Personal History

Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).

But sometimes it works.

Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy.  But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.

So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.

Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.

The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.

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The Return of The Boyband

One hundred and forty-four essays (not rants) ago I wrote about the then-upcoming Final Fantasy XV and how it was frustrating to see an entirely male party, albeit one justified by a space to allow the exploration of bromances.

Anyway, the game came out and all that, and I stopped paying attention to much (any) of the press. Then it went on sale on Amazon for $20 and, after being convinced by my girlfriend (“You’ve been waiting eleven years, just buy the game”) who informed me it was $16.45 in 2006, adjusted for inflation, I bought the darn game. And have subsequently played it.

And boy howdy it is odd.

A ten year development cycle is never a good sign for a game, and Final Fantasy XV (née Final Fantasy Versus XIII) shows a lot of growing pains. Its mechanics are a little wonky, with its open world showing nowhere near the contemporary finesse of games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Metal Gear Solid V. Even Mass Effect Andromeda for all its flaws made exploration fun; in FFXV, it’s a bit of a commute. Combat is cool, although it feels like it’s hampering itself by not letting you make more changes to your gear on the fly. It’s fun enough, if a bit of a mechanical mess.

But the story is where the game is at its most, both for better and worse. You play as protagonist Prince Noctis (Emo Bro) who is on a road trip to meet his betrothed, the Oracle Luna, with his retinue/bros consisting of Gladiolus (Muscle Bro), Ignis (Nerd Bro), and Prompto (Selfie Bro). We’re from the capital city of Lucis, Insomnia (this game is not subtle). Anyway, a cold war goes hot, Insomnia falls, the king dies (so Noctis is king now?) and we gotta find ancient magicky Royal Arms weapons to take back the throne.

Or something.

Truth be told, the narrative is a bit of a convoluted mess. I mean, I know what’s going on, insofar as I just explained, but the political lines aren’t really drawn all to well and I’m not quite sure how the Royal Arms are gonna help me get my kingdom back and avenge my father and all that. Also I think we’re still going to pick up Luna? But right now Luna’s going around waking up these gods and I’m also going to the gods to get their powers? I think?

In some ways it feels like there are ten years’ worth of ideas stuck to a cork board in this game, and they don’t always mesh too wonderfully. I’m not saying this game needed another year of development, more its connective tissue needed to be worked out a bit more, keep the player placed in the story.

Because there’s a lot of good! The combat system is wonky but when it works it is awesome to be warping around, swapping from a sword to a spear by materializing the new weapon out of mid air, and plunging into a giant frog (then warping across the field to stab a goblin). Exploring the world isn’t always smooth, but it’s a really cool world, with a delightful merging of contemporary tech/culture (smart phones, dope cities, route 66 style rest stops and garages, machine guns, etc) with some serious high fantasy (magic swords, normal swords, deamons that only come out at night, gods, magic meteors, etc). It’s weird, it’s fun, but we don’t really have enough moments to really get the feel and explore this world. Like, I’m told that in Lestallum it is the women who do the work, but outside of seeing female NPCs in overalls, nothing really happens with it.

But. The bromance. I can go fishing while exploring, and afterwards Muscle Bro sets up camp, Nerd Bro cooks, and we look at the pictures Selfie Bro took during the day (and I choose which ones to save). Along the way they talk crap about all sorts of things, be it Nerd Bro’s glasses or Selfie Bro asking what I want him to take pictures of. Nerd Bro and I (Emo Bro) had a bonding moment over cooking once, and Muscle Bro told me that he’s sworn to protect my life and that means that he’s gonna call me on my bullshit. Sure, I’m disappointed that the main female characters thus far are all NPCs and are basically just pure angel lady, Muscle Bro’s sister, and eye candy mechanic; but I am actually enjoying my retinue/bros (though Emo Bro is pretty boring thus far).

I’m told the game is about to get even weirder soon, with the open world being abandoned for something more traditionally linear involving a train, and in all honesty, I can’t wait to see where it goes. It’s nowhere near as compelling as, say Final Fantasy XIII or VIII, but it’s a lotta (weird) fun.

This is a game where an actual battle command is to have Selfie Bro snap a picture. And for some reason, having this dude take a picture while I’m fighting for my life against a massive monster feels just right for this game.

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2017 In Review

2017 has been a year. And it ends in a couple days, so that means it’s time for me to phone it in and post about posts!

Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts

#5: Hanging Out

You know that thing where you talk about fictional characters as if they were your actual real life friends? This post is about how really well crafted characters make you happy just to watch them interact.

#4: Trusting The Story

It’s nice to be able to shut off your brain when you watch a movie or read a book, insofar as that means you don’t overthink it. But part of that means trusting the storyteller that everything will make sense. Dunkirk and Star Wars are movies that if you stop asking why and enjoy it then, dang, they’re great.

#3: Let The Past Die

Woah, this one got hits quick. Or maybe my blog’s just not as busy as it used to be. Either way. The Last Jedi is a rich movie (which you gotta admit, even if you’d didn’t like it) and this is me getting into some of its layers. There’s more I wanna unpack which I may go on about in due time (consider Rian Johnson’s use of fakeouts and a twisty plot in light of Luke’s admonition that this isn’t going to go the way you think).

#1 (tie!): So My Apartment Building Caught Fire

Well. This was a blogpost born out of an unexpected adventure. This is me talking about one of the reasons I love living in New York.

#1 (tie!): Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

Stories are important. Science Fiction is important. And sometimes the real world sucks (that this was posted in January 2017 definitely has nothing to do with the post, cough), and sometimes stories remind you that, hey, there is good. And that through it you can learn something.

Stories are important.

Josh’s Pick of Three

#3: On Visibility and Character Creators

I love character creators. I spend way too long in The Sims’ Create-A-Sim and love agonizing over my character in games that let me design my avatar. But as someone who’s neither entirely white nor entirely Chinese, it’s hard to recreate myself when many presets are decidedly one or the other. Maybe if more of us were represented in stories I might be able to make a half-Asian commander Shepard.

#2: The Ephemeral And The Sublime

This blog is guaranteed to be the only place you’ll find indie darling Lady Bird and Hideo Kojima helmed video game Death Stranding spoken about in relation. But they’re similar! Read this to see me making a weird connection that actually makes an amount of sense.

#1: AMERICA

Another post that Definitely Has Nothing To Do With The Date It Was Posted. I love multinational teams, and I love how U.S. Avengers uses such a team to redefine the idea of an American. It’s a team of immigrants, minorities, and a homegrown, corn-fed Kentuckian. It’s truly a special comic. And there’s something wonderful about seeing the Finnish-Norwegian Aikku be comforted by her girlfriend about the oddness of America.

*

And so 2017 draws to a close. Thanks for reading folks, and I dearly hope you keep doing so. 2018’s gonna be wild and I’m still gonna be here ranting about whatever the crap I want. Which, given that we’re seeing Black Panther, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and the new Tomb Raider movie come out, probably means more of the same.

Cheers,

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Let The Past Die

Part of why I like The Force Awakens is that its characters are, in many ways, Star Wars fans themselves. Rey and Kylo Ren both grew up on stories about the Rebellion and the Empire (though with different takeaways) and so want to live out their version of the stories. Kylo fashions himself into an ersatz Darth Vader, Rey sees the chance to join up with the legendary Han Solo and maybe become a Jedi like Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, deconstructs those dreams (and those of the audience too). And since I’m gonna be talking about The Last Jedi, this is where I let you know that here there be spoilers. About character arcs and stuff, which as we all know is what really matters.

So anyway. Spoilers. And deconstruction.

Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for being nothing except a shadow of Vader. Killing Han’s not good enough; Kylo’s just a fanboy. It becomes clear that Kylo will never come into his own so long as all he wants to do is imitate his grandfather. And so the character of Kylo Ren, as we knew it in Awakens, is dressed down and forced to forge a new identity.

Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Rey can only watch as Luke Skywalker casually tosses the revered lightsaber over his shoulder. Turns out Rey’s idea of Luke is terribly misinformed. Even her understanding of The Force (controlling people and lifting rocks) is wrong. Rey’s expectations are dashed and eventually she has to, in the words of another Jedi, unlearn what she’s already learned, and try and start afresh.

The Last Jedi sets fire to a lot of what we hold dear about Star Wars. Sometimes this is done through character (Poe is chastised for his propensity for reckless and costly space battles where they somehow overcome the odds) and other times it’s through the story itself.

Look at the Jedi.

They’re cool, right? With their dope lightsabers and all the heroing we see them do in the movies. Luke outright calls them fools, a prideful group whose hubris allowed the Empire to rise. He goes so far as to desecrate one of the finer points of the Star Wars mythos, derisively calling the Jedi’s weapon a laser sword. And Luke has a point. Maybe the Jedi weren’t all they cracked up to be (and, as we see in the prequels, they really weren’t the brightest of the bunch). The movie takes apart a chunk of Star Wars, and puts its pieces on display. The Jedi are flawed, overblown legends, maybe it’s time for them to end.

The response to this deconstructed Star Wars is embodied by the movie’s hero and villain. Rey and Kylo have both seen their goals tossed aside, goals that were, in essence, to emulate the Original Trilogy. They each respond differently: Kylo sees this as an opportunity to burn it all down and let the past die so he can remake the world as he sees fit; Rey, however, wants to rebuild from the ashes, learning from the mistakes of what’s come before. The epic battle between the light side and the dark side continues, though this time it’s one that these two have defined for themselves.

And that’s this movie’s relation with The Force Awakens. The prior one re-established Star Wars as we remember it, replete with high-flying romantic adventure. The Last Jedi takes apart those tropes, breaking down the notions of chosen ones, daring plans, and wise masters. But writer/director Rian Johnson loves Star Wars and so, now that he’s taken them apart, he can develop them deeper than before. Luke is bitter and stubborn, a far cry from an idealistic farmboy or a sage like Yoda. But he still has much to learn, especially from his shortcomings. The idea of a wise master who knows everything doesn’t stand up, but when we take that away we’re given a Jedi Master who is still learning. Which is a more interesting, deeper interpretation.

Rey is a nobody, but she’s still strong with the Force – all that talk about chosen ones and being descended from a great Jedi (like Kylo) is bunk, but, but but but, now anyone can be a Jedi. Luke Skywalker doesn’t swoop in to defeat the First Order, because that hero could be anyone, that hope is bigger than he is.

What Rian Johnson does seems almost anathema, counter to the distilling of Star Wars that is The Force Awakens. But Johnson gives these stories new room to grow, and so he forces Rey and Kylo (and fans like me!) to reexamine the older Star Wars movies and figure out a new what’s next. Kylo Ren isn’t gonna be Darth Vader, and Rey isn’t about to be Luke Skywalker.

And we’re better off for that.

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Long Live The Resistance

It’s really easy to see the original Star Wars as an anti-establishment film. Han, Luke, and Leia are a trio of rebels vying to undermine and overthrow the Man. And given that the movie is a product of the 70s, it just might be intentional. Empire has the Man crackdown on our plucky heroes, and Return of The Jedi culminates in the final usurpation.

Of course, within this framework, any story about plucky rebels can be interpreted as anti-establishment. Mega Man Zero is about Zero and the Resistance exposing Neo Arcadia for the dystopia it is. The Matrix has Neo fighting back against the humanity-controlling Machines. Harry Potter and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army to take on Umbridge.

But antiestablishmentarianism is in Star Wars’ DNA, and not just as an idea as in some other examples. And for that, you need look no further than the prequels.

Which, sounds kinda odd, because the heroes in the prequels are part of the establishment. The Jedi Order is in full swing and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are members. Padmé is a Queen and a Senator. On the other hand, Tatooine, a planet beyond the reach of the Republic, is a lawless land of slavery. The villainous Confederacy is trying to destroy the peaceful Republic. Ostensibly, it’s the inverse of the original trilogy’s ethos.

But the prequels are about the fall of the Republic. And it is not brought down by an external resistance: it is brought down from within. For all the fighting the Confederacy does, they don’t destroy the Republic. The Republic is a corrupt system, full of infighting that prevents anything from being done (as we see with Naboo’s blockade in Phantom Menace). The Jedi Order is all too ready to make the jump from peacekeepers to generals. The Republic is not a good thing: it is old and decrepit, and its conversion into the Empire is a product of its own failings. In the prequels, the heroes may be servants of the establishment, but the establishment is not a good thing. Revenge of The Sith has the Senate, who our heroes have been championing, capitulating to Darth Sidious. No, the prequels don’t have Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé fighting the Man, instead their loyalty to the establishment is their undoing.

The recent movies carry on this point of view. The New Republic in The Force Awakens doesn’t believe the First Order to be a credible threat and are so destroyed, leaving Leia and her Resistance to fight on. They were, to an extent, abandoned by the establishment and left to fend for themselves. Rogue One speaks for itself (if you need a reminder: ragtag team of diverse nobodies take on a monolithic empire).

So Star Wars is decidedly anti-establishment. Cool.

The Last Jedi, however, embraces this ethos with an unrivaled vigor. In the bigger, meta scheme of things, Star Wars is now the establishment. It’s no longer this weird sci-fi movie that mixes together westerns, samurai films, and Flash Gordon serials; it’s its own thing and its heroes pop culture legends. So The Last Jedi sets out to deconstruct a lot of Star Wars’ tropes, this time turning its anti-establishment lens on its own heroes. The establishment in The Last Jedi takes the form of a variety of legacies; the legacy of the Jedi, the legacy of the Empire, even the legacy of Luke Skywalker. The movie itself challenges our assumptions about these things, challenging us to ask questions about them we may not be too keen to ask. What if the Jedi should end? What does it mean to have been Luke Skywalker? Why do we care so much for legacies?

Some of these questions are answered, and some of these have no easy answer. Sure, there’s still a plucky Resistance against an indomitable First Order, but director Rian Johnson wants to figure out what Star Wars really is, and that means bringing a hammer to some stuff you’d rather not. It’s excellently done and particularly bold given how safe Star Wars usually is.

I have A Lot Of Thoughts on The Last Jedi, thoughts that I’ll need another viewing and many beer-fueled conversations with friends to mull over. But one thing that’s abundantly clear is that The Last Jedi has a very clear image of its identity, and one facet of that is as the culmination of an anti-establishment vision.

Which is pretty neat.

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The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

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Crossing Animals

Fetch quests occupy a strange space in video games. They aren’t strictly great quests; you talk to an NPC, and then they have you get something for them, or bring something somewhere else. They’re usually uninspired and are a transparent effort to pad out the game’s length. Mass Effect: Andromeda mines hours upon hours of gameplay by having the player go to a different planet, talk to someone, and return (for a reward!). Point is, they ain’t great.

And yet, there’s Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

I downloaded the game to my phone cuz a lotta people were downloading it, knowing nothing about the Animal Crossing games except there are animals that crossed and something about decorating houses. I fired up the game and found myself put in charge of a campsite (which I can decorate!) and told to befriend visiting animals and invite them over to said campsite.

Simple enough.

Befriending these animals, however, is a matter of talking to them and… fetch quests. Jay wants two squids, Filbert wants an assortment of fruits, and Apollo has developed an affection for butterflies. If you bring their desired items to these animal crossers they in turn give you bells (money) and resources like wood and cotton you can then use to craft new furniture for tour campsite. This furniture, besides looking nice, is also used to lure invite animals to hang out at your campsite.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is all about fetch quests. Just going somewhere, getting something, and giving it to someone.

And yet, it is such calming fun.

Part of this is due to how gentle the game is. Pocket Camp doesn’t have you fighting monsters, you just shake fruit off trees or tap butterflies to catch them with your net. It’s easy enough to amass such a stock of items that more often than not, you’ll already have what your animal friend is looking for.

But there still a sense of accomplishment upon completing a task. The animal smiles and claps, thanking you profusely. It’s a bit of an overreaction, but you still did something. There’s the idea that you’re getting stuff done, and that getting said stuff done is appreciated by people, er- animals, who call you friend.

What really makes Pocket Camp work, though, is summed up in those darned cute animals. Pocket Camp’s simple mechanics are delivered with a very friendly theme. There’s no fighting monsters, but nor is there much in the way of any conflict whatsoever. You’re all just kinda get along. It’s utterly non-threatening, presenting a harmonious world where idyllic days are spent fishing and foraging and thinking about food.

And so it’s wonderfully calming. There’s no frenetic need to get stuff done, you can do stuff at your own pace and still have that sense of accomplishment. Like The Sims, you’re able to set your own goals within the parameters (do you want to upgrade your camper? Make a dope hangout? Stockpile a horde of Bells?) and go after them (though without the threat of starvation and/or setting yourself on fire). Again, Pocket Camp is a game to relax. Not blow off steam: just chill out.

I think it’s, in that way, a kinda important game. Sure, it’s not saying Something Bigger About The World, and it’s hardly a brain-bending puzzle game. It’s a game where you do stuff, simple fetch quests though they may be, and be rewarded and affirmed for it. Without deadlines or consequences, Pocket Camp feels very much like a safe space to escape to in the middle of the day. Proof that you can get something done and that Ketchup the duck is really happy you did.

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