La-Mulana 2 is an Answer to the Question

“What if games had continued to evolve – but stayed in 2D?”

This is both a question asked by the Japanese developer NIGORO and the impetus behind their intricate masterpiece: the video game La-Mulana. They and their director, Takumi Naramura, consider La-Mulana a “Ruins Exploration Archaeological action game” though that may also be a euphemism for a “puzzle, trap and treasure with epic battles and quirky characters game.” Actually, La-Mulana is often classified under “Metroidvania”: a genre of 2D platformer game that puts a great emphasis on exploration, complex mysteries, hidden secrets, and challenges that sometimes require excellent hand-eye coordination or the cultivation of such. La-Mulana itself is a game that was created by Naramura, lead programmer Takayuki Ebihara and programmer/sound designer Houryuu Samejima’s love for vintage games on the old MSX that challenged players:  placing them into the middle of the chaos with almost no hand-holding, but making them earn their progress and gain a sense of accomplishment–or exhaustion–through doing so.

La-Mulana was originally a freeware game published independently by GR3 Project (before it became NIGORO) in Japan on Microsoft Windows based on these principles, and on the nostalgia of difficult 8-bit games, and was then remade as a 16-bit game with a few more additions for WiiWare, the PlayStation Vita, and Windows in 2011 and finally released on Steam in 2013. It has an arguably small fan-base, but I suspect it is only continuing to grow based on its wide acclaim. The premise of La-Mulana is that you play as an archaeologist named Lemeza Kosugi who regularly competes with his older archaeologist father Shawn for fame and is lured to the ruined temple of La-Mulana to supposedly find the origin of all life, and its treasure. And then it ends and it all seems to be over: even in the remake. But it still leaves you with questions.

Then NIGORO announced that they were working on a sequel: La-Mulana 2.

For a while, there was only the information that the main character would be Lemeza’s daughter and that the setting seemed to take place in a Nordic-themed dungeon. There was even a brief trailer for La-Mulana 2 and a few interviews with Naramura, but nothing more.

However, more information has been revealed since: not the least of which being the fact that La-Mulana 2 is being promoted and funded on Kickstarter. The game is being promoted as a Kickstarter Project by Playism Games, a company that is helping to translate La-Mulana 2 for its English fan-base, and also publishing both Japanese and English versions of the game. So far, from the time this article is being written, La-Mulana 2 has met a little over half of its $200,000 goal. NIGORO itself has a lot of plans with regards to where they will take this game should they meet, or even exceed, their goals. If you check out their Kickstarter, you will see all of their plans and the potential treasures that you yourself might get on should you be interested. I will say, however, that while La-Mulana 2 could be played and appreciated on its own, knowledge of the first game might keep you from discovering too many spoilers at this time. So if you are a gamer with a love of 8 to 16-bit sprites and synthesized music, with good hand-eye reflexes and a masochistic streak that likes to see a story gradually unfurl the more you suffer, or progress, you might want to consider backing this game.

That said however, if nostalgia is pain for the loss of one’s sense of home or the past and the aching hope of finding it again, NIGORO and La-Mulana is attempt to find that place again and create new memories and possibilities. For while the world of La-Mulana, with its dangerous secrets and ever-present mysteries, might have been based on MSX games such as The Maze of Galious, it seems as though the developer wants to take its own question to heart: continuing to take 2D from a medium, to a genre and back again to a medium with more complexity, depth and potential.

I myself am eager to see just how far their explorations will take us.

When Reading High Fantasy, Travel Light

Back in the early twentieth century, two journeys began. They both began in England. One was the story of a Hobbit cleverly manipulated, though not necessarily against his will, into joining a company of Dwarves to confront a Dragon. The other story is one of a young girl, raised by bears and dragons, that sees heroes as her enemies, talks to a Valkyrie,  and must travel the world to find and understand her place in it. One of these stories was made by a male Anglo-Saxon and Linguistics professor, poet and novelist, while the other was created by a female Liberal, Socialist, novelist, poet, and an early founder of some of the first birth control clinics in London. One of these stories survived and helped found a genre of high fantasy. The other story, however, was all but forgotten.

But fantasy author Amal El-Mohtar has not.

Naomi Mitchison wrote the 1952 novel Travel Light. While Mitchison is an interesting figure in and of herself, and she possesses many contemporary sensibilities about war, sex, and women’s rights, it is this particular novel of hers that fascinates me even more. Obviously, up until I read the above linked io9 article I neither heard of her nor this story. Travel Light is the story of a young girl named Halla, formerly the daughter of a king, who is rejected by her family and fostered by bears before, finally, being raised by dragons. It is after living amongst dragons and legendary monsters, and being taught to despise the heroes that hunt them, that she is approached by the All-Father Odin (The Wanderer),  and is forced to make a choice: whether she wants to hold onto the parts of her life that define her, or to shed them and wander as well.

It is actually because of the io9 article and Amal El-Mohtar’s own beautiful article Crossroads And Coins: Naomi Mitchison’s ‘Travel Light’ that I read this book. It is an interesting story in a few ways. First of all, unlike Tolkien and his other contemporaries such as C.S. Lewis, Mitchison makes her mythological and historical references clear. Halla’s world is very overtly the world of Nordic and Mediterranean mythology. Also, there have been mentions of Greece, Constantinople, and Novgorod. Mitchison manages to subvert, perhaps tweak these beings ever so slightly and succeeds in making the reader look at them from another perspective. In fact, not only does she very smoothly subvert some tropes, she may well have made a few of her own. At the same time, she makes it so that Halla’s story seems to take place in our world, as much as fiction, fantasy or otherwise can allow, and that in itself speaks volumes.

As such, Mitchison also does not shy away from the very real dangers and moments of grief and vulnerability that Halla faces and comes to understand as a girl, a woman, and essentially as a human being. There is one quote that really gets to me after Halla faces a particularly horrible situation where it is stated “It was as though the murderers who had killed the old dragon had also killed a dragonishness in herself and she hated them all the more for it.” Mitchison makes sure that that while the dangers and consequences are not gratuitous in detail, she makes abundantly clear that they are serious and very real. At the same time, as all of these events happen to Halla, proving how strong and how vulnerable she really is, there is another element of Mitchison’s writing to consider.

While Halla is immune to fire, has knowledge of all languages that are animal or otherwise, and even comes to be given a piece of the Wanderer’s cloak, the most striking thing about her as a character is how many times she sheds her sense of identity, even as she collects epithets–surnames–to become and learn something new. It very much critiques and averts some parts of “the hero’s quest,” and heroes themselves, but at the same time Halla’s journey maintains its own rules. Simultaneously, when the story does come back full circle, it makes for a very awe-inspiring realization and where the narrative begins as a fairytale, and heroes and monsters fade into mutual legend, it all ends in mythology.

Travel Light is a story that works on so many different levels of physical detail and emotional depth: a tale with a sentence structure and language flow that you sometimes have to pay attention to, that doesn’t shirk away from background intrigue, or dare I say Byzantine scheming,  but at the same time provides dimensions to characters and an interesting notion of spirituality. I have this temptation to state, in a similar way to Amal El-Mohtar, that Mitchison’s novel makes an excellent story for young girls trying to find someone they can identify with in literature and fantasy. Unlike Tolkien’s heroines Eowyn, Arwen, or even Galadriel in Middle-earth Halla is the protagonist of her own world and her journey.

But what I really want to say is that Travel Light works on many different layers, as most great stories do, and Mitchison says something to everyone. I do think that young girls should read this story, but I also think that boys and adult audiences would also definitely appreciate the depth and resonance that it provides.  In fact, I would definitely classify this novel as an obscure classic, as a narrative that can be read by someone as a child and read again as an adult with a different kind understanding but still somehow managing to retain a sense of timelessness.

In the end, Travel Light is a work that deserves to be on a shelf next to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and all the great timeless stories of fantasy: that is, when a parent is not reading it to their child, or when their child is not reading it for themselves and imagining themselves stripping away all their preconceptions of reality … and traveling light.

Amazons are to Kryptonians as Wonder Woman is To …?

Here is the scene.

We have Christopher Nolan’s Batman, who sounds like a chain smoker requiring subtitles, and Zack Snyder’s Superman, who might as well be renamed Collateral Damage. They will be in the next Collateral–I mean Man of Steel film (which might as well, from my understanding, be called Batman Vs. Superman). Just from my tone itself, you can already figure out how I feel about that. Based on how Superman leaves Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, and also considering that Batman is going to be played by another actor, it already feels clunky in and of itself. But perhaps they can salvage something. Ben Affleck could possibly do a good job representing the Dark Knight and perhaps Snyder’s Superman might start to actually symbolize the House of El Kryptonian symbol of hope on his chest.

But all right. Fine. At least we are going to see a live-action Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, on the big screen for the first time since, well, ever as all the other iterations have been television shows, pilots and a direct-to-video animated film. I mean, Wonder Woman’s presence in this very film can be seen as a segue into her finally having her own film. Perhaps DC and Warner Bros. believe that having her in this crossover will cement her presence in this gritty, contemporary, realistic version of the DC Universe or build up her market presence to the point of thinking that they will make an equal amount of box office returns from her as they would her male counterparts. All right. Fine. I would have loved to see that standalone Wonder Woman film directed by Joss Whedon we’ve been hearing about for years now, and I thought maybe that this still doesn’t rule it out.

And then this rumour came out.

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Take a moment to read that article and let the prospect of it sink in. You know, it’s funny. In some ways this potential origin is an interesting interpretation. Wonder Woman and the Amazons, at least in one retelling of their origins, were created directly from the Earth by Hippolyta and the gods. In the spirit of the ancient Greek myths they come from, the Amazons literally “sprang from the soil” of their land. In other words, DC’s Amazons were not born of man and woman and neither were the Kryptonians if you look at Man of Steel and some Superman origin reinterpretations. Also if you want to interpret the Amazons from a scientific, as opposed to a supernatural, perspective it makes sense that advanced genetic engineering over time is how they can reproduce without a male breeding partner.

And you know, it is very clever to think about the descendants of some of the lost Kryptonian colonies evolving in this way, adapting to another world, making “truth-telling” technology in the form of a lasso, Invisible aircraft, and becoming something different from Superman is all very well and good except that these should not be Amazons …

And Wonder Woman should not be a descendant of watered-down Kryptonians.

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the question as to why Kryptonian settlers would feel the need to engineer solely female descendants over time and the fact that there is absolutely no reason as to why their descendants would become less powerful under Earth’s sun when you consider that Superman–first generation Kryptonian or no–lives on Earth for many years and only somehow gets stronger for it. We can look at continuity. I mean, you would totally think in Man of Steel that Zod or Jor-El would have known there was a colony on Earth and made some mention of it. There was also an old Kryptonian surveyor ship on Earth too that didn’t seem related to anything aside from being a plot-point to allow Superman to access his father’s AI. And when the Phantom Zone soldiers, and Superman himself, were causing chaos and havoc in Metropolis … I don’t know, you’d think that Wonder Woman would have stepped in at some point?

I mean, we can explain that away too. Perhaps the Amazons are on Paradise Island and don’t want to interfere with the dysfunctional nature of “Man’s World.” Perhaps they tried to a long time ago and they, and perhaps their male and female ancestors, were considered to be gods before that “experiment” didn’t work out. Maybe this is Wonder Woman’s first ever time away from Paradise Island, or its equivalent, and she has some kind of mandate that may, or may not, be like the one she has in the comics. I can even understand that DC and Snyder want to make a more contemporary “realistic” take on all DC superhero origins and come up with yet more “realistic” interpretations of these stories. I mean, it’s no accident that Snyder was the director of the film adaptation of Watchmen: the comic that was central to making an era of cynical and Revisionist superhero mythology. Ever since that comic and others like it, that gritty, hard realism has become a genre for comics and film.

But look at it like this. Despite the grittiness added to The Dark Knight trilogy, which admittedly didn’t take much, Batman’s origins are pretty much the same: Bruce Wayne’s parents die by crime and he decides to become Batman. Despite the grittiness and outright destruction in Man of Steel, Superman’s origins are also pretty much the same: Krypton is destroyed and Superman is sent to Earth and is raised by the Kents and so on. So the male orphans lose their parents, gain their surrogate parents, and go on. But Wonder Woman, who is one of many daughters born from what seems to be a single mother isn’t a demigoddess anymore. She isn’t born from the clay of the Earth. Wonder Woman isn’t born from a race of immortal women gifted with wisdom and power by the gods with their own traditions, cultural artifacts, and philosophy. She isn’t different from Superman with her own background and advantages.

No. Instead, after having stripped her world and origins of myth and magic (thus eliminating it entirely from the DC Universe on film) Wonder Woman is essentially a less-powerful genetically-modified descendant of Kryptonians and not nearly as strong as Superman.

And I know. No one in the DC Universe is as powerful or as skilled with that power as Superman. But the fact is: Wonder Woman has her own origin story. She had her own unique background that is completely unrelated to Krypton. Wonder Woman stands on her own. So while the idea of the Amazons or something like them being genetically-modified descendants of Kryptonians is clever, I’d rather it be someone else’s back-story as opposed to Wonder Woman’s. Would it seriously kill them to try something else? For instance, Paradise Island itself often feels like it exists in another interrelated, but separate reality from Earth’s. Perhaps millennia ago, there was something like magic a long time ago and the beings known as gods and their creations fled to this other reality when the world began to change. Maybe magic is the science and physics of Paradise Island’s dimension and Wonder Woman is sent back into “Man’s World” to address a cosmic balance that is in danger of being even disrupted further than it already is. Yes, this example of what else could be done does sound like a comic book idea, but for a comic book film I’d think that sort of logic would make sense and it would keep Wonder Woman’s story, and importance, relatively intact.

It’s almost like DC and Snyder want to adapt the mentality behind the Thor movies to this character and the world they are trying to remake while not realizing that the Asgardians were already given their science-fictional origins in the comics from whence they came. Perhaps it is a marketing ploy, or their idea of how to make Wonder Woman “relatable” to a particular demographic. I don’t really know. But I believe that in what feels to be an immensely clunky and haphazard film to come that Wonder Woman should stand on her own merits  and I sincerely hope that sigil of the House of El can be applied to this rumour and not to the Princess of the Amazons.

UPDATE:

Like mythology, a rumour spreads like wildfire: to the point where you don’t always know where it begins. Unfortunately, in this case, we at G33kPr0n have been made aware of where this rumour began and it was not from a reputable source. According to one commenter SuperheroEnthusiast, who was kind enough to link us to this following article (http://www.newsarama.com/19980-wonder-woman-is-kryptonian…), the rumour of Wonder Woman being a descendant of Kryptonians is not something that sanctioned by DC, Warner Bros. or anyone associated with them. Instead, it simply an opinion/theory by a Blog poster named Bill “Jett” Ramey. You can find Jett’s original post, who is in no way affiliated with the film project, at his site Batman-On-Film (http://www.batman-on-film.com/BOF-Mailbag_1-1-14.html). The fact of the matter is that our post on this subject was always based on a theory: a theory that became so widespread that it caught the attention and circulated through many other online magazines. Once again, thank you SuperheroEnthusiast for bringing this to our attention.

2 to 3D Games, Strips and Alternative Comics: A Meditation on Perspective

And now for a bit of armchair medium theorizing: with a control of some sort in my hand.

I ran into something a little while ago now that I found really interesting. When I finally caved into the powers of darkness and bought myself a very discounted copy of La-Mulana, for a rainy day where I really want to be more of a masochist than the workaholic that I usually am these days, I came across something that its company NIGORO actually said with regards to the development of video games.

NIGORO states that it creates its games with one question in mind: “What if games had continued to evolve – but stayed in 2D?”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b0/La-Mulana_gameplay.png

This is a really interesting question to me on more than a few levels. I looked at the issue, to some extent, in my old post How to Turn a Medium into a Genre: 8 to 16-Bit Video Games but I never quite heard it phrased this way before because, in the end, NIGORO looks at this change from a different perspective. While my original article briefly looked at and defined a medium as something with direct limitations that, when overcome became a genre, this one thematic question on NIGORO’s part not only made me realize that 2D and 3D games can still be considered different mediums based on what they can or can’t do within their own guidelines, there was also a turning point where the emphasis of video games moved away from two-dimensions into the three-dimensional. And this changed things.

I know: that last sentence was very profound in all of its simplicity. 😛 Certainly there were many popular 3D games and attempts at 3D in the past, Doom and Castle Wolfenstein coming to mind, but they were on computers as opposed to consoles. The console systems themselves were becoming dominated by 3D graphics. I’ll admit that my personal exposure to many games was relatively limited growing up and when you add to the fact that I lost interest in many of the new ones after a time–and in video games themselves at a certain point in my life–it certainly showcases some gaps in my own knowledge.

But it’s fascinating to consider that once we used to interact with two-dimensional realities with elemental sprites, always from a distance, and after a while three-dimensional games–successfully or no–attempted to expose us to a more immediate reality. Think about it: 3D games and their approximations allowed us first-person shooter games such as my previous examples and exploration scenarios such as those found in the Myst games. The discovery and approximation of 3D changed many of our gaming experiences and perspectives in various ways. Can you imagine any of these games in two dimensions? As side-scrollers? As platformers?

File:Doom gibs.png

Yet other things changed in the meantime. I do remember playing Mario 64 for the very first time and, while revelling in the advanced polygon graphics of the time, finding the controls extremely difficult to use. Perhaps that early period of adjustment, combined with the reliance of more detailed graphics to wow players, changed some gameplay mechanics. In many ways, these mechanics became more simplistic and remained that way. I do remember the time that Nintendo embraced three dimensions there was also a lot less emphasis on games with storyline, player reflexes and, again, gaming mechanics.

This is of course a generalization and one based on my own limited experiences, but NIGORO’s comment that there was a point where 2D games became very advanced and then all but stopped being created really resonated with me. For a while the 2D game, as a medium of game-play, became associated with “retro” games and recreations of said classic games. NIGORO, however, argues precisely what I just mentioned: that 2D games are not vintage classics, retro-games, or 8-bit dreams of lost nostalgia, but are rather representative of its own art form.

And I agree with this. It still makes me wonder though. It fact, it makes me look at parallels. It is no secret that one day I want to do a creative Comics Vs. Games project with a collaborator. The idea of comics and video games, comparing and contrasting them, has always intrigued me and all the more so ever since I found out about those exhibits. And NIGORO’s question makes me wonder: what would have happened if comics had remained solely in the comic strip form? Or, better yet, what if comics had never moved on from that experimental period very few people ever talk about.

Allow me to elaborate. While the developing comics industry focused on political caricatures, followed by compilations of strips into books and then superheroes and other stories, there were artists that experimented with what the form could actually do. There is a misconception that comics as a medium was inspired by film when, in fact, not only has it sometimes been the other way around but comics itself as a medium has its own unique characteristics. Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 compiled by Dan Nadel is an example of the above and it makes you wonder what would have happened if many of these artists, some of whom didn’t even create traditional or linear panels and plots had been encouraged to continue their work: if, in most cases, their experiments had not been interrupted by financial concerns, industry-trends, and time. Certainly, newspapers used to afford a lot more space for the comic strip (which makes me wonder if 2D games might not, in themselves have space to do other things that 3D ones can’t). And while Underground Comix alternative movements grew to contain some of these ideas and different modes of graphic storytelling, it still makes me wonder “What if?”

Perhaps that isn’t even the best parallel. Of course, we know at least Alan Moore and his Watchmen’s idea of what might have happened if the Comics Code had never been enforced or created in the mid-1950s: specifically with regards to how comics could have evolved at that point. However, in the case of 2D games giving way to 3D it seems to be more a factor of marketing than changing social and political climes. Both mediums remained after these changes, but they were sometimes watered down compared to what they used to be: with some exceptions.

Of course, 2D games never really died out. They remained on computers and now they exist as phone games. And these are not remakes of classics, though they might be based on their designs, but entirely new games in themselves. Even as the Oculus Rift is being developed to take 3D further into virtual reality, perhaps the resurgence of 2D games is motivated by a sense of nostalgia in the 21st century: much in the same way that NIGORO’s decision to create games like La-Mulana was. It is also interesting to note that Stephanie Carmichael in her article Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime takes Chris Ware to outer space, whether he wants to go or not determined that the creators of the Spacetime game had actually been influenced by Chris Ware’s experimental comics art aesthetic with its basic elemental shapes, and a sense of space and loneliness. In fact, if you look at the game itself, it almost subverts the trappings of a 3D aesthetic in a 2D world.

 

But still, I do wonder what kind of world we would have had if only comic strips existed, or there had been no Comics Code, or if comics that told alternative stories and presented its art-forms in non-linear ways had become mainstream far sooner in our history. Oh, and if all we had ever played or known were 2D games: 2D games that didn’t necessarily remain 8 or 16-bit (NIGORO’s decision to remake La-Mulana‘s aesthetics in a manner reminiscent of Super NES graphics in no way takes away from its old-school feel in my opinion) but just kept changing mechanics wise, and story wise alongside of us. It’s really amazing how things turn out when you think of it in that way. It really is all about perspective.