Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Saga: Where Power Lies in Stories and Cats Won't Let You Lie

There are many ways to explain the appeal of Saga, the hit graphic-novel series by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which has sold over one million copies (by Your Humble Narrator's estimate) since its debut in 2012. Most explanations lead back to the authors' attempts to answer a central question of the sci-fi genre: what happens when ideas become real? And can one introduce a healthy dose of reality into idealized forms of fiction, like love stories and war stories and adventure stories? The answer to the last question is clearly “yes.” Twenty-five issues in, Vaughan and Staples's series remains as exciting as ever, while retaining its commitment to the authors' initial questions and principles.

What makes Saga unusual is the authors' refusal to bind themselves to a clich├ęd, shopworn definition of “realism.” The core human-interest story of the series is the relationship between Alana, ex-soldier from the high-tech world of Landfall, and Marko, ex-prisoner from the “magic” (or “exotic-matter”) -using people of Wreath, Landfall's moon. Vaughan and Staples clearly had Romeo & Juliet in mind when writing the series, but Alana and Marko are too busy running for their lives, and too busy raising their baby Hazel, to waste much time on moonlight and poetry. Theirs is an earthy relationship, defined by blood and dirty diapers and furtive sex and the all-too-occasional hot shower or peaceful meal with family members. On the other hand, both lovers recognize that romantic ideals are important, insofar as they first bond with one another over a romance novel, A Nighttime Smoke, that Alana reads to Marko while he is a POW. On the third hand, the novel's author, D. Oswald Heist, appears about midway through the series as a major character, equal parts genius and drunk. Heist indicates that there's both more and less to his novel than meets the eye; it's both a cheap potboiler and a veiled statement of Heist's philosophy of love and war. The core relationship of Saga, the story that created that relationship, and the author of the story, are all bundles of contradictions.

The series' setting, an interstellar civilization convulsed by the Landfall-Wreath war, reflects the  tensions and contradictions within the authors' vision of reality. Terrible things happen on the worlds of Saga: world-spanning symbionts turn unwitting visitors into killers, children are sold into sexual slavery, animated skeletons attack those who disturb their boneyards, poison gas attacks blow up non-combatants' heads, landmines cut teenagers in half, and giant space babies (or “Timesucks”) destroy starships with black space goo. Vaughan and Staples could easily have turned this universe into a dystopia, but instead they infuse the grittier details of the milieu into a setting with many of the features of a children's book. Staples uses a bright, colorful palette, and paints worlds not merely wondrous but almost-unbelievable: thousand-faceted “Clockwork Stars,” pleasure-worlds with moon-sized spangles and signs, and moons that become giant eggs. Most of the universe's intelligent inhabitants, moreover, are humanoid-animal hybrids, mouse-headed medics and diminutive walrus-herding seal-men and the like. This makes them seem more childish and “cute” than humans; even a belligerent rhino-headed prisoner amuses us when he smilingly tells Prince Robot IV how many robots his men once buried. It's worth noting, too, that the more monstrous aspects of Saga's universe all have justification for their actions. The aforementioned giant space baby attacks our protagonists' spaceships because they set off a missile near its head. Planetary symbionts turn visitors against one another because they want to incorporate the survivors into their ecosystem. Skeletons attack intruders reflexively, without malice. There are no intrinsically evil races in Saga. Hazel's babysitter, Izabel, makes this point the first time she meets Alana and Marko and learns that they refers to her race of psychic ghosts as Horrors. “'Horrors,'” she replies, “ is that...what you guys call indigenous peoples? That's kind of racist.”

Why then do people do evil things? The greatest evil in Saga is the war between Wreath and Landfall, which is a very modern conflict: little chivalry, constant atrocities, and a huge accountability gap between home-world civilians' experience of the war and the pain and violence their soldiers inflict on others. Vaughan and Staples haven't told us much yet about the causes of the conflict, and their narrator, future-Hazel, tells us early on that “It was a time of war – isn't it always?” But we have a few clues. Vez, the woman who hires The Will to kill Alana and Marko, tells him that our heroes' relationship and child violate Wreath's “Narrative,” which suggests that Wreath is fighting the war for the sake of a story. Another mercenary, The Brand, tells two journalists that Wreath and Landfall both want the star-crossed lovers neutralized because they don't fit into the warring worlds' approved narrative - “It's the stories with no sides that worry them.” Stories, in the form of the virtual-reality costume dramas broadcast on the interstellar Open Circuit, anesthetize home-worlders and distract them from the battles fought and bodies broken on their behalf. Even the least human-seeming race in Saga, the television-headed robots whose prince numbers among Alana and Marko's pursuers, seem lost in their own fantasies, fragments of which periodically flicker across their face screens. Stories, Vaughan and Staples tell us, are both powerful and dangerous. They can make us love, like Heist's novel, or make us fight, and each of these leads to crude and permanent consequences. Hazel, of course, is one of those consequences, and since she's the narrator, she and the authors tend to favor the love-and-babies kind of stories. I'm not one to say that's a bad thing, particularly since there's hardly a shortage of guts-and-glory war stories in comic-book form.


P.S.: One can't finish an article about Saga without mentioning Lying Cat, the giant lie-detecting blue cat who accompanies The Will. Apart from occasionally advancing the plot, Lying Cat's main function is to help protect the main characters and please the audience.

(The first image above, the cover of Saga issue 1, is by Fiona Staples and is licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia. The second, of authors Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples (New York, Oct. 2012) is licensed under Creative Commons by Luigi Novi.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Games That Don't Suck: Pandemic

Pandemic holds a secure place on most lists of “gateway games,” simple but thought-provoking board games that can introduce and attract neophytes to the hobby. It does so, I think, partly because it is easy to learn and quick (45-60 minutes) to play, partly because its accelerating threat schedule and narrow victory conditions make it a very tense game, and mainly because it helps introduce newcomers to a new kind of simulation, the cooperative game. The other titles I've reviewed here so far, like Dominion and Guillotine, are competitive games, where one player wins at the end. In Pandemic, however, either all the players win or everybody dies. I'm pretty sure that “everybody,” incidentally, means everyone in the world. Why play for low stakes?

The game board shows a map of the world, with 48 circles representing large cities. These are the spaces the players' pieces will occupy, move through, or meet in during the game. They are connected by red lines, representing rail and sea and air links, that both players and diseases can move along. To move, players employ colored pawns, each representing a different specialist trying to find a cure for the four epidemic diseases ravaging the world. Each specialist has a complementary ability letting them bend the rules in a different way: the Medic can treat diseases more effectively, the Scientist can discover cures more efficiently, and so on.

The diseases, which are the game's antagonists, are signified by four different colors of cubes. Infected cities have 1-3 cubes of the appropriate disease (sometimes multiple diseases), indicating the virulence or saturation level of the illness. Nine cities start out with varying levels of infection, and at the end of each player's turn s/he draws 2-4 infection cards and places additional cubes in the cities they display. If a city acquires more than three cubes of one color it has an “outbreak,” spilling cubes to all adjacent cities and raising the game's Outbreak Indicator by 1.

On his/her turn each player also takes four actions and draws two player cards. These cards are the game's core play element: most depict cities, and one can use them to travel immediately to or from the city they depict, or to build there a research station (a prerequisite for curing diseases). A player can use five player cards of a particular color to cure that color of disease. One of the more important cooperative strategies in Pandemic involves transferring cards from one player to another to form sets of five, which normally requires both players in the transfer to meet in the city depicted on the transferred card. This, needless to say, requires careful planning.

So does determining when and where to treat diseases – that is, to remove cubes from afflicted cities. Treatment uses actions one might prefer to use accumulating and transferring cards, but it becomes necessary as individual cities, particularly adjacent cities, accumulate three cubes. Outbreaks can turn into chain reactions if one occurs in a city adjacent to another metropolis with three cubes of the same color disease. Since the game ends on the eighth outbreak, these chain-reaction eruptions can prove dangerous.

Just to make things harder, the player-card deck contains epidemic cards that saturate one city with disease cubes (possibly triggering another outbreak), then reset the infection card deck – so that previously infected cities will be the first to acquire more disease cubes – and increase the rate at which players draw new infection cards each turn. A few of the player cards give players temporary special resources instead, but none gives advantages that tilt the game much in the players' favor.

It is very easy to lose Pandemic: if the eighth outbreak occurs, or the “timer” expires (when the players run through all 59 player cards), or when all 24 cubes of any one particular disease are on the board. There is only one way to win: by curing all four diseases. And the game dangles a huge distraction in front of the players: a disease can keep appearing even after it's cured, but if players remove all cubes of a cured disease from the board, it is eradicated and will never appear again. This is very helpful, but since time is short and eradication only affects one disease, it is almost certainly a mistake to waste player actions on it.

Part of the appeal of Pandemic is that the game starts off slowly, with only a few cities infected, but quickly increases its tension and pace, as epidemic cards reset the infection-card deck, as outbreaks occur,, and as players see one of the defeat conditions approaching. The rules give players many reasons to cooperate - individuals have limited actions, each specialist has a complementary ability, the card-transfer rule gives players an added incentive to share resources - but so too does their growing awareness of how fast the clock is ticking. The game's rules may seem slightly complicated at first (the rulebook explains them well), but all of Pandemic's rules work together to build that sense of tension and encourage inter-player cooperation. Some gamers complain that one player tends to tell everyone else what to do, but I've played this title with a couple of dozen people and have yet to encounter such narcissism. Perhaps the threat of global catastrophe, even in a simulation, does promote humility and cooperation – does bring out people's better side. Reason enough to learn Pandemic, and to keep taking it down from the shelf on game days.