Things I Liked – July 2019

Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked. First of all, thing I’m not liking: the heat. Seriously, the Arctic is on fire. That is not okay.

Angel Season 5

This was a surprise. I think I said, in the last one of these that I liked Season 6 of Buffy much more than I was expecting to, while also thinking it was basically terrible. For what it’s worth, I liked the first five episodes of Season 7 of Buffy more than I was expecting to, and was halfway through planning a passionate defence of why Buffy Season 7 is way better than you remember, when holy shit, what happened? I mean, I think basically having a villain who is intangible was a major strategic misstep, let’s not even mention Captain Tightpants playing a misogynistic southern preacher, and turning your central female empowerment metaphor into also sort a rape metaphor (having previously turned your secondary female empowerment metaphor into a drugs metaphor) maybe not the best call? I did, however, find Willow/Kennedy less awful on second watching. It’s still not amazing, and it has a slight sense of “oops, maybe I shouldn’t have killed half my only queer couple” but it perhaps unintentionally does quite a job of representing a different type of relationship. I think my charitable reason of Willow/Kennedy is that they’re not supposed to be the love of each other’s lives, but that it’s all right for Willow to move on, and embrace being gay as part of her identity. Given that Tara and Willow’s relationship, though lovely, is very filtered through metaphor and largely revolves around doing heroin…sorry I mean magic…together, it’s actually quite important to have both characters talking openly about being gay. Having said which, Ambiguously Gay Andrew is still very much played for laughs. So, steps forward, steps back.

Anyway, this is about Angel. And, at the time, I remember Angel Season 5 being seen as an even bigger car crash than Buffy Season 7. I seem to recall there being a lot of rumours back in the day that the network had interfered quite heavily, insisting on Spike being in it, and banning any kind of overarching season-long plot (my, how times have changed). And maybe it’s me projecting but you can almost feel the bitterness at those restrictions seeping into the early episodes—to say nothing of the season’s whole premise of the simultaneous futility and nobility of attempting to hold to your vision and ideals within the soulless framework of corporate America. But, actually, I kind of enjoyed it, and if it was the studio that made them put Spike in, and focus more on short arcs and episode plots then … the studio did a really good job? I mean, some of the episodes are completely bonkers—there’s the one with luchadores, and the one where Angel becomes a muppet—but they were kind of fun in their own right?  And while I do enjoy arc-based TV, I feel that episodic TV has been given short shrift over the last decade or so. Being able to remember individual episodes of a show is something I no longer take for granted, and it’s actually quite nice to be able to say “oh I liked the episode where [x] happened” as opposed to just having nebulously positive feelings about a series in general.

Of course, by the end of Season 5 you do get the creeping realisation that they’ve killed of literally every significant female character in the show. Darla stakes herself in Season 3, Lilah dies in Season 4 and Cordy winds up in a coma, before finally dying off-screen in Season 5, and then Fred gets consumed from within by an ancient demon goddess from beyond the dawn of time. Also: even creepier now I come to think of it, of those four characters, 50% of them die in ways that are specifically pregnancy related, and an overlapping 50% of them suffer fates that explicitly involve them losing control of their bodies. So not great optics there however you cut it. And what’s especially annoying about this is that, in a vacuum, I actually really like the Ilyria arc. Much like Season 6 Tara, the fact she’s going to kick it means Fred gets better characterisation in Season 5 than she has in all the other seasons put together, and getting to see Amy Acker do something other than the non-threatening nerdgirl everybody fancies is incredibly refreshing. She seems to be having a really good time as Ilyria, and she does it really fucking well. Also, dead women existing primarily to facilitate men’s character development is super not okay but Wesley’s whole arc of growth and dissolution across five seasons of Angel is irritatingly effective. Although it makes Gunn’s arc look problematically shallow by comparison.

In fact, I’m even going to go out on a limb and defend the final scene where there’s the surviving Angelites in an alley making a clearly doomed stand against an actual endless army of demons. I think this felt emotionally unsatisfying at the time because after Season 7 Buffy had been such a let-down people really wanted Season 5 of Angel to send things off in a way that meant something, and it kind of did the exact opposite of that. And it’s hard to tell, even in retrospect, how much of that was just the showrunners throwing their toys out of the pram because they were annoyed at the network and how much of it was a coherent philosophical statement. But with my ‘death of the author’ hat on, I think you can make a plausible case that the simultaneous value and meaninglessness of individual good acts has been a fairly consistent theme of Angel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Anne (the charity-worker who first appears as a Sister Chanterelle in the second season of Buffy) appears in the final episode of Angel. Because, in a sense, it’s her arc that best typifies the point of the series in that, for all its prophecies and epic tales of redemption, it repeatedly underlines that the most important thing is individual people looking out for each other.

So yeah. Season 5 Angel: surprisingly non-terrible on re-watch.

Crunchy Caramel M&Ms

So these have apparently been in the country for a year, and I’m sure they’ve had them on the other side of the pond forever, but oh my god, they are the best thing. Normally I’m both a tremendous sucker for and deeply sceptical of gimmicky variants of generally nice confectionary. Like I only ever buy Skittles when they’re doing something weird with the colours, and I will jump at the opportunity to buy a white chocolate version of something that’s ordinarily made of milk chocolate, even though I know it will always taste provably worse than the original. Strawberry Jaffa Cakes can go fuck themselves, but also I will buy them whenever they are reduced in Tescos.

But crunchy caramel M&Ms are legitimately great. They, like, crunchy. And also caramel, but not in that shit chewy way that caramel usually is. On top of which they’re wrapped in that crispy M&M shell so it’s this delicious texture party in your mouth.

And I just got through an entire packet of the things while writing this section.

Also, interesting cultural  note: I’m pretty sure it was always M&Ms that had the “melts in your mouth not in your hand” tagline, which never made any sense to me because, by and large, chocolate does not melt in your hand in this country, on account of how it’s always cold and rainy. But the last couple of weeks I’ve not been able to buy ordinary chocolate because it’s melted everywhere. Seriously, fuck you climate change.

Invisible Inc.

 I’ve actually had this game for ages, but because it’s on a timer and has perma-death the first time I tried to play it I got really freaked out. I’ve finally come back to it and … it’s just really good. It’s this cyberpunk infiltration stealth strategy game where you play members of a vaguely rebellious, possibly a bit anarchist organisation called Invisible Inc that has just had its HQ wiped out by megacorporations and has three days to steal enough money and technology to hit them back. It’s from the same people who made Mark of the Ninja, so you feel simultaneously incredibly tense and incredibly awesome pretty much all the time. And it’s got that thing I really like in stealth games where you’ve near-perfect information so you absolutely know that if things go wrong and  you’ve fucked up it is definitely entirely your fault.

Abortive Romances in Computer Games

 So I’m also replaying the Mass Effect trilogy, partly because I think my Xbox 360 is going to die, and partly because my theme for this year appears to be revisiting things with disappointing endings. And something that struck me for perhaps the first time is how much potential there is those games for romances that … don’t quite work out. And that’s incredibly rare to see implemented.

Romance in computer games is, well, difficult. Because it’s really important to some people and other people really resent the people to whom it’s really important. Most famously the romance options in Neverwinter Nights 2 were almost offensively shit because the designers seem to have felt that they had to put them in for the people who wanted them but also had no interest in doing them (something that arguably remains true for that particular developer, since I’ve never seen them write a successful romance plot). Being, y’know, a romance writer I obviously take my romance options quite seriously: I think I’ve said before that who your character falls in love with is often one of the better ways to articulate who that character is. Someone who goes for the Iron Bull is very different to someone who winds up with Josephine.

But even in games that take this stuff seriously, and put thought into it, what you very seldom see is a romance that ends tragically or just doesn’t quite happen (and not in a “whoops I clicked the wrong line of dialogue” way). And this becomes difficult because romances that don’t work out can often unintentionally disregard player consent: you kind of need to know you’re signing up for a tragic love story before you get on board because otherwise you’ve just wasted 50 hours actively progressing a narrative that will ultimately disappoint you. And this is bad enough in linear fiction but when you’re encouraged to identify with the protagonist quite as literally as you are in a video game and you have to drive the story by your actions and choices it can feel like kind of a slap in the face. I have an on-going Twitter joke about my bad Bioware boyfriends: it was pure luck that I made the choices I did in Dragon Age Inquisition because otherwise I would have been three for three on romantic disasters. My first boyfriend ran off and became a drunk because I wouldn’t make him King, my second involved me in an act terrorism and forced me to execute him, and my third could have brutally betrayed me to his people based on decisions made about seventy hours earlier.

Retrospectively, I have a lot of time for all these romantic, shall we say, missteps. And going back to Mass Effect—so that I could finally get around to romancing Liara for all three games—I find myself weirdly appreciating all the other stories I could be telling, or have told, with my Shepard and her partners. Notably, I think more than any other RPG series I’ve played, these games have a lot of time for the possibility of romance just not working out. At one point, I did deliberately set up a Sad Shepard run where everyone she loved died: I romanced Kaiden in Mass Effect 1, specifically so I could send him to die on Virmire, and Thane in Mass Effect 2, who—unlike Kaiden—is not a tit. But, of course, he is terminally ill and dies in Mass Effect 3 no matter what you do. There’s something kind of ballsy to me about a game that lets you play out a romance arc with a terminally ill character and then turns round and says “yep, that terminally ill character you romanced died of their terminal illness.” But the game puts enough narrative weight behind this that it feels genuinely meaningful.

On top of which, you can sort of semi-romance Samara in ME2 and ME3, but she’s an Asari justicar (sort of like a samurai/knight errant) who is four hundred years old who’s been forced to murder all three of her daughters so … she’s not really feelin’ it. Or rather, you can have a real connection with her, and a kiss or two, but the over-riding theme of the relationship is no matter how strongly you feel for each other, and no matter how much potential your relationship could have had, you kind of just missed each other. Because life is like that. Although, now I think about it, you can also boink her daughter, which will promptly fry your brain because that’s how she rolls and you should have known that going in, what were you thinking.

And there’s Tali, your perky space-technologist who can lovingly romance for two and a half games, and then watch throw herself into a chasm if you pick the wrong side in the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth. Which, now I write that down, makes me feel I missed a trick with my Sad Shepard run, although I’m not totally sure I could bring myself to do it. I had enough time killing Mission in the original Knights of the Old Republic, and she was really annoying.

So basically, this month I’ve been feeling very appreciative of story outcomes I know exist in a game, even though I’m not following them.  Which probably sounds a tenuous. But, hey, my blog, my rules, I can appreciate weird stuff if I want to.

A Song I Found By Accident

 I occasionally click on things randomly on Spotify. And I found a song from, like, three years ago which charmed the crap out of me. Here it is.

Hope you’ve all been having a fun July.  Tell me what you’ve been enjoying. Or, well, don’t.

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