Monthly Archives: August 2017

Characters Like Poetry

I talk about characters a lot on this blog. Okay, this blog’s been around long enough that you could say I talk about anything a lot.

But that’s not the point. The point is characters.

Like how in Crazy Rich Asians there aren’t really characters so much as vague ciphers used to progress a not-really-there plot, or how The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and Mass Effect created such realized characters that you could easily imagine spending time with them.

But let’s unpack this for a second. Angry Planet and Mass Effect rely on characters, the former even more so. The characters are super developed such that being able to spend more time with them serves as a valid reason to keep reading/playing. You like these people, you like hanging out with them.

Crazy Rich Asians takes more of a plot-centered approach (if it had much of a proper plot to speak of). The book seems to want to explore Singapore and the spheres of the super-rich and so creates characters to populate it and push along the exploration of those themes (except the characters are kinda just there and don’t really go much further).

In some ways, it’s a bit like science-fiction: here’s this weird, different culture and place (the super-rich of Singapore), now let’s drop some people into it so we can explore it. Unlike a deft science-fiction writer, though, Kevin Kwan doesn’t give his characters any traits that inherently tie them into the nuances of the strange world. They’re just rich, or an outsider, and things don’t get more complex than that.

Now, characters don’t need to be fully fleshed and rounded to be real – especially in written fiction. A character can be real just from you being able to get a, well, a sense of them. You don’t have to be able to put them into words, like you could with Angry Planet, but you can still know them.

I currently have a small personal initiative to read more fiction by people who aren’t white guys, particularly science-fiction. One book recommended to me was Stories Of Your Life, a short story collection by Ted Chiang. The titular-ish story (“Story Of Your Life”) was adapted into Arrival, so naturally my interest was piqued – in no small part because Ted Chiang is an Asian-American science fiction writer.

So, I’m halfway through Stories Of Your Life and, ugh, it is so frustratingly well written. One thing I’m surprised to really like is how Chiang handles characters. They aren’t these fully alive people you could write a profile on like in Becky Chambers’ Angry Planet or many of Timothy Zahn’s characters in Pawn’s Gambit. But they aren’t these shapeless ciphers either. Rather, we get such a strong sense of them by how they interact with each other and the world around them that they feel real, fleshed.

Consider “Division By Zero,” a short story that frames a relationship against a mathematical proof. The plot itself is about Renee discovering an impossible theorem, one ignites an obsession that in turn pushes her husband away. Again, the characters are somewhat vague and we only know them in their relation to the plot, but Chiang positions us, the reader, so firmly within their headspace that we know how they feel, how they think — which then becomes doubly important in the subsequent piece, “Story Of Your Life.” This creates an intensely intimate space, the sort that, like a good poem, sweeps you away such that you don’t need to spend too much time understanding them. And given Chiang’s tendency for rooting his stories brilliantly complex concepts, the evocative characters let your brain focus on following the plot. Thus rather than reading like character sheets from an RPG, Chiang’s characters read like poetry.

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Jumping Karps

The concept of Magikarp Jump is delightfully straightforward. The town has fallen on hard times and is a shadow of its former glory: a town that had the best jumping Magikarp. You are the town’s last hope to regain its reputation. You raise Magikarp, feed them, train them, and enter the fishy Pokémon into competitive jumps. You will be the best raiser of jumping Magikarp. In short, it is a ridiculously fun, silly game, and I love it.

Sid Meier described a game as “a series of meaningful choices.” Magikarp Jump is quite devoid of much in the way of choices at all. Your participation in the jumping competitions is simply pressing a button and hoping your Jump Points is higher than your opponents. There’s no real skill to be found in training your Pokémon either, you just tap food for them to eat or tell them to train in a randomly selected regime. For the most part, you ‘play’ the ‘game’ at the mercy of the random number generator.

Not to say there aren’t any choices. You do get to choose how you spend the two in-game currencies, but that’s ultimately just deciding how you progress. On a meta level, there is you deciding how often you’re gonna check your phone and activate powers and make your Magikarp eat, but none of these choices are really that interesting. Kinda like Candyland.

So why is Magikarp Jump so much fun?

I figure it comes down to two things: theming and goals.

Theming is a term often used in board games; what’s the aesthetic for this set of rules you’ve made? Monopoly was originally themed around property moguls so as to decry the evils of unchecked capitalism (then it was ‘borrowed’ by Parker Brothers and copyrighted into a corporate game, thereby proving its point in the most painful way possible). The rules could easily be applied to a different theme: why not colonial European powers staking and divvying up Africa? Pandemic could quite easily be adapted to an alien invasion, but instead its about stymying a worldwide virus. Theming provides a context for the game’s mechanics and, when done well, can add s layer of intrigue to it.

The inherent ridiculousness of Magikarp Jump — that is, you are training and competing the jumping abilities of useless fish Pokémon — is part of the game’s appeal. The entire game’s premise is based on a throwaway factoid from a Pokédex entry in the main games, and then given an undue importance. Indulging the flight of fantasy is much of the appeal. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun if you were, say, throwing rocks in the air or even training some other Pokémon to fight. It’s an ironic in-joke given flesh, and much of its initial appeal is because of it.

But why stick around? Goals. (Most) games have goals. Mario must save the princess. You have to undermine each other in Settlers of Catan. In I, Spy you must find what they spy with their little eye. Catch is, a goal has to be attainable. Magikarp Jump has a clear goal: beat the various leagues and be the very best jumping Magikarp raiser there ever was. The genius of the game is that, by virtue of the progression system, the next victory is always just out of reach, but there are plenty of successes along the way. You feel like you’re getting somewhere each time you play.

Yes, I realize I’m trapped in a Magikarp-shaped Skinner Box, but I’m surprisingly okay with that. 

I’ll be the first to complain about mobile games. Besides virtually killing the handheld market, there’s an emphasis on addictions that can yield bountiful microtransactions (and so: profit). For a lot of these (Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes), playing for free is more a matter of farming than actual gameplay. Though Magikarp Jump has microtransactions, you aren’t punished for not spending money and get basically the same experience. Its gameplay has no depth whatsoever, but it’s a fine way to kill time waiting for a train or in line at the post office.

So somehow this silly barely-a-game has captured my fascination. And I have no idea what to do about that. But I am on my 134th generation of Magikarp. So there’s that.

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Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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