Horse Music

Breath of The Wild, like most 3D games in the Legend of Zelda series, gives you a horse. It’s absolutely vital in this open-world game, as walking through much of the massive map would just take too long. It’d be really easy for the horse to just be a tool, a vehicle, a perfunctory mechanic that lets you move faster and mixes up gameplay a little.

And mechanically, the horses of Breath of The Wild works just fine. On horseback, you move faster, and it facilitates hit and run attacks. Different games do horses differently. Wild lets you talk to people on horseback, but you’ve gotta dismount if you wanna pick up that random acorn rolling on the ground. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does the inverse; you can loot on horseback but not y’all to folks. The horse in Metal Gear Solid V operates essential like a vehicle, albeit a quiet one that’s less likely to draw the attention of patrolling soldiers. Gameplay-wise, as in when it comes to you, the player, interacting with the game, your horse does all the horsey things it needs to horse-do. 

Cool.

Breath of The Wild is also a quiet game. There’s not much in the way of music when you’re out exploring the wilds. Combat, villages, and stables have their themes, but you won’t hear much while roaming the hills of Necluda.

Unless you’re on a horse.

As you ride your horse, scattered piano starts to play. Over time, that piano coalescences into a slow, mournful rendered of a familiar tune.

For someone like me who’s played his share of The Legend of Zelda games, the theme music is something loaded with meaning and memory. It heralds a title screen and announces the start of a new adventure. It’s a musical cue that’s oddly absent in Breath of The Wild, not showing up in the title screen and there only being echoes of it when a traveling bard gives you a history lesson. 

So hearing the theme is made special by its scarcity. It’s a particular moment getting to hear it, especially in the mournful orchestral rendition it takes in the game. When the song plays, it plays. Chalk it up as another way that Wild makes established conventions feel fresh and new again. 

But why does the theme play here, in this exact moment? Why now? Why not have it play when you’re doing Something Awesome or, as with most other Zelda games, over the main menu?

Saving the iconic theme music for this is a deliberate choice by the developers, one that I think speaks to the central ethos of Breath of The Wild. The music only kicks in if you’ve been riding for a bit of time, it doesn’t strum up instantly, so you’re unlikely to hear it if you ride only in short bursts. It also won’t play if you’re in battle, as that’s when the battle theme kicks in instead. You’ll only hear it if you’re on a long ride at a steady gallop through the wilds. 

In this way, Breath of The Wild shows how it values long ride on horseback and the peaceful exploration and it entails. By making the circumstances for the music playing so singular, the game encourages you to fulfill those requirements. If you’re roaming Faron on horseback, the allure of the music subtlety discourages you from engaging in wanton combat or stopping to pick apples. The focus right here is on your ride, your exploration. That the horse automatically veers along a path allows you to focus your attention on looking around and really taking in Hyrule. Exploration and bothering camps of Bokoblins have their place, but right here is a moment to stop and enjoy the scenery. For all its wonderful innovations, Breath of The Wild knows that a key part of The Legend of Zelda is the expanse of its world, and it’s that conceit at its purest when the theme finally plays.

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Ahistoricity

As I’ve said before, there are two reasons I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey; the first being that I got to control a ship again (seriously, after Black Flag gave me a pirate ship there was no going back). The other was that you could finally play as a woman for the whole game. It only took, what, eleven games to finally feature a female protagonist, albeit an optional one.

Anyway, naturally, I’m playing the game as Kassandra (instead of Blandy McWhiteGuy #38 that is Alexios), because I am here for badass women in my video games. It’s a lotta fun, but it’s also patently untrue. See, Kassandra’s a woman, and when it came to women, Ancient Greece wasn’t so great about it. Well, neither were most eras, really. Or right now. But that’s beside the point.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical fiction, as played out through genetic memories in a fancy device called the Animus. Given that most all of the assassinating takes place in the past, whichever character the player inhabits must thus belong to the era and be fitting enough to be able to pass inconspicuously as needed. Naturally, the games want to focus on Big Cool Bits of History; unfortunately, due to a westernized view of history, Big Cool Bits tend to focus on that as seen by the West: the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Victorian Era, Ancient Egypt. They’re the eras and events we learnt about in our (westernized) history books and what we’ve learnt to associate as those Big Cool Bits. The Ming Dynasty, various Caliphates, and pre-colonial India are relegated to footnotes.

Because of this, the problem inherent to Assassin’s Creed is that most of (western) history isn’t great for women or people of color, thus necessitating that most of the game’s protagonists must be caucasian or white-passing. It was game number ten, Assassin’s Creed Origins, that introduced Bayek as the main character. He’s Egyptian, and, unlike a lot of depictions of Egyptians in popular culture, not white. Which is cool! And honestly, I’m keen to check out Origins sometime, to see how it is in comparison with Odyssey

Having Bayek be a person of color makes sense, because, well Egypt. It’d be far more strange to have him be some white dude. Were Ubisoft to ever make an Assassin’s Creed set in the Ming Dynasty or some other non-western historical period, the protagonist would probably have to be a person of color, because, hey, we’re finally telling stories that aren’t about white dudes. But history being history, if we wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the era and its culture, the protagonist would have to be male to be able to go about society doing things (like assassinating people).

Now, back to Odyssey, where I’m playing the entire game as Kassandra, a female character. Due to the game allowing you to pick between characters, gameplay and plot are essentially the same if you’re Alexios or Kassandra (since making things different would require more coding and work). There’s no difference in your ability to captain a ship, fight in a war, or sneak your way into a symposium based on whom you pick — or based on your gender. This means that Kassandra can do everything Alexios can; she can rub elbows with the Herodotus and Aristophanes all the same, she can be a respected and feared general, she can romance the exact same cast. In essence, Kassandra is equal.

Which is bullshit. Gender roles were established in classical Greek culture; you weren’t gonna have some woman running around as a mercenary fighting other mercenaries (some of which are women!). It’s plain unrealistic.

And so what? The game takes place two-and-a-half millennia ago, in an era that’s almost as much myth and legend as it is recorded history. Where’s the harm in taking some big liberties? Yeah, yeah; I get it, it’s ‘unrealistic’ to have a female mercenary roaming the Greek World and jumping around Big History Bits, but this is also a game where I merrily and repeatedly destabilize nation-states without plunging each society into ruin, so really, there’s a lot of ahistoricity going on there. 

But Josh, you say, that’s just gameplay mechanics built around the whole idea of reducing a nation’s power by killing its leader. And to that I say: So what? We’re okay with small breaks from realism for the sake of fun, why not for the sake of narrative? Video games, like so much of other fiction, has an overabundance of white dudes and needs a hefty splash of diversity. I am happy for Odyssey to take a break from reality and let me play as a female mercenary for the whole game. It’s cool, and, c’mon, we already know how history went; let’s have a little fun with it.

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Nine-Nine

I finally got back into Brooklyn Nine-Nine a month or so ago, having finished The Good Place and looking for something with similar energy. Given that it was co-created by Mike Schur, the man guy behind Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, two shoes I adore for their warmth and big heart, I figured I’d return to Brooklyn.

Yeah, return. I started watching some of it when it first premiered and eventually got around to watching most of the first two seasons. The problem was that this was during the Fall of 2014, and the NYPD was showing up in the news a lot, and not for particularly wonderful things. I was certainly enjoying the show, but a show about cops wasn’t something I really wanted to seek out for fun after class.

It’s a bit of an odd excuse, I’ll give it that. But slapstick and silly cops became a lot less funny when police were in the news for getting away with during terrible things to people. I understand the difference between fiction and reality (believe me, I do), but at the time it was more than I really wanted to deal with. I go to stories for escapism, and at the time, that show wasn’t scratching that itch. 

So five years later I’m jumping back in with two feet. What’s changed? Not the American policing system, sadly. And I’d hope I’m not more resigned to things being how they are being the way they have to be in real life. 

Maybe part of it is me giving Brooklyn Nine-Nine another chance; it was easy to stop watching at the end of a season and not jump in again — or at least be hesitant to continue. Years later, I’ve jumped back in and am really enjoying it. All this makes me wonder, why do I enjoy it so, and if I do now, why I didn’t then?

Upon getting back into the show, I’m struck by how much of the plotlines revolve primarily around character rather than incidents. Sure, there’s often a crime of the week, but the show, particularly in later seasons, concerns itself less with ‘those dastardly criminals’ than it does with the actual people. The show gets a lot more mileage about seeing how Jake and Charles handle the situation and their dynamic rather than having much to do with the crime itself. Arresting the bad guys doesn’t really become a plot point as much as other hijinks.

For what it’s worth, the show does, at the very least, offer a measure of lip service to some of the more problematic aspects of policing. There’s an episode that sees the squad’s sergeant Terry being profiled in his own neighborhood on account of his being black, and discussions around the nature of racist profiling ensue. A storyline sees Jake tossed in jail (for a crime he didn’t commit, natch) and the show does address some of the many issues with the American penal system. At the end of it all, though, Nine-Nine is set in the ‘real’ world and for all its fantastical and silly elements, ultimately this isn’t a show that’s going to go about fixing the system as a whole. Furthermore, it’s a comedy, and really diving into policing issues would very quickly quash much of the show’s fun. The show is certainly aware of the real-world issues that exist, but those aren’t really the point.

I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine a lot for its characters and their dynamics. Everyone’s so well sketched that it’s such fun watching them play off of each other. I find the show to be at its best less when it’s dealing with outlandish cases and odd office hijinks, more so than ‘typical’ police work. 

Or maybe this whole blog post is me trying to think through why a show I didn’t want to watch a few years ago I really enjoy now. Maybe it’s the show coming into its own and my being able to see that, or maybe I’m just trying to justify some cognitive dissonance. Whatever the case, I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and all its fantasy. Perhaps that’s enough.

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Stable Boy

I’ve been thinking a bunch about Star Wars lately which, c’mon, what else is new. But with Disney’s D23 event taking place over last weekend and some sweet new trailers for The Mandalorian and The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars has been on my mind a little more, especially The Last Jedi.

Particularly how it ends.

Let’s recap.

The Resistance is defeated, the fleet reduced to the Millenium Falcon and those aboard. But they have hope: Luke Skywalker came out of hiding and stared down the First Order, becoming a symbol in the process. The First Order won, but the Resistance, as led by Leia aboard the Falcon, lives on.

But that’s not how the movie ends!

The Last Jedi ends on Canto Bight, with a group of enslaved children Rose and Finn had run into earlier. They’re in the stables we left them in, but now one of the kids is using improvised props to enact a rendition of Luke’s final stand. They are interrupted by their overseer, and they scatter. One of the kids ends up outside, where he reaches out and grabs a broom to start sweeping. He’s distracted by the night sky, and it’s on this kid looking out at space that the movie ends.

And it is such a beautiful ending to the story.

First, there’s the kid retelling the story of Luke Skywalker. Though the Resistance may have lost the Battle of Crait, the legend of Luke’s victory over Kylo Ren has reached even stable kids far away. We believe Leia when she says that the Resistance isn’t over, but seeing the urchin’s retelling is proof positive that the dream lives on. Even though the kid’s speaking in an unsubtitled alien language, we’re still able to understand what he’s talking about and what it means to him and the others. The tale of Luke Skywalker staring down impossible odds is important and relevant to them because even though they’re a galaxy away, it reminds them that, hey, maybe there’s hope yet for them even though they’re at the bottom of the rung. In a moment that certainly has some meta shades, we’re shown the power of stories. Luke’s actions on Crait have reverberated throughout the galaxy, the Jedi are still out there! By including this scene, The Last Jedi offers a coda that lets us know that our heroes’ actions were not in vain, that the stories and myths that someone like Rey believes in are certainly worthwhile.

Then one of the kids goes outside grabs a broom — calling it to his hand with the Force. The visuals here are important, we’re in a wide shot and there’s no cutaway to the kid reaching out to the Force or anything. Notably, in a movie series where just about every use of a Force power gets a close-up and attention, this time it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beat. Though it’s clear what happened on a second viewing, the ambiguity leaves one wondering if they’d imagined it. By cultivating the ambiguity, the movie offers a sense of wonder and mystery: did that kid use the Force? Can he use the Force?

There are four cutaways in the sequence, and each one is incredibly motivated. The first is of his feet as he sweeps and pauses. The shot focuses our attention on his work sweeping hay, and thus the importance of his stopping — right now this is important, watch. We go back to the wide as he looks up, then we cut back to his face as he stares at space. Next, we see what he’s looking at: stars in the night sky. One of them flickers and jumps to Hyperspace — bound for parts unknown. His hand tightens around his broom, the ring with the Rebel insignia bright on his finger. He’s with the Resistance, and when we cut back to a close-up on his face, the juxtaposition of the stories, Hyperspace jump, and Rebel ring making it easy to read his expression of one of determination to be a part of that story. Like Luke Skywalker watching the binary sunset on Tatooine so long ago, this kid also dreams of bigger things. That’s how The Last Jedi goes out, back on the wide shot of him staring at the sky, his broom raised not unlike a lightsaber as Jon William’s Force Theme swells.

Star Wars is in many ways the story of the Everyman, and with its final scene, The Last Jedi doubles down on the idea that anyone can be the hero, that anyone could be a Jedi. This is a story where you and I could be a hero, one maybe where this kid working in a stable could be too.

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Simming It Up

I really like The Sims. Always have, ever since I started playing the original game seventeen-odd years ago.

But because I am the way I am, I gotta ask myself why do I like this game?

The premise of The Sims is wonderfully simple: it’s a simulation of life. You create and customize a Sim and then play God with their life, telling them to go to work, eat, fall in love, and so on. Part of the game’s challenge is a sort of resource management: how can you keep your Sim’s needs met so they can be happy. You don’t want them passing out or starving to death, do you?

But it’s quite easy to get into that rhythm, and the game’s sequels have streamlined the process in their iterations (I recall press around The Sims 3 touting that Sims would need less bathroom breaks). It’s really not that difficult to keep your Sims happy and for them to advance in their careers and all that. So the question there is: Now what?

That’s the real beauty of The Sims. You can do anything. In the first game, my focus was on bringing my couple to the top of their career, which was actually pretty tough at the time, given that it entailed keeping needs met and having a large number of friends (to the point that I’d create additional families only for them to befriend my main Sims and facilitate promotions). And building houses, that’s a lot of fun too. Expansion packs made for new (mis)adventures, like adding in pets and hotels, offered new ways for the Sims to do their things.

The Sims 2 added in aging and made child sims less useless, so creating a multigenerational family was a lot of fun. The Sims 3 let you explore the neighborhood in a big way, and now The Sims 4 has streamlined everything a lot, while really refining its mechanics. There’s so much to do.

The thing I really like about The Sims is the ability to construct narratives. But they don’t have to be ones that are explicitly written, rather they can exist all in my head. Right now I’m going for having a Sim outlive five spouses, which is delightfully morbid, but I figure in the process Raina Higginthorpe is gonna have a wonderful relationship with Armin Woghoni, a (not-quite-mad) scientist. Naturally, this has meant building an underground swimming pool and, below that, a secret lab. Oh, and expanding the modes suburban house up a couple floors and building a rocket on the roof. Because why not? And also I like building secret lairs and stuff. And this is The Sims, so I can do this!

Anyway, Raina and Armin have a daughter, Alana, who’s quite close with her father. When he dies in a mysterious case of Pushing The Big Red Button after going to space, she decides that, when she becomes an adult, she’s going to become an intergalactic space ranger, presumably to solve the mystery. None of this is in the text — seriously, it’s all in my head. Raina, meanwhile, is gonna remarry and continue her black widow streak, all while the family as a whole amasses more money and their house starts to look more and more like a castle.

I enjoy the silliness of it all, the process of making a story with very low commitment and all. It’s similar to why I enjoy playing tabletop RPGs, this ability to create a narrative about kinda random events. I suppose I can see this being unappealing if this sort of unstructured play isn’t really your jam when you play video games, but hey, I dig it, and it’s a fine way to spend this vacation.

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Vacation

Hey.

I’m on vacation this week, and, since I finally finished a script I’d been working on not too long ago, I’m trying to force myself to take some time off from writing. Part of that means, yes, no blog post this week.

Because hey, I’m on vacation.

In the meantime, here are three posts from the past few months to read instead:

Tune in sometime soon to hear me talk about militarization in pop-culture, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms I have Opinions on.

I love a good pun. Especially when it’s about food. Oh, and storytelling. Yeah, that too. By the way, The Karate Kid is a perfect example of a story where the stakes are all very much internalized — and the conflict too. That’ll probably be a rant essay soon too.

I love bad movies. As in movies that aren’t trying to be anything more than good, silly fun. Today I watched Fast and Furious 8 and rewatched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and really wanna emphasize how wonderful movies like these are. Hmm, maybe it’s time to rewatch Bumblebee.

Anyway, I’m going back to vacation mode, at least for a couple more days. Expect more of the usual next week.

Cheers,

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Guns.

Let’s talk about guns. Particularly the way we relate to them in fiction, particularly how I relate to them through the fiction I consume.

First, however, real life. I’ve handled guns before, fired shotguns and rifles with friends in the American South, and trained with an assault rifle on a range. I mention this to say that I’m very aware of what these weapons can do, I’ve felt the recoil and smelt the gunpowder, I’ve watched a machine gun obliterate a tree trunk. There’s little doubt in my mind of what these awesome and terrible machines can do.

I’ve been thinking about violence in video games for a long time. In light of certain recent events, I’ve been thinking about guns too, and the relationship I have with them — particularly the way I interact them with most: video games.

Guns are also a big part of many video games, especially the First-Person Shooter genre and its cousin, the Third-Person Shooter. By being, well, a shooter, they feature guns. Sometimes it can be simple, as in Halo where there’s a single assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc; or more complex like in Borderlands where there’s a whole cornucopia of different shotguns, rifles, and what have you. Different games treat their guns differently.

In the Uncharted series, guns play the same role they do in a pulpy action movie like Indiana Jones or Mission: Impossible. They add tension, what with offering Nathan Drake a good deal of peril as he and his allies galavant around the world. To get from A to B, Nate’s gotta fight his way past these mercenaries with a combination of stealth, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Of course, guns aren’t the only way for the player to interact with the world in these games, there’s also finding treasure, solving puzzles, and a lot of death-defying climbing. The tension here comes from a lot of places, and the gun-based violence is only one, admittedly big, facet of it.

Come Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, though, guns take something of an optional back seat. Yes, you can still shoot your way through things, but there’s a bigger emphasis on exploration and avoiding conflict altogether. The wonderful chapter “At Sea” is all about Nate and his brother treasure hunting in a small archipelago, with nary a gunfight in view.  The game has a more mature approach to violence, one that shows just how far the series has come in the nine years since its inception.

In between the third Uncharted and A Thief’s End was The Last Of Us, an entirely new game by developer Naughty Dog. In a strong departure from the pulpiness of Uncharted, The Last of Us is absolutely brutal in its violence. Enemies beg for their lives, the infected weep as they shuffle around. Killing is not fun, and when you do get a hold of guns — and their all too little ammo — the brutality of it all borders on horror. I suspect that A Thief’s End’s less cavalier attitude towards gunplay was influenced by Naughty Dog making The Last of Us, but that’s another thing altogether.

The Uncharted games feature a mix of real-world guns (like the FAL and AK-47) alongside fictional ones. They add a measure of ‘realism’ to the game, not terribly like how an action movie would use specific guns for specific situations — an American soldier would probably favor an American assault rifle, while that gun-for-hire might have one made by a foreign manufacturer. Metal Gear Solid realized this and peppered its world with real weapons, like the French FAMAS, German PSG1, and American FIM-92 Stinger. MGS is a far more serious military game than my prior examples, so it makes sense they’d wanna get super real with it and talk about the nitty-gritty of the guns. The later games expand on the assortment of weaponry, getting up into having dozens of different guns. But as they do, so too do they discourage you from wanton violence: using non-lethal methods of taking out enemies can net you a better score or provide you with more personnel for your base. Just because there are a whole bunch of guns there for you to use, doesn’t mean you have to actually run around shooting people. The Metal Gear Solid series is profoundly anti-war, in the sort of way only someone who grew up in post-WW2 Japan could create.

Which brings me to the Call of Duty games. A series of military FPS, the fourth game Modern Warfare brought them into contemporary warfare and, with it, the associated guns too. Though the original Modern Warfare did a lot of really cool things with its setting (hey, ever experienced a nuke going off while playing in first-person? It’s terrifying), the series got steadily more pulpy as it went on. That said, however, the game’s attitude towards its violence remained very rah-rah kill-the-bad-guys-yay! in ways that Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid never were. There’s a point where the games, and the marketing around them, started to become unsettling with how gung-ho they were about the variety of weaponry the games offered to be a soldier from a Western nation shooting up the third-world. I stopped following the series some time ago, its celebration of militarism and what went along with it becoming something I really didn’t like engaging in.

On the totally opposite side are the Borderlands games, wonderful shooters set in the distant future on the distant planet of Pandora. I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands 2 with my brother lately, and the game’s such an utter delight. Part of the game’s appeal comes from its core loop: shoot enemies, get better guns, level up, repeat. Guns are procedurally generated, and in addition to the more traditional sort of weaponry, you can get an assault rifle that shoots rockets, shotguns that hurl balls of electricity, and a cursed submachine gun that screams when you fire it. It’s bonkers, and the guns are a big part of the game; it’s always exciting to find a new, unique gun and take it for a spin. But I think that unlike Call of Duty, Borderlands doesn’t fetishize guns. Sure, they’re cool, and a big focus of the game and marketing, but narratively they end up ancillary to the crazy characters and quests that populate the world. Maybe the fact that the guns are procedurally generated plays a part in it, but honestly, I’m willing to bet that it’s just the way the developers think. The guns are, ultimately, tools, and not the focus of the game — all this despite it being a First-Person Shooter.

Honestly, I wish I had a tidy and pretty answer to all this, especially after eleven hundred words. Yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. I love how Destiny’s exotic weapons are treated like Excalibur and Andúril, only guns instead of swords. Portal has a gun but it shoots portals instead of bullets, really screwing with assumptions of the FPS genre. The guns in Horizon Zero Dawn are terrifying weapons in a world of bows, spears, and robot dinosaurs. It seems like just about every single video game has a different relationship with guns, just as every player probably has a different relationship with pulling the controller’s trigger. 

But I don’t believe that video games and their violence have much in relation to real-world violence — and neither does the science. Granted, something like Call of Duty is far more popular in the US than elsewhere, but that’s arguably more a reflection of the militarism that is part of American culture. I know that for me, a lot of these games are a great way to relieve stress; the catharsis of mowing down Psychos and Nomads in Borderlands 2 with my brother offers an odd sort of zen following a week of depressing news. Perhaps I’m good at compartmentalizing, in that I can easily differentiate between fantasy and reality, and am happy to dive into one to escape the other. My brother and I have killed each other hundreds of thousands of times in virtual deathmatches, but I’m sickened to my stomach by the idea of holding a real rifle against him. 

There’s a lot at play here, and the culture around guns certainly does involve video games (there’s a fascinating article on the Barret M82 rifle and how it’s placement in games has affected the real world), but it’s one that applies to other media too. At the end of it all, though, these games have given me experiences unrivaled. Uncharted took me on adventures, The Last of Us left me a sobbing wreck, Metal Gear Solid has given me eerie chills with its storytelling (even as I go on joyrides). I’ll always love playing Halo, Borderlands, or Army of Two with my brother, cracking jokes and drinking beers as we shoot bad guy after bad guy. They’re fun, a lot of fun, but I owe it to myself to interrogate why they’re fun and be aware of the relationship between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to real life, video games don’t kill people. Guns do.

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