Monthly Archives: May 2014

Merited Futility

I like playing video games, I really do. I write about them a lot too. Gaming is great: it’s a great form of catharsis, sometimes carries unique stories, and it’s just plain fun.

Which then makes it odd when I say I have trouble justifying gaming. See, it sometimes feels like a waste of time. After all, outside of the magic circle in which gaming takes place, it has no effect on, well, anything. That’s what a game is, isn’t it?

This applies more so to digital games. Physical games, such as sports, have the benefit/excuse of being exercise. At least the guy playing soccer all day is getting a workout. Digital games don’t have that. You’ve seen the gamer stereotype: overweight, friendless, hasn’t seen daylight in a while. Unless you’re a championship DoTA/StarCraft player there’s not much real world application to gaming.

Or is there? Digital gaming is all about problem solving, whether the problem being solved is how to take out that squad of Elites or what’s the best way to use those portals to make that friendly cube land on a red button. It could be argued that these skills could be given real world applications. Everything I know about rocket science I learnt from Kerbal Space Program, for example. Studies have also been done that show that people who play a lot of FPS’s are better at taking in lots of information at once and thus are better drivers, soldiers, and surgeons. Cool.

But this is all minutiae. Rocket science is hardly a useful everyday skill unless you’re a rocket scientist (compared to the running skills built by playing soccer). So where then is the merit of games? Graeme Kirkpatrick thinks that games are aesthetically pleasing. He figured that the movements of the player’s hands translated onto the screen are a sort of dance. The way, for example, an adept player can make Pac-Man spin in place reflects skill and ability. It’s like what a ballerina does, only less feet and balance and more hands and reflex.

I like this argument. It makes gaming sound like it’s, y’know, worthwhile. By this logic video games are like dancing. I can begin to justify spending all day playing a game like FTL because the way I decide how to utilize my ship’s power while ordering my crew about is a dance in and of itself. There’s value there, if only on an aesthetic level. I’m not wasting my time.

But what about a game like The Sims or Kerbal Space Program? There’s not much dancing going on there. Sims just has you clicking about and Kerbal is a lot of mathing than it is epic mid-flight space maneuvers. They lack the need for agility and reflexes that characterize Kirkpatrirck’s dancing. They aren’t dancing, so where’s there value? Kerbal gets the “it’s science!” justification (sometimes, anyway), but what about The Sims? Where’s the value in playing The Sims?

While discussing Kirkpatrick’s idea with a friend, he dismissed my rationale for liking it by pointing out that he didn’t need an excuse to play games. Games — video games — are their own activity and have their own merits. Sure, you’re usually indoors and most of the time you’re alone, but where’s the harm? They’re fun. Like derping around on the internet or watching TV, they’re just another way of fun. Not only that, but beating a game is a valid accomplishment. Spending a couple weekends collecting all the trophies in Uncharted 2 is something. It’s not fair to just write it off; to do it required not only skill but a great deal of patience. And if nothing else, the perseverance to do that is commendable.

So I’ve decided to play games for their own sake. I’m not ‘wasting my time,’ this is what I do. Sure, maybe I’m learning skills in tenacity, problem solving, or rocket science, but importantly it’s fun. I play games because they’re fun. And that’s enough.

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It’s Topical!

Let’s talk about science fiction. Again. One of the things I’ve said I love about good science fiction is its way to address things without overtly addressing them. That is, science fiction can often be seen as a sort of allegory, or even to write out things that wouldn’t work otherwise. You can read the short stories in Olivia Butler’s Bloodchild and get a very real sense of alienation and the idea of The Other. Which makes sense, given that she was essentially the only African-American woman writing science fiction in the ‘70s. District 9 deals, rather bluntly, with Apartheid, fitting South African director Neill Blomkamp.

In Star Wars the good guys are under the threat of being obliterated in one fell swoop by the bad guys, courtesy of the Death Star. It seems nondescript, until you remember that Star Wars came out in 1977 — during the Cold War. Impending annihilation was a topical threat: to have the threat realized in space and ultimately destroyed was somewhere between propaganda and wish fulfillment. That the film and its successors are still enjoyable (and somewhat still topical) today is a testament to how science fiction can be timeless, Admiral Motti chiding Vader about the missing data tapes notwithstanding.

Which brings me to God\jira. Not the recent Godzilla (that comes later), the original Japanese 1954 one. I’ve heard it aptly described as ‘psychic national catharsis,’ since it came out only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gojira is a very real manifestation of the atomic bomb. When he finally makes landfall proper he unrelenting devastates Tokyo. The military tries in vain for much of the sequence, until he’s finally warded off by jets. Afterwards we get several shots of the aftermath, of survivors trying to, well, survive. There are far more of those than you see in a ‘normal’ disaster movie (think 2012); it’s almost as if the director is presenting a case.

The case being the killing of Gojira. The scientist Serizawa, while trying to create a new energy source, accidentally made a superweapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. A subplot of the film is him wrestling with whether to use it. Does Dr. Serizawa want to be remembered for making a superweapon? Is it worth becoming a monster to destroy another? Through it all, director Ishirō Honda is asking the audience a troubling question: If you could have stopped the atomic bombings at the cost of your collective soul, would you? There’s no easy answer, and though they do end up using the Oxygen Destroyer, it’s not without its own bittersweet moments: Serizawa sacrifices himself and the death of Gojira is not without a sense of loss.

It’s befitting, then, that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is topical in its own way. Rather than dealing with nuclear fallout and such, Edwards and team instead looks a little at the folly of humanity and more at the power of nature. The destruction wreaked by the M.U.T.O. is a result of humanity’s mistakes, but what’s striking is that Edwards doesn’t ever condemn the scientists or military; rather, he treats them as people who, well, messed up. Godzilla, instead of an executioner, takes the role of cleaning crew. He’s a force of nature who resets the balance of the world upset by humanity and the M.U.T.O. Though Edwards lacks the punch of Honda, the topicality of it still shines through: nature was here before and it’ll still be here after. The Dr. Serizawa of this film, played by Ken Watanabe, puts it succinctly: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” In Godzilla, just as in his prior Monsters, Gareth Edwards is looking at the sublime: the awful majesty of nature manifested by Godzilla. The pursuit of the sublime is further enhanced by the human angle the film takes; we’re shown the kaiju and the destruction through the eyes of people. We’re powerless compared to them.

Science fiction can be a mirror and a lens. Warren Ellis addressed the growing interconnectivity of the world in Extremis, Gravity looked at what it means to be alive. Gojira and Godzilla both use the idea of an unstoppable monster to look at ideas that would be unfeasible otherwise. After all, this is what science fiction does.

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A Real Swell Guy

Let’s talk about Chuck, because it’s a fantastic show that you should watch if you haven’t. And not just ‘cuz Chuck and I are basically the same person, but because it’s a well put together show with a lot of fun stories and great characters.

But those characters are a big reason. You’ve got Chuck and his two spy handlers and their dynamic and interactions, but they’re not who this is post is about.

This post it about one of the supporting characters: Captain Awesome (or Devon Woodcomb as he’s actually named and sometimes called). Awesome is Chuck’s sisters’s boyfriend-then-husband who, in earlier seasons, lives with Chuck and his sister, Ellie). He’s a cardiothoracic surgeon who enjoys adventure sports, and flossing. He’s plain awesome.

Which makes for a great contrast with the protagonist, Chuck, especially at the top of the series. Chuck didn’t finish college, doesn’t have a girlfriend, and is stuck in a dead end job. His life is going nowhere. Awesome is everything Chuck is not.

Awesome, as a character, was conceived by the writers as “the worst possible person for Chuck to come home too.” And he is, in a way; he’s the one with his life together, he’s everything Chuck is not which accentuates just how much of a loser Chuck feels he is. So as a storytelling device, Awesome works well, perfectly.

It would be really easy for the show to just stop there. Leave Devon as a bit of a caricature who pops in to a scene as his awesome self and leaves shortly after. Alternately, Captain Awesome could be a major jerk. He’s fully aware of how great he is, so the writers could really have pushed the Mister Perfect angle and made him utterly insufferable. If they did that Chuck would have had an antagonist whenever he came home: here’s this guy who not only has his life together but has everything going for him and he will remind you of it at any moment, especially if it helps bring you down. So bam, between tension at his day job, all the fun and games of being a spy, and Devon waiting at home; Chuck’s life is rife for conflict.

Yet, fortunately, Captain Awesome is not remotely like that.

Instead of being huge pain, Devon is instead one of the most genuinely nice guys, well, ever. For example, when asked by Jeff, one of Chuck’s deadbeat coworkers at the BuyMore, if Awesome’s ever had a dream that’s never come true, Devon thinks a beat before simply saying no. Again, this is one of those scenes where he could come off as conceited, but its the sincerity with which he says it that helps you love him. He’s just a good guy who, even though things have always gone right for him, is willing to help anyone else. Though he’s never had a dream not come true, Devon offers Jeff a (potentially disastrous) chance for his to come true. Devon’s written earnestly and is a wonderful character on the show. If the main characters of Chuck made Captain Planet, he’d have the Power of Heart.

I cannot stress enough how fine a line the characterization of Captain Awesome walks. He could have become someone we’d desperately want Chuck to punch in the face, or even just a total pushover who gets walked over by everyone else. It says a lot about the writing and Ryan McPartlin’s performance that he feels plain genuine. They could have deconstructed the character, or maybe given him a dark backstory (think Rich of Community’s “Beginner Pottery”), but instead they had him, well, as him; as someone too perfect to hate or be hated. Captain Awesome as a whole says a lot about the caliber of characterization on Chuck. They were able to take characters who, by all accounts, should have been one note but make them interesting. Devon is one of them and, man, he’s just a real swell guy.

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Computer-Mediated Communi-what now?

Being a big fan of his other stuff, I saw Jon Favreau’s Chef last night. It’s a wonderful movie full of heart and food porn. Seriously. That movie will make you hungry. Really hungry.

It’s remarkable for more than just salacious shots of food, though. There’s the fun character dynamics and the great soundtrack. There’s the fact that it avoids the obnoxious Bad Thing Before the Third Act that’s so commonplace in comedies and other films like Chef. But what I wanna talk about is its use of social media.

Oh boy, there’s that buzzword.

Social media and other forms of computer-mediated communication, as it’s known in Conversation Analysis (which is a thing, and I’m taking a class on it), are becoming more and more common. Heck, you’re probably reading this ‘cuz I posted the link on my Facebook or Twitter.

In Chef, the protagonist, Carl Casper, sets up a Twitter account and gets involved in a flamewar with a critic. It’s delightful to watch because of how it’s presented: we see an overlay of the Tweet box which, when sent, becomes a small blue bird that flies off screen. But what’s really great is that it’s treated not as a fad or something insignificant, but rather as a legitimate means of communication. In the world of Chef, just as in the real world, Twitter (along with texting, Vine, and Facebook) is a perfectly normal way of interacting with other people (and drumming up noise about your awesome new food truck).

The TV show Sherlock and the film Non-Stop both use an overlay effect for texting and present it as a normal means of conversation. Non-Stop uses its potential anonymity and discreetness to hide the identity of the hijacker and to build tension, but it never feels like a gimmick. Characters in Sherlock, well, mostly John, will get texts during conversations. As viewers we now get to watch the all too familiar tension that comes from being stuck in one conversation when there’s another waiting in the wings. Wonderfully, Sherlock also treats texting as something people do. It’s as commonplace as phone calls and given equal weight.

Texting is showing up in books too. The Fault in Our Stars has Hazel and Gus texting each other. Like in the other examples, it’s treated as a normal part of life. People text to talk. It’s a thing. The Fault in Our Stars has a very, well, contemporary, attitude to texting. It’s not a Big Deal or even some magical piece of New Technology or a sign of Declining Sociality; instead it’s downright normal. It’s not trite, it’s just a part of life. You don’t have to call someone, you can text them instead — which is often more convenient.

What sets these examples apart is how well integrated they are. A lot of shows and movies either ignore the presence of cell-phones or only use them on occasion. It’s seldom to see texting and social media as integrated into a story as in Chef, Sherlock, and The Fault in Our Stars.

The world’s changing. Computer-mediated communication is becoming really commonplace. Not only that, but it’s steadily being scholarly accepted as a legitimate form of communication (seriously, I read a paper on gossip in instant messaging). Yet pop-culture has been oddly slow on the upkeep. There aren’t many shows like Community where everyone’s digital lives are presented as normal, including Jeff’s constant texting and Troy’s Clive Owen Tumblr. Granted, it can be a slow or overwrought way of communicating exposition, but it can be done well and, as in Chef, it can be visually interesting. I want to see more movies, shows, and books like this; where computer-mediated communication isn’t necessarily nerdy or reclusive, where a Vine and Facebook can be a bonding moment between a father and son.

Because hey, this is the world we live in.

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A Narrative Is A Train

So I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though the final act is excellent, the film as a whole tends to stumble where the prior movie succeeded. Why? It lacked a central through line to follow. See, the first Amazing Spider-Man had a core theme: Who is Peter Parker/Spider-Man? Every thread in the story’s web (ba-dum tish) comes out from that; his tension with Uncle Ben is a question of identity, the conflict with Curt Conners is Peter looking for his father, his romance with Gwen Stacy is him coming into his own. It all served the central question.

I was told by a professor to think of a film’s narrative as a train. The plot is the engine, the driving force of the story. The subplots are the carriages that make the whole thing worthwhile. A plot is hollow without subplots to give it weight, and subplots don’t really do anything without a plot. They need both, and they have to work together.

Let’s look at The Avengers, a movie with no less than eight central characters that could easily have gone wrong. What’s the central through line/plot/train engine? What to do with Loki. Each character’s conflict emerges from that question. The tension between Iron Man and Captain America, for example, is their disagreement over how to deal with Loki’s threat. All the other bits — betrayal return, Nick Fury’s disagreement with the World Security Council, the highlighting of Black Widow’s red in her ledger, and so on — never feel tangential to the story since they’re rooted firmly in the central plot. This means that the film is free to explore character’s motivations and relationships without bogging the story down. The film still feels like a cohesive whole.

But back to Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, sadly, not as strong as its predecessor. It’s threads are all over the place. We have the subplot of who really were Peter’s parents that’s so peripheral it’s on a train unto itself. The main villain this time ‘round, Electro, doesn’t have a plot nearly as intertwined with Peter’s story as the bad-guy, Curt Conners, in the 2012 film (or Norman Osborne and Doc Ock in Sam Raimi’s 2002 and 2004 films). Even when Peter and Electro’s plots interact, it ends up giving Peter a whole ‘nother plot to follow, especially when complicated with Harry’s involvement. Meanwhile, his relationship with Gwen — and the question with where it stands — is its own plot.

Here we have Peter, our protagonist, following four plots that don’t really have any bearing on each other most of the time: who were his parents; should he help Harry; the Electro situation; and working on his relationship with Gwen. The reason these are all plots (and not subplots) is because they’re all on different tracks. There lacks a central train pulling them all together. As such, it feels discordant.

Something else I was told, by the same professor, is to always give solutions when finding flaws. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needed a through line. Maybe it could be Peter and Gwen’s evolving relationship. Better yet, why not the question of why is Peter special? Electro is mad that Spidey gets all the attention, that he’s the only special one. Harry wants to know what makes Spider-Man special, why he survived being bitten by the radioactive spider. Gwen wants to help Peter, that he doesn’t have to bear it all alone (and her choice matters too). Peter, meanwhile is trying to balance all the responsibilities that come with his specialness. There we have four subplots that all follow the main one and the central narrative becomes much stronger. Four carriages on the same train on the same track.

Don’t get me wrong, I still liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I don’t think it was as strong as the first one (which my brother vehemently disagrees with me on), but I do think it felt very Spider-Manish. As someone who grew up on the cartoons and video games, recently began reading the comics, it felt right. Spider-Man quipped, which is important; New York was there (Union Square! The Highline!); and there was a Marc Webb Musical Moment™. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be a messy movie, but it’s a wonderful mess.

And the final act is brilliantly done.

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