What I’m Playing / Watching: Hollow Knight
Well, okay, I didn’t play this. I watched it (last week), because I’m sorry, I cannot fight Hornet Sentinel one more time and I can’t get past those Beast Cultists in DeepNest. So I dug up some playthrough videos on Youtube and just watched the end (and having watched it, there is no way I would have made it through the White Palace or The Abyss, so I was probably going to end up doing this eventually.
Hollow Knight is a beautiful game in an intriguingly original underground fantasy world populated by magical bugs. It has fascinating lore, quirky and unique characters with compelling backstories, and amazing environments featuring a wide array of enemies. It frequently features on lists of best Metroidvania games (2-D platformers where new areas are opened up with new abilities) a genre especially dear to me.
It’s also what they call a Soulslike game, which is another word for being really batshit hard, with intense boss and levels designed to kill you in inventive ways that rely on split-second timing and coordination.
That’s not a genre I enjoy. The appeal, as I understand it, is enjoying the game as a learning experience, where you take delight in figuring out the intricacies of mechanics and how to dodge boss attacks. They require hard work to complete the games, but finishing the games rewards the player with a real sense of accomplishment. The only downside is the amount of practice and hard work needed to master the intricacies. Or, as fans describe it, “git gud.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t really have an interest in practicing video games. I don’t play games to get better at games and become a really great gamer, I play games to relax, to enjoy the artistry and the worlds, and in a lot of cases, to learn the stories. I view it almost as an extension of my literary background, to open myself to new forms of storytelling.
Such stories are meant to be played, and I try to play them. But not always. When I was in college, before I had a good gaming computer, I experienced Half Life 2, Mass Effect 2, and Arkham Asylum via Youtube videos. Unquestionably, that was a poorer experience than simply playing through the games, but at the time it was the only option.
I had other options with Hollow Knight. But I did not have the time, or the inclination. It was a beautiful game with good gameplay and a compelling story, and I’m glad I watched the playthrough videos. But it wasn’t for me.
What I’m (Actually) Playing: Steamworld Heist
I wrote about Steamworld Dig 2. This game is in the same world, with the same aesthetic, but with very different gameplay system. It seems to be set, in fact, in the aftermath of Steamworld Dig 2, which is interesting since that game came out 2 years after this one.
Steamworld Heist is a turn-based RPG roguelite, with your band of scrappy Steambots navigating randomized ship environments. Its main gimmick is precision shooting and ricochets, where you can precisely aim your characters’ guns to ricochet off walls and other surfaces to hit opponents from behind. It’s a fun trick, but not particularly compelling. The game works by virtue of being a solid RPG, but it doesn’t come across as anything special.
The main appeal here is the aesthetic and the world, which is not particularly realistic, but is fun and quirky. Everyone loves a good space Western, and there’s a definite Firefly vibe to the scrappy Steambots in their little ship facing off against cannibalistic Scrappers and authoritarian Dieselbots. Again, it’s interesting (like it was with Solitaire Conspiracy) how much the “skin” of a game matters. Obviously it’s not everything
What I’m Watching: Johnny Quest (The Original Series)
So, I had a sleep-deprived EEG this week, and coffee wasn’t allowed. Reading isn’t the best occupation for that, because it’s easy to fall asleep reading. It’s also fairly easy to fall asleep watching TV, so video games are the best solution, really, but I thought I’d get something to watch for the start of the ordeal. And turns out, the local library had a DVD of the first season of Johnny Quest!
Johnny Quest is one of those series that’s been endlessly rebooted as well as parodied, most notably by the Venture Brothers television series. You also get shows like Martin Mystery and Johnny Test, which are just barely disguised homages. It’s a bit odd, in a way, that a show that people love to make fun of (and the originals, let me tell you, are very corny), should still be so beloved. But in another sense, people don’t make parodies of things they hate.
Johnny Quest is a cartoon adaptation of the Boys Science Adventure genre, like Tom Swift. It’s a subset of stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. The villains are corny (and in many cases slightly racist), the heroes are chisel-chinned, the hijinks are many. Best of all, the adventures are strange and wonderful, putting fantasy stories in a science-y framing.
The plotting is a bit… irregular, with many adventures meandering around or inventing false drama to fill in an extra five minutes. The episodes have a tendency to close on a laugh-track, which is one of the stupider ways to wind up a story, so that’s not so great. Still Johnny acts like a genuine kid and not like a minature genius, which is an underrated aspect. And while Hadji doesn’t really come across as a sidekick, with the way he pushes back against Johnny and frequently jokes around. There’s no sense of a power imbalance. Although it would be nice, sometime, to see Hadji make more references to his background other than “Ah yes, there are many trees here, just like in my homeland.”
Frequently, the plot is actually about Dr. Benton or Race Bannon, with the boys merely adjacent to the action, insinuating themselves into the latest scheme of missile technology or giant lobsters. Johnny and Hadji really have no lives or interests of their own, other than to follow the adults around and annoy them–which is not too unrealistic, for ten-year-olds.
Venture Bros parodies the show by pointing out how irresponsible it is to bring two young 10-year-olds into highly dangerous missions involving enemy special forces, killer mummies, and submarine saboteurs. It’s not a bad point–Johnny almost sees his own father die twice in the first three episodes, and routinely is in peril of his own life. His reckless behavior should, certainly, be curbed.
But for that matter, so should Harry Potter’s. So should Dexter of Dexter’s Laboratory. Percy Jackson , as well as everyone involved in the Maze Runner franchise should be crippled with PTSD, by rights, from the many near-death experiences they’ve encountered. These are fantasies.
Johnny Quest is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, the fantasy of young boys to be treated as equals by adults and be allowed the freedom to navigate the weird and wonderful world around them. Boys (and girls, arguably) have their mini-obsessions with tornadoes, dinosaurs, or polar bears. Johnny Quest lets them fantasize about encountering such creatures in the flesh. Sure, it would be terrifying in real life, but again the point is the fantasy.
The show does not, really, hold up very well; it is corny and formulaic. But it’s easy to see why it was so beloved at the time, and why so many have tried to emulate its success.