Monthly Archives: December 2012

Cortana, Chloe, and Changing Trends

Cortana has always been my favorite character from the Halo games (after whom comes Buck [‘cuz he’s Nathan Filion] and Noble Six [‘cuz he’s me]). Ever since she told Guilty Spark to sod off in the original game, I’ve been sold on that blueish AI.

Oh yeah, shoulda mentioned that. Despite Cortana being depicted as a nakedish blue young woman, it was her character that won me over. She’s a sarcastic, forthright AI determined to help Master Chief achieve his goals (even if that means calling him out). She’s a fleshed out character in a first-person-shooter: and she’s a she!

Now, Halo 4 delves into Cortana and Chief’s relationship and the effects of her impending rampancy (that is, where AI’s accumulate so much data that they think themselves into inefficiency). This is heavy stuff; it’s emotional. Of course, heavy emotional scenes get lost on a lot of people when they’re delivered by a nakedish blue young woman.

Well, no.

For the most emotional scenes, 343 Industries employs careful framing. The scenes where Cortana gives her soliloquies are shot so we mostly see her from shoulders’ up. Sorry kid, no eye candy right now: this is drama. In a game whose fanbase is made up of teenage boys, Halo 4 is saying “look at her face, listen to her voice: this is important!” Cortana’s even been remodeled to look more womanly and less like a pinup in her fourth game. She’s no less attractive than in her previous incarnations, but she’s not being sexualized. And 343 isn’t going to give you the chance.

If anything, Cortana is made to appear vulnerable. Where Chief is a supersoldier in a suit of armor replete with guns and shields, Cortana is an AI construct whose avatar is just as bare as she is. Halo 4 uses Cortana’s sexuality to make her vulnerable, to make the player strive to protect her. So there’s no slow pans over her any more than there are over Chief. Again: she’s not being sexualized.

Sometimes it seems that any woman who shows up in a piece of visual media targeted at men must be sexy. Mass Effect goes a long way towards giving us developed characters, though for some reason almost every vaguely-human female character you encounter is uniformly busty (though most men you encounter are rather built, so Bioware’s fair, I suppose). Except Jack (who’s less busty), but then, she’s a bald, tattooed superpowered psychopath who’s not really meant to come off as sexy (which brings up a whole host of issues).

Female superheroes’ costumes tend to consist of a few convenient strips of fabric. For fantasy characters, armor is either nonexistant or astoundingly well fitted. Interestingly enough, one of the few things Snow White and the Huntsman (a film arguably targeted towards women) did right was giving the heroine a normal breastplate rather than the more typical boobplate. Compare to some of the entries in the Final Fantasy games where, well, that armor doesn’t do much in the protection department. Fanservice has its place, but after a while it gets stupid.

But for every Soul Caliber or Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball a game like Uncharted or Halo 4 comes along where women are more than eye candy. Are Chloe and Elena still attractive? Yep; but that’s not the point.

Maybe people get sexualization confused with sexuality. Chloe from Uncharted 2 is certainly a character who knows she’s sexy (as is evidenced from her second scene up to her goodbye [“But admit it; you’re gonna miss this ass”]). But Naughty Dog doesn’t make it her sole characteristic. She’s got her own agenda, she’s constantly looking for a simple solution, and — get this — she wears normal clothes. Sure, Chloe’s an attractive character, but at no point is she objectified by it. She’s got a sexuality to her, but she’s not sexualized.

Let’s be frank here though; sex sells. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball probably gets a lot more revenue than other volleyball video games due to it featuring scantily clad women. But every so often something’ll come along that takes the high road. And it’s becoming more often due to the expanding appeal of genre films and video games to women. Sif in Thor notibly doesn’t have a boobplate as part of her armor, Captain Veronica Dare in Halo 3: ODST has a virtually indistinguishable armor from the guys’. Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider is noticeably more, well, normal than her previous iterations.

We’re getting there. The trend’s changing. Slowly. But it is.

And Cortana will always be my favorite Halo character.


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Villain Protagonists

I’m gonna preface this essay (that’s not a rant) by outright saying that I love Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. One of the many things that makes it so wonderful, though, is its deconstruction of its villain protagonist.

But I’ll get to that in a bit.

Villain protagonists are fun. Whether it’s light like someone with his Freeze Ray trying to impress Bad Horse or as dark as trying to pull off a successful suicide bombing, there’s something to be said for when we find ourselves cheering for the bad guy.

Roald Dahl did it in one of his short stories. “Genesis and Catastrophe” is about a child’s birth. The child’s sickly, pretty much immediately derided by his father and so on. He’s the underdog, basically. You want that kid to live. And succeed, and win. And then you find out that kid was Hitler.

That’s right you were cheering on everyone’s favorite personification of evil. Roald Dahl set up his story so you’d want him to win until you realize you were rooting for Hitler to be delivered into caring hands. You monster.

Equally horribly fun is Four Lions and the titular four wannabe jihadists. The protagonists are four English Muslims who want to, well, do the jihad thing. So we’re watching four men who figure a man’s gotta do what and man’s gotta do as they attempt to blow themselves up (and several others with them). Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a laughing manner, but Four Lions is a comedy and as such it’s hilarious. It never slows down quite enough for us to really think about the repercussions of the actions and does take a somewhat tragic tone towards the end. Point is, though, we’re cheering for, well, terrorists. There’s a hint of tragedy, but it gets buried in the humor.

So villain protagonists are a fun twist. How exactly does Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog deconstruct that?

Dr. Horrible (or Billy as he’s also known) isn’t actually evil. Sorta. The first time we see him he’s practicing his evil laugh. He wants to impress Bad Horse. But there’s this girl too, Penny, who he also wants to impress and woo. He’s layered, torn between being Dr. Horrible and Billy. His nemesis, the superhero Captain Hammer, thwarts both plans. Dr. Horrible wants a brand new day where he can both be accepted into the Evil League of Evil and win Penny.

Now, in a normal story this is the part where the villain would reform and save the day and get the girl (see Megamind). But not in this deconstruction.

So they say everyone’s a hero, but Billy isn’t. He’s the villain of the story, that’s the hand he was dealt. He just happens to be the main character. As Captain Hammer continues to interfere with Billy’s hopes of being evil and winning Penny, he finds himself slipping further and further towards being an actual villainous villain. At first he never wanted to hurt anyone but as the musical enters its third act, he’s both ready and willing.

And well, without spoiling it (seriously, it’s on Netflix. Go watch it now), Billy gets inducted into the Evil League of Evil. But it comes at the cost of his other dream. He commits to one side but, as the end of the final song “Everything You Ever” suggests, he might not be completely sold.

What makes Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog so darn compelling is that we’re watching a good guy play the bad guy’s role. He’s nice, he’s caring; it’s the ‘hero’ that’s the jerky douche. Our expectations are turned on the head as we cheer on Dr. Horrible and we see what happens when he succeeds. Unlike Four Lions where they succeed and that’s it or Megamind where he reforms or “Genesis and Catastrophe” where we know he goes on to do evil; in Dr. Horrible we see the cost of Dr. Horrible’s success on his psyche. He won, but lost himself.

Villains like the Joker or Count Rugen are such fun since they’re just so evil. They aren’t lovable in the protagonist sort of way, heck, they’re hardly sympathetic. It’s the sympathetic villains we like for a protagonist, but Dr. Horrible is one of the few where we actually see the consequences of his actions. In this one we see what it actually means to be a villain protagonist.

And it’s an amazing musical.


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Final Exam: The Hobbit

It’s finals time at NYU. Folks are churning out essays and cramming a semester of information in their heads. So here I’ll be doing something different (but not really): let’s look at The Hobbit.

I saw The Hobbit’s midnight showing at the IMAX here. It was good, clearly. Perfect, nah, not quite. Not Return of the King, but then what is? So where’d The Hobbit go right and where’d it go wrong?’

Right off the bat, it’s a great adaptation. It went right for the heart of the story, then built up  a proper body around it. What was the book about? Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure with thirteen dwarves and a wizard to reclaim a lost kingdom, fight a dragon, a war, and all that. The quest is still there.

Gandalf’s adventure in Mirkwood and Dol Guldur has been fleshed out some (fitting, as Gandalf’s references to the Necromancer weren’t included in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring). All this serves to give the story more weight. See, now the slaying of Smaug is doubly important due to the risk of Sauron having him on his side. The follow up to the amazing Lord of the Rings Trilogy is now an epic too.

More than that, though, they built on the characters. Bilbo and Thorin especially have really strong arcs, expanding on Tokien’s work. We get Bilbo growing out of being a comfortable, boring Hobbit to the adventurer we all know him as. We see it when he’s taunting the troll, as he slowly grows confident throughout the movie, and ultimately in his actions in the tree at the end. Similarly, we see Thorin’s slow and begrudging acceptance of the hobbit into their company. The core arc of An Unexpected Journey is Bilbo’s growth and gradual adoption both of and by the dwarves. It’s crucial that this happens, due to events that happen later in the book. We absolutely need to have an attachment to these characters and their bond, else later events will have little impact.

Where The Hobbit does fail, however, is in its pacing. Yes, there were plenty of burritos being thrown around, but sometimes there seemed to be a few too many. An example would be the scene with the stone giants. We’ve just left Rivendell and are about to have the run in with Gollum and the goblins in the Misty Mountains. At this point, we don’t need another burrito. There are no character moments (besides Thorin helping Bilbo back up, which could easily be added to another sequence) nor any plot development vital to the scene.

Overall the film could have been tightened to keep the necessities without feeling draggy. Perhaps most of these issues are due to the film being stretched out into three films rather than just two. Adding bits here and being reluctant to cut others yields a movie that feels a lot like setup (rather than the essentially self-contained epics that was each entry in The Lord of the Rings).

The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings before it, once again has a point to be made and makes it quietly but effectively. It’s about being wiling to step out of your comfort zone, it’s about finding home, and, pointedly, what exactly constitutes courage. It’s not heavy handed, it feels natural and it works. Also makes for good Facebook/Twitter/tumblr post material.

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. It’s very different both in tone and in nature. Same world, sure, but The Hangover and Saving Private Ryan are both set in The Real World and are both sixty years apart too. Point is: The Hobbit is a wonderful, if imperfect, movie. Go see, but don’t expect The Fellowship of the Ring.

Oh, and for the record, the riddles in the dark scene stands out as an amazing example of both special effects and storytelling, up to and including Bilbo taking pity on Gollum. Beautiful.

Editors note: Will this ‘Final Exam’  post be repeated in the future? Who knows. But seeing as Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness both come out around the time I have my next bout of finals…

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Throwing Burritos

One of my courses this semester at NYU is one on Science Fiction. In this particular class we had read and were discussing Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of us commented about how Rachael pushing the goat off the building reminded him of that scene in Anchorman where Baxter gets punted off the bridge.

The discussion continued, and someone mentioned that in Anchorman, Baxter gets punted off the bridge because Ron throws a burrito at a biker; so what was the proverbial burrito thrown that made Rachael defenestrate that goat? Not just what was her motivation, but what interaction with Deckard pissed her off enough (if she indeed was pissed off)? Our homework was to begin work on our short stories, getting to the point where we throw this proverbial burrito.

So what exactly is throwing the burrito? It’s a catalyst for a sequence of events. Not necessarily the catalyst, but one nonetheless.

Like when Pippin knocks over the bucket in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Because of that we get the chase through the mines and Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog. Sending the bucket clamoring down the well sets up the entire act.

A good story will often have many burritos being thrown around. Take Metal Gear Solid. The initial burrito is when Snake gets involuntarily reinstated to neutralize the terrorist threat at Shadow Moses. He gets another burrito thrown at him when he realizes that there is a nuclear-capable Metal Gear that the terrorists intend to use. Oh, and the terrorists are ex-special forces. And Snake’s old friend is now a cyborg ninja. And the villain’s his brother. And Snake’s got a virus in him.

You don’t get all these reveals at once: it takes several hours of gameplay. Each burrito is progressively thrown at the player in a way that rather than being overwhelmed, we find ourselves being drawn further and further in to the story. Metal Gear Solid steadily throws burritos at you, each one setting up another conflict or another reveal. We need these burritos to keep us invested. And it works: Metal Gear Solid is a fantastically paced/structured story that you can’t stop playing. Even when it’s 1am and you have work in the morning.

But there’s a point where there are just too many burritos flying around. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, has a lot of burritos flying around. We have three, maybe four protagonists each with their own crazy gambits. Barbossa double crosses Jack to get the Pearl back because Jack figured the pirate king should be Elizabeth who double crossed Sao Feng (only she didn’t mean to) who double crossed Will who in turn double crossed Jack. Sort of. It seems like every few minutes we get another burrito thrown at us inspiring yet another sequence of events. And some of these burritos hardly add anything to the plot. It winds up hectic and it’s terribly easy to get lost in the chaos.

Alternately you could get lost in the fun which still yields a plenty enjoyable movie, so, y’know, there’s that.

Sometimes, the best stories have almost no burritos.Lost In Translation is a beautiful movie that progresses slowly and steadily. The burritos were thrown before hand (Bob took an advertising gig, Charlotte followed her husband to Tokyo). The whole thing’s been set in motion; there’re no big reveals or twists, no accelerations. We’re just watching life happen.

Call it pacing or structure; it’s vital. Don’t throw enough burritos and the audience starts checking their watches. Throw too many burritos and you lose the audience. The story just has to have the right serving size.

Or you could always just eat that burrito.


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In Defense of Science Fiction

You ever caught yourself explaining the conceit of a piece of science fiction and, halfway through, realize how stupid it sounds? No matter how cool it is, it just sounds silly on its way out of your mouth?

Compare these two ideas:

• A group of kids make a movie and wind up learning about life and moving on in this coming of age film.

• A mysterious alien appears in small-town Ohio giving a group of kids the adventure of a lifetime.

The former sounds like a movie that’ll become this award winning, tearjerking, instant classic. The other one sounds more like a popcorn flick with little value beyond entertainment. Thing is; they’re the same movie: Super 8. It is a film about a group of kids making a movie, and they do go on an adventure, and they do learn about life and moving on and letting go and all. And yeah, there’s an alien too, but the alien is a plot device. The alien provides an external catalyst that creates the tensions of the story. Without it, Super 8 wouldn’t have worked the way it did.

Not only that, but the alien in Super 8 essentially serves as the manifestation of one of the main themes of the film: understanding. The creature is an empath, able to feel emotions and see it through their eyes. Joe, the protagonist, has been unable to let go of his dead mother. It’s in the alien that he finds a sort of understanding and comes to terms with it and is, at last, able to let go and move on. We get a clear embodiment of the theme that doesn’t feel forced. It simply wouldn’t work in ‘normal’ fiction. The whole chain of events also has Joe develop from a pushover to the guy who’s doing his best to save the girl.

Further more, the effects of the alien’s arrival causes the two fathers in the story to step up and be dads. Their animosity (due to one being the cause of the death of the other’s wife) is put aside when they have to go after their kids.

Would it have been workable without an alien or other science fiction tropes? Possibly. Thing is, a different catalyst like a military invasion or even a serial killer would lend the movie unnecessary weight and implications. The alien allows the movie to focus in on the topics of forgiveness and letting go, without being bogged down by other themes.

One of the many races in the universe of Mass Effect are the quarians. They’re a nomadic race that, a long time ago, created a ‘race’ of AI machines called the geth. The geth rebelled against the creators, forcing the quarians to be the nomads they are. They’re based in massive ships, sending their young adults out on pilgrimages to find things useful for their Migrant Fleet. Furthermore, they wear full bodysuits due to having an exceptionally weak immune system.

Right, I know, it sounds kinda silly. Wandering aliens in spacesuits because of weak immune systems and all that.

But it creates such a wonderful way to look at issues. The quarians are ostracized from the galactic society as a whole due to their faceless nature and that most of the ones seen are only trying to find something to benefit their fleet. The Mass Effect games explores this idea as well as the idea of being excluded from your own race with the quarian character of Tali’Zorah. She’s a wanderer from a wandering people; a young woman who wants not only to do right by her people but right by the galaxy as well. In her we have a tension born of ostracism from both others and home.

Even if it’s subconscious, it makes us think about the idea of belonging and loyalties, of understanding and racism. Due to it’s scifi setting, Mass Effect doesn’t make it overt with words like “Jew” or “African-American” or anything like that; instead we’re giving an almost parableian look at the idea. Normal fiction would run the risk of sounding preachy or patronizing; in Mass Effect it comes with the setting.

Science fiction has been described as a way to run social commentary or satirize situations, something it does very well. The setting is also capable of providing catalysts for fantastic character driven stories (or adventures as the case may be). It’s such a shame that so often the very idea of science fiction gets ridiculed due to the simple fact that it is not reality.

There are some stories that can only be really told with a gap from reality; to say that the themes or points of these stories are somehow less due to them being ‘unrealistic’ is, simply put, unfair.

And c’mon: science fiction has friggin’ spaceships!

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