Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Illusion of Choice

When not raiding Soviet bases to 80s hits in Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve been playing Until Dawn with my roommate. Now, I don’t really do horror, like, at all. But Until Dawn features a supposedly robust choices and consequences system, which I am, of course, a sucker for.

We’ve finished the game and there’s been a good deal of payoff to some of the choices we’ve made. The big thing we’re looking forward to, though, is playing it again and making different choices to see what would happen.

Because right now a lot of what happened feels like a direct result of the choices we’ve made and I wanna know how much of that is really because of what we did. Every little plot turn can’t be the result of our decisions, even though it can feel like it.

A lot of the time, when we play a game with multiple choices, we want everything we do to be impactful and for it to create a tailored set of consequence that are entirely dependent on what we did.

290 Choices-A

Look at all those endings!

Doesn’t that sound cool? Every choice you make has consequences! Siding with Miranda or Jack when they argue aboard the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 could spell disaster down the line! If Walker doesn’t spare that guy in Spec Ops: The Line what will it mean for the future?

The problem is, games are a finite medium. What’s done, is done, and has to have been doable. There’s a limit to your free will, a limit set by the game developers and their bother and/or budget. It turns out that choosing Kaiden or Ashley has no real choice on the rest of Mass Effect, as the survivor fulfills basically the same role in the sequels. Picking Udina or Anderson doesn’t have much bearing on Citadel politics, because Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have much of it, and by the time 3 rolls around, Anderson (if you chose him) has stepped down so that Udina represents the humans and the intrigue on the Citadel proceeds accordingly.

ChoicesB

Those choices could be Red, Blue, or Green

Now, I am kinda picking and choosing some examples, Mass Effect does have some brilliant moments of consequence (whether or not you saved Mealon’s research in the second game has a massive impact on the third – it’s that it’s one of the few choices of that nature that make it stand out so), but a few different playthroughs, the cracks in the game’s design start to show. No matter what, Udina will end up on the council. The Rachni will return whether or not you kill their Queen. Whether or not you sacrifice the Council in the Battle of The Citadel doesn’t mean much ultimately. To quote Eloise Hawking in LOST: the universe has a way of course correcting.

Which is a bummer, because what if, to beat a dead horse, picking Anderson or Udina made for totally different plot lines in Mass Effect 3. Maybe Anderson as Councilor meant that Cerberus never managed to attack the Citadel, but in exchange made the mission to Earth that much harder without him in your corner. It does mean a lot of resources, but it also means a more personalized experience.

I think that might be why I’m hesitant to jump back into Until Dawn. Right now everything happened as a result of my choices. Little tweaks to the game’s horror were because of my answers to questions posed to me (Snake-Clowns with Needles, though the snakes never showed up). Playing the game again (which I absolutely want to do to, why else, see what would happen) will probably show where the seams are and reveal how little impact my decisions had. That it doesn’t on the first play through speaks to good writing.

Because choice in games are an illusion, and will continue to be until you have an infinite number of monkeys typing up an infinite number of outcomes to an infinite number of players’ decisions. But until then, players can be tricked into thinking we have a decision. If the game’s narrative makes the causality feel like it had to happen, like that your choice led you here no matter what, then the illusion isn’t broken. Just spackle those cracks with good writing and we’re onboard.


For the first playthrough or two, anyway. After that it boils down to just gaming the system as much as you can (how can I make sure everyone died in the most gruesome way in Until Dawn?).

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Giant Robots

It is no secret that I absolutely adore Pacific Rim. Granted, and watching giant mechs and giant mechs beat the crap outta each other is only a part of it. See, there’s the pure childish glee to it, the great speech, and, of course, its youthful and hopeful worldview. Pacific Rim is a movie about giant mechs and giant monsters, but it’s because it’s so much more than the battle between Jaegers and Kaiju that the movie made the impression it did, it’s why it matters more than you’d expect.

A sequel was up in the air for a while, and, eventually, Guillermo del Toro stepped aside from directing again and Steven S. DeKnight filled in as writer/director and the project officially went into production. There were rumors online about the studio ousting del Toro, but given that he still has a producing credit and DeKnight was in touch with him, it’s safe to say his vision is still there.

So naturally, I watched the trailer for the sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising as soon as I could. And man, it delivers on more giant mechs fighting giant monsters. And a multinational team, which is something very important to me, obvious. And it’s a glorious trailer, with new robots fighting new monsters in a city and stuff getting destroyed and swords slashing and all that cool stuff.

But all the same, it seems to me that there’s a bit that’s being lost.

Let me preface the following with this: It looks awesome. Mecha action is something near and dear to my heart, and getting to see a glimpse of those behemoths fighting is, of course, a joy. I’m here for it.

But.

Guillermo del Toro’s a self-described pacifist. He deliberately avoids making movies about war, and Pacific Rim was no different. The leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps isn’t a general, but rather a Marshal (named Stacker Pentecost, but the ridiculous awesomeness of that name is unimportant here). The Jaeger pilots aren’t Captains or Lieutenants, but rather Rangers. Pacific Rim avoids much militaristic imagery, and there’s no room for jingoism in a movie about an international team fighting monsters. This is all deliberate, as del Toro “…wanted was for kids to see a movie where they don’t need to aspire to be in an army to aspire for an adventure.”[*]

Even the action in the movie follows this trend. Sure, there’s epic destruction, but the operating protocol for the Jaeger pilots is to keep the Kaiju away from the city. When a kaiju attacks Sydney, it’s because it breached the wall that was supposed to keep them out. The fight in Hong Kong is after the defenders have been overwhelmed, and much ado (and a subplot) is made out of making sure civilians evacuate to shelters. When the punching and hitting starts, it’s a lot of punching and outlandish weapons. Gipsy Danger has an energy blaster and a sword, Striker Eureka rockets and knives, Cherno Alpha is really good at punching stuff. It’s fantastical, it’s fun.

There’s a shot in the Uprising trailer that looks like one out of the matrix, with empty bullet shells falling to the ground behind a Jaeger. It’s cool — because of course it’s cool — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it gave me a measure of concern. Part of what made Pacific Rim so wonderful was it being removed from reality; once the Jaegers started going there wasn’t much in the ways of actual guns. All the violence was out there, fantastical, giant robots punching and giant swords and rockets.

I love Pacific Rim. And I wanna love Uprising too. But lightning in a bottle was caught once, and I’m wary of a followup. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe DeKnight’s got more going on than the trailer lets on. Maybe it’ll be as hopeful and idealistic as the first one. But as we get set to enjoy more mecha versus kaiju action, I want to remember how damn special Pacific Rim is, and how much a sequel has to live up to not only in quality but also in theming. Maybe Uprising won’t have the special sauce that made Pacific Rim so good.

But.

It’s still gonna be giant mechs beating up giant monsters.

And I’ll take it. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

We Don’t Need No Adaptation

Your Name is an anime film about a couple teens that randomly wake up in each others bodies. One’s a guy at an elite school in Tokyo, the other a girl who lives in a more traditional, rural town. Naturally, hijinks ensure, and I’m left weepy in the cinema as the credits roll.

It’s very much a body swapping love story, but it’s one that holds extra depth due to its intense focus on longing. Much of the romance that blooms between Taki and Mitsuha is due to them knowing each other so well but being unable to really meet. It’s further accentuated by the anime’s gorgeous animation, with some fantastic visual touches that could only be done in an animated movie (seriously, even if you ignore the magnificently crafted narrative, Your Name is a visual wonderland).

Point is, I really like this movie, it is really good, and you should watch it.

It was also just announced that Paramount pictures was teaming up with J. J. Abrams to adapt it into a live action film.

Which is as pointless as it is frustrating.

Look, I’ve nothing against Abrams, he’s a fine director who’s made some of my more favorite films in recent memory (The Force Awakens, Star Trek, Super 8), but you can’t help but to wonder why this movie even needs to happen.

Well, you can: money. Your Name was a ridiculously successful hit in Japan, and, to quite an extent, overseas. It stands to good reason that by adapting it to a more ‘conventional’ medium (live action film) it will make Even More Money, which, well, cynically, is the goal of a lot of art.

But let’s ignore that for now.

If Your Name, a movie that came out barely a year ago in Japan, is being made into a live action western film, then there has to be some need for it, right? Your Name is a beautiful story, one that I can’t recommend strongly enough (as was insistently recommended to me and I then passed on). It’s something of a shame, then, that it’s an anime and thus will only fall into a niche audience of a) people who will watch an anime film, and 2) an anime film that’s relatively ‘realistic’ and not as pulpy as the medium is known for.

In which case, yes, by all means, let’s bring this story to a wider audience.

But why?

Why is it that a film like Your Name needs to be ‘uplifted’ by removing it from where it came? Is it because anime, as a medium, isn’t good enough? Sure seems that way. There’s this weird prejudices against certain medium as not being good enough. A movie can get discounted just because it’s an anime film, just as a story, no matter how moving, can be dismissed if it’s found in a video game. There’s an artistic pecking order, as it were, where certain genres are more artsy than others (drama more so than comedy), and in turn certain mediums are more artsy than others (books over comics). Adapting Your Name to a live action film would, in this mindset, make it more artistically pure. Which is a load of crap; mediums are a means of storytelling. There are some stories that only work in one way, (500) Days Of Summer wouldn’t really work as anything except a film and Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye would lose so much if it were anything but a comic book. It’s a matter of we, as an audience, getting over the fact that Your Name is an anime.

Because there are some things that cannot be adapted. Sure, you can make The Lord of The Rings into a twelve hour saga that’s incredible in its own right, but there’s no way to turn Joyce’s Ulysses into anything but its tome without losing so much of what makes it special. Similarly, Your Name is so rooted in not just its Japanese-ness, but in its anime-ness. Many of the visual touches are of the sort you can only do in animation. So much of what makes the film so magical will be lost with the ‘realism’ of live action, but any attempt to stylize reality (a la Scott Pilgrim) runs the risk of trampling over normal life-ness that makes the heightened reality of Your Name work. The film masterfully straddles an extraordinarily thin line, and it’s one that only works because it’s an anime, not in spite of.

If this adaptation really gets off the ground, then maybe the best course of action would be to just taking the very kernel of the idea (city boy and rural girl sometimes wake up in each others’ bodies and hijinks ensue) rather than trying to adapt it proper. Don’t gild the lily, let Your Name exist and excel in its own right with all of its idiosyncrasies.

And besides, adapting it means losing its dope soundtrack.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

More Thoughts On An Open World

I am a big fan of linear, narrative gameplay. I love the Uncharted series for its tight and moving narrative that thrusts the gameplay along and I will critique the Assassin’s Creed games for their tendency to waylay their own plot with an overabundance of pointless side missions. I yearn for games that propel me along, marrying good gameplay with an strong narrative. Including so-called ‘walking sims’ like Journey or Gone Home that may not have revolutionary gameplay, but still use their gaminess to move the player. I like these closely curated experiences that lead me along a journey.

And then, there’s frickin’ Metal Gear Solid V.

Though as batguano crazy as the others in the series, MGSV is downright restrained compared to the preceding games. Sure, there are the weird parasites, the bizarrely sexy sniper, and “the day weapons learned to walk upright” (actual quote), but it’s not as propulsive as we’ve come to expect from creator Hideo Kojima. There aren’t ten minute lectures on nuclear proliferation or odd digressions into code names, nor cutscenes that rival a television finale for length and spectacle. Oh, the story missions – and their accompanied plot developments – are fun and well crafted for sure, but they’re hardly the main draw.

Rather, it’s the game’s open world, the well-crafted vistas of 1980s Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region — and all the military kerfuffle it entails. And all the kerfuffles you can cause.

Consider the following.

You, on horseback, come across a Soviet patrol in the Afghan wilderness. You kill them and leave your horse in favor of the jeep. Your target — home to the side quest objective of a blueprint or hostage or some other macguffin — is not too far away. You drive up to the outpost’s outskirts and take out your sniper rifle to start picking off guards. But you miss the fourth one and he shines his searchlight on you, exposing you against the night. The remaining guards rally and start shooting. You figure there’s nothing for it so you put “Kids In America” on on your high-tech Walkman and jump in your car.

Shortly thereafter, you’re driving your captured jeep into a Soviet Outpost in Afghanistan while blasting Kim Wilde. You dash to the prisoner’s location, drag him out into the open air, shoot the soldier running at you with your tranquilizer pistol, then attach the prisoner to a Fulton balloon to extract him. Your base needs more staff too, so you run up to the tranquilized guard and Fulton him too. He rises into the air with a terrified yell. That gives you an idea – you put Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” on. Gunfire! The other guards are after you! You sprint out towards the desert and whistle up your horse, leaping onto your steed midstride as you disappear into the night.

The beauty of MGSV is that none of that is scripted or planned. Rather it’s the game — and me — reacting to emergent developments. MGSV gives you a wild playground and an awesome array of tools, and it’s up to you to figure out what to do with it. It’s also fun when things go wrong, of course, and you have to conceive some other bonkers plan to salvage your rapidly deteriorating one. You make your own fun, often it’s as much — or more — fun than the more planned story missions.

The two pillars of gameplay and narrative are a constant tension. There are some, like game designer/critic Jonathan Blow who firmly believe they are inherently in opposition. But then there are games like Uncharted 4. But then you have something like MGSV that has compelling story missions that keep you coming back, but wonderfully fun, emergent gameplay that provides copious entertainment between missions. It’s hard to narrow this down to just one system (though the inclusion of a Walkman and an excellent selection of 80s tunes springs as readily to mind as the game’s base management) and that earlier description of events

When all’s said, I wouldn’t say that MGSV is inherently better than a linear game due to its open world nature; but then, Uncharted 4 isn’t great because it’s linear and well defined. Like how Lost isn’t an incredible television show because it’s an hour long show and not a half-hour one. The trick is to do something good with it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stepping Away

Ed Skrein – the dude who played Ajax in Deadpool — made headlines recently. Not for taking a role but rather for stepping down from one. See, he was tapped to be in the reboot adaption of Hellboy. But the character he was slated to play, Major Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the comics, and Ed Skrein is decidedly, er, white. Upon finding out that his casting would be whitewashing, Skrein stepped down from the role in order to not be part of that machine that decides to make people-of-color white.

And good on him! This is a guy who’s not a Big Actor and had the opportunity for a Big Role, but turned it down after getting hired because, well, whitewashing. So seriously, cheers to him.

‘cuz whitewashing’s an issue. The movie 21 took a team of mostly Asian mathematicians and made them mostly white. Aloha famously cast Emma Stone as a part-Asian character with the last name Ng (as a part-Asian, I can attest that Emma Stone neither looks nor fits the part). Then there’s the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie which takes the wonderfully Inuit and Chinese inspired cast/cultures of the cartoon and makes the main characters white.

I can go on.

And what the hell, I will!

Dragonball Evolution made Goku white. Extraordinary Measures stars Harrison Ford as Dr. Robert Stonehill, a character whose achievements are based on that of Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen. Scarlett Johansson plays Major in the American adaption of the decidedly Japanese Ghost In The Shell.

In light of all of that, seeing an actor walk away from a project because he’s a white guy playing an Asian guy is absolutely remarkable. Maybe I have half-a-horse in this race, but there’s a noticeable precedent for making Asian characters (and real people) white in adaptions. Sure, I’ll give something like Doctor Strange a pass for playing around with a stereotype, but there’s a point when it is just recasting a character of color because Scarlett Johansson will get more folks to theaters than Ming-Na Wen.

It’s in this context that Ed Skrein’s choice to step down from Hellboy so remarkable. Or at least unusual. Not too long afterwards, it was announced that Daniel Dae Kim, known for Lost and, more recently, not continuing his role in Hawaiian Five-O because the studio did not want to pay him as much as his white co-stars, would be playing Major Ben Daimio in Hellboy. Which, wow, an Asian actor playing an Asian character (albeit a Korean actor playing a character who’s Japanese)? That sounds like a regular fairytale happy ending.

Now, Ed Skrein should never have been cast in the first place. Duh. But the fact of the matter is that this happens far too regularly. It’s not that there aren’t enough Asian actors to go around, or even (actors of color), it’s that there aren’t that many roles in these big-budget movies for them. And even if there is one, there’s still the chance it’ll go to some white dude instead.

Diversity and representation isn’t just about creating roles and characters, it’s also about making space. It’s partially why I find Star Wars’ new stable of characters so wonderful; they’re consciously  making room in their movies and video games for women and people of color. Making the protagonist of Battlefront II a brown woman also means making the choice to not have a white guy in the lead. Something’s gotta give. It’s not always just an easy decision.

So here, at the end of it, there’s a part of me that wants to be hopeful. We got to watch whitewashing happen and then be undone. Maybe this means we’ll see more room for Asians and other actors of color in these big films. And then maybe after that we can split hairs about a Korean-American actor playing a Japanese-American character.

But baby steps!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The First Seventeen

I was recently on a plane back to New York from Montréal (if you wondering: poutine’s really good, the Canadians are onto something). It’s a short flight in a relatively small plane, but apparently, still one that lets you have those screens in the seatbacks. Which is nice because, y’know, you can watch a movie or something. Good time to catch up on movies you’ve missed or watch different because you wanna.

Thing is, the flight from Montréal to New York is a little over an hour and a half, which, you’ll notice, is a hair short of the typical two hour runtime of a movie. Which means when you watch something, you won’t finish it and that leaves you in a lurch that I don’t like. Means you get a lotta set up, but the payoff doesn’t complete. Take my girlfriend, who decided to watch Alien. She got to the chest busted scene, a little further, and we were in New York. No showdown between Ripley and the Alien, just, y’know, the build.

Seeking to avoid that, I looked for a movie around ninety minutes. The plane had Office Space, one of those movies I know I should watch and just haven’t gotten around to. I decided to get around to it.

Seventeen minutes in, however, it stopped. Like, ended and returned me to the main menu. I was confused and kinda annoyed. The movie was getting into gear and I was getting into it. Also I knew I’d be cutting it close and the couple minutes it’d take to load it back and find my place could make the difference between seeing the ending and, well, not. So I cued it back up and started fast-forwarding to my spot, whereupon I noticed that the timecode for the ending was at, coincidentally, seventeen minutes. Sure enough, when I reached where I was before, it stopped and I was returned to the main menu and Air Canada’s friendly hello.

Office Space has returned to the list of movies that I will watch eventually. But the first seventeen minutes are a lotta fun. Equally importantly, they serve to set up (what I presume) is the plot of the movie. We’re introduced to our protagonist and his two work buddies and we learn that they all really don’t like their job. There are hints of a scheme to screw over their company, the motivation of being free to do whatever they want with a load of money. We’re also given an antagonist in their smarmy boss a ticking clock with their company’s downsizing to speed along the plot. And, of course, it takes a minute to introduce us to our protagonist’s love interest. In short, everything is set up for the movie to come.

Beginnings are important. Duh. You’re still reading this either because you like me or you found my lengthy preamble about inflight entertainment sufficiently charming. A strong start is what keeps the reader, viewer, listened, or player engaged.

But beginnings might matter even more from a narrative point of view. One of the things Aristotle believed to be key about stories was the ultimate catharsis at the end, that great release of emotion (i.e.: blowing up the Death Star). To get that catharsis, you’ve gotta fill your reader (etc) with those emotions (i.e.: take Luke from Alderaan, destroy Alderaan, and lose Ben Kenobi to Darth Vader). You don’t get that release without doing the work (blowing up the Death Star just isn’t the same without all the build up).

From what I saw of it, Office Space certainly lays some strong groundwork. We know the problem — office life sucks — and now it’s a matter of remedying that. I know it somehow involves beating up a printer, but past that I’d have to actually watch the movie.

I’ll get around to it eventually.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Economy

I think it’s time we talked about The Economy.

In video games.

A lot of games have an economy of some sort, where you earn something and spend that something on a something beneficial. In Super Mario Bros. and Crash Bandicoot you collect coins and wumpa fruit (respectively) and when you get a hundred of them it’s an extra life. It’s a simple enough exchange, one that, like provides impetus and rewards for doing stuff.

You’ve got the other end of the spectrum, of course. Finance simulators like Zapitalism (a wonderful game from ’97 that I played a lot of in the early 2000s and remain wonderfully inept at) has you running a store by managing upkeep, stock, prices, a stock market, salaries, import rights, building permits, government bonds, betting on how long someone can stand on one leg, corporate sabotage, loans, insurance, etc. It’s a delightfully complex game, and really is a game all about economics. Now, while Zapitalism teaches you many principles and pitfalls of unrestrained capitalism (eg: having money makes it easier to make more money and so the rich get richer), it’s not quite the economy I’m thinking of right now.

For that, let’s talk about Pokémon. Any of them, really, but we all know Gold and Silver are the best. You get money in the games by beating other trainers, money that you can then spend on PokéBalls or healing items like potions. If you wanna catch ’em all, you need that money to catch more Pokémon. Now, if you lose a battle and all your Pokémon faint, you black out and lose a chunk of your money; thereby providing consequences for running your team into the ground. The nice thing about Pokémon is that money is a renewable resource, insofar as there’s always ways to get more money; even after you beat the game you can still challenge the Elite Four for their precious precious money. Earlier in the game you can also sell items you’ve collected along the way for an influx of cash. Even though there are (economic) consequences to losing, they’re remediable enough.

Not so in Mass Effect 2. The money (credits) in this game is earned by going on missions, in other words you get credits for advancing the story and pursuing optional side-quests too. It’s a clever system, since these credits are what let you buy new armor and weapon upgrades. Basically, the more of the game’s story you explore, the more stuff you can get. The problem is there is a finite amount of missions in the game and thus a finite amount of credits. Which wouldn’t be that bad, except for the fact that Fuel and Probes cost credits, and depending on how you play the game, you can bankrupt yourself on Fuel and Probes and thus not have enough credits for, y’know, making your guns shootier.

Speaking of making guns shootier, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker introduces a resource management aspect. Your combat unit generates GMP (Gross Military Product, you are running a non-governmental/national private military force out of international waters, after all) which you can then in turn use to research and develop new weapons and other tools for use in the field. It’s a fairly simple mechanic, of the GMP earned you allocate x amount to whatever project, do a mission, the project completes, you can then reallocate those funds elsewhere.

It’s the sequel, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain that takes things several steps forward. Your combat unit still earns GMP, but this time it’s earned periodically and once GMP is used it’s gone until you get more. Rather than the budget allocation that defined Peace Walker’s economy, Phantom Pain is built upon the more ‘traditional’ earning and spending of funds. The twist of the game’s economy is that research and development programs aren’t the only things that cost GMP. Going out into the field will cost you GMP, in that you have to pay for your ammunition, weapons, helicopter fuel, and so on. Once out in the field, GMP is spent if you want to call in a helicopter for air support, swap out your sniper support for your pet dog, extract enemy combatants/vehicles by balloon, and even get an ammunition resupply or catch a ride out of the area of operations by helicopter.

Sure, you get more GMP by completing missions and side ops, but making aspects of missions cost funds encourages the player to play a little smarter and has them taking economic factors into consideration when planning missions (“I could swap out my sniper rifle for a rocker launcher to take down that enemy chopper, but if I sneak into the enemy outpost and get control of their machine gun nest instead I could save some money to develop a new shotgun”). It adds another dimension to what could easily be just another Open World Shooter, plus it has the player make more interesting choices (“Alright, I didn’t’ bring a rocket launcher, looks like I’m gonna sneak up to that tank and extract it via fulton balloon”) which, hey, isn’t that what games are about?

Though somehow I doubt anyone expected an action-stealth series like Metal Gear Solid have such  strong focus on financial planning.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized