Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dark Arisen: Fantasy Cardio

Not pictured: Dragon, cowardice

I'd like to say I was minding my own business when the dragon landed on top of me, but that wouldn't be fair to the goblins I was slaughtering at the time.

I experienced a brief moment of panic when its nine-part health bar appeared at the top of my screen, which was replaced with a mixture of dismay and terror fewer than ten minutes later. Even after grabbing onto the beast and climbing up to cut open it's chest, exposing its heart, I hadn't made a dent.

So I ran away.

I don't know why fleeing from an overpowering enemy is so refreshing in Dragon's Dogma. I'm sure other games, especially in the open world genre, have given you the option.

Maybe it's the fact that your pawns - user-generated AI companions - won't take the hint immediately, continuing to hack away at the colossus in front of them for a moment, before they notice that their master has legged it.

Maybe it's the sense that you've just barely escaped by the skin of your teeth, your health and inventory empty and your stamina gone, but still in an unfriendly wilderness many inhospitable miles from the nearest inn.

Or maybe it's the infrequency and unpredictability of the encounters. You can be happily exploring for hours, cutting through bandits without incident or a serious challenge. The map is slowly uncovering, and you spot a castle on the horizon.

"That doesn't look too far," you think, "and the enemies here are pretty easy. I'll just take a look."

Then out of nowhere comes a winged shadow, chewing through your companions and health potions with equal ease and speed, and your only option is an exhilarating retreat down any path that doesn't have a griffon at the end of it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

New season anime

When KILL la KILL, Log Horizon and Golden Time ended a couple of weeks back, I was staring at the upcoming season of shows, unable to figure out which, if any, of these series' I'd bother with. It's incredibly difficult to judge anime by its cover (or a short synopsis) because so many of them sound so cliche.

Fast forward to today and I've started seven new shows. I don't think all of them are going to last the season, but they've all done enough so far to keep me at least interested. The highlights so far have been Mekaku City Actors, Akuma no Riddle and One Week Friends, although both are running a fine line.

Only the first episode of MCA has aired so far, but it's got a really intriguing undercurrent that I can't quite put my finger on. It's all questions and no answers so far, and the Tumblr frenzy it's inspired over the months leading up to its release gives me pause. Still, it's visually arresting and the characters introduced so far aren't too offputting, plus the flash-forwards(?) and other assorted weirdness will keep it on the list for a while.

One Week Friends is a lot more predictable: it's going to be this season's feel trip. The plot - a girl forgets her friends at the start of each week, but one classmate determines he's going to befriend her anew each Monday - isn't logically sound, but it's a joy to watch when it's not heartbreaking. It's going to destroy me, but I think I'm going to love every second anyway.

The premise of Akuma no Riddle is horribly cliche, and its execution, if you'll forgive the pun, doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, but I've really liked the two episodes I've seen so far. By far the biggest thing it's got going for it is the near-total absence of fanservice (apart from the regrettable OP sequence), which is especially surprising in a show about teenage assassins in an all-girls high school.

Still, the World is Beautiful is a fantasy shoujo series, which is either going to be incredibly good or disappointingly awful depending on how the relationship between the protagonists develops. Nike, the fourth princess from the Principality of Rain, has been nominated by her sisters to travel halfway across the world to marry the Sun King, a power-mad dictator who also happens to be just a child. It's difficult to see how romantic they can make this relationship considering the age gap, but it would also be weird to see it as maternal (especially considering she's legally his wife?).

On the chopping block, much to my surprise, is Studio Bones' mecha epic Captain Earth. Its dialogue is offputtingly dense without actually achieving any exposition, and the various layers of coming-of-age drama, corporate conspiracy and intergalactic war haven't gelled for me yet. It looks stunning, which shouldn't be unexpected considering the studio, but it's not clicking.

Likewise, Brynhildr in the Darkness is feeling a bit frustrating. Faced with a prediction of his death (from a transfer student who may or may not be a deceased childhood friend), our protagonist... tries to fulfil it in order to disprove the concept of fate? I don't really understand what his motivation was. This one comes from the writer behind Elfen Lied, so I'm not expecting great things.

The last show on my menu is Ping Pong The Animation, which is surely the weirdest-looking on the schedule. It seems, from the first episode, to be a pretty basic sports anime, but the visuals alone have intrigued me - they've got to be pretty confident in the story to have such offputting character designs and sloppy - but incredibly energetic - animation. I don't expect it to chart new territory, but fingers crossed it'll keep things interesting enough to be worth the bandwidth.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Dark Clay

I started writing this post at 22.47 on the 7th of February, 2013. It's probably the most personal thing I'll ever post on the internet, and is undoubtedly a rambling mess, but if I don't post it now I never will.

Background, part one:

I stumbled onto Levi Weaver on a once-great music site called TheSixtyOne. I can't remember exactly when - it must have been between 2008 and 2010 - but the song was Family Feud, "an old west song about murder". (At the time, I described it as the kind of song Nick Cave would write if he knew how to keep it under seven minutes.) I've been a fan ever since.

Background, part two:

I describe myself as a "lapsed atheist". I went through a period thinking I was atheist, but eventually realised I took it for granted that I didn't believe, without ever really examining what that meant any more than I'd ever thought about what God's existence would mean when I accepted that, growing up.

There's a statement that I remember using years ago in arguments with creationists, who questioned the evidence of a "missing link" in the fossil record: "absence of proof is not proof of absence". Meaning, just because we haven't found the evidence doesn't mean it's not out there, somewhere. It only struck me recently how deeply ironic that sentiment is in an argument about faith in science versus belief in a deity.

In the last few years, I started actually thinking about what I believe. I was still, when pressed, identifying myself as atheist at the time, but part of a Levi Weaver song, Sick, or Determined kept sticking in my head, and it was bothering me.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold / Faith and love are evidence of something more than circumstance / Of work beneath the skin and bone / The logical, the monotone / I can't explain, but still I know / Someday I will figure you out

I trust in empirical evidence and science. Our ability to observe, understand and extrapolate from our surroundings has been fundamental to our progression from roaming hunters to agrarian societies to industrial nations.

But part of the great attraction of the scientific method is that sense of trying to comprehend something that's outside our current understanding. Even if we don't have a law or even a solid theory to explain a phenomenon, that doesn't stop scientists (or amateur enthusiasts) coming up with best guesses and hypotheses.

And part of what it means to be a man is to believe in something grander than his hands can hold

If you don't believe that there's more out there in the universe than our current observations and theories explain, why keep searching? Why invent new technology if what we have is good enough? You have to believe in something better than - or maybe just different from - what we already have.

Then Levi Weaver got into my crisis of doubt again: I read this blog post, the name of which I've shamelessly stolen for this one. I recommend reading it, whether you're a believer or not1.

What resonated with me was that, even though he's starting from a position that's the opposite of mine - he assumes that there is a God, and I assume that there is not - I could identify almost exactly with every fear and question and hope expressed in that post. The belief in the existence of a God that you can't prove was an earth-shattering moment of clarity for me. I had always assumed that people with Faith have an unshakable certainty, that it gives them answers and stability the way Real Atheists get certainty and stability and answers from their Not Faith. I always felt like I was stuck in the middle, unsure and unconvinced by either argument.

I don't know why, but it's given me a lot of comfort to know that there isn't a simple answer, that faith alone doesn't dispel the sense that you're aimless, confused, unfinished. I have tried to seriously consider the possibility that there is a God. That's kind of embarrassing to write, somehow - like an admission of failure, and I'm sure I know people who would see it as such.

But I don't think it's a failure to try something new, to look at things from a different perspective, even if it doesn't work out. I don't think it's a weakness to believe that human beings are ultimately spiritual as well as physical creatures. I have to believe - I can't not believe - that there's more to us, and to the universe, than meets the eye.

The second guiding light in my confusion was Yoda.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Honestly, I don't think I'm any closer to a firm position on this stuff either way than I was before Levi Weaver gave me this stuff to think about. But more stimuli and additional points of view can only give us a broader perspective. I cannot thank him enough for provoking my thoughts with his words and music and the honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his own faith, because it's made me re-examine my own and, I believe, has made me a better, more thoughtful and more tolerant human being for it.

I do feel the need to point out that there is, in my mind, an important distinction to be made between faith and religion. A lot of atheists seem to conflate the two, but while I do find the dogma of religions troubling, it seems unnecessarily cruel to attempt to rob people of a belief that can give them such strength to overcome difficulties and inspiration to achieve great things.

1 I'd also recommend this and this, by the same author.