Mean

With it being on Netflix, I’ve been rewatching Community, a tv show I really love (and have been writing about on this blog for basically as long as it’s been a blog). Watching it again, for the first time since it aired, is a fun process. There’s a lot that I’ve forgotten, there’s a lot of jokes I missed, and I’m struck by how normal the show starts off. Seriously, its hook in the beginning is that its a sitcom that’s very aware of the tropes and pop-culture that’s influenced it and pays homage to them all, and then by season three it’s become an ode to storytelling in all its ways that plays fast and loose with the format. It’s wild just how much the show loves story, and how it finds a variety of ways to tell different sorts of stories (action, romance, mystery, fantasy, documentary) within its central conceit of taking place at a community college. Honestly, it’s brilliant.

It’s also a very mean show.

Okay, stay with me. Some sitcoms are mean, some are kind. The Office leans towards mean-ness, where a lot of the conflict is the cast being set against each other. Parks and Recreation is a super kind show, there’s little comedy/conflict that has characters antagonistic towards each other. How I Met Your Mother tends towards mean, The Good Place towards kind. There’s nothing inherently bad about one or the other, different sorts of comedy. Bob’s Burgers and Brooklyn 99 come down on different sides depending on the episode. And Community is a very mean show.

Characters are pitted against each other, though often not just for the sake of it but as an extrapolation of their flaws. Circumstances aren’t particularly easy for them either, and characters are often put in places that force them to make tough choices or confront harsh truths about themselves. It’s not gentle by any means, and often it seems like the world is out to get them.

Let’s look at the first episode of Season 5, “Repilot.” At the start, we’re reintroduced to Jeff Winger, a lawyer once more but transformed by Greendale Community College into trying to be a decent human being (and lawyer). Unfortunately, he sees his office being cleared out and himself out of a firm. A prospective case sends him back to his alma mater, where he finds his former study group in dire straits. After convincing them to sue the school, a come-to-Jesus moment has him change his mind. To save Greendale, he ends up taking a teaching position at the school where he was once ashamed to be a student.

This is not a good thing for Jeff. His goal throughout the show has been to get his degree and go back to being a lawyer. Greendale forced him to become a better person, one who won’t go back to his scummy, old firm. In a gentler world, he would be rewarded for this change; the story’s protagonist has come out through his ordeals a better person, should he not now be rewarded for his work?

Nah. That would be too easy. The circumstances of the show force him back to Greendale ready to sue the school, but incidents in the episode force him to reconsider his actions and realize he needs to save the school. It’s not what he wants, and his final decision to go through with the new course of action is a difficult one that he wishes he didn’t have to do.

In this way, it seems the universe of Community is out to get its characters; as if the world (and writers) is almost a malevolent force that pushes people into uncomfortable positions. And it’s funny, oh, it’s very funny to watch ’em squirm. But, notably, Community’s meanness isn’t just for the sake of the comedy. By forcing characters into tight spots, Community forces its characters to grow.

People don’t wanna change. It’s why one of the steps in Campbell’s Monomyth is the Refusal of The Call. It’s Luke Skywalker telling Obi-Wan he needs to stay for one more harvest, it’s Bilbo not wanting to join the party of dwarves. But force a character into a position where they have no choice but to change and change happens. Slowly, but it happens. Community excels at forcing its characters to change by forcing them into situations where their current status quo will no longer serve them.

Community is far, far meaner to its characters than a lot of shows I usually watch. But iron sharpens iron, and Community gets away with its meanness because that’s how the characters develop. There’s a real and genuine progression to characters and their relationships in the show, which is pretty remarkable for a sitcom that revels in postmodern narratives. Perhaps that’s part of why the fourth season fell flat; it lacked that bite.

So yeah.

Community is a fantastic show. Because it’s mean. With a purpose.

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Watch My Movie!

Hey! Instead of a blogpost this week, go watch my movie!

You can also check out some nifty behind the scenes photos on my website.

 

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Choice

Sid Meir, the guy behind Civilization, famously described a game as being “a series of interesting choices.” The idea here is that a good game has you making decisions that have some weight to them, that is, decisions that though not necessarily wrong, could have repercussions. In Civilization, it can manifest from whether you plan on pursuing diplomacy or warfare, or whether you’re playing as the Aztecs or the English. Decisions.

By this metric, Candyland is a really crappy game with no real decision making, though this is arguably excusable as it functions as a method of introducing young children to the way board games work. Monopoly doesn’t really fare much better, as it really all comes down to the roll of the dice with the illusion of more — deciding whether or not to buy a property you land isn’t much of a decision because the answer is “duh.” If you play with trades, and players who are willing to trade, the game can get much more interesting, but that’s a big old if. Of course, Monopoly was originally intended, as The Landlord’s Game, to be an indictment against rampant capitalism and its lack of choice in the matter does underscore it; though I feel like the subtext was lost when Parker Brothers ‘borrowed’ the game from Lizzie Magie.

Anyway. Interesting choices.

Sid Meir’s a video game designer, so it makes sense to turn his lens to look at video games. The Sims is a game rife with choices: What job will your Sim have? What kind of stove will they buy? Should they or should they not date Santa Claus? There are a lotta choices you can make, which, given that the game’s a life simulator, makes sense. Interestingly, there aren’t really drawbacks between choosing to be a Super Spy of Master Criminal, it’s all part of whatever sort of narrative you’re constructing for your Sims. The choices remain interesting because it’s totally up to you.

The Last of Us has one of my favorite choices. It’s a small one, built into the gameplay’s crafting system. In the post-apocalyptic world, resources are scarce and much has to be made by hand. Alcohol and Cloth can be used to make Health Kits; they can also be used to make Molotov Cocktails. One of them heals you, the other can be used to fight Hunters and Infected. You have to choose which one to craft at any given moment, and given that you can only carry so much at a time, you’ll end up having to make something not knowing when you’ll get more. It compounds the game’s question of survival, forcing you to choose between attacking and saving yourself on a small scale.

Consequences are something that can make choices interesting — otherwise, it’s not more of a deal than picking the red or blue token. XCOM 2 gives your decision making weight. Are you gonna research armor or weapons first? Are you going to collect intel or supplies? Are you going to wait before launching that attack? The constant ticking time bomb of the aliens’ progress on the Avatar Project makes the time crunch real; you can’t spend all your time shoring up your forces or you lose. Periodic battles also make it hard to just wait around, as you will have to send your soldiers out on missions, and chances are, they will get injured.

That’s all big picture. When you get down to the minutiae of actual combat, the decisions compound. One strategic mistake in the tactical game could leave you with your best soldier in the infirmary for weeks — or killed outright, forcing any plans you had for a later raid out the window. If only you’d played that mission a little more

There’s a theory that storytelling was born out of the human/tribal need to simulate experiences for people who hadn’t yet experienced them. Maybe games are in some ways an extension of that, a sort of failure space for you to make choices and let them play out without real-world ramifications. Or maybe it’s just part of what makes them fun. Either way, they’re a great way to spend quarantine.

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Defeat

I’ve had Star Wars on my mind as of late, partially because I just binged the entire final season of Clone Wars, and partially because thinking about Star Wars is more or less my default state. Anyway, I’d like to point out that Empire Strikes Back is a movie about failure and defeat.

It’s an oddly dark/dour take on what’s usually considered the best Star Wars movie; you don’t really wanna watch your heroes get beat up and lose and yet, that’s what Empire is.

And I seriously mean in every encounter and obstacle they face, Luke, Han, and Leia lost. The best-case scenario is escape.

The Wampa cave in the beginning sees Luke captured. The dude who blew up the Death Star got beat up by the abominable snowman. When he comes to and grabs his lightsaber, he doesn’t kill the Wampa and return victorious; nope, Luke runs away and almost freezes to death outside. Cool.

The Battle of Hoth. Sure, the Rebels bring down an AT-AT or two, but they’re ultimately unable to repel the Empire and end up escaping. Which is the point, yeah, but it’s still a crushing defeat.

Han and Leia get stuck inside a Space Slug and barely escape. Sure, they make it out, but it’s hardly a win. Then they get betrayed at Cloud City and Han gets frozen. Not good. What happens next? They escape Cloud City, but Leia is unable to rescue Han from Boba Feet and has to leave without him.

But it’s Luke who really, really suffers in Empire. Remember, in the original Star Wars, this is the guy who left Tatooine, inherited his father’s legacy (Jedi, excellent pilot), and defeated the Empire. After the Wampa and Battle of Hoth, he goes to find Yoda on Dagobah to learn to be a better Jedi. So far, so good, we break him down in the first act so he can get better in the second.

Dagobah does not go well for him, and Luke fails every task. Initially, he fails to recognize Yoda, instead dismissing the green alien as a nuisance. Later, in the cave, he ignores Yoda’s advice and brings his weapons with him. He fights a ghost of Vader and attacks, revealing his own face staring back at him. Then the X-wing. It sinks into the swamp and Yoda tells Luke to raise it, but he can’t. So Yoda does. It’s awesome, and Luke can’t believe it. To which Yoda says: “That is why you fail.” Verbatim from the Master’s mouth: Luke failed.

And then the duel with Darth Vader.  Luke does not win. He gets his hand lopped off and finds out his father was a Jedi and excellent pilot… but is now Darth Vader. That legacy he wanted? Yeah, not good. Luke escapes with his life, but soundly defeated in both spirit and body.

Okay, everyone loses. So what?

Character, that’s what.

By bringing the characters to their absolute nadir, Empire clears Return of The Jedi for the triumphant, uh, return. In it, we’re able to see how much the characters have grown, due in no part to the tribulations of Empire. Han and Leia have put aside their bickering and work as a team to take down the shield generator. Han’s gotten over his self-centeredness and Leia, well, Leia’s as great as ever. Of course, it’s Luke, as the main character, who benefits the most.

In Jedi he’s no longer the wide-eyed kid from Tatooine, the one we see infiltrating Jabba’s Palace is relatively calm and collected. When he meets the Ewoks he doesn’t underestimate them as he did Yoda, rather seeing them as potential allies. And in the final fight against Vader? This time he throws away his lightsaber rather than killing his father. It’s a journey of growth that wouldn’t have been possible without Luke losing over and over again in Empire. What’s important is that the payoff happens, and that the payoff builds on what came before.

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XCOM-munication

I am so sorry about that pun*.

I recently got an email from Steam letting me know that XCOM 2 was on sale. It’s been on my wishlist since it came out, and I never took it off after I got it for the PS4. There was also an expansion pack for it released some time back, and I found that I could get XCOM 2 plus all the expansions for $30. Which, y’know, given that I’ve got very little to do these quarantine days, seems like a great deal.

Around six or seven years ago, I got super into XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s a strategy/tactics game wherein you take the role of a commander leading Earth’s defense against an alien incursion. It’s pretty great; you’ve gotta manage your squad’s strengths and weaknesses while accounting for any actions your opponents will take. There’s a tension to it, since one wrong move could mean multiple aliens getting the jump on you, and a wounded soldier will need time to heal — and a killed one is permanently out of the game. The cost of error is high.

I bounced around the idea of getting XCOM 2 when it came out, then pulled the trigger when it was one of the free PS4 games two years back. It’s more of the same; lots of strategizing, lots of planning, lots of figuring out back-up plans as plans A through E go sideways. It’s a game that became one I played with my girlfriend, in that we would spend ages agonizing over decisions and strategy, then watching in anticipation as our plan played out. So much fun.

Here’s the thing about XCOM though: I don’t really remember the plot. I mean, I get it, aliens invading Earth (or in 2, they’ve set up a puppet government and we’re the resistance) and you gotta fight back. There are more details to it, but really, I don’t remember it at all.

But what I do remember are my soldiers.

XCOM is a game that uses my Mostest Favoritst Trope: Ragtag Multinational Team Doing Badass Stuff. In this game, it’s not just AMERICA saving the world; your squad is comprised of people from all over the world. They’ve got their flag on the back of their combat vests and, in the second one, you can have some of them speak in their native language. This is awesome and kicks all the ass, because, well, again, it’s my Mostest Favoritist Trope. You also get to give them codenames, which just adds to the fun.

It’s been years since I played the first XCOM, but I still remember some of my soldiers: Roadblock, my Nigerian Support who wouldn’t let anyone past, Seraphim, the Israeli Sniper, and Samurai, the Japanese Assault. I don’t remember much of the story, but I do remember having Roadblock and Seraphim provide cover for Samurai to get in there and do her thing.

Same with the second one. Adele Mercier, aka Crevé, was my French Sharpshooter who went on almost every mission I had and racked up an impressive number of kills. Jane Kelly, aka Snake Eater, was an Irish Ranger who got her nickname not just because I like Metal Gear Solid 3 but because she made a name for herself hunting the serpentine Viper aliens (with a sword!). Then there was Astrid Johansson, aka Viking, a Norwegian Ranger who was really getting a lot of good experience and poised to become one of my mains when she was killed in action. That was a huge bummer.

XCOM lends itself well to narrative creation. There’s a clear conflict baked in, and your soldiers have just enough character for you to make up your own stories about the characters (I seem to recall the girlfriend and I claiming that Snake Eater and Crevé had a bit of a rivalry going on). The story I remember is one that was my own, and I guess that’s what made it all the more special.

Anyway. The XCOM 2 Collection is bought and downloaded, so, that’s the next chunk of quarantine sorted.

*Actually, no, I’m not. I regret nothing.

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D&D, But Online

I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs. Probably because it’s all the fun of storytelling coupled with the inherent zaniness of improv comedy. Imagine, you get a good group together who feed off of each other’s energy and are all too willing to “yes-and” off of whatever random plot or character development another player throws out. Stories spiral into ridiculousness, while still maintaining the cohesive shared fantasy of a mutually constructed narrative. Of course, it helps to have a Game Master who’s able to roll with the punches and keep the story going no matter the curveballs the players toss out there.

Virtual tabletop has been a thing for a long, long time, and with the pandemic preventing any sort of game sessions in meatspace, more and more people are turning to services like Discord and Roll20 for their games.

And by ‘people’ I mean me.

I’ve long been a proponent of tabletop games — RPG or board — being played in person due to the very specific sort of chemistry that emerges from people hanging out together. Yes, there’s the part of communication that’s done through hand gestures and facial expressions, but there’s also the knowledge that everyone around the table is doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same people. And side conversations too, those are fun. When playing games over Discord and only hearing someone’s voice, interactions change.

Of course, there are some parts of those interactions that change because they could only be done through computer-mediated communication. There’s the obvious stuff, like how the multiple voice channels that Discord offers provides a way for the GM to have a private conversation with a player. It’s a simulation of going off into a room for a beat in real life, and certainly does take on its own form of formality when heralded by the sound of someone leaving and reentering the voice channel.

That Discord also offers text communication allows for a second conversation to be happening alongside the game, although in my experience it’s mostly us sending funny gifs and memes around that relate to whatever’s happening in-story. This creates a bizarre record of the adventure, though one that’s done more through an association game than anything else (for example: dumplings, training montages, the Hatch from Lost, Ackbar declaring it to be a trap, and Eric Andre demanding to be let in). They may not affect the story or the gameplay that much, but they provide a bit of color commentary on the proceedings.

With actual gameplay taking place via a system like Roll20, however, the very nature of playing changes. Skill rolls are an intrinsic part of most any tabletop RPG, they’re what determines how well a character does something. Roll high on a Persuasion Check, chances are, you persuaded them. Roll low on an attack and that’s a swing and a miss. Technically, you can roll the dice on anything, so long as you can justify the skill you’re using (Animal Handling to corral a group of children, for example). Of course, in-person, you have to declare it, which can mean having to calm down a very talkative table trying to decide on the course of action.

When all your rolls can be virtual through a website and show up in the logs, though, things can work differently. After all, click the “Persuasion” button on your character sheet and the roll happens. It’s all there on the screen, the dice, the results, and the stat that was rolled. The GM can ignore it or uphold it, but, point is, it happens without the need to tell everyone “Shut up, I’m rolling to Intimidate!”

When it comes down to it, I think I’m less intrigued by the way it changes gameplay than by how it changes the interactions of players. Often we look at computer-mediated communication as a lesser shadow of in-person dialogue, but I think it really opens up a different means of getting points across. You can’t drop a gif into a conversation in real life like you do online, but that doesn’t make it a less valid form of communication, does it? Maybe after this pandemic we’ll have a better appreciation for all the ways of speaking.

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More Thoughts on The Sims

If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing during quarantine, the answer is still playing The Sims. Along with games like Death Stranding (terrific, prescient, heartbreaking) and Jedi Outcast (gotta love old school LucasArts), watching Kim’s Convenience (so good!) and  trying to build a Singaporean kopitiam with LEGO bricks.

And cooking, because, of course, but not baking because ovens are unknowable creations that worry me and lack the finer control offered by a stovetop.

Anyway.

The Sims.

After learning last week to slow down and enjoy the process of the game, I thought I’d try and wonder why this game is so darn engrossing. It’s a game about nothing, insofar as everyday life is about nothing. There’s no real goal. Which, isn’t that unusual these days. A lot of big games have the postgame: After you finish the game you can still wander around the world and do any side-quests you’ve left. In Death Stranding this has me running around completing deliveries and trying to max everything out (and also build a network of ziplines for maximum effectiveness). I’ve beat the game and all, but there’s still more open-ended fun to get done. In Pokémon, I’ve spent untold hours catching ’em all and cultivating the perfect team to take on my brother. It’s plenty of fun to one around Venus in Destiny shooting Fallen with a friend. In all these cases, the game is effectively done, but you’re still free to mess around.

The Sims is like that from the get-go, with any and all goals being of your own devising. You can do whatever you want, tell whatever story you want with them. It’s a game I’ve been playing for over seventeen years, and somehow it still hasn’t gotten old. Why?

I suppose on one level there is the fantasy element of the game. When you’re a kid, getting to engage in a simulacrum of adult life, having a job and earning money and falling in love and going on vacations and the like. Plus you get to design houses and furnish it with whatever you want or can afford (and if you can’t afford it, a cheat code can take care of that). As an adult, there’s still a level of wish-fulfillment. Having a career where you can get promoted and owning your own house sounds like sheer fantasy to this Millennial living though his second ‘once-in-a-generation’ economic crash. There’s a very mundane gratification to picking out a job for a Sim and then completing simple self-improvement tasks to get promoted. Then get money and use that money to build a sprawling underground complex beneath an unassuming house.

Maybe some parts are more fantastical than others.

But I think that therein lies much of what makes it work so well. The Sims offers a mechanism for you to set your own goal and then, later, achieve it. The game is an avenue for a sense of accomplishment, of having done something. It’s like doing a Strike in Destiny or polishing off a side quest in Assassin’s Creed, except this go ’round it’s whatever I want it to be. Perhaps it’s the illusion of control that’s so attractive, of living a life where whatever you want to happen can happen. And then when it does, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

It helps that these sorts of things tend to be awfully fun. Like befriending the Grim Reaper. Or building underground bunkers.

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