‘Life is Strange’: Franchise Highlight

While stuck in quarantine, I decided to regress a bit and play a few videogames to pass the time.  In the past three months, I have completed all the games from Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange franchise, and will be highlighting them below.

People’s opinions of story-heavy, choice-based games vary wildly, particularly among the “gamer” gamers.  Since this specific genre can be seen as playable movies, they receive criticism for not being “active” enough.  Luckily for me, the cinematic and thematic qualities of videogames are what interest me most, so it follows that I find them fascinating.

This franchise in particular does not simply draw its own world and rules, but incorporates real-life social issues into its themes: depression, personal guilt, bullying, the bonds between people, taking responsibility for one’s actions, loss, and the acceptance of that loss.  When I started playing them, I was far from ready for the emotional roller-coaster that was to befall me.

With that, let’s get to it.

Life is Strange (2015)

In this game you play as Max Caulfield, a quiet and reserved photography student who has moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.  One day, she discovers that she has the ability to reverse time, and manages to save her childhood best friend, Chloe, from getting shot by a fellow student.

Throughout the game, Max and Chloe try and solve the disappearance of Rachel Amber, a student who has been missing for 6 months.  Things get stranger and stranger as Max’s journey gets more dire and intense; for a game that at first appears as just another high-school drama saga, the circumstances that the player eventually finds themselves in are incredibly somber and soul-wrenching. It has us ask ourselves:  How far would we go to save those we care about?  If we could change the past, would we?  If so, we better be ready for the consequences that come with that power.

A mixture of Twin Peaks, Final Destination, and The Butterfly Effect, Life is Strange is one of the best stories I’ve experienced in gaming, and perhaps even in all media.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017)

Serving as a prequel to Life is Strange, this game puts you in control of 16-year-old Chloe Price and allows you to relive those awkward, angsty teenage years.  From dealing with her hard-ass stepfather, to navigating her intense and turbulent friendship with Rachel Amber (whose disappearance blanketed the first game with mystery and dread), to trying to come to terms with her father’s tragic death two years prior, the player gains insight into Chloe and her various struggles; in short, why she is the way she is.  That said, this entry serves as a great character study into what arguably is one of the most well-crafted queer female protagonists in gaming.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit (2018)

You play as Chris Eriksen, a nine-year-old  whose alter ego is the superhero, Captain Spirit.  Chris lives with his dad Charles who, after the death of Chris’ mother, has become an alcoholic.

It’s a very short venture, as it mainly serves as a type of prequel to Life is Strange 2, but in that hour that is spent playing, the player can feel the dreariness that accompanies the months and years that follow loss, along with the child-like naivety and innocence in trying to make sense of that loss.

Life is Strange 2 (2018)

Sean and Daniel, ages 16 and 9, are two Mexican brothers from Seattle whose father gets shot by police.  During the incident, Sean discovers that Daniel has telekinesis (which results in the death of a cop), and decides that they need to book it out of the country.  They set out to travel to Mexico, to return to their father’s homeland, Puerto Lobos.  Along the way, they meet some really cool people (and trim weed in Humboldt), and ones that are not so cool (people that label them criminals simply by looking at their skin color).

It was definitely a change of pace, to have the player not be in control of the character with the supernatural ability.  As Sean, you become a pseudo-father figure to Daniel, and are solely responsible for teaching him morals while advising him on when and how he should use his new-found telekinetic ability.

The game might not be as good as the others, but it does a very good job in placing the player in the shoes of a minority that has to endure racism and bigotry, therefore evoking a type of empathy that videogames rarely develop.

Tell Me Why (2020)

While this game isn’t technically considered part of the Life is Strange franchise, I chose to include it, as I think its themes and atmosphere largely encompass what the other entries strive to do.

You get to play as both Alyson and Tyler Ronan, two twins that reunite in their hometown in Delos Crossing, Alaska;  they suffered a horrific childhood trauma that ended with their mom being killed and them being separated for 10 years. Now, as they prepare to sell their old house, they seek to find the truth about what really happened that night, and figure out how to come to terms with the past.

When the player isn’t consumed in the mystery at hand, they find themselves taken aback by the scenery, as this game is seriously so pretty. Aside from being simply gorgeous to look at, the game makes history as being the first to feature a main character who is transgender.

With the themes of memory and sibling bonds, the journey is a special one.  The core trauma of the game is admittedly very dark, and at times feels a little too depressing.  But, as we have probably all learned, life is not cheese and wine and roses, but a series of challenges and pitfalls where a happy ending is hard to find.  Tell Me Why, along with all the other games in the franchise, embrace this truth with honesty that is bleak, but that still contains threads of hope.

Choice-based games were never really my cup of tea, but after giving these pieces a shot, I have since reconsidered their place on the videgame totem pole.

The pain of memories, the death of our parents and guardians, the exploration of sexuality, the bonds of friendship and of siblings, perseverance in the face of adversity – all of these are taken up by Dontnod, one of the few game developers out there that consistently release thoughtful, emotional, and pro-minority pieces.

While games and media can be great entertainment, they can also be great teachers, and conduits that allow for a cathartic and therapeutic experience that help us make sense of the world, our relationships, and ourselves.

People can take away a variety of values and ideals from these games, as they have the propensity to mean a bunch of different things to different people.  But one common theme remains certain:  no matter how we navigate our lives and which paths we choose to take, we must not forget that those choices and actions always have consequences.

Ranked: The ‘Silent Hill’ Franchise

Back in 1999, Konami wanted to develop a game that answered back to 1996’s huge hit, Resident Evil.  They entrusted this to a small group of developers, a sort of rag-tag group that weren’t considered the top performers at the development company.  What resulted was the psychological counterpart to the survival horror that Resident Evil helped solidify.  With Resident Evil leaning more toward action-horror, I found my preference in Silent Hill, as it chose to focus on the more subtle, inward forms of horror and terror.

Being as the anniversary of the release of the first Silent Hill game is approaching, I thought it was high time to share some thoughts and rankings of the games in the series.  Not only does the collection adequately wear the cloak of “survival horror”, but, perhaps more importantly, the one of psychological horror.  Stemming from this genre, the game further delves into multiple subgenres, including body horror, family horror, and personal horror – when repressed memories and actions are illuminated, and our dark halves are turned inside out.

I cannot say that I dislike any games in the series, as each one has something to offer (or so I’ve found, anyway…);  the ones that rank lower do have their own respective flaws, certainly, but if one can look past wonky controls or a frustrating camera set-up, they will be thankful, as the pros vastly outweigh the cons.  The thematic material, the darkly tragic stories, and the opportunity for introspection that the series has to offer make this collection of media some of the most profound and emotional pieces of narrative that I have found in any medium.

Welcome to Silent Hill (and my rankings of the main games)

<<Keep in mind – these are not ranked from Worst to Best, but my Least Favorite to Favorite>>

 

#8 – Silent Hill: Origins (2007)

This was the last Silent Hill game that I played, and oddly enough it’s the last on the list.  While the music and atmosphere was great and unsettling, it really didn’t add anything of value in terms of lore, or even visuals – it was mostly more of what we had already seen.  I understand the allure of origin stories, however the attempt to tie ties with the first installment wasn’t as good as it could have been.  That said, the game had some decently frightening moments, and Travis the protagonist has arguably one of the most messed up backstories of the franchise.

 

#7 – Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009)

Shattered Memories serves as a loose remake (some call it a re-imagining) of the first game.  I was a bit skeptical of this one, as it was made for the Wii console (honestly, how good could a survival horror for the Wii actually be?).  Shattered Memories takes the series in a drastic different direction control-wise and concept-wise;  part of the game has you playing Harry Mason as he searches for his daughter, but it also has you engage in a therapy session with a psychologist.  From guilt to family to death, the game tracks your answers in the therapy session, as well as how you play as Harry, with the psychologist’s notes regarding your personality being shown after you complete the game as the credits roll.  This game and its thematic implications bothered and stuck with me for a long time after I played it, truly making fear personal.

 

#6 – Silent Hill: Downpour (2012)

A lot of “firsts” for the series came with this game.  I would say Downpour is the most expansive of them all, and relies the heaviest on exploration.  The first SH game that is slightly “open-world”, it really had a lot of neat things in it, with the addition of side quests offering more backstory regarding the dark secrets that reside in the homes of other Silent Hill citizens.  The biggest downside to Downpour was its monster design;  the series is known for its menacing and symbolic monsters, but in this game…the monsters (save for the main boss and the mannequins) were very blah.  Aside from that, this game was solid.  The plot was well-executed, the characters were well-written, and the puzzles were among the best.

 

#5 – Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008)

Homecoming is, by a large amount of Silent Hill fans, considered to be the worst game in the series.  Okay, so yes it is more action-based than any other, and yes, it does kind of feel like Saw 3 had a love child with Hostel, but I actually really enjoyed playing it.  While some of it takes place in the neighboring town of Shepherd’s Glen, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Order, the cult behind all the humanly evil shenanigans in the town (the plot is supremely twisted, and centers on ritualistic filicide).  Homecoming can be way over-the-top at times with its gore and script, but that’s what made it fun, almost campy;  plus, it contains the most intimidating boss battle I’ve ever battled – Scarlet, a tall, skinny, domineering doll monster that is made of flesh underneath.  Oh yea, and in her second phase she turns into a spider.

 

#4 – Silent Hill (1999)

The original game is so bizarre and off-putting, one really does feel like they are in an alternate reality while playing.  As Harry Mason, an average, run-of-the-mill dad, you have to search for your missing daughter after a car crash – in the town of Silent Hill.  The fog/ash is oppressive, the sound assaults you, and the dread that you encounter is so real.  There were times when I was playing that I was literally frozen with fear, unable to carry on.  And I’m talking like at 11 am on a sunny day – I’d be terrified and have to quit.  It is a living nightmare-scape where you have no choice but  to move onward (literally, by playing).  If you are interested in beginning your foray into survival horror and want to understand how this specific genre came to be, this game is an absolute must.

 

#3 – Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)

Definitely the most abstract of the games, SH4 was largely experimental, a chance for Team Silent to try new things.  Consequently, this has led it to be the most polarizing entry in the series:  you will either really like it, or really, really hate it.  And I will say this: the game is not a fun one to play – it’s hard, frustrating, and sometimes straight up insufferable.  It violates many rules of gaming:  the mandatory repeating of levels, the extensive escort mission, and the “unsafe-ing” of the player’s Safe Room, to name a few big ones.  That said, it is because of these violations that it had such an impact;  the player never feels safe in this game, and never feels sure about what they heard, what they’re looking at, or even what exactly is going on.  All you know is something very bad is happening, your apartment that you thought was a safe haven is slowly becoming haunted, and you have the unkillable ghost of a serial killer chasing you.  For me, SH4 remains the scariest game in the series, and arguably contains the best story.

 

#2 – Silent Hill 2 (2001)

The eminence of SH2 almost goes without saying.  Considered as the de-facto “best” in the series, and one of the greatest games of all time, I too believe it to be the objective best entry.  The music, pacing, tone, storytelling – everything about this game is perfect.  James Sunderland lost his wife three years ago.  However, he recently received a letter — from his dead wife.  She says that she’s waiting for him in Silent Hill –  he travels there to find out the truth, a truth that might be a hard and bitter pill to swallow.  Before SH2, I had never experienced such an emotional reaction to a video game when the final twist came.  It is a shame that video games as a whole are a tad more difficult to recommend and consume than movies or music, but if I could somehow force everyone to play this one, I would.

 

#1 – Silent Hill 3 (2003)

Part of my placement of this one at the top is attributed to nostalgia.  Being the first Silent Hill I played, I was not quite ready for what was to follow in terms of the amount of affect that could be experienced from a video game.  It serves as a direct sequel to #1, and delves deep into the town’s lore – it incorporates themes of maternity and unwanted pregnancy, along with fanatical religion and ritualism.  The whole thing is red, gory, grimy, and disturbing.  The player encounters all this, as they play as Heather (Harry Mason’s adopted daughter), a smart and sarcastic 17-year-old who has no idea why any of this crazy shit is happening to her.  With the strongest protagonist, the most dynamic soundtrack, the most visceral visuals, and overall the best playing experience, Silent Hill 3 is not only my top SH pick, but my favorite video game period.

Review – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

A Good Scary Movie to Watch in the Dark

CBS Films

When I was a kid, I remember reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and getting decently creeped out.  They were freaky, fun, supernatural little ditties that were very entertaining to read, but whose horror elements did not last long too much afterward.

I also remember reading the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books.  The collections were written by Alvin Schwartz, and included illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  What these sets of books lacked in quantity, they more than made up for in disquiet and lasting impressions.

I actually remember being freaked out so much while reading these that I attempted to “lock” the book in my backpack one night before going to bed.  However, I laid there a good while, not being able to sleep, afraid that the monsters that I had just read about were going to find their way toward me.  Many, many anxiety-ridden nights I owe to these stories as, while they are marketed towards a younger audience and are technically children’s books, the stories and (arguably moreso) the illustrations were able to enter and scar my psyche with nightmarish visions that I will never to able to purge.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I heard that they were adapting it, and that Guillermo del Toro was going to produce and write the screen story.

It borrows from a handful of Schwartz’s stories and formulates an anthology of sorts, with all the mini-tales remaining part of the larger film.  The group of kids they cast were almost as good as the It kids, and almost as likeable: when one of the main characters was about to get assailed by a creeper, I found myself not wanting them to get hurt, but at the same time wanting really badly to see the next monstrosity that was gonna crawl on-screen.  And boy, when they do, it’s hard to take your eyes away.

That brings us the the monster design.  I do not know how much del Toro had a hand in the aesthetics of these things, but the ghosts/apparitions/monsters looked like they literally walked out of the books and into the film.  And that’s how it should have been – being precise and giving form to what made the Scary Stories books so memorable (Gammell’s illustrations) was really the make-or-break point.  The overall plot is not THAT great, and the writing still doesn’t manage to avoid certain horror movie tropes and misfires (seriously, if something is chasing a character in a house, why do they never jump out a window??).  It could have also continued to explore specific themes that were only lightly touched on throughout the film such as racism, maternal abandonment, war anxiety, etc.

While it does have its pitfalls, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark works in more ways than it does not.  By incorporating an equal amount of body horror and supernatural terror that appeals to both younger and older audiences, it succeeds on the same grounds as its literature counterparts did, and is further proof that you do not need to have an “R” rating to get the ultimate heebie-jeebies.

**Rating: 83/100**

>> Person to see this movie with: Someone who will appreciate “The Red Spot”

April’s Cheeser – Sleepaway Camp

American Eagle Films

How this horror cult classic had escaped my eyes for this long is beyond me.

From 1983 comes this Friday the 13th-ish camp slasher flick that is…just simply bizarre.

The film itself is far from good: the script is laughable, the editing is nonsensical, and the acting leaves a LOT to be desired. (The atrocious acting is most likely due to younger actors being cast, as opposed to adults being cast to play the teens).  However, while physical makings are apt to put the viewer in stitches from laughter, the psychological implications that it throws at them will disturb, confuse, and muddle everything that they had just seen.

Known to have one of the biggest twist endings in the horror genre, Sleepaway Camp is shockingly complex, albeit full of technical flaws and weak writing.  Still, it manages to give us a killer who has more depth than most horror movie villains.

Review – ‘Us’: A Social Horror Film

Monkeypaw Productions

Jordan Peele is proving to be quite the horror movie master.

His new film, Us, follows a family on vacation in Santa Cruz who begin to be stalked by what appear to be clones of themselves.  And yes, these clones turn out to be murderous.

Great acting, a sharp script, and an unpleasantly uneasy tone all make this film proof that Peele knows what he’s doing when it comes to horror, more specifically: social horror.

Without giving too much away, the film deals with themes such as memory, “the other”, and also, memory of “the other”.  We all have our lives that we live, and not much thought is given to how much that is taken for granted.  But if not for pure chance, things could have been different: we could have been born without arms, born in another country, born a different skin color, or all of the above.  Where do *those* beings, shades of our existence, exist, if anywhere?  Well, Mr. Peele’s got some theories.

What makes his films so disturbing is how visually blatant they are, while still remaining prominently metaphorical:  Walls and walls of caged rabbits; large pairs of scissors; the killing of one’s clone – all visual cues that are both noticed on the surface and below, consciously and subconsciously.  Some directors can do one well, some can do the other;  Peele manages to do both without many flaws.

**Rating: 92/100**

>>Person to see this movie with:  Your evil twin

This Festival is for The Birds…

BBACC

The 2019 Hitchcock Film Festival is coming to Bodega Bay next month!  As many people already know, The Birds was largely filmed in and around Bodega and Bodega Bay, which makes it quite literally the ~best~ place to watch a showing of the horror classic, with the actual filming locations being mere minutes away.  And to top it off, they’ll also be showing what I consider to be Hitch’s magnum opus: Psycho.

Proceeds will go to arts programs for the elementary schools in the area.  Concessions and drinks will be available, raffle prizes, and even a costume contest.  Plus, they will have a few special guests, including an actress who played a little girl in The Birds. This event is a must-attend for all horror and Hitch fans!

The festival is Saturday, March 23rd.

For more info, here’s the city’s website:  https://www.visitbodegabayca.com/hitchcock-film-fest

To buy tickets:  Brown Paper Tickets