HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST (2021)

My gaming comfort food during the pandemic — stupidly, I’m literally someone known for writing about comfort food games — have been open-world games; almost exclusively ASSASSIN’S CREED games. Their doling of bite-sized, mostly frictionless, quests have been a balm while trapped inside.

It’s been a while since I’ve played HORIZON: ZERO DAWN, but I recall it as being a rather concise, smaller open-world game, one that doubled-down on plot and character rather than scenery and scale, and I greatly appreciated it for that.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN DAWN is the polar opposite: it’s absolutely overwhelming and mind-bogglingly grandiose. When I think of the hours spent to make this, I feel a bit sick. While I think it could have reeled in its scope, I did find it notable in a number of other ways.

UNRULY HAIR

Aloy is one of the most fascinating triple-A leading videogame characters of recent times. A clone of one of the most influential scientific women of the game’s fictional history, she steps up and fills her shoes, although she does so while also being petulant and impulsive, all while still missing her ‘mother’ (her search for her was arguably the focal point of her introductory game, HORIZON: ZERO DAWN).

She also has some of the most dynamic, radiant red hair in videogames. Hair is a touchy subject when it comes to tech, as it’s often a point of programmatic pride, rarely born of character motivation. While it’s a film and not a videogame, look no further than Pixar’s BRAVE for a quintessential example, which was explicitly created as a way for them to show off their hair rendering tech (and similarly features a vibrant redhead).

As someone who has had long, wavy hair for far longer than I have not, and as someone who often thinks about hair and identity and representation, seeing anyone with unruly hair (or as Guerrilla Games labels it: tousled hair) in media has become oddly strange to see, as production models for entertainment have skewed closer to generic hairstyles to maintain continuity and production costs. While Aloy’s hair isn’t exactly curly, it is remarkably distinct and, in real life, would require significant management, something most folks don’t often think about. Long hair moves, it gets in the way; it’s something you are always aware of. It’s either in your vision or in your mouth or getting caught on something or in somewhere, and how Aloy’s hair is animated — always in motion, always cascading around her — reflects that same sort of bodily self-awareness. Even if some folks seem to think the hair animation is a bug, I see it as a feature.

It’s also worth noting that, apparently, a number of people don’t realize that women have hair elsewhere.

THE FUTURE IS FEMALE

One of the most amazing things about HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is that it’s all about women repairing the damage that men have wrought. Almost all of the men alive and dead are villains or sidekicks, and the game is more than fine with that, but never explicitly calls attention to it which, for a triple-A videogame meant for worldwide consumption, seems wild, which is a sad remark on the state of blockbuster videogames.

SHAPES AND SIZES

One other brilliant facet of HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is its variety of character models. The world consists of people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and hues; it’s not your standard post-apocalypse of wafer-thin white people, and the game doesn’t commit the standard narrative sin of playing someone’s girth for laughs or pratfalls. They’re just people trying to survive in a world that is constantly trying to kill them.

TALKING TO ONE’S SELF DURING THE END OF THE WORLD

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST features an absolutely astounding and exhausting amount of dialogue. I can’t even begin to fathom the script, but it consists of reams and reams of lore, meant to flesh out the world that was sketched out in the first game. However, a good portion of the game features Aloy simply talking to herself. While most of that dialogue is meant to prod the player towards goals, quite a bit of it is purely observational. Aloy is depicted as a singularly individual person, one used to being alone, one used to supplying her own entertainment, of comforting herself in her own way because who else would? Who could?

A NEW MODERN

All of this culminates into a game that comes across as remarkably fresh, as opposed to the hoary male-led misery porn of most modern big budget games. HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST feels like a new frontier for gaming, at least with its command of characters and scenarios, even as it leans on the old model of open-world gaming, of FAR CRY-ish puzzle towers and checking off map-centric quests. It’s a world that one can luxuriate in and explore to your heart’s content, and not hate yourself for doing so.

P.S. One facet of the game that is missing is any semblance of sexuality whatsoever, so I’d like to boost this piece.

P.P.S. Even I as a very white, prior New Englander felt that a number of character designs and attributes were not what they could have been. I’m definitely not qualified to critique this game’s Orientalism, so I’ll leave this here.

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES (2017)

I once saw a post on Twitter from someone who said their partner once told them this:

“You think you’re the protagonist in this relationship. You are not. This is my story.”

THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES, from Catherynne M. Valente (with illustrated plates from HAWKEYE and BLACK CANARY artist Annie Wu), reminded me of that stinging barb, even though it’s ostensibly focused merging the confessional honesty and anger of THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES play with the ‘women in refrigerators’ comic book trope.

If you aren’t familiar with THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, Eve Ensler interviewed 200 women about their experiences about being a woman, which she then turned into a series of stage-based monologues.

Regarding ‘women in refrigerators’, it’s a term that comic book writer Gail Simone coined for when a woman is killed in a comic solely to heighten the dramatic and narrative potential of a superhero the woman is involved with.

Valente was inspired by both but, instead of using the prefab characters of the Marvel and DC universes, she would weave her own, which makes for a far more inventive, insightful, creative commentary on how writers use intriguing characters full of depth as disposable props.

The novella takes place in Deadtown, a seedy literal Hell-hole of a town, at a bar populated by gargoyle bartenders. A clutch of misfit outsider young women gather there once a week, self-named the ‘Hell Hath Club’. The members come and go, depending on the circumstances of their place in the living world, but it’s always women who have been ‘friged’.

The Hell Hath members who tell their story range the gamut from a brilliant lab scientist who watches her lab partner turn into Kid Mercury (basically THE FLASH) to an Atlantean punk rocker-in-line-to-be-queen who falls in love with half-human/half-Atlantean Avast (basically AQUAMAN) to a talented photographer who has a sickeningly adorable relationship with a graphic designer/graffiti artist who finds a charm that allows him to draw things to life.

Their involvement with these men all lead to their death, and they become little more than footnotes in their prior boyfriends’ lives, but thanks to these monologues, they — and Valente — are able to detail their stories, their frustrations, their rage, their idiosyncrasies, and turn the limelight on to their trauma and troubles, to become the protagonist in their own story.

While I obviously loved this book, teenage me would have fallen in love with it. THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES is rebellious while being amazingly sharp. It opens your eyes to how so-called loved ones/characters are treated as disposable, how they only exist in service of the male character, and how that’s a reflection of society at large, and it does so all the while having a bit of fun, riffing on so many bits of pop culture, including a little snippet of an Atlantean version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ -Skid Row-!

One last note: Amazon had plans to adapt THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES into a series called DEADTOWN but, since that was back in 2019, it’s probably safe to say that the project has been friged.

https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Refrigerator-Monologues/Catherynne-M-Valente/9781481459358

LOKI (2021)

(Disney+) (Apologies in advance for the length of this post.) Yeah, I know that this is the last show I need to go to bat for, but still, I’m gobsmacked by how much I’ve enjoyed it. I was a late-bloomer when it came to reading comic books. My inaugural comic was Marvel’s SILVER SURFER #50 (written by Jim Starlin — without whom NONE of Phase 3 Marvel would exist — and penciled by Ron Lim), I was barely a teen and it caught my eye solely because of the gimmicky platinum foil cover (ooh, shiny!) but when I flipped through it at my local drug store — yep, I’m old enough to have purchased comic books via local drug stores on a spindle-rack — I was fascinated with the Silver Surfer’s interiority. I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you can tell this sort of existential story through comics and so-called super heroes? I thought comic books solely consisted of people endlessly punching each other.’

(An aside: It’s no surprise that I’d later go on to fall in love with the films of Jean-Luc Godard, who would explicitly reference the SILVER SURFER in his movies.)

Sadly, as Marvel as pivoted from print to film, most of their movies have solely consisted of people endlessly punching each other, usually in non-descript factory warehouses. I won’t begrudge anyone for enjoying the MCU films but, apart from extreme examples — such as THOR: RAGNAROK and BLACK PANTHER — I’ve found them to be rather lifeless works.

So, when I’d heard that Marvel was finally folding TV into the MCU, I simply shrugged. (For the record, I adored AGENT CARTER, and the first season of JESSICA JONES is a fascinating scrutiny of abuse. Sadly, neither of those are technically MCU works.) However, WANDAVISION showed that they were taking far more risks by inventively showcasing the inner turmoil of a woman dealing with grief. I have yet to see THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER, but have read that it’s a damning indictment of U.S. policing and being Black in America. Now we have LOKI, which is explicitly about an irresponsible narcissist reckoning with his actions and confronting himself (in more ways than one). It’s a surprisingly existential story and, yes, punches are thrown in just about every episode, but those feel more like MCU fan-service. The real hits that land are the show’s focus about one’s guilt and fatalism than spectacle. There’s an interiority to these MCU TV shows that’s lacking in the films.

As if that’s not enough, the show is pure object-porn if you love a 1970s sci-fi aesthetic. It also helps that LOKI has more than a few 12 MONKEYS-ish devices where there are a number of folks solely focused on literally blowing up time. This is a show that isn’t afraid to take smart swings, to upend what you expect from a ‘comic book TV show’, and it keeps you guessing in a number of thrilling ways. For a summer TV show, it’s surprisingly cerebral sci-fi, but never off-putting.

Oh, and there’s the cast: Tom Hiddleston is obviously brilliant, and he’s joined by Owen Wilson as a perfect buddy-cop (always has been, and yes, they confront the cop question you may have in your head right now due to the last year), Sophia Di Martino (from the severely underrated series FLOWERS) is a revelation as the headstrong Sylvie, and Wunmi Mosaku (watch HIS HOUSE, folks!) thunders through every scene she’s in. Gugu Mbatha-Raw seems a bit wasted in her role, but there’s one more ep left, so fingers crossed she gets more to do.

At only six episodes — again I’m only five eps in — it feels perfectly paced. It’s a cracking good time and has reminded me that serialized sci-fi is alive and well, even if it’s in Disney’s hands. I rarely want to write about a show in-progress, but, well, here we are. My only quibble is the usual sexlessness of the Marvel/modern Disney universe, because after watching one scene I turned to my wife and asked: “Am I terrible person if I want them to fuck?” (You’ll know the scene when you see it.) Spoiler alert, but not really because it’s Disney: you get a hand on a shoulder and that’s fucking it.

A few passing remarks in reaction to podcasts that have discussed the show:

I always love NPR’s POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR’s Glen Weldon, and he described it as “if Harold Pinter wrote Doctor Who”. Granted that was based on the first three eps, but I can’t help but agree.

I also love Indiewire’s MILLIONS OF SCREENS — I’ve been following Libby Hill for years, and she’s always been extraordinarily insightful — and I really thought they’d be 100% behind this. They were not. I understand why — they expect more from TV, and yeah, given Marvel’s resources, they could be far more inventive with their properties — but I’m more than okay with the mini-series bits that Marvel is serving up, because it gives creators far more latitude than the filmmakers, and what we are getting is actually interesting and engaging which, again, is far better than the bulk of the films! (Sorry, not sorry.)

Oh, I forgot! The trailer: