PERSONA 5 is the game of 2017

You'll never see it coming...

It took me two and a half months to finish Persona 5.

Few games have welled within me such a depth of feeling as Persona 4, all the way back in 2009. When Persona 5 released in North America this April, it had been eight years since its precursor had left its mark on me. I was ready for a new experience.

And so as the jazzy opening theme to the game greeted me through the speakers of my television, I grinned. Here it was again: a massive, sprawling RPG that dared to be different, soundtracked not with baroque orchestrations but with ebullient jazz; taking place not in an elaborate medieval fantasy world, but in modern Tokyo; drawn not in garish, gritty Unreal renders, but in a modest cel-shaded style that oozes personality; a game dripping with inspiration from and reference to Jungian psychology. Finally: Persona is back.

I played it for three hours that night. Then I stopped. I didn’t play it again until that weekend, when I played for a single four-hour session. Then I stopped, again.

This was how I played Persona 5: in fits and starts. To a certain extent, I was following the advice of the game itself, the loading screen adorned with an image of the protagonist’s face above the words “Take Your Time,” assembled with disconnected cut-out letters as if a threat in a ransom note. But more, it was because Persona 5 is simply overwhelming. Whenever I would put the controller down, I would involuntarily sigh, as if some heavy burden is easing off my shoulders.

It’s one of the best video games I’ve ever played.

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Dive to the Heart: An Impassioned Plea for KINGDOM HEARTS 3

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2002. It is my birthday. I am turning eight years old. It’s a Friday, so I’m spending much of the day in school (second grade, when I attended a small satellite school with around 30 kids per grade, so I knew everybody there). I am unaware that, half the world over, a video game is being released that would, in less than a year’s time, find its way into my PlayStation 2, and subsequently, my heart. Unaware that, as of today, I share a birthday with one of the most formative pieces of media I will ever encounter.

It’s summer now. We’re spending a week at my grandparents’ home in North Carolina. It’s a lengthy drive – around eight hours from our home in Jacksonville, Florida – so to keep me entertained, my parents have bought a portable VHS player for the backseat of the car. I love movies, already at eight years old, so this is particularly effective. I bring some favorites along with me – mostly Disney films of the Renaissance period – as well as a few new ones. Among these new VHS tapes is Mickey’s House of Villains, a Halloween themed collection of Disney short films with a loose frame story involving Mickey’s family-friendly nightclub being overtaken by classic Disney villains. It’s July; clearly the calendar holds no sway over my decisions.

I place the cassette into the portable player (the screen is roughly the size of a large smartphone screen; it feels like a theater screen). The pre-film advertisements begin to play (remember those?). Near the end of them, a thirty second ad plays. It enraptures me. Maybe it’s the soaring orchestral music, something I don’t hear often, but love whenever I do. Maybe it’s the brief glimpses of Aladdin, my favorite movie at the time. Or maybe it’s something else entirely, some strange alchemy of these disparate elements.

In any case, it is clear: I must play Kingdom Hearts as soon as I can.

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THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD is the latest battleground in the ongoing war for the soul of gaming

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The age-old debate about video games has been settled. The only ones who continue to hem and haw about classifying interactive audio-visual experiences as art are those same people who balked at comic books, and rock music, and rap music, ardently refusing to acknowledge the scores of people globally for whom these forms are critical pieces of cultural knowledge and understanding. We’re at a place where one can confidently claim, “video games are art,” with no need to defend the statement. Finally.

The questions now are not ones of classification, but of purpose and nature. What should we do with games, and what is core to the form? What makes a game? These questions are trickier. Some of the more vibrant debates being had continue to revolve around the maligned genre derisively referred to as “walking simulators” – games more or less devoid of active gameplay and defined instead by the player’s ability to freely roam and uncover bits of narrative scattered among a detailed environment that conveys the story of what happened (in better cases, the story of what is still happening) there.

That many of these games – Gone Home being the most famous – also center on issues of identity and representation (Gone Home is ultimately a story about a young teenage girl coming to terms with her identity as a gay woman, and the burgeoning romance she experiences) only obfuscates the artistic debate here. Battles over social justice and the poor treatment of women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals in the gaming industry are important, just as they are in the culture at large. But these are broader cultural battles that go well beyond the scope of video games (even as the video game industry has more trouble with these things than most – see 2014’s GamerGate hate movement, and the alt-right individuals it fostered who later became critical members of the Trump machine). These debates are over the soul of society; the debates over the soul of video games are different debates, buried beneath these stronger, more visible (and, admittedly, more important) ones.

Within this walking simulator debate is the key debate, the one that reveals the core tension of contemporary video gaming: that of story versus experience.

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Top Ten: THE WIND RISES

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The Wind Rises is a haunting moral quandary wrapped up in an exceedingly kind, beautiful film.

It’s a film that is not only not afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable, it actively revels in it. This is a Japanese film that stares directly in the face of the grim moral consequences of Japan’s militarism in the lead up to World War II, and refuses to blink. But it doesn’t condemn. It’s an achingly earnest, empathetic film that finds the human tragedy at the heart of Japan’s march to war.

When this film was released and slowly made its way around festivals (an agonizing year-long rollout leading up to the wide-ish release of the English dub nearly a year after its festival premiere), the conversation about it was heavily focused on whether or not this film “glorifies” Japan’s march to war. I read good arguments in both directions, but when I managed to finally see the film I fell very decisively on the side of “no, it super doesn’t.” Instead, I see this film as one about how good people can be moved to bad ends. It’s a movie about the corruption of ideals.

It is, in short, a movie about Hayao Miyazaki.

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Top Ten: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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Inside Llewyn Davis makes you feel, without feeling.

This movie makes me feel like I’ve just spent an hour crying, but without making me shed a tear. It carves out a giant hole in my emotional psyche, leaving an empty void of feeling, and making me spend the rest of my day in a vulnerable, more emotionally worn state. But I don’t cry when I watch it. I don’t “feel sad,” necessarily. I feel the aftermath of feeling sad. That weird state of mind that you enter after you’ve cried, and the problem isn’t solved but you’re through the crying part? That’s what this movie does.

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Top Ten: HUGO

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“Actually, it’s a movie about making movies,” is a sentence that you will hear a thousand some odd times if you ever make a serious go of film discussion and criticism.

It’s one of those phrases that’s coded into the core of the language we use to talk about films, and it’s a go-to for any critic who thinks their knowledge of the director’s approach to filmmaking is the golden key to understanding a somewhat difficult to parse film. I’ve said it many a time – perhaps most notably about The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece (though most would apply the phrase to his subsequent film, Inception) – and rarely been correct in its application. It’s a neat analysis, but it seldom reveals thematic depths.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a movie about making movies.

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Top Ten: CHILDREN OF MEN

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In the wake of a major migrant crisis, authoritarian politicians rise to power as regimes are challenged and toppled on a seemingly weekly basis. Fear rules the day as people struggle to get by, all the while the hand of government squeezes tighter and tighter as more and more democratic norms and fundamental human rights are waived in the name of protecting the country from the demonized “other.”

I am not describing the world in 2017. I am describing Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, Children of Men. But I may as well be describing 2017 for as similar as the world depicted in the film seems to be to ours.

This film was released in 2006.

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Top Ten: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

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When you’re in film school, you will constantly get the question, “What made you want to make movies?” You rehearse your answer, because you’re going to be asked it all the time, and you want to sound like you’ve thought about it. Often, the truth is that there really isn’t a definable thing. There’s a long spectrum of things that happened over the years, and a slowly dawning realization. But you give an answer anyway.

My answer was always The Blair Witch Project.

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Top Ten: THE WORLD’S END

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The World’s End is my answer to the question “Why not?”

This movie released in America in late August 2013 – little more than a week after I had started film school, proper, and a year into my college career overall. I love all of Edgar Wright’s films, and had been long anticipating this “conclusion” to his and Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. I was there on day one, of course.

I did not in my wildest dreams expect that this movie would be so critical to my life going forward, but I truly believe that The World’s End changed my life.

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Top Ten

Replicas of Oscar statues on display in Hollywood souvenir store on Hollywood Blvd

Way back in 2011, I had a list of ten movies that I believed were the best of all time. In 2012 that list changed a bit, with the arrival of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, but after that, the list remained static for four years. I would think, subconsciously, “oh yeah, those are my top ten,” even as I would rarely ever revisit them and wouldn’t think of them all that often. In my mind, I had done the work of ranking them, and that was that. That is, of course, ridiculous.

2012 through to 2016 were, by any reasonable consideration, the most transformative years of my life. I’ve spilled a lot of ink on the subject of how transformative 2009 through 2012 were (shout out to the Stanton Class of 2012 for making me a way better person through our shared experience in IB, that fiery crucible in which the only true heroes are forged), and I’ve spilled a fair amount more on how incredibly transformative the four following years were. But despite that, I never really sat down to think: how has this changed what I value in movies?

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