Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Alternis [ep01.07 & ep01.08]

After the rather intense last few episodes, Serial Box’s Alternis takes a needed breather with these two episodes, wrapping up some loose ends and tying back to some earlier moments in the series. What a difference only a handful of episodes have made, from the team at each other’s throats and trying to cheat to get ahead to working together and learning the joy of the game. It’s certainly a much more harmonious party that’s on display here, and despite the stress and storm of the battle royale, everyone seems to have emerged in a better place, ready to play their hearts out. To the reviews!


“Quickened Soup for the Soul” by Jacqueline Koyanagi (ep01.07)

No Spoilers: Most MMORPGs have some sort of mechanism to deal with character deaths. After all, having a giant GAME OVER isn’t exactly cool when you can’t save and quit, when things happen in real time and there is a sense of urgency to everything. In Alternis, it’s never really been explained what happens, though there have been hints of people _actually_ dying during the trials. Certainly that was a terrible glitch that got fixed, though. Right? Well buckle up, because in this episode we find out what happens when a player dies, and how it maintains stakes in this intricate game. What’s more, following the free-for-all that was the PvP nightmare the rest of the party just lived through, it gives the character who died a chance to learn the value of cooperation...and dance?
Keywords: Video Games, Afterlife, Cooperation, Politics, Dancing
Review: Okay those human-headed-crab-shyguys are some fucked up shit. Just gonna say it, what this episode does quite well is dive a bit into the weird of the setting, and a bit of the game mechanics that make death something to fear and avoid rather than just a mild annoyance. After all, in a game where performance shapes international power and politics, death being toothless wouldn’t really make sense. But this afterlife seems like something pulled from outside of the Alternis that Tandy created—or at least that’s what Ben thinks when he gets there and finds things to be appropriately hellish. The ground is fleshy and the quests are designed to challenge the players and to break them down a bit—to confront them with things that will get under their skin. For some that might mean weird crab-things. For Ben that means...dancing. Which all right, I continue to enjoy the way the series continues to bring some humor to the proceedings, this episode especially a needed breath after the chaos and danger and break-neck speed of the battle royale. Here we get a more intimate stay with just one viewpoint character, a much more plodding set of quests, but still an interesting and compelling story and a few new characters who are just delightful.

And really the series continues to pursue the game’s idea of cooperation over competition. It’s not a lesson that comes easy to gamers—not really, at least. Though many are motivated to team up for resources (like Russia helping the USA team and then betraying them), it doesn’t really get at the heart of what would be needed to actually create a more stable world political scene. And I do think that, ultimately, the game is positioning people to cooperate more. Even when that might mean allowing a great many of them to get killed in the PvP. In part because it leads to the situation in the afterlife, where people like Ben have to learn to trust and to work together, to try new things and to be a little less stuck in his ways. It’s framed to some extent as only lasting so long as everyone is “dead,” but at the same time it’s a bridge that has been formed, a trust that might not be broken so easily. And it’s only through that working together that Ben is able to escape Hell, and only through him working with his team, and likely his team working with other teams, that they’re going to be able to maybe “win” the game. Of course, what “winning” might look like in an MMORPG is difficult because there might not be an end, might not be a single story line or goal. But I do think the story is putting in the groundwork for something big, something where it’s not going to be about alliances versus alliances but bigger still, aiming for a situation where there is truly a united Earth.

But maybe that’s getting way ahead of myself. The episode is a fun one, with Ben the lovable grump that he is, failing until he drops his whole lone-wolf thing and actually lets people help him. For his character, I can only hope that it means he’s going to start growing up a little, getting more into the spirit of the game, which is also supposed to be fun rather than a battle to be won all the time. And as Dante had some growth in the last episodes getting into the teamwork spirit, I feel that this will put the party in a better place, more willing to engage with the game in the ways they need to in order to maybe get moving in the right direction and get some positive momentum. It deeps the world of the game, provides a nice focus on probably the least utilized of the characters so far, and is a lot of fun. Basically, it’s another wonderful read!

“Dungeons in Dragons” by E.C. Myers (ep01.08)

No Spoilers: After the party is reunited following the events of the epic PvP, Tandy gets a clue that sends them on the trail of a spell that will help them breeze through the challenge of the Skull King. The party heads to a desert named after a cat’s literbox and ends up splitting up in order to tackle this latest trial, which thematically resonates with the earlier “Xyzzy” by the same author. It’s a piece about doubt, and difficulty, and quests. Once more Tandy finds herself in a position where the game itself seems keen to help her. Will she try to bend that to her advantage, like last time? Or will she try a different way? The piece takes the relative downswing of last episode and keeps things relatively low-key while getting everything ready for the inevitable finale to come. It’s funny, fun, and full of striking imagery and moments.
Keywords: Video Games, Dragons, Platforming, Bravery, Bargains
Review: I haven’t been speaking very much about how these episodes vary from author to author, in part because I think the team has done a very solid job of flowing the episodes together, weaving them together not so as to be indistinguishable from each other but rather so that the shift isn’t jarring. But I do like that here I feel the author gets to revisit some earlier ideas set forth in “Xyzzy” that really pay off for me. Because the entire point of that episode was to show Tandy desperate to belong, trying to cheat in order to get a shortcut into feeling like part of the team, into feeling valuable. And it went poorly, with her having to reveal the truth to people in a rather awkward and embarrassing way that she’s still dealing with. Here the situation is much different, not only because she’s been a part of the team longer, but because she’s not trying to cut corners, not trying to trick her way into anything. She does use some of her knowledge of the game to play, but she’s very much working within the spirit of the game and of cooperation and teamwork. What happens here happens because she puts in the blood, sweat, and tears and dies a whole lot in platforming hell.

And I really like the design that’s gone into the challenges in this episode, because it does feel balance and video game-y but with some added depth and nuance. And it does allow Tandy to stand out and, more importantly to the plot, to level up. It also gives the party what they were looking for and technically gives them all that they need to get to the next big thing—the Skull King. Between the two things they’ve gathered here and in the earlier episodes, I think they should be able to teleport back into the keep, disguised as undead, and get shit done. Whether that’s how they’ll go depends on how much they feel like playing more by the rules and not using the item they got previously.

Mostly, though, this episode for me acts as a benchmark, showing just how far the party and individual characters have come since the disaster that was “Xyzzy.” The trust that had remained so elusive for the first half of the season has given way to a more coherent whole. Tandy has earned a place on the team at every step, helping them and trying to be an asset and mostly succeeding. But here she finally proves to herself that she belongs on the team not just because of her insider knowledge but because of her drive, her creativity, and her desire to make a positive difference in the world and in Alternis. And she finally lets down some of her need to help the team “win” in favor of getting more into what she’s doing. I love her interactions with Zin, by the way, and the quest with the crows was entertaining, kinda creepy, and sets up a few mysteries that I think will pay off nicely down the road. Throughout the series so far there has been the feeling that maybe the game wasn’t so much under the control of the various governments as people believe. And if Tandy is beginning to see the true architecture underneath that, I’m excited to see where it will go and how it will go wrong before it can go right. It’s another very fun episode, not with low stakes but without quite the same terror as the battle royale, and I feel like it ends the relative rest the season has offered before the finale ramps back up. I can’t wait to read more!


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