Reviews: Wolfenstein II and Stranger Things 2

Last week two bits of entertainment I’d been looking forward to finally unlocked for my enjoyment: the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Stranger Things 2, the second season of the well-regarded Netflix series. What did I think of both? Well, let me tell you.

Wolfenstein II: I enjoyed the heck out of this. The game takes place in an alternate reality where the Nazis won WWII (they nuked New York!) and have occupied the US. Your job is to take back the country, mostly by shooting the ever-living crap out of every Nazi you meet. Obviously, this is a game that has some resonance in today’s political era, in which homegrown WannaNazis are stomping around in their polo shirts and khakis (some of these tender racist flowers complained about the content of the game recently, to which the gamemakers said, essentially, “Ha ha ha fuck you, you little shitheads,” which is a sentiment I can get behind).

Although the game takes place in the US, you don’t actually kill American Nazis, merely Nazis in America; they all spit German at you as you shoot them. Which is fine! Nazis of any sort make for good killing, if you ask me. There’s a special joy in mowing them down by the dozen, untroubled by pesky ethical issues. They’re Nazis, they deserve to meet large-caliber ordnance. And they do — this is not a game that’s stingy about throwing Nazis at you to be dispatched. I played the game on medium difficulty and found it was nicely playable at that level; challenging to get through but with enough ammo, armor and health that I could survive without having to save every ten seconds.

The game comes with a storyline involving hero BJ Blaskowitz and his band of freedom fighters joining up with the American resistance and visiting places like (nuked) NYC, Roswell, New Mexico and a New Orleans that’s been turned into a ghetto for America’s undesirables (Jews, blacks, gay folks etc). The storyline is pretty good, and has interesting moments, but can be bleak and has a couple of missteps, including a memorably gratuitous topless scene with one of the women characters, also involving very large guns. That said, I generally enjoyed the storyline, which featured more humor in it than I remember earlier installments having.

But really you’re here to kill Nazis. And you will! In the US and on Venus! (Why Venus? I think the answer is, why not on Venus, and also, there’s something sublime about battling Space Nazis on Venus. That’s a B-movie title right there.) If you’re hankerin’ to slaughter goddamned fascists, this is the game for you.

A final note of gratitude for this game: It’s all about the single-player experience, which is something I really appreciate these days. I don’t really care to do multiplayer games that often, and I prefer generally to pay for my game once rather than through in-game transactions. I don’t want to be on a team and I don’t give a crap about jaunty hats or alternate armor. I just wanna shoot things in peace and at my own pace. Kudos to the Wolfenstein II team for giving me exactly what I’m happy to pay money for in a video game experience.

Stranger Things 2: It’s a pretty good ride, and with that said, I’m reminded of a line in Die Hard 2, when, after a whole movie of plane crashes and guns blazing and terrorists grimly being evil, Holly McClane looks over to John McClane and asks “Why does this keep happening to us?!?” The answer is, of course: Because that’s what the audience wants. The audience wants the thing they got before, only more of it this time.

And there’s definitely more to ST2: Stakes are higher, the danger more dangerous, and poor Will Byers (who if this series had actually been filmed in the 80s would have almost certainly have been played by Wil Wheaton) gets slapped around by the Upside Down even more than he was in the first season. There are more subplots (justice for Barb! Eleven looks for home! New kids with their own drama! Steve and Nancy and Jonathan!) which take more time to deal with and don’t necessarily resolve in any particularly satisfying way, instead leaving loose ends to be picked up in Stranger Things 3, which will almost certainly happen.

Also, more than once, someone has to act stupidly in order to advance the story, which the shows tries to wink at by having the characters note that, gosh, they sure did something stupid there, didn’t they? Which doesn’t really solve the problem, but at least lets you know the show acknowledges your awareness that someone’s being dumb for plot purposes.

(Oh, and, hey, Duffer brothers: Naming one of your characters “Bob Newby” is a little on the nose, guys.)

None of this really bothered me that much, however, because the story does keep clicking on and ramping up, and the characters, so engaging in season one, continue to be so here and are often even more so. The kids still feel like real kids, the adults are occasionally clueless in particularly adult ways, and the bad guys are slightly more dimensional than they were before. I was sucked in and watched one episode after another just like I was intended to, and with the exception of an interlude episode which felt more like a soft-launch pilot episode of another series entirely, they all connected seamlessly.

Which is to say the story-telling technician in me could see all the tricks season two of this series was laying out and using, and the “shut up and just give me a fun ride” audience member in me didn’t care, because generally speaking, all the tricks worked like they were supposed to. So well done, everyone: ST2 was really enjoyable and I’m in for season three when it inevitably shows up and tortures Will Byers again.

That poor kid. He should just move out of Hawkins. Really, they all should.

My Halloween Self-Portrait, 2017

Pretty sexy, I have to say. Definitely right-swipeable on Tinder.

Hope you’re having a very fine Halloween.

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Is Siege Line the end? For author Myke Cole, no. He will have more books coming. But for a particular trilogy of books, and a phase of Cole’s career, the book represents a final stage. Not with a whimper, though — with a bang, and one that required more of the author than he initially expected.

MYKE COLE:

Apocalypse fiction loves a good wasteland.

Most of us have heard of Ragnarok, the Viking idea of a “Twilight of the Gods” in old Norse mythology, where the world is swept away and the final battle between good and evil is fought. Ragnarok is hardly a unique idea in mythology and religion. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest recorded faiths, likewise has the world scoured with lava and a final battle between the wicked and the righteous. Christianity has the Book of Revelation, which talks of the final fight between Christ and Antichrist, and Islam has given us the apocalyptic vision of the 12th Imam, who comes to herald the end time, and the final scouring of the wicked from the earth. Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism. They all have their apocalypse visions, and nearly all have the same central elements: The world scoured, laid waste, heralding the final battle between good and evil.

My favorite visual summary of this idea is in the last of a quartet of paintings by the 19th century American landscape painter Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life. The paintings depict a soul’s journey through life from birth to death. The final painting, Old Age, shows an old man on his way to heaven. What stands out most is the landscape he leaves behind. At the end, all is stripped bare. Nothing grows, nothing moves, nothing lives. The apocalypse of all these myth-systems echoes in the oils – at the end, there is only wasteland.

We love wastelands for our final showdowns in fiction. By stripping away all distractions, they help focus the narrative on the final conflict at hand. The warring characters come into stark relief, unhindered by background. It’s the literary equivalent of wearing a drab gray suit to a job interview. Undistracted by your clothes, the hope is that the interviewer will focus on your job skills.

But here’s the thing about real wastelands. They’re far from empty.

Deserts teem with life. The “hostile” environment of the arctic features around 3,000 different species of flowering plants alone, and around 130 species of mammal. And this doesn’t even count the human cultures that have flourished in these harsh regions without the benefit of advanced technology. The Bedouin and the Hopi, the Inuit and the Ainu.

When you really dig deep, the truth is that “wasteland” is really two words: “Waste,” which is a term of judgment used by those of us living in temperate zones with the benefit of climate control, and “Land,” with all the species, and human cultural diversity that implies. So, while wastelands may be a useful backdrop for final showdowns in fiction, they’re far from empty, and the “Twilight of the Gods” is likely to have significant fallout for the folks living in the warzone where the ultimate battle is playing out.

And that’s the big idea behind Siege Line.

Siege Line is the 3rd book in my Reawakening prequel trilogy. The Reawakening is the prequel to my military fantasy Shadow Ops trilogy. The six books together represent the first arc of my writing career, staking out my own subgenre, fleshing out my narrative, and seeing it to its conclusion. And like all good myth-systems, mine ends with an apocalypse, a final showdown between the wicked and the righteous, set against the backdrop of the wasteland so popular for these kinds of things. What can I say? I want to go out with a bang.

I chose the harsh subarctic-polar landscape of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the tiny hamlet of Fort Resolution, nestled on the south shore of the Great Slave Lake. It’s barren by the standards of my comfortable Brooklyn neighborhood, but like all real-life wastelands, it has a vibrant and complex community and ecology, and people living there who go back generations, far earlier than the founding of either America or Canada, and who are fiercely proud of their culture and legacy.

This was the coolest discovery in writing this book, the background I picked refused to be background. The supporting cast swarmed the pages, demanding their voices be heard. With every hour of research I did, the culture and society of Canada’s “NWT” colonized my mind, changing first my perspective, and finally my narrative.

By the time the smoke cleared, my protagonist had been upstaged by the Sherriff of Fort Resolution, an Afghanistan vet and proud Dene woman, Wilma “Mankiller” Plante. Mankiller was unimpressed by my ignorance of her culture and land. If I was going to tell a story in her town, I was going to tell it her way.

It was a pretty sublime experience. Every writer dreams of these moments, when a character is so real, so fully fleshed out, that they literally take over the narrative, leaving the writer as a mere copyist, taking dictation and relaying what they see. Mankiller came alive, and Fort Resolution, the whole Slavey region, came alive with her.

George R. R. Martin has famously divided writers into “gardeners” (pantsers) who just sit down and write, and “architects” (plotters), who meticulously outline and plan before laying down a single word of prose. I have always prided myself on being an UBER-architect. I usually write more than 100 pages of outline before I begin work on a book. Having a book take a left turn when you’re an uber-architect can be frustrating.

But Mankiller wasn’t going to let it lie, and to be honest I’m glad she didn’t.

Can’t wait for you all to meet her, and to step into her world. It’s cold, sure, but there’s a lot more life there than some warmer places I’ve been.

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Siege Line: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.