Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “July, 2017”

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero for Switch, Wii U, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and PC

I’ve never played a Shantae game before, but I’ve been aware of the series ticking over on a range of Nintendo consoles. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has an abundance of charm, but ultimately lacks the depth or the tightness of controls needed in the best platformers.

Shantae is, as the title suggests, a half-genie, who protects her town from a range of menaces, most prominently her pirate nemesis Risky Boots. This game focuses on Shantae helping her uncle build a strange machine, as well as uncover some of the secrets of her origin. Half-Genie Hero is a soft reboot and entirely understandable if you haven’t played the previous games. The writing is very self-aware and quippy in a way which treads a very fine line between irritating and endearing. It just about landed on endearing for me, but I suspect lots of people would feel differently. Expect lots of jokes about the game industry and DLC, but it’s the simple but likeable supporting characters that made Shantae’s story a bit more engaging.

Half-Genie Hero, for all its charm, somewhat stumbles out of the gate. The core platforming is pretty unsatisfying, awkwardly floaty with pretty straightforward level design. There are people out there who can tell you exactly what constitute tight controls and strong platformer design and I am not one of those people, but I know it when I see it. The lack of ingenuity in the level design is masked by the charm and style of the environments as well as the range of transformations Shantae can perform. By the end of the game, Shantae had access to eight different transformations with different abilities. Examples include a monkey which can climb walls, an elephant which can smash blocks and a crab which can scuttle around underwater. Transforming to get around is fun and I liked the surprising range of abilities available to Shantae, but I’d prefer fewer transformations and better platforming. One element I did really like were the boss battles; which were generally clever and epic and an area where the game really excelled.

The basic structure of the game annoyed me. You regularly return to a core hub town, where you can purchase upgrades and talk to the locals. Between the levels you will usually need to take part in a Zelda style trading quest, with the items you need usually hidden in previously beaten levels with areas which can now be accessed with new transformations, adding a light element of Metroidvania to the proceedings. I do love a good trading quest, but this felt more like padding than anything else. There aren’t actually that many levels in the game, so Half-Genie Hero seems to feel the need to extend the run time artificially. When returning to the levels you are rarely given a new or fun challenge, it’s more likely going to be crabbing around on the sea floor picking up collectibles, or climbing a tower and elephant stomping on flowers to pick up collectibles and blah blah blah. Games for which the genre are named, Super Metroid and some of the latter Castlevania games, take place in a singular world and the approach doesn’t work nearly so well in discreet, linear levels.

For all I’m complaining, Shantae really is a lovely looking game. The art style is bright and clean and the characters are full of life, constantly moving and jiggling around. My favourite was the zombie girl Rottytops, who seems to never stop dancing. The music is very good too and adds a sense of grandeur, with scatterings of likeable voice acting too. There’s a rather pervasive feeling of style over substance here, but I’d rather have that than neither.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is not a bad game, but it lacks the cleverness and tightness of level design the best platformers need. It may not be a bad choice if it goes on sale, but it’s not exactly a classic.

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