Monthly Archives: August 2019

Stable Boy

I’ve been thinking a bunch about Star Wars lately which, c’mon, what else is new. But with Disney’s D23 event taking place over last weekend and some sweet new trailers for The Mandalorian and The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars has been on my mind a little more, especially The Last Jedi.

Particularly how it ends.

Let’s recap.

The Resistance is defeated, the fleet reduced to the Millenium Falcon and those aboard. But they have hope: Luke Skywalker came out of hiding and stared down the First Order, becoming a symbol in the process. The First Order won, but the Resistance, as led by Leia aboard the Falcon, lives on.

But that’s not how the movie ends!

The Last Jedi ends on Canto Bight, with a group of enslaved children Rose and Finn had run into earlier. They’re in the stables we left them in, but now one of the kids is using improvised props to enact a rendition of Luke’s final stand. They are interrupted by their overseer, and they scatter. One of the kids ends up outside, where he reaches out and grabs a broom to start sweeping. He’s distracted by the night sky, and it’s on this kid looking out at space that the movie ends.

And it is such a beautiful ending to the story.

First, there’s the kid retelling the story of Luke Skywalker. Though the Resistance may have lost the Battle of Crait, the legend of Luke’s victory over Kylo Ren has reached even stable kids far away. We believe Leia when she says that the Resistance isn’t over, but seeing the urchin’s retelling is proof positive that the dream lives on. Even though the kid’s speaking in an unsubtitled alien language, we’re still able to understand what he’s talking about and what it means to him and the others. The tale of Luke Skywalker staring down impossible odds is important and relevant to them because even though they’re a galaxy away, it reminds them that, hey, maybe there’s hope yet for them even though they’re at the bottom of the rung. In a moment that certainly has some meta shades, we’re shown the power of stories. Luke’s actions on Crait have reverberated throughout the galaxy, the Jedi are still out there! By including this scene, The Last Jedi offers a coda that lets us know that our heroes’ actions were not in vain, that the stories and myths that someone like Rey believes in are certainly worthwhile.

Then one of the kids goes outside grabs a broom — calling it to his hand with the Force. The visuals here are important, we’re in a wide shot and there’s no cutaway to the kid reaching out to the Force or anything. Notably, in a movie series where just about every use of a Force power gets a close-up and attention, this time it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beat. Though it’s clear what happened on a second viewing, the ambiguity leaves one wondering if they’d imagined it. By cultivating the ambiguity, the movie offers a sense of wonder and mystery: did that kid use the Force? Can he use the Force?

There are four cutaways in the sequence, and each one is incredibly motivated. The first is of his feet as he sweeps and pauses. The shot focuses our attention on his work sweeping hay, and thus the importance of his stopping — right now this is important, watch. We go back to the wide as he looks up, then we cut back to his face as he stares at space. Next, we see what he’s looking at: stars in the night sky. One of them flickers and jumps to Hyperspace — bound for parts unknown. His hand tightens around his broom, the ring with the Rebel insignia bright on his finger. He’s with the Resistance, and when we cut back to a close-up on his face, the juxtaposition of the stories, Hyperspace jump, and Rebel ring making it easy to read his expression of one of determination to be a part of that story. Like Luke Skywalker watching the binary sunset on Tatooine so long ago, this kid also dreams of bigger things. That’s how The Last Jedi goes out, back on the wide shot of him staring at the sky, his broom raised not unlike a lightsaber as Jon William’s Force Theme swells.

Star Wars is in many ways the story of the Everyman, and with its final scene, The Last Jedi doubles down on the idea that anyone can be the hero, that anyone could be a Jedi. This is a story where you and I could be a hero, one maybe where this kid working in a stable could be too.

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Simming It Up

I really like The Sims. Always have, ever since I started playing the original game seventeen-odd years ago.

But because I am the way I am, I gotta ask myself why do I like this game?

The premise of The Sims is wonderfully simple: it’s a simulation of life. You create and customize a Sim and then play God with their life, telling them to go to work, eat, fall in love, and so on. Part of the game’s challenge is a sort of resource management: how can you keep your Sim’s needs met so they can be happy. You don’t want them passing out or starving to death, do you?

But it’s quite easy to get into that rhythm, and the game’s sequels have streamlined the process in their iterations (I recall press around The Sims 3 touting that Sims would need less bathroom breaks). It’s really not that difficult to keep your Sims happy and for them to advance in their careers and all that. So the question there is: Now what?

That’s the real beauty of The Sims. You can do anything. In the first game, my focus was on bringing my couple to the top of their career, which was actually pretty tough at the time, given that it entailed keeping needs met and having a large number of friends (to the point that I’d create additional families only for them to befriend my main Sims and facilitate promotions). And building houses, that’s a lot of fun too. Expansion packs made for new (mis)adventures, like adding in pets and hotels, offered new ways for the Sims to do their things.

The Sims 2 added in aging and made child sims less useless, so creating a multigenerational family was a lot of fun. The Sims 3 let you explore the neighborhood in a big way, and now The Sims 4 has streamlined everything a lot, while really refining its mechanics. There’s so much to do.

The thing I really like about The Sims is the ability to construct narratives. But they don’t have to be ones that are explicitly written, rather they can exist all in my head. Right now I’m going for having a Sim outlive five spouses, which is delightfully morbid, but I figure in the process Raina Higginthorpe is gonna have a wonderful relationship with Armin Woghoni, a (not-quite-mad) scientist. Naturally, this has meant building an underground swimming pool and, below that, a secret lab. Oh, and expanding the modes suburban house up a couple floors and building a rocket on the roof. Because why not? And also I like building secret lairs and stuff. And this is The Sims, so I can do this!

Anyway, Raina and Armin have a daughter, Alana, who’s quite close with her father. When he dies in a mysterious case of Pushing The Big Red Button after going to space, she decides that, when she becomes an adult, she’s going to become an intergalactic space ranger, presumably to solve the mystery. None of this is in the text — seriously, it’s all in my head. Raina, meanwhile, is gonna remarry and continue her black widow streak, all while the family as a whole amasses more money and their house starts to look more and more like a castle.

I enjoy the silliness of it all, the process of making a story with very low commitment and all. It’s similar to why I enjoy playing tabletop RPGs, this ability to create a narrative about kinda random events. I suppose I can see this being unappealing if this sort of unstructured play isn’t really your jam when you play video games, but hey, I dig it, and it’s a fine way to spend this vacation.

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Vacation

Hey.

I’m on vacation this week, and, since I finally finished a script I’d been working on not too long ago, I’m trying to force myself to take some time off from writing. Part of that means, yes, no blog post this week.

Because hey, I’m on vacation.

In the meantime, here are three posts from the past few months to read instead:

Tune in sometime soon to hear me talk about militarization in pop-culture, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms I have Opinions on.

I love a good pun. Especially when it’s about food. Oh, and storytelling. Yeah, that too. By the way, The Karate Kid is a perfect example of a story where the stakes are all very much internalized — and the conflict too. That’ll probably be a rant essay soon too.

I love bad movies. As in movies that aren’t trying to be anything more than good, silly fun. Today I watched Fast and Furious 8 and rewatched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and really wanna emphasize how wonderful movies like these are. Hmm, maybe it’s time to rewatch Bumblebee.

Anyway, I’m going back to vacation mode, at least for a couple more days. Expect more of the usual next week.

Cheers,

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Guns.

Let’s talk about guns. Particularly the way we relate to them in fiction, particularly how I relate to them through the fiction I consume.

First, however, real life. I’ve handled guns before, fired shotguns and rifles with friends in the American South, and trained with an assault rifle on a range. I mention this to say that I’m very aware of what these weapons can do, I’ve felt the recoil and smelt the gunpowder, I’ve watched a machine gun obliterate a tree trunk. There’s little doubt in my mind of what these awesome and terrible machines can do.

I’ve been thinking about violence in video games for a long time. In light of certain recent events, I’ve been thinking about guns too, and the relationship I have with them — particularly the way I interact them with most: video games.

Guns are also a big part of many video games, especially the First-Person Shooter genre and its cousin, the Third-Person Shooter. By being, well, a shooter, they feature guns. Sometimes it can be simple, as in Halo where there’s a single assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc; or more complex like in Borderlands where there’s a whole cornucopia of different shotguns, rifles, and what have you. Different games treat their guns differently.

In the Uncharted series, guns play the same role they do in a pulpy action movie like Indiana Jones or Mission: Impossible. They add tension, what with offering Nathan Drake a good deal of peril as he and his allies galavant around the world. To get from A to B, Nate’s gotta fight his way past these mercenaries with a combination of stealth, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Of course, guns aren’t the only way for the player to interact with the world in these games, there’s also finding treasure, solving puzzles, and a lot of death-defying climbing. The tension here comes from a lot of places, and the gun-based violence is only one, admittedly big, facet of it.

Come Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, though, guns take something of an optional back seat. Yes, you can still shoot your way through things, but there’s a bigger emphasis on exploration and avoiding conflict altogether. The wonderful chapter “At Sea” is all about Nate and his brother treasure hunting in a small archipelago, with nary a gunfight in view.  The game has a more mature approach to violence, one that shows just how far the series has come in the nine years since its inception.

In between the third Uncharted and A Thief’s End was The Last Of Us, an entirely new game by developer Naughty Dog. In a strong departure from the pulpiness of Uncharted, The Last of Us is absolutely brutal in its violence. Enemies beg for their lives, the infected weep as they shuffle around. Killing is not fun, and when you do get a hold of guns — and their all too little ammo — the brutality of it all borders on horror. I suspect that A Thief’s End’s less cavalier attitude towards gunplay was influenced by Naughty Dog making The Last of Us, but that’s another thing altogether.

The Uncharted games feature a mix of real-world guns (like the FAL and AK-47) alongside fictional ones. They add a measure of ‘realism’ to the game, not terribly like how an action movie would use specific guns for specific situations — an American soldier would probably favor an American assault rifle, while that gun-for-hire might have one made by a foreign manufacturer. Metal Gear Solid realized this and peppered its world with real weapons, like the French FAMAS, German PSG1, and American FIM-92 Stinger. MGS is a far more serious military game than my prior examples, so it makes sense they’d wanna get super real with it and talk about the nitty-gritty of the guns. The later games expand on the assortment of weaponry, getting up into having dozens of different guns. But as they do, so too do they discourage you from wanton violence: using non-lethal methods of taking out enemies can net you a better score or provide you with more personnel for your base. Just because there are a whole bunch of guns there for you to use, doesn’t mean you have to actually run around shooting people. The Metal Gear Solid series is profoundly anti-war, in the sort of way only someone who grew up in post-WW2 Japan could create.

Which brings me to the Call of Duty games. A series of military FPS, the fourth game Modern Warfare brought them into contemporary warfare and, with it, the associated guns too. Though the original Modern Warfare did a lot of really cool things with its setting (hey, ever experienced a nuke going off while playing in first-person? It’s terrifying), the series got steadily more pulpy as it went on. That said, however, the game’s attitude towards its violence remained very rah-rah kill-the-bad-guys-yay! in ways that Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid never were. There’s a point where the games, and the marketing around them, started to become unsettling with how gung-ho they were about the variety of weaponry the games offered to be a soldier from a Western nation shooting up the third-world. I stopped following the series some time ago, its celebration of militarism and what went along with it becoming something I really didn’t like engaging in.

On the totally opposite side are the Borderlands games, wonderful shooters set in the distant future on the distant planet of Pandora. I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands 2 with my brother lately, and the game’s such an utter delight. Part of the game’s appeal comes from its core loop: shoot enemies, get better guns, level up, repeat. Guns are procedurally generated, and in addition to the more traditional sort of weaponry, you can get an assault rifle that shoots rockets, shotguns that hurl balls of electricity, and a cursed submachine gun that screams when you fire it. It’s bonkers, and the guns are a big part of the game; it’s always exciting to find a new, unique gun and take it for a spin. But I think that unlike Call of Duty, Borderlands doesn’t fetishize guns. Sure, they’re cool, and a big focus of the game and marketing, but narratively they end up ancillary to the crazy characters and quests that populate the world. Maybe the fact that the guns are procedurally generated plays a part in it, but honestly, I’m willing to bet that it’s just the way the developers think. The guns are, ultimately, tools, and not the focus of the game — all this despite it being a First-Person Shooter.

Honestly, I wish I had a tidy and pretty answer to all this, especially after eleven hundred words. Yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. I love how Destiny’s exotic weapons are treated like Excalibur and Andúril, only guns instead of swords. Portal has a gun but it shoots portals instead of bullets, really screwing with assumptions of the FPS genre. The guns in Horizon Zero Dawn are terrifying weapons in a world of bows, spears, and robot dinosaurs. It seems like just about every single video game has a different relationship with guns, just as every player probably has a different relationship with pulling the controller’s trigger. 

But I don’t believe that video games and their violence have much in relation to real-world violence — and neither does the science. Granted, something like Call of Duty is far more popular in the US than elsewhere, but that’s arguably more a reflection of the militarism that is part of American culture. I know that for me, a lot of these games are a great way to relieve stress; the catharsis of mowing down Psychos and Nomads in Borderlands 2 with my brother offers an odd sort of zen following a week of depressing news. Perhaps I’m good at compartmentalizing, in that I can easily differentiate between fantasy and reality, and am happy to dive into one to escape the other. My brother and I have killed each other hundreds of thousands of times in virtual deathmatches, but I’m sickened to my stomach by the idea of holding a real rifle against him. 

There’s a lot at play here, and the culture around guns certainly does involve video games (there’s a fascinating article on the Barret M82 rifle and how it’s placement in games has affected the real world), but it’s one that applies to other media too. At the end of it all, though, these games have given me experiences unrivaled. Uncharted took me on adventures, The Last of Us left me a sobbing wreck, Metal Gear Solid has given me eerie chills with its storytelling (even as I go on joyrides). I’ll always love playing Halo, Borderlands, or Army of Two with my brother, cracking jokes and drinking beers as we shoot bad guy after bad guy. They’re fun, a lot of fun, but I owe it to myself to interrogate why they’re fun and be aware of the relationship between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to real life, video games don’t kill people. Guns do.

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Twenty-One Minutes

I’ve made no secret my anticipation for Death Stranding, the latest project from Hideo Kojima, the gaming industry’s undisputed resident auteur-genius-lunatic. This is the guy who brought us all the lunacy of the Metal Gear Solid series that somehow managed to merge questions of linguistic existentialism, mutually assured (nuclear) destruction, and giant robots into a cohesive narrative about the role of a soldier. I wanna see what this guy does.


The latest trailer focuses on the character Heartman, based on the likeness of Nicolas Winding Refn. Which, before we get any further, sidebar:


Refn is a writer-director, perhaps best known for the excellent movie Drive and more recently Too Old To Die Young. He’s not the sort of person you expect to provide the likeness for a video game character, but here we are.

Anyway.

Heartman. His whole deal is that every twenty-one minutes his heart stops and he dies, only to be resuscitated by an AED three minutes later. During those three minutes, he searches for his family on the “other side,” before coming back to life and resuming whatever it is he’s doing. Since most of life — aside from sleeping — can, as he puts it, fit into that twenty-one-minute window, things do go on.


Alright, let’s take a second and acknowledge how freaking silly this is. Who on earth is going to commit to a bit as ridiculous as a character who chronically dies? Someone walking around with an AED strapped to his chest and keeps coming back to life?


With that out of the way, let’s now acknowledge how ridiculously brilliant this is. Kojima is a man known for taking big ideas and running with them far past anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would think to. The latter half of Metal Gear Solid V is essentially a treatise on the connection between language and cultural identity as weaved into a narrative through a deadly virus that’s passed on through speech. Somehow, it works, and the notion of a lingua franca has never seemed quite so ominous.


In light of that, I really can’t wait to see what Kojima does with Heartman. Kojima is not a man to approach an idea like this half-heartedly or with his tongue in cheek. There’s no winking at the audience, no sheepish acknowledgment that the idea is patently ridiculous but, please, just go along with it. Nope. Heartman dies every twenty-one minutes and that’s that.


But because there’s no winking, it means that Death Stranding will be totally free to explore just the toll this has on Heartman. He can’t really accomplish much of significance in the periods he’s alive, so the question becomes if the time he spends dead is what really matters, as that’s when he can look for his family. In light of that, are those twenty-one minutes just him waiting to die? How then does he spend his time?


The trailer features Heartman’s room, a small studio stocked with books and a variety of media. Knowing how short each instance of his life is, though, how does that affect the diversions Heartman seeks out? There is some irony of this being presented in a Hideo Kojima game, a man who made a reputation out of cutscenes longer than Heartman’s lifespan, but perhaps Heartman then serves as a vehicle for Kojima to meditate on the transience of life. Writing a character who experiences life in such a different way forces Kojima to look at things differently. 


Ultimately, that’s all part of the way Kojima approaches stories. Nuclear-wielding mechs and nanomachines are vehicles to really get into the nitty-gritty of thematic questions. Heartman, then, is the home for questions of existentialism, as filtered through an idea somehow simultaneously so ridiculous and brilliant. It’s simply wonderful, and just another reason why I really can’t wait to get to play Death Stranding later this year.

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