The “Other” Cinematic Universes

When it comes to cinematic universes, we all know the story: Marvel’s only getting better as they go, DC has struggled to get any sort of consistent quality going, etc. However, with as much attention as these franchises get, it’s easy to forget that they’re not the only ones making their mark on the cinematic universe trend. There are actually quite a few current cinematic universes out there now, some several films deep, that have continued to grow without the attention and scrutiny that Marvel and DC seem to inspire. There are also many more on the way (keep an eye out for Hasbro, they seem to be pushing the hardest), but even after 10 years of Marvel dominance, most have failed to actually get underway. With that in mind, let’s look at the less-appreciated landscape of cinematic universes.

Note: I’m only going to be looking at franchises which are still ongoing. To determine if it constitutes a cinematic universe, I’m only looking at major releases (for all I know, The Asylum has a Mega Shark cinematic universe, but I’m sure as hell not going to go digging for turds like that). I’m also looking for franchises which aren’t just following a normal, linear progression from film to film. Spin-offs don’t necessarily constitute a cinematic universe either, although if there are multiple spin-off films in a franchise then it could apply. Oh, and goofy cameos and tongue-in-cheek jokes don’t count either (so no, Transformers and Friday the 13th aren’t in the same universe). Ultimately, it’s all down to my discretion. Got it? Great, let’s buckle in.

Honourable Mentions:

Star Wars (image source): Again, this is down to my discretion, but I don’t feel like Star Wars is quite at “cinematic universe” level yet, at least in the way that that label gets applied anyway. For the most part, Star Wars in the cinematic landscape consists of films which follow on from one another (whether as prequels or sequels). Even the spin-offs we’ve had in Rogue One and Solo were just prequels to the events of the main stories and given less prominence, so I’m struggling to really count these on the same level as, say, your average Marvel or DC solo film in their respective universes. Now, with the groundwork laid by The Last Jedi and Disney’s desire to milk this franchise forever (…those are mutually exclusive ideas, I swear), we might actually be getting to a point in the next couple of years when Star Wars is an interconnected universe of various divergent characters and storylines, but until then I have a hard time viewing it as more than a very epic saga.

Alien vs Predator (…vs Blade Runner???) – I’m only not counting this one because there has been basically no official word on whether these franchises still are, or ever were, truly linked in the first place. Basically every Alien and Predator film since has ignored the continuity established by the AVP movies, although they have never completely separated. To make matters even more confusing, the Alien prequels went and made it official that Blade Runner takes place in this universe as well. Considering that all of these separate franchises take place nearly 100 years apart from one another, it makes the continuity pliable, but it would be awesome if we could give AVP another shot at greatness.

The Tarantinoverse(s) – Yes, these films all technically take place in the same universe (click the image on the side to see the entire, complicated breakdown as to how), whether as actual events (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, etc) or as films within that universe (Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Death Proof, etc). There are also a number of characters who are related (most notably, Vic Vega aka Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction). Here’s the thing though: none of these connections really matter. I mean, is Vincent affected in Pulp Fiction by Vic’s death? No, it’s just an easter egg for fans, and that’s what everything in the Tarantinoverse is – there’s no actual crossover or overarching plot (especially when you can just say “eh, it’s a movie in that universe!”), so I’m not counting it. Like I said, my discretion.

And so, let’s move onto the actual cinematic universes, shall we?

5) The Dark Universe – Is there any surprise that this is the worst of the current crop of cinematic universes? I mean, let’s look at the situation: Universal had the first successful cinematic universe back when they were releasing their classic monster films. For almost 20 years now they have been trying to recapture that success with failure after failure. The Mummy laid a decent groundwork for this, but then Van Helsing failed and scuppered that idea. Then they tried once again to set up this universe with The Wolfman, but it was a commercial and critical failure (although I love it personally and feel like its reception will improve over time).

After so many false starts, suddenly Marvel’s cinematic universe model began getting successful and Universal decided that they wanted a piece of that pie. As a result, Dracula: Untold was produced with the explicit intention of aping Marvel’s formula to finally get the Universal monsters on screen again. The resulting film was just plain dull – the source material didn’t fit a PG-13 summer action tentpole treatment and the resulting universe it was selling (PG-13 grimdark anti-heroes facing some nebulous ancient evil) was unappealing, so once again Universal was left in a lurch with a stillborn franchise.

With yet another failure under their belts, Universal almost immediately jettisoned Dracula: Untold from memory and then got to work on what was arguably the most seriously committed effort to reboot their monsters properties: The Dark Universe. Universal clearly went all-in this time, snatching up some major star power with Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeckell and Mr. Hyde, Javier Bardem as Frankenstien’s Monster, Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man and Tom Cruise as (ultimately) this universe’s version of The Mummy. Since The Mummy was the only reboot Universal had any success with, perhaps it is natural that they’d try to launch their universe with it, along with the consistent quality that comes along with Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, despite the huge marketing push and the big talk about how this was going to be Universal’s big shared universe, The Mummy proved to be a rare Tom Cruise misfire which single-handedly put the future of the entire franchise into question. Things have been quiet on The Dark Universe front, with many assuming it is dead since its two main producers have departed the project, but there have been some occasional rumblings to suggest we haven’t seen the last of it.

I feel like the issues with The Dark Universe were twofold. First of all, I don’t think that aping Marvel’s formula and attempting to reboot the Universal monsters as quasi-superheroes is ever going to work, nor is attempting to shoehorn all of these movies into the PG-13 summer action blockbuster template a good idea. I understand that a smaller, more traditional horror series would not make as much money if The Dark Universe had met its ambitions, but at least it would not be competing with the juggernauts, would be carving its own niche in the cinematic landscape and would be a considerably safer investment. Dracula: Untold had already failed in part because of this. It doesn’t matter how much money and star-power you throw at a project, if the concept is rotten at its core, then it is going to have a very hard time gaining traction.

Secondly, I feel like The Dark Universe was hamstrung from the start by its two main producers, Alex Kurtzman (also director of The Mummy) and Chris Morgan. Both are blockbuster scriptwriters and producers, with Kurtzman being known for the modern Star Trek films, the first two Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens and the Now You See Me franchise, and Chris Morgan being known for the Fast & Furious franchise, Wanted and 47 Ronin. They’re both involved in big, successful action franchises, but none of those franchises are really known for their great scripts. To make matters even worse, Guillermo del Toro was originally asked to helm The Dark Universe, which could have been incredible if Universal would allow him to lean into these characters’ horror origins. There is some hope for The Dark Universe still: it’s being rumoured that renowned horror-producer Jason Blum is being given the reins of the franchise. However, as it stands currently, The Dark Universe is little more than a cautionary tale in franchise building.

4) The Monsterverse – This is the universe that inspired this list, because while Legendary hasn’t been subtle about the fact that they want to bring Godzilla and King Kong together once again, they haven’t been hammering audiences with their world-building (unlike, say, The Mummy or Batman vs Superman). In fact, you could easily be forgiven for not realizing that Kong: Skull Island was a part of the same universe as Godzilla, outside of the subtle references to Monarch and the post-credits scene. I feel like this will probably be emphasized more by the end of the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but at least it’s refreshing that Legendary isn’t counting their chickens before they’ve hatched.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Monsterverse is that, like the Universal monsters, it’s building on a foundation that originated the shared universe concept in film in the first place. The Toho Godzilla films had their own colourful cast of monsters that would feature in each others’ films and the original Godzilla vs King Kong was one of the earliest and most notable major franchise crossover films (also, while I may not prefer the direction of this incarnation of Kong, I can’t deny that it’s a part of the character’s roots). Unlike the Universal Monsters, Legendary is succeeding by keeping the Monsterverse true to the roots which made them successful in the first place. Also, Legendary has been killing it in terms of direction and cinematography thus far – Kong: Skull Island is downright beautiful at times and Godzilla has some of my favourite direction of all time (seriously).

The Monsterverse has also had some pretty decent quality thus far, with both entries being quite fun, if disposable, entertainment. Granted, giant monsters are much easier to fit into a dumb action blockbuster mould, and neither Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island had much ambition to be anything other than that. Considering that they’re giant monster movies, they don’t really need to do much more, but some more interesting human characters would go a long way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters could theoretically improve this one aspect, but we’ll see. If Legendary can keep the quality up, the Monsterverse could easily move up a slot in this list.

3) Cloverfield Universe – This universe could have easily topped the list if not for the release of the absolutely putrid The Coverfield Paradox, which has soured the franchise’s name overnight and turned it into a punchline. That said, the quality of Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane can’t be denied, and the chance for more cool genre films with genuine surprise to them is too much of an allure to pass up after one misfire (even one as disastrous as Paradox).

Cloverfield was a very intriguing Hollywood experiment, forgoing a huge budget and star power in favour of an ingenious and mysterious alternate reality game (ARG) marketing campaign. I got caught up in the Cloverfield hype leading up to its release and had a lot of fun with the ARG, looking for clues and speculating on what the monster was going to be. Cloverfield was also one of the earliest modern found footage films and, I would argue, one of the best utilizations of the concept. Oh, and lest we forget, Cloverfield was also the film which brought us Matt Reeves (far and away one of the most ambitious and consistently good blockbuster directors in Hollywood). The film left plenty of unanswered questions and for years there were rumblings of a sequel, but nothing materialized (even though it looked like Super 8 was going to fulfil that promise).

Then, suddenly, franchise producer J.J. Abrams had an idea to use the Cloverfield name to promote smaller, quality genre films and loosely tie them together. The first film they tried this on was 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was originally a stand-alone film that underwent reshoots to make it fit into the concept of a “Cloverfield movie”. The film was announced quietly and with minimal marketing, relying on word of mouth, a couple teasers and a release date 3 months away to build hype. There was some talk about whether this strategy would work, but work it did – 10 Cloverfield Lane was another success for the franchise, in part because the film was so damn good that the cynical nature of its creation didn’t really matter. It didn’t really connect to the previous film in the franchise, but it didn’t need to: if Cloverfield was a signifier for a type of quality genre film that you could expect, then bring on more Cloverfield we all said.

Of course, it’s important to understand that this is the sort of goodwill which was paramount to the firestorm of hype that exploded upon announcement that the third Cloverfield film had secretly dropped on Netflix during the Super Bowl… and the resulting disappointment when it turned out that that film was utter shit. Like I said, when your shared universe is only loosely connected between films, Cloverfield becomes a mark of quality. Releasing a bad film taints that reputation. Worse, releasing an awful film throws all confidence in that franchise into the wind. Who knows, another Cloverfield film could be good, but it might take years of good films to get the bad taste of Paradox out of our mouths.

2) The Conjuring – The Conjuring universe is remarkable for a few reasons. One, it’s based primarily on the stories of one real-life family (although the veracity of those stories is suspect, naturally). Two, these are all full-on R-rated horror films, whose considerable success should put Universal’s attempts to reboot their monsters to shame. Three, this franchise’s shared universe it at a point where it’s becoming comparable to the MCU. Seriously, The Conjuring is the beating heart of this franchise, but Annabelle is almost on par in terms of box office success, and The Nun has just released with the franchise’s biggest opening yet, purely off the success of the character in The Conjuring 2.

In terms of quality, the films are generally solid. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are both classic horror films in the vein of The Exorcist (I personally preferred The Conjuring 2), which do a good job of making the supernatural seem plausible and which are buoyed tremendously by solid direction from James Wan and the performances of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The spin-offs have been more of a mixed bag, with Annabelle: Creation being generally considered quite good, while Annabelle and The Nun have been met with a negative reception. That said, as spin-offs in an explicitly niche shared universe, they seem to still have an audience who are interested in them. With smaller budgets and this built-in audience, The Conjuring universe manages to find success by marketing to its own niche, rather than going for the mass audience and viewing $800 million as a failure, such as Justice League. If more studios would realize this and try to find other genre niches, we might have more successful shared universes out there.

1) X-Men – And finally we have the other, other superhero shared universe, the long-running X-Men universe. In fact, thanks to the Disney-20th Century Fox acquisition, this universe is almost certainly reaching its death-knell with upcoming release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, after 19 years of ups and downs.

Back before the MCU took the world by storm, X-Men was the superhero franchise of most consistent quality (next to Spider-man, anyway), and for a long time it was just that – a franchise, not a shared universe. But then the Wolverine spin-offs happened, which turned into a trilogy of its own with Origins, The Wolverine and Logan. And then Deadpool and Deadpool 2 were released, and suddenly X-Men had become the full-on cinematic universe it was so well-suited to become. Hell, you could even argue that the franchise’s main timeline fits in the shared universe idea, with two different eras of X-Men interacting in Days of Future Past (the best X-Men movie, in my opinion).

X-Men has had some major lows (The Last Stand and Origins), but it has also had considerable heights (X2DoFP, Logan, Deadpool) which have allowed it to succeed for so long, and it was always good to have a serious competitor to the MCU. Lest we forget that this shared universe has also gifted us with one of the best superhero castings of all time in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, not to mention the Ryan Renold’s Deadpool or Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. I don’t have high hopes for Dark Phoenix, but I can only hope that it does this franchise justice and allows it to go out on a high note.

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Circular Logic (aka, Let’s Blame the Feminists for Gaming Sexism)

So recently my morning started off in fantastic fashion as one of my friends on Facebook shared a forum post by Merlynn132 which blamed feminists for the issues with female representation in video games (click on the picture for the full-sized image):

Now admittedly, I actually found this guy’s points to be quite interesting at first glance and there may actually be some kernels of wisdom in here. However, the more I thought about the points that he was actually making, the more I realized that his argument is fundamentally flawed and falls apart under just a little scrutiny. So you know what time it is then, good reader: it’s time for yet another I Choose to Stand feminism post!

One big disclaimer before we move on though. I get the distinct feeling that Merlyn132 is directing some of these criticism specifically towards Anita Sarkeesian, but unfortunately its context has been removed to make it “shareable”. Admittedly, I haven’t looked into Sarkeesian’s criticisms myself, although I have found some of her examples to be at least somewhat suspect. If this post is intended to be a direct response to specific criticisms that Sarkeesian has made, then that’s fair enough (I would still disagree with its ultimate conclusion, but I could at least get behind some of its points). However, the tone and body of the post is written in such a way that it ends up being directed at feminism in general, which makes it fair game for a general response as far as I’m concerned. The lack of overall context for the post is unfortunate, so be sure to keep that in mind as the reality of the original post may somehow be shifted if we could see the whole conversation it was a part of.

As usual with this kind of criticism, Merlynn132’s first problem seems to be a lack of understanding of what feminists are actually campaigning for. His critique opens up with a statement that female characters aren’t allowed to have negative traits or feminists will cry out “sexism”. This could actually be the case with Sarkeesian based on some of the examples that I have heard her use for Feminist Frequency, but even that could be a misunderstanding of her intent when using these examples. As I have written previously, these examples are likely not intended to be blanket moratoriums, but rather ways to make writers make more deliberate choices when they write characters and to avoid lazy stereotypes (such as objectification, sexual violence for shock value or the desire to “fridge” a female character to give the male lead a motivation). An example of this in action would be the Tomb Raider games. Critics (not just including feminists) complained for a long time about how ridiculous Lara Croft’s boobs were, for good reason. However, they also praised Lara Croft for being a great character, in spite of the game constantly sexualizing her. Consequently, when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider series, their much more realistically-proportioned Lara Croft was praised as she was still a very interesting character with a much less garish visual design to go along with it. Despite what Merlynn132 would suggest, this actually earned Crystal Dynamics two separate purchases of the game from me (not to mention that I’m eagerly anticipating the end of the Xbox One’s exclusivity deal on Rise of the Tomb Raider, whereas before I wouldn’t have even looked twice at a Tomb Raider game). All of this is comes down to Crystal Dynamics deciding to listen to their critics and making a better product for it.

Let’s tackle Merlynn132’s assertion directly though, that women can’t have a negative trait or it will be deemed sexism. Merlynn132’s own examples are less-interested in physical traits and more in reference to their character, so we’ll leave objectification out of this. I’ll address his second example first because it is just flat out wrong. He claims that women aren’t allowed to be mentally unhinged as they walk across a hellish battlefield, but this is just not true. Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot is made far more interesting as she feels remorse as she is forced to kill for the first time (although the gameplay-narrative dissonance in this aspect is annoying admittedly). I also just replayed Metal Gear Solid for my upcoming retrospective series, and found Meryl Silverburgh’s admission that killing for the first time made her not want to be a soldier anymore to be a fantastic character moment. If anything, I find it offensive that more men aren’t given this sort of treatment, as most big shooters just force you to stupidly mow down hundreds of enemies like a psychopath (with the Uncharted series being one of the most egregious offenders in this regard).

The first example that Merlynn132 gives is that men are allowed to be lecherous drunks, but women are not, because “sexism”. “Sexualizing women and what all” as he puts it. This is an example that I can actually see possibly happening, but the context of the character is probably the most important part in whether it will be accepted or not. Does her character start and stop at “lecherous drunk”, or does she have some actual depth? Are they a main character? Or are they background dressing that exists just to give the player something to ogle at? Such considerations make all the difference in this sort of situation, as there is no quick-and-easy answer. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a contextual difference as well, since men are rarely sexualized in video games whereas women are quite frequently. Since it’s so prevalent for women to be reduced to sex objects, it can come across as very lazy if you put in a lecherous drunk background character unless you’re being very deliberate when doing so. Think of it this way: if I made a white character who loves watermelon and picks cotton, it would be fine. However, if that character was instead black, it would obviously be ridiculously offensive. This is because meanings change based on the contexts that they are placed within, so you have to be aware when you’re falling into a stereotype and, if you are aware, you have to have good reason for doing so.

Merlynn132’s third example revolves around a theoretical situation where Guybrush Threepwood is replaced with a female protagonist in Escape From Monkey Island. He is convinced that “Galwood” would never be allowed because she would be a cowardly, weak and socially awkward character hated by everyone around her. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that this would cause a feminist uproar or even be considered sexist for that matter (depending on how the game handles these elements in a female context, as I said before). For one thing, this sort of character actually sounds rather interesting and would fit into the very different sort of characterization which feminist critics have been asking for for ages. I can’t be the only one who thinks that this description fits Amanda Ripley, the extremely well-received heroine of Alien: Isolation, right? Ripley is a strong, positive female character, not because she is a Markus Fenix-style meathead, but rather because she is absolutely terrified, avoids confrontation as much as possible and just tries to stay alive by being resourceful.

Secondly, Escape From Monkey Island was just a poor example for Merlynn132 to use for this argument. The main thrust of Merlynn132’s overall argument is that feminists are actually being sexist, and by being sexist they are making female-led games economically unviable. Using the Monkey Island games to support this idea is very strange to me as they are hardly a mega-selling franchise. In fact, the Monkey Island games have far more in common with the modern day indie-game scene where female-led games are far more common and interesting than in the AAA blockbuster space. I can’t even remember the last time that we had a proper adventure game, although Quantic Dream and Telltale-style narrative adventures seem to be the closest analogue… and what do you know, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Beyond: Two Souls and Until Dawn all tend to have pretty solid, flawed and interesting female characters without causing a feminist uproar.

The third, and probably most ridiculous, aspect of the argument is in regards to Merlynn132’s conclusion. Basically, they believe that feminists force female characters into a very specific mold, which makes female characters boring, which doesn’t sell, which is why we don’t have female characters leading our games. This is just so obviously bullshit that I shouldn’t really have to explain why… but will, naturally. The games market would be boring if there were more female-led games? Seriously? The market has ALWAYS been dominated by male characters, many of whom are the exact same macho-fantasy repackaged over and over again (Contra, every Call of Duty ever, Gears of War, Booker in Bioshock Infinite as the generic/requisite action game hero, etc). Despite featuring the same stereotypical leads over and over again, they still continue to sell and are often some of the highest-selling games of the year. It’s not feminists’ fault that female-led games are in the minority, it’s because publishers believe that their teenage male target demographic won’t play unless they offer them a male fantasy.

Just to look into this claim a little further, I decided to check the list of best selling video games of all time. I was actually surprised to discover that most of these games feature no distinct characters at all, either being 100% gameplay-based (Tetris) or 100% player determinant (Minecraft). Only three franchises dominate the list. Mario has the most entries, with 8 games selling over 15 million copies each. I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Mario has a personality that is anything other than boring, not to mention that the franchise formulas of his various franchises have been nearly the exact same for well over 20 years now. Call of Duty comes in second with 7 games selling over 15 million copies. The franchise is notorious for featuring paper-thin characters, iterating very lightly from game-to-game and for its macho-fantasy, male-dominated plots. While I, along with many others, would definitely argue that this franchise has gotten extremely tired in the last few years, the fact that the series still continues to sell is proof enough to me that the claim that “boring” female characters are the reason why they don’t get any representation is bullshit. The third highest-selling franchise is Grand Theft Auto with 5 games, and it’s a bit of an oddity since these games actually are known for their interesting characters and writing. However, I have a strong feeling that this is not the main reason why these games have had so much success, but rather that their core gameplay is extremely appealing. If this is truly the case, then the picture that these three franchises and the characterless mega-sellers paints for me is that characters are not a major factor in determining the success of a game, but rather fun gameplay. As a result, whether or not a “feminist conspiracy” caused female characters to end up being a bunch of bland copies, it shouldn’t matter because we already have a bunch of bland male copies running around and raking in the cash. Of course, if the actual argument being made is that “real gamers” don’t want to buy games with female protagonists, then at least be honest…

As I said in the opening paragraphs, I don’t really know the exact circumstances that prompted Merlynn132’s original post, but I kind of wish that I could understand where his perspective is drawn from. Is he directly responding to arguments made my Sarkeesian? As I have hopefully shown, his arguments will still end up being incorrect in the end, but if Sarkeesian’s arguments are just as flawed then that might make a difference in the way that this is all handled. Or perhaps Merlynn132 just misunderstands the whole point of feminism, having equated feminism with the opinions of its more extreme or unlearned factions, or worse, with the gigantic strawman feminist which is so often evoked in these sorts of rebuttals. In all honesty though, I’m glad that I came across this post. While I think that the overall argument is extremely flawed, it is quite interesting and is a good reminder that feminists could actually hurt their own cause sometimes with their critiques. I hope that Merlynn132 is open to this sort of critique, as I think that both sides in this debate could learn things from one another and hopefully come to a point where we can understand one another.

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Review Misuse

Critical reviews are an endless source of discussion in popular culture. On the one hand, they offer a useful tool to sort through content and get a general idea of whether the product will appeal to you. On the other hand though, people often bristle at review scores and find themselves in a sharp divide between critical opinion and public perception. TotalBiscuit recently put out a pretty good video highlighting the disconnect between reviewers and the general public after the latest debacle regarding review scores of the Mad Max video game. In case you don’t feel like watching/listening to a 40 minute video, TotalBiscuit basically says that reviewers and the public have differing opinions on what constitutes value, that the public tends to value familiarity over innovation and that the public puts too much stock into review scores rather than the content of reviews themselves. While I liked the video, I think that TotalBiscuit waffled a little too much and didn’t really dig hard enough into the issues at hand for my tastes.

First off, I will agree 100% that people (particularly video gamers in my experience) put way too much emphasis into review scores. This is generally where the most ridiculous controversies spring from, such as the numerous occasions where reviewers have received death threats for giving games a glowing 9/10 review. This is due in part to some members of the gaming media’s really poorly skewed scoring system, which has messed with gamers’ expectations of what score a game should receive. I can’t be the only one who has noticed that many video game reviewers tend to score games very “softly”, giving almost every major release an 8 or a 9, with one or two huge releases typically getting 10s. For many gamers, this has created the expectation that games scoring lower than a 8 are unacceptable, even though the scale itself has been incredibly devalued and uninformative (and even then, they have a hard time accepting an 8 for a hyped, triple-A release).

In spite of its problems, I actually rather like the 10-point review scale (or its various gradients, such as the 100-point scale). As a bit of a stats geek, I like the idea of being able to quantify my feelings towards a piece of media through a simple system like this. This is the whole reason that I signed up for an IMDb account more than a decade ago and have been tracking every movie I’ve seen ever since. Obviously it’s still not perfect – “so bad they’re good” movies such as Troll 2 get a low rating for quality but I find them endlessly enjoyable. Other movies just may be super generic or very flawed, but I like them quite a bit anyway (such as Howling V).

That said, I don’t find websites like Metacritic to be very helpful*. Metacritic prioritizes review scores over the content of the reviews themselves, effectively making anything but that final score worthless. This also becomes problematic when different reviewers use differing review scales – since many game reviewers are “soft” these days, the few that actually do use the full spectrum of the 10-point scale can knock a game’s Metacritic score down and cause an uproar. This becomes even more distressing though, because publishers have been known to hand out bonuses to developers for hitting score-thresholds on Metacritic. How about this publishers: if you want the game to hit a score-threshold on Metacritic, then maybe give your developers more time to polish the game and don’t hold them to a hard-and-fast release deadline? Or worse, what are the odds that the desire for high review scores and sales stifles creativity by stifling innovation?

Another element that I thought that TotalBiscuit missed the mark on was the disconnect between critics and the public. He was acting like he thought critics were on a totally different wavelength from the rest of us. Personally, I think this stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of critics. In essence, a critic is someone who has studied, and consumes, a lot of media and therefore has an informed opinion on whether individual media is worth consuming, which they pass on to the public as a form of service. Having seen a wider variety of good and bad content than most consumers, a critic tends to be better able to judge the quality of a piece of art. That said, it must always be remembered that a critic is just a professional giver of opinions – even the best critic will find themselves at odds with other critics and/or the public at times and it isn’t unheard of for peoples’ opinions to change over time. The critic’s own preferences can also affect the review process – it’s pretty common for horror movies to get mixed to negative reviews, even if they’re well-regarded amongst fans of the genre.

The disconnect comes from a couple elements of the differences between critics and consumers. Many consumers will have a very limited scope of the media – they may only watch summer blockbusters, or only play first person shooters, or not have a lot of interest in the finer points of a genre outside of whether they enjoyed it or not. As a result, reviews might not even be that big a factor in their purchase, but rather a badge of pride that something they like is considered “good”. These will often be the consumers most vocally hostile towards critics as, from their perspective, critics are held in high regard but do not line up with their understanding of media. This is related to arguably my favourite post on this blog, Translating Ideology, where I explored the gulfs that form between people with different world views. It’s a strange dichotomy – they may personally dislike critics for disagreeing with their perspectives, but still hold their opinions as authoritative and somehow able to diminish their media. Consumers in this mindset need to keep into perspective that, in the end, critics are just putting out their opinions.

Perhaps this prods at a deeper area of resentment though – the old hatred of “snobby intellectuals” versus the uneducated “everyman” who knows what is actually good and what isn’t (this is what Conservapedia would refer to as “the best of the public”, and you know it has to be great if Conservapedia endorses it…). I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an element of this in complaints about snobby critics, where the consumer is literally too unlearned on the subject to understand the critic’s perspective. Bear in mind that this isn’t to say that the consumer is wrong to enjoy whatever media they want to, but it is worth understanding that the divergence between critics and consumers comes down to a wide variety of personal experiences, not simply because “critics like innovation, consumers like what’s familiar” as TotalBiscuit boils it down to.

Wrapping things up, I think that we need to keep a few things about reviews in mind in the future. First of all, don’t put all your faith in review scores, but be sure to read the full reviews to see if you agree with their analysis. Secondly, understand that a “low” review score can still be great – I really enjoyed Lollipop Chainsaw and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, both relatively low-scoring games which I feel deserved their lower score for technical/design reasons, but which were still well worth playing. I myself gave Alien Isolation a 6/10 on this blog, but enjoyed it for the most part and would recommend trying it. Lastly, keep in mind that the opinion of a critic is just that – an opinion. If you have different experiences than they do, then you may disagree and that’s totally fine. Don’t let it diminish your own feelings towards a piece of media.

*That said, I actually quite like Rotten Tomatoes’ system. Instead of just averaging the differing scales of a handful of critics, Rotten Tomatoes measures from the number of critics who “liked” and “disliked” the movie and then gives it a “fresh” rating if more than 60% of critics liked it. It’s a much better aggregate system in my opinion and tends to be my personal source for information on a movie’s reception.

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Video Game Review: Alien Isolation (2014)

(NOTE: I’m going to be super busy this week so I’m going to hold off from updating the playlist until next week hopefully)

Harkening back to the origins of this blog, back when its focus was mainly on pop culture rather than Christian/social issues/current events, I’m going to put out a long-overdue video game review about 2014’s survival-horror game, Alien Isolation. As you might be aware, I’m quite a big fan of the Alien series, and would count the first 2 films in the franchise amongst my all-time favourite movies ever. As a result, the prospect of being stalked constantly by one of these killer rape-beasts left me extremely excited to try out the final product. So how did the game measure up? Read on to find out… (and as a warning, there will be some spoilers.)

Alien Isolation stars Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, as she travels to the run-down space station Sevastapol in search of the flight recorder for the doomed ship, Nostromo… and, uh, well that’s basically the entire plot summed up right there. Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously plot points that go beyond that, but the plot was sadly not all that memorable. Even worse, most of the stuff that you’re tasked with doing in the game has basically no bearing on the main plot, so it’s really easy to forget what the hell is actually going on, or why it matters, at any point in time. Oh, and the ending is freaking awful.

That said, Amanda Ripley is quite a good protagonist. She is very capable and brave, even if she is in way over her head and is no match for the foes all coming after her. It’s refreshingly positive to see a strong female character in a big game like this too, so major props to Sega and The Creative Assembly for that. Again though, the plot doesn’t give her much room to develop, outside of just going and performing tasks, so that’s unfortunate. Still, she gets a better shake than the rest of the cast, who are completely forgettable.

Of course, you’re probably not coming to Alien Isolation for the plot, you’re here for the antagonist, the scares and the gameplay. First off, I have to say that the alien is consistently terrifying. For the first few hours, every time you see the alien you’re going to squeal in terror and want to shit your pants. Even later in the game, when you’re starting to get used to the alien’s movements and have some methods to defend yourself, the alien can still catch you off guard and scare the crap out of you. The alien’s dynamic AI keeps it from getting too predictable and keeps alien encounters very tense. The game seems to “cheat” sometimes though – at a couple points in the game, it seems like there is a certain amount of rubber-banding with the alien, where you can’t leave an area without having the alien be forced to follow you around despite not even knowing that you’re there. It can also be really frustrating when you wait for the alien to buzz off somewhere, wait until it’s safe to leave a room and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with the alien out of nowhere, leading to a quick respawn back to the last save point. These moments can be extremely frustrating, but there’s enough unpredictability and tension in alien encounters to keep the game engaging and interesting.

The alien isn’t the only enemy on the station though. The there are human looters aboard the station who will shoot on sight. You only run into them a handful of times thankfully (this isn’t the sort of game that needs to turn into a shooter), but they are typically pretty interesting moments when you do. This is mostly because confrontation is basically impossible – while you do get a revolver early on, the shooting in the game is very difficult and unreliable… and gunfire typically attracts the alien, so it is very much discouraged. The nice thing about human encounters is that you can either sneak past them very carefully, or you can lure the alien in to kill them all for you, giving you a clear path to escape. The only real issue I have with the human enemies is that their AI can be kind of stupid. At one point, I opened a door and had 2 humans look right at me, but they didn’t even see me. I threw a noisemaker in the corner to distract them and just snuck around without them even having a clue I was there. I don’t know if their vision cones are just embarrassingly small or what, but there are lots of moments where you think a human should be able to see you, but don’t.

The other main enemy type in the game are the Seegson androids which populate the station. They are moderately unsettling the first few times you see them, but I quickly got tired of fighting these enemies (which sucks, because you’re going to fight A LOT of them, and there’s a fairly large chunk of the game where the alien disappears and you have to fight androids exclusively). Their AI is even stupider and more inconsistent than the humans’, and their grab animations are annoyingly long (probably around 10 seconds… and you’re going to be seeing it quite often). The only good thing about androids is that they give you an excuse to use some of your weapons which are useless against the alien (eg, shotgun and stun baton) or overkill versus humans (eg, bolt gun), but this doesn’t really make up for the frustration.

The gameplay itself generally revolves around trying to get from point A to point B without being spotted (at which point you will usually die). The maps are generally have a few different ways to get to your destination, opening things up for player choice – do you risk the most direct path, or do you take the safer path along the perimeter where you have more hiding places? The game features a The Last of Us-style improvised crafting system, which can be helpful and encourages risk-taking as you try to find parts. Unfortunately, as with all of these survival games with crafting, if you play like me then you’re going to find yourself stockpiling these scarce items on the off chance that you might need them someday, and never end up trying them out. I don’t think I ever even used two of the strongest items, the EMP mine and the pipe bomb, just because I was worried that I might need them later and wouldn’t have the parts to build new ones. This isn’t a major issue by any means, but it is an annoying aspect of this kind of game. The game also features an old-school save system where you have to reach a save point in order to get a checkpoint. This system can lead to some major frustration at times, but I personally found this to be a great system for this sort of game. The threat of dying becomes even more terrifying and it keeps you playing carefully to avoid the harsh penalties of failure.

To help you when you’re being hunted by the alien, the game gives you a motion tracker early on, and this is arguably the most useful tool in your arsenal. The motion tracker is basically essential to survive, and features an objective compass as well, which is good because it is easy to get lost (especially since the narrative is so unhelpful about what you need to do). You can’t rely on it too much (it gives a lot of useless readings and doesn’t work in air vents, so you have to rely on audio cues just as much), but it is really handy and makes the game fairer. At around the halfway point in the game though, you get a flamethrower which arguably breaks the game from there onwards. As soon as you get the flamethrower, alien encounters become significantly easier and less tense, as you can whip out the weapon and fire a couple bursts to keep the alien from attacking you. You still have to avoid combat as much as possible, since fuel consumption is a major concern, but by that point in the game you should be adept enough at facing aliens that they no longer become nearly as terrifying (except when they catch you off guard, at which point you’ll squeal like a pig all over again).

Also worth mentioning is the game’s fantastic environmental work and sound design. Sevastapol looks incredible, fitting the retro-future aesthetic of the first film perfectly (something which Prometheus should have taken a cue from). The game just looks so good that you’re almost tempted to wander around and check out all the cool little details of the world. The sound design is also really crucial to the game’s world. Sometimes the only way to know if it’s safe is to hear the tell-tale sound of the alien heading into an air duct, or clench your asshole in terror as you hear it dropping down from a duct or screaming as it barrels right at you. I don’t know how many times I jumped just from walking past one of those creepy air duct entrances, which make a jarring sound of metal scraping against metal. Arguably the scariest moment in the game for me was when I was hiding and listening for the alien in the corner of a pitch black air duct, not daring to turn on my flashlight for fear that the alien will see it and come find me (it did, and I yelled “SHIT” loud enough that probably everyone in the house heard me).

I have touched on the good and the bad of Alien Isolation so far, but I think the absolute worst issue in the game is that it’s just too damn long. Playing on hard mode, the game probably took me at least 22 hours to complete, which is just insane for this kind of game. It would be one thing if the game managed to stay fresh throughout this playtime, but unfortunately Alien Isolation starts to outstay its welcome very quickly and features a ridiculous amount of padding. Most of the complaints I have had thus far are quite minor, and can easily be ignored if the rest of the game is strong enough. However, the long playtime just services to exacerbate all of the issues with the game – fetch quests and point-A-to-point-B gameplay become stale very quickly, hours of the game get dedicated to just fighting waves of androids (which are now immune to your stun baton…), and the plot just becomes utter background noise. Hell, even the game’s strengths start to lose their lustre. The environments start to bleed together through asset reusual and the alien gets annoying very quickly because it won’t leave you alone long enough to finish your already-unfun objectives.

If they had cut the game’s length in half and focused about half-to-two-thirds of the game towards alien encounters, the game would have been a hell of a lot more enjoyable. As it is, it’s an utter slog and a chore… which is too bad, because there are a lot of things to like about it, buried beneath all of that. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to give the first person survival-horror crown to Outlast, a game which knew damn well not to outstay its welcome and was all the better for it. If there is an Alien Isolation 2 though, I really hope that The Creative Assembly can work out the issues with this one and make a better experience.

6/10

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