Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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“Motion Pictures,” Neil Young
On the Beach, 1974

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Red Dwarf X, it’s that Doug Naylor finds it hilarious when characters talk to machines with funny voices.

If there’s a second thing I’ve learned from Red Dwarf X, it’s that I don’t find it particularly hilarious when characters talk to machines with funny voices.

First, the good: there’s far less vending machine romantic mayhem in this episode than I expected. However when “the good” is just relief that the pile of shit is smaller than it could have been, “the good” really reveals itself as a relative concept indeed.

Now, the rest: it just wasn’t funny.

I wish it was.

I really, well, true, and honestly wish that I could laugh the way the studio audience was laughing, but nothing was really…you know…all that good.

Okay, fine, some more good: the dialogue wasn’t awful. It was sub-par, certainly, but not offensively bad the way the Shakespeare scene from a few episodes ago was, or as absolutely everything in the first episode of the series was. But I think there’s a world of difference between “not awful” and “good,” and “Dear Dave” didn’t seem interested in exploring that world.

The plot, as it is, kicks in around halfway through the episode when out of nowhere — and after a particularly terrible setpiece involving charades — the mail arrives. Lister finds a letter from three million years ago suggesting that he might have fathered a child. Then we forget about that for a while until it’s time to end the episode and we get a definitive answer. Spoiler: it’s the one definitive answer we could have gotten without gleaning any insight into the characters.

That’s that, then. The plot is dealt with in two scenes and maybe mentioned in two more. So what do we do the rest of the time? Have Lister hump a vending machine, have Rimmer argue with the MediBot — off-camera, thank Christ — and have Kryten take all of the toilet paper away so that The Cat can walk around for a while with shit in his crack.

If any of that sounds like classic Red Dwarf to you then congratulations, you’re in for a treat. For me, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that Doug at last gave us a full episode about what the crew’s downtime was like…the dead space between adventures…that avenue of quiet comedy between the interesting parts of the characters’ lives that endears me so endlessly to The Venture Bros.…and it was this padded and flat.

Previous bottle episodes like “Marooned” and “Duct Soup” both dealt with extenuating circumstances. In “Marooned” we had Rimmer and Lister in a crashed Starbug, so their exchanges, though now legendary, weren’t representative of their “normal” ones. And in “Duct Soup” Doug had deliberately steered Red Dwarf into a nearby sun so that he could destroy it before it got any worse WHOOPS I MEAN KRYTEN DID THAT SUN THING FOR A DIFFERENT REASON, so, again, even though it focused on the smaller interactions between the characters it was doing so with an adventurous backdrop.

Here we don’t have that. That’s a good thing. This is a chance to learn something first-hand about the crew that we’ve only been able to guess before, which is what they do when they aren’t doing anything.

As characters, they continue to exist when the cameras aren’t rolling. They do things between episodes. Sometimes we hear about them, but usually we don’t. As characters, they live. As characters, they breathe. As characters, they are.

What “Dear Dave” cements for us is that they aren’t. They’re not characters…they’re puppets reciting lines from a lifeless script. This is their downtime, and there’s nothing for them to do. They can’t live their lives because they don’t exist unless they’re making funny faces or arguing with machines or lusting repulsively after women.

These aren’t people anymore. If they were people, we wouldn’t have to contrive ridiculous situations in which they could be caught rubbing their cocks against vending machines. What did that say about Lister’s character? What did that reveal about him? To what facet of his personality was it true? It didn’t even work in a logistical sense…how in shit’s name did he intend to pick up the vending machine while lying on top of it?

No part of this works unless you find grown men grinding their genitals against machines funny. Maybe you do. I’m not judging you. But if you don’t, “Dear Dave” leaves you with some pretty slim pickings.

It just wasn’t funny. The dialogue was decent, but only decent. None of the physical comedy worked for me, and the only laugh — though I confess it was a big one — came from The Cat trying to keep Lister from picturing his ex-girlfriend with another man. Granted, that was itself a pretty direct lift from “Duct Soup,” where it was also the only funny thing in the episode, but I’ll take what I can get.

The biggest crime “Dear Dave” commits is that it’s just there. As the years go by I doubt I’ll warm up to “Trojan,” but at least I’ll remember it and think about it. “Dear Dave” doesn’t even feel like something I’ll remember next week.

Maybe one day I’ll see a clip somewhere of Lister fucking the vending machine and think, “Oh yeah…that fucking happened.”

But otherwise, I doubt it’ll leave any impression at all.

I can’t even say that this is the episode that made me realize the characters aren’t really characters anymore, because that happened around 20 episodes ago.

“Dear Dave” had every opportunity to make me reconsider that realization, though. It could have shown me that they’re still funny. They’re still real. They still have identifiable hopes and dreams, and that even if I’m not keen on their adventures anymore at least they still really are.

Instead we humped a vending machine and walked around with shit drying in our asses. And it was just as fun as it sounds.

Roll on the final episode, please.

I haven’t finished The Last Story; in a way, I hope I never do. This isn’t necessarily a rare thing for me to feel when playing a great game, but it is a rare thing for me to feel about a game’s narrative. It’s even more rare to feel that way toward a game that features, for lack of a better term, “conventional gamey storytelling,” a phrase which here means “a game where one plays for a bit, puts the controller down to watch a cutscene, then plays some more.”

And yet this is the real magic of The Last Story — the effortless way in which it cements the importance and, indeed, nobility of things we thought we outgrew, or at the very least were sick of. Things like cutscenes, yes, but also things like stories about destiny and forbidden romance; things like pirate ships and castles and wicked kings and noble knights; things like princesses who are fed up with their boring lives of royalty, and hidden caves filled with frightening creatures; things like mystical forests and fiery volcanoes and villages full of simple folk who want nothing more than to sell you shields and potions. Things that have been slightly rehashed and moderately relabeled ad nauseum in every Final Fantasy game you’ve played in the past seven years, but which are presented here in The Last Story with an essential ingredient that has been missing in nearly all of them: sincerity. Never mind that the storytelling present here is genuinely good, the performances are genuinely dedicated and the art direction is genuinely some of the best you’ll see this year.

The comparisons to Final Fantasy are inevitable seeing as the game was directed by the man who invented the series, but Hironobu Sakaguchi (who has now left the series to work on original games with his new company, Mistwalker) should be proud to be one of mainstream gaming’s few creators who possess a truly distinctive style. We see his hand in the art direction, which is a perfect expression of Sakaguchi’s love of Medieval architecture, here mostly unmarred by the tired trope of steampunk; we see his hand in the characters, whose personalities are immediately apparent, yet whose motives are ambiguous enough that we want to get to know them better; and we see his hand in the story itself, which (again, in contrast to the current, Sakaguchi-less Final Fantasy) thankfully cares more about charming us with its characters and astounding us with its imagination that it does boring us with pointless mythology that we will forget by the end of the game.

Yes, The Last Story spins a good old-fashioned yarn about a band of mercenaries who go on spectacular adventures in which mysterious islands are explored, pirates are fought, treasures are plundered, sick children are cured, and princesses are saved; but even if you didn’t grow up obsessed with Treasure Island and The Legend of Zelda and therefore aren’t a total sucker for fantastical adventure stories like I am, it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed by the sheer innovation of the gameplay itself. RPGs have long featured team-based battles, but rarely have they actually felt like teamwork, so much as they often feel like I press a bunch of buttons on a bunch of menus to make a bunch of people do a bunch of stuff.

In The Last Story, you only control one member of your party (Zael–yes, silly names are present and accounted for) yet you must rely on everyone in it. You are just a…well, a role player in this team, but as a result of actually having to rely that team instead of directly controlling their every move, you end up caring about them, even respecting them more ; in effect, the times where you are in fact able to give orders to your team-mates are more exciting due to their relative rarity.

This is an accomplishment. I’ve often felt a disconnect in RPGs in which the story tells me I’m supposedly an innocent underdog, yet behind the controller I’m a godlike presence controlling the decisions of not only my avatar but everyone around him. It just doesn’t feel true. It’s like in Grant Theft Auto IV where Niko’s cousin tells him “We’re broke!” and yet we look up at the top of the screen and see we’ve amassed several hundred thousand dollars from our dirty work. In The Last Story I have found no such disconnects, and if they’re there, I’ll happily ignore them. There is no such thing as a perfect game; it’s just that some are better at distracting us from their flaws.

I’ve set the game on the shelf for now, but not for a lack of interest or boredom; I’m savoring the experience. I’m waiting for a rainy day to come along, or a sleepless night, where I can curl up on the couch and be swept up in more of the gang’s adventures; reminded of the times when I’d stay up all night with my favorite book, immersed in the escapades of pirates or knights. The Last Story, of course, is not the last story, but it is the first game story in a very long time that I’ve cared about.

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