Monthly Archives: September 2015

And Now For Something Old

I’m busy this weekend. I’m writing a rationale, essentially a jumbo-sized one of these blog posts about everything I’ve been studying since coming to college to prove that my studies have had a point (which is, currently, Narrative (Re)Construction). As I’m focusing an inane amount of brain power into writing this paper, I don’t have time for a proper post this week.

So let’s go back to before Essays, Not Rants! and find something old.

The year is 2012 and Josh is futzing around in unemployment and playing Mass Effect 3. Josh being Josh, he decides to write a thing about it. Which I’m representing below in all its three-year-old glory.

The close to the Mass Effect Trilogy came out a week ago and since then I’ve been playing through it. I’ve been meeting up with old friends, brokering alliances, and fighting evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things with the eventual goal of taking back Earth and saving the galaxy from said evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things.

One of the things I love about Mass Effect is the immersion. Now, those of you who’ve heard me talk (rant) about video games will know that I highly value immersion in a video game (that and cinematic/plot). Mass Effect does this exceptionally.

The man saving the galaxy is named Joshua Shepard, he was raised on a (space)ship and, I like to think, bears a passing resemblance to me. It’s fun, I get to be the hero, saving lives, deciding what to do in circumstances, making big important decisions.

Then I watched one of my favorite characters die.

I was powerless to stop it, right? I mean, I had no choice in the matter, it was what the plot demanded, yeah?

But no, I did have the choice.

Instantly my mind backpedaled to a moment not to long area. I (as Shepard) chose to speak up about something.

I could have chosen not to. I could have lied and reneged on a deal but, in the long run, wouldn’t that have saved my crewmember’s life?

Guys, I could have saved him.

And then I realized that this is what makes Mass Effect so immersive, so real.

Choices.

Everything I do has consequences.

I could look ahead; crack open—who am I kidding—google up a strategy guide and see just where each choice I make will take me.

But really? Where’s the fun in that. Where’s the adventure in knowing where each step will take you?

Hang on. That’s like life, isn’t it?

Everything I do has consequences.

For example, staying up till 1 am writing a piece on a video game (and then proceeding to go investigate the supposed defection of some Cerberus scientists) will further mess with my sleep cycle and result in me waking up late tomorrow.

Sure, it’s not the same as having a imaginaryish friend dying, but, still.

Point remains.

I don’t know what my actions will cause tomorrow. I can guess, I can do the right thing. But, like in Mass Effect, something will happen. Sure, I tend to doubt my decisions are as grave as Shepard’s, but hey, they’re choices nonetheless.

Writer’s Note: I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3 lately (when not, y’know, writing this rationale or doing other homework) and the choices the games present you with are almost as interesting as the illusion of choice. The game wouldn’t work with too many variables because, well, how do you program that game? Every now and then its inner workings show through, but hey, I’m really looking forward to the next game in the series. If only because the plethora of video game criticism I’ve read since then makes me super curious about the future of open-ended virtual storytelling. That and I love the Mass Effect universe.

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The Question Of So What

A professor who I had, who I didn’t really like, once told me that I could probably connect any variety of works. But that didn’t necessarily mean I had an essay. Another professor said that you know you’re paper’s successfully if there’s a point that could be proven wrong. Most succinctly, when I presented an idea for a paper to her, yet another professor responded with “So [beep]ing what, Josh; so [beep]ing what?”

Which, y’know, is a really good question. I can talk a bunch about how Madame Bovary’s titular protagonist wants a life akin to what would be known as the melodramatic genre, but where’s the point? That’s what I had to figure out if I wanted to write a legitimately good essay. Well, stories are a lot like that too. You can have a plot and all that, even be perfectly plotted and so on, but so what? A story’s gotta have a point.

This is the big thing with action movies. On the one hand, we have Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road; arguably two of the best proper action movies, well, ever. Both of these movies have clear themes, which both amount to the ability of anyone to step up and be a hero, regardless of profession and gender, respectively. Look at the massive reaction to both movies, Die Hard remains a staple nearly three decades after it came out and is referenced constantly. Time will tell if Fury Road has the same staying power, but it’s sure looking that way.

And why do these films stick? Because the points made them matter. Look at The Expendables, it’s good dumb fun, but the only real point to it is that it’s really fun to see ‘80s action heroes on screen together. It’s pure mindless fun, and there’s certainly a time and a place for that (The Expendables sits proudly on my shelf), but I doubt most people will really care in a few years. Or take a look at Expendables 3, which dispatched with the famous cast in favor of younger ones; it was still mildly fun, but tried to be something it wasn’t (a movie about the old becoming to old and having to hand the baton over, but not give them the proverbial sins-of-their-fathers instead of, y’know, watching action heroes do action hero stuff).

It’s science fiction that rides on this a lot. Star Wars has the good old anyone can save the world theme driving it (along with a very clear good wins thing). Godzilla has a lot to say about nuclear weapons and is at its best when it uses its kaiju as a metaphor. Or, at the very least, most memorable.

Neill Blomkamp’s filmography may be a good example in and of itself. District 9 is plainly an allegory for Apartheid that has us sympathizing with someone who’s an obstinate racist who’s forced to confront the other on a personal level. It works so well because it’s not content to present institutionalized racism in another guise, it actually says something about it. Elysium, on the other hand, says very clearly that a stratified healthcare system has issues and… well, that’s about it. It amounts to commentary saying nothing, which you can kinda maybe afford in a weekly blog, but not so much in formal papers and films.

Oh, and for the record, the importance of interpreting Madame Bovary as Emma wishing to enact melodrama is that it paints her as a quixotic figure actively escaping blame for her own failings.

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Same Story, But Different

Pacific Rim is predictable; you’re not gonna win any prizes for pointing that out. It’s not like The Last of Us or District 9, which subvert the expectations of the audience. When you watch Pacific Rim you know what’s gonna happen; Raleigh and Mako will team up, something will happen that lets them prove themselves, and there has to be some last minute complication.

Yet it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, and one of my own favorites. No, it’s not narratively groundbreaking, but it’s nonetheless great. Why?

Because when you dig beneath the foundations of how to tell a good story — y’know, plot, character, conflict, structure; all that good stuff — you get to what a good story is about. Namely, why is this story being told? What makes it important?

These are one reason why Edgar Wright’s movies are so great. Though the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim VS The World may seem at first blush like simple comedies, there’s actually a lot more going on beneath the surface. Scott Pilgrim isn’t just a pulpy story about winning a girl’s heart in a world where the rules of video games apply; it’s actually a fascinating meditation on the nature of relationships. Sean of the Dead is about being willing to deviate from the routine. The World’s End is so remarkable because beneath its fun veneer of getting the old band back together and preventing (or, er, causing) the apocalypse via a pub crawl is a story about sobriety and growing up. Without preachifying, the movie looks at friendship and escaping from problems. Now, it’s not the whole point of World’s End — a particularly profane phrase containing Legoland remains a highlight — but the more ‘serious’ themes give it great staying power.

Not that the theme has to be ‘serious.’ Star Wars explicitly follows the Hero’s Journey, and makes no attempt to do anything really new. It’s mythological, plain and simple. But when you ask what Star Wars is about, sure, there are the lasers and spaceships and Wookies, but it’s also about a farmboy stopping the Empire. Star Wars resonated with my dad in the seventies and resonates with me when I watch it today because of its simple enduring theme: anyone can be a hero. It tells an old idea so exceptionally well and with great imagination. One of the reasons The Phantom Menace fails is, arguably, that though it’s cool and shiny and has all the trappings of a Star Wars movie, its theme is, well, murky at best and nonexistent at worst.

So Pacific Rim. The movie proudly wears its themes on its sleeve, if you’re willing to look. Amidst the giant mecha fighting giant monsters is an undercurrent of hope against imposing doom. When Pentecost says they’re canceling the apocalypse, he’s not just issuing a rallying cry for Jaeger pilots. Pacific Rim is expertly crafted, nothing lags and the twists are all in the right, albeit predictable places and it fully commits to its outlandish premise of mecha vs kaiju. It’s with its defiantly youthful tone that Pacific Rim really becomes a great movie.


There are only so many stories to be told; there’s a reason the site TVTropes exists, it’s why Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Thing is, there’s always gonna be a new meaning to stories. The whole prince-and-pauper story has been retold over and over again in different contexts with different connotations. The story can have been told before, but it’s what it’s about that makes it special.

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Expository Conflict

Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.

The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.

Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.

Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?

And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.

Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.

It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.

This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”

Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a brewery or where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there’s gonna be something the audience doesn’t know and will have to learn (seriously, if you’re doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you’re still gonna have to tell us why she’s going to her grandmother’s). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let’s keep Othello on trial.

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