Project Mc2 (Season One)

Project Mc2 LogoGenre: Children’s Spy / Television Series
Main Cast: Mika Abdalla; Ysa Penarejo; Victoria Vida; Genneya Walton; Danica McKellar; Melissa Mabie; Antonio Marziale
First Shown: 7th August, 2015
Available: Netflix

A space launch is threatened, so teenaged spy McKeyla McAlister (Mika Abdalla) is sent to investigate. When some of the girls at her new school figure out she’s a spy, McKeyla is forced to work with them.

Project Mc2 (Project Mc-Squared) aims to promote S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) among girls. The series is linked to its own toy range, including fashion dolls, science experiment kits, and fashion dolls that come with science experiments kits. I’m all for encouraging girls to blow things up (in totally safe ways) but my review focus will be on the programme side of it. However, I think it’s useful to know the full context of the series.

The characters are the core of the series, so I’ll start there. McKeyla is the lead spy. I liked that she was a generalist, rather than a specialist. Her focus is learning to be a leader, as she’s used to working alone. She’s the most serious of the girls. I’m pretty sure she’s intended to be read as white.

The two girls who initially notice something is odd about McKeyla are best friends. The first is Camryn Coyle (Ysa Penarejo). She’s into skater fashions and carries her skateboard around. She’s also the engineer of the group. Not a lot is discussed about her background, but the actress is Filipina-American. Her hair is dyed red (in an obviously dyed way), which I presume was to make each fashion doll have somewhat different hair.

Bryden Bandweth (Genneya Walton) is the computer expert and is very into social media. She talks in hashtags and posts everything to social media, even at times when she really shouldn’t. I did find this a little difficult at first, as she speaks very quickly. Bryden is black with wavy hair.

When the two girls realise they don’t have all the skills they need to figure out what McKeyla is up to, they approach Adrienne Attoms (Victoria Vida), a culinary chemist. Adrienne is very feminine, wearing skirts and heels, and carrying all her stuff around in a handbag. She’s the only character who has her background really expanded on in this season. She’s from Spain and speaks with a Spanish accent. I’m noting her as a Latina character as I’ve seen the actress say that’s the case (the actress is Latina herself). This is where I didn’t like the styling, as Adrienne has bleached blond hair. Though the initial thought may have been to have a doll range with different hair colours, much like Camryn’s hair dye, it also serves to make Adrienne look whiter. That didn’t sit well with me.

This is a short season, coming in at only three episodes. It tells one long story across the episodes. The space flight in question is a publicity thing for Prince Xander (Antonio Marziale), who is teenaged British royalty. I wasn’t too keen on this as the central plot. I never did the celebrity crush thing, so this has always been rather outside my experiences. Swooning over hot British royalty is more of an American thing, so I had a certain amount of eyerolling as a British person. It’s not that anything is wrong with this as such, but it wasn’t to my tastes. Fortunately, the plot focuses more on the girls learning to work together, so there is something there for people who aren’t interested in the celebrity crush angle.

The science ranges from things that are somewhat improbable to things that are rather simple. For example, Bryden’s hacking is mostly shown with her typing quickly without showing the screen. She is improbably fast at hacking things like this. Later, she hacks a security code with a simple number generator, which is a project most viewers could code with a little training. This may not be science realism, but it did work for the concept of the series. It means some of the science shown could be done by viewers, without being science geniuses. I also liked that The Quail (Danica McKellar), the woman who oversees the girls, is played by a real mathematician.

This season doesn’t push science at the expense of feminine girls. Adrienne is taken seriously from the start, as the other girls approach her for help. There’s a running joke of people not knowing what culinary chemistry is, but it’s more that this is a rarely represented field, rather than the practise of it being funny. I did enjoy the moment where she adds a dash of cinnamon to fingerprint powder, and no one else really knows enough about the subject to question it.

In general, this isn’t a “not like other girls” story. The leads are supposed to be the smartest, but there isn’t criticism of other girls and women. It’s adult men who are their main obstacle, as they don’t take the girls seriously. This is handled in a light way, but is unfortunately a very real thing that girls are likely to face if they go into science.

The girls are quite diverse when it comes to race. However, the show is weaker in other areas. Everyone is relatively thin, there are no disabled people, no QUILTBAG characters, and so forth. It wasn’t negative in those areas. There wasn’t fat-shaming or similar, and I’m glad they ate the baked goods Adrienne made without any comments on calories or diets. But I’m always pushing to see more representation in shows for this age group.

I think this series mostly hits its targets. It’s very colourful and bubbly. The central focus is on friendship and awesome science experiments. The girls don’t face more than some mild peril, so it’s not going to be scary for anyone but the youngest of viewers. It’s targeted very well at the tween and younger market, particularly for those looking for something fluffy and silly, rather than serious. My biggest issue is I’d like to see them broaden out who is included.

Pantomime – Laura Lam

Pantomime CoverSeries: Micah Grey, #1
First Published: 5th February, 2013
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Gene is the daughter of a noble family who has a secret. Micah is a runaway who joins the circus. They’re both the same person, because Gene/Micah is intersex.

There are two timelines in the book. Gene’s starts in the events leading to her running away. Micah’s starts when he visits the circus, and eventually ends up getting a job as a trainee aerialist. Often in stories like this, it’s apparent which name and pronouns are the preferred ones of the person. It isn’t in this case. Both Gene and Micah are identities put on for necessity, and neither is the whole truth. There’s a strong theme of working out how gender roles and sexuality apply. I liked that Micah’s journey was handled as something that wasn’t clear cut and that varied over time, as things like gender and sexuality are not necessarily things that are obvious and set in stone for all people. It did tend to stray into “both male and female” territory, but Micah’s society doesn’t really have a concept of non-binary anything, so it did fit as the best Micah had to describe himself. It reminded me of the ways I’d try to describe myself when I was younger.

The plot was engaging and I enjoyed reading about the circus community. The pacing was mostly there, though I did drift when the pantomime performance began. It’s difficult to make a stage play work in novel format, and I don’t feel this really did it, but it was a short part of the book.

I also liked the world. It’s relatively low tech, but there are devices left from the civilisation of the past. No one knows how they work, so once they run out of power, they can no longer be used. This also links in to a past of other species and human hybrids of various kinds. I had reservations about exactly how this was applied to Micah, but the general idea was good.

There were some areas where it didn’t work for me. A big one is Micah’s presentation as an intersex person. He runs away to avoid invasive surgery designed to make him conform to a binary sex. Micah’s problems are shown sympathetically and it’s clear that forced surgery is not the right choice. The nature of the story means that Micah manages to escape and decide what he wants, which is a positive message. The broad idea wasn’t a bad one, and does cover issues that intersex people can face. But I wasn’t too comfortable with the rest.

I haven’t found many intersex characters in speculative fiction, but where I have, they’re usually a reimagining of what humans would be like if one person could perform all reproductive processes. Technically, this is a form of ovotestes, but this isn’t how it usually looks in real life. Ovotestes doesn’t dictate a certain appearance and doesn’t mean a person can perform all reproductive processes. On the contrary, this would be extremely rare in a human. Speculative fiction usually gets around this with a handwave of magic or genetic engineering. I’m not saying this type of character should never be written, but it does seem like it’s written so often that it becomes the one true representation.

Micah is very much a fantasy intersex character. He belongs to a magical species where everyone is like Micah. This means he is not human and he is not an intersex member of his species. I’ve kept the label, and discussed Micah as belonging to that label, because it’s how he’s usually categorised in book discussions. I also think the character would be of interest to people wanting to look at intersex characters. But it’s not what I was hoping for when I read the book.

There’s an uncomfortable focus on Micah’s body. People would just happen to feel Micah’s genitals or he’d show them to people rather than explaining (and it certainly wasn’t a culture where nakedness among friends would be viewed as commonplace). It felt rather like Micah was on display to the reader. I’d also note that Micah’s concerns for being rejected due to his body don’t extend to empathy for others. Micah is rather negative about the appearance of the woman with a moustache, for example.

The choice of which circus members would be major supporting characters also didn’t sit well. The freakshow characters are there so Micah could feel bad about showing people as freaks, but they didn’t get character development. Tauro in particular stood out to me, because as well as looking a bit like a minotaur, he appears to have a developmental disability of some sort. The acrobats are non-white and don’t speak the same language as Micah, which means they’re not included in anything. The first time they appear, their movements are likened to wolves, which further removes them from being referred to as human.

The people who get the most development are white, with one of Micah’s potential love interests also being from a wealthy background. So there’s a lot of background diversity, but it only tends to come into the foreground when it’s about being QUILTBAG.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed the book, and thought it had an interesting world and accessible writing style. It’s also still somewhat rare to have a bisexual lead or to look at gender outside of a binary framework. But it didn’t really fit what I was hoping for when it came to having an intersex character, and I wish some of the background characters had been a little less in the background. Note that there are some sexual assault themes, including an implied rape in someone’s backstory, as well as general violence.

Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

Three Fourths Home LogoDeveloper: [bracket]games
First Release: 20th March, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Kelly talks to her family on the phone as she drives home through a storm.

This is a simple interactive story. The main story is the drive, though the extended edition also includes an epilogue and some extras. The art looks like monochrome cutouts, with the background shifting to reflect the conversations. It’s a simple and effective style. My main issue is the text was grey on white with rain cutting across it, which is not very readable.

The player chooses dialogue options during the drive to change the direction of the conversation. Choosing an option makes that what happened, such as deciding what happened when Kelly left home earlier in the day. There shouldn’t really be anything to go wrong with gameplay this simple, but the player has to hold down one of the trigger buttons for the entire game. When the button is held down, the car drives forward and the conversations continue. When it’s released, the game pauses. This is not an accessible design decision, as it can cause wrist and hand problems. I did like the way everything froze in time when it paused, but this could have been done with a single press to start the car and another press to stop it.

That criticism aside, it’s an interesting game. It’s a quiet story of family relationships. Kelly has been away from home and not kept in contact, so she’s got a lot to talk about.

Game screenshot

Image Caption: The top part of the screen has cutout-style art. Dark grey corn is in the foreground and background. A car drives along a road in the midground. In the distance, there are lighter grey power lines. White rain cuts across the image. The lower part of the screen is white, with the text: “Mom: What does that mean?” in grey with white rain cutting across it.

Mom is very critical of Kelly. It’s easy to see why Kelly avoided contacting home. Though it may come from a place of concern, it’s still done in a way that isn’t good for Kelly.

Kelly’s younger brother is Ben. It’s not stated directly, but he appears to be autistic. He has difficulty gauging the emotional reactions of the rest of the family. He’s very focused on certain interests. This might come across as a little simplistic in representation, but Ben’s stories help add some depth. He tells one story during the drive. The extras include a few more of these stories, which have themes like a sister going away forever and family problems. It’s made clear that Ben is noticing what’s happening and does care. He’s just having trouble expressing it. I did like that his interests included creative things, and changed over time, rather than assuming autistic people have one true interest forever and that interest has to be maths.

Dad had an accident at work that led to a leg amputation. Talking to him can reveal some of the issues he’s facing, such as pain management and trauma from the accident. There’s some discussion of alcoholism.

Kelly is partly shaped by the player choices, though there are things in her history that can’t be changed. The epilogue works well to expand on Kelly’s life, as it deals with the time before she came home. She’s very self-critical, in a way that doesn’t match up with reality. For example, her thoughts on her assignment are far worse than the actual assignment and teacher’s comments in the extras. A nice touch in the epilogue is the player can decide if Kelly’s partner is a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Mom does not comment on that, outside of being surprised that Kelly is dating.

It’s a short game and can be played multiple times. There are different branches through the conversations, though not to the point of it entirely changing the story. The ending is set and it’s not a happy one. This is also my main comment when it comes to the disability representation. It’s not that I had a big issue with how the characters were portrayed, as they came across realistically. But this is ultimately a tragic story, which tends to be typical rather than the exception when it comes to disabled characters. The game also lacks accessibility options, such as darker text and alternatives to holding down the drive button. Those things combined mean I liked it well enough, but not enough to go through the hand pain it causes.

She Remembered Caterpillars

Game LogoDeveloper: jumpsuit entertainment
First Release: 17th January, 2017
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

A girl is determined to save her father from death using the power of fungi.

This is a puzzle game based on navigating little fungus people (gammies) to launch pads, so they can fly away. Getting there involves crossing caterpillar bridges and other obstacles. The gammies are marked by a colour and a shape, which dictates which obstacles they can cross. The design of the puzzles is clear. Using colours and shapes gives a backup for anyone who can’t use one or the other, which is helpful for colourblindness or not being able to see fine detail very well.

The difficulty of the puzzles increases slowly. New mechanics have a simple level to show how they work. However, the text instructions for how things work are sparse. This won’t be a problem for most players most of the time, but some players may need a little more guidance to get started.

Progress through the game is split into acts, which slowly take the player higher up a structure. Each act has a distinctive art theme, which reflects the feel of the story at that point. I loved the style of the art. It’s hand drawn and whimsical, in a twisted fungal kind of way.

The story is told through text, which appears at the start of the levels and acts. It floats between memories of the girl and her father, and trying to save him using the gammies. Other uses of fungi are also hinted at, suggesting a world where fungal things are integral to everything. It’s a non-linear approach to storytelling that I see more often in short stories than games, and it fits very well here.

Gammies fly away

Image Caption: A raised structure of pathways is surrounded by mist. The structure has an organic feel in muted earth tones. Bright caterpillar bridges in blue (with circles), red (with squares) and purple (with Ds) join the sections. Three gammies fly helicopter-style from fungal launch pads. This is what happens on finishing a level. The gammies are little fungus people with faces and colours/shapes to match the bridges.

The progression of the art and story was balance well through the acts. The puzzles were mostly spaced well, as each act introduces a few new things. The exception was act seven, which saw a change in scenery, but no new mechanics. This was the weakest act for me, as the gameplay felt like it was staying on a level rather than advancing. That’s not a strong criticism though, as mainly I felt the game kept things fresh with new gameplay elements.

I enjoyed the game and would recommend it. The shape and colour concept of the puzzles was interesting, and it was very relaxed as there was no time limit. The art and story were great. Everything combined together to create something unique. It took me around five hours to complete the puzzles, but could take more or less time depending on skill. Though this is generally a cute game, note that the story does involve death and medical procedures. Lame is used as an insult at one point.

[A copy of this game was received from the developer for review purposes]