VA-11 Hall-A: Through the Broken Glass

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Jill by Koyoriin. Check out more of their amazing art here

Playing the bar-tending simulator VA-11 Hall-A was like looking into a shattered mirror. Every time I booted up the game I noticed the way its setting—the cyberpunk dystopia of Glitch City—reflected my own. Although the issues Glitch citizens face are greatly exaggerated in comparison to our own (we don’t have to deal with alcoholic talking dogs), they likewise struggle with alarmingly fast technological progress. The symptoms of this struggle revolve around a sense of fragmentation.

With the increasing importance of the virtual world, many people are spending less time in touch with the real world. We are being mentally and physically split between the two, and VA-11 Hall-A portrays the extreme result of that schism. As the game’s protagonist Jill, I served drinks to a variety of customers who were either physically or emotionally fragmented in some way. These characters included a 24/7 live-streamer who was constantly split between her present reality and entertaining over 6000 viewers, an android prostitute who surgically modified her body to suit her clients’ tastes, and an online news editor who seemed emotionally detached from his harsh treatment of his over-worked staff. This theme of fragmentation is consistent throughout the game, and is even shown in its setting.

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Image from YouTube channel TheDkmariolink

The Augmented Eye is Glitch City’s number one news source, and is a good example of how this game utilizes what I like to call ‘micro-narratives’. These stories are more or less the length of a Tweet, often begin in medias res, and end without a conclusion. The fragmentary news articles of The Augmented Eye weave together a patchwork image of the world beyond Jill’s room. I encountered even more micro-narratives that contributed to this impression at Jill’s workplace. Every drink that Jill serves has its own unique naming-story, making each one a small piece of history that reflects the preferences and personalities of Glitch citizens. Then there’s the jukebox. Many of the song titles end in ellipses, emphasizing their fragmentary nature by suggesting incompleteness.

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Image from va11halla.wikia.com

While I could go on about the many other micro-narratives I encountered in-game (like an online forum, or a pop idol’s blog), I think it’s clear that fragmentation is not just an aesthetic theme for VA-11 Hall-A, but one that is deeply intertwined with its mode of storytelling. Even though the game rarely ever goes beyond Jill’s room or the confines of her bar, its use of micro-narratives provided me with a richer understanding of Glitch City as a setting. The most important micro-narratives are the ones told by the characters who chat with Jill at the bar. Each of these encounters is a break from the game’s virtual world, providing a growing intimacy rooted in its real world.

Despite that the most complex gameplay element is the mixing and serving of drinks, I would say that the main goal I had as a player was to learn more about the characters on the other side of the bar counter. Each character was intriguing because none of them were completely fleshed out. Whether they stop by the bar once during an entire playthrough or come by nearly every in-game day, each character has their own life outside of the bar from which Jill—and therefore the player—is always excluded.

Each character brings their own experiences to the counter. When Kimberly La Vallete mentioned she was a journalist for The Augmented Eye, I ended up looking for her articles on the app to see what she wrote. And when Sei Asagiri, the “White Knight”, explained that she does search and rescue operations, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was involved with a news story about a person who was rescued from a burning building. By interacting with these characters, I was beginning to draw connections between the micro-narratives I had uncovered, turning the various bits of information into an interconnected web of names, songs, stories, rumours, and most importantly: people.

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Image from YouTube channel Off Frame Games

VA-11 Hall-A offers a solution to the fragmentation that we encounter in a world that is becoming more virtual and less real. It showed me that the mirror could still be pieced together no matter how small, or how disparate, the shards were. The game’s titular bar is a place where people come to tell their stories, to connect with other human beings in a world that is often disconnected, to understand one another through conversation and a good drink. However, nobody calls it by its official name “VA-11 Hall-A”; customers and workers alike call it Valhalla, the name of an eternal feasting hall in Norse mythology’s after-life for brave warriors who died in battle. It is the yearning to understand and empathize that turns the fragmented VA-11 Hall-A into the complete Valhalla. Like us, the people in Glitch City’s Valhalla live in a world as fraught and chaotic as any battlefield, and after a day of fragmented life, they come by for a drink in their night-lives – their after-lives – that brings them all together.

-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen

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The Wrath of Khan

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Image from imdb.com

How do you feel, Jim?”

 

Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.

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Image from trekcore.com

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.

Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:

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Image from thegeektwins.blogspot.com

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).

As for King Lear: Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.

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Image from swiftfilm.com

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.

Young,” he says in the end.

I feel young.”

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Image from scifanatic.com

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

10 Strange Facts for Stranger Things

I love Stranger Things. And apparently, so does everyone else.

Despite its popularity, the rampant critical acclaim of Netflix’s Stranger Things was unprecedented upon its release. The initial script produced by the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, had been repeatedly rejected by a string of cable networks. It was simply uncategorizable. The ensemble of children at the heart of the TV show—Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will—made producers question: was Stranger Things a children’s show? Would adults enjoy it? And if it was geared towards children, shouldn’t the tone be lighter? 

Thankfully, the Duffer brothers never changed their stride, and neither did the show. It was picked up by Netflix in early 2015 and here we are: a homage of 80’s synth pop, jean jackets, and sci-fi movies later, Stranger Things now sits atop Netflix’s most-watched series list, and boasts a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what was it that pushed Stranger Things over the edge of indie film territory and into pop culture appeal? Was it the soundtrack? The stellar casting? Steve Harrington’s hair? Maybe, but the response might also have something to do with nostalgia, and Stranger Things certainly had plenty of that.

You might have caught some of them, but here are 10 references you may have missed in Netflix’s monstrous hit.

1. E.T.

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Image from camiseteria.com

No surprise here; thematic shades of E.T. are all over Stranger Things. We see it in the cinematic shots of the series—kids on bicycles, anyone?—but it’s also stunningly prominent in the parallels between Eleven and E.T. As an “alien,” so to speak, Eleven and E.T. share a fixation on one type of food (leggo my eggo), have both dressed up in blonde wigs to blend in, and are both in hiding from shadowy government figures.

2. Dungeons and Dragons

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Image from roebeast.blogspot.com

I think we all caught this one. After all, the series opens with a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, in which Will fails to kill a popular a mythical creature in D&D lore. This scene does two things: first, it foreshadows Will’s capture, which happens immediately after and drives the entire season one plot; and second, it contextualizes the creature in terms that the kids (and us as the audience) can identify. For the rest of the series, the unknown creature from the Upside Down is known as the demogorgon. 

3. Alien

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Image from bustle.com

The demogorgon in Stranger Things has a few nods to Ridley Scott’s aliens. It leaves a lot of goo in its wake, and (spoilers!) it likes to incubate its victims with smaller creatures by forcing its victims to swallow them.

They’re kind of like…worms. Or snakes. It’s gross.

4. Stephen King

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Image from stephenking.wikia.com

I’ve listed Stephen King as a category in a vague sense, because Stranger Things has multiple horror motifs typified by King during his prolific career as a writer. Mainly, Stranger Things takes its cues from King’s novels Firestarter and Carrie. In both cases, Eleven’s telepathic and occasionally erratic powers, along with her abusive and watchful upbringing, align her with Carrie White and Charlie McGee.

5. Star Wars

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Image from heavyarmor.wordpress.com

This one is a bit more obvious, as the characters often voice the references directly instead of the Duffer brothers hiding them under cinematic quality. Eleven has “jedi powers,” Mike owns a Yoda action-figure and talks about the Force, and when Lucas thinks Eleven has betrayed the group he calls her “Lando,” after the Star Wars character who betrays Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

6. Nightmare on Elm Street

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Image from elitedaily.com

Episode 8 of Stranger Things has Nancy and Jonathan trying to go head-to-head with the monster, luring it into Jonathan’s house with a brigade of traps and eventually setting it on fire. Sound familiar? It should—the climax of the 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street played out in a similar way.

7. The Goonies

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Image from mentalfloss.com

Everyone loves a good ragtag group of misfit kids. And we see a lot of similarities in the playful and mischievous behaviour of the Goonies squad to the Stranger Things crew. The main rule: no adults allowed. (But as a lover of Stranger Things, I’m willing to point out that we do have Joyce and Hopper involved, but they act pretty autonomously for the majority of the show and are in their own separate ‘clique’).

8. X-Men

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Image from comicvine.gamespot.com

X-men also has misfits, yes, but we’ll give that to The Goonies instead. A trickier reference to the Marvel comics actually happens in the first episode, when Dustin and Will are talking about an X-Men comic; the specific issue they argue about is volume 134, in which “Jean Grey mentally snaps…and inadvertently unleashes the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond her control,” which is a tip of the hat to Eleven later in the series.

9. The Thing

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Image from culturecreature.com

The 80’s horror movie The Thing makes a few appearances in Stranger Things. This one is a bit like Star Wars, in that there are a couple of casual mentions you can spot if you’re looking for them. In Mike’s basement there’s a poster for the movie on one of the walls, and when Dustin calls Mr. Clarke for information on how to build a sensory deprivation tank (which is the most awkward and amusing thing on the show), guess what Mr. Clarke is watching? That’s right: The Thing.

10. Minority Report/Fringe

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Image from movle.blogspot.com

Last but not least, I’m going to throw in a debatable one. When the characters on Stranger Things make a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to heighten her telepathy and enter the Upside Down, some people got flashes of the 2002 movie Minority Report. Specifically, the scene when Spielberg’s pre-cogs lay in their own sensory deprivation tanks to get flashes of the future.

Now, as it’s Spielberg we’re talking about here (whose other movies are a big influence on the show), it’s probably a homage to him. But! For anyone who watched the hit TV series Fringe—did you not get flashbacks of psychic Olivia Dunham concentrating in a sensory deprivation tank? I did. I really did.

So, did we miss anything? Let us know if you caught something strange that we missed, and bonus points for the more obscure the reference is!

-Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

Speculative ASMR

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Image from YouTube channel AsmrArtistsRead

Speculative settings are known to enchant and exhilarate. Whether you’re flying through space and time, or surrounded by magicians and dragons, speculative works create an overpowering sense of adrenaline and excitement. What proves fascinating is the way in which these worlds and characters are also capable of lulling the audience into a peaceful, sometimes trance-like state; and all with the help of a little science.

Many people mention feeling a tingling, goosebump-like sensation when they’re asked to describe a state of relaxation or calm. Frequently this feeling arises from seemingly insignificant things: whispering barely above a murmur, the sound of water droplets, or thunder. Over the past decade or so, science has come to classify this sensation as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. A person can enter a euphoric state upon hearing sounds or seeing things that stimulate a tingling sensation, which starts at the scalp and moves down throughout the body.

For insomniacs or anxious people like myself, there is a large and growing ASMR community on YouTube. Users called ASMRtists make videos where they do anything from playing with crinkly tissue paper and tapping on various surfaces to roleplays and personal attention/positive affirmation videos that engage the viewer. While most videos are rather mundane, using everyday objects or referring to regular scenarios such as a trip to the spa, some users have decided to get creative and refer to the speculative realm for help.

One of the first ASMR videos I’ve ever watched was a simple whispering video by a user called Whisper Crystal, in which she layered the reading of Tolkien’s elvish poetry, in Elvish and in English, with music from the movie. Though the video has since, sadly, had its settings changed to private, I still remember the way in which the breathy pronunciation and laments for the evening star made me feel safe and lulled me to sleep, once again sobbing at the unfortunate twist of fate of not having been born an elf.

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Image from YouTube channel Heather Feather ASMR

These videos have only gotten more popular over the years. There are those like Heather Feather’s “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!” roleplay, in which the viewer feels like a character in the beginning of a video game. The viewer is presented with a variety of weapons from well-known games like the dagger of time from The Prince of Persia. These videos play with pop culture and incorporate existing details or languages, like one read in Valyrian, a language from Game of Thrones.

One channel in particular has become a personal favourite of mine, a channel by the user ASMR Rooms. Each of her YouTube videos is called a “room” because of the way in which it incorporates sounds that one would hear at a specific location. One can listen to the low humming and tinkering of the dwarves of Erebor, or the sounds of the waterfalls of Rivendell with the gentle singing of the elves. Many of her videos focus on the world of Harry Potter, capturing locations such as the Three Broomsticks. The best by far are the four videos dedicated to each of the four houses, among which Hufflepuff is the best. Situated near the Hogwarts kitchens, the Hufflepuff common room is sunny and breezy, with the sound of birds chirping and a pleasant spring breeze blowing through the windows, while the occasional chatter of students or the shadow of a stranger pass by.

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Image from YouTube channel ASMR rooms

Though the sounds used in these videos are simple, and similar to what one might hear on a regular basis, they are successful in stimulating the imagination by creating a sense of setting and atmosphere. It becomes easy to choose your appropriate House video and imagine oneself as a student in Hogwarts, sitting and studying for your O.W.L.s or simply taking a nap between classes. While other videos can include speculative characters or props, they focus much more on calming the viewer down—though some, like the few roleplays of Nurse Joy, are worthwhile to watch/listen to because of their cuteness.

One of the greatest pains for an avid reader is being unable to slip into the pages of the book and exist in whatever world one is reading about. While movies are capable of bringing these stories and characters to life, they do so in a way that makes one want to run headfirst into battle or do something reckless, like ride a dragon. ASMR videos offer a different side to these beloved characters and places, letting them become something each person visualizes and understands differently in a vivid, sensory fashion. It becomes much easier to make the experience personal and enjoyable, a “mundane day” in a fantastical world.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Surviving Humanity in Subnautica

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Image from twitter.com/subnautica

Like most survival video-games, Subnautica’s main premise is straightforward: you have crash-landed your spaceship on an alien planet. You have naught but your wits and the equipment on your landing pod to help you survive (think Robinson Crusoe in a futuristic alien world). Your main goal is to find food, fresh water, and shelter until you can find a way to get back home. Simple, right? Well, maybe not so much. I don’t mean that the gameplay is harder than it looks, but that the seemingly basic premise of the game is actually more complex than it seems. Right from the start, Subnautica presents you with two fundamental points about human survival: what you need to do vs. what you can do.

In the beginning of the game, this seems like a fairly easy choice. You need to find food and water to survive, so you craft a little hunting knife out of natural materials and go hunting. This action is clearly necessary, seeing as you would starve and die in the game if you didn’t hunt. However, as Subnautica progresses, the necessity of your actions becomes more and more questionable. Once you have your bare necessities covered, you can start acting arbitrarily, first crafting small things to make life easier (like the Seaglide which helps you swim faster), and then moving onto larger vehicles such as the Seamoth, and eventually gargantuan vehicles such as the Cyclops. What’s interesting about Subnautica is the subtlety with which it offers the player these options: it starts with little convenient tools that make surviving easier, and then moves onto larger, completely arbitrary structures. We as players are slowly conditioned to think in a way that goes from “A Seaglide will make swimming easier, surely I am justified in making that,” to “Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome having a giant submarine all to myself?”

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Image from unknownworlds.com

YouTuber jacksepticeye says in one of his Subnautica videos that humans don’t just kill the thing that’s in our way; we go the long way around and make it go extinct. It’s a joke, but it’s one that rings painfully true given our history of colonialism, imperialism, and eco-terrorism. The game thus gives you the choice to either become a person who takes from the environment with no regard for the consequences, or someone who lives comfortably while being conscious of their impact. Take jacksepticeye’s playthrough, for instance. At first, he just makes a small base for himself, even saying himself that he doesn’t want to change the environment too much. Later on, however, he essentially builds himself a small underwater city, complete with empty skyscrapers and an aquarium. He even makes a little amusement park on one of the islands in the game—and if that isn’t claiming a space as your own, nothing is.

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Image from youtube.com/jacksepticeye

The game developers themselves show an awareness of the player’s impact on the environment. When you first land in your starting area in the ocean, there are plenty of fish around that you can catch and eat. However, as the game progresses and you go fishing for food more and more often, the amount of fish available in that area dramatically decreases, and you end up having to go to new areas to find food. Now, this might just be the game increasing in difficulty to prompt the player to explore more, but in a game so detailed that the developers programmed your landing pod to gradually float away from its original position, it isn’t too far fetched to think they would also show the impact of your fishing on the marine ecosystem.

It’s also clear that humans are not at the top of the food chain in this ecosystem, nor are we meant to be. In fact, the only thing in the game that can cause any actual direct harm is a small hunting knife; almost every other handheld tool is either used for everyday convenience, or to affect the way something moves towards or away from you. Clearly, you are not meant to harm every creature you see. Subnautica is primarily a survival game, not a fighting one, and the developers stick to this principle.

By making it so difficult to harm anything larger than a medium sized fish, the game suggests that you are only supposed to kill that which you need to survive, leaving the larger creatures well enough alone—which of course doesn’t stop any of us from trying to kill a large Stalker or Reaper Leviathan. That’s kind of the point though; going after creatures bigger than you is an illogical yet conscious decision. It requires that you want to kill not for survival, but for sport. More importantly, it demands that you take personal responsibility for harming another organism purely out of enjoyment.

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Image from steam-user KroolTheField

This is why I think Subnautica has a much deeper meaning than what people might initially see: it shows how easy it can be, even for a decent, ordinary person, to let a conquest for personal gain or enjoyment cloud their judgment. Humanity has a tendency to claim any space we come across as our own, and we do so with little regard as to how we might affect the environment around us. As a result, humans are not the ones struggling to survive anymore; it’s everything else on the planet. We see examples of this everywhere we go: condos built where parks used to be, increasingly hot summers breaking a new record every year, invasive species choking out our indigenous ones. We see the detrimental impact our consumption has had on the environment, yet most of us still carry on with our usual lives. This passivity may be the most harmful thing of all. In doing nothing, we are forgetting one fundamental truth about human existence on this planet: our ability to thrive on Earth comes at the cost of the Earth itself.

So, yes: Subnautica is just a game. But it’s a game that says a lot about how easily humans can claim spaces as their own, and how our choices impact the world. It’s the choices we make as the player that show how aware we are of the environment. The game itself doesn’t force players to build a gigantic base to progress, nor do we need to go kill larger creatures to survive. It merely presents these options to us, and we, the players, decide what we build and how we use it. While many of us might be quick to claim that we would never willingly do anything to harm the environment, the fact is that we already have. Anyone can play this game, anyone can impact the environment, and anyone can move on without a second thought. The only question is, will you?

-Contributed by Carine Lee

Kiss of the Rose Princess

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Image from aminoapps.com

Guilty pleasures come in all categories—food, books, and TV shows, to name a few. But none of these are as quirky as manga, which can be sweet, ridiculous, and moving all at the same time. The most unusual of these is probably the “harem” genre. Similar to otome games, the genre commonly follows a protagonist surrounded by a group of attractive characters who each fit a specific archetype. The plot of the story is usually secondary to the romance, with the main question being: who will they choose?

Though the genre is quite popular in Japan, it can seem unusual to North American readers, even coming across as creepy to some. But that didn’t stop the official English translation and publication of one of my favourite manga—Shouto Aya’s Kiss of the Rose Princess.

Yes, the title already leaves quite the impression, and the covers might make it a challenge to read in public. Underneath the glittery exterior, however, lies a story that isn’t as simple as it seems.

The series follows high school student Anise Yamamoto, who is hounded for breaking the school’s uniform policy through the minute yet rebellious act of wearing a rose choker. The rest of the students seem to think she does this in order to break rules, but the reality lies in the fact that Anise cannot take the choker off. She has worn it from a young age, when her father tied it around her neck with the ominous instruction to never take it off, or else a terrible punishment would befall her. When the choker ends up being ripped off by the strange bat/cat-like creature Ninufa, Anise finds the “punishment” to be a little different than she had feared.

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Image from aminoapps.com

Anise learns that she is, in fact, a Rose Princess. She possesses four magical cards which, when kissed, each summon a different Rose Knight: the Red Rose, Kaeda, a classmate of hers whom Anise had dismissed and teased; the White Rose, Mitsuru, a third-year and popular student council president with a pervy side; the Black Rose, Mutsuki, an ancient creature known as a Dark Stalker; and the Blue Rose, Seiran, an artificial rose who is nonetheless trying hard to prove his worth as a knight.

Together, they learn that the seal on the Demon Lord has been weakened, and the five must embark upon a series of adventures in order keep the seal from breaking. In the process, Anise must make a “true bond” with a knight, ultimately resulting in a romantic relationship.

All of the above are merely the bones to the actual story. It is only upon going further into the series that the smaller nuances begin to show up. These details bring Kiss of the Rose Princess from a simple romance-heavy series to one that touches upon topics of acceptance and authenticity. The Fake Rose Princess, Ella, has four Fake Rose Knights: Purple, Gray, Gold, and Silver. Along with the Orange and Lime roses, Idel and Yako, these characters embody the strong desire for the fulfillment of a personal wish; a desire so strong that people often go to great lengths—and sacrifice much—in order to achieve it. Anise’s father Schwarz exemplifies the endless internal debate between scientific curiosity and morality.

The series has so much to cover that its only real shortcoming is the fact that it was only nine volumes long, leaving quite a few threads dangling and making the story feel rushed. The plot-line about collecting the Arcana cards and restoring the demon seal is abandoned without a fully satisfactory replacement or explanation. Some of the characters also felt like they could’ve had some more development and a couple more scenes added to focus on them, in particular the relationship between the Orange and Lime roses. I felt that there was more to it than simply a friendship and a complex past of growing up together in a foster home, and it would have been nice to see that explored.

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Image from polyvore.com

The knight Anise “ends up with” isn’t entirely a surprise, the same way that it is frequently apparent which character the protagonist is leaning more towards in love triangles/squares in TV shows and books, and the incomplete feeling of the final volume does make it the weakest in the series. But the art is absolutely gorgeous. This is one of the reasons why I (somehow) came across this manga years ago and read it when it had only been scanned and translated by online volunteer groups, with no sign that it would one day be officially licensed in English.

The series has its fair share of adorable, hilarious, awkward, and sweet moments, all well-dispersed through each book. It shouldn’t be discredited or overlooked simply due to its sugary title or covers. It’s easy to root for Anise, and her strength and obliviousness give her character an authenticity that makes her the most balanced representation of an adolescent girl I have seen so far.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

France David Bowie
Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

rocktrain.net
Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

highsnobiety
Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan