Ginger Snaps

What if a teenage girl got bitten by a werewolf? The metaphor is usually used to explore the bestial nature of adult men and the (sometimes sexual) violence they are capable of. That's present in Ginger Snaps as well, but the focus is shifted to girls hitting puberty – the lunar cycle explicitly linked to the menstrual cycle. Ginger becoming a werewolf drives new urges – to snog boys, smoke dope, fight bullies and ultimately to rebel against her family.

But that's only half of it. Ginger isn't really the main character – her younger sister Brigitte is, and the film is about their relationship and their toxic family environment. The two sisters are incredibly close, they have no friends and they are obsessed with death – perhaps as a fantasy of escaping their cloying family and dreary town. But Ginger is the instigator of their disturbing reiterated suicide pacts, and her lycanthropy only extends her control over Brigitte. In trying to manage her sister's transformation, Brigitte has to upend this power imbalance. She loves but is terrified of her sister, even before her werewolf problem. The final shot of the film tries to capture that very mixed emotion, as Brigitte finally gains her freedom.

But really the most moving part of the film happens earlier. For much of its running time, the mother is a source of brilliant comic relief. Her daughters find her attempts to engage with their problems ridiculous – even though the advice she gives (and that of the cheery school councillor) is eminently sound. Teenagers having to talk to adults about sex is always embarrassing, and displacing that with becoming a werewolf just highlights how out-of-touch parents might come across. But there's a great turn towards the end of the film, where the mother rallies around and chooses to sacrifice everything for the sake of her daughters, no matter what they've done. Brigitte accepts her help but is kind enough to say that it's not her fault. And then the mum says that it is, and apologises.

They are both right – Ginger is obviously out of control, but a parent shares some responsibility for their children's behaviour, even when they are doing their best. Despite baking the cakes, being supportive and making an effort, the mum has failed to nurture her daughters. She hasn't found a way to relate to them that can arrest their (self-)destructive behaviour. That's a tough lesson to absorb, and yet she does it and is determined to keep trying. That steely determination to stand by your children in the face of failure is admirable and very touching.


My Love Has Been Burning

A very didactic feminist film from Mizoguchi – starting out with a statement from the filmmaker to the audience dedicating it to women seeking freedom around the world. In 1949 the sentiment may have been provocative, but today the lectures about human rights land like platitudes.

The film still has the power to shock, however. Mizoguchi doesn’t flinch from depicting the physical and sexual brutality inflicted on women who are basically sold into slavery or are imprisoned. That sequence, which comes midway through the film, has an almost mythic quality – where the radical leader and his followers wait in the woods like Robin Hood and his merry men while our heroine sneaks into the workhouse to witness its horrors.

That's a far more powerful moment than the subsequent domestic drama where we discover that the politician we thought was on the side of women's emancipation is a cad, and an elitist one at that. The film ends on an idea of solidarity between women of different classes, committed to educating each other and dreaming of a better world while male politicians advance their careers and leave them behind. It's a well crafted statement, but the characters remain little more than vehicles for ideas, and ultimately I don't find Mizoguchi’s firebrand activism as moving as Ozu's contemplative quietist studies of the burdens of familial obligation.


Divinity: Original Sin 2

Although this game has a reputation for having a wacky Discworld-esque tone, the overarching plot goes to some dark and heavy places. The path to divinity is covered in blood – gaining and maintaining power necessarily involves war and murder on a grand scale. The game’s bad guys do terrible things, but it’s all in the cause of averting even more terrible things from happening. There are no good options really. To govern is to choose between horrors. 

The original sin of the title does not refer to the burden humanity lives with for disobeying god. The gods are the original sinners, destroying their own race to acquire power and worshippers. The creation of different creatures in their image is not an act of benevolence, but selfishness. Our souls are food. We are farmed animals with the illusion of freedom. The game sets you up to escape this false consciousness and follow in these footsteps to godhood. And it has you killing things every step of the way.

Combat really is integral to the game – there aren’t many peaceful options like in other RPGs. Thankfully combat is the USP of DOS2. Things like elevation, positioning, environmental effects and objects on the map significantly affect each encounter. Winning a fight isn’t just down to the items and abilities you use, but how these interact with elements in the arena. The range of options and tactical possibilities are extraordinary, and pretty daunting when you are starting out. But DOS2 rewards you for understanding its systems and figuring out its exploits.

Although the combat borrows ideas from immersive sims (barrels of various dangerous materials you can move around and blow up, for example), the game is not actually that immersive. Where the developers had to choose between realism and keeping the play as engaging and challenging as possible, they pick the latter. For most people, that's probably the correct choice, but it does make the artifice very apparent, and for me that has downsides. 

The best example is the way the game maintains its difficulty curve all the way through its runtime. Most RPGs get easier as the player amasses more experience and better items. The more side quests you do, the more overpowered you become. In DOS2 on normal difficulty, you have to go everywhere and fight pretty much everything in order to get enough experience and levels to keep up with your enemies, and if you’re not a completionist like I am you will fall behind. Thankfully the fighting is never dull and most of the storytelling is not embarrassing. But it's still a pretty relentless XP farming treadmill to have to keep on. In fairness to the developers, the explorer difficulty setting seems to be designed for players who prefer to have that more traditional RPG experience, where you can pick and choose what you do and still make it through the game.

A more prevalent point of dissonance is equipment, which is assigned a level and gradually loses its utility as you encounter stronger enemies. If you’re not constantly upgrading, again, you will fall behind. Although there is a slight justification for the low-level items at the beginning and the OP ones at the end (you start off in a prison and end up in the literal city of god) it doesn’t really hold together. There’s no reason why Orivand’s mace should be so much weaker than Lothar’s hammer. It just is because it’s in Act 1. In a more freeform RPG like Fallout 2 the journey from periphery to centre makes the shift from pistols to laser weapons feel more consonant.

Those older games also provide opportunities to sequence break and acquire awesome loot early. In Baldur’s Gate you can get the best long sword in the game outside the first dungeon. It’s a tough fight and you have to throw everything at it, but the treasure you get as the reward is very satisfying. In DOS2 every bit of loot you find has an expiration date, which devalues the satisfaction you get in acquiring it. I actually kept the level 2 Gloves of Teleportation on Fane all the way through to the final fight, but I really shouldn’t have. The game doesn't encourage a sentimental attitude to your stuff. To be fair, again the developers seem to have thought about this and added an optional mod allowing existing items to be upgraded for a price, which would significantly reduce the amount of inventory management required to keep your party battle-ready. 

Rivellon itself never feels like a coherent place in the way that the Sword Coast or the Fallout universe does, where the player is a small part of a big world with its own dynamics and developments. DOS2 trades in the more traditional linear hero's journey narrative for a tangle of storylines akin to something like Game of Thrones, where your party turns out to be at the centre of every web of intrigue. You don't exist in the world, the world exists for you.

It's a big game, with so many plot strands to pursue that it becomes a struggle to really care about any one of them. Characters like the Shadow Prince, who would be the overall villains in a different game, are met and dispatched very quickly and are used to tie together several arcs in quite an artificial way. With so much stuff happening, the individual story beats lose their impact, even though most are actually well-written. Sebille's romance is unexpectedly sweet. She ends up trusting you enough to teach you the magic that turns her into a slave – an apt metaphor for how love is about being comfortable with your vulnerabilities around another person. Lohse's quest to rid herself of the demon in her head has well-observed overtones of an abusive relationship. And Fane's resolve to document the world with a sense of wonder unavailable to its inhabitants is quite touching.

All of these moments are buried under an avalanche of game-spanning narratives involving a heap of not very distinctive factions, all of whom – elves, dwarves, lizards, magisters – are planning or committing atrocities of one kind or another. By the time you get to the ending slides, it's difficult to care about the fates of these people or places, whereas in a good Fallout game that would be one of the highlights. The politics of this world is just great power competition, which you can put a stop to in order to fight an extra-dimensional Satan figure. The choices are not very interesting, and neither are the results. The game doesn't really pass judgement on your actions. It's for you to reflect on the power you've gained, and whether the mayhem and murder along the way was worth it.

All of this nitpickery is an attempt to justify why I've not fallen head over heels for a CRPG that by general consensus is one of the best things to play right now. Because the play really is exceptional. A DOS2 fight is more stimulating than the complicated rock-paper-scissors nature of a Baldur's Gate 2 encounter – which at higher levels is just about buffing, debuffing and countering the enemy's immunities. Encounter design in DOS2 is better than anything else out there. The variety never lets up, and while there are duds (those respawning necrofire lizards in Act 4 are a pain), generally every battle is a new puzzle that's a joy to solve. And yet ultimately I still care more about the fate of the world in Fallout and my character's story in Baldur's Gate. Those games are intellectually and emotionally richer than DOS2, where the writing is serviceable and mostly serves to get you to the next brilliant bit of combat.


The Lighthouse

Going into this I expected another example of the “is it all a dream?” film, where realistic and fantastic interpretations are equally weighted and you get to pick what you prefer. At its best, like in Pan’s Labyrinth, this is just the opening part of a broader argument about the origins and purpose of myth-making. The Lighthouse doesn’t have such big ambitions. In fact, whether what we’re seeing is real or not doesn’t really matter. It’s like asking whether the action in Waiting For Godot or Blue Velvet is real. The film isn’t about what’s going on in the character’s heads but what's going on in our heads. It presents a metaphor, whereas Pan’s Labyrinth is about the creation of metaphors.

And while the mythological and psychosexual accoutrements provide some interesting visual cues, at its heart the film carries forward The Witch’s exploration of the evils of authoritarian patriarchy. Interestingly, although couched in familial (and psychoanalytical) metaphors, the oppressive relationship here is an economic one, where Daniel Defoe is the worst boss in the world, and where Robert Pattison’s final descent into madness is precipitated by the arbitrary withholding of wages.

One wonders why Eggers is so interested in unearthing these historical examples of religious or workplace tyranny – the echoes of which are slowly fading in the modern world. Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of how truly awful the past was. Eggers’s young heroes endure extreme emotional abuse at the hands of their elders and are driven to strike dark bargains, or just to strike out, in order to escape their hopeless situation.

The contents of the knowledge that Pattison gains at the top of the Lighthouse isn't as important as the fact it was kept from him for no reason. Whether it's fire, or sexual awakening, or knowledge of good and evil, the rebellion of the young against the patriarch does not end the pain of existence. The seabirds, old souls representing the ideological remnants of the old order, remain to peck away at whatever freedom is carved out from overthrowing your masters.


Day of the Tentacle

The first adventure game I've played (it's a year of gaming firsts for me). This one was cute but it did make me feel stupid a lot of the time. Some of the time it made me feel clever. And some of the time I felt frustrated because adventure game logic is not real-world logic and certain things that should solve puzzles just don't because the creators didn't think of them that way. My experience was of a lot of dead ends and bewilderment when I looked up the solutions. The logical leap required to get the horse's dentures for example is just wild – like, how were you supposed to get that??

Day of the Tentacle's innovation is to use time travel as a puzzle mechanic. You control three characters that are transported to three different eras within the same building, and getting them back together requires collaboration across the past, present and future. The most fun you can have in the game is changing history for your own trivial reasons – from having the US constitution mandate that every basement should have a vaccum cleaner to turning the American flag to a windsock. Some of the puzzles that involve depositing items in the past so they can be dug up and used in the future are also particularly satisfying.

The game is very funny, in a wacky Cartoon Network sort of way. There aren't very many pure dialogue puzzles in the game – conversations are an avenue for humour and your dialogue options are usually just a choice between different jokes you can make. The animation is beautiful and the voice-acting is pitch-perfect. It's a very charming game – and the remaster (which I played on my phone) is a labour of love. Although I had a hard time playing it, it feels like a great entryway into the genre. The genre just might not be for me.


Chrono Trigger

The first JRPG I've played (unless Pokemon counts) and I went for the best one of all time – a unique collaboration between the developers of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which I understand are the two pivotal series in the genre. Although western RPGs and computer RPGs probably aren't quite synonymous, I find it a useful shorthand when contrasting them with their Japanese cousins, which were developed with the limited capabilities of consoles (and a younger, less tech-savvy audience) in mind. While WRPGs could rely on computer processing power to dramatically expand the scope of game mechanics, side quests and player choice, JRPGs streamlined everything to fit on a cartridge, and you get a much more linear experience. The stories can still be epic and the characters you meet might still be interesting and well-rounded, but the role-playing element is refined almost to non-existence (beyond the strange convention of being able to rename your player characters).

That's ok though. Games don't have to be complicated to be good. Chrono Trigger's battle system isn't quite as pared down as a Pokemon fight, but you don't need a Dungeons & Dragons manual to make sense of it either, and that sweet spot is appealing. The game innovates in having encounters occur within the map, rather than on a separate, abstracted battle screen – and positionality is of some (albeit minimal) relevance. You have a menu of attacks, special attacks, buffs, consumables and healing to chose from, and the different members of your party will allow you to use different combinations of these. This is probably where the most player choice is exerted in the game. A different party make-up will change the experience of your play-through, although this is still only a matter of degree. My biggest irritation with the game was that battles were not fully turn-based – there is still a timer forcing you to make decisions under pressure, and when playing with touch controls on a phone that just leads to you making stupid errors that make you feel bad. 

Thankfully the fights are by and large pretty easy. You get huge sums of money relatively quickly and consumables will tide you over in most dungeons. Bosses have their gimmicks and once you figure them out it's quite satisfying to beat them, although some may require you to change your party load-out in order to do so. The game doesn't really have random encounters so progression is finely tuned to the point where grinding isn't really necessary. Levelling is quick and the typical RPG dopamine hits of learning new special moves and finding cool treasures are very regularly administered. In my play-through, I decided Chrono would just bring his girlfriend and best friend along, so I had a physical attacker, a healer and a damage-dealing mage crush everything in their path. The biggest tactical breakthrough for me was discovering just how overpowered Marle's haste skill is, giving her two turns for every enemy's turn and allowing her to heal the party faster than they were attacked. Lavos is supposed to be a Galactus-level threat to existence, but my three teenagers stomped them in one go.

Chrono Trigger's story is as elegant as its progression. Chrono is a blank slate who never speaks, but in the course of the game he pairs up with a group of sweethearts and oddballs with their own little short stories. Almost every character is painted with a streak of melancholy – Marle has a strained relationship with her overbearing father, Lucca feels guilty for her mother's accident, Frog has to recover his self-confidence after the death of his mentor, Robo has to strike out on his own after being rejected by his community. Resolving these inner conflicts require acts of kindness and encouragement that are deeply affecting. They also create a sense of this group of NPCs as an actual gang of friends taking on the world and overcoming its darkest features. Other aspects of the game's characterisation are less successful – Ayla is little more than a female Conan the Barbarian and the evil queen manifests basically every evil villain cliche. It is in the exchanges within the player's party that the game's emotional pivot points are found. They are what secure its legacy.


Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Picked up this legendary game on iOS for £3 and it’s worth it even if you have to make do with touchscreen controls, which will never be as intuitive as having actual buttons to mash. Thankfully, Symphony of the Night is pretty easy as action platformers go, thanks to the introduction of RPG mechanics like levelling, consumables and a massive variety of equipment that make you more powerful as you progress, as well as allowing for a certain amount of player expression in terms of builds you can use.

That said, as with a lot of RPGs the hardest part is the beginning. You start off with your endgame equipment, which is then quickly taken away and you have to scramble around in the early areas of the castle finding basic swords, shields and armour to survive. I didn’t really understand the process of saving or using secondary weapons, which made the game feel far more frustrating than it actually is. Once you know what you’re doing and have beaten the first few bosses the world becomes your oyster.

Symphony of the Night is one of the most famous examples of a game that gates areas by equipment and abilities, so rather than progressing in a linear fashion through levels, you are constantly exploring a giant map, and doubling back through old areas to find new pathways and treasures. At several stages, you have a choice of what to explore next, and you can check out early by beating the main boss of the castle, although that doesn’t give you a very satisfactory ending. The game is designed to reward exploration – only by unlocking its secrets do you get the full story (meagre as it is).

You also get a huge amount of extra content. The biggest trick Symphony of the Night pulls is to reward the player who has explored every nook and cranny of the castle with a whole other one to play in. Granted, it’s just the same castle turned upside down, but there is still a heap of new enemies and equipment to discover. It’s not quite a doubling of the game’s runtime, but it’s close. And that moment of revelation is a powerful one.

Unfortunately, the inverted castle doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Large portions of it are only accessible through flying, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable way to traverse new areas. It’s pretty obvious that the developers didn’t design the map to work effectively when it’s turned upside down – plenty of platforms are just out of reach of your double-jump, which is frustrating. The inverted castle is also far more hostile than the game thus far would lead you to expect. The power curve is very effectively reset, but at the beginning you are reliant on using your mist form (which makes you invulnerable) to bypass certain enemy-filled corridors until you gain enough levels and endgame equipment to navigate properly, which is again, not very satisfying.

The RPG elements save the day in the end. If you explore enough you will find enough health, armour and weapon upgrades to give you the resilience to survive. The bosses you encounter are actually not too difficult, and by the time I got to confronting Dracula, I had so many consumables on me that I just drank them all and aced it with most of my health intact. There is one impossible boss –  a giant mecha called Galamoth – which can be a bummer. But there are game-breaking tools available (a weapon and shield combo that does huge damage while healing you) to get you past things you can’t be bothered with. Ultimately, the inverted castle is an awesome idea that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s enough fun to be had to make it worth engaging with.

Beyond its open-world experiments, Symphony of the Night is not complicated or especially cohesive. The plot is a ridiculous mish-mash of vampire tropes that is difficult to take seriously. There are entire systems that I didn't engage with at all, such as the economy of the game (there's a merchant that will buy gems and sell you things that you don't really need). You can cast spells – which might have made certain areas easier although I never figured out how to work them.

The look-and-feel of the game is very ornate and impressive, however. The game is basically still a 2D platformer, but it uses 3D to embellish the backgrounds of the world to achieve startling effects. There are also quirky little easter eggs throughout – although ostensibly set in the 18th century you can pick up pizzas and ramen to eat, and you can lounge around in banquet halls and eavesdrop on ghosts in confessional booths. It's silly and delightful, even if it doesn't hang together very well. But it holds up, and you won't find many better ways to spend £3 on over 10 hours of entertainment.


"Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it." – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan


"There is an essential core at the centre of each man and woman that remains unaltered no matter how life's externals may be transformed or recombined. But it's smaller than we think." – Gene Wolfe, The Book of the Long Sun