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

No One Does Latitude Like Batman

What comes to mind when you think ‘Batman?’ Is it the one from Bruce Timm in the 90s? Or is it Michael Keaton’s in Tim Burton’s movie? Chris Nolan’s gritty reconstruction of the mythos? The Arkham games’ sinister representation of the Joke and Batman conflict? Adam West’s campy take? Whatever it was Snyder was doing in Dawn of Justice? Or the brooding jerk voiced by Will Arnett in The LEGO Movie? Might it even be one from the comics?

I’ve never read a Batman comic (yes, yes, I know; there are a handful on my Read This Eventually list), but I’m plenty familiar enough with the mythos from growing up with the cartoon and original movies to playing the Arkham games and enjoying the Nolan movies. What’s curious is how downright different these Batmans (Batmen?) are. The tone of all those adaptations I listed in that first paragraph skewer wildly (can you imagine Batman in The Dark Knight offering to pay for something with a Bat Card?), but they’re all still recognizably Batman. How does he have so much latitude? Is it the cowl?

The LEGO Batman Movie just came out this weekend, which, aside from being absolutely delightful, offers a completely different take on Batman, which, oddly enough, incorporates every other version of Batman. We’ve off-the-cuff references to every cinematic Batman and a few deep cuts to the cartoons and comics. But this is a Batman who’ll also throw a temper-tantrum when told by Alfred to do something besides Batmanning (so, kinda like Nolan’s). But The LEGO Batman Movie doesn’t just coast by on laughs; it tells a full blown Batman story with a degree of resolution and pathos that Dawn of Justice wishes it had. Sure, this Batman likes to play epic guitar solos, but he’s still Batman.

There’s arguably no other modern character that has as many different interpretations as Batman. Who your favorite Batman is is a much more nuanced discussion that who your favorite Spider-Man is. Batman has been done so many different ways. The thing is, and I keep coming back to this, they’re all still Batman.

Not many other contemporary characters and properties lend themselves to this so well. Iron Man and Spider-Man don’t have nearly this latitude, at least not while keeping the alter egos of Tony Stark and Peter Parker (which, given that we’re discussing Batman as Bruce Wayne, we are). Even though Star Wars does lend itself to spoofs and parody quite well, but those riffs would remain in the territory of spoof and parody or keep the scale small (like the Star Wars Tales comics). No one does it like Batman.

Unless you go back further. Like, seriously further. How many versions of Sherlock Holmes have we seen? You’ve got Basil Rathbone’s version, but then more recently Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have both offered up different versions of the same character are both very Sherlock-y. They’re smart British people who solve crimes smartly. Disparate as they may be, these takes on Holmes, created over a century after Doyle started writing about the detective, are are still Holmes (granted, in the intervening 100+ years you can call any detective Sherlock and be done with it, but bear with me here).

That may be why we can have so many Batmen (Batmans?) running around without any one being not Batman. I may think that Battfleck shooting and branding people in BvS is terribly off-brand, but he is a perfectly valid interpretation of Batman. Because Batman is an incredibly simple character. Heck, the platonic ideal of Batman is less a character and more a concept: Bruce Wayne, haunted by the death of his parents, fights crime (dressed as a bat). It’s incredibly succinct while still remarkably deep – you can interpret that effects of his parents’ death however you want. He can be a whiney loner, super pseudo-ninja, or a brooding vengeful vigilante.

Superman comes close, but doesn’t quite have that depth to him; a superpowered alien fights crime and stops wrong heroically is too broad. Iron Man is too specific, you need Tony Stark’s guilt and need for redemption alongside the spiffy suit; take away the former and he’s not really Tony Stark as Iron Man. Spider-Man has a lot of wiggle room – one look at the recent Spider-Verse comics show just how varied you can get with the idea of Spider-Man — but Peter Parker as Spider Man does what he does out of a sense of responsibility and guilt. You can’t really interpret his reaction to Uncle Ben any other way, and you can’t give him the same call to adventure without the death of a family member.

So again, Batman has a latitude unlike anyone else. Less of a true character than an archetype, the flexibility of Batman and mythos has given rise to a variety of Batmens(?) that though wildly different all still make sense. Which means that even though The LEGO Batman Movie’s Batman is decidedly better than the one in Batman V Superman, both are still Batman. One just has a lot more life and depth to him, and is also the one made of plastic.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Experiencing Life

I really really liked 2013’s Tomb Raider. I wasn’t much of a Tomb Raider fan prior; Lara tended to be a little too sexualized for my tastes. Too much like if Indiana Jones had T&A than, well, an adventure story. The reboot, though, was more interested in Lara as a character than her figure. Plus, y’know, I’m a sucker for survivalist story on an island with crazy fanatics. Gameplay was a lotta fun too. So yeah, I really liked the game.

Hence my disappointment when it was announced that the follow up, Rise of The Tomb Raider (…with a questionable name), was going to be exclusive to the Xbox One for its first year of release. A PlayStation man myself, this meant I couldn’t play it until, well, recently.

All this to say, I’m finally playing Rise of The Tomb Raider.

And I am short.

Okay, so, in real life, as someone who hovers somewhere between 6’1 and 6’2, I’m considered tall. Over the years since reaching this height, I’ve gotten used to being tall. I’m the same height as Nolan North, who plays Nathan Drake in Uncharted, so there’s nothing unusual to me as I see me-as-Drake standing next to other people. It’s, y’know, normal.

But when me-as-Lara stands next to someone, sometimes I’m a head shorter. Which is unusual for me. Now, sure, I may be projecting a bit here – but that’s what fiction is, it’s a two-way street; you get what you put in. So me, I suddenly felt a little vulnerable, out there in the Siberian wilderness with the only people not shooting at me these probably-friendly men a bunch taller than me. Sure, I’m Lara Croft, a badass with a bow and guns, but, well, I’m smaller. And maybe this guy underestimates me? Which in turn makes me wonder how much height affects how we perceive and are perceived. Like I said, new experience.

It’s a small thing, and something I didn’t dwell on since there were deer to hunt and tombs to raid, but that’s a thing about video games, isn’t it? You get to live lives you normally don’t.

In video games, I’ve carved a path of vengeance to reclaim my throne (Dishonored 2), been the customs agent for an ersatz Soviet nation (Papers Please), defended Earth from genocidal aliens (Mass Effect and/or Halo), and woken up from a one night stand trying to put together what happened last night and figure out who I woke up next to (One Night Stand). Sure, the main characters of these games may have been people not named Josh, but I was the one doing the things. They are my experiences. It’s me doing all that.

Tom Bissel, in Extra Lives, declares that the big thing video games have given him are experiences, “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as real memories” (182). For Bissel, he references Grand Theft Auto IV and all the weird crap he got up to between missions (eg: causing a traffic jam and then tossing a grenade into the gridlock). For me, I have memories – real memories – of saving the world a few times over, pulling of a sick getaway after assassinating one of my usurpers, and, yes, feeling short and vulnerable. Video games, like a good book, let you live another life (or an extra life). I get to experience a whole new life. It’s why I love those weird indie games; games like This War of Mine where I scrounged for survival in a war zone as part of a band of survivors or Passage where I walked through a life from birth to death.

And so that’s the thing about fiction; particularly novels and video games which require you to be an active participant in the narrative. You step into a new life and experience it from a point of view unlike your own; be it a little girl in Maycomb, Alabama or a treasure hunter gallivanting across the world. Read a book. Play a video game. Learn about being someone other than yourself.

Live another life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

AMERICA

If you follow this blog you’ve probably realized that my mostest favoritest trope is the rag-tag multicultural team. It’s why I’ll always hold Disney’s Atlantis in high esteem, it’s why I have such a huge soft spot for the Magnificent Seven remake and Rogue One. Pacific Rim, Halo: Reach, X-COM, you give me a multicultural/national team, you make me happy

Really happy.

So you can understand my hesitance when the follow-up to Al Ewing’s very enjoyable New Avengers comics was U.S.Avengers. Here’s what could well be a rah-rah jingoistic comic, while New Avengers (volume 4, if you’re wondering) was this idiosyncratic book with giant mecha, a squirrel convincing a rat army to stop fighting for the bad guys, and mad science.

The first issue of U.S.Avengers is framed around the members of the team talking to the ‘camera’ about why they’re part of the team and, as they are a part of the remade AIM (American Ideas Mechanics) which is overseen by the US Government, about the whole being American thing. For Roberto da Costa, the leader of the team, this means talking about wanting to be American. Lemme make this clear, the first panel of the first issue of a comic book called U.S.Avengers is Roberto da Costa, someone born in Brazil, talking about his wanting to be an American. It culminates in him firmly declaring that he’s an American citizen, something that can’t be taken away.

So right off the bat we have, in a comic book called U.S.Avengers, the definition of American identity being one of an immigrant (who’s also not white, by the way).

But who else is on this team? We’ve got Toni Ho, genius Chinese-American who built her own version of the Iron Patriot which she pilots. Her girlfriend, Aikku, is also part of the team. A Finnish-Norwegian (say it with me:) immigrant, she finds the US different and slightly frightening, but takes comfort in Toni and the others and the space to find herself. And has her own super high-tech suit. We’re also introduced to Squirrel Girl, who stresses her Canadian/American dual citizenship; General Robert Maverick, the representative of the US Government who’s also Red Hulk; and Sam Guthrie, the guy from Kentucky whose interpretation of the American Dream is that of his blue-collar father, one where “there is no ‘them’ to help or hurt.” The first issue ends with an appearance by Captain America (which makes sense), only this is Captain America from an alternate future where she’s Danielle Cage, a bulletproof black woman.

This has been is a stupid amount of summarizing, but I hope you’re following my train of thought here. The image of the American put forth by U.S.Avengers isn’t one of a straight white dude; in the book Americans can be – and are – immigrants, people of color, women, and queer. This isn’t something the book hints at, it’s a blatant thesis statement put forth in the first issue.

I’m sure you’ve realized by now that this is important, but let me explain why. For much of American history, the image of an ‘American’ has been a straight white guy. Even today, especially today, the prevalent narrative of an American is a straight white guy whose family has been in the states for generations. It’s that whole idea of a ‘true’ or ‘real’ American. U.S.Avengers offers a counternarrative; one that’s, well, reflective of the actual US. We can talk all we want about shifting demographics and the changing face of a nation, but until the narrative shifts we’re just blowing air. U.S.Avengers reflects that America, as Marvel has been  doing as of late: Ms. Marvel is a naturalized Pakistani immigrant; Hulk is Korean-American, one Captain America is black.

So again, this is why diversity is important. If you’re doing a story about the modern US then the characters ought to reflect the people who make up the country: a nation of immigrants not just from Europe. We need these stories, we need to see people who aren’t straight white guys portrayed as American in fiction if we’re ever going to shift the default image of what an American is.

Elsewise we find ourselves in some ersatz 1950s America, and you don’t really wanna go back to that, do you?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized