Reviewing, Reviewed

Statler and Waldorf

This past weekend, my final review for Nintendo Life went live. It’s the quiet punctuation at the end of a five-year+ tenure with the site, and, as you might imagine, the decision to quit wasn’t an easy one.

Well, actually, forget that: it was pretty easy.

Not because of the site itself. After all, I had a regular audience tuning in regularly to read my thoughts on whatever game it was (or games they were) that had been assigned to me that week. It was an audience that numbered in the tens of thousands. It was a massively visible platform, and a chance for me to write regularly about things I enjoyed.

And it wasn’t the people who made it easy to leave. On the internet, five years equals something like twenty years in terms of the number of acquaintances who come and go. For that reason, yes, there were at least a handful of team members over time that I didn’t entirely get along with. But, largely, the great ones stayed, and the great ones that didn’t at least stayed in touch. Now, as I leave, we may actually have our strongest and best team yet. So saying goodbye, in this case, is certainly not saying fuck you.

It was easy because of the readers. If you’re insulted by that, I might as well anger you some more: readers don’t understand what reviews are.

That’s daunting, and discouraging, as a reviewer. While, certainly, there are plenty of reviewers in the world who are perfectly happy to crank out whatever amount of low-effort plot summaries is necessary to keep their job, there are a large number of them — myself included — that work extraordinarily hard to provide worthwhile content to readers. To have effort like that met with an opaque misunderstanding of what the medium even is wears one down more quickly, and more severely, than you might imagine.

This was not a problem by any means unique to Nintendo Life. I’ve written reviews for many sites in the past, but with the large audience specific to that site, the problem reared its head more frequently. And because the site maintains a policy (which I still happen to endorse) of not needlessly picking fights with its readers, it wasn’t something I was ever able to address openly.

Now, certainly, I can. And will.

1) Reviews are not rigid.

Reviews are easy to misunderstand, I think, because they can take so many different forms. At least, they should. Instead what we face is an odd sort of retroactive standardization, in which one’s opinions are expected to follow some invisible, mathematical rubric. Which, in itself, is tragic.

The expectation becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because readers expect to find a relative balance of criticism regarding graphics, controls, sound, storyline, etc., they, in large part, abandon and ignore the reviews that give them more, or the ones that actually tailor their approach toward the game in question.

It’s an oddly archaic expectation that these things be given anywhere near equal weight. Do you need me to tell you what the graphics look like? You’re on the internet, and the odds are good that whatever page you’re looking at has screengrabs right there for your reference. Do you need me to tell you about the soundtrack? Putting aside the innate impossibility of translating one medium into another — really, now, can text ever give you more than the vaguest possible idea of what music sounds like? — there’s the fact that we live in the YouTube age. You can listen to game music (often made officially available) on your own and come to your own conclusions.

“Your own conclusions” being the operative phrase. Because if I love the graphics, and tell you in some predetermined number of words why I love the graphics, does that change your mind when the images running alongside the review look to you like steaming shit? Of course not. Nor should it. The same goes for the soundtrack, which I might find to be dull and forgettable while it moves you to tears.

Yes, that boils down to difference of opinion, which is to be expected, but it’s a difference of opinion that really didn’t benefit anybody to express in the first place. The benefit of a game review is easy to see: somebody took the time to sit down with a game, become immersed in it, and would now like to share with you what he or she thought of that experience. The benefit of a book review is to give somebody an idea of whether or not a 500 page novel is worth the weeks it would take them to read it. The benefit of a film review is to give somebody a little help deciding whether or not their night (and money) would better be spent seeing something else.

That’s what the review should focus on: the compound experience. It’s not graphics, sound, controls. It’s a piece of art. And it’s exactly why books, film, and music aren’t reviewed by dissecting them into similarly unhelpful chunks. Game reviewing, for whatever reason, has developed and sustained this fragmented, destructive approach, and when one deviates from it, readers get confused. “You didn’t even mention the story.” “You said the soundtrack was good, but what does that mean?” “Do you jump with A or with B? I’m not going to buy it if you jump with B.”

The compound experience is what matters. Details, when they stand out, warrant a special mention. But if a reader can see and hear what a game looks like without ever having to plunk down one cent, isn’t the reviewer’s time better spent explaining and exploring the things that aren’t already apparent?

At the very least, one thing that would be apparent to someone who has played a game and not apparent to somebody who has not would be the weight that these components deserve. Braid, for instance, has a storyline that outright defines (and then, arguably, redefines) the experience. Should that not be discussed heavily? VVVVVV has the barest hints of a story at all, and allows you to disregard it altogether without missing out on anything. Do we need to discuss it at all?

The Wind Waker deserves exhaustive discussion of its animation and visual style while New Super Mario Bros. certainly does not, and should probably be discussed instead in terms of its approach to level design and replayability.

A Guitar Hero game needs to have its soundtrack discussed song by song, but a review of an Elder Scrolls game can disregard that entirely and run down the types of locations and side-quests available. The Binding of Isaac, meanwhile, can be discussed entirely through the filter of its warped spiritual message and warnings. Does it really matter what button you press to shoot?

By allowing reviewers to assign appropriate weight to different aspects of the experience, we allow them to convey passively to the reader what the experience is. Write more about the narrative, and the reader should understand that that’s what’s important. Disregard the controls and the reader shouldn’t conclude that you didn’t take note of them (how could you not?), but they should rather assume that they didn’t warrant a mention over something more important to the experience of playing this particular game.

A review should conceivably be written without discussing any of the above, except where necessary. Every game is different, and if we want to think of them as works of art, we need to be prepared to discuss them as works of art. That is to say, on their own merits. We discuss how they affected us. How they challenged us. How much they stuck with us for weeks on end. And if an element of a game didn’t happen to stand out, it’s dishonest of a reviewer to pull it out and discuss it as if it did.

2) Reviews are not timeless.

One great thing about the internet is that so much of what you can find today can still be found (in some form, somewhere) tomorrow. One not so great thing about the internet is that so much of what you can find today can still be found many years down the line, when it may no longer apply. And this is, sadly, a necessary problem.

Reviews need to be timely. Why? Well, you know why. A site’s traffic is determined by how many people want to read about the thing that you’re posting about. It’s a bit reductive to say that and leave it there, but if you rely on advertising revenue to maintain your site, you need a large amount of regular traffic. If you want that regular traffic, you need to write about popular things promptly, while they’re still popular. This leads to reviews being cranked out before opinions have settled into their more permanent forms.

How many times have you seen a film, read a book, listened to a song, or anything along those lines, and never, ever had your opinion change? I can’t speak for you, but my opinions change constantly. The silly ending of North by Northwest reveals itself to be darker and more subversive the more I think about it. The incomprehensible labyrinth of Gravity’s Rainbow resolves into a gorgeous meditation on the helpless self-destruction of humanity between readings. The catchy little toe-tap of that “pumped up kicks” song becomes an irritation because you can’t go anywhere without hearing it.

These are the things that reviews, ideally, should reflect. However, they don’t. The fast turnaround requires insight to be shallow, and judgments to made quickly. There have been games to which I’ve awarded low ratings that, in retrospect, should have probably been higher, if only because I’ve found myself returning to them long after I ever expected to care. In other cases, a game that seemed great at first might have gotten a lower score, had I been able to spend more time in it, and probe it more exhaustively. The mad dash from Stage A to Stage Z might have been fun, but if I’d had more time to explore the side missions, perhaps I’d have discovered that the game was actually a buggy mess.

Most unfortunately, the speed with which reviews are required to be turned around reflects most poorly on the games that try hardest. A simple, mindless clone of Bejeweled might get a decent score simply because it works. There’s not much to see, so it’s relatively easy to get a “representative” idea of what’s on offer. A much more complex, interesting game, with multiple paths, multiple solutions, randomly generated items / characters / situations, various endings, and so forth wouldn’t get a fair shake anywhere that relied on prompt reviews, because there’s simply too much to see. To a gamer, that probably sounds like a great thing. To a reviewer, it’s a potentially unfair negative. After all, you won’t be able to see everything, let alone fairly assess it. You’ll take a path through a game. Maybe you’ll have time to take two. Were they the easiest paths? Hardest? Most rewarding? Least? Funniest? Scariest? Buggiest?

When your experience cannot reflect the questions of your audience, you’ve failed as a reviewer, and I will say conclusively that strict turnaround times on reviews mean necessarily that your experience cannot reflect the questions of your audience. You have failed, are failing, and will continue to fail as a reviewer as long as the deadlines are more important to your publisher than fair appraisal.

I had a friend who once suggested the idea of a tech review site that would use phones, computers, and other gadgets for one year before reviewing them, that way the reviewers would be far better able to speak to the long-term advantages and disadvantages of things…potential problems and boons that simply can’t be seen with a few hours of superficial usage.

Of course, people don’t want to wait a year to buy things. They want things now, and they want your opinions now. If readers could exercise patience, they’d find themselves rewarded with mountains of more reputable, reliable, respectful reviews.

3) Reviews are not objective.

Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective. Reviews are not objective.

Seriously. Reviews are not fucking objective.

This has always been pretty clear to me, but it’s easily the most common misunderstanding I’ve seen in my years of writing reviews. Readers are concerned about objectivity…in an opinion piece.

The fact that I even have to discuss this baffles me. I’ve been accused of being biased in my reviews of games. And, here’s the thing: I am. I’m going to give better scores to the things I enjoyed, and worse scores to the things I did not. Because that’s what a reviewer does.

Bias is not an inherently negative thing. If you believe it is, then that’s fine, but you should not be reading reviews, because the two concepts are inseparable.

An objective review is an oxymoron. Objectivity would result in a list of facts and features. You know, the kind of thing you’d find on the back of any given game’s box anyway. The fact that reviews exist at all is evidence that objectivity isn’t enough. People want to know what they’re getting involved with, and the reviewer can explain that….but the reviewer can’t explain it without bias.

Here’s the thing: video games are creative works. And, like all creative works, we are each going to react to them differently. While it’s obvious that something like the soundtrack, for instance, will impress or disappoint different people to varying degrees, the same is true for even technical features. Lower frame rates, for instance, might not matter to the reviewer as long as they don’t affect gameplay. They may well matter inherently to a reader. So what is a reviewer to do?

The answer is obvious: the reviewer needs to score the game based on his or her own experience with it, and not on the experience he or she expects somebody else might have. The latter option would be dishonest, and honesty is far more important in reviews than some vague and impossible avoidance of bias.

This is where readers should be taking the verb in their title more seriously. As a reviewer runs through the positives and negatives of the gaming experience, the reader needs to focus on what’s being said specifically, rather than generally. That is to say that if a reviewer didn’t like a game because the humor was sophomoric, focus less on the fact that he didn’t like it and more on the fact that the humor was sophomoric. If that kind of humor appeals to you, then the review was still helpful, even if you ended up disagreeing with it. The reviewer is not obligated to ignore bias and pretend that he or she enjoyed the humor; the reviewer is, at best, obligated to provide you with enough information to decide whether or not the things that were important to him or her would be important to you.

Bias, in fact, can be extremely helpful to readers…if they understand it. After all, there’s no shortage of game reviewers on the internet. They’re a click away, and reading their reviews almost never costs more than the time it takes you to do so. If you find a reviewer that shares your biases, you have probably found a very good guide through the release calendar. Follow that person’s reviews and put more stock in them. The more often you end up agreeing — for the same reasons, natch — the more weight that reviewer’s opinions should have when you make your purchases. On the other side, you may find a reviewer you never agree with. That’s exactly as helpful, and, actually, it’s kind of beautiful.

Objectivity in reviews would lead to a sea of reviews that all say exactly the same thing and reach exactly the same conclusion. They’d be long problems of provable algebra that take the medium of fun and attempt to reduce it to a string of inarguable equivalencies. In other words, it would be impossible, and also fucking bullshit.

When you ask for objectivity in an opinion piece, or decry the evidence of bias, all you’re doing is betraying the fact that you don’t know what you’re reading.

4) Reviews are not exhaustive resources.

In many cases, reviews are subject to wordcount restrictions. This is something you might think I’m less than thrilled about, considering my rantlette about rigidity above, but, honestly, I find wordcount to be one of the more productive restrictions. Nintendo Life helped me to hone my voice. Had I thousands of words at my disposal, we’d end up with something like we have here: a meandering kind of explorative essay that helps me explain things to myself as I attempt to explain them to others.

Reviews, however, should be a bit more concise and to the point. And I like that. I think we owe it to the readers and developers to focus ourselves. That’s not to say that a review can’t be 20,000 words long if that’s what it takes to truly discuss it…it’s only to say that if it takes 20,000 words to truly discuss it, don’t use 50,000.

Due to these restrictions, however, not everything can be covered. Again, I’d argue this is A Good Thing. By keeping limitations on length in mind, we gravitate toward covering the most important aspects of the game. In some cases this might be its pacing, in others it might be its stellar narrative. You know…something that defines the individual piece in a way that other pieces are not defined. Something specific to the game, and the experience of playing it…which you’d think might be a good thing to focus on.

However, people get upset when features aren’t covered. In perhaps the silliest example of this, one game that I reviewed was ported to the 3DS, and a commenter complained that I didn’t mention that the title screen had been changed.

Could I have mentioned it? Of course. Do I think mentioning it would warrant distraction from the things far more deserving of mention? Absolutely not.

Other times commenters were concerned that I didn’t mention how long it took to finish a game, or how many levels it had. To be honest, these are things that are nearly always pointless to me. Sure, a 50 hour game sounds nice, but if it’s 50 hours of boredom, wouldn’t I rather spend my money on an exciting and fun game that only lasts for 30 minutes? Does it matter how many levels are in the game when I’d rather talk about how well (or poorly) they are designed? The impulse to artificially pad out games is destructive, and the more we demand longer games and more content for the sake of longer games and more content, the less we’re actually getting for our money. Sure, it might be bigger in a mathematical sense, but if the experience is shallower, isn’t that more important to note? That’s the kind of thing I’d prefer to discuss: how deep or shallow the experience is. What do you learn from hearing that a game has 12 levels? If you’re anything like me, you learn exactly jack squat.

What’s more, there’s a kind of “best-practice” that discourages giving away too much information. While I go back and forth on the whole spoiler debate, the fact is that people don’t open a game review and expect to read about the ending. They also probably don’t want all of the surprises along the way ruined. Secret weapons, hidden worlds, Easter eggs…these are all things that exist in order to reward the impulse to discover. To make these things explicit to somebody who hasn’t yet played the game is to rob them of that part of the experience, and I’m not comfortable doing that. Yet reviews tend to be “wrong” or “incomplete” (or “half-assed,” if you’re on a site that allows such language) if any stone is left unturned.

Again, why would you come to a review for that information? If you want a list of all the hidden items, there are resources for that. A review isn’t one of them. A review isn’t meant to be exhaustive, and things that you might feel are important will be left out on the grounds that the reviewer did not find them to be important. Remember, it’s ultimately the reviewer’s opinion that needs to be honestly and accurately expressed…not yours.

5) Reviews are not reliably factual.

Or, at least, they don’t have to be. Ideally, all of the information contained in a review would be correct. However, reviewers are human beings. They make mistakes. They have deadlines to respect. They have played so many games it’s impossible to keep everything straight. Sometimes well-meaning copy-editors will even create errors where there had been none.

And it’s okay, because that’s not what you’re coming to a review for.

If the reviewer doesn’t know everything about the Zelda timeline and speaks incorrectly about a game’s place in the overall series chronology, that doesn’t render his opinion on the game any less valid. If he thinks the game is lousy, it doesn’t matter where in the timeline it falls.

It doesn’t matter if they incorrectly credit a voice actor, or if they don’t realize that the character you play in this game is the vague relative of some other character in a different game.

It doesn’t matter if they get a year of release wrong. It doesn’t matter if they think Koji Kondo wrote the music when he really only supervised it. It doesn’t matter if they say there are 11 villages to explore in the game when there are actually 12.

Why not? Because none of that changes the main point of the review: this was / was not worth playing, and I’d like to tell you why.

Roger Ebert a few years ago got in trouble with readers because he walked out of a film he wasn’t enjoying. He was honest about that in his review. That honesty is what got him in trouble; otherwise, nobody would have known that he didn’t finish watching it.

He caved to pressure and went back to watch the entire film, appending his review to reflect that fact. Lo and behold, his opinion didn’t change. It went from being a film he walked out of to a film he only wished he could walk out of. And I’m sorry that he did not stand his ground. The fact that he walked out of a film — Roger Ebert, who has seen more films in their entirety than possibly any other human being, from masterpieces to the cheapest, laziest cash-ins — saw a film that finally made him say, “No. This is not worth my time.”

That is a review. That is all we need to know. If we’re reading an Ebert review, it should be because we want to know what Ebert thinks. If Ebert thinks it’s not worth two hours of sitting in a chair, that is a review, and he should not have let himself be browbeaten into producing something more traditional.

I’ve seen film critics — Ebert included — miscredit actors. I’ve seen them report incorrect running times. I’ve seen them repeat lines that were clearly only half-remembered. But none of that matters. None of it. Because the main thrust of their review — whether or not they enjoyed it — is unaffected by these mistakes, or oversights.

Again, ideally, these facts would be correct. But we don’t live in an ideal world with ideal writers and ideal editors. In fact, you’re on the fucking internet, so…y’know. You’re about as far from an ideal world as possible. The fact is, though, that these mistakes ultimately don’t matter. Point them out, certainly, but don’t attempt to call the review’s validity into question, because, I assure you, correcting the error won’t change somebody’s opinion.

So, that’s an awful lot of aimless talk about what reviews aren’t. What are reviews?

Reviews are a writer’s best attempt to put into words that which can never be adequately expressed.

…and that’s something so many fail to grasp. And it takes its toll. As much work and effort as I’d put into my reviews, it was disheartening to see comments appearing more quickly than it could have possibly been read, with concerns about the score being too high or too low, and the effort dismissed as a result. It’s futile enough just trying to express through one medium the merits of an entirely different one…why lump complaints on top of it just because it didn’t achieve irrelevant goals as well?

Cries for objectivity, dismay that certain things were or were not mentioned, and the preposterous idea that a piece of art can be ranked in the first place all speak to a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual value of reviews. They exist for a purpose, but everybody seems to want them to exist for a different one. An impossible one. And in doing so, they miss out on the discussion and debate and inward reflection that an actual review — a real review, doing what real reviews do — can provide.

I’d much rather have you — specifically you, reading this right now — than ten thousand readers who don’t understand what they’re looking at. I’d be lying if I said that the above reflects the readership at large that I dealt with at Nintendo Life, but I’d also by lying if I said it didn’t often feel like it did.

And that’s why I’m staying here. This group of regular readers and commenters will never be as large, but it will always be more fulfilling. Because as many times as you call me out on my rightful bullshit, you understand what you’re reading.

Which is ultimately what things boil down to. Respect.

You don’t have to respect every piece of writing that you find. You certainly don’t have to respect anything I’ve ever posted here. But if you don’t, you can move along to something you do respect. And if you do, you can disagree with everything on the page, because you’ll be engaging with it rather than dismissing it.

Reviewing could be a wonderful thing, if only anyone knew what the fuck it was.

Technicalf Diffalfcultalfs

ALF, "Try to Remember"

Well, I knew I’d be away so I set up the ALF review to post in my absence…but set it for the wrong date, which is why you didn’t see it. At this point I’ll just wait until next Thursday, but that’s what happened. Who would have thought that I’d be the one to bungle the cliffhanger?!

So, yes. That’s all. I just wanted to let you know I didn’t die THANKS FOR ASKING.

Lost Worlds of Power Author Spotlight: Theodore Geise

Prior to the release of The Lost Worlds of Power, each author selected for inclusion will be given the floor. I’ve asked them to talk about themselves, their approach to the project, and anything else they’d like to say up front. I’ve also asked them to avoid spoilers, so have no fear of those. Anyway, week eight: Theodore Geise, author of “Double Dragon Warrior.”

Theodore GeiseHello! I’m T. J., the dweeb who wrote “Double Dragon Warrior.” Having been a Nintendo nerd for most of my life, The Lost Worlds of Power is like a dream project for me. Being able to pay homage to the classic NES games that we cut our teeth on while doing it in the silliest way possible sounded like heaven! I’m very honored to be chosen for this compilation of awesome!

Now the reason why people are reading this: is “Double Dragon Warrior” just like it sounds – a mash-up of Double Dragon and Dragon Warrior? The answer is yes, yes it is.

While I was driving home from work and thinking about what to do for The Lost Worlds of Power, the title of “Double Dragon Warrior” suddenly popped into my head. I had no plot outline or anything, just a single scene that I won’t spoil for you all because it still cracks me up to think about it.

The idea popped into my head because I really wanted to write something about the criminally unappreciated Dragon Warrior, but I couldn’t think of a way to turn it into something goofy enough to become a successful novelty novel. That and I couldn’t stand the thought of tearing that game apart for the sake of comedy. I just love that game too much.

"Double Dragon Warrior"Like many kids in the late ’80s, I found out about Dragon Warrior through Nintendo Power. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a copy of the game free, but I still had the magazine with full-page spreads of how cool Dragon Warrior was, along with a player’s guide chock full of artistic interpretations. I still remember the cover of the guide with the Dragon Lord looking eighteen times more menacing than he did in the game. I would read and re-read the guide and the magazine just to soak up the lore, imagining the weapons in action, and fantasizing about fighting the monsters.

I finally got to play the game after renting it from the video store. I was used to platformers, so this slow-paced game where I had to talk to people and plan out my fights was refreshingly weird. Plus, it was amazing the way the game saved your progress without having to input a ridiculous password like you did with Mega Man or Castlevania.

Looking back, I don’t know how I had the patience to play that game. Holy crap was it ever brutally hard! I’d spend hours grinding and fighting just to be able to afford an actual sword. And heaven forbid you forget to hold the reset button in before you power the game off, lest you hear the literal death rattle of your save file being obliterated by the forces of evil.

Despite its harshness, there was always just enough of a reward to make the frustration and grinding worth it – even if that reward was getting to fight a new and colorful monster. The monster design still stands out for its unique takes on classic baddies thanks to Akira Toriyama’s talent.

"Double Dragon Warrior"Dragon Warrior lit the fuse of my obsession with RPGs that continues to this day. Back then, I rented any game that even remotely looked like an RPG. This lead me to playing games as great as Final Fantasy and Crystalis, as well as lukewarm titles like Hydlide and Ultima: Exodus. When the RPG Golden Era was ushered in by the Super NES, I was over the moon all thanks to Dragon Warrior.

On the flipside, Double Dragon was the action game back in the day. Sure, it isn’t as good as its contemporaries and the sequel is vastly superior if only based on getting to kick guys out of a helicopter. Even so, this game holds a special place in my heart as the quintessential side scrolling beat-’em-up. Playing the game would get me all wound up and sweaty from doing little kid karate all over the house and gave me the foresight to know that throwing an oil drum at someone is a totally viable way to knock them over.

For nostalgia’s sake, I thought about maybe writing something about the adventures of Billy and Jimmy Lee. They had the whole “brothers fighting over the same girl” thing going on, but that doesn’t seem ripe for shenanigans.

When the sudden idea hit to combine these two, it seemed like peanut butter and chocolate. Not only could I still play the Dragon Warrior story straight, but I could shenaniganize it by slapping in Billy Lee as a fish-out-of-water protagonist. Sure, that type of story has been done to death, but I could maintain the integrity of Dragon Warrior and use Billy Lee and his ’80s street smarts for situational hilarity. Thus, “Double Dragon Warrior” was born.

"Double Dragon Warrior"The more I started to write this, the more the mash-up started to make sense. In Dragon Warrior, you play a nameless protagonist from another land who has no belongings and can barely hold his own against the cute little squish-pile slimes roaming around. I mean, how did that guy even get there, let alone become the hero? It actually makes more sense to think that the protagonist is from another world instead of being the great-grandson of a legendary champion of good.

While I intended to write “Double Dragon Warrior” without putting too much thought into it, I became engrossed in it. It was all I could think of during the week, and I spent most of my time after work and on the weekend writing and thinking and revising. By the time I was done, I’d written a damn novella. A novella about a kung-fu bro fighting monsters in a medieval fantasy land. Awesome.

"Double Dragon Warrior"Aside from the obvious deviations from the Dragon Warrior story, I kept the story mostly faithful to the original with only a few tweaks. I also wanted to be faithful to the time time where Double Dragon came out in order to avoid anachronisms. Since Double Dragon came out in the summer of 1988, Billy Lee’s pop culture references needed to be from around that time or sooner. While this gave me a hilarious Google search history, it prevented Billy Lee from falling into the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure rabbit hole of allusions.

So that’s the blabbery tale of why I chose to make “Double Dragon Warrior” a thing. I hope that everyone enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

–Theodore Geise

ALF Reviews: “Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1” (season 2, episode 16)

We’ve had a couple of double-sized episodes so far, but “Someone to Watch Over Me” is the first official two-parter. That means we get half a story this week…but that’s still three and a half more stories than usual!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


As I write this, I haven’t seen the second part yet, so maybe it’s unfair of me to dismiss this as a story that didn’t need to span two episodes. But, man, this episode feels like a complete waste. So little happens, which you’d think might leave room for small character moments, or fun dialogue, but it’s really nothing. I honestly could have watched a blank screen for 26 minutes and gone into part 2 with as much knowledge as I got from watching this.

It opens with ALF getting his hair cut while Willie hooks up a new phone. Neither of these things go anywhere, and I’m not sure either of them pays off down the line, so already we find a two-part episode spinning its wheels. That’s not a reassuring sign.

I admit that I like the idea of ALF getting his hair cut. It’s Lynn who does it, and she charges him $2 for the privilege. That’s cute, and it’s one of those nice (and oh so rare) moments of internal logic playing out on screen. In this case, it answered a question I didn’t even have, and I like that. I wish it built to…you know…a joke, or something, but I’m sure I’m just being greedy.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

The Ochmoneks and Jake come over, saying they’ve been robbed. That bit of internal logic with ALF getting his hair cut? Yeah, that’s definitely not the rule for this episode.

See, the Ochmoneks arrive, and we can see it’s dark out. Fine. Mrs. Ochmonek says she hasn’t been able to call the cops yet, because her phone was taken. Also fine. The assumption I make is that that’s why she’s coming to the Tanner home; she wants to use their phone to call them. This is borne out by the fact that that’s exactly what she does. Again, fine.

But then when Jake is raised as a possible suspect, it gets shaken off because he would have been at school when the house was robbed. And…doesn’t school usually end around three o’clock in the afternoon? How could the house have been robbed during school hours, but they don’t even notice it until after the sun goes down? Wouldn’t this have made a lot more sense if they just all went out to dinner and came back to find the place burglarized? Why bother building this chain of events just to get to the point that they don’t make sense? It’s better to tell us nothing than it is to prove that you haven’t thought it through yourself.

Willie declares that he has a phone, and I think we’re supposed to see this as a nice coincidence since he just hooked it up, but he’s had a phone for ages. Was that the payoff for Willie’s new phone saga? Who fucking cares if he hands her a new phone or one that’s been in the house for years?

Whatever. The Ochmoneks come back later and say they’ve decided to start a neighborhood watch, because another house has been robbed. Gee, for the neighbors we’re supposed to believe are annoying assholes, they sure seem to care a lot more than the Tanners do about the people around them.

All of this would be fine if ALF had any awareness whatsoever of the fact that the family at the center of the show is a collection of living shits, but instead, no. They’re meant to be the people we like and identify with. I wonder if any of the writers actually bothered to watch this show when it aired. I kind of doubt it.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

At the inaugural neighborhood watch meeting, the cop in charge makes some stupid joke, and the woman next to Kate says it sucked a dick.

Something about her line delivery made me wonder if she was the same woman who played Iola on Mama’s Family, and, sure enough, she was. She also, apparently, played Gunny on Major Dad, which was a connection I’d never made before, and it kind of blows my mind.

Not that I loved those shows growing up, but I definitely remember watching them. Way too much. So much so that this is the kind of shit I end up talking about on dates, ensuring that I’ll single-handedly keep eHarmony in business for many years to come.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

The cop in charge — Officer Griswold — is played by the guy who also played Lenny Scott back in “Take a Look at Me Now.” I was pretty nervous about having to see that dipshit again, but he’s not bad here. He’s not great, but he plays the character well.

He’s a standard, run-of-the-mill, stock neighborhood cop. Clipped speech, blandly friendly. No real personality, but you don’t need that with character-types like this. He’s plug and play, and that’s fine. I just wish they had an actual story to plug him into.

Much more interesting — and impressive — to me are the marks on the foyer wall behind him. Those suggest that something used to be hanging there…and now it’s gone. The show — or at least someone who worked on it — remembered what actually set this plot into motion: the Ochmoneks have been robbed.

It’s an unnecessary reminder, which is exactly why it’s so welcome. Somebody took the time just to do it, knowing that the camera wouldn’t linger on it and the characters wouldn’t comment upon it. They did it because they cared, and it works well, because we don’t see the Ochmonek interior very often, so a passive visual flourish like this tells us something’s missing, even if there’s no way we’d otherwise remember that something used to be there.

Officer Griswold Downey, Jr., asks if anyone there would be interested in establishing a neighborhood watch. But…I kind of thought this was a neighborhood watch meeting. Why would anybody have come if they didn’t have interest in one?

Whatever. The important thing is that way too much shit happened in this episode that didn’t involve ALF, so we reveal that ALF’s been watching everything through binoculars.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

Whew! He’s at home with Brian and Jake, so this is the perfect time for him to get a big boner and explain that it’s because Officer Griswold asked for street walkers and Kate raised her hand.


ALF making sex jokes to little boys — one of them the son of the subject of these jokes — is a more than sufficient dose of Fusco, so we cut back to the meeting.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

Officer Griswold says the neighborhood watch won’t be very effective if they don’t have a central location to call into with their reports, so he asks if anyone has radio equipment. Willie, of course, says nothing, but eventually Mrs. Ochmonek outs him. Officer Griswold then asks if he’d be willing to use that radio equipment and be block captain, and Willie says no.

Why. The fuck. Did he even come to this? And why. The fuck. Are the Tanners so God damned unwilling to help anybody ever? You’d think the joke at this point would be that these fuckheads are self-absorbed, worthless idiots, but no. The writers have no idea what they’ve created. At all.

Mrs. Ochmonek nominates Willie anyway, because she’s such an annoying bitch who doesn’t want her neighbors to get robbed, even if preventing these crimes means cutting into Willie’s long evenings of sitting alone on the couch doing nothing.

Iola asks if they get weapons, which was probably a funnier punchline before neighborhood watches started killing black teenagers for sport.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

The next day or whenever the fuck Willie is setting up his equipment. He’s wearing a captain’s hat and calling himself The Sentinel, but if he’s so excited about this then why did he decline the position in the first place?

There are a few ways you could go with this. You can make Willie gradually turn into an obsessive block captain, for instance. Or you can reveal that Willie was once hall monitor, or something, and went mad with power, which is why he declined this position…but now that he’s been forced into it, his madness resurfaces. But that’s not what happens.

In fact, nothing happens. First Willie doesn’t want to be block captain. Then he’s block captain and nuts about it. Then he lets ALF be block captain and doesn’t care. From one extreme to the other and back again in the space of about one minute, with no attempt at an explanation. Lovely stuff.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

The reason ALF gets to be The Sentinel is that he can use voice manipulation gadgets, or some other vague bullshit, to make his voice sound exactly like Willie’s. We never hear his voice change at all, so I guess we just have to take the show’s word for it that when people hear him on the other end of the radio, it sounds like Willie.

Of course, one thing they could have done is give us a scene where we see Mr. Ochmonek on patrol, or something, and while we know it’s ALF doing the talking, the voice we hear coming from the walkie talkie is actually Willie’s. So, I don’t know. ALF can say a bunch of clearly un-Willie things, like “I really want to eat a cat!” and “Do you think I could get Lynn pregnant and not have her mother find out?” Then Mr. Ochmonek can make funny faces and the audience of dead fake people can clap.

Of course, writing a scene like that would mean giving Max Wright jokes to perform, and that’ll happen over Paul Fusco’s dead body.

Anyway, ALF gets left unsupervised to do whatever the fuck he wants on the radio while pretending to be Willie, which Willie is perfectly fine with because fuck you fuck you fuck you so hard.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

Even more padding as we spend some time listening to Willie play “The Letter” on the piano. I have no idea why we’re watching this. It’s nothing to do with the plot — even in a loose thematic sense — and doesn’t contain any jokes. Couldn’t they at least have had him play “I Fought the Law” or something? I’ll let you folks in the comments suggest other ideas for songs that have anything at all to do with whatever the shit we are watching right now.

The Ochmoneks come over and quit the neighborhood watch because Willie’s been dicking around too much on the radio, a revelation that causes him to make this face:

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

I’m shocked, too, Willie. How in the world could you have predicted that turning your identity over to ALF and literally never checking back in with him would backfire this way?

There is one very funny joke here, though: The Ochmoneks tell Willie to retire their code names: The Phantom, and Lolita. Yeah, yeah, but the real laugh comes when Mrs. Ochmonek leaves the Tanner house and her husband says, “Right behind you, Phantom.”


ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

Willie goes out to the shed to yell at ALF, which is a more pressing situation in his mind than the fact that he just heard Jake making overt, aggressive sexual overtures to his daughter. Best to leave those two unsupervised and go argue with a puppet.

Commenter J. Paul (who knows a thing or two about cosmic crusaders) mentioned in a response to my review of “The Boy Next Door” how absurd it is that Willie sits idly by listening to this kid sexually harass Lynn, making no effort to stop it.

Remember, folks; the show wants you to believe this man is a social worker.

He yells at ALF for a while, until we can all be reasonably sure that Jake is done groping his teenage daughter against her will, and then leaves. Once he does, ALF sees Leo Tolstoy breaking into somebody’s house.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

He dials the house phone, which Willie answers. Willie listens to ALF panicking about the burglar, and then hangs up. I understand this is supposed to be a Boy Who Cried Wolf kind of thing, I guess, with ALF having established himself as an unreliable block captain, but in light of literally everything else we’ve seen him do in this episode it just comes across as another example of Willie not giving a shit about anyone who isn’t him.

ALF then calls Officer Griswold who hangs up on him, too, so the space alien grabs a wrench to murder the burglar I guess.

It’s the Ochmonek house, and when ALF gets inside the burglar flees. Oh, but Officer Griswold felt bad about hanging up on him so now the police are here and ALF’s fucked.

ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

And you know what? I’m okay with this cliffhanger. It’s a decent one. ALF is in a seemingly inescapable situation, with serious consequences. These aren’t even “he’ll be mistaken for the prowler” consequences…these are “he’s going to be flayed alive by the Alien Task Force” consequences. What’s more, there’s no obvious way out for him. We’re left with a genuine puzzle: we know he’s not going to get captured, but, at the same time, we don’t see any way for him to avoid capture.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m positive part two will bungle the shit outta this, but I appreciate where we leave ALF. Of course, even giving this episode that much credit, there’s a serious problem when the only good thing about the entire experience is a clumsily-established cliffhanger you know will be dicked up next week anyway.

One thing is for sure: this story did not need to be two episodes long. It could either have ended with ALF realizing he went too far with The Sentinel bullshit and ruined the neighborhood watch for everyone, or all of this could have been condensed to about five minutes of screentime, opening with the formation of the neighborhood watch due to recent crimes, and with this ALF-is-Trapped moment serving as the first act break.

There is one cute moment, though, in the pre-credits scene. ALF narrates, “Next week on ALF…” and then we see some black and white footage of old-timey car wrecks. It’s good, and, if anything, I can appreciate it because that kind of wrong-footage meta joke is so far outside of ALF‘s comfort zone that I have to give it props for trying.

But then ALF fixes the mistake and we see an actual clip from next week, which is of ALF standing in the Ochmoneks’ living room, wondering what to do. Wow! Certainly glad I got a peek at that heart-pounding action to come.

So, yeah.

Not much to say about this one, so I’ll turn it over to you folks in the comments: what bone-headed way are they going to resolve this cliffhanger next week? My money is on Jake raping Lynn to create a diversion so ALF can escape, then Willie leads the cops in a rousing rendition of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Jennifer Lawrence Lets People See Her Naked!

Jennifer Lawrence
…but you’re not one of them.

The big hubbub this past weekend, as I’ve sure you’ve heard, had to do with leaked photographs of Jennifer Lawrence. Some other celebrities (only one of whom was male, as far as I can tell) had photographs leaked as well, but the attention has been mainly on Jennifer Lawrence.

It’s easy to see why. She’s at the height of fame. She’s popular with both critics and audiences. And she is — this is a fact; there is no room for argument — an incredibly beautiful woman.

Wait…did I forget to mention that she’s naked in the photos?

Because she is. Sorry, that was probably important to bring up.

Oh, and…actually, did I refer to the photos as leaked?

Ugh, sorry. I’m not paying attention at all today. I meant to say “stolen.” And that’s absolutely crucial to bring up.

I like Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve never seen The Hunger Games or, well, most of the stuff she’s been in. If I hear that she’s going to star in a film, that doesn’t make me much more likely to see it. And, really, if she retired from acting tomorrow, I can’t imagine my particular future as a movie-goer would be impacted at all.

But here’s why I like her:

She’s real. She’s humble. She’s down to earth.

She’s a charming human being. She has a natural wit and warmth. She’s intelligent and, by all accounts, friendly to a fault.

It’s rare that I’ll catch an interview with an artist (of any kind) that I don’t already follow and find myself won over. And yet, I hear her speak…I listen to her engage with her interviewers and fans…I see an honesty in a smile that has every right to be forced…and I think, “I respect you.”

She’s also beautiful. I’m positive that if we met in real life and she fell in love with me, I’d have no qualms about engaging in a sexual relationship with her.

…but that hasn’t happened. She doesn’t know me. The odds are very good that she will never know I exist. And so it’s irrelevant how attractive she is. It’s irrelevant how many people would like to sleep with her. It’s irrelevant, because we don’t get to choose whether or not we get to see her naked. She gets to choose.

Which is why those photos exist. Those were taken for somebody that she wished to see them. That person wasn’t me. That person sure as hell wasn’t you. They were taken because she chose to let that person — that specific person — have them. That is her choice. She is famous, and she is gorgeous, and she is a human being. It’s the third thing that matters here…the first two are only details.

This is also why it’s important to distinguish between “leaked” and “stolen.” A “leak” implies that somebody involved — deliberately or not — released into the public something that wasn’t scheduled to be released. Sometimes it will be an early cut of a film, a draft of a script, a record album that won’t be in stores for another month. In other words, things that eventually we would see, in some form, at some point, anyway. Other times it will be somebody’s private letters. A sex tape released by a jilted — or money-hungry — lover. A surreptitious recording of a politician quantifying the precise number of people in the country he doesn’t actually give a shit about.

Leaks can be noble, leaks can be selfish, leaks can be problematic. But, strictly speaking, a “leak” needs to occur somewhere along the chain of custody. Somebody involved takes a look at what they’ve been handed and says, for better or worse, “I’m supposed to do A with this, but I’m going to do B.”

Theft is different. Theft is overtly taking what you are full-well aware does not belong to you. And that’s what happened with these photos.

The distinction, I think, is important. Had Jennifer Lawrence taken nude photographs for a boyfriend who later, embittered, released them, that would be a leak. It would not make their circulation much less troublesome, but there’d be an element of accountability there. Charges could be pressed, for instance. Jennifer Lawrence could step back and think twice about the kinds of guys she trusts with these sorts of things. While the end result might seem the same to passive observers like me and you, there is still a degree of corrective action that can be taken. A chance to reflect upon the decisions made that caused something like this to happen.

Instead, somebody just took them. I don’t know the specifics, and I wouldn’t understand even if you laid them out for me, but, essentially, these photos were retrieved from data accessible through the cloud. Not directly, and not openly. Somebody sought these out, identified the things they would need to do, break, and exploit in order to get them, did those things, got them, and distributed them.

No breach of trust, no apology, no lesson to be learned. Unless, of course, you count the lesson that the world is full of assholes.

We can fingerpoint. We can say that she shouldn’t have stored those photos in the cloud to begin with. But…did she? It’s possible, but I doubt she deliberately stashed them there. More likely, something synched in some way she didn’t expect. The hacker who stole them, however, played his part in this game will the full knowledge of what he was doing. There is very clearly somebody at fault here. And it’s a thief.

To circulate, to save, or even to seek out these photos is an act of cruelty, and it’s one that dehumanizes an innocent woman.

You have every right to decide who does and does not see you naked.

Think about that. Imagine, now, a world in which that was not the case. That somebody, with enough work, could retrieve photos, videos, transcripts, phone conversations, love letters…or anything, really…that you shared with somebody. With one specific somebody. Somebody you trusted and cared about enough to share them. And that once those things were retrieved, that’s it. It’s over. From that point forward, you no longer have any control over who could see you naked. (In any sense of that word.)

To deny Jennifer Lawrence that basic respect is to reduce her to sub-human status. It is to say, I am in command of who I am. I am also in command of who you are. My decision to see you naked overrides your decision to not let me see you naked.

And that’s pig-headed. Disgusting. And a pretty easy way to perpetuate the horrific rape culture we’ve so successfully built up around us. Sure, a woman might say she doesn’t want us doing this…but, really, how’s she going to stop us?

The disconnect here — preventing us from seeing this for what it really is — seems to be facilitated by the fact that she’s famous, as though that’s actually the key factor here. But it’s not; the key factor is that she is a human being who is now being exploited.

It could be your significant other. Your spouse. It could be one of your children. It could be your niece or nephew. Your colleague. Your best friend. Your neighbor. If any of them were being exploited in the same way, would you be just as quick to dismiss it? Would you seek out the photos yourself? Would you send them to your friends?

Everyone has — or should have, and needs to have — this basic right: the right to their own body. You don’t lose that right when you become famous. You don’t even lose that right if you choose to become a porn star or anything else extreme; you are still making the choice of who gets to see you naked. Maybe that choice is “everyone.” That’s a perfectly valid choice. So is “no-one.” And “I will decide on a case-by-case basis” is more valid still.

I haven’t seen the photos. I don’t want to see them, because that’s unfair. Jennifer Lawrence is one of many thousands of women I’m sure I’d enjoy seeing naked. But if they don’t actually want me seeing them naked, then that’s their choice, and I’m compelled to respect that.

I’ve never met her, and likely never will, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t — or can’t — respect her as a human being. Think of all the people you don’t know that, in the blink of an eye, could suddenly cease to respect you as a human being. What a cold and frightening new day you’d find yourself in. Could you willingly do that to somebody else?

Here’s my thing:

Jennifer Lawrence managed to be wholesome. Maybe not personally (I wouldn’t know) but in terms of her image. That’s what I liked about her in those interviews; the sense that she was a person. Not a body. Not cleavage. Not veiled entendres and teases. Her body was not her language. She was a young, attractive woman in Hollywood who managed, against all odds, to build and maintain a career based on something other than sexuality.

That’s valuable to me. The moment a beautiful young woman enters the public eye is the moment that the clocks start ticking down until we successfully drive her to abandon all self-respect for the sake of our entertainment…at which point we chide her for being a slut, and move on to the next one.

Jennifer Lawrence has sex. Big deal. Jennifer Lawrence lets people see her naked, in the privacy of the bedroom. Who cares? Jennifer Lawrence is the kind of star we need more of; stars with dignity, with talent, with a personality that refuses to be crushed by the machines we’ve built to crush it.

If you want to see a woman like Jennifer Lawrence naked, work on making yourself worth her time. She dates. She flirts. She fucks. She’s a human being.

The least you can do is treat her like one.

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