Well the weather outside was briefly frightful, but there’s worse waiting out in the snow than slippery roads and cold feet. Every flurry hides a horror that waits to prey upon the uncertain and the weak, every snowdrift has teeth that threaten to sink through thick coats and into nice warm flesh. So this festive season, let’s focus on the scariest part of winter, the beasts that haunt the tundra, and frozen places.
Here are our Top 10 monsters that wait for you out there in the snow.
Ah The Elder Scrolls, it feels like I can’t go more than a couple of hours without booting up one of the franchise. I’m forever playing The Elder Scrolls Online, last year I 100% completed Skyrim and I’ve gone through Oblivion, Morrowind and even Arena. Yes, The Elder Scrolls is a franchise that I can’t pull myself away from. So occasionally, I turn to my mobile for a spot to get away from Bethesda and their affiliated partners, such as ZeniMax Online Studios. Let’s go to Google Play and install a new action game. Blades? That sounds fun… Oh no, it’s another title in the huge world of The Elder Scrolls and now it’s on mobile.
Seek television that breaks concepts down to dust, a story of the mind that tinkers with perception, deception, time and personality, every bit as warped and alien as a dream. All of those arguments you’ve ever had about what a superpower should be capable of are great fodder for a creative mind, but it’s so rare to see the product of those arguments come to mainstream television. This kind of arthouse flexing of the thought muscles, toying with metaphors brought to life, the landscape of the mind turned into a battlefield, that’s usually the reserve of Sundance Festivals and indie game developers.
Legion, a series based on a lesser known X-Men character, and played by Dan Stevens, who you’ll know if you watched Apostle on Netflix at all. Legion is the son of Charles Xavier himself, and like his father he is a staggeringly powerful telepath, actually a great deal more powerful, but there’s a few complications attached to his ability. At a very early age, David Haller was subject to a dark parasite that piggy-backed off the strength of his mind, another telepath – Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King, disembodied but no less alive, arrogant and malevolent, and harbouring a vendetta against David’s father.
Now, whether it was because of Farouk, the strain of carrying the indomitable will from an early age, or the side effects of having the bogeyman that haunts you for decades, or if it was already part of his mind, David… Legion, suffers a host of mental health issues, not least of which being dissociative identity disorder on a massive scale. He’s a bucket of voices, a classroom of toddlers piloting a psychological tank, and the results are amazing.
Where Legion breaks the comic book mould is that war between telepaths isn’t an action packed romp of explosions, gunfire and thrown fists, they’re wars of words, and emotions, and concepts, which leads to battles of song, dance, hallucinations, haunted-house style walks through memories, and the reshaping of reality, not just mental reality but the physical world.
The series features surreal and dark performances from Aubrey Plaza and Jemaine Clement, predominantly comedy actors but masters of the strange, and brilliant at creating unsettling characters. One can never be certain if Aubrey’s character, Lenny, is real or a mask of the Shadow King, worn to gain trust, even to the very end it’s near impossible to know for sure. As for Jemaine’s character, Oliver, is never entirely certain if he is real, being so wholly attuned to his own mind and the myriad worlds and sweet jazz therein, that his body has become a fiction to him.
The “side cast” are also arranged to explore psychological concepts; memory, identity, loss, dependence, addiction, and all of the madnesses that dog these parts of human interaction, and because they each represent a part of the human condition we get chance to explore their feelings and their characters through interconnected narratives that drive towards a single, many layered plot.
It’s all strangely beautiful, and set to a 60’s/70’s backdrop, colour scheme, and soundtrack, meaning everything is cast in this psychedelic clash of colours and images, equal parts horror film, musical, and emotional drama, but dotted with anachronisms to There’s astonishingly little in common with anything else based in a comic book universe, although I’d say it has fingerprints in the Joker, being based on the struggles of mental health. We’d have seen something like it in the New Mutants, a project so quagmired in production limbo it looks set to sink into oblivion.
But it’s more than just comic books, I don’t remember the last thing I saw that was so willing to violate the basics of narrative to the point where it becomes an aesthetic study of character rather than a straight forward beginning-to-end story. And sure, there’s a narrative to follow, but it’s impossible to know what parts are story, what parts are fictions, what takes place in the mind, or out of it. This is television that plays with the medium, rolling camera angles, shifting aspect ratios, clever transitions, unapologetic use of colour motifs, even the recaps that begin some episodes replace “previously” with “apparently” or “ostensibly”. When season three introduces the mere concept of time travel, it’s not a shark jumped, more a continuation of themes, themes of warped narrative and the inherent instability of the mind. We cannot trust our narrator, not the accuracy of his story, or his motives, or the way he perceives himself.
The only thing I’ve seen come close is American Gods, or perhaps Westworld, and more should be done like it, mentally challenging, shifting sands of ideas that force the brain to work harder instead of accepting a linear and heavily simplified story telling upon which our brains grow fat. A little mental junkfood is all well and good, and I’m not saying that this is your meat and potatoes as such… perhaps a more accurate analogy would be that it’s like a long holiday somewhere far from home compared to a weekend in the same old pub. One expands the mind, the other is all too comfortable to promote active thought. There’s nothing wrong with either, but too much of one makes the other lose value.
A few years ago I stumbled across a pilot for a possible cartoon series to star Ashley Johnson in the lead role. That pilot became a series, that series will be getting a follow up some time next year, and there’s a handful of short episodes somewhere that I haven’t seen.
The series takes place on a train that is, unsurprisingly, infinite in length, and comprised of extradimensional cars that contain worlds that conform to a strange and alien theme. Kingdoms ruled by dogs, nations of sentient water blobs who are terrible salespeople, caverns of crystal that alter with sound, worlds where reflections can gain independence from their caster, that sort of thing. The cars reorder themselves on a whim, and some require quests to be completed or revelations to be reached before they will reveal a door onwards, some are just hard work.
Main character, Tulip, is a young programmer and games designer who flees a troubled home life to get to a design camp, and takes the train oblivious to how it’ll interfere with her plans. Suffice is to say that the train turns into a journey of self discovery, and she gathers new friends along the way, because it’s a kids show, of course she does, and one of them is a robot with mental troubles of its own, and the king of all corgi’s voiced by Ernie Hudson because hell yeah he is!
I won’t lie, I tend to evaluate any intellectual property based on how easily I imagine running a role-playing game in the setting and using the rules inherent to the world, and by that category alone I’m pretty well sold. Characters could start with a fixed level of mental disquiet, and every step of their journey either brings them closer to, or takes them farther from the revelation that will point the way home. Sessions are based on cars, their are enemies… allies, and all of it is in pursuit of personal betterment… like Quantum Leap… but it’s a train.
How can hindsight be so flawless if we use rosy tinted glasses to see it? We look at the kids shows of our youth as “the golden age”, hell, I’ve had plenty of arguments with people about who got the best era of cartoons, but the truth is we only remember the good ones. When I was a kid I watched Hey Arnold and Recess (also starring Ashley Johnson), and that’s still good TV, it’s dated surprisingly well over the years. But we also had Bodger and Badger, Teletubbies, and the Men in Black cartoon series. And it’s easy for us to watch kids TV now and say “Well this is terrible, we’d never have sat through this!” Well, we did, we just forgot because it wasn’t very good.
We’re already confronted with a generation who grew up on Adventure Time, of which I’m already a fan, and I think that – given another season or two – Infinity Train has that kind of potential. It doesn’t shy away from thoughtful dialogue, challenging issues, or emotional moments, nor does it dress up every heartbreaking moment in clunky metaphor, we see the unpleasant home life that drove Tulip to flee home, and we understand the struggle she’s going through. It’s a situation many children suffer with, and it can present them with challenges that are horrible and confusing, but all too real. And slowly but surely we see her come to terms with her situation, and that’s not say that things automatically get better for her. There’s a happy ending that’s not “happily ever after”, but accepting, and powerful in its own way.
Ok, it’s also a kids show, I’ve no doubt with a subtle change in target audience – like if this was an anime instead of a western cartoon – it’d be able to go a little darker, take things a little more seriously, maybe even take a more dramatic stance on the adversity Tulip faces; it’d be nice for more animation to embrace the melancholic. But I won’t lie, I’m curious to see what a second season of Infinity Train can offer. The trailer already shows that we have a new protagonist, but thanks to certain events in the first season we keep Ashley Johnson’s character, Tulip. There’s also no malevolent force controlling the train, so I’m curious to see what adversity our new hero faces.
I think it’s worth reflecting, especially when you’ve had a history like we have. Today I’d like to just tell you a tale on this cold winter’s day, to let you know that just because we’re not going to be around in the new year, nothing can stop you. Want to run your own events, similar to the GeekOut way? Want to make an impact on your local community? Perhaps you just want to make some great friends? Well then, read on for what we did and how we did it all. I’ll be discussing the setup prior to GeekOut UK, a quick summary of our history and how we got going.
Merry November everyone! A quiet GeekOut this month, and a relaxing one at that, I even managed to play some games for a change…
Premeet – The Hole in the Wall
Might have forgotten to take photos in the Hole in the Wall, after a while that may have proved a conscious decision due to… let’s say disquiet in the immediate vicinity. Still, a couple of great games of Magic in which I was – for some reason – picked on mercilessly for the sole crime of playing a black/white allies deck with a mean streak. I also took the time to pick some brains for ideas, mostly gap filling for the party rosters on pre-generated characters.
It’s rare for us to play a game at GeekOut featuring a perfectly normal deck of cards, but when it’s a game with excessive and increasingly elaborate rules that’s designed to be won through sheer tolerance as your fellow players drop out from pure frustration, that’s our kind of game. I could hear people writing characters for RPGs, talking video games, and generally enjoying themselves, and ultimately that’s what matters.
I don’t think I talked to many people this month, certainly not everyone because this GeekOut seemed to have barely begun before it was over, so if I missed anyone I apologise. We were suitably quiet that I got rather embedded into a few games, and that in itself is a rarity, where I’m usually buzzing around making sure everyone is attended to and don’t seem to get the opportunity to settle into anything.
The last GeekOut Shrewsbury is sooner rather than later, with Christmas a little too close to the last Thursday of the month, we will instead be at Monty’s on the 19th! Keep an eye on Facebook for the details, and don’t forget with it being the December Meet, we’ll be doing the Super Secret Santa: buy a gift for no one in particular up to a spending limit of £5, and if you put a present in you get to take a present out!
We’ll also be opening… the box.