Emerging Exploration

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a magnificently glitchy game. I have seen a crewmate go through osmosis while talking to him, I’ve fought an alien dinosaur that suddenly stopped moving its body (but still glided along the jungle floor and attacked me), and, through cunning manipulation of my space-car’s six wheel drive and boost functions, have successfully driven up a vertical cliff face (though arguably that’s a feature, not a bug). Of course, there are weirder visual flaws, like most of a character’s face not moving while they speak or the world being so big that the game forgets to load the people I have to talk to to complete my quest. It’s frustrating sometimes – and downright baffling other times that a AAA game would ship like this.


But, my god, it’s fun. I’ve sunk way too many hours into exploring the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy since the game came out and have no intention of slowing down; far as I can tell I’m 30 hours and maybe 25% in. I’m having a blast. And yes, a lot of the fun is through scripted missions, where I’m told to go to x planet and do y thing; but the world of Andromeda is so big that there are so many random adventures to get to.

Like the time on Eos where I woke the Architect, a colossal robot hellbent on killing me that I alternately shot at or hopped in the Nomad (the space-car of before) and chased so I could shoot it some more. Or going spelunking in ancient ruins looking for loot and coming face to face with my first Destroyer, a war machine that put up a heckuva fight. Or – so many ors – deciding to storm a Kett base on Eos with an offensive that started with me ramming the Nomad into a few bad guys and wedging on top of an automated turret. Bugginess be damned, there’s fun to be had! With some well-crafted quests and a vast and interesting world, Andromeda’s side quests make even fetch quests feel somewhat purposeful.

What really helps it out, though, is the emergent fun that comes from the game. Emergent gameplay, as opposed to structure, is an aspect of the game that is not hard-wired into the system, but emerges from it being played. To cite an example from Jesper Juul, there is no explicit rule in Monopoly that a player will go bankrupt, but it happens because of the rules. Emergences. Hence the name.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda and emergent gameplay. Let’s take driving the Nomad through a bunch of Kett and sending them flying. At no point in the game does it say you can use your space-car as a weapon, and yet, it works. Even the self-imposed challenge of climbing up rock faces isn’t hardcoded into the game, but it’s ridiculously fun. Andromeda gives you a playground where the missions are cool, but the fun you make for yourself is fantastic.

Which makes me think back to Destiny, a game with a barebones story and an amazingly fun gameplay. My fondest memory of the game is easily the Vault of Glass raid where me and five other players navigated a treacherous maze and took on – and defeated – Atheon. Sure, the level design and all is fantastic, but what makes it so great were the folks I teamed up with: our banter and teamwork. That’s something wonderfully special that was not intended by the game’s framework, but rather encouraged and permitted. 

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a single player game, so there’s less chances of impromptu dance parties (seriously: every multiplayer game needs dancing emotes). But it is still host to one of the best things about games: the freedom to explore a virtual space and, ignoring intended intentions, finding new ways to interact with the world.

Which in my case has been a fine-tuned assault strategy involving charging right in with my space-car and hoping for the best.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Visibility and Character Creators

I spent well over an hour creating my character in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not stats and stuff, no, just the aesthetics of his/my face.

I love character creators. Maybe it’s an early exposure to The Sims, maybe it’s the simple joy of getting to play god and make people who look like whatever you want. In a game like Mass Effect where half the fun is making choices and carving your own narrative through the galaxy, I find that character customization adds another level of immersion. That Shepard or Ryder isn’t just someone off the box, it’s someone you made. And also, if you want, the character’s you. You get to see yourself as the protagonist.

As for making me?

I’m mixed. I don’t fit into ‘presets,’ and if I have to, I have to check one box. Pick the head that looks the most like me. Maybe in Knights of The Old Republic I’ll be white, but I’ll be Asian in Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Now, character creators as in Mass Effect, with sliders for adjusting eye height and nose size, allow you a lot more latitude for how your person looks (and games like The Sims is notorious for being able to create eerie doppelgängers).

But Mass Effect: Andromeda bases its customization on presets. So you can’t change eye shape, eyebrows, ears, and the general shape of the face, but can adjust skin tone, hair, and cheekbone placement. Naturally, a lot of those presets are based on races, here’s white guy a, white guy b, Asian dude a, Asian dude b, and so on. Which makes sense. But for me, it means playing around with either one trying to make them look more like the other. Y’know, trying to find that sweet spot on the sliding scale between Asian and white where I exist.

See, for most of my life I’ve been pegged for one or the other, in part because the idea of someone existing in the middle is, in some places, somewhat unheard of. Being a mixed-race, biracial kid isn’t something that comes up much at all if you’re not one, so you kinda ignore it and I’m left figuring out which box to check on a survey.

Which is why representation is so important. People like me don’t show up a lot in fiction. Well, white dudes do a lot, Asian guys much less often, and mixed actors playing mixed characters are basically non-existent. I wanna see myself in the media I consume, I wanna see a movie where someone who looks like me gets to be a hero.

Because it’d be nice to be told I exist by the stuff I watch and games I play. ‘cuz maybe then I wouldn’t be lumped in with one side or the other and now be allowed to exist in that middle space. This, I suppose, is the feeling of every under-represented group. We want to see ourselves in the stories we consume, and we want to see ourselves doing a buncha different things. This means not being pigeonholed into one accepted narrative or stereotype, this means letting different people be normal.

And yes, letting different people explore the Andromeda galaxy.

Whether or not my long-labored Ryder bears a resemblance to me is a matter up for debate, one that probably depends on what race you think I look more like. The preset I chose, however, was the one whose eyebrows looked most like mine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Deconstruction, Reconstruction, and Also Batman

A deconstruction takes something apart. Shrek shows how weird fairy tales are by pitting the story from the point of view of an ogre. Suddenly the princess promising herself to whoever rescues her is especially bizarre, as is the idea of there always being a noble prince. The point of a deconstruction is usually to display how tropes and conventions in some narratives don’t work so well when held up to some more stringent logic.

In the same vein, the Batman we meet in at the start of The LEGO Batman Movie (and arguably The LEGO Movie) is a deconstruction of the Batman we got used to in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. He’s all about darkness and not having parents, singular focused on his mission, and, as we discover, quite a pain in the ass. In essence, we see this singularly focused Batman played out to an amusing end: he’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence and cares for no one but himself (and his desire to fight crime). Of course he’s not well-adjusted, he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t see daylight. It’s this deconstruction that gives rise to the plot of The LEGO Batman Movie, which lets the movie rebuild Batman into a hero – and leader of the Bat-family.

Thing is, The Dark Knight – and Batman Begins before it – aren’t quite deconstructions; at least not in the way it’s easy to assume they are. Yes, the movies do play out some of the complications of Bruce Wayne’s Batmanning: he has to go on the run, people try to copy him, Bruce Wayne ceases to be much of a person in favor of his alter-ego. And there is the whole darkness-no-parents vibe. Nonetheless, Batman is successful at what he does, and the films make the case that yes, a superhero does work. A dude dressing up as a bat to fight criminals is a patently ridiculous concept, but Christopher Nolan and his team reconstruct Batman into a character and vigilante that makes sense in a realistic center.

Take the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce and Alfred are putting together the Batsuit. They buy the components in bulk from different manufacturers, minimizing a paper trail. Even getting the Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department explains away where he gets those wonderful toys. As a reconstruction it acknowledges the flaws of the Batman narrative but works past them for a fuller, more shaded narrative. A true deconstruction would have played out the final climax with Two Face differently, perhaps having Batman refuse to take the fall or even having both of them be completely vilified. As it is, The Dark Knight lets Batman take his moniker and remain an idealized hero.

There are shades of deconstruction to The Dark Knight — take the Batman-inspired vigilante who gets himself killed — but it’s all in the service of ultimately reconstructing the idea – there needs to be a ‘superhero,’ so Batman will appear the villain so that Harvey Dent can be that person. So it’s easy to mistake the whole movie as an out-and-out Shrekian deconstruction.

Which is arguably what Zack Snyder and team did in Batman v Superman. While Man of Steel wavers, BvS tries its hardest to take apart both Batman and Superman – and superheroes in general. But it doesn’t do so for comedic effect (as in Kick-Ass) or to explore what we take for granted in the genre (see: Watchmen). Instead, it does… Well, nothing. It reads The Dark Knight as a deconstruction and attempts to imitate it, but since the former wasn’t really a deconstruction, the BvS is building with the blocks; it doesn’t take apart The Dark Knight (as LEGO’s Batman does), but tries to use Nolan’s film as a deconstruct-o-lens. The result is a lot of dimly lit scenes and people grunting and growling at each other about big ideas that don’t make much sense. We learn nothing new about Superman and Batman or the conventions that surround them that would warrant it being a deconstruction, nor does it recreate the mythos in a new way that would be a reconstruction. Rather it tells the story straight, just lathered in a murky layer of grit that can’t hide its (many) narrative flaws.

There is room for a solid deconstruction of Batman, Superman ,and superheroes in general – I mean Alan Moore did it in Watchmen thirty-odd years ago. Sometimes it seems there’s a race to take apart beloved genres, and sometimes it works like in Game of Thrones, but there’s room for both, again, Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The trick is to do it for a reason, and not just because you want your story to be about darkness and not having parents.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pushing Plausibility

Comic books are weird. Especially superhero comics, what with alternate realities, time travel, dying but not really dying, planet-eating-monsters-turned-life-bringers, and telepathic cosmonaut dogs. Like I said, weird.

Comic book movies, however, are typically more tame. Let’s go back a decade or so; the major blockbusters based on properties from the big two, Marvel and The House That Batman Built (DC), had been, mostly, normal-ish. We had Batman and Superman running around, who are so ingrained in popular consciousness they’re basically normal. Same with Peter Parker and the X-Men, as well as an outing with the Fantastic Four. It’s relatively grounded stuff, Superman’s an alien, Batman’s a rich ninja, the X-Men are mutants which makes sense. The Fantastic Four got space powers, and Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. Everything’s SCIENCE!’d away into plausibility. Green Goblin gets a suit instead of being an actual goblin-esque thing, and the then-recent Batman Begins gave Scarecrow fear toxins and made Ra’s al Ghul also a ninja. Y’know, grounded and realistic like.

Then Marvel started making their own movies. Which started with Iron Man, about a guy who builds a high tech armor in a cave with a box of scraps. Still reasonable, yeah? The Incredible Hulk came out the same year and had green rage monster through science, so, relatively normal. Same with Iron Man 2 which brought about some AI and more armor and stuff, but still grounded.

Concurrently, we had Nolan’s The Dark Knight which took its reconstruction of the Batman mythos to new heights. What would be the effects of a bat-dressed vigilante in the modern world? How could that work? The Dark Knight makes it work tremendously, creating a cool, albeit grim take on a character that positioned the superhero film more as a thriller than outright saving the world. Which, given that superhero/comic book films can ascribe to whatever genre they darn well please, made sense enough. If anything, though, The Dark Knight said that realistic superhero movies could work. And it was really really good.

But back to Marvel Studios. After Iron Man 2 they released Captain America and Thor. The former had a super serum’d super soldier fighting World War II against a dude with a red skull for a face and various other ridiculous war machines. Pulpy fare for sure, like Sky Captain except better. Thor, however, had Norse gods. Which, given that this was supposed to take place in the same world where Tony Stark and his box of scraps existed, was a little outlandish.

‘cuz Thor’s magical. Not, like, Harry Potter magic (that’d be weird!), but Lord of The Rings magical. The filmmakers (and Marvel Studios) let us into it gently, though; Thor and friends are alien-ish people and there’s some handwaving involving sufficiently advanced technology seeming like magic. Thus by the time The Avengers introduced us to portals and aliens and mind controlling staves, things were with the realm of possibilities. The Marvel world was shown to be weird, so exploding people in Iron Man 3 and Dark Elf spaceships in The Dark World made sense in a way.

Guardians of The Galaxy made it weirder, pushing a space opera story into the world, but that took place on the periphery. For now, anyway.

So along comes Doctor Strange, eight years after Iron Man. And now there’s magic. Like magic magic. Harry Potter magic with spells and stuff.

But we’re willing to believe that this takes place in the same world where Tony Stark built a suit of armor because over the past several years, Marvel has slowly been opening up their world. In 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight were relatively similar, both were creating ‘realistic’ versions of comic book characters. Tony Stark’s armor and arc reactor were plausible enough inventions that seemed just a few minutes into the future; Batman using sonar from cell phones was a creepy enough extension of contemporary tech. But while Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy continued its form of reconstruction by further grounding Batman, Marvel Studios threw off the training wheels and got weird – but slowly, such that by the time Doctor Strange rolled around magic wasn’t too farfetched.

Point is, now things can get weird. Next year we’ve a movie coming out involving Thanos fighting the Avengers and the Guardians, which is the ridiculous culmination of ten-odd years of storytelling through a variety of films that have progressively embraced more and more offbeat and weird things such that a super-powerful alien with a glove of doom fighting a team that includes a sorcerer, talking tree, African king, and archer isn’t that weird. Which makes total sense for a movie based on a comic book.

Y’know that saying abut slowly boiling a pot so that the frog doesn’t jump out? That seems to have been Marvel Studios’ MO with its films, slowly bringing the weird so that by the time things have gone totally bonkers we’re totally on board. There’s an element of restraint there (eg: saving the Thor and Hulk buddy movie) that makes the payoff that much better. So yeah, bring the weird, and make Cosmo a member of the Guardians already.

Note: I realize that I got distracted in this thing and there’s a whole rant here about how The Dark Knight and Marvel Studios both reconstruct the superhero narrative but in different directions. Consider a pin put in that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized