Game Time: Playdead’s “Inside” Gets All Up In Your Mind

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A boy scrambles down a short but steep rocky incline in the middle of the woods, in the dead of night. He hits the ground, unhurt but a little breathless, and looks around. Although we may not have any idea where he is or where he is going, he seems to always know exactly what he’s doing. He moves forward without hesitation, without panic, and with astonishing strength, even though one false move will cause a sudden, abrupt, and brutal death.

This is how “Inside” begins.

There are questions that arise immediately. Why is the boy sneaking and hiding? Why does a terrible fate befall him if he steps into the light, or gets spotted by the strange figures in masks, or the dogs catch up to him? Where is he going, and why is everything so grim, so dark, so unexplained?

What is this world, and what happened here?

Perhaps, in some scenes, it is more important to ask – what is happening here right now?

 

Playing the Game:

Disguised as a lush, shadowy 3D world, “Inside” is actually a 2D side-scrolling puzzle adventure. You play as the Boy, a kid in a red shirt and black pants, and you have only two directions to move in: left or right. You travel ‘forward’ in search of…what? It isn’t clear. But something lies at the end of this journey, and the Boy presses on through challenging obstacles, strange rooms, terrifying surprises, and curious puzzles.

A lot of this gameplay is about timing. There are people (and things) in this game that want the Boy dead, and the second you miss a step or a cue – he’ll be dead before you can blink.

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I kind of wish we had filmed some of the gameplay reactions when the Fella was playing “Inside” the other night. There was a lot of horrified face-making, jumpscare gasping, and slow-burn squinting at the screen while saying “What….the hell….is that?”

I don’t want to say too much about the actual content of the gameplay, because the surprises and mysteries that unfold are fascinating and deeply unsettling.

If dying repeatedly in gruesome ways because of tiny errors in judgement and timing bothers you, don’t play this game. This is a tactic used by the game designers and engineers to ‘steer’ the player toward the ‘correct’ solution to a problem – and it certainly does the trick. This style of gameplay is something that stresses me out to no end – but the Fella managed to mostly keep his cool as he worked piece by piece to figure out how the Boy could make it through to the next section.

“How the hell are you supposed to beat this part?” I kept asking as panic rose in my throat. Bear in mind, I wasn’t even the one playing. I was just an observer.

The Fella was dauntless, however, and pressed onward, and I found myself completely unable to look away.

 

 

Reactions:

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This game, while skin-pricklingly eerie, is beautifully designed and elegantly presented. Although I wouldn’t quite categorize this game’s genre as horror, it definitely has a deep underlying sense of dread and anticipation throughout. Not to mention the Very Abrupt Sudden Deaths the Boy can experience if you step into the wrong light, or lose control of the submarine vehicle, or wait a little too long to move forward. It’s a game designed to keep you on the edge, to keep you racing the invisible clock towards — or away from — something big. Like I said, not my style of gameplay, but I loved watching it happen.

The Fella and I both had intense dreams about this game after he finished playing. I don’t want to go into detail because this game is absolutely worth playing if you get the chance. I also don’t want to put my own thoughts and names on things that have no thoughts and names of their own – this game, having no text and no verbal dialogue, is a delightfully refreshing mystery.

As for the finale? The ending will leave your skin prickling and your mind in a whirl.

This game is awesome. Play it if you can, and if not, watch someone else play it. This is wordless storytelling of a high caliber, and we highly recommend it.

“Countess Bathory” is a Startling, Intimate Tragedy

On the invitation of playwright, performer, and erstwhile genius Jared McDaris, the Fella and I found ourselves attending a Friday night performance of the new Elizabethan tragedy, “Countess Bathory.” Written in iambic pentameter, styled after Shakespeare’s finest twisted looking-glass stage stories of human ambition, revulsion, and misfortune, “Bathory” is staged in the very intimate space of the Right Brain Project (4001 N. Ravenswood, off the Irving Park Brown Line stop). With only a few set cutouts to represent the stone parapets and walls of various castles, and a red-stained bathtub in the corner, this is clearly a production about the characters, not about their location or even their time period.

Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess who lived from 1560 to 1614, most famous for her alleged track record of torture, kidnapping, and homicide. According to a number of contemporary accounts and witnesses, Báthory tortured and killed over six hundred young women between the years of 1590 and 1610. She was arrested, tried, and – perhaps most surprisingly – merely condemned to house arrest for the rest of her life. Her legend has slithered through folk histories and fiction for centuries since then, especially the horrific legend of her bathing in the blood of young virgins to keep herself young and beautiful.

PERFECT for a Shakespearean-styled tragedy!

McDaris and a hearty, intrepid crew of actors and designers have created a dizzying fictionalized glimpse into the real history of Báthory and the horrible atrocities she may have committed behind the mask of her nobility and prestige. Costumes by Delena Bradley are exquisite and textured – from the vampirically gorgeous gowns of Báthory herself to the rags her victims wear, Bradley’s details and theme create a clearer vision of the story for an audience who may not be intimately familiar with 16th-century Hungary. The audience collectively gave an audible gasp and murmur of appreciation when the Countess (Mary-Kate Arnold) made her grand entrance for Act II in a stunning red dress that would be right at home on a New York Fashion Week runway.

McDaris’ script is not only exquisitely paced and structured, but it is incredibly intelligent as well. I had moments where I distinctly noted sly nods to lines from various plays in Shakespeare’s own canon, but all was done in tribute, not in parody. It is pleasantly comfortable to follow and listen to if you have an ear for Shakespeare, and McDaris provides impressive speech for his actors – although there is a scene centered on an archaic term for genitalia that may be lost on modern audiences, it is ripe with the Elizabethan style and spirit.

Arnold is an exquisite ball of elemental energy as the bizarre and deeply disturbed Báthory. She is fire, then ice, then something in between, all without even the slightest hint of struggle for her as a performer – Arnold clearly has skill at playing this spectrum of madness. She is equally lovely as she is insane, however, and wears the deranged Báthory’s wildness like a little girl wears her finest fairy-tale princess dress.

Elliott Sowards plays Báthory’s husband Nadasdy with a carefully controlled fire which sometimes rages out of control – Sarah Jean Tilford is scene-stealing as the ratlike, always-in-motion Petr Zadovsky – Aiyanna Wade is pleasant enough in her first scene as demure servant Kate, but provides an astonishing amount of gravitas and stillness throughout the rest of the play, a shudder-worthy character arc that brought to mind the Reek storyline in Game of Thrones. Even throughout Báthory’s wildest outbursts, Wade’s sad, hollowed-out gaze is impressively haunting.

The rest of the cast is wonderful to watch as well, and the space is suitably close quarters for a magnifying glass to be held up to this strange history. Although McDaris takes some liberties with the actual history, it hardly matters – the story is riveting and the words are well-crafted.

On top of these impressive performances and accomplishments, “Countess Bathory” is free to the public (ages 18+ of course). McDaris and his cast and crew are more than deserving of pay for their art – so they have a tip jar which you can contribute to after the show. “Countess Bathory” runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM until June 25 at the Right Brain Project (4001 N Ravenswood, 4th floor).

Do yourself a favor and see this before it closes – it’s quite honestly a phenomenal evening of theatre.

 

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“Fight Quest” is an Otherworld-ly, Excellent Adventure

Maybe it’s just me, but a good bit of stage combat does wonders for my appreciation of a show. I also happen to love a slight element of unpredictability – the need to ad lib within a story thanks to an unexpected twist or element. I furthermore enjoy fantasy, adventure, and the passionate work of Otherworld Theatre here in Chicago. Add in a witty Game Master and the occasional roll of a 4-sided die, and I’m sold.

Although I must say it is my LEAST favorite die.


Otherworld’s “Fight Quest” is an adventurous, funny, delightfully self-aware show where the audience helps choose the outcome of the story. The Game Master (Bennett Bottero, who is also the “Fight Quest” playwright) introduces the concept in pretty straightforward terms: he has created four ‘avatars’ and will choose an audience member to be the player for this game. The player then chooses an avatar (the Rogue, the Monk, the Ranger and her Wolf, or the Barbarian), and the GM narrates the story – tailoring each chose and twist in the road specifically for that chosen avatar. Along the way, there are mini-games, puzzles to solve, and gambles to make, all unfolded by the player’s choices on how to guide the avatar.

It is innovative, exciting, fun theatre, full of game/fantasy/pop culture references. The cast does a magnificent job of treading the fine line between ad-libbing to riff on whatever reference was made and keeping the intense integrity of a hero on a fantasy quest facing down their cruelest foes. Grace Gimpel‘s Rogue is smirky and saucy, quick with her daggers and unafraid to spin and leap from the Public House’s stage to the ground floor without even looking. The Ranger (Moira Begale, also the director of the piece) is stern and aloof as any elf should be – and wields a broadsword in harmony with her Wolf companion’s vicious flying kicks. The two of them have a few really cool assist moves that had the audience stomping and roaring for more. Kai Young as the Wolf is seriously one of the best parts of the show – committed, impressively athletic, and also the fight choreographer. The two avatars chosen the night I attended were the Monk (played to stoic yet charismatic perfection by Brendan Stallings) and the Barbarian (the impressive and astonishing Justin Verstraete).

Of the avatars, the Monk was the only one to this point who had not ‘debuted’ before an audience, so the player chosen from the audience eagerly selected the Monk to start the evening off. Even when the player’s choices caused hilarious script modifications, Stallings kept his composure as the Monk, and performed admirable feats of quarterstaff and acrobatics. His fight against the Barbarian is particularly well-choreographed and performed.

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The debut of the Monk!


The Monk’s turn in the story (a game module Bottero’s GM calls “The Bandits of Hollow Hill”) was so speedy that at the end, the performers decided to do another round. A brief intermission later, a new player from the audience was chosen, and a new champion – the Barbarian.

Part of the introduction to the game is having the audience player decide on their avatar, then choose the avatar’s name and where they’re from, or what title they hold. When the new audience player selected the Barbarian, it was decided (perhaps a little too quickly for the player himself to realize the joke he was making) that this Barbarian would be known as Randall the Savage. Instantly and seamlessly, Verstraete launched into a full Macho Man impersonation which threw the audience into uproarious laughter that did not die down perhaps for the entirety of his run of the story. “Mmmm-mmm!”s and “Yeeeeah”s punctuated every narration the GM provided, and the physicality and gestures were as natural to Verstraete as what I imagined his ‘regular’ performance track to be like. It wasn’t only impressive – it was hilarious, and not a single person in the room (wrestling fans and non-fans alike) was immune to the comedic brilliance.

I guess you could say Verstraete rolled a natural 20 that night.

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Randall “The Macho Man” Savage

 

Anyone who has ever played D&D or read a Choose Your Own Adventure book will understand the formula, and will enjoy this production to its fullest, but the entertainment is real for anyone who sees “Fight Quest.” Because it is different every time, I strongly encourage you to see it – and see it twice if you can. Each avatar is worth watching as the champion, and audience decisions are always a recipe for hilariousness. I praise Bottero’s genius scripting and theatrical model for a unique experience that will not easily be forgotten – and nor would I want to forget it. The lights and sound design do a good job transporting us to various locations in the story with no set pieces (the Public House Theatre is small enough that the fighters need all the space they can get for movement and safety). Perhaps most notably, Stefanie Sajib Johnsen’s costuming is exquisite. Each piece is beautifully made and each avatar is perfectly suited up for battle – the Ranger in elven greens, the Rogue in poisonous purple, the Monk in exotic orange, and the Barbarian in brutal brown with blue face paint. These are not home-cobbled cosplays, they are well-made and well-executed and do the rest of the work transforming the space into a real-life fight in a tabletop roleplaying game.

Otherworld productions are consistently smart, ambitious, and fun to attend. Do yourself a favor, and seek out “Fight Quest.”

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Fight Quest will run Sundays April 24th – May 22nd @ 7:00pm at the Public House Theater (3914 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60613). Tickets are available online and at the door for $10.

Otherworld Theatre website

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Disney’s 2016 “The Jungle Book” is Visually Stunning, Nuanced

Last week, the Fella, Bill and I went to see the new Jungle Book movie – we thought it fitting to go with Bill since he was our special guest for the Disney Odyssey Jungle Book edition. Bill is also our resident expert on Baloo, sloth bears, and ursine creatures of all kinds, so it was reasonable to expect he’d have opinions on the new film.

For this spoiler-free review of Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (2016) I will say the following:

It. Is. Beautiful. This movie is utterly enchanting visually – the texture of fur, jungle trees and grasses and leaves are all incredibly visible and almost tangible. The seamlessness of the CGI animation is jaw-dropping and utterly awesome. They have really pulled out all the stops to make Mowgli’s jungle and his animal friends extremely realistic. Even when the animals’ mouths move as they speak, I still felt completely taken in by the accuracy of the animation – I had to remind myself several times that they weren’t well-trained live actors but computer generated animals instead.

Neel Sethi as Mowgli is fantastic. He is a bright-eyed, intelligent child with the iconic unruly black hair and neatly-arranged red loincloth, but he isn’t as silly as the cartoon version of Mowgli was. Sethi’s Mowgli is a clever problem-solver and an inventor rather than a whiny acrobat. He takes his place in the wolf pack seriously, although his human body restricts him from keeping up with the young wolves as much as he wants to, and he does everything he can to make everyone’s lives easier. His ‘tricks’ (as Akela calls them) don’t always go over well with the other animals, but Mowgli can’t help it – he loves to solve problems and use his environment to his advantage. After all, man is a tool-using animal. Besides fabulously inhabiting the character, Sethi is fantastic and connected throughout, considering the fact that he’s acting with blue screens, green screens, people in morphsuits, tennis balls on sticks, and other stand-ins for the CGI animals and jungle scenes. Also he’s twelve. Color me impressed.

The voice acting is perfect. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera is as dignified and patriarchal as he possibly could be, showing a fierce love of Mowgli throughout the film – despite his frustrations with Mowgli’s lack of order. Bill Murray is as casual and self-interested a Baloo as Phil Harris was in the cartoon, but rather than jazzy scat-singing, Murray’s sloth bear belts “Bare Necessities” with the wild abandon of a drunk but hilarious uncle at karaoke. His rambling dialogue is funny and endearing without trying to recreate the former incarnations of his character. Scarlett Johansson is surprising, eerie, and (yeah, I know) a little bit sexy as Kaa – and made me wish she was in much more of the film. The only awkward bit is when Christopher Walken’s truly ominous, powerful, mob-boss King Louie suddenly attempts an unfunny, aggressive, spoken-word rendition of the catchy, jazzy, fun “I Wanna Be Like You.” Honestly, this moment would be better off playing through the closing credits (like Johansson’s “Trust In Me” which is SUCH a Bond theme). But the rest of Walken’s characterization is fine – and honestly a little bit scary .Also, Idris Elba is absolutely terrifying as Shere Khan. That’s all I can say.

The movie is not a direct remake of the animated film from 1967. The dialogue is sightly different, the characterizations are developed differently, the overall feel and themes of this movie are not quite the same as they were in the cartoon. All of these things are wonderful, actually, and the ‘new’ version of things goes off smoothly and to great effect. The animated film is still a good movie – but this is a different version of Mowgli’s tale, perhaps for a slightly more mature child to explore.

If you’ve seen the film already and you’re curious to know our thoughts on the ‘updates’ and changes made to the 2016 film, lucky for you we recorded our spoilery reactions after we left the movie theatre! Enjoy!

Warning: The audio track contains spoilers! Click to play at your own peril!

 

Game Time: Telltale Game’s “Game of Thrones” is as STRESSFUL and Epic as the Show & Books

As a child of ye olde Choose Your Own Adventure books, I love the games produced by Telltale Games. The dialogue-based, weighted-decision style of gameplay is both stressful and delightfully appealing to me, and I loved The Wolf Among Us, of course. Naturally I was thrilled that there was a Game of Thrones Telltale series coming out, and the Fella and I sat down to play each episode together on Steam as they were released over the last year. If you’re a fan of the HBO tv series, the books by George R.R. Martin, or even if you just enjoy high stakes storytelling and plot twists, this game is rad.

The Game: Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series

The DeveloperTelltale Games

Available On: Steam (Mac, PC), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Android and iOS

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