Monthly Archives: September 2018

Spidey’s New York

Narratives are a two way street. What you bring to them is what you get out of them.

So let’s talk Spider-Man, the video game (again).

Spider-Man, of course, takes place in New York. Because, well, duh. Now, I happen to live in New York and have lived here for most of the past six years. I went to college at NYU Gallatin down in the Village and lived in a semi-crappy apartment (okay, pretty crappy, it was a six floor walkup and there was no sink in the bathroom, but, hey, roof access!) on 14th for a couple years and have called Astoria, Queens home for over a year now (this apartment has a sink in the bathroom, but no roof access — the tradeoffs you make). Needless to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for New York.

That Spider-Man offers up an open world with a terrific approximation of Manhattan is an absolute delight. It mayn’t be a 1:1 recreation, but it captures the idea of the island well enough that that I instinctively know my way around and get momentarily lost when things aren’t quite where they should be (the distance in between Union Square and Stuy Town is a touch too long). As such, right off the bat, I feel a personal connection with the virtual city, thereby creating a bit of an emotional narrative to my swinging around the city.

When I go through Washington Square Park I’m also going through a park where I’ve worked on homework and had snowball fights. I instinctively recoil when I realize I’m going through Times Square; Lincoln Center is where I graduated from college. In many ways, this open world is loaded, I’m not just exploring and beating up bad guys in 80s Afghanistan or a post-apocalyptic Colorado, I’m in the place I’ve lived and worked. Alongside that, I’m in a place that Peter Parker himself loves.

Though I will wax poetic about how wonderful Spider-Man’s open world is, it’s no real slouch in the narrative department either. Throughout the game it’s reinforced how much Pete loves the city; yes, he bears a burden to protect it — a burden that often interferes with his personal life — but it’s also a city he protects out of love. This can be small things like the quips he makes when taking photos of certain landmarks (Empire State University — the game’s ersatz NYU — is home to some of the best years of his life… and loans), or his dialogue while crimefighting. As players, we come to love the city because Pete loves it. There’s also the experiential nature of video games. Because you spend so much of the game swinging through Manhattan, you come to get to know the city and take a modicum of ownership over it (you chased out the Kingpin’s goons!). So when villains start trouble, they’re threatening your city. You get invested in the place, simply by being there.

That said, this is a place I know, and because I bring my own New York-related baggage to the game, it all takes on another level of import to me. Characters walking along the Highline isn’t just window dressing, it’s something I’ve done and so has personal meaning. Consider a tv show like Stranger Things; though it’s science fiction and something of a period piece, someone who’s lived in small town America will relate to a bunch of kids navigating the world; anyone who’s spent too-many-hours on an RPG campaign will immediately latch onto the kids with their all-day D&D campaigns. These little bits of projection/empathy aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but they add another layer of depth to the story that, often times, makes it a little more personal.

I adore Spider-Man’s open world in a way I don’t usually. Part of that is probably due to how well crafted it is; but most of it is definitely because, hey, I’m exploring my city. I’ve talked with some friends who also have the game, and we’ve spent as much time nerding out about getting to explore the city we know as we have the more game-y side of it. My often lament about open world games is how they don’t really end, how there’s always something more to do and completion is less narrative closure and more 100% and a Platinum Trophy; but as I watch my completion percentage in Spider-Man steadily rise (I just passed 90%) I’m starting to dread the game ending. I want to spend more time in this virtual New York.

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Captain Marvel Trailer

It’s happening.

It’s finally freaking happening.

On Tuesday we finally got a trailer for Captain Marvel, a movie I’ve been looking forwards to quite incessantly since it was announced way back in 2014. And now, at long last, we’re getting a glimpse of the movie itself and what all it’s gonna be.

Needless to say, I’m somehow even more excited.

Trailers are tricky beasts. Sometimes they give away the entire darn plot. Sometimes they misdirect you all over the place. Sometimes they’re better than the actual movie (hello, Man of Steel). A lot of the time, though, they give you an idea of the theme of the movie. You’re not gonna be given a plot breakdown, but rather the Central Question of the movie gets raised — or at least hinted at — within the trailer. Trailers for the original Avengers asked if they would be able to work together as a team, the trailer for Sorry To Bother You immediately brought to the forefront questions of race and class that the movie went on to tackle.

The trailer for Captain Marvel hints at what the movie’s gonna be about: identity. It’s heavily implied in the trailer that Carol’s an amnesiac, who doesn’t remember growing up on Earth before becoming a part of Starforce. She crash lands (in a Blockbuster of all places) and, presumably, plot happens. Given the flashbacks in the trailer, it stands to reason that a major part of the movie is Carol rediscovering her roots and coming to terms with the earthling side of her.

In the movie — and this is all speculation — we might end up seeing Carol, a renegade soldier as Nick Fury calls her, creating an identity for herself outside of the one she’s had in Starforce. Take the whole space ranger thing away from her; what’s left? Who is Carol Danvers? If Captain Marvel is gonna be an origins story (and it might have to be), a far more refreshing narrative is how Carol became Captain Marvel, rather than how she got her powers. As the trailer asks “what makes a(her)o.”

A Carol who doesn’t remember her past is an interesting starting point. In the comics, Carol sacrificed much of her memory to defeat Yon-Rogg as part of “The Enemy Within.” She pushes herself further than she’s ever gone before in an effort to sever the psychic connection between them and, in doing so, defeat the villain. Much of Captain Marvel’s adventures after that involves a lot of her trying to figure out who she is, some of it through friends helping her rediscover her identity, some of it through her friends, some of it through her own self-determination.

I realize so much of this blog post is pure conjecture. All we’ve gotten has been this two minute trailer that’s been precious light on our details. Sure, there’s been vague hints about the movie’s story in the press and all, but there’s some room for guesses about the theming for narrative. And if it’s a story about identity, which it sure seems like, they made a really good choice. Because at the end of the day, Carol is the sort of person who keeps picking herself up again and again. Can’t wait to watch her discover she is and has always been that person.

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I’m Swinging Here

It wasn’t long after I first moved to New York that I found myself really wanting to be Spider-Man.  Not for having spider-like strength or the responsibility entailed; nah, what I really wanted were those web-shooters. Confronted by the architectural chasms that make up the city’s downtown, I figured that being able to swing from building to building would really help me get to class quicker. I’m sure there’s something to be said there for how ingrained the mythos of Spider-Man has become in my consciousness that that was my first response to figuring out a quicker commute (and not, I dunno, a bike), but this isn’t what this rant essay is about.

This one’s about New York.

I played The Division because it was set in Manhattan and I wanted to explore a virtual recreation of it. Much of my disappointment of the game is due to its failure to really capture the essence of New York. Granted, The Division is set in an apocalyptic envisioning of the city, where society has very much gone to the dogs, but there’s still something missing. A lot of this has to do with the visuals; the draw distance of the game is frustratingly short, with anything more than a few blocks away obscured by the fog. This means you can’t look up and see the Empire State Building poking up above the buildings over the horizon, and a lot of the sense of place that New York can afford is hampered due to the sameishness of buildings and neighborhoods with drab colors (again, fitting for the genre, but disappointing that it’s a staple). New York didn’t feel like New York. It felt like it could be any old city, albeit one with certain landmarks. I know the city, and I didn’t really recognize it.

 

Enter Spider-Man, a new game by Insomniac that just came out. It’s, obviously, set in New York because, well, Spider-Man. To my immense joy, the New York of Spider-Man feels like New York. The big question though, is why.

 

Part of it’s the vibe. When you’re on the ground there are people everywhere, yelling at you or ignoring you (as New Yorkers are wont to do with any oddity). You’ll find people doing yoga in the park, hanging out on rooftops, and stuck in traffic. Food carts are all over the place; there’s that verisimilitude that makes the city feel real.

But let’s strip the city of its people; as Spider-Man you’re swinging through the city and seldom walking the sidewalks. What is it about the virtual city that makes it feel like the real one? Why does it feel right?

The New York of Spider-Man is far from a 1:1 recreation. Washington Square Park is way too close to Houston Street and Union Square is tiny, with the blocks between it and the church south of it excised entirely. It’s totally fine, though, because Spider-Man knows it can’t possibly recreate New York exactly and instead aims to capture the feeling of the feeling of the city. There’s just enough of it there and in the right place to evoke New York; a vision of the city authentic enough to please, well, me.

As Spider-Man, I’ve swung myself up to a rooftop and used the relative location of the Empire State Building or the game’s ersatz One World Trade Center to quickly orientate myself. While exploring downtown I tried to get my bearing and noticed a building I’ve walked past countless times in real life and instantly knew I was on Houston and Lafayette.

The game keeps you moving, the swinging mechanic is so much fun that exploring is a delight in and of itself; Propel yourself up in the air and you’ll see buildings all the way to the rivers and tall landmarks (including fictional ones like Avengers Tower!) tower over their surroundings. As Manhattan whizzes by, though, you see the neighborhoods change. FiDi looms over downtown, Chinatown’s signage is appropriately in Chinese, the High Line is there running near the Hudson. Because traversal in the game is so much fun — and fast — you will see so much of Manhattan and, much like in the real city, you’ll stop paying too much attention and suddenly find yourself in a new neighborhood with a new vibe.

I actually haven’t played too much of Spider-Man’s story. Every time I start up the game I get captivated by the city and swinging it around. Part of it is because, like I said before, the mechanic of swinging is so much fun. But a lot of it has to do with that wish fulfillment of the game; finally I’m able to swing from building to building and maybe get where I’m going on time. It’s in a game, yes, but it’s in a game that captures the New York I know and love.

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On Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is an odd beast for me. It’s a movie based on a book I didn’t really like, but oddly it’s one where I do like the movie over the book. More than that, though, it’s a book set in Singapore, a country I’m not used to seeing on screen. Also where, of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve racked up the most years of residence. And now I’m seeing streets I’ve driven on and places I’ve eaten on a movie screen in New York City.

It’s surreal, because a lotta folks don’t really know much about Singapore. When I moved to the States (South Carolina) at fourteen I got asked where in China it was. To this day folks tell me my English is really good for someone from Singapore, never mind that said language is the main language spoken there. The island I sorta come from is an unknown, save for a depiction in the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie so fantastical it makes the New York of How I Met Your Mother look like a documentary.

Now the place it seemed that no one this side of the Pacific had heard about is featured in what’s been the top movie in the US for three weeks in a row. Singapore has summarily gone from “where?” to that place in Crazy Rich Asians. That island is Known.

Herein lies the conflict at the root of the surreality. It’s absolutely thrilling to see Singapore in a movie — and a good movie at that. If this cultural osmosis takes hold, maybe the response to hearing I’m half-Singaporean won’t be thinking I hail from a backwards, destitute island. Maybe it’ll be the metropolis of Crazy Rich Asians. At last there’s an image in the cultural consciousness. And it’s that.

Most of the people I know here in the US will never go to Singapore. For many, this is the first — and maybe only — impression of Singapore they’ll have. As good as the movie is, I guess I wish it was more comprehensive; it held within it a fuller take on Singapore. I wish it showed more of the Singapore I know.

By virtue of its story, Crazy Rich Asians focuses on a very specific Singaporean experience: that of the ultra wealthy, the crazy rich, if you will. The cast, though entirely comprised of Asian actors, are primarily from the West, and so absent from the film is the Singaporean accent and its idiosyncratic turns of phrase — something the novel captured so well. It’s awesome to see Awkwafina and Gemma Chan have hefty roles in a major film, but there’s a part of me that wishes that accent was there — especially because your style of speaking in Singapore very much denotes which social class you’re part of. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Characters/actors’ accents are something so tiny for me to take issue with, but they’re indicative of more. Singapore is a complex place for me; it’s a place that’s taken me away from whatever I’ve had going on in the US a number of times. It’s got the best food on the planet. It’s a place I’ve hated and loved. I want the people in my life to see that country, the one with a pros and cons list each a kilometer long. I want people to see more of this place and get where I’m coming from.

I want to be understood.

Crazy Rich Asians — the film — deserves every accolade its gotten. I hope there are many, many more movies with all-Asian casts. It means so much to me, this mixed race guy who passed as Chinese in the US, to see Singapore and people who look like me in the spotlight. The movie isn’t gonna be the solution to my myriad questions of identity; I shouldn’t expect a delightful romcom to provide a sociological survey. It’s still a closer depiction of a part of my life than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve gotta take the advice I hold for so many stories: to let it tell the story it wants and to judge it based on that and not what I might want.

Anyway. Crazy Rich Asians is great. Go watch it. Michelle Yeoh needs to be in everything.

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Yellow (流星)

I have A Lot of thoughts about the movie adaption of Crazy Rich Asians. Far more thoughts that I’ve had time to write down. Much of that is wrapped up in the fact that it’s set in Singapore and I have a very complicated relationship with that country, owing to it, well, being where I was born and the odd circumstances with which I’ve found myself returning there for the past decade or so.

So this blog post is not about that.


Rather, it’s about a song that shows up towards the end of the movie, Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Except it’s not; it’s a cover the song, in Chinese; “流星” [liú xīng]. Now, I do really like “Yellow,” as I do a lot of Coldplay’s music; and I really like it when covers put a spin on things (Run River North’s cover of The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside” is nothing short of incredible). But “流星” is an interesting thing, it’s not just a cover, it’s also been rewritten in another language. A language I happen to kinda sorta speak.

Chinese, well, Mandarin Chinese if you wanna get specific, is an odd thing for me. I didn’t speak it at home growing up, owing mostly to having a mother who doesn’t speak it. It’s a language I learnt in school, and mostly used only in class. Chinese was my worst class, at that, one where I thought a C was a good grade and routinely pulled very low grades — grades low enough that I still remember them twenty years later. Elsewise, I’d only use it when ordering food (“Uncle, 一碗鱼丸面加辣椒”) or in smattering when talking to my grandmother.

It’s one that I’ve gotten better at in bursts; I can follow along with a conversation to a certain extent and can interject comments into dinner conversations with the extended family, often to their amusement since I’m very much the Caucasian nephew on that side. Working in retail in New York has meant that I’m the go-to Mandarin speaker who gets to answer all the questions Chinese tourists have, which often sees me finding very basic ways to say more complex things (“每年他们做好的房子,这是十年最好的房子.”)

Point is, I’m not really good at Chinese, and haven’t really done too much to get better at it. Chinese pop songs fall far outside the usual scope of music I listen to, and most of the Chinese cinema I watch is of the Hong Kong variety and so in Cantonese. Not much impetus to learn.

And then along comes this song, one I’ve added to my iTunes and listened to way more times than I care to admit. I understand parts of it, and reading the lyrics replete with pinyin and a translation helps. I really like it, far more than I thought I would/could. It’s surreal to hear a familiar tune with lyrics in a language I don’t speak near as well as I really should. It’s surreal to want to listen to a song in a language that’s meant so much grief for me, be it through bad grades or the othering that my lack of understanding sometimes creates. It’s surreal to like this.

I’m still processing a response to that movie and the inevitable blog post that’s gonna come along with it. Part of the reason it’s taking a while is because so much of the movie ties in to, well, me as myself. The older I get, the more I feel like much of life is processing stuff, processing what’s happening and what’s happened, processing who you are. I’m mixed, I’m biracial, I’m half Singaporean-Chinese, half Norwegian-American, but my Spanish is better than my Chinese. Identity is a weird thing for me, partially out of my own reckoning with myself, and partially out of my reckoning with others’ interpretations of that self. It’s not something I expect to be resolved anytime soon. But “流星” is a gorgeous song, and I like that I like it.

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