Stranded Solace

I find Death Stranding’s postgame to be wonderfully meditative. I realize that the tranquility I suggest sounds quite incongruous with the game, one that I’ve said before manages to capture the terrible wonder of the sublime. But when you’ve finished the main story, uncovered the central mystery, and become quite adept at avoiding the ghostly BTs, the game is all about taking a hike.

In my continuing effort to get every trophy for the game, I’ve been hunting Memory Chips. They’re little collectibles with data from before the Death Stranding, taking the form of pictures of motorbikes, figurines, music albums, and movie posters (like Dr. Strangelove!). I used guides online to point me in the right direction so I’m not searching in vain, but I don’t look up the exact location so there’s still some exploring to be had.

So I climbed a mountain southeast of the Timefall Farm. I charted my path and slowly made my way up.

At this point, scaling mountainsides has become a somewhat mundane affair. Put a ladder here, climb there, don’t fall down. The America of Death Stranding is one ravaged by time and isolation, the only signs of humanity are the ruins of the old world and survivor’s bunkers, alongside the few Knot Cities and constructions by other players. It’s a very lonely game, but beautiful in its isolation. It’s just you and the wilderness, figuring out how to ford rivers and scale cliffs, avoid terrorists and navigate crags. There’s little more important than getting from A to B. The real goal is the journey you had along the way. 

As I neared the summit — and the purported memory chip — I noticed something artificial at the top of the mountain. Not something built by another player, but something intended to be part of the world. I crested the mountain and found a torii, a Shinto gate.

I crossed the threshold, and a song started up. Now, there are a lot of songs in Death Stranding, they usually play on a cue prompted by setting out on a special delivery or when first reaching some narratively important place. It’s always a beautiful moment; the other sounds of the world fade away and the song’s info is overlaid on the screen. It invites contemplation and slowing down for a minute, taking in it all.

It wasn’t the first time Silent Poets’ “Asylums for The Feeling” played in the game; it’d played before much earlier during my approach to Port Knot City. Yet the song, which like many of those featured in Death Stranding, is a melancholic tune, the sort that so wonderfully encapsulates the mood of the game. From this mountain, just past the gate, I could see the ocean stretching off towards the horizon. Behind me I saw the Farm and other mountains I’d climbed before and, not far past them, the towering incinerator. I could see before me the world I’d been crisscrossing for months. I turned around, and past me was the a world, and an ocean beyond. The totality of it all hit me there, a sensation of being very small, and very accomplished.

There’s little in the game pointing you in that direction, besides the presence of a totally optional Memory Chip. The peak doesn’t stand between two destinations, nor is there any delivery that takes you there. It’s something you essentially find for yourself, another part of the game that’s more about the journey than the destination. Death Stranding is a walking simulator, sure, but it’s a game that makes that walking wonderful. Sometimes you need to be able to slow down and just take in the world.

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Comforts

I started playing Death Stranding again last night. I wanna Platinum it, that is get all the trophies in the game and really finish it. Also, I was watching The Great British Bake Off with the girlfriend, and the game seemed a nice match.

Which, I realize, sounds kinda odd. Bake Off is a super-chill, slightly-competitive show about baking filled with wonderful people and truly encouraging hosts. Death Stranding is a game about a porter making deliveries across an isolated, post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a rain that speeds up time. Also, you’ve got a fetus in a tank that helps you detect ghostly beings from beyond the realm of the living. Were there a scale of the ordinary, Bake Off would sit comfortably with Norman Rockwell paintings, while Death Stranding would be far, far away.

I have never seen Law & Order, but I’m told it’s quite ordinary.

But both share a similar sense of optimism about the world. Bake Off isn’t nearly as cutthroat as other reality tv shows and there’s a delightful sense of camaraderie between the bakers. Though, as a competition, it is ostensibly about finding the best baker, it’s far more about having fun with the bake and displaying creativity and technical excellence. It’s just really nice. Meanwhile, for all of its horroresque elements, Death Stranding is actually a game about reconnecting. Everyone may be stranded from one another, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create strands between each other (seriously, that’s how the game frames it). Over the course of the narrative, you reconnect lovers, siblings, parents and children, and friends to each other. In a broken world, there is hope, and that hope comes in reaching out to each other.

They’re also really great companions in this seventh month of quarantine. Bake Off has a wonderful warmth to it, where people genuinely like each other; Death Stranding finds solace in solitude, where having only the wilderness (and your fetus buddy) for company is enough. That and getting to go outside.

This pandemic has been stressful. I’ve made a decided choice to maintain operating under quarantine rules — not eating in restaurants, not visiting friends, avoiding social groups — because it’s the best way to keep myself and the people I care about safe. It’s tiring, man. I miss going for walks without a mask on, I miss hanging out in bars, I miss being places that aren’t my apartment. Plus the whole, y’know, existential doom of living in a global pandemic. I’m trying to find ways to help myself chill out, an endeavor that’s not always that easy. I find that there’s something quite comforting in playing Death Stranding, particularly now that I’ve beaten the game. I know how to avoid the antagonistic MULEs and the creepy BTs, plus I’ve built enough infrastructure that making deliveries is a matter of driving along roads and zip-lining across mountains. It’s peaceful, almost meditative, and my deliveries are met with thanks by their recipients. Being aided by other players who’ve left vehicles and ladders behind along the way only makes my life easier — and serves as a reminder that, hey, people are pretty good when given the chance.

I think the relief that comes from games like Death Stranding’s postgameand a show like The Great British Bake Off stems from their inherent senses of hope. The world of Death Stranding may be desolate and empty, but there are still people trying to do their best out there — you’re not really alone. This season of Bake Off takes place during a pandemic, something that even the calm of the Tent can’t quite keep the world at bay, but the show’s still a reminder about the best of people. Ultimately, right now (and honestly, in general), that’s what I wanna enjoy. Stories of hope, ones that eschew that atmosphere of grimdark that’s all too prevalent in reality for something a little nicer.

Also, I can’t bake, so Bake Off is really quite a fantasy world for me.

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Feeling Like A Starfighter Pilot

Like any kid obsessed with Star Wars, I daydreamed about hopping in an X-wing and flying around doing cool stuff. Battlefront II, from way back in ’05, scratched some of that itch. The newer Battlefront II did too, although its starfighter mode got precious little attention. I’ve toyed with checking out the X-wing games from the 90s, but never got around to doing so. The Star Wars Squadrons was announced over the summer and I got really excited: here was this game all about piloting space ships and getting in dogfights. It promised an immersive experience, one that involved managing power while darting around debris; a game where an X-wing, Y-wing, and A-wing all handled differently. Anyway. Game came out yesterday, and let me tell you, the game feels so darn good.

Game feel is that secret spice of game design. It’s not always easy to quantify, but it’s absolutely intrinsic to any action-based game. It’s not going to be much fun if the simple act of moving your digital avatar through space is a slog. One reason I stand by Balloon Fight as being a quintessential game is that it’s odd flight mechanic (tapping A bobs you a little in the air, controlling your altitude is a matter of directing your falling) is so well executed that just bopping around the map is a simple pleasure. It feels good to play.

Gamasutra has a really good article about game feel, and what components usually make it up. Super Mario 64 is held up as one of the best feeling games to play. Moving Mario around the world is inherently fun, owing in a large part to how seamlessly the players’ controller inputs translate to action on screen. Jumping doesn’t feel like a gamble every time you hit the button, rather you know how far he’ll jump when you hold down the button a certain amount of time.

Interestingly, the design process for Super Mario 64 involved creating a small ‘garden’ where Shigeru Miyamoto and the team fine-tuned Mario’s controls. They hadn’t made any levels yet, because most important was getting Mario right. And not just the controls either: part of good game feel involves making sure all parts of the game line up. It’s not just that the avatar on the screen moves in relation, but that the noises the game makes as Mario jumps around and the animation of movement all fits together. Going back to Balloon Fight for a moment, the character’s arm-waving and bloop sound matches tapping A perfectly. One reason game feel is so hard to pin down sometimes is because it’s a culmination of every system coming together.

Star Wars Squadrons capitalizes on game feel. It’s entirely in first person, with most of the game information being given to you not through a HUD, but via the instruments in the cockpit. I’m still getting the hang of flying and fighting, which is a delicate ballet involving shifting between to engines, weapons, and shields all while weaving through space trying to get a bead on that enemy fighter ahead of you. Each ship handles differently, a TIE Interceptor isn’t just faster than a standard TIE Fighter, it’s also much more delicate. A Y-wing can soak up more damage than an X-wing, but it’s not as useful in a head-on dogfight. More than anything, though, the game just feels so right. Staring out the octagonal window of a TIE an upping the throttle, hearing the telltale whine around you and then the lasers firing. 

It’s clear that so much work went into making the starfighters feel right, into making sure that they flew the way you expected them. Sure, Star Wars is fiction so it’s not like we’re trying to mimic the handling of an F-15, but trying to match a collective imagination created by a multitude of movies, tv shows, and books. Star Wars Squadrons delivers, and it’s a game I’m slowly getting a hang on even if I keep getting outmaneuvered in online play. Maybe one day I’ll be really good at it, maybe I won’t. But hey, in the meantime, I get to be a starfighter pilot.

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A Civilized History

History, owing to the fact that it’s primarily written by white men, tends to be very white and very male. History is, ultimately, a narrative with facts chosen and framed to fit that narrative. Disagree? Look at how the Civil War is taught and remembered in the American South; it was firmly impressed upon me while living there that slavery had nothing to do with it and it was all about state rights. Those writing history have an agenda, and when the writers are white and male, there is an attempt — knowing or not — to maintain a status quo in which history and the narrative are controlled by white men.

So when we (and that we is a general we, including myself, probably you, and the general cultural awareness that exists) think of the Really Big Important People of History, chances are we’re gonna settle on a bunch of white guys. Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates. Hitler, Edison, Caesar. The big historical stuff, for good or for ill, was mostly done by people who were white and/or male, at least until this whole newfangled thing called ‘diversity’ showed up recently.

Following this logic, if you’re gonna make a game about, say, the rise (and fall) of civilizations over the millennia, you’ll want the iconic leaders that your payers will have some frame of reference for, and the civilizations that gave rise to them too. So: white guys.

Fortunately, the Civilization games do not follow this logic.

A scroll through the list of leaders and civilizations available for play in Civilization VI reveals an eclectic selection of nations that go beyond a collection of Western superpowers, with an effort made to have as varied a selection of leaders as possible. Of course, you’ve got the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt, Germany as led by Frederick Barbarossa, and the Roman Empire led by Trajan. But France is helmed not by Napoleon, but by Catherine de Medici, who led France as Queen Mother for thirty years. The Greeks are present, but you can choose to have Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, as your leader instead of Pericles. It is Cleopatra who leads the Egyptian Empire.

The Civ games have been doing this for a while. Civ V featured the Zulus amongst mainstays like India and the Aztecs. England’s most always led by Victoria or Elizabeth I. The Chinese, Japanese, and Arabians have been in most of the games too, a staunch reminder that not all culture comes from the West. Civilization II notably had a male and female leader for each civilization, although some of them were apocryphal, the idea that not all world leaders are men has been present for a long time.

What’s notable in VI is the extent to which the development team has gone to find these lesser-known leaders. I had not heard of the Scythians until I played this game, let alone their leader Tomyris. Turns out, they were a nomadic people who lived in the Central Asian steppes, and though not much is known about them, they did briefly have a queen named Tomyris. Firaxis highlighting this in their game, by making Tomyris one of the leaders, is a pleasant reminder that there’s a lot more to history than the common narrative we’re taught (contrary to popular belief, the history of modernity is not a straight line from Greece to the founding of the US) and that there’s always gonna be more to learn.

I do appreciate learning stuff, always have (see: my biggest issue with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), and learning about, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo, or Kristina of Sweden is a real plus.

Look, my High School history class skipped over the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires chapters of the history book, so I know I have some gaps to learn. Why not do so while engaging in some world domination?

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Social Network

I remember when the biggest problem on Facebook was an overabundance of FarmVille invites and not widespread propaganda and competing political views. Oh, I’m sure the latter was there even in the early days, but certainly not as pronounced as it is now. A scroll through my newsfeed is almost dominated by folks sharing something or other said by one group or another.

I’m of two minds of this. I do believe that, yeah, activism is important and it’s worthwhile to be aware of what’s going on. But on the other, it sometimes feels as if everything — and everyone — on Facebook has been drawn down on political lines. I understand that much of this is intentional. The website’s business strategy is reliant on people sharing and interacting with the site, and turns out pontificating is a great way to get people to do that. More clicks, more ad revenue, rinse, repeat, and so on until the famous social network becomes less about socializing and more, I dunno, not that.

Some of the politickings are opinions I agree with, some of them are ones that really piss me off. While I appreciate being privy to points of view different from my own, there’s a point where it all becomes a little much. A lot of that is probably due to just how toxic the climate has gotten; I’m acutely aware of my own position in all of this and how much of the rhetoric concerns, well, people like me. It becomes emotionally taxing to read it, and after a while the conversation just becomes tiring. There’s a point where enough is enough.

Throughout all this, there is a big part of me that just wants to delete Facebook and be done with it. Get my data off the platform (at least seemingly) and leave all of that behind. The thing is, I still like Facebook for its social aspect. There are people on there who I have no other way of getting in touch with, and even if I’m not an active part of their lives, it’s nice to know they’re still out there doing their thing. Email conversations have fallen out of fashion, and many of these people I know from before texting was as common as it was now — and before overseas messengers like WhatsApp were a thing. Severing that tie is hard, especially since Facebook’s been a thing for me for the past thirteen years. There’s a lot on there.

I’ve been quite judicious with privacy settings too, with essentially my entire presence being hidden unless I add you. That list is slowly being culled too. I’m steadily deleting people I barely know or the ones who just post endless right-wing propaganda. I know there’s value in being informed in the way people think, but if the white supremacist crap you spout outweighs our friendship, that’s it. To say nothing of the fact that there’s so much out there that’s just being generated for the ad revenue as a result of Facebook’s focus moving from connecting you with your friends to connecting ad money with their pockets.

I’m probably not gonna delete Facebook anytime soon. I still relish the connections and photos of friends that sometimes still exist. But as the pandemic lengthens and more human interaction moves online, I’m growing more aware of the forums that socialization takes place. Facebook’s a cesspool — and has been for quite some time. I’ve deliberately limited my time on it, and, as I said before, am taking steps to make my experience less terrible. But anyway. Here we are.

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Checking In

It’s kinda odd to think that we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. I’ve been called back into work a couple times a week, and there’s a bit more life out there (I’m no longer getting Death Stranding vibes when I go outside),  and it sometimes looks like things are going back to normal. But the death toll in the US is still rising, and I haven’t left my apartment without a mask since April. Still a pandemic, especially here in the States.

And I’m still staying sane, somehow. Keeping myself busy, be it on a variety of different projects or video games (Borderlands 3 is a delight). But, all the same; it’s been six months since I’ve seen a lot of my friends in meatspace or gotten drinks in a bar.

Been a long time since I’ve seen a movie in the cinema. I was actually planning on going to see Onward the day before I started quarantine, but opted not to a couple hours before since, with Covid on the uptick, going to a theater in midtown Manhattan hardly seemed like the best idea. I did watch it later, as a download at home, but that makes it the first Pixar film I haven’t seen in theaters since 2002’s Monsters Inc. (that’s right, I saw everything from Finding Nemo up through Toy Story 4 in theaters, a feat I’m quite proud of). Breaking that streak’s a bummer, and I do hope Onward gets a rerelease in theaters when it’s, y’know, actually safe to go see it.

That said, I have seen a couple new movies at home, as they’ve come out. Palm Springs is a terrific riff on the time-loop narrative of Groundhog Day or Source Code that feels oddly prescient in a time when everything seems to be on a very weird loop. Bill & Ted Face The Music is a worthy successor to the prior films and amidst its very silly sense of humor has an incredibly warm undercurrent that made the original two so fun. It’s refreshing to watch a movie that’s just so darned nice. Of course, the movie’s also about music and doing a cool concert which, at present, seems almost as fantastical as the time-traveling phone booth. But hey, maybe one day.

As we close in on day 200 of quarantine — and it’s still a quarantine, even if places are reopening, we’re still in a pandemic — it’s odd how used to it all I’ve gotten. Board games can be played online, D&D is played online, parties aren’t a thing. I dunno, it’s all been A Thing that I’ve gotta quite tired of, due in no small part to the fact that This Thing could have been avoided (or at least abated) done properly, but instead, The Thing has been effectively allowed to do its thing and been compounded with a Variety of Other Things which has made it all Very Tiring. I think that’s why I have such an affinity for movies like Bill & Ted and Pacific Rim right now, the optimism and joy is a much-needed tonic to the everything else.

If this feels like a post about nothing, arguably it’s because it is. Maybe one day blog posts like these will be seen as a journal of an apocalypse, kinda like those audio diaries in Bioshock. Or maybe it’s just the rambling of someone who’s not much else to write about.

Or maybe I just oughta watch Scott Pilgrim this week.

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Playing Pretend

Like many people my age, I grew up playing video games. Many of those games have gone on to be considered classics, like Crash Bandicoot or Pokémon. There’s a lot of their DNA in modern games, like how Dark Souls’ cycle of learning how to counter enemy’s moves by repeatedly dying is very reminiscent of Mega Man’s game loop that has you effectively memorize stages and boss patterns (nearly twenty years since I first played it, I can still get through much of Mega Man X5 on muscle memory).

Then some games were much more of a flash in the pan than others. I remember a motocross game being fun enough (some googling tells me it’s Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000), but it’s hardly remembered these days, nor one you’d cite as being particularly influential. Bomberman Party Edition is a ridiculous amount of fun, but sadly, it’s not one that’s particularly easy to get a hold of these days.

One particular genre I enjoyed was the multiplayer arcade beat-em-up. They were the sort of games you played on the couch with your little brother and fought bad guys. I fondly recall sinking hours into games like Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue and Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles. I don’t really remember how good the games were, and I recall Jedi Power Battles being unreasonably hard, but the best part about them was getting to be a Power Ranger or a Jedi and fighting bad guys. 

Theming was everything for these games, and, if memory serves, they did a good job of letting two brothers pretend to be Power Rangers and Jedi. There’s that part of video games that’s all about playing pretend, an experience heightened when it taps into the consciousness of pop-culture. I’m not sure either Lightspeed Rescue or Jedi Power Battles would have grabbed my imagination nearly so much were it not for their licenses. Really, all those games had to do was capitalize on that.

Over time, couch multiplayer became less common, as too did the beat-em-up in favor of shooters and the like. There were exceptions, like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Spider-Man, but in many ways, these exceptions proved the rule: These games were quite out of vogue.

Along comes Marvel’s Avengers and the game’s a delight. It’s not as polished as Spider-Man nor, is its combat system as deep and complex as Arkham Asylum. But it doesn’t really have to be. Taking a cue from Traveler’s Tales’ LEGO games, the characters operate within archetypes (Thor and Iron Man fly similarly; Black Widow and Ms. Marvel can both swing from ledges, Widow with a grapple, Ms. Marvel with her stretchy arms) that are then individualized through their own attacks and abilities. It’s not overly complicated and, honestly, could be described as being quite shallow.

But boy is it fun. Some of the moves are ripped from the movies and comics and are instantly recognizable. Beating up bad guys as Black Widow feels like you’re actually Black Widow, which in turn feels different from when you’re playing as Hulk, who’s different from Thor. There’s just enough tuning that each character feels unique, and then you get to run around fighting bad guys as them.

I like games. But it’s not often I’m openly grinning like an idiot while playing them. Avengers feels otherwise. It doesn’t seem to be drawing on the ‘modern’ action-beat-em-up like Arkham and Spider-Man so much as going back to those games from ’99 and ’00 and infusing them with more modern sensibilities. The games is rough and a little buggy in places, but the focus is so much more on the fun of it than anything else. Punches feel right, and beating up AIM robots as Iron Man scratches a particular childhood itch I didn’t know was there. Complex systems and polished graphics be damned, the game’s fun, and really, isn’t that what’s really important?

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The Speech of The Colonizer

Around the lead up to Captain America: Civil War and again when Black Panther came out, there was some discussion online about T’Challa’s accent. The big question was how would the king speak? Popular thought posits that regality sounds ‘proper,’ and that ‘proper’ would be an English-tinged accent. When we, in pop-culture, think of kings and royals it’s the English monarch we often consider as the modern epitome of it.

In Black Panther, there was a conscious decision for T’Challa to not have a British (or American) accent. Rather, his diction has a distinct African flair (specifically, that of the Xhosa in South Africa and Zimbabwe). Wakanda exists as an epic utopia, and it does so without the undercurrent of western — that is to say white — supremacy.

There exists a notion in the popular consciousness, borne out of generations of white-washed history, that it’s been ‘Western Civilization’ that has gifted the world its arts and culture. The Greeks and the Romans, the English and the French, and now the Americans; they have been the ones who wrote the classics that form the foundation of any cultured education. To say nothing of the Chinese development of printing, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in use today, or even the complex coding that was the Andean quipu; anything of relevance comes from the (often white, and mostly male) west.

Wakanda has none of that. Within the Marvel mythos, the country was never colonized and so never affected by western influences thus they wouldn’t have British accents, nor even American. Thus Black Panther pushes back on the idea that non-British/American accents are ‘lesser’ or backwards.

That’s a big deal.

Accents are tied in many ways to presumed intelligence. The better you speak, the more educated you are. The fancier your accent, particularly if it’s English, the better (a trope Arrested Development had a great deal of fun in its Mr. F arc). Black Panther didn’t just rebuke this idea, it flipped the script, taking an accent oft relegated to the newly immigrated or the uncivilized and positioning it a position of regal dignity. It seems such a small thing, but it’s a blatant statement that you don’t need to speak with some variant of Received Pronunciation of the Transatlantic Accent to sound dignified.

This is something I’ve been thinking about in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death. I talk a lot on this blog about representation and all that. For me, a kid who grew up in a former colony and later learnt in the US that the way people from there spoke was ‘funny’ and ‘wrong,’ it so much to have been told in a major movie that, hey, it’s okay. And it’s pretty cool. To say nothing of what else Boseman did, that little impact on accents and the perception of speakers, that’s a legacy.

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Unrealistic

Board games aren’t realistic. Monopoly doesn’t look like any metropolis and the geography in Settlers of Catan makes Giant’s Causeway look conventional. The diseases in Pandemic are translucent cubes instead of microscopic blobs.

This all makes sense, of course. Board games are an abstraction of reality, paring down big concepts into statistics. This can be super simple, like chess as a simulation of warfare tactics, or super complex, like H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, an early war game that used dice and probability to recreate battles. Even Little Wars, for all its realism, required a measure of imagination — these weren’t real cavalry and cannons.

Realism’s not the point, though. Games are meant to scratch a specific itch that hovers somewhere between problem solving and diplomacy, depending on the sort of game (Uno has both at high speeds). Many of them make an effort to simulate something found in the real world, and sometimes they succeed — Pandemic Legacy feels remarkably realistic in times of Covid, what with talking about quarantine zones and finding ways to contain the spread as best we can. The goal in designing the game probably wasn’t to create a one-to-one representation of what handling a pandemic would be like, but rather to take the elements that make that course of action unique and translate it into game mechanics. You have to cooperate with one another and balance finding cures with containment while keeping in mind that the same routes that you take to go from city to city are vectors for the virus. Do I think that being halfway decent at Pandemic gives me the skills to take on an actual real-life pandemic? Oh, heck no. But it’s certainly a fun abstraction of the real thing.

I saw someone, somewhere described Civilization VI as the ultimate board game despite it being, well, a computer game. It very much feels like a board game though, with its hexagonal playing field and turn-based gameplay. Where it differs is with its plethora of interlocking systems, ones that make the Game of Thrones board game seem simple. You have to manage various economies (Gold, Faith, Science, Culture, Food, and Production) while making sure to get Strategic Resources (and maybe Bonus and Luxury) ones too, all while competing with however many other players are in the game to win. There isn’t a simple ‘win’ condition either, you can achieve victory through Domination, Tourism, Religion, Diplomacy, Science, or just run out the clock and win with Score. There’s a lot going on.

Though Civilization does a lot to simulate ruling a civilization over 6000-odd years, there’s little attempt to make things look super realistic. The tiles of the game look like a high-definition Settlers of Catan and cities and developments are far, far from scale (that, or most people in this game are the size of buildings). There’s no clear sense of size, either, as a single hex is only big enough for one thing, be it a farm, the Eiffel Tower, a city square, or the Great Pyramids. Hexes don’t translate to kilometers at all, and there’s no expectation for them to match anything. It’s an abstraction (again, not unlike a board game) that’s part of the whole empire management aspect of the game. A more ‘realistic’  version, with civilizations a ‘proper’ distance apart and everything to scale would, arguably, be too complicated to be as accessible as it is.

I don’t think games like Civ or Pandemic are particularly realistic. I also don’t think they need to be realistic. The abstraction is why it’s fun; boiling reality down to mechanics is how the games are interesting. Spreading religion and culture doesn’t work in real life quite the same way, so gamifying it is what makes it work. All this to say, yeah, Civilization isn’t too realistic. But I still really enjoy it. And that’s okay.

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Discussing Invasions in Committees

When you think Star Wars you don’t really think about the nitty-gritty of politics. Sure, you’ve got the admirals aboard the Death Star in A New Hope talking about dissolving the Senate and all that, but honestly, that’s about it. This is a space Western, we’re not dealing with boring politics here.

Unless, of course, you’re thinking of the prequels. The Phantom Menace’s second act has a lot of it, as does Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith. It’s… a bit of a sharp departure from the saga that’s got a lot of laser fights and space ships (although, I’d argue the story’s far deeper than that). In any case, it’s a bit of a bummer.

It’s disappointing, though, because the political arc of the prequels is actually really cool. We start with the Republic, a Galactic coalition with no standing army. The Phantom Menace sees an upstart politician use a trading blockade to wrest power from the established authority, predicating it on a vote of no-power rather than a standard end-of-term election, effectively staging a political coup. Ten years later, in Attack of The Clones, that same politician uses the threat of division to raise an army and start a war, the process of which sees him granted emergency powers and a much stronger political hold. This all culminates in Revenge of The Sith where the Republic becomes an Empire, and the Chancellor an Emperor. And so, famously, liberty dies.

It all makes for compelling political fiction, just presented in a really lousy fashion. Though the political plotline is integral to the story of the Fall of The Republic, it feels tangential to the far more interesting story of the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and Anakin’s fall. Sure, Palpatine’s rise is interesting and all, but what we really care about is the story of Obi-Wan and Anakin, and, yeah, Padmé too. Unfortunately, these characters are affected by the political plots rather than affecting it (save Padmé in Phantom Menace). Taking the focus away from the heroes to focus on senatorial politicking would be like, well, taking the focus away from Jedi adventures to talk lackluster politics.

The problem is that Palpatine’s plot, though empirically interesting, doesn’t really have much to do with the main story involving the Jedi, which is emotionally interesting. Our attention, as an audience, is divided between two divergent plotlines. We’ve gotta pick one to put our interest in, and our interest goes with the people with laser swords.

Here’s the thing, though: As a kid, I didn’t mind the senate scenes too much. Sure, there was a notable lack of lightsabers, but there was a measure of voyeuristic intrigue to be privy to these machinations. Politicking isn’t usually a thing in kids’ media, so it’s pretty neat to get to see it in a movie like Star Wars. Granted, I am also that kid who got into The West Wing with his parents before Revenge of The Sith came out in theaters, so maybe I’m weird like that. In addition, the narrative of a politician using a (manufactured) crisis to seize power is a compelling one that, in better hands, could have really worked into the Star Wars that envisioned the original Empire as an America that had fallen to its baser desires.

Every now and then, I hear people decry the politicking of the Prequels as being the movies’ biggest failure. They’re not a highlight, but the idea is there, though the execution is certainly lacking. Perhaps it would be better served were it more closely intertwined with the characters’ stories, allowing them to take an active role in it all. But then, that would have the mostly-apolitical Jedi getting even more involved in the Senate, which would really only make Palpatine’s accusation of a Jedi coup even more plausible, and really, that’s the last thing he needs.

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