“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” - Theodore Sturgeon, 1958
Substitute “holiday entertainment” for “science fiction” in that final sentence and you have my point of view on media crafted for the final month of the year. Major conglomerates squeeze out acres of tinsel-coated treacle every year, and every year we blithely choke down the sickeningly sweet fare while participating in the capitalist bloodbath that is the holiday season. How is a sane person, a person of discerning tastes supposed to find worthwhile creative output to consume while dodging bell-wielding Santas and jamming fingers in ears to ward against the blare of traditional carols?
*The author pauses and wipes the froth from his lips. Takes a deep breath. Continues*
Let’s face it: when you scrape away all the crud, the holiday season has the potential to glimmer and shine, rousing the hopeful child in all of us. As cynical and jaded as I am, I’ll be the first to grudgingly admit that I like parts of the holidays: a strong snowstorm, a warm fire, a glass of eggnog, and soft carols playing. It is the good things that remind us that despite the best efforts of marketing departments all over the world, the holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year.
Dear reader, for you I have sifted through and removed the crap to find the ten percent that is amazing, wonderful, and, dare I say it…magical in this year’s offerings. We’re being media agnostic for this column, so look for the following gems in your local bookstore, game shop, movie theater, mobile phone, and web browser.
These, then, are the Best Things of Christmakanzikah for 2016.
The question has haunted children of all ages since Victorian times: How does Santa manage to enter homes that have no chimney on Christmas? And how does he do it on one night?
The answer: A Portal gun from Aperture Science.
A group of game developers going by the nom de plume of “Cave Johnson’s Merry Elves” have released an ambitious and stunningly detailed mod for Portal 2 titled “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” In the game, you are Kris Kringle, a former Aperture test subject who escaped the test chambers with four things: a special portal gun, a gel fabricator, a portable computer running GlaDOS, and a compulsion to give presents to children (apparently a side effect of some of the tests).
In single player mode, gameplay consists of GlaDOS guiding you through various periods of history where you must deliver a sack of gifts to the right children. GlaDOS is as unhelpful as ever, sometimes actively seeing to sabotage your efforts while other times helping you when you need it most. You travel from town to town and time to time, sometimes having to work your way though castles, sometimes villages, sometimes skyrise apartment buildings. Using the special gel attachments for your portal gun, your goal is to deliver all the gifts in the time allotted before moving on to the next setting.
Lest it become too easy, you have a number of obstacles that you’ll have to deal with while completing your mission. Some or the old standbys; convoluted mazes, tricky maps, difficult puzzles. However, the game developers also decided to incorporate the use of robot opponents, so that as you try to deliver the gifts, various enemies will try to stop you. Sometimes they are village guards or police, sometimes angry parents with shotguns. My personal favorite was the robo-Richard Dawkins with the rocket launcher and the penchant for lecturing while attacking.
Multiplayer mode is a real treat, using some of the usual suspects from Deathmatch and Team Fortress to spice things up. It is possible to play Capture the Flag (or the Capture the Tree, in this case), pure one-on-one shoot ‘em up using only portal guns and the hazards of the maps as weapons, or a new game called Black Friday Deathmatch where the goal is to collect as many of the gifts from a store called Mall-Wart while being assaulted by zombie shoppers.
If you enjoyed any of the Portal games (and I know you did), this will be a welcome addition to your collection.
A Complete Holiday Experience For The Rest Of Us
If the sitcom Seinfeld gave anything to the world, it was the holiday of Festivus. The Wikipedia definition (yes, there is a definition) is as follows:
“Festivus is a secular holiday celebrated on December 23 as a way to celebrate the holiday season without participating in its pressures and commercialism. It was created by writer Dan O'Keefe and introduced into popular culture by his son Daniel, a screenwriter for the TV show Seinfeld, as part of a comical storyline on the show.”
According to the lore, you need the following to have a proper Festivus celebration:
- A Festivus Pole
- A Festivus Dinner
- An Airing of Grievances
- Feats of Strength
- Festivus miracles
You’ll be happy to know that the folks at the Thinkgeek website have you covered. This year, they are offing Festivus-In-A-Box.
When you order the Festivus-In-A-Box, you get the following:
- A collapsible aluminum pole which can be mounted in place
- A cookbook of traditional Festivus meal suggestions
- A board game designed to make the Airing of Grievance fun for the whole family
- The Charles Atlas Guide to Feats of Strength, detailing over two hundred ways to show your personal prowess
- An air horn, for heralding the arrival of Festivus miracles
- a video of Jerry Stiller (or at least a remarkable computer generation), explaining the history and proud traditions surrounding Festivus
- a storybook with audio by the original Seinfeld cast reading tales of Festivi (Festivuses?) past
- a remarkable book called A Festivus Carol, wherein a miser named Scrooge is visited by three bartenders who show him the true meaning of Festivus
- and a goldfish, for reasons which remain a mystery to this reviewer.
All this for the low, low price of two hundred dollars. It’s a steal…a STEAL, I say. Even if you do not celebrate Festivus yourself, it’s the perfect gift for those odd friends you have. You know the ones.
I Made You Out Of Clay…And Light
Nothing says holiday good times like gambling, and for holiday gambling, it’s hard to beat the simple elegance of a dreidel. These days, however, are days of miracle and wonder, so why settle for a spinning piece of clay when you could have a holographic toy on your Android phone?
Holodreidel is a free app you can download for your Android device. You need the most recent version of the Android operating system and one of the HTC or Samsung phones that support the 3D-Touch interface, but if you have all these, you can be playing the centuries old Hanukkah game wherever you like; in meetings, in line at the groceries, even on the train home from work.
As I mention, the app is free, but if you are willing to pay for the Pro version, you can play over any 6G for WiFi connection with friends anywhere in the world. They even throw in a digital 3D menorah as a token of good will. Admittedly, it’s not as if a great miracle happened here, but if you want to celebrate with friends far away, this is not a bad way to go about it.
…An Angel Gets Its Wings
Hollywood has never remade the classic It’s A Wonderful Life for a good reason: it would be impossible to capture the same story in the same way to pull the same heartstrings a second time. Admittedly, there have been multiple re-tellings, in television series especially, showing what the world would be like if the main character had never been born, but no one has given the subject a movie-length treatment.
When I heard that everyone’s favorite media terrorist spent the last year putting together a remake of the Frank Capra classic, I cringed. Xomsky might be a lot of things, but I never thought that “sentimental” would be one of them. Yet here is one of the finest, most touching stories I’ve seen to date, and as is typical with Xomsky’s work, everything stems from changing one critical part in the story. In his Star Wars remake, it was swapping the roles of Luke and Leia so that she was a farmgirl with the Force and he was a prince. In this telling of It’s A Wonderful Life, Xomsky takes the same story, the same settings, and yes, through the miracle of modern technology, the same actors and shows us what the world would have been like if George and Mary Bailey’s children had never been born.
The story is told through the eyes of the four children as things become more desperate for George, dealing with the failure of his Building and Loan. The children see how it affects their mother, and on Christmas Eve, the four meet in Zuzu’s room and talk about how hard things have been. That’s when Zuzu says that maybe it would be easier for Mommy and Daddy if the kids had never come to be.
The charm of this film, and part of what makes it so poignant, is the relating of the tale through the children’s eyes. All too often children see the cracks in the facade that their parent try to hold up to shield them from the troubles of the adult world. Children are not fooled: they know when Mom and Dad are having money troubles, or when they are not getting along. Xomsky uses Clarence the Angel to show the children how life is both joy and pain, and family needs to stick together to give one another strength. He shows the children that, rather than being a burden, they bring joy to their parents lives.
It is a surprisingly upbeat and positive message, considering that the idea of an intact nuclear family is usually regarded as some sort of outmoded vestigial remnant of a time gone by instead of an idea to be pursued and cherished.
This is a Holiday tale both realistic in its scope and heartwarming in its message. You should not miss it.
Wrapping It Up
And there we have it: some of the best media experiences to cross my line of sight this season. They vary wildly, but in each I found a little bit of joy and hope for the year ahead. There’s something for everyone in that pile of goodies, and it’s my sincere hope that you enjoy them.
This will by my last column for 2016, so let me close with a wish. I wish for you all of you in the New Year, that your families be happy and healthy, that your jobs be reasonable and low stress, that your drinks be strong and fortifying, and that your tables be overflowing with plenty. Turn off your devices, sit in the candle- or fire-light with your friends and families, talk for a while. Unplug, and remember the richness that comes from life beyond the screen, beyond the glow of a 3D display.
And, of course, if you want to find me, you can do so on Qlatch, via email, or on any of the other social networks. Until next year, be good, and if you can’t be good, well…be safe. And if you can’t be safe, name the child after me.