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The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

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Crossing Animals

Fetch quests occupy a strange space in video games. They aren’t strictly great quests; you talk to an NPC, and then they have you get something for them, or bring something somewhere else. They’re usually uninspired and are a transparent effort to pad out the game’s length. Mass Effect: Andromeda mines hours upon hours of gameplay by having the player go to a different planet, talk to someone, and return (for a reward!). Point is, they ain’t great.

And yet, there’s Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

I downloaded the game to my phone cuz a lotta people were downloading it, knowing nothing about the Animal Crossing games except there are animals that crossed and something about decorating houses. I fired up the game and found myself put in charge of a campsite (which I can decorate!) and told to befriend visiting animals and invite them over to said campsite.

Simple enough.

Befriending these animals, however, is a matter of talking to them and… fetch quests. Jay wants two squids, Filbert wants an assortment of fruits, and Apollo has developed an affection for butterflies. If you bring their desired items to these animal crossers they in turn give you bells (money) and resources like wood and cotton you can then use to craft new furniture for tour campsite. This furniture, besides looking nice, is also used to lure invite animals to hang out at your campsite.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is all about fetch quests. Just going somewhere, getting something, and giving it to someone.

And yet, it is such calming fun.

Part of this is due to how gentle the game is. Pocket Camp doesn’t have you fighting monsters, you just shake fruit off trees or tap butterflies to catch them with your net. It’s easy enough to amass such a stock of items that more often than not, you’ll already have what your animal friend is looking for.

But there still a sense of accomplishment upon completing a task. The animal smiles and claps, thanking you profusely. It’s a bit of an overreaction, but you still did something. There’s the idea that you’re getting stuff done, and that getting said stuff done is appreciated by people, er- animals, who call you friend.

What really makes Pocket Camp work, though, is summed up in those darned cute animals. Pocket Camp’s simple mechanics are delivered with a very friendly theme. There’s no fighting monsters, but nor is there much in the way of any conflict whatsoever. You’re all just kinda get along. It’s utterly non-threatening, presenting a harmonious world where idyllic days are spent fishing and foraging and thinking about food.

And so it’s wonderfully calming. There’s no frenetic need to get stuff done, you can do stuff at your own pace and still have that sense of accomplishment. Like The Sims, you’re able to set your own goals within the parameters (do you want to upgrade your camper? Make a dope hangout? Stockpile a horde of Bells?) and go after them (though without the threat of starvation and/or setting yourself on fire). Again, Pocket Camp is a game to relax. Not blow off steam: just chill out.

I think it’s, in that way, a kinda important game. Sure, it’s not saying Something Bigger About The World, and it’s hardly a brain-bending puzzle game. It’s a game where you do stuff, simple fetch quests though they may be, and be rewarded and affirmed for it. Without deadlines or consequences, Pocket Camp feels very much like a safe space to escape to in the middle of the day. Proof that you can get something done and that Ketchup the duck is really happy you did.

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The Economy (Again!)

Star Wars Battlefront II is a really fun game. It course-corrects a lot of the problems of the first one and throws in some fun turns. Dogfighting in an A-Wing and charging through Hoth feel plain fun. But Battlefront II also has a seriously screwed up economy, one that’s intrinsically tied to how the game plays.

A lot of contemporary multiplayer games have progression systems, the more you play, the more experience points you get which in turn can unlock new weapons or buffs for your character. There’s usually a great deal of balancing gone into this, where that shiny new gun plays differently, but not usually better. Key thing is, this is all tied to you playing the game.

Not so with Battlefront II. Improving your character or class isn’t done through experience, but rather through accumulating Star Cards by buying loot boxes (or crates, in the game).

Loot boxes are a thing that have been in games for a while, though are only recently crawling into AAA games. They’re a ‘box’ you buy with in-game currency that include a random assortment of gameplay items. They can be cosmetic items, like hats and skins, or gameplay things like buffs and weapons. In a good game, like Uncharted 4, they’ll be new ways to play without upsetting the competition. For something like Mass Effect: Andromeda, they’re cool new toys that reward you for playing.

But in Battlefront II, they are the only way to improve. You can clock over a dozen hours as the Assault class, but unless you buy a crate, you won’t get any of the buffs or different weapons. This isn’t a case where you can level up a certain buff by playing with it a lot (as in other games); the only way you can get a buff – and these can be some serious buffs – is from loot boxes. Randomized loot boxes, mind you. Buying a box doesn’t mean you’ll get a Star Card for the class of your choice, you could get one for the Infiltrator you never play as and a power up for Darth Vader, who you haven’t unlocked yet.

Which, even alone, would hardly be so bad – if these crates were remotely affordable. The Trooper Crate, which contains Star Cards for the infantry you usually play as, costs 4,000 credits a pop (Starfighter and Hero Crates will run you 2,400). For reference, a single match, which can last 15-20 minutes, only gets you 200-300 credits. Optimistically, that’s a little over three hours of gameplay for one randomized pack of cards. A randomized pack which, again, mayn’t even have anything of use.

Now, you can bypass this by buying the boxes with real money (at around $2.50 a pop), but after a lot of outcry publisher EA has suspended that. But improving your characters is still a massive time investment. And no one’s really happy about that – this is a $60 AAA game, not a free iPhone app. The outcry on the internet has been cosmic, prompting EA to suspend those real money microtransactions and slash the price of heroes like Darth Vader (from a whopping 60,000 credits to a more manageable 15,000). There’s also the promise of more adjustments to come, but what those are is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, the economy of Battlefront II is completely in the lurch. We’ve already seen the price of some heroes drop by 75%, and though credits can’t be bought outright, they can be obtained through crates. In light of that, there’s (my) hope that EA will cut down the prices of the crates, so it’s less of an outright grind to improve characters (either that or tie progression to actually playing the game, but what are the chances are that?). The problem is, in the meantime, what becomes of your credits?

I’ve bought a couple Crates since the game came out, but I’ve also been stashing a lot of credits (I never dip below 10k, if I can help it [which I can]). Because if EA adjusts their economy (and at this point it’s inevitable), I don’t want to have ‘wasted’ credits. If they slash their loot box price from 4,000 to 1,000, my purchasing power quadruples. If they adjust credits from a match, well, I’ve a backlog (and they’d have to readjust milestone earnings – another thing I haven’t cashed out on yet because, again what if it changes?). And if they leave it as is, well, still credits in the bank.

But no matter what happens, adjusting EA’s economy’s gonna screw someone over. Maybe it’s someone who’s played for hours and suddenly realizes had they waited their money would be worth more. Maybe someone bought the crates before EA suspended microtransactions and just saw their dollars get undervalued. And no matter what, there’s the chance that it’ll happen because, again, they did cut the price of some heroes by 75%, so there’s a chance for another deflation. I don’t trust EA’s credits.

It’s frustrating. Because there are these features of a game I paid $60 for that I don’t get to experience just yet, or I won’t without some serious time investment. And the shame is that Battlefront II is such a fun game marred by a horrendous, random progression system.

So hopefully it’ll get fixed. In the meantime, I’m sitting on my credits like a crazy old man theorist on gold waiting for the markets to crash.

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Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don’t really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it’s hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That’s not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn’t make it any worse as a work, it’s just how it is. So if we’re telling new stories, let’s ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let’s make all the elves Asian!” because that way you’ll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don’t look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let’s make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let’s not do that.

Because if we’re diversifying Middle-earth, let’s let everyone be everyone. Let’s have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let’s have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner  of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it’s gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place.  But that’s done, and it doesn’t excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there’s nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you’d have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that’s not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we’ve already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who’ve kicked ass in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y’know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it’s outside what we’ve internalized as normal for the genre. We’re simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that’s s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It’s what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can’t I, someone who’s reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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Spoilers and Reveals

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. That’s a spoiler, right? What about Luke fights Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back? How about Yoda’s the green dude Luke meets on Dagobah? Or Luke goes to Dagobah? Where does it stop being a spoiler and become plot information?

Spoilers used to mean something that’d, well, spoil a surprise, ruin the story. It’d be telling someone that Lando betrays Han in Empire. Since at the point, the story seems to be presenting one thing, but it turns out it’s another. But saying Han and Leia go to Cloud City? That’s just information, it doesn’t tell you anything about the story.

I think we have a tendency to conflate spoilers and plot. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fun to going into something completely blind, but there’s no harm in knowing something. Knowing that Luke goes to Dagobah isn’t gonna ruin Empire Strikes Back.

But then, I’d argue that spoilers don’t always ruin stuff either. I went into LOST knowing that Charlie died, but I still had a ball of a time (and also swore of social media in between the time it aired and I was able to watch it). I started Game of Thrones knowing that Ned Stark died in the first season, but so much of the fun of it was watching how it played out. Saying a spoiler ruins something is indicative of poor storytelling: you know Han, Luke, and Leia are gonna make it out of Star Wars in one piece, but does that make it any less enjoyable? I played MGSV knowing all the twists and turns, yet it’s still a gripping story. A well crafted story doesn’t solely rely on WHAM moments to hook you. But that doesn’t mean I’m trawling through every nugget of information about The Last Jedi. I enjoy being surprised all the same.

Spoilers are a weird beast, is what I’m saying.

Which brings me to Stranger Things 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first season last year and, of course, was ready for the second. I didn’t watch any of the trailers, but that was more due to apathy than any intent to avoid spoilers. But then they put out a mobile game, which, I’d usually dismiss except this one was styled after Legend of Zelda. And not the 3D ones, but the old school, top down, action-RPGs that I love (Link’s Awakening is the best Zelda game; fight me). When Season 2 dropped, the game updated with a new character, Max, and an extra quest. Cool!

But unlocking this new character, however, reveals that they she has a special ability. And it’s a doozie. Like, major turn of events type reveal. I was… less than pleased. Because this had all the shaping of being a big twist that happens part way through the season and shakes everything up. And here it was in this game.

But what makes this such a spoiler-y thing is that it could be a big reveal, an “I am your father” reveal. The sort of thing I’d rather not have spoiled for something I’m about to watch in the near future. ‘cuz I got clued in to some of the plot developments by virtue of, y’know, being on the internet. Like I knew that Steve would be taking on some adventures in babysitting (though none of the details), but that’s hardly a spoiler because the real interesting part is watching how Steve gets to that point.

So when I actually watched the show, the back of my mind was furiously anticipating That Twist. …aaaaand it didn’t happen.

Finding out that Max has psychic blasts would have been a helluva spoiler, since it’s a big reveal. That it didn’t happen is a nice gag of the developers (inaccurate game adaptions have a long and storied history) that’s a little frustrating because I kept waiting for it to happen.

But Stranger Things isn’t a show that rides or dies on its reveals. It’s a tightly crafted show, with a plot that starts as a slow burn and picks up as it goes; elements are thrown in play and developed to great effect. Furthermore, it’s anchored in strong characters with growth and relationships. Sure, a major plot spoiler would take away some of the surprise, but that’s not the main draw. Even if it was, though, I don’t think it’d have ruined the show. Spoilers aren’t that bad, guys.

But if you dare tell me anything about The Last Jedi that isn’t in the trailers…

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Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing “Through The Valley,” a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is hellbent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.

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Going Further

The LEGO Ninjago Movie came out about a month ago and it was, well, firmly okay. Like, it’s not awful — it’s entertaining enough — but it never rises to the delightful postmodern heights of its predecessors. But it didn’t have to. While The LEGO Movie toyed with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey by making the chosen one as un-special as possible, and The LEGO Batman Movie used the narrative of a love story to reframe the conflict of Batman and The Joker to craft a hilarious new take on the mythos, all The LEGO Ninjago Movie really had to do was tell a raucous adventure story. Which it kinda does, but it’s very safe, one couched in winks at the audience and a foot still safely in the boat, never taking the plunge.

It’s a shame, too, because The LEGO Ninjago Movie had so much in its hand, it just never went all in.

Let’s just look at the setting. We’ve got Ninjago City, this cyberpunk-by-way-of-future-Asia setting with elevated highways and really cool buildings. But we never get to really explore it. All of our time in the city is set against the backdrop of big fights, which, while cool, are hardly space to get to know a setting. Instead, once the plot begins in earnest, we’re whisked out to a much more generic jungle. And like, sure, a jungle’s a cool enough setting, but it lacks the idiosyncrasy of Ninjago City. Jungles are generic, whereas Ninjago City had this spiffy aesthetic that marked is as different from, say Bricksburg or Gotham from the other LEGO movies or even New York and Coruscant. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to rejigger the central plot to go from exploring the jungle to spelunking in the depths of Ninjago City. There’s more personality there and room for imagination, something the movie really could have used.

Because it plays it all so safe. We have this outstanding (and hilarious) cast who are mostly relegated to bit parts where they can offer commentary on the Quest At Hand. If Ninjago is gonna be a send up of typical adventure movies, then let the main characters be a bunch of savvy wiseacres taking the piss out of the narrative. If it’s gonna be an actual adventure movie, then let it be that, with the silliness seeping in from all sides. But Ninjago couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and instead we have a normal adventure story that’s undercut by its love of winking at itself. There’s no commitment.

So let’s take The Princess Bride. It creates a delightfully silly world, replete with six-fingered men, Dread Pirate Robertses,  and ROUSes,  but with characters who are completely sold on it. Inigo Montoya searches for the six-fingered man, and though he’s a comedic supporting character, because he as a character is serious about it and because the narrative never ridicules his quest, he is given the ultimate catharsis when he eventually finds him. There’s no winking at the audience, where everything unfolding is an in-joke. Sure, it’s a silly world (there is a place called The Cliffs of Insanity) but because the characters are given a level of emotional honesty, the narrative feels whole.

Even Shrek 2 (objectively the best of the Shreks) treats its characters’ arcs with a great deal of respect. Yes, the movie absolutely skewers fairytales, particularly of the Disney variety, but the story of Shrek trying to fit into Fiona’s world is committed to wholeheartedly. As such we still have a great story in this bizarre world (that we also get time to explore).

A lot of its faults can be blamed on The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s absolutely frenetic pace. The movie barely slows down to give us a chance to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fast paced movie, but the movie barely ever fleshes out anything it has in play, never letting us just be in the space it’s created. It’s a rotten shame, too, because there was so much interesting at its fringes, so much mileage to be had with the banter between the characters, so much capacity for cool with some LEGO-ized martial arts action. Plus, you’ve got the Hero With an Evil Dad trope with the wonderful twist that everyone knows Garmadon is Lloyd’s father. But frustratingly, characters don’t fulfill arcs so much as they check off narrative beats. The movie never trusts its assets enough to capitalize on it, it never goes all the way.


Instead, well, we get something that’s just fine.

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