Monthly Archives: February 2016

Differently Normal

I’m currently in the middle of my second game of Subterfuge, a wonderful mobile strategy game rife with cunning, manipulation, and, er, subterfuge. Within the game our Specialists, special hires which essentially let you bend the rules of the game. While most everything in the game is depicted abstractly, the Specialists are all given little portraits. And here’s where the game’s art design shines: LOOK AT THAT DIVERSITY! For a wonderful change, ‘white male’ isn’t the default look and no one’s role is limited by their race; the Navigator’s Asian and the Princess is black!

There’s a misconception that making a character not a white dude means having to make it a story about not being a white dude. Which is a real pain. Sometimes it’s nice to get to just be seen, no strings attached.

Look at Big Hero 6, which I liked for a number of reasons, in no small part because I got to watch a movie with a main character who looks like me. Another reason I really liked it was that Hiro’s race was completely inconsequential. Hiro’s half-Asian (like me!) but he still gets to be the everyman. His race has no more to do with his arc than Luke Skywalker’s. And that’s cool!

See, when ‘white and male’ is subliminally registered as the default, chances are you’re going to go with a white dude when you need someone relatively nondescript and ordinary. So when you need an everyman — y’know,  that person who could be anyone — you end up going with a white guy. It’s why Bruce Willis played the ordinary cop who had to save the building in Die Hard. It’s why Bruce Willis played the ordinary cab driver who had to save the galaxy in The Fifth Element. It’s why Bruce Willis played the ordinary driller who had to save the planet in Armageddon.

But you can shake things up and make, say, a woman the chosen one. Or a black dude the guy who decides to try and fight for something more. And a Latino the ace fighter pilot. Guys, I really like The Force Awakens. But it’s important, because it — and this is crucial — means anyone can be anyone.

I’ve been watching The Expanse later, because I’m a sucker for spaceships with excellent worldbuilding and interesting politicking. What’s also caught my attention is the show’s bent towards inclusiveness. Most obvious is the Undersecretary of the UN who’s played by an Indian woman — and dresses the part. She’s hardly a simple ersatz Gandhi, though; Chrisjen Avasarala is afforded the same complex goals and characterization of Cersei in Game of Thrones. In The Expansive we find an Indian character with depth and complexity well beyond what’s usually afforded non-white characters in Western media. There’s more, too! In one episode we hear reference to the Captain of a Martian warship. When we meet her, she’s Captain Yao, a small Chinese woman who’s first name is essentially ‘Captain.’ That is to say, her identity as ship’s captain is in no way impacted by her race: she’s not a Chinese captain, she’s a captain who happens to be Chinese. The distinction here is crucial, it means that these characters’ identities can be defined more by their jobs and personalities rather than the color of their skin.

Look, there’s a time and place for stories about race. But if the only stories about people who aren’t white is about being non-white, it’s just another form of discrimination where only caucasian people get to be ‘normal.’ We need more Hiros and Avasaralas, characters who get the depth and complexity no matter what they look like. Let’s make the everyman anyone.

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Tarantino, Iñárritu, and The Art of Indulgence

I finally saw The Revenant this week. I also saw The Hateful Eight the same day and it’s really interesting to have seen them back to back. Both are by directors who are arguably auteurs, both are classified as Westerns, and both are covered in their fingerprints.

Filmmakers have their trademarks. Something by Joss Whedon will be rife with witty dialogue. J.J. Abrams’ stories will have mystery and wonder. A Michael Bay movie will have explosions and questionable depictions of women. You’ve got these people who’ve developed both a reputation and a style such that you know what you’re in for when  you see one of their movies.

Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro Iñárritu are both directors who have their own very distinct style. Tarantino takes pulpy subject matter, throws in wall-to-wall banter, and a plethora of references to other films. Iñárritu does Art with a very important capital ‘A.’ Their newest movies, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant (respectively) are both them given an incredibly long leash and them making movies that are very much them.

For Tarantino, it means a movie that rests almost entirely on the dialogue. Hateful is sparse on locations and heavy on dialogue, telling a story that’s essentially what if Tarantino got to have a go at Clue. Though clocking in at three hours (including an intermission!), it doesn’t feel overlong courtesy of the twisting plot and engagingly sociopathic characters. Tarantino plays to his strengths. So yes, the movie is Tarantino-esque to the point of indulgence, but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Laden within the layers of dialogue and duplicity is motivation and hints as to what’s to come.

The Revenant is an entirely different beast. Iñárritu, as shown in Birdman, has a very clear idea as to what constitutes art and his latest movie takes it to a whole new level. There are long epic shots a plenty with a mind boggling level of complexity to them. Then knowing that the whole thing was done using only natural light and there’s no denying the considerable talent behind the movie. The Revenant lets Iñárritu really go wild with it, putting his visuals front and center so everyone can know what he really considers Art.

Thing is, for all its gorgeous imagery, The Revenant feels something like an exercise in futility. The craft is incredible, the plot is meandering. And that’s an issue: all the pretty pictures in the world don’t mean crap if your story sucks. The second act of The Revenant is essentially Leonardo DiCaprio’s character crawling through the American wilderness. Stunningly executed? Yes. Incredibly boring? That too. Stories need statue changes to keep things interesting — Luke goes from Tatooine to the Death Star to a Trash Compactor and so on. The Revenant has Leo crawling in snow here, then snow there, this river, and then that river. Everything about the film exists to showcase the cinematography. Iñárritu’s indulgence means a relentlessly grim movie that exists almost to say “see how much a better moviemaker I am than you.” As a friend of mine said, the only thing missing from it were the words “For your consideration” right after the closing shot.

There’s that saying about necessity being the mother of invention. I’m pretty sure there’s a corollary to that adage about how limitations force you to do better. Look at the Star Wars prequels for an example of an unrestrained writer/director compared to the original film. Indulging in what you love as a storyteller also means knowing when to cool your jets. Tarantino, in The Hateful Eight, knew to not just write banter for the sake of showing off, but to also keep the plot moving along at quick pace. Hateful Eight mayn’t be a perfect movie, but it’s still a darn enjoyable one. The Revenant, on the other hand is Iñárritu’s unbridled pretension mixed with DiCaprio’s Oscar desperation indulged to the point of maniacal self-absorption.

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Juggling an AK

I’ve had some brushes with virtual reality before, through prototype Oculi and Google Cardboard — working at a game center has its perks. It’s really cool to be able to see a world around you and look around it; one game in particular had a PS3 controller hooked up so you could move too. All very neat stuff, a little gimicky, sure, but it’s exciting to see that level of immersion.

Then I had the chance to play Epic’s “Bullet Time” tech demo today.

And wow.

Lemme break it down. You’re wearing an Oculus Rift, a VR headset that also senses your head’s movement so turns with you within a simulated 3D space. In your hands is the Oculus Touch, something sorta like a traditional console controller split in half mixed with a remote. There’s also a sensor that tracks where your hands are, so if you move your hands up, then the hands you see move up too.

“Bullet Time” uses the Touch’s triggers to control your character’s fingers: the one by your middle finger holds on to things, the one beneath your index finger pulls triggers. So if you see a gun lying around (in the headset) you reach towards it (in real life) and grab it with the controller and you grab it in the game. Pull the top trigger to fire, let go of the lower one to drop it. Once you get the hang of it, man, it is immersive. The physicality of it sucks you in like you wouldn’t believe and it’s a fantastic time.

But where it really shines is the sheer number of verbs VR offers.

Games have a certain number of verbs; in the first Halo those verbs are move, shoot, jump, throw a grenade, swap guns, drive, turn your flashlight on/off, and a couple more. The things you can do are limited to the controller and, for the most part, it’s enough for a great game. “Bullet Time” has a different set of verbs, there’s still ‘shoot,’ but ‘move’ is dropped in favor of the ability to teleport to different pre-defined spots (it is a tech demo, after all). The fact that you can move your arms independently, however, are where things get really interesting.

In a normal shooter, you shoot where you’re looking. In “Bullet Time” you shoot where your gun is pointed. Can you shoot behind you? Yes. Can you grab two pistols and fire them in opposite directions? Yes. Suddenly there’s a lot more freedom to how you’re doing the shooting in what could be a very normal on-rails shooter.

The grab mechanic, though, is what really opens it up. You can grab bullets fired at you out of the air and throw them back at the shooter, something that gives you a whole lotta satisfaction — I actually paused for a second the first time I grabbed a bullet, pleasantly surprised that I’d actually managed to catch it in what felt like my hand. You can grab and throw grenades at people or, if you want, guns. The game registers the force behind your motions and translates it appropriately.

So naturally I asked myself a very simple question: If I lightly tossed an AK-47 in the air, could I grab it with my other hand? Turns out that yes, you can, and juggling a virtual AK is a lotta fun. A sorta fun that probably wasn’t intended by Epic when they made the game.

Having a wide range of verbs allows for a huge amount of freedom. Look at Dungeons and Dragons; it’s table-top and imagination-based nature lets players do anything their Game Master will let them. Video games are, for the most part, limited by the number of actions developers can map to the controllers. But VR like the Oculus stands to really change it all up. I can honestly now say that VR’s really cool tech and I do look forward to what it means for games and art — imagine that, a 3D space you can interact with at will.

A Holodeck might just be closer than we thought.

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Window Dressing

Taxis are in a rush. That’s a known fact (that I thought as I did my usual ritual of staring down a cab driver today). It’s also a vital part of the game Crazy Taxi. The arcade-style driving game has you speeding around a time, picking up customers and dropping them off as quick as you can. It’s fun, and an excellent time and/or quarter sink.

But how vital is the taxi part of Crazy Taxi? Sure, speeding around an ersatz San Francisco and dodging trucks is great, but does it need that taxi-ness — that surrounding narrative — to work? Strip away all the window dressing and the game’s mechanics are quite simple: the player drives around an area getting objectives which, when completed well, nets the player more points and time. Could be in space, could be blocks moving around, you could throw Mario on it and call it a day. Instead, you play as a crazy taxi driver dodging traffic.

So what does the narrative window dressing of a cab driver bring to the story? Why is setting it in contemporary (ca. 1999) America better than setting it in space? Because then it’d be a different thing. I mean, obviously. It’s why The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai can tell a similar story and yet still be completely different movies. Look at The LEGO Movie and The Matrix. Both adhere to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with a religious ferocity: a nobody turns out to be really special, goes into a different world, acquires new skills, and saves the day. One’s plastic toys and the other’s a cyberpunk dystopia. They have what’s essentially the same mechanics with different window dressing and thus gives them each different narratives.

Look at The Matrix: it filters the Hero’s Journey through a cyberpunk aesthetic and a decidedly blatant Messiah analogy. All these details — the window dressing — lets The Matrix mix in Plato’s Allegory of The Cave and a critique of consumeristic culture. George Lucas’ rendition of the Hero’s Journey (Star Wars, duh) doesn’t lend itself to that commentary — The Matrix’s aesthetic is incredibly important to its narrative.

Because The LEGO Movie is about, er, LEGO, it can play fast and loose with its setting and characters (Batman leaves a pirate ship to join Han and Lando in the Millennium Falcon? Awesome!). It also means the film can tap into the general collective consciousness concerning that plastic toy and what it has to do with being a kid. Imagination is a big part of playing with toys, especially LEGO ‘cuz, y’know, you build stuff. Mix that in with the child-like love of storytelling that lends the film’s live action segment its earnest seriousness and you have a wonderful movie that’s simultaneously similar to The Matrix and yet nothing like it. All because the same structure got given a different coating.

This is, in part, why Crazy Taxi works so well. We know that cabbies are in a rush. That’s a given. So it makes sense that if we’re gonna get to play as a cabbie, we’re gonna be rushing about the place. It’s what gives it an urgency that dressing the mechanics up as, say, a postman or a waiter wouldn’t. It’s because of the whole narrative surrounding speeding cabs that makes the game work.

That and, y’know, it’s just a whole lot of fun.

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