Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

Video games borrow a lot from movies. Snake, on the original box art for Metal Gear, is played by Michael Biehn. Or at least someone who looks just like him. Contra’s box makes it look like you’ll be playing John Matrix and John Rambo taking on the Xenomorph from Alien.

But then there’s Halo, which drew much of its aesthetic wholesale from Aliens. Look at their portrayal of marines in space: the video game’s UNSC Marines sport body armor and helmets almost identical to the Marines in James Cameron’s sequel. Even Halo’s venerable Sergeant Johnson is very much inspired by a sergeant from Aliens. Both forces are fighting against a creepy, parasitic alien that starts out as a small thing that attaches itself to a host.

As much as Halo uses elements of Aliens, however, it never feels like its copying it for lack of better ideas. The game’s plot adds concepts like the genocidal Covenant trying to wipe out humanity, Cortana the glowing blue AI who helps you along your journey, and the mysterious titular Halo ring. Halo also wears its inspiration on its sleeve, making no attempt to cover it up. There’s an affection to its homages and you can tell that Bungie really liked the movie.

Which is kinda how it goes with video games. Gameplay-wise, Halo introduced and popularized several mechanics we now take for granted. In Halo, damage taken isn’t permanent pending a health pickup, rather you have shields that recharge over time. This encouraged players to experiment more, to take more risks – if you got shot too much you could just run off and wait for your shields to recharge before trying again. It changed the way shooters were played, because now almost every shooter has rechargeable health. Halo justified it through your character’s shields, but later games like Uncharted or Call of Duty make no effort to give a narrative explanation. It’s just become the way games are.

I like to talk a lot about how games are a nascent art form, what with Tennis for Two coming out a hair under sixty years ago, and Pong is barely forty-five years old. Since then we’ve seen games grow from basic pixel-ly lines to real-time rendered games that give CGI films a run for their money. Mechanics, too, keep changing. Consider the idea of a cover system, which allows for the player to hide behind something while still shooting. Wikipedia tells me Kill.Switch was the first to implement it, but games like Gears of War and Uncharted really brought it into popular consciousness. There’s an exchange of ideas in video games, one to an extent you don’t really see in other, more established, mediums.

We know what a movie is; there’s fiction, documentaries, and variations thereof. We know what a book is, what a comic is. But what exactly a video game constitutes is kinda left in the air. We’ve Halo, a sci-fi shooter, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game by two parents whose son had terminal cancer. You play a Call of Duty game by running around shooting people, the Sims is pointing and clicking at people and objects, meanwhile Johan Sebastian Joust is played by holding the controller and pushing each other around in real life. The special thing here is that games borrow ideas from each other no matter the genre. An action movie borrowing techniques from an arthouse piece is seen as being daring and cultured, but an early chapter in Uncharted 4’, “A Normal Life,” clearly draws on the exploratory narrative games like Gone Home. This isn’t just happy coincidence; Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed Uncharted 4, tweeted about the game back when it came out. People who make games play games, like games. Even though there’s a massive variety of types of video games, there’s a cross-pollination amongst them that gives games influences from all over the place.

Look, I like video games a lot. I grew up playing them and find their evolution to be absolutely fascinating, in no small part to taking influences from all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘wrong’ place to get inspiration. There’s no one correct way to tell stories, so there’s something to be learnt no matter where you look. If video games continue this anything works mindset, I can’t wait to see where we are in ten, twenty, thirty years.

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The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

One of the most striking features of the planet Elaaden is a huge derelict Remnant ship. Sticking out broken over the desert planet, the ship could hold answers for the mystery of the old killer robots that populate Mass Effect: Andromeda. The latest game in the Mass Effect video game series has a strong focus one exploration, namely that titular distant galaxy. There’s so much to see, so much to find out.

But I still haven’t gone to the ship, despite having done basically every other sideqeust available on the planet. This isn’t so much a case of saving the best for last, as much as it is putting off what I expect will be a fun-if-pointless mission.

Because the Remnant Derelict is not a Priority Mission (that is, a story mission), it’s highly unlikely that any Major Plot Twisting Details will happen. If there is some massive revelation about the Remnant waiting in the wings, whatever’s aboard that ship will either tease it or corroborate it, depending on when I play it in relation to that story mission.

Andromeda is an open world RPG. There are Priority Missions I play one after another, these make up the main plot. I complete Mission A, then I can do Mission B, and so on until the game ends. Meanwhile, there are these sidequests, things I can do around the galaxy be it earning my squad’s loyalty or blowing up a Kett tower. Those sidequests can be done in any order and at any point after you’ve unlocked them (usually by completing another sidequest, or progressing to a certain point along the Priority Mission chain). This means that I could have explored that Remnant Derelict when I first found it a couple Priority Missions ago, or I could wait and only explore it after I’ve finished the main story – and the central plot played out. Thus, the mission has to accommodate either timeline. This in turn limits the developments that the sidequest can have, nothing can happen here that would affect a Priority Mission in a big way.

Consider, if you will, a hypothetical game based on Firefly and Serenity. Midway through the movie, we find out that the Reavers, a savage group of spacefaring barbarians, were in fact accidentally  created by the Alliance (spoiler). In the hypothetical game, you wouldn’t find this out in a sidequest, it’d be a  paradigm-shifting story quest that would affect the crew through any major plot developments. Thus if there was a sidequest where you could explore an old Reaver ship or an Alliance Databank, this twist wouldn’t be there. Anything you found would be cool, but self-contained.

This is the hurdle that open games have to deal with. Something more linear, like Uncharted or Halo, progress in one direction like a movie, scene 1 into scene 2; there’s no scene 1.5. Every level/chapter/scene will affect the plot in some way. Giving the player a choice means the game’s writers and programmers have to have planned whichever path the player takes.

In Kingdom Hearts the player can visit a variety of worlds in whatever order they want. They’ll pal around with Aladdin, Alice, and Ariel, then have to go to a specific world where More Story happens. This isn’t too pressing most of the time, but as the plot picks up, visiting Halloween Town or Monstro’s belly feels like a filler episode in the larger narrative of Sora and Mickey’s adventure. They can’t impact the plot too much because the player may have another world to complete before the next Big Story Moment.

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don’t mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player’s agency affects the distribution of the game’s narrative.  Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can’t seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg’s, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players’ decisions.

But video games are still a young genre. The amount of player agency in Andromeda would have been unheard of twenty years ago. It’s a bummer that it can’t anticipate and account for everything, but who’s to say games won’t in the future? Exploring a virtual world in Andromeda is a great experience, even if it exposes some of the issues with open world games. Yes, the narrative failings are frustrating, but it’s a step forward towards what games could be. Risks propel the medium forward; who knows where we’ll be in twenty years.

Of course, I could be totally wrong and that derelict ship may have a crapload of secrets about the Remnant and it turns out Andromeda has untold variations of its Priority Missions prepared in its code with each one voiced and animated ready to go. But the point stands; for all the issues with open ended video games, the potential remains. And that’s exciting. Bring on the AI game masters!

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Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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Star Wars’ Newfound Dearth of White Guys

The Star Wars video game Battlefront 2, the follow-up to 2015’s Battlefront, was revealed a couple weeks ago, and the sequel seems to be righting a lot of the mistakes of the first game. It boasts more interesting combat, the return of classes, multiple eras in which you can play, and Jedi Rey as a playable character (which, right there makes me wanna preorder it). Unlike the first, which was basically online multiplayer only, there’s also going to be a proper narrative single-player mode, that follows an Imperial special forces commander from the destruction of the Second Death Star through the rise of the First Order – which sounds cool!

What’s interesting both as a shooter game and as part of the Star Wars franchise is that the protagonist is a woman named Iden Versio, as was revealed in the trailer when the commander removes her helmet, thus continuing Lucasfilm’s new trend of creating a character who isn’t a white guy every time they need a new protagonist.

We know this from the two new films that relaunched the series, with Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens and Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. But this new emphasis on diversity extends to a lot of the other Star Wars stories in the new canon. The first comic with a protagonist created for the new comics is this year’s Doctor Aphra, where the titular woman Indiana Jones-es around the galaxy. The tv show Rebels, which has been around since 2014, might star the vaguely-caucasian Ezra, but the other humans in the crew are the decidedly Asian-looking Mandalorian Sabine, and Kanan, whose ethnicity is open to interpretation but is played by part-hispanic actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. Point is, over the past couple years, Star Wars has been getting a lot less exclusively white and male.

So now we have Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squadron, the protagonist of the New Big Star Wars Game and a character voiced by – and resembling – an Indian woman. Iden marks the extension of the trend towards diversity from other areas of the franchise into video games. Throughout the dozens of Star Wars video games released throughout the years, the protagonist has, with a handful of exceptions, always been a white guy. Even games like KoToR and Jedi Academy where you can customize character’s gender and skin tone; later books would canonize the protagonist as being a white guy (KOTOR II’s Jedi Exile is the exception to this). So we see Iden as a shift away from this precedent. Furthermore, it’s not only her appearance which sets her apart, but also her role as a military commander, not a Jedi – Star Wars is taking what’s usually seen as a male role (commando) and giving it to a woman. It’s a subversion of expectations, one that also says “Hey, women can be military leaders too!”

Like I said, Lucasfilm has clearly taken a really strong line on diversity, promoting women and people of color in just about everything they’ve put out over the past couple years. The trade off is that white guys are being put on the back burner.

But if we want more representation in the Star Wars galaxy, that’s the way it has to be. Look, there are forty years of Star Wars stories, especially if you include the old Expanded Universe (I do), and for the vast majority of them, the central main character’s a white guy. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, the list goes on. The spotlight is now being shifted in another direction in what appears to be an attempt on the part of Lucasfilm to even the tally by mandating that all new protagonists not have to be white guys and insisting that other people get featured It means that Rey gets to be the chosen one now. It means that the badass Imperial commander’s an Indian woman. It means, that the people making Star Wars are looking at characters, asking why not, and putting minorities in the lead. It’s a drastic departure from most of the franchise’s history to be sure, but it’s a strong step forward to bridging the gap — and has clearly not hurt the quality of the stories.

‘cuz look, making room at the table sometimes means having to give up a chair. If we want to see a more diverse world in media, it means having to actively curate that world, it means having to have stories that aren’t about white guys for a bit. And at the end of the day those forty years of stories are still there. Making Iden Versio the protagonist of Battlefront II doesn’t undo all those Kyle Katarn stories, Rey doesn’t invalidate Luke. It’s a big, big galaxy a long time ago far far away; there’s room for stories about all sorts of people. Just means that white guys might not be the main characters for a while.

Now, there is that Han Solo movie coming out next year. After that, though, I’m game for Star Wars not having a white guy in the lead for another thirty-six years.

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Book Listening

I’ve been a huge Trevor Noah fan since he showed up on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and started ragging on misconceptions of contemporary Africa by comparing it to the rural US. I found his stand-up special, African American, on Netflix and was delighted to hear him cracking jokes about growing up mixed. Though mine was in no way identical, there was enough familiarity there to really connect. Also, he’s funny. So I was one of the five people who was really keen on him taking over The Daily Show and I also got a chance to see him live last fall in New York when he taped his new special.

Point is, I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah. So when his book, Born A Crime, was available for free on Audible, I got audible and the free book. And by book I mean audio book. A book you listen to. Not read.

As was made plenty clear last week, I have Many Feelings about the Physicality of Books. I got a hold of the audio book because it was ~free~ with the intention of probably intentionally buying the physical version to actually read.

Because who has time to listen to a book?

When I read I like having my full attention on said reading. If I’m listening to music it’s gonna be instrumental (Current favorite: The Transistor soundtrack). I’m the sort who gets distracted easily and can end up reading a page and a half before realizing I was thinking about what to cook for dinner. So listening seems counterintuitive. A little too easy to get distracted.

That said, I did end up listening to a couple hours of Born A Crime while on a long car ride. It’s a great listen, and as a perk it’s narrated by Noah himself and so rife with accents and proper pronunciation of the Xhosa names. It’s a charming listen, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on anything I would from reading.

Except for the whole bookiness thing.

Look, I like turning pages. I like glancing back. But one thing that Audible does that I really like is that I can bookmark chunks and write notes down. Well, type notes up. So I can take the recording back to the place where he discusses how his grandmother saw him as being white growing up or how he used language as a kid to jump between social spheres at school. It’s neat, to be sure.

That said, one thing that’s nice-but-daunting is that it clearly says how long each chapter will take you. I’m gearing up to start the next one, but it’s gonna take twenty-two minutes and I don’t know that I have twenty-two minutes. Sure, I could break it up; listen to ten minutes now and twelve later, but it feels like I’m interrupting his train of thought. More so than a book ‘cuz I can’t skim the past couple of pages. I can rewind back a minute or so, but I can’t skim. But I can now consume a book while doing something else, like playing video games. Which is how I usually watch The Daily Show or stand-up anyway. So not all bad – but Born A Crime is a pretty meaty book in some parts, so, again, full attention is better. But hard. Because I’m sitting around doing nothing.

Now, Born A Crime is a bit of an oddity, in that it’s read by Trevor Noah, a person known for talking. Where most audio books are read by someone who’s not the writer, with this we get to actually hear it ‘as intended.’ So does that make it truer to its ideal than the written version? I’m not sure. I lean towards the understanding that if something is presented one way, it is intended to be seen that way. Movie scripts are great and all, but they’re supposed to be movies. A stand-up special doesn’t work as well on the page, for obvious reasons. So does a work that’s meant to be read work as spoken word? Especially if it’s spoken by the dude who wrote it?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m enjoying the book, but I wonder if I’d enjoy it more read. I do know that I will be picking up a physical copy eventually to reread and annotate. Will I listen to another book down the line? Hard to say, ‘cuz half the reason I like reading is, well, the reading part.

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Page Feel

I read a lot. This is partly a byproduct of having grown up a bookworm and partly having taken a course of studied that meant a lot of reading. Like a lot a lot. Since graduating, I’ve kept it up best I can and I’m sitting at fifteen-odd books in the past eleven months.

Like I said, reading a lot.

A side effect of this is that I have a wonderful bookshelf. You’ve got Ulysses there and the first volume of Saga there with CS Lewis’ Of Other Worlds. I like it, in part because it’s an egotistical testament to All The Books.

I mean, it’s kinda why I had a BluRay collection for a while. I love special features and stuff, but there’s also the fun of being able to tell a lot about a person based on what movies, games, books, music they own. But I’ve slowly been relying more on Netflix, etc for movies and tv with only really special things (Star Wars) getting bought. So books is the thing on my shelves.

And I’m moving in a couple months, which means packing everything up and hauling it down six(!) flights of stairs and to wherever I’m off to next. Which means packing up All The Books. And carrying All The Books elsewhere.

Which then begs the question: Why the crap don’t I have a Kindle? It’s light, I can fit All The Books inside and would make things so much easier. Also, once the thing is paid for, arguably cheaper. So there’s no real cons.

But the bookshelf.

And the books.

I like writing in my books. My copy of Ulysses is covered in my scrawls. Some books only have the occasional comment or underline. The Chinese in America has a lot of notes in the margins. Sure, you can do that on a Kindle and typed notes is easier to read than my handwriting, but there’s the process. Pen on paper. Flicking through a book looking for those notes. The feel of the pages.

There’s the bookshelf too. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing where I like having a monument to All The Books I Have Read in my apartment and to make sure people visiting can see All The Books. It’s a way for me to tell any visitor that I have a diverse array of interests (why yes, that is Mark Mazzetti’s study of the CIA, The Way of The Knife, next to Ready Player One; behold for I am cultured). It means that when some friends and I are a few drinks deep and talking about 80s movies or Ulysses I can pull a book off my monument to All The Books I Have Read and point to a passage relevant to our discussions. Like I said, it’s egotistical, but it has a purpose.

But maybe that egotism has a deeper root in a declaration of identity. Books are, to an extent, more personal than, say, movies. You don’t just go read a book at random, usually. Bookshelves represent what you’re into and what you’re enjoy, what you’ve studied and what you read for pleasure. They work as a summation of your interests and are thus reflexive back on you as a person. If you’re someone with The New Bloomsday Book you take reading important books seriously, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy lets everyone know you know how to have fun. By curating a bookshelf, you’re displaying a facet of yourself. You don’t get that on a Kindle.

I think that’s something that we lose when we go digital. Sure, it’s a bit of a luddite’s perspective, but I like recognizing a book a stranger’s reading on the subway or having an immediate icebreaker when you recognize a book on someone’s shelf.

So will I get a Kindle? Maybe. Probably eventually. Let’s see just how much I complain about lugging these books to a new apartment.

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This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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