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Jumping Karps

The concept of Magikarp Jump is delightfully straightforward. The town has fallen on hard times and is a shadow of its former glory: a town that had the best jumping Magikarp. You are the town’s last hope to regain its reputation. You raise Magikarp, feed them, train them, and enter the fishy Pokémon into competitive jumps. You will be the best raiser of jumping Magikarp. In short, it is a ridiculously fun, silly game, and I love it.

Sid Meier described a game as “a series of meaningful choices.” Magikarp Jump is quite devoid of much in the way of choices at all. Your participation in the jumping competitions is simply pressing a button and hoping your Jump Points is higher than your opponents. There’s no real skill to be found in training your Pokémon either, you just tap food for them to eat or tell them to train in a randomly selected regime. For the most part, you ‘play’ the ‘game’ at the mercy of the random number generator.

Not to say there aren’t any choices. You do get to choose how you spend the two in-game currencies, but that’s ultimately just deciding how you progress. On a meta level, there is you deciding how often you’re gonna check your phone and activate powers and make your Magikarp eat, but none of these choices are really that interesting. Kinda like Candyland.

So why is Magikarp Jump so much fun?

I figure it comes down to two things: theming and goals.

Theming is a term often used in board games; what’s the aesthetic for this set of rules you’ve made? Monopoly was originally themed around property moguls so as to decry the evils of unchecked capitalism (then it was ‘borrowed’ by Parker Brothers and copyrighted into a corporate game, thereby proving its point in the most painful way possible). The rules could easily be applied to a different theme: why not colonial European powers staking and divvying up Africa? Pandemic could quite easily be adapted to an alien invasion, but instead its about stymying a worldwide virus. Theming provides a context for the game’s mechanics and, when done well, can add s layer of intrigue to it.

The inherent ridiculousness of Magikarp Jump — that is, you are training and competing the jumping abilities of useless fish Pokémon — is part of the game’s appeal. The entire game’s premise is based on a throwaway factoid from a Pokédex entry in the main games, and then given an undue importance. Indulging the flight of fantasy is much of the appeal. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun if you were, say, throwing rocks in the air or even training some other Pokémon to fight. It’s an ironic in-joke given flesh, and much of its initial appeal is because of it.

But why stick around? Goals. (Most) games have goals. Mario must save the princess. You have to undermine each other in Settlers of Catan. In I, Spy you must find what they spy with their little eye. Catch is, a goal has to be attainable. Magikarp Jump has a clear goal: beat the various leagues and be the very best jumping Magikarp raiser there ever was. The genius of the game is that, by virtue of the progression system, the next victory is always just out of reach, but there are plenty of successes along the way. You feel like you’re getting somewhere each time you play.

Yes, I realize I’m trapped in a Magikarp-shaped Skinner Box, but I’m surprisingly okay with that. 

I’ll be the first to complain about mobile games. Besides virtually killing the handheld market, there’s an emphasis on addictions that can yield bountiful microtransactions (and so: profit). For a lot of these (Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes), playing for free is more a matter of farming than actual gameplay. Though Magikarp Jump has microtransactions, you aren’t punished for not spending money and get basically the same experience. Its gameplay has no depth whatsoever, but it’s a fine way to kill time waiting for a train or in line at the post office.

So somehow this silly barely-a-game has captured my fascination. And I have no idea what to do about that. But I am on my 134th generation of Magikarp. So there’s that.

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Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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Top Nine Movies of 2016

There comes a point in time when you realize you aren’t going to get around to watching those movies on your list. And then it’s almost August and you’re still thinking about 2016 movies and honestly it’s just embarrassing at this point.

But then again, that’s why it’s a Top Nine, to save one space for that extra movie. Because there are movies out there I know I’d like, like Swiss Army Man or maybe Patterson. And Midnight Special. Man, I can’t believe I still haven’t watched Midnight Special. Maybe even some others that I’ve forgotten. But not La La Land, La La Land was awful.

Look, I had a busy year. So with no more excuses, here are, in a vague semblance of order that is liable to change, my top nine of 2016.

9. The Magnificent Seven

I know that, objectively, this movie is just kinda pretty alright, but I can’t help but to really like it. And of course it’s because it’s about a multiracial band of cowboys doing the hero thing. If your movie gives me a #AsianCowboy, of course I’m gonna be game. I want more movies with teams like this, so, here we are.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

I don’t know how I feel about the whole Cloverfield branding thing, so let’s ignore that. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in suspense, where half the horror of it comes from your own brain trying to piece together what’s going on. It’s terrifying, without ever resorting to cheap scares.

7. 20th Century Women

It’s hard to put exactly into words what I liked about this movie. It feels like a snapshot come to life, like an attempt to capture a very specific point in time with a very specific group of people. It’s wonderful and bittersweet, the sort of movie that leaves you feeling that this has been something.

6. Rogue One

I have said a lot of things over the past year about why I love this movie. In summation:

  • Epic battle against good and evil
  • AT-ATs and Star Destroyers
  • The good guys aren’t just white dudes
  • Again, the main heroes are women and PoC.
  • Star Wars, yo.

5. Zootopia

A movie about a bunny cop and a sly fox teaming up to solve a crime sounds overly cutesy on paper, but Zootopia succeeds in telling a pretty raw story on prejudice, but without it feeling overly moralistic. Plus there’s a gorgeously realized world in it that you just wanna explore.

4. Captain America: Civil War

Yes, the Marvel movies always get high praise for me. Especially Civil War, which levied the MCU’s eight years of history into a really affecting conflict. It’s an excellent example of causality in fiction, where just about every plot and character beat feels earned and is either pay off or set up for another. It’s excellent all around.

3. Sing Street

I’m not quite sure why I fell in love with his movie. Maybe it’s fresh on my mind because I read the script recently, maybe it’s because it’s such a great coming-of-age story, maybe it’s because it plays out a teenage fantasy so well. More than anything, though, the movie feels honest. There’s no winking, no tongue in cheek; Conor’s quest to start a band and woo wannabe-model Raphina is treated as being perfectly legitimate and not an adolescent flight of fantasy. It may not go quite as far as it could, but it remains a wonderful film.

2. Moonlight

A lot of people have probably said why this movie works better than I can. It’s a beautiful, almost haunting movie. It’s gorgeously intimate, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Stories let you live someone else’s life, and Moonlight does that so well.

1. Arrival

There are movies that, when hooked on an interesting premise, will be really happy about it and make its whole thing. Arrival has a great twist to it, but it’s not one done just for the kicks nor does it self-congratulate itself for it. Rather, it’s born out of a story about understanding, language, and otherness. Arrival is an incredibly unified movie where everything, its visuals, plot, and characters, all revolve around its central theme. And it’s an excellent movie to boot.

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What’s The Point of Movies?

I’m replaying Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (and it is wonderful) and I can’t help but to be reminded that there’s supposed to be a movie adaption of this game happening. Like, it’s been in development since 2010. Every now and then there’ll be some announcement (apparently Tom Holland is playing a young Nathan Drake now?), but then it fizzles out into the background. Kinda like how film adaption of The Last of Us went, there was a bunch of buzz, and now we’re three years later aaaand… nothing.

But video games are being made into movies. There was that Assassin’s Creed film last year that nobody saw and meanwhile Alicia Vikander looks pitch perfect in the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movies (this time based on the reboot of the Tomb Raider video games). This isn’t a post about development hell. This is about adaptions.

A Thief’s End takes around fifteen hours to play through. Now, I bring up Thief’s End because it doesn’t have as much gameplay-and-story separation as, say, Halo. Exploration is part of the narrative in A Thief’s End, both for the dialogue between characters as it happens, and for it being part of the game’s central quest. Basically, it’s not filler. It’s a fifteen hour game and a  fifteen hour story.

Fifteen hours is, obviously, thirteen hours longer than your typical movie. It’s about the length of a full season of Star Wars Rebels, or the final season of LOST. It’s longer than the entire extended Lord of The Rings trilogy.

In other words, why bother compressing it into a two hour movie? What’s about movie do better than other forms of story? Let’s ignore the fact that big movies get budgets several orders of magnitude bigger than tv shows or whatever, why two hours and not more? Books give you hundreds of pages to explore character and plot, tv shows a couple dozen episodes a season, and video games hours and hours of gameplay. If you’re telling a story, these mediums offer you much more space to explore it. More time to hang out with characters and experience this fictional world.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s why you don’t eat a pound of bacon. Crazy Rich Asians has five-hundred pages to tell its story and ends up meandering around and having little plot, if any, until the last hundred-odd pages where it’s a rushed jumble of half-rate melodrama. There’s a film adaption coming, and maybe compressing it into two hours will do it some good.

‘cuz that’s what happens when you set a limit on the time to tell your story: you gotta focus on the important stuff. The film adaption of The Princess Bride dispenses with a lot of the satire and sideplots in favor of a great love story and the relationship between a kid and his grandfather. Movies, good ones, have to zero in on what really matters to a story. Fundamentally, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2 is about family, and by only have two hours, the movie is able to home in on it. Every character confronts the notion of family in one way or another. Even thought the movie’s plot does waffle a bit, it knows full well what it’s about. The runtime of a film forces a cohesiveness to the story, if it’s, y’know, done well.

A Thief’s End isn’t a great example of a game-to-movie adaption, since the structure is so wonderfully tight (seriously, I’m taking notes). There’s not as much narrative fluff to trim as, say, the new Tomb Raider or even Mass Effect. The abounded film adaption of Halo could have done interesting stuff by zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship set against the fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Movies feel whole, more complete than a tv show (which, by nature, needs to have room for one more episode) or video games (which tend to be longer because, dude, they cost sixty bucks).

I don’t think A Thief’s End should be directly adapted into a movie, and the only reason I have any want for Uncharted to become a movie at all is so non-gamers like my parents can fall in love with these characters. But I don’t think a cinematic adaption’s gonna ‘elevate’ it more than it is. Movies do some things great, but so do video games (and tv, and books, and comics, and plays…). Maybe we should let some games just be games, and let movies do their thing.

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Haven’t We Heard This Before?

Spider-Man’s a superhero whose central theme is conveniently spelled out for us: with great power comes great responsibility. And it’s a great one too. A nobody gets given amazing powers and has to learn what to do with them. It’s a pretty essential part of most incarnations of Spider-Man, be it Miles Morales or even more recently when it’s Gwen Stacy that gets bitten by the radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Woman. It’s always that balance of power and knowing what to do with it.

When there comes time for a cinematic Spider-Man that’s the theme of the (two) hour(s). In Sam Raimi’s original film, Peter Parker’s irresponsibility is what gets Uncle Ben killed, and his acceptance of his responsibility leads to him fighting Green Goblin. The conflict of the second Spider-Man is him giving up the mask, only to take it back up because he’s the only one who can stop Doc Ock. In Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man we see Uncle Ben die (again), providing the impetus for Peter to use his powers to stop crime. Powers, responsibility, and Peter Parker reluctantly being the hero.

So Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have its theme waiting for it: responsibility and all that (most likely through the death of Uncle Ben). Except Peter is already Spider-Man. And Uncle Ben is already dead. And Peter really likes being Spider-Man.

Right here this sets up a different sort of superhero narrative. The usual internal conflict for a superhero is their unwillingness to do the heroing (and so the climax is them deciding to hero). Tony Stark becomes Iron Man out of a sense of guilty responsibility, not for the fun of it. Thor’s a self-serving blowhard who learns humility. Batman operates out of a just vengeance. Spider-Man usually Spider-Mans out of a sense of responsibility. But this Spider-Man really likes crimefighting; he gets a thrill out of the heroics. In fact, he wants more: he wants to be an Avenger. Like Iron Man.

It’s hard to give an eager hero internal obstacles. Tony Stark is hung up on guilt and the idea that he has to do it alone which makes things difficult for him. The Guardians have to overcome their infighting and greed to fight Ronan. Even Captain America questions if it’s worth it. But Homecoming‘s Peter is go-go-go. He’s got the power, and he’s fighting crime with it. Where’s the classic Spider-Man theme?*

Here’s part of Homecoming‘s genius. Responsibility in this movie doesn’t just mean crimefighting and heroing, it’s the reason for doing so. Peter, in the aftermath of taking part in Civil War‘s airport battle, wants to be an Avenger. He wants in on the big leagues. He bugs Happy Hogan to tell Tony about what he’s doing and he chases the Vulture because this is his chance to make it big.

The film’s climax, and Peter’s self-actualization, comes when Peter decides to hero not for the glory or to impress Tony, but instead to save the day. It may not sound like a huge difference, but, without spoiling anything, the film makes the distinction clear. It’s when Peter heroes for the greater good and not for himself, that he becomes a real hero. Spider-Man Homecoming is still a movie where Spider-Man learns a lesson in responsibility, it just plays out differently than usual.

We’ve had enough versions of Spider-Man over the past fifteen-odd years for the idea of a new Spider-Man to be met with a hint of tiredness. Here we go again, Spider-Man has to learn how to Spider-Man and responsibility. And Homecoming is about that, but it handles it in a much different manner than prior renditions. You don’t need an edgy and avant garde narrative with brand new everythings to tell a new story. Sometimes just digging into your core theme is enough. I think that’s why Homecoming is able to be quintessentially Spider-Man while still feeling incredibly refreshing. Jon Watts and the team didn’t feel the need to completely reinvent Spider-Man, rather they explored the story a bit more and found something new.

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Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

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