Tasty Words

If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.

Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.

What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.

XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.

On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.

Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.

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Where Do We Go From Here? (Or Infinity War Part Two)

This post is going to be about what just might happen in the next Avengers movie. And about what happened in Infinity War too, so if you’re not a fan of spoilers, this is your warning.

I lost my voice when I saw the Infinity War’s stinger the first time. Seeing Captain Marvel’s symbol appear on Nick Fury’s space pager elicited quite the roar/scream from me for quite the obvious reason; she’s long been my favorite superhero and finally, finally getting a movie so even getting a hint of her is Really Exciting. It also essentially confirms that, yes, Captain Marvel’s gonna be in the next Avengers and I cannot wait.

Because Captain Marvel, or Carol Danvers, has the epithet of “Earth’s Mightiest Hero” in the comics and is one of the strongest superheroes. 2013’s Infinity event’s climax saw Captain Marvel and Thor duking it out with Thanos in a really epic fight. So bringing her in for round two against Thano (which is the most likely direction the sequel’s going) makes total sense. Now that the Avengers have lost and they’re on the off-foot, they’re gonna need all the help they can get.

Of course, it’s not gonna be that easy, because where’s the fun in that? The whole nature of narrative is needing twists, turns, and obstacles to keep things interesting. Nathan went to the store is a dull story. Nathan went to the store but they were out of milk is a better story. Nathan went to the store but they were out of milk but there was a mysterious man in a sombrero who offered to sell him milk out of the back of a car is an interesting story. Infinity War Part Two or whatever it’s gonna be called will need some of those buts.

As easy as getting the Time Stone off the Gauntlet and rewinding things so all the dusted Avengers come back to life would be, it’s not interesting. We know that Spider-Man and Black Panther and the others aren’t gone for good, in no small part because there are sequels to their movies coming out and, uh, they need to be in said sequels by virtue of the fact that the actors are in them. So they’re coming back. And Thanos needs to get his ass kicked because, well, he’s the bad guy and we need our triumphant moment of the heroes winning. But we also need catharsis, and so that happy ending needs to be earned.

I figure the remaining of Avengers are gonna have to do some sort of rescue mission to get the others back so they can fight Thanos. Whether that means heisting the Soul Stone and making some sort of sacrifice to bring back everyone who’s presumably trapped in there, I don’t know. If the climax is gonna be all the Avengers and Guardians and everyone else in a big showdown with Thanos, which it should be (because we didn’t quite get that Epic Team Up in Infinity War), there’s a lot of work to get there, no matter what it is exactly will happen.

For starters, Cap and Iron Man are both at their nadirs. Everything they tried was for naught. To get to the point where they’re up for a rematch against Thanos (whatever form that might take) they’re going to not only need to be dragged back into the fight, but also to make amends. Given how disillusioned they are at the movie’s end, it’s gonna take some work.

Enter Carol Danvers. In the comics, she’s always idolized Captain America as someone who she wants to be; she wants to be that sort of hero. But she and Iron Man have always had a bit of a connection; both tend to be foolhardy asshats, and both struggled with alcoholism (Tony was Carol’s sponsor when she got sober). Come Infinity War Part Two Carol could be the third point of the triangle that has Tony and Steve. She’s the potential to be a foil for both of them; someone who believes in what Steve can be and represents but also with the snark of Tony. She’s the Kirk to Tony’s Bones and Steve’s Spock. The dichotic relationship between Steve and Tony is now fleshed out into a Freudian idea of an ego, id, and superego. So not only do the Avengers get a hell of a heavy hitter, but the dynamic of the ostensible leaders is going to be upset in enough of a way that will give Tony and Steve (and the others) enough of a kick in the pants to rally against Thanos.

I’ve been hyped for a Captain Marvel movie since it was frickin’ announced. It’s taken a frustratingly long time to get here, but, given the when she’s being introduced and all that could be done with her, I really can’t wait.

Unless all this turns out to be bunk, in which case, hey, my failure will be preserved right here on the internet for all time!

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Global Vessel

I’m not really a sports person.

But once every four years I get really hardcore into a sport. I am, of course, talking about the World Cup.

Which should really come as no surprise. For starters, it’s got my mostest favoritest trope; the ragtag multinational team. They may be in competition, but there remains the fun of watching countries as disparate as Belgium and Japan share a stage.

Then of course there’s the fact that soccer/football is the sport I know best. I didn’t move to the US until I was fourteen and so grew up around the sport that just about every other country cares about. I played it during recess in primary school and on the landing outside my apartment in Singapore. We played it on the quayside and in the confined rooms aboard the ship. Not only is soccer a sport I know how is played, but it’s one that’s familiar. The World Cup is a convenient reason to get invested. 

Never mind I have no horse in this race, that none of the four countries that make me up (Singapore, the US, China, and Norway) are represented – that’s half the fun! Whoever you support can be completely arbitrary! Spain gave us papas bravas and sangria, pull for them! I once had a crush on a German girl, good enough for me! Messi’s hot; go Argentina! Japan has a half-Asian on their team, I’m in! But more than anything else, it’s great to see so many excellent games played.

Soccer (or association football, I never know what to call it) is as close to contained narrative perfection as you can get in a sport. Unlike American Football, which stops every play for planning and commercials, soccer keeps on going. Not only does this make for a sport more reliant on on-the-fly teamwork, but it creates an atmosphere of sustained tension throughout the game — with very little chances for catharsis. See, basketball, like soccer, doesn’t stop, but it’s also a game where goals come very frequently. We quickly find out if a play results in a goal and the points keep climbing. The somewhat more spaced out pacing of soccer makes for a more tense experience, at any moment an offensive play might succeed. That the score in soccer is typically lower also means that comebacks always seem within reach.

Therein lies so much of the narrative excitement inherent in a good game of soccer. The pathos and excitement of stories are built on the almost-theres and could-have-beens. Every run on the Death Star is exciting for all the times the proton torpedoes could have hit but didn’t; thus making Luke’s success so much more cathartic. The downbeat ending of Infinity War is due in no small part to how darn close the Avengers came to beating Thanos. And so with soccer, every time a goal almost happens but doesn’t just adds to the excitement. Because when a player finally scores, the pent-up tension of however long it’s been pays off, either in relief or tragedy, depending on who you’re rooting for. But no matter what, a good game is exciting.

I probably could get invested in non-World Cup soccer tournaments if I really bothered, but I’ll always love the multinational appeal when this particular series of games rolls around. We’re down to the semi-finals and most every team I’ve pulled for has lost. At this point I’m rooting for France and England, because I’m all about reigniting the Hundred Years War in the finals. But more than anything, I’ve got eight days left of caring about sports, here’s hoping for some really good exciting matches.

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Some Stuff From 2017 I Wanna Talk About

I did this last year, mostly as an excuse to enthuse about things I really like. I’m gonna do it again, listing some things from last year that I really liked. They mayn’t be the best thing in their category, but they’re really cool and I wanna pay attention to it! The three things here are all terrific.

Book: From A Certain Point of View, a collection

Star Wars will forever be my first love. A short story collection by a host of different authors running the gamut from Kelly Sue Deconnick (Captain Marvel!) and Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals!) to Ken Lieu (“The Paper Menagerie,” The Grace of Kings!) to Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death!). It’s a delight to see so many people take a crack at writing Star Wars, fleshing out scenes from the original movie and adding nuance and shades that weren’t there before. Plus, there’s a large number of women and people of color writing, and it’s awesome to see Lucasfilm encouraging those voices.

Album: Skin and Earth, by Lights

I really like Lights, have since I got her first album back in 2009. Skin and Earth is a wild ride, kinda a concept album (see the accompanying tie-in comic she wrote and drew), but mostly just a great collection of music. Like every album she’s put out, Skin and Earth feels at once wholly different from what’s come before and yet still recognizably her. It’s great.

Video Game: Horizon Zero Dawn, by Guerrilla Games

Right off the bat this game has one of my favorite settings; a post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse was so long ago it’s just legends and a new civilization has already risen up. Throw in some robot dinosaurs and I’m sold. Plus, you play as Aloy, an upbeat, relentless outcast who’s handy with a bow is the icing on the cake. Actually, more than that, she’s a winning and charming character (who’s also badass) and is a wonderful protagonist for exploring this beautiful, decayed-but-renewed world.

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Social Experience

This week, Pokémon Go finally added a friends system. You can now add people as friends and there are fun little bonuses for working together. You can also trade Pokémon back and forth, assuming you both are in close proximity. It’s a wonderful addition and I look forward to checking it out in depth.

But it also raises a big question: Where was this when the game debuted two years ago?

(Also: It’s been two years since Pokémon Go came out?)

Think back a second to the summer of 2016 when Pokémon Go took the world by storm. You could hardly walk around New York without crossing paths with another trainer trying hard to capture that darn Rattata. Groups were out together in parks on the hunt for rare creatures. It was fun, and I wrote about it a bunch here. Pokémon Go is a game that inherently has a social aspect – you’re out there in the real world, why not go for a walk with friends? That its social system emerged around the game rather than being hard coded into it is a massive missed opportunity. It’s been two years since the game came out and far less people play it these days than then, and, much as I love the idea of these social features, these days I’m gonna be far more hard pressed to find a group to try them with than two years ago.

Consider how much more involved group players of Pokémon Go would be with the current built-in social system (and revamped raids and gym system) back at launch. If you’re out Pokémon hunting with friends the game would now also let you work together to catch mythical Pokémon or trade those you did catch amongst yourselves. As it was, Pokémon Go was often a case of people playing the same game simultaneously, rather than playing the game together. Very little you did in the game affected the people around you, let alone friends. I love that any interaction has to be in meatspace (as opposed to a cyberspace), but not having teamwork built into the game was a real bummer.

It’s such a shame too, because I still earnestly believe that Pokémon Go is such a great example of a game, and what games can be. The definition of a game is nebulous as play itself takes many forms (consider that despite being wildly different, tag, Pac-Man, and Monopoly are all games). In Pokémon Go we have a game that revolves around shared experiences, where players do stuff together in the real world. It’s a little like LARPing, in that the game allows players to role-play as Pokémon trainers while interacting with reality. It’s a game that makes the world a good chunk more magical. There are Pokémon in those parks, go hunt them together!

Technology is weird. And a lot of people talk about technology driving people apart. But it’s also something that can foster community and togetherness in a new way. Pokémon Go is a game that encourages it implicitly in its design. Now it’s finally an explicit feature.

So.

Who else is still playing Pokémon Go?

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Adaptation By Someone Else

One game that got some press at last week’s E3, the game industry’s annual event where games are announced and/or demo’d, was the upcoming Total War: Three Kingdoms. Apparently it was announced back in January, but I hadn’t heard of it until now.

And I am intrigued.

The Total War series are strategy games that unlike, say, StarCraft or Red Alert, tend to focus on real wars, be they Roman, Napoleonic, or set in Feudal Japan. They’ve been on the periphery of my awareness, as games that are cool — and I do like my strategy games — but I’ll probably never check out. But they’re making one set in the Three Kingdoms!

Three Kingdoms, for the uninitiated, refers to a classic period in Chinese history during the fall of the Han dynasty where the realm was split between, well, three warring kingdoms. The stories were more-or-less codified in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of Three Kingdoms, an epic that romanticizes the period in a big way. The book, and the surrounding history, has been the source for countless works in China (and neighboring East Asian countries), be they in film, television, or video games.

So Total War: Three Kingdoms has my attention for turning its attention towards a source you usually don’t see in western media. Despite being incredibly prolific in Asia, you’re not really likely to encounter Romance of Three Kingdoms or anything based on it unless you’re actively looking for it. To see a Western strategy game focus on stories that I heard growing up is really, really neat.

But it also raises some questions.

There’s already been a ridiculous amount of games (and media) based on and around Romance of Three Kingdoms. Dynasty Warriors has been around for over twenty years and we’ve had movies like Red Cliff. What difference does it make that some other group is telling the story? And why is my gut response “oh, cool!”?

Maybe it’s because it’s exciting to see something considered kinda niche be put a little bit closer to the mainstream. These are stories I know about because I grew up in a culture around them (Zhuge Liang was a fixture in bedtime stories) and took a class to study the book in college, but most of my other peers (here, in New York) aren’t terribly aware of them. A western developer making a game about it is sorta uplifting the stories from their corner and into a spotlight.

Which then raises the question of why it seems like it’s being uplifted. Is Romance of Three Kingdoms just being big in Asia not good enough? Why does it getting attention from the West make it seem like more of a big deal? We tend to categorize stories and genres; drama is taken more serious than an action movie, live action taken more serious than animation, and so on. The Three Kingdoms period taking front-and-center in a western video game makes it seem like it’s finally being ‘taken serious,’ but it’s already been taken serious for years (heck, generations), in other parts of the world.

I think this might be something that’s more self-reflective than anything. My excitement at seeing this has to force me to ask myself why do I feel this way about this. ‘cuz all the reactions I write about here are my own, and I have to wonder why I’m so quick to discount Dynasty Warriors or other works based around the Three Kingdoms. It’s a sort of latent colonial thinking, where something from a non-Western group is not as good, or as cool, as something done by a Western group.

None of this, of course, should be seen as a negative take on Total War: Three Kingdoms or the fact that I may actually get this game (I get to field Liu Bei as a hero? Awesome). I still think it’s really cool to see it in the spotlight like this, but I still have to ask myself: why am I excited about it now?

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On Rose and Trolls

The internet is often a place as terrible as it is wonderful. This past week, Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in The Last Jedi, left Instagram (and social media in general) after months of sexist and racist harassment. Months.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. Daisy Ridley (aka: Rey) left Instagram for much the same reason. Back in 2016 I wrote about Chelsea Cain leaving Twitter after being bullied for writing Mockingbird. This outpouring of toxicity from so-called fans is nothing new. But I think, as in an incident like this, there’s a conflation of criticism and bullying that creates this awful trolling.

First, a word on trolls: these are folks who make other people feel terrible for sport. That being a racist, sexist dirtbag helps is secondary. There have been trolls about as long as there’s been an internet, but as women and people of color have developed more of a presence online, trolling targeted at race and/or gender has become far more pronounced. Trolls are the people who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off of Instagram. The question here isn’t why these people do what they do, it’s what gives the fuel for what they do.

The Last Jedi merrily deconstructs a lot of the Star Wars saga. Director Rian Johnson torches much of what we expect from a Star Wars film, like making Luke into a guilt-ridden recluse and questioning the need for Jedi. This is a movie that subverts a lot of expectations for the film and feels no need to appease whatever it is a fanboy might want. As Kylo Ren says, it’s time to let the past die, and that means letting go of a lotta ideas of what a Star Wars movie has.

Now, Rose has proven a pretty controversial character in an already controversial movie. She is Star Wars’ anti-establishment, anti-militarism bent at its most pronounced, a character disgusted by the military industrial complex present on Canto Bight. She’s an idealist, a character archetype that’s falling out of vogue in the tendency for stories to be cynical and gritty. Her arc culminates in stopping Finn’s suicide run, saying to save what they love instead of fighting what they hate. More than anything, she’s someone who genuinely believes in the Resistance making the galaxy a better place, and not in it for the vainglorious fight against the First Order (like Poe), or Finn’s need to save himself (as she’s foiled against). Depending on who you ask, she’s a welcome addition to the franchise or a cheesy character who adds nothing. Obviously, I’m of the former opinion (I am here for idealists!). There’s also the fact that she’s played by an Asian woman, and we need more non-sexualized Asian women in genre fiction.

But if people have an issue with The Last Jedi and what it does with Star Wars, Rose is an easy scapegoat. She’s another addition to the saga’s stable of heroic characters who aren’t white guys and she’s a source of romantic idealism in a movie that’s rather bleak. If you’re someone pissed off at a perceived “social justice agenda” that’s ruining the movies, here’s a sure sign of it all. And then this negativism feeds the trolls and then the lines between criticism and bullying get blurred. Trolls can claim they’re just criticizing Rose and The Last Jedi and any criticism of the film can be grouped in with the trolling.

And it’s awful, and that really goes without saying. Because, again, Kelly Marie Tran is absolutely wonderful as Rose, but even if she wasn’t, even if The Last Jedi sucked, that doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk on the internet. When it comes down to it, the vitriol she’s faced online stems from the sexism and racism still entrenched in much of nerd culture (see also: anytime comics attempt to diversify, Anita Sarkeesian and video games). It’s inexcusable, plain and simple. And I don’t know what the solution is, besides people not being terrible human beings. Maybe one day diversity will become so normal that people won’t have the need to pick on people for being different.

But really, shouldn’t it be like that already?

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