Monthly Archives: March 2017

On Visibility and Character Creators

I spent well over an hour creating my character in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not stats and stuff, no, just the aesthetics of his/my face.

I love character creators. Maybe it’s an early exposure to The Sims, maybe it’s the simple joy of getting to play god and make people who look like whatever you want. In a game like Mass Effect where half the fun is making choices and carving your own narrative through the galaxy, I find that character customization adds another level of immersion. That Shepard or Ryder isn’t just someone off the box, it’s someone you made. And also, if you want, the character’s you. You get to see yourself as the protagonist.

As for making me?

I’m mixed. I don’t fit into ‘presets,’ and if I have to, I have to check one box. Pick the head that looks the most like me. Maybe in Knights of The Old Republic I’ll be white, but I’ll be Asian in Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Now, character creators as in Mass Effect, with sliders for adjusting eye height and nose size, allow you a lot more latitude for how your person looks (and games like The Sims is notorious for being able to create eerie doppelgängers).

But Mass Effect: Andromeda bases its customization on presets. So you can’t change eye shape, eyebrows, ears, and the general shape of the face, but can adjust skin tone, hair, and cheekbone placement. Naturally, a lot of those presets are based on races, here’s white guy a, white guy b, Asian dude a, Asian dude b, and so on. Which makes sense. But for me, it means playing around with either one trying to make them look more like the other. Y’know, trying to find that sweet spot on the sliding scale between Asian and white where I exist.

See, for most of my life I’ve been pegged for one or the other, in part because the idea of someone existing in the middle is, in some places, somewhat unheard of. Being a mixed-race, biracial kid isn’t something that comes up much at all if you’re not one, so you kinda ignore it and I’m left figuring out which box to check on a survey.

Which is why representation is so important. People like me don’t show up a lot in fiction. Well, white dudes do a lot, Asian guys much less often, and mixed actors playing mixed characters are basically non-existent. I wanna see myself in the media I consume, I wanna see a movie where someone who looks like me gets to be a hero.

Because it’d be nice to be told I exist by the stuff I watch and games I play. ‘cuz maybe then I wouldn’t be lumped in with one side or the other and now be allowed to exist in that middle space. This, I suppose, is the feeling of every under-represented group. We want to see ourselves in the stories we consume, and we want to see ourselves doing a buncha different things. This means not being pigeonholed into one accepted narrative or stereotype, this means letting different people be normal.

And yes, letting different people explore the Andromeda galaxy.

Whether or not my long-labored Ryder bears a resemblance to me is a matter up for debate, one that probably depends on what race you think I look more like. The preset I chose, however, was the one whose eyebrows looked most like mine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Deconstruction, Reconstruction, and Also Batman

A deconstruction takes something apart. Shrek shows how weird fairy tales are by pitting the story from the point of view of an ogre. Suddenly the princess promising herself to whoever rescues her is especially bizarre, as is the idea of there always being a noble prince. The point of a deconstruction is usually to display how tropes and conventions in some narratives don’t work so well when held up to some more stringent logic.

In the same vein, the Batman we meet in at the start of The LEGO Batman Movie (and arguably The LEGO Movie) is a deconstruction of the Batman we got used to in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. He’s all about darkness and not having parents, singular focused on his mission, and, as we discover, quite a pain in the ass. In essence, we see this singularly focused Batman played out to an amusing end: he’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence and cares for no one but himself (and his desire to fight crime). Of course he’s not well-adjusted, he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t see daylight. It’s this deconstruction that gives rise to the plot of The LEGO Batman Movie, which lets the movie rebuild Batman into a hero – and leader of the Bat-family.

Thing is, The Dark Knight – and Batman Begins before it – aren’t quite deconstructions; at least not in the way it’s easy to assume they are. Yes, the movies do play out some of the complications of Bruce Wayne’s Batmanning: he has to go on the run, people try to copy him, Bruce Wayne ceases to be much of a person in favor of his alter-ego. And there is the whole darkness-no-parents vibe. Nonetheless, Batman is successful at what he does, and the films make the case that yes, a superhero does work. A dude dressing up as a bat to fight criminals is a patently ridiculous concept, but Christopher Nolan and his team reconstruct Batman into a character and vigilante that makes sense in a realistic center.

Take the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce and Alfred are putting together the Batsuit. They buy the components in bulk from different manufacturers, minimizing a paper trail. Even getting the Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department explains away where he gets those wonderful toys. As a reconstruction it acknowledges the flaws of the Batman narrative but works past them for a fuller, more shaded narrative. A true deconstruction would have played out the final climax with Two Face differently, perhaps having Batman refuse to take the fall or even having both of them be completely vilified. As it is, The Dark Knight lets Batman take his moniker and remain an idealized hero.

There are shades of deconstruction to The Dark Knight — take the Batman-inspired vigilante who gets himself killed — but it’s all in the service of ultimately reconstructing the idea – there needs to be a ‘superhero,’ so Batman will appear the villain so that Harvey Dent can be that person. So it’s easy to mistake the whole movie as an out-and-out Shrekian deconstruction.

Which is arguably what Zack Snyder and team did in Batman v Superman. While Man of Steel wavers, BvS tries its hardest to take apart both Batman and Superman – and superheroes in general. But it doesn’t do so for comedic effect (as in Kick-Ass) or to explore what we take for granted in the genre (see: Watchmen). Instead, it does… Well, nothing. It reads The Dark Knight as a deconstruction and attempts to imitate it, but since the former wasn’t really a deconstruction, the BvS is building with the blocks; it doesn’t take apart The Dark Knight (as LEGO’s Batman does), but tries to use Nolan’s film as a deconstruct-o-lens. The result is a lot of dimly lit scenes and people grunting and growling at each other about big ideas that don’t make much sense. We learn nothing new about Superman and Batman or the conventions that surround them that would warrant it being a deconstruction, nor does it recreate the mythos in a new way that would be a reconstruction. Rather it tells the story straight, just lathered in a murky layer of grit that can’t hide its (many) narrative flaws.

There is room for a solid deconstruction of Batman, Superman ,and superheroes in general – I mean Alan Moore did it in Watchmen thirty-odd years ago. Sometimes it seems there’s a race to take apart beloved genres, and sometimes it works like in Game of Thrones, but there’s room for both, again, Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The trick is to do it for a reason, and not just because you want your story to be about darkness and not having parents.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized