Monthly Archives: February 2020

Parasite Won

Like many people who claim to not care about award shows, I do begrudgingly give a crap about the Oscars. There’s a reason; it’s effectively a barometer for what is considered a Good Movie for a given year, and even if it’s a horribly skewed system that prefers a certain type of film, it remains a cultural touchstone. ‘Oscar-Winning’ means something, whether we like it or not. No other award comes near as close for the glitz, glamor, and prestige. I like to say I don’t care about it because the things I like and value are seldom acknowledged by it (I maintain that Jackie Chan’s Police Story is a masterwork and that is a hill I will die on).

All that said, my heart skipped a beat when I got the notification that Parasite won Best Picture on Sunday. There’s a lot to why that is.

For starters, Parasite is a plain bonkers movie — in the best possible way. It’s hard to describe it too much without giving away what a roller-coaster ride it is. Suffice to say, it dances between genres with unmatched grace while never losing sight of the sort of story it’s telling.

It’s also in Korean, with a Korean cast, and subtitled in English.

Subtitles, are apparently, a big deal. I grew up watching movies with subtitles (since sometimes the movies I watched weren’t in English, and sometimes I just wanted to be able to read everything that was said). Plus, I remember being told that when watching stuff like Anime, the fan-subs are usually better than the official dubs. Point is, the idea of watching something with subtitles wasn’t unusual, especially if it wasn’t in English.

Thus I was more than a little surprised when I heard the disdain people had for subtitles in the States. The idea of not liking subtitles, or refusing to watch something because of subtitles, made no sense whatsoever. I eventually conceded that I guess it could be distracting, but still, lousy excuse. In the lead-up to last Sunday, there was buzz around Parasite, but a lot of it was about how there’s no way the Academy would vote for a movie that wasn’t in English and, gasp, had a lot of subtitles.


It’s discouraging. Implicit in the commentary is the message that the Establishment doesn’t want a movie done by Outsiders in its space. That if your movie isn’t in English there’s no space for it here. Good luck if it’s Korean-made, or really anywhere non-Western. It’s just not ‘good’ art.

There’s a stratification to art. Pulpy stuff, like science-fiction, superheroes, and other ‘fun’ genres, is at the bottom. Drama’s a big deal, and there’s room aplenty for dramatic French movies because, hey, they’re French, they damn near invented cinema. Stuff from other places just doesn’t pass muster. I firmly believe that the reason Jackie Chan is not held as an auteur like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino for his work in the 80s is because it’s all in Chinese. And it’s pulpy.

All this to say, finding out that Parasite won blew my mind. Seeing clips of Bong Joon-ho on stage with the awards, speaking in Korean at the Oscars, was delightful. No, I’m not that kind of Asian, but to see someone familiar means a lot.

I still think there’s a diversity problem when it comes to awards (that none of the cast got any acting nominations is ludicrous, and that the Directing candidates were, Bong aside, very white and very male is disappointing). We gotta give the time of day to stories told by people who aren’t white guys because there’s a lot to be told, and, whaddya know, it’s actually good.

So yes. Here’s to more of that, please and thank you.

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Thinking Elsewise

Central to the Battle School in Ender’s Game are the Games; mock-battles fought between armies in a zero-gravity arena where combatants try to win by eliminating their opponents. When Ender is given his own army, he messes with conventional tactics by deciding that the enemy’s gate is down, and not across. Cardinal directions are completely arbitrary in zero gravity, so it makes little sense to be beholden to them. This reframes the battlefield; Ender’s army gets an advantage since they’re able to approach their opponents from unexpected angles. It’s Ender’s grasp of three-dimensional space, among other things, that makes him a formidable commander. Up and down are relative.

The central gimmick of Gravity Rush is your ability to mess with gravity. With the press of a button, Kat is able to float off the ground, and another tap sends her hurtling in that direction until she hits something, at which point that something is now the ground she’s standing on. It’s a dizzying affair, flying around this steampunk town and walking upside down on bridges and the like. It became slightly less dizzying, however, when I realized I wasn’t flying around; rather, I was falling.

I know this might seem obvious, but it is a decidedly different approach to the game. We’re used to flying in games; that’s a motion that’s easily translatable. Maybe not flying like Superman, but flying with a jetpack or flying a plane or spaceship. Thus when using Kat’s powers, the translation in my mind is that I’m flying, and I try to adjust as such (and I can’t). Once I think about it as if I’m falling wherever I’m going, though, the movement becomes more familiar and I’m better able to guide Kat through the air.

In essence, to play Gravity Rush well, I’ve gotta stop thinking ‘normally’ and get myself to see Kat as falling, not flying. Basically, I gotta reframe my point of view — the enemy’s gate is down. It’s a really fun part of Gravity Rush, because there are times when my brain goes back to ‘default’ and I’ve gotta remind myself that I’m falling. The game wants you to speak its gravity-based language, which often means having to ignore other telltale signs of which way is up.

Thinking differently is a really fun exercise, and it’s really neat when games force you to do so. Portal is a first-person game that gives you a portal gun. You go in one portal and out the other — simple. You go fast in one portal you go fast out the other; vertical velocity is transferred to horizontal, depending on where the portals are. To solve the puzzles in the game, you’ve gotta use these portals to your advantage, often in some really wild ways. It’s no small detail that GLaDOS, the AI who’s setting up these tests for you, compliments you by saying that “now you’re thinking with portals.” You gotta think with portals to get through.

I like games, and I like having to learn to think the way a game wants you to think. When playing Kerbal Space Program I had to think like a rocket scientist, Catherine had me dreaming in block puzzles. Naturally, I think there’s so much more room in games to really cut wild. I want a strategy game that takes place in proper three-dimensional zero-gravity space, complete with being able to reorientate ships and the like. I want puzzle games that really cut wild with ideas of physics and force you to think way outside the box. It’s a hurdle to overcome, sure, when getting the hang of a game, but it’s such a fun feeling. Games, particularly video games, are access to a virtual world and the sky’s the limit with what you could do there. And sometimes, that sky is where gravity happens to be pulling you.

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Outer Choices

The Outer Worlds is not a sprawling game. Its planets and other areas are relatively compact, with the objectives of each place being quite clear. The game doesn’t have a laundry list of side quests to complete. Even the weaponry and armor available to you are limited when compared to games like Assassin’s Creed: Oddysey and Metal Gear Solid V. The world is cool but it’s hardly brimming with stuff to do like in Mass Effect: Andromeda and Shadow of Mordor. You’re not liable to come across a band of roving marauders; in fact, exploration in The Outer Worlds is often quite peaceful and without the need for violence.

I say all this as a preface to the following: what The Outer Worlds lacks in breadth it makes up for several times over in depth. Sure, there’s not that much to do, but the ways that you can go about doing it are legion.

Recently, my character, Jimbo the Himbo, a gentleman who is all charm and people skills with minimal intelligence, was hired to take over an abandoned space station. While onboard, we were hailed by a local agency and threatened with boarding. Taking advantage of our great charisma, we bluffed our way through the conversation, convincing the others that we were about to arm the self-destruct. So persuasive were we that we scared off the approaching gunship and were able to go about our way undisturbed.

It’s a small example of the sort of shenanigans you can get away with in The Outer Worlds. There are several times when I’ve used skills like Persuade and Lie to avoid combat or find a different solution to a problem. There’s no one way to do a thing, and I keep wondering how else I could do something and to what effect. But also, in many ways, The Outer Worlds is a game that comes close to realizing the potential of digital RPGs.

The RPG genre grew out of tabletop role-playing games, with early RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry borrowing huge swaths of cloth from the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. As the genre evolved, it grew less reliant on its tabletop forerunners and has long since grown into its own. There’s still that inkling of what makes tabletop so great, though, the ability to make your own character and run off on your own adventure, doing what you will.

In other words: player agency. Player choice in table top RPGs is almost unlimited, bound only by your imagination and the patience of your Game Master. Any problem thrown in your path can be solved by a plethora of ways, and the players can craft their own narrative as they do so. Perhaps the party are a shoot first ask questions later sort of group, or maybe they’re the sorts who like to turn enemies into friends. Either is possible, if the dice are in your favor.

With digital RPGs, there is the potential for what only exists in one’s imagination to be fully realized on screen. Furthermore, you don’t need a Game Master to run it for you: the computer does all the work. Of course, there is the limit of what is possible to code and write, and since we’re yet to be able to create a procedurally generated AI Game Master, digital RPGs are inherently limited.

Which is definitely why The Outer Worlds’ small scale works for it. By focusing in on a relatively smaller world and adventure, the game does more with less. Sure, there are only so many different quests you can do, but look at all the ways you can do it!

I’m not sure how much longer I have with Jimbo the Himbo on his current adventure, but I’m already looking forwars to playing the game again, with a different character who’s short on charm but proficient in other areas (I wonder what would happen if I couldn’t talk down that gunship earlier). This room for choice — and the unknown —is part of what makes The Outer Worlds so engrossing. I know that events are playing out because of the choices I’m making, and I can’t wait to see what happens when I make different ones.

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