More Thoughts On An Open World

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

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

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

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

Consider the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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Stepping Away

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

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

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

I can go on.

And what the hell, I will!

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

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

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

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

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

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

But baby steps!

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The First Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll get around to it eventually.

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The Economy

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

In video games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Characters Like Poetry

I talk about characters a lot on this blog. Okay, this blog’s been around long enough that you could say I talk about anything a lot.

But that’s not the point. The point is characters.

Like how in Crazy Rich Asians there aren’t really characters so much as vague ciphers used to progress a not-really-there plot, or how The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and Mass Effect created such realized characters that you could easily imagine spending time with them.

But let’s unpack this for a second. Angry Planet and Mass Effect rely on characters, the former even more so. The characters are super developed such that being able to spend more time with them serves as a valid reason to keep reading/playing. You like these people, you like hanging out with them.

Crazy Rich Asians takes more of a plot-centered approach (if it had much of a proper plot to speak of). The book seems to want to explore Singapore and the spheres of the super-rich and so creates characters to populate it and push along the exploration of those themes (except the characters are kinda just there and don’t really go much further).

In some ways, it’s a bit like science-fiction: here’s this weird, different culture and place (the super-rich of Singapore), now let’s drop some people into it so we can explore it. Unlike a deft science-fiction writer, though, Kevin Kwan doesn’t give his characters any traits that inherently tie them into the nuances of the strange world. They’re just rich, or an outsider, and things don’t get more complex than that.

Now, characters don’t need to be fully fleshed and rounded to be real – especially in written fiction. A character can be real just from you being able to get a, well, a sense of them. You don’t have to be able to put them into words, like you could with Angry Planet, but you can still know them.

I currently have a small personal initiative to read more fiction by people who aren’t white guys, particularly science-fiction. One book recommended to me was Stories Of Your Life, a short story collection by Ted Chiang. The titular-ish story (“Story Of Your Life”) was adapted into Arrival, so naturally my interest was piqued – in no small part because Ted Chiang is an Asian-American science fiction writer.

So, I’m halfway through Stories Of Your Life and, ugh, it is so frustratingly well written. One thing I’m surprised to really like is how Chiang handles characters. They aren’t these fully alive people you could write a profile on like in Becky Chambers’ Angry Planet or many of Timothy Zahn’s characters in Pawn’s Gambit. But they aren’t these shapeless ciphers either. Rather, we get such a strong sense of them by how they interact with each other and the world around them that they feel real, fleshed.

Consider “Division By Zero,” a short story that frames a relationship against a mathematical proof. The plot itself is about Renee discovering an impossible theorem, one ignites an obsession that in turn pushes her husband away. Again, the characters are somewhat vague and we only know them in their relation to the plot, but Chiang positions us, the reader, so firmly within their headspace that we know how they feel, how they think — which then becomes doubly important in the subsequent piece, “Story Of Your Life.” This creates an intensely intimate space, the sort that, like a good poem, sweeps you away such that you don’t need to spend too much time understanding them. And given Chiang’s tendency for rooting his stories brilliantly complex concepts, the evocative characters let your brain focus on following the plot. Thus rather than reading like character sheets from an RPG, Chiang’s characters read like poetry.

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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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