#013 — Can You Fly, Bobby?

Hi, hello, how are you? We’re back here in Oxford following our trips away to Norfolk & Kent. I’m counting down the days to the MLB trade deadline, and the hours until England face Germany in the Women’s EURO Final.

This week, I have things to tell you about cyberpunk cats and lesbian nuns. But first, a note on the latest screen adaptation of Brian K Vaughan’s work, which will hopefully fare better than the last one (yes, I am still sore about the cancellation of Y: The Last Man after just one series — it was a long time coming, and it was really good!).

At the time of writing we’ve watched the first two episodes of the TV adaptation of Paper Girls — one of my favourite comics of recent years. I’ll save any commentary on the show until we’re at least a bit deeper in, but — particularly with its child & adult versions of characters — it made me reflect on a show I loved earlier this year (and eagerly await the second season of): Yellowjackets. Mostly I was struck by how nice it is to have multiple contemporary shows centring around female ensembles; I struggle to recall many such shows from the 80s or 90s. The groundwork in recent years was probably laid by productions like Orange is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Big Little Lies — and it looks like it’s a format that’s captured the imagination. Particularly with Yellowjackets, and now Paper Girls, it presents an interesting opportunity to tell stories around female friendships and the manner in which they evolve with age.

Related: this week I recorded a podcast episode discussing a film from the 90s that is also a female ensemble piece. If you’d like to hear me talk about Girl, Interrupted, you can do so via the links right here1.

Stray (2022)

I recently played through Stray — the new adventure game from French developers BlueTwelveStudio. This had been on my radar for a while, for a couple of different reasons. Firstly, I tend to play most games that publisher Annapurna Interactive puts out. With one notable exception I’ve found their eye for picking up interesting work from indie developers to be a reliable indication that a game will be pretty great. Secondly, right from the first trailer, Stray looked to be doing something a bit different: putting the player in the role of a cat seemed like it would be a chance to do interesting things with scale and perspective, allowing a new vantage on a cyberpunk city setting.

Plus, it looks absolutely beautiful. One of the great joys of this game was the opportunity to explore its stunning environments, slipping through gaps in fences, and clambering up stacked crates to jump into buildings through an open window. In this sense the game does a wonderful job of allowing the player to embody a cat. It takes every opportunity to allow you to partake of quintessential cat-like behaviour: scratching at rugs and furniture; jumping into empty boxes; napping on any vaguely flat surface — the controls even feature a dedicated ‘Meow’ button (with a trophy available for using it 100 times). There’s also a sense of the game managing to capture something of cats’ natural mischievousness, with multiple story beats requiring the player to engage in playfully destructive behaviours that frustrate or irritate the world’s human-like robot inhabitants.

For the most part these characters are used to move plot forward, and as waypoints in the completion of multi-step puzzles. This isn’t uncommon in adventure games, but I did feel a tension peculiar to Stray, in that the player’s character is essentially sub-vocal, and not an active participant in the conversations that arise. I also felt that the game was perhaps a little undecided as to what it wanted to say about its post-human future. The robot inhabitants of the city all partake in behaviours modelled on human activity, even when they are nonsensical for a machine. The world-building and quest narratives do some work to comment upon the relationship that these robots have to the now absent humans who preceded them, but it wasn’t enough for me to feel as though the game really had a coherent thesis.

Related — and more disappointing — is the extent to which the (non-feline) character design in Stray leans into orientalist traits. This is frustratingly common in cyberpunk as a genre, but it’s particularly troubling in the case of Stray as BlueTwelve have chosen to base their game’s world upon the real location of Kowloon Walled City. It’s a choice the French developers almost certainly made for aesthetic reasons, but it also necessarily places the game within racial, historical, and cultural contexts with which it is ultimately uninterested in engaging.

The moment-to-moment gameplay of Stray proved to be a lot of fun. It’s a relatively brief game (~7 hours on first playthrough, with a healthy number of additional sub-goals left to go back and complete), and does an admirable job of introducing new mechanics with a good cadence, as well as making sure they don’t outstay their welcome. However, this design also has an interesting flaw, and it’s one that I’ve found myself thinking about since completing the game. It boils down to the extent to which the player-character’s essential catlike nature is subverted. After an opening sequence spent running, jumping, and meowing, the player quickly encounters a little robot buddy who will then tag along with them throughout the rest of the game. For me, this proved to be an interesting choice by BlueTwelve, and one with a cost. It certainly allows for more diversity of action for the player: the inclusion of a robot friend is used to justify mechanics like environmental scanning, and a basic inventory of quest items, allowing for more complex puzzles than could be solved through jumping, scratching, and meowing alone. However, every step in this direction necessarily felt like a step away from playing as a cat. With each new thing that my little, flying robot friend allowed me to do, I came to feel increasingly as though I could be playing as a small robot myself. That fact of playing as a cat was less-and-less intrinsic to the way the game felt and operated.

The most obvious and persistent version of this problem, is the extent to which puzzle solutions rely upon the ability to comprehend language. As the game moves beyond its tutorial section, it becomes increasingly impossible to understand how you (as a cat) are able to navigate the world and complete complex puzzles. The only possible answer is that you (as a cat) are able to understand both written and spoken language. In a game that is (at least notionally) interested in the divide between an organic being from the outside world, and the mechanical inhabitants of the Walled City, this unidirectional, frictionless comprehension feels weird. A meow is a meow, and means nothing to the robots. You (as a cat) however, understand every word that the robots say.

Any piece of games criticism that employs the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ is automatically worth reading, so let me drop it here. I’ve rarely felt that conflict between game world and game play more acutely than I did playing Stray. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to significantly undermine the experience of a fun adventure game for me. I have, however, found myself thinking about the ways in which games like Florence and The Witness build puzzles and stories that are navigable without employing language. My instinct is that there could have been a version of Stray that operated in a similar way. It would, however, be a significantly different game from what is here, and that could as easily be a negative as a positive.

Benedetta (2021)

I saw RoboCop (1987) fantastically, criminally young. Initially, of course, I was magnetised by its stylised violence, the dark, foreboding landscape of its future-Detroit setting, and the concept of its half-man / half-robot hero. I don’t think it was too long, however, before I realised the movie was doing something else. Unlike the other action movies of the same period that I managed to get my hands on (eg. the first couple of Rambo flicks, and Schwarzenegger’s Commando), there was a tone to RoboCop (1990) — between the gun fights — that was operating differently. It would take some time for me to figure out the nuances, but as I learned the script pretty much back-to-front over several rewatches (in my friend’s basement, the VHS lifted from his parents’ cupboard), I picked apart its satire, and worked out its targets. I developed a similar relationship to Verhoeven’s follow-up: Total Recall — though it confused all heck out of me, I was still able to tell it wasn’t taking itself seriously. Underneath the violence and grotesquerie, it was pointing its finger at someone, and it was laughing. By the time Starship Troopers (1997) was released, most people I knew who were interested in seeing it thought they were getting something like the previous summer’s hit: Independence Day (1996). My expectation — which proved accurate — was that Paul Verhoeven wouldn’t play it straight. That movie, even more than the others, has its tongue planted deep in its cheek.

All of that background added to my experience this week, watching Verhoeven’s latest: Benedetta (2021). I can’t claim to be anything but a novice (pun absolutely intended) when it comes to nunsploitation cinema, and yet there was no question for me that Verhoeven would be uninterested in simply making an exploitation movie based in simple kink (see also Showgirls (1995)). Instead, this is a film complicatedly interested in intersections such as those between tradition & individual experience; faith & emotion. There’s a sense for me that Verhoeven has sharpened his satirical needle to such a fine point here, that the film never tips its hand about what it considers to be over the lines it’s drawing. Its sex, its violence, the theatre of its religious observance, the drama of its miracles… the satire within all of it is so finely calibrated that it would be perfectly possible to read the film as largely straight-faced. But Verhoeven has his targets here too, and he’s still pointing fingers. The rampant hypocrisy within organised religion; the unrestrained sexism and prudery of its tenets; both the credulity and myopia of its adherents. The whole film is an admirably well-executed balancing act.

• • •

You’ve been good, and you deserve some bullets.

• on the blog, I posted a brief note about the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize;

• check out these illustrations and paintings of zen gardens;

• a profile of Janeane Garofalo in the NY Times;

• not for the faint-hearted, but this week’s music pick is the new Ithaca album: They Fear Us — play it loud

That’ll do it for the final week of July 2022. I sure hope that you’re keeping well, wherever in the world you are. Unless that happens to be within the borders of Germany, perhaps you’d consider sending your energy and support to England’s ladies this afternoon (BST); and, wherever you are, pray to your chosen deity that Willson Contreras is still wearing a Cubs shirt at the end of next week. I’ll write to you then!


— Adam

  1. Update: the podcast is on hiatus and has been archived  ↩︎