D platformer. The camera is reminiscent of 2D titles, but Six and the other characters are able to move in the foreground and background. This can become a bit tricky to navigate during some sections where the camera pans back, as it sometimes caused me to plummet to my death. It’s a minor issue for me, however, as these cinematic sequences feature some of the most striking imagery in the game.

I love the way the narrative evolves throughout the title. Much like Playdead’s games, you start off, quite literally, in the dark. However, the game’s world slowly reveals itself in a way that I found consistently rewarding and surprising. This is thanks to the game’s fantastic atmosphere. Honestly, it’s one of the most original game settings I’ve experienced in years and I was always eager to continue exploring. The camerawork makes every room you step in feel as if you’re trapped in some sort of warped dollhouse. The music is unique, with some chilling childlike soundscapes and voices. There is no dialogue throughout, so relying on the sounds of enemies and the environment is the key to survival. The first time you hear an enemy charge after you is more than enough to get your heart racing.

Little Nightmares’ minor flaws don’t hold it back from being a fun and creepy platformer.  Rather than relying on trial and error, I enjoyed how the game encourages the player to mess around with objects in the environment and even with the monsters looking for you. It’s a nice change of pace from the head-scratching puzzles typically found in these types of games. However, due to the fact that the game is easy AND short (it took me about 4 hours), I’m certain that some people won’t be too happy about paying the $20 price tag. For me, however, I continue to find myself invested in the ever-growing collection of atmospheric puzzle-platformers. While Little Nightmares might not be quite as impactful as Limbo or Inside, I believe it fits right in with some of the better, similar titles on the market.

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Movie Review: The Transfiguration

 

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2017 has, so far, delivered quite a few horror films that have managed to stick with me long after I watched them. I don’t mean this in terms of how effectively frightening they are, but how effective they are in conveying their ideas, stories, and characters. Films like Raw and It Comes At Night fit this bill for me and are some of my favorite releases of the year.

Though it premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, The Transfiguration, an independent horror drama film directed by Michael O’Shea, was released in US theaters this year and was added to Netflix recently. But does it join the likes of the aforementioned horror films that leave a lasting impression long on the viewer after watching it? For the most part, yes. Simply put, the execution of The Transfiguration’s ideas allows it to stand out as a thought-provoking offering if audiences are willing to be patient.

The film revolves around Milo – a troubled teen whose fascination for vampires makes him an outcast in his school and neighborhood. Eventually, he meets an equally troubled girl in his building who he forms a relationship with. The bad news is that he has a taste for blood that must be satisfied regularly.

While this description will immediately remind some of Let The Right One In, my favorite vampire film of all time, what sets The Transfiguration apart is through its self-awareness. Milo’s obsession with vampire films means that the films which The Transfiguration occasionally derives inspiration from directly influence his own behavior, thus providing genre fanatics to pick apart little details scattered throughout.

The film’s setting and characters make for a refreshingly real approach to vampire mythos – something that the film and Milo are very aware of. Milo lives in a derelict apartment building in New York City with his brother. O’Shea makes nice use of the location, often showcasing areas of the city where the audience is left wondering about the possibilities of what will happen next. This is thanks to his deft direction and sense of tone. Whether it’s in a public park or in a dimly lit stairwell, the potential for something dreadful to happen is always there.

The film moves swiftly in between horror and drama in a believable way and that’s because I understood who the characters were and cared about them. Eric Ruffin delivers an incredibly solid performance of a teen dealing with serious personal issues. It’s all the more impressive that the complexity of his acting carries emotions that aren’t always present in the script. In fact, with the exception of an extremely brief child actor near the end (and that’s just me nitpicking), I felt the acting was strong all around.

What will most likely turn audiences off about the film is the pacing. The Transfiguration can be extremely slow at times and this won’t be acceptable to certain audiences. While I consider myself the type of viewer who doesn’t mind when the director allows a scene to linger in order to induce a feeling of unease or atmospheric tension, I will admit that the story within the film almost definitely could’ve been told as a short film.

In spite of the length and pacing, however, I would suggest viewers who start the movie to see it all the way through. The Transfiguration’s ending is rewarding and immediately made the film’s ideas sink deeply into my brain. It’s the execution of these ideas that make this a movie I’d recommend for those looking for something different than what we’ve been seeing recently in the genre. While it would be easy to dismiss The Transfiguration as nothing more than an ode to vampire fiction, it would be a disservice to overlook its other strengths.

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Of Monsters and Snowmen: The Romanticism of ‘A Good Snowman is Hard to Build’

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As I reflect on the past four years of my college education, I have been trying to pinpoint the more memorable moments and why they’re so memorable.

One of many college courses I signed up for in order to meet a requirement was a class on the Romantic era, specifically Romantic literature. The term “Romantic” refers to something a bit different than how we think of it today, though emotion is still the foundation. When you break it down into its most simple terms, Romantic writers and artists explored themes of emotion, individuality, and nature. This may not sound particularly interesting, but think about it this way: these ideas have been borrowed from countless creative minds in recent years, from a popular writer like J.K. Rowling all the way to an experimental filmmaker like Terrence Malick. To think that artists weren’t exploring what it means to be an individual with emotions before this period is perplexing, but that’s what makes it such a necessary time in art history.

Since the course, I’ve noticed myself pointing out ideas and themes in current works of art and relating it back to what I learned and the works I read. During a recent Steam sale, I finally decided to purchase a game that’s been on my wishlist for sometime: a little puzzle game called A Good Snowman is Hard to Build. From its very first minutes, I found myself smiling. Not just because I was having fun (I’m a fan of puzzle games) but because I was able to connect the presentation within the game to some literary pieces I read in my class.

In AGSIHTB, the player controls an adorable monster in a snowy hedge garden. In little sections of the garden, there are snowballs of different sizes. By rolling them around, they become larger. As is the traditional way of building a snowman, the big ball serves as the base, the middle serves as the torso, and the small one functions as the snowman’s head. The player must navigate these puzzles and create a snowman for each section of the garden. It sounds simple, but the game is incredibly smart in its execution of the concept. You can only push, never pull. If you get a ball stuck in a corner, you may have to rethink your strategy. While I prefer my puzzle games to slowly build up the difficulty, the thing about AGISTB is that it allows the player to move on to a different puzzle if he/she is stuck on one. It’s a logical idea, but it sometimes made me feel as if I was trying to solve something without important information. These feelings aside, the gameplay mechanics tie wonderfully into the game’s aesthetic elements, which can be related to ideas from the Romantic period.

Let’s start with the presentation: visually, AGSIHTB has a clean, simplistic art style. The music is also minimal, but the ambience greatly adds to the calming atmosphere. The monster isn’t very detailed as a character, resembling more of a black body with arms and legs. The layout of the garden is fairly standard too, although there are benches and bird baths that can be found in some sections, adding a bit more interactivity beyond the basic gameplay. Sitting on a bench in particular feels oddly reminiscent of a William Wordsworth poem. Wordsworth often wrote about the beauty of nature and this idea seeps into the game in a few instances. It’s not just a literary reference, mind you. Sleeping on a bench opens up a dream world version of the map in which the monster can move to a different bench as a shortcut – a nifty trick that feels right at home in this game’s world.

In one section of the game, there’s a telescope in which the monster can look through and get a view of the whole garden. While this could be seen as a way for the player to navigate the map and see his/her progress, it’s simply aesthetically pleasing to look at. Between looking through this telescope and sitting on benches, the theme of stopping to appreciate nature is an important one in terms of gameplay and understanding the monster as a character.

Speaking of which, the concept of this game can actually be compared to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – one of the most notable pieces of literature produced during the Romantic era. Much like in the famous story, our monster in AGSIHTB is after something similar: a friend. Frankenstein is after a female companion while this monster makes snowmen. It even creates distinct personalities for each snowmen, naming every one of them and dressing them up in different ways. This may seem like a superficial reference, but the game even allows you to hug these snowmen as much as you want. Frankenstein is primarily a fable about the consequences of experimenting with nature, but it’s also a story about the importance of companionship in the face of solitude and our desire to be understood and loved.

AGSIHTB had me grinning from ear to ear when I played it. It does what every puzzle game should do, and that’s slowly add layers of difficulty to an incredibly simple gameplay gimmick. It is a fairly short endeavor, however, so I recommend picking it up when it’s on sale. While you’re at it, make sure you have a cup of hot cocoa by your side when you boot it up, as it makes for the ideal companion for this irresistibly charming snowman-building puzzler.

And if you’re a college student with an opportunity to take a course on Romantic literature, why not give it a shot? Who knows? Maybe it’ll help you see things differently too.

EP Review: Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion: Side B

 

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Carly Rae Jepsen, the Canadian pop star best known for her mega hit “Call Me Maybe” back in 2012, released my favorite pop record of 2015.  Emotion was an ode to pop music from the 80’s, full of glittery synthesizers and infectious hooks.  That said, there were plenty of leftover tracks that didn’t quite make the cut the first time around.  To keep things rolling at a steady pace, Carly has released this EP with eight songs that were deemed unfit for Emotion, but still good enough to be released as a little compilation.

With “First Time,” Carly kicks things off with instantly familiar territory.  A variety of synth textures pair up nicely with some thumping bass and danceable drums.  It’s one of the many memorable melodies featured on this EP and it gets things started on a positive note.

When Emotion first came out, my immediate reaction towards the record was that Carly managed to make a superior record with a vision that  was similar to that of Taylor Swift’s 1989.  “Higher” actually sounds like a cut that would’ve fit nicely on Taylor’s record, as the production sounds more contemporary than some of the other tracks here.  As she sings about how the subject’s love elevates her to extreme heights, a moody arrangement of background vocals and subdued synthesizers carry another solid performance from Carly.

“The One” actually throws a bit of a curveball in terms of lyrics, with Carly singing about how she doesn’t want the pressure of being “the one.”  Instead, she wants to keep things temporary.  It’s a refreshing change of pace from her usual flirtatious affair and she still manages to keep things sweet and innocent.  “Cry” is an unusually sad song for Carly, revolving around a guy who stows his emotions.  The instrumental complements this sadness nicely while still maintaining her upbeat tendencies.

At first listen, “Store” didn’t do too much for me.  It’s a humorous concept, telling a story about going to the store and never returning, and a refreshing take on the breakup song.  Something about the hook was a bit too silly for me at first, but after multiple listens, I’ve learned to appreciate the undoubtedly catchy lyrics and the way the song transitions between verse and bridge and chorus.

As you can tell, I don’t have many problems at all with this new EP.  It’s a wonderful next step from Emotion and features more songs that make me want to re-listen to them over and over.  I will say that it can feel a bit “same-y” at times, and if you felt that way with the last record, you almost certainly will here too.  Luckily, since it’s not an album, this project has a nice running time and there’s some diversity to the lyrics to make each track stand out.  If you’re like me and can’t get enough of some accessible but skillfully-crafted pop music, this is for you.

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Album Review: Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

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In the first track off this new record, New York-based rapper Ka says, “Committed rhymes, if you give it time, much is learned.” He is making an offer to his audience. In this case, he’s begging them to scratch beneath the surface. If they take his word for it, he promises a reward in the form of appreciation. It’s an appropriate introduction for both the album as well as newcomers to the MC’s work. There are certainly some who may not respond too well to his seemingly lackadaisical delivery, but hip-hop heads in search of lyrical complexity and chilling atmospheric tension will find immense satisfaction with Honor Killed the Samurai.

Samurais and their code of honor play an underlying theme throughout the record. This is apparent from the beginning of the record, as carefully-placed audio samples are used throughout, with each one adding more and more to the concept of relating his life to that of a samurai. The intro track delivers memories of the hardships he’s faced on top of a sample-based instrumental – one with an eerie combination of exotic sounding drums and a stringed instrument. Though there’s depth to his words, there are also glimpses of vivid imagery in his lyrics, often painting a grim image.

“Brought hammers to grammar school – hence the gun talk
The coke drought made it a cesspool”

Beneath his MF Doom-influenced voice and flow are haunting, minimalist beats. The production on this album startlingly manages to find middle ground between stripped down and layered. Take tracks like “That Cold and Lonely” for instance: primarily composed with a basic combination of piano and bass, there’s a bizarre implementation of sleigh bells that’s spread throughout at seemingly random moments. The hook is also accompanied with a noir-laden string section. Though it’s not the most compelling or memorable instrumental on the record, it’s an example of going beyond what would’ve been necessary.

“Mourn at Night” is more or less the type of instrumental that I like to hear Ka rap over. The moody, melodic soundscape won’t hesitate to let you slip away into a daydream if you let it. In addition, Ka basically delivers the song in one mind-bogglingly impressive verse filled with meticulous rhymes.

“No one’s mixing words, vicious verbs emerge from being this disturbed
As a kid observed on curves where they twist the herb
Was wrapping the present years before the gift was heard
My quarters wasn’t in calm waters the ships perturbed”

This is just the beginning of the track, mind you. And, relatively speaking, just the beginning of the record. By the end, Ka is spitting some verses that are just as dark. On the two-part track, “Finer Things/Tamaghene,” he mentions more of the hood violence that we’ve been hearing during the first verse. That said, he does find fresh new ways to describe it. On the second verse, however, he opens up in unsettling ways, explaining that he’s afraid to be a father because he knows that producing children under his family name will only lead to more pain and suffering for everyone around him.

The final track of the album, “I Wish,” ultimately concludes things on a poignant, hopeful note. A sample, taken from the same source used throughout each track, reassures us that every great samurai was able to write a poem, even in the face of death. It’s with these final words that Ka bids us with one last act of strength, proving that he can translate agony into art.

While I walked away from Honor Killed the Samurai with my own interpretation, I still feel as if I haven’t put all the pieces together. That being said, Ka’s naturally gifted at making me WANT to explore the record further, just as he promised from the start. On his behalf, I implore any serious hip-hop fan to take the plunge. Clocking in at thirty-five minutes, it’s a project that packs a serious punch in so little time and, above all, reminds us that the pen is mightier than the sword.

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Movie Review: Don’t Think Twice

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I’ve been fascinated with the art of improv for quite some time.  Like any art, it’s limited by the performer’s imagination.  There are, however, rules in place that any great improv troupe must follow in order to put on a successful show.  The best known of these rules is to always say “yes,” rather than denying what your partner is saying about you.  Simply put, improv is spontaneity in its purest form.  There’s no denying that plenty of the best comedic talents in the business today began developing their craft in improv troupes.  The road to success through improv, however, can be unforgiving.  Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore film, Don’t Think Twice, is an observant glimpse into the harsh, beautiful reality of improv as well as the entertainment industry.  Moreover, it’s an honest depiction of friendship, staying true to yourself, and the meaning of success.

The film revolves around an improv comedy troupe known as “The Communes,” as they perform by night and deal with ordinary hardships by day.  Miles (Birbiglia) is the founder/head teacher of the troupe and has seen many of his students launch into stardom while he barely manages to scrape by.  Bill (Chris Gethard) sells hummus at a market during the day.  Allison (Kate Micucci) has been writing a graphic novel for nearly a decade.  Lindsay (Tami Sagher) comes from a privileged background and relies on her parents for support.  Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) are a couple and have been offered the chance to audition for a Saturday Night Live-type television show.  This immediately causes a rift in the friend circle, with everyone beginning to realize that they may not find success in the real world.

As to be expected, the cast does a wonderful job.  Just like a true improv show, each witty line is quickly bounced around the group, even when the characters are not shown performing on a stage.  The script generally succeeds at not singling out one person over another and, even when it sort of does, the underused characters still feel dynamic and genuine.  In fact, “genuine” is the perfect term I can think of to describe the film.  As with his previous film, Sleepwalk With Me, as well as his many stand-up specials, Mike Birbiglia is gifted at making you believe.  The lives of the characters in Don’t Think Twice appear to stem from truth and the world itself feels occupied.  The dramatic weight also never falls flat.  Just like the best jokes in the film, the really brutal moments hit hard, but never in a way that feels forced or attention-grabbing.

Don’t Think Twice is a brutally honest and hilarious take on a familiar trope regarding the consequences of success that you’ll find engaging from the very beginning.  Who knows?  You might even be compelled to take up improv lessons once the credits roll.  As someone who hopes to find a career in the entertainment business, I found the movie felt oddly relatable.  Even though the film is centered around a reasonably niche subject matter and group of people, it’s still very much a tribute to those who know what it’s like to work hard and receive little.  What you don’t receive in money or success, however, is earned in the form of a series of short, happy moments.

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Movie Review: Swiss Army Man

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It’s become a cliché to claim that a film is “unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” but that’s exactly how Swiss Army Man was labeled after its debut at Sundance.  Soon after that, people began to refer to it simply as the “farting corpse movie.”  Both of these claims are true, but merely scrape the surface of this bizarre summer treat.

The film opens with Hank (Paul Dano) as he’s stranded on an island and just about to commit suicide.  The sight of a body on the shore (Daniel Radcliffe) stops him in his tracks.  Although upset at first to discover he’s dead, he’s soon thrilled to find out that this corpse has the ability to propel through the water like a jet ski via flatulence.

Hank realizes that this corpse, who he names “Manny,” has other extraordinary powers that can maybe help him survive. The relationship between the two evolves at the film’s breakneck pace.  Manny becomes more lifelike as the two discuss life’s most universal themes, from masturbation to loneliness to love.  I don’t want to spoil anything else because the film does offer some surprises along the way.  The ending in particular struck me as unexpectedly melancholic.

I will say that the film’s juvenile tendencies didn’t bother me as much as I feared.  Manny’s perplexing bodily functions are hard to stomach sometimes, but remembering that they’re tools and serve a purpose helped me to brush off the weirdness.  It’s also a testament to the film’s impressive direction from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinhart – a duo arguably best known for directing the bombastic music video for DJ Snake and Lil John’s “Turn Down for What.”  The two swiftly shift the audience’s attention from the surreal to the sincere with finesse.

Daniels’ direction is also greatly complimented by the terrific performances from Dano and Radcliffe.  To say that Radcliffe excels at portraying a decrepit corpse may sound like an insult, but in this case, it helps to sell the movie’s head-scratching premise tremendously.  The two share a palpable amount of chemistry on screen, making their friendship one of the most unusual and charming ones I’ve seen in years.

The film’s music is just as unique as its premise, utilizing the vocals of its two leads to deliver a soundtrack that’s almost completely a cappella.  This dynamic of sight and sound helps to strengthen their relationship in a way that feels genuinely creative. Along with the consistently beautiful cinematography, there are some pretty phenomenal set pieces to be found here.

Swiss Army Man is the textbook definition of a film that will grab some as easily as it loses others.  I’m sure some of my readers unfamiliar with the film beforehand can already tell whether it’s for them or not.  As someone who appreciates strange cinema, it hooked me in ways that I didn’t see coming.  Though it can just as easily be labeled as juvenile, I found the experience to be a funny, sweet, and substantial one.  I am awarding it the seal of approval, but it should also come with a warning for those seeking something less adventurous.

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