Tag Archives: In Defense Of

In Defense of Destiny’s Story

I talk about video games a lot on this blog, because I love them and play a lot of them. I also write about storytelling because it’s kinda my thing. Now, there’s a lot to say about video game narrative, which, honestly, can apply to narrative in general. Games are special because narrative — or even story of any sort — isn’t necessary for a good game (See: Pacman, or better yet,Pong).

But, contrary to what game designers like Jonathan Blow think, games can tell excellent stories. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is an emotional story that rivals great film and has found its way into many of my papers for school. Bungie too has told great stories through the Halo games. No, they may not on the same level as The Last of Us, but the original trilogy did tell a solid story, ODSThad great characters, and Reach was genuinely sad at times. All of these games are very linear and have a very traditional narrative. Which is great.

Destiny, on the other hand, is very loosely linear. There are story missions for you to do, but there’s no urgency with which you have to do them, and thus you can spend plenty of time exploring the world at large and taking on side missions. Story information itself is dispersed through the occasional story-focused cutscene and through bits of dialogue with your companion, the AI Ghost. This all to say, there’s very little in the way of explicit storytelling.

The game’s gotten a lot of flak for this. Here’s this grand expansive world with hints of incredible backstory, but where’s the actual story? Where’s the character development? Where’re the big arcs and twists? The story, apparently, feels too nebulous to be worthwhile. Granted, the gameplay more than makes up for it, but the way its critics see it, a weak story is Destiny’s greatest flaw.

But Destiny’s story isn’t weak, it’s open. Modern Warfare 2 had a woefully weak story, with underdeveloped characters and a plot that made very little sense. Sure, it was spelled out for you, but there really wasn’t much there. See, a lot of Destiny is conveyed through spatial and environmental storytelling. The very world of Destiny: the ancient ruins on Venus, the decaying colony on the Moon, the colonyships in Old Russia’s Cosmodrome; they all harken to something older and greater than what we see now. Mentions of the fall, of the Hive taking over the Moon, all this hint at something big. This is what Destiny does: the incredible world building does much of the heavy narrative lifting. Those scraps of story which, combined with the Grimoire accessed online or through the companion app, paint a great world for the player to inhabit. In there you go on these missions and carry out the main story, with lots of empty spaces in between.

These empty spaces is where you come in. Destiny wants you to use your imagination. There’s so much empty space in the story it’s easy to fill it up with your own ideas as to what happened. It’s like playing with your toys again, where you’re given the character and a little bit of story and let lose to make up how it plays out. This is the strength of Destiny’s story: Your imagination. Yes, it’s drastically different from a lot of modern — or even adult — storytelling, but it’s this open-endedness that sets Destiny apart. Here the player is free to create their own story. The nature of fireteams, the backstory of your Guardian, even some of the relations between characters, it’s all up to you.

This is what I’m loving as I play through Destiny, the freedom to wander through the world. I’m still not yet done with the game (almost finished the last mission on Venus) due to not only real life commitments, but also plain getting distracted by every Patrol mission and Strike in Destiny. But unlike Assassin’s Creed 4 where spending hours sidetrack hurt the plot’s pacing and any emotional attachment; Destiny’s side-missions and even competitive multiplayer feel like an addition to the overall narrative arch. It’s as if Bungie’s opening up a big sandbox and inviting you to play.

 

For more on spatial and environmental storytelling, read Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture. If you have a PS3 and want to play Destiny with someone cool, let me know.

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In Defense of Michael Bay

Michael Bay gets a bad rap. His movies are criticized as being low on plot and depth with anything worthwhile being substituted with mindless explosions. His characters are either terribly dull or more resemble caricatures than actual people. Also, sometimes they’re Megan Fox. Michael Bay makes movies that, when boiled down to it, are just excuses for big action set pieces that feel ripped from a crappy Saturday morning cartoon.

And, way I see it, most of those are reasons Michael Bay is excellent at what he does.
Some storytellers are known for having very particular styles. Joss Whedon is known for badass women and witty banter. Chris Nolan’s films are often told in a non-chronological fashion. M. Night Shymalan has his twists. If you watch one of their movies, you know what you’re in for. A Quentin Tarantino film is going to be ridiculously violent and have women’s bare feet. A Tarantino movie isn’t bad whether or not you like his over the top violence, rather it’s a vital part of what he does.

This goes for Michael Bay too. Transformers never claimed to be more than a story about giant robots beating up other giant robots, though some humans got in the way. This issue was rectified in the third one where the human-to-robot-action ratio is much better and, way I see it, Transformers Dark of the Moon was all the better for it.

See, Michael Bay, like Whedon, Nolan, and the others, has his trademarks: explosions, ‘Murica, and butts. You know what you’re getting into when you watch one of his movies. Pain and Gainwas a mess of storytelling. However, it had everything you’d expect from a Michael Bay film: things explode, there are American flags a plenty, and lots of poolside shots. Pain and Gain’s failure wasn’t inherently in any of those three things, it was in it trying to be more than what it was. It’s hard to fit a moral conundrum and a descent into darkness in a movie that feels plain goofy.

Most of Michael Bay’s movies — particularly the often derided Transformers series — never try to be more than what they were. The first Transformers was a typical coming-of-age film (which it pulled off alright) with giant robots (which it pulled off better). It had its off beats, but when it came time to do what it set out to do (giant robots) it excelled. Revenge of the Fallen had a ridiculous story, but great actions scenes. Dark of the Moon was overwrought but, again, I saw it because I wanted to see giant robots beating the crap out of other giant robots while laying waste to Chicago. That’s all I wanted.

I don’t go into a Michael Bay movie expecting a deep plot and to have something to stick with me afterwards. I go into a Michael Bay movie to turn off my brain and see flashy colors (which are often explosions and, lately, giant robots). If I want both, I’d watch Pacific Rim, which layers its Saturday-morning action with much deeper character and subtext. But, if I want to see Optimus Prime charging into battle on top of a robot dinosaur while brandishing a broadsword, well, Age of Extinction seems the right choice.

Some movies aim high and succeed (The Avengers), others aim high and fail horribly (Hereafter). Then there are some movies that have no idea what sort of movie they are (Need for Speed). Then there’s most of Michael Bay’s filmography: his films have no illusions about what kind of movie they are. His movies are big, dumb action movies. And all the better for it.

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In Defense of Escapist Fiction

A term that I see thrown around a lot regarding my preferred fictions is “escapist fiction.” You might have seen it before; films like The Avengers and Pacific Rim are just escapist fantasies, especially when compared to ‘real cinema.’ Or video games are just ways to live out a fantasy and science fiction a way to avoid problems and reality.

It’s an interesting criticism, to say the least, one that sometimes culminates in me giving up and closing the tab halfway through. The idea is that a lot of fiction (and, of course, video games) are easily written off because they’re escapist.

So what exactly is escapist fiction? Wikipedia has a (surprisingly short) article on it that sums it up as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” So basically, it’s genre.

As I said before, it’s here that the criticism comes out; the idea being that these forms of fiction are a method of avoiding problems; a means of escape. Rather than confronting or dealing with problems, they encourage readers/viewers/players to just ignore it and go off in a fantasy world. They’re fluff; shallow, non-serious entertainment.

I disagree. Hence the name of this blog post.

Way I see it, there’s enough of life happening in the real world. Enough irresolvable conflicts, enough wars without a good guy and a bad guy, enough people leaving, enough crap in general. Escapist fiction often offers a world where there is a solution, where there might be meaning and, when barring that, action can be taken. Because in fiction, the Evil Empire can be overcome by a backwater farmboy.

These ‘escapist fantasies’ are ways out. When life gives you hell it’s far more fun to read a story where that hell can be overcome rather than one dwelling in it. Returning to the Star Wars example, it’s at its core the idea that some nobody could wind up as the hero, save the princess, and defeat the bad guys. Luke’s predicament early in the film is relatable to any nineteen year old (or older, as the case may be). Stuck in a crap job, feeling trapped in the middle of nowhere and wanting to do something more. Something bigger. He does and, by proxy, so do we.

Pacific Rim is a ‘millennial’ approach to the apocalypse, one that may not be quite as nuanced and subtle if it were a film by David Fincher and Daniel Day Lewis, but the movie does address ‘topical’ issues. There’s the idea of self-sacrifice, of overcoming grief, and of connection all wrapped up with saving the world. No, it’s not ‘serious’ fiction in the way that, say, The Book Thief or Dallas Buyers Club are, but it’s not to say that reality isn’t woven into its being.

All this to say, escapism is awesome. Escapism is coming home from a lousy day at work and running through Renaissance Italy and attacking guards. It’s a way out, a way to do something beyond life. There is a time for more ‘real’ fiction, but that is not to say that escapism is any less serious. In any case, J.R.R. Tolkien defended his work in two sentences better than I did in this post: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” In other words; life can be a bit of a bummer sometimes, so let’s get out of it sometimes.

 

On a different note, watch my new short “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!

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In Defense of Giant Robots

I grew up on Power Rangers, giant mecha anime, and Transformers. I built giant robots with my LEGO’s (and spaceships, natch). Of course, all this was just cartoons and imagination for the most part.

And now we have Pacific Rim.

It’s easy, heck, it’s natural to brush aside the movie as being simple childish nonsense. After all, giant robots are the stuff of anime and Power Rangers. The stuff you enjoyed as a kid. You’re an adult now. You have grown up tastes now. Like The Great Gatsby. You like movies that are ‘mature’ and ‘grounded’. Like how dismantling MI6 is so much better than a giant space laser or how Wayne Enterprises’ Applied Science division doesn’t give their suits of armor nipples. Giant robots are impractical, the physics doesn’t add up, and how the crap would you power something that enormous? Come back when it actually makes sense.

This movie takes all of that and merrily laughs at it. Pacific Rim is unashamedly a movie about giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. Like any good story, there are shades of deeper themes and ideas throughout, but its focus is purely on the childlike glee that comes from watching 300 foot tall robots doing battle with similarly sized monsters. If you’re me, it means you get to watch your childhood fantasies in a cinema.

There’s no attempt to firmly ground the story in reality like some movies do. They don’t discover some new element or power source to make the giant robots work. Creating them is summed up in the prologue as being the logical thing to do. Because of course. The monsters are referred to as Kaiju, harking back to old Japanese monster movies. The giant robots are called Jaegers and given appropriately awesome names like Striker Eureka or Cherno Alpha. The Jaeger Gipsy Danger has an elbow rocket. It’s made very clear that Pacific Rim knows exactly what sort of movie it is and it embraces it wholeheartedly.

It’s terribly easy to do this wrong. The first GI Joe movie, Rise of the Cobra, tried to serious-ify the lore. What we wound up with was a movie that was laughable in its attempts to be dark. It just didn’t work. Conversely, we have Batman and Robin, a movie that made Batman something of a punchline. Unlike Batman: The Animated Series which aired only a couple years prior, Batman and Robin decided that sense and logic could be left at the door. Both movies were trying to be something they weren’t. Batman can be funny, but a Batcard is a mockery; GI Joe is meant to be fun, not a dark thriller-esque film.

Pacific Rim does it right. From start to finish the movie runs on sheer fun. The protagonists face no crisis of faith regarding their roles and there’s no humanization of the Kaiju. All that’s not the point of the story; it’s an earnest story about good guys fighting bad guys, Jaegers hunting Kaiju, and giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. It’s simple, but it’s not stupid.

Despite what Revenge of The Fallen might have made you think, giant robots aren’t drivel. Pacific Rim never feels childish. Guillermo del Toro and team give the movie its due; the plot may be thin but it’s cohesive, the Kaiju do have a goal, characters have motivations. As del Toro himself said, “It has the craft of a 48-year-old and the heart of a 12-year-old.” Yes, giant robots are freaking awesome and that’d be all there was to it, except that this movie does it so well. Described as a love letter to mecha and Kaiju stories, Pacific Rim is all the defense the idea of giant robots needs.

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In Defense of Fan Fiction

I’ve written my share of fan fiction. Be it about Star Wars, Bionicle adventures, or Mega Man stories; trust me: I’ve written my fanfics. Thing is, that was years ago. I’ve hardly done anything remotely fan fictiony (be it an animation or a piece of writing) in years.

I guess I grew out of it; I wanted to make my own worlds and not lean on someone else’s work as a basis. I wanted my stories to be mine and independent. Of course, I still read the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where science fiction writers have their go at continuing or adding stories to the Star Wars ‘verse. Sure, it’s official fan fiction but it’s cool stories, yeah?

Arguably the best writer for the Expanded Universe is Timothy Zahn. His Heir To The Empire Trilogy is not only a fantastic piece of fiction, but it legitimately feels like a Star Wars story. It doesn’t seem like a random piece of science fiction with Star Wars elements but rather like another movie. It has the same feeling of adventure and space opera, and, best of all, the characters actually sound like the characters. They act like them and speak like them; Zahn wonderfully captures the essence of the main characters. He also introduces new characters as well as a new villain; his trilogy is a whole new story while staying true to the originals.

So yes, I’m using Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels as the epitome of fan fiction. Granted, they get approved and vetted by the bigwigs at LucasFilm, but at they’re heart they’re pretty much fan fiction. And dang good ones.

See, it’s easy to get fan fiction wrong. You could write a story that sounds like just another story with characters from some franchise tacked on. Taking nuanced characters and stereotyping them isn’t good writing. Changing the way the world works for the sake of your story, well, can be done right, but often winds up feeling unnecessary. Look, worlds need rules, so if you’re playing in someone else’s world, play by their rules lest you wind up making your own world. If your fan fiction hardly seems like it’s a part of the world, might as well make your own, yeah?

One of the main reasons I stopped writing fan fiction was ‘cuz, well, it wasn’t my own world. Anything I wrote would only be well received by people of the fandom. It wasn’t accesible and all that. More so, it felt lazy. I wasn’t making my own characters, I wasn’t doing my own world building. So I stopped.

Thing is, fan fiction (if done right) can be a challenge. You’re playing in someone else’s world; with someone else’s characters. Are you up to being able to capture both the world and the characters? TV writers do the same thing: they didn’t come up with the world but it’s their job to write the episodes. It’s a challenge, no doubt to fit your writing style and dialogue to another. For all the flak fan fiction gets, it can be a remarkable writing exercise. It’s also useful if you want to just get started writing something and don’t want to have to do all the research and all normally required. So yeah, if you’re lazy and just want to write, fan fiction is a valid outlet.

Why am I writing a post about fan fiction? Simple, I’m starting work on an Uncharted one. Yeah, I know; I’m a nerd who needs justification. I want to write an adventure story, so why not use one of my favorite video games? I’m doing historical research and really want the challenge of trying to capture the spirit of the story and characters.

So yeah. Fan fiction.

Writer’s Note: Apologies again for another shorter/lackluster post; I’m now in Morocco on a school trip. Yes. That is my excuse. Again. Now let me go get shawarma.

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In Defense of Science Fiction

You ever caught yourself explaining the conceit of a piece of science fiction and, halfway through, realize how stupid it sounds? No matter how cool it is, it just sounds silly on its way out of your mouth?

Compare these two ideas:

• A group of kids make a movie and wind up learning about life and moving on in this coming of age film.

• A mysterious alien appears in small-town Ohio giving a group of kids the adventure of a lifetime.

The former sounds like a movie that’ll become this award winning, tearjerking, instant classic. The other one sounds more like a popcorn flick with little value beyond entertainment. Thing is; they’re the same movie: Super 8. It is a film about a group of kids making a movie, and they do go on an adventure, and they do learn about life and moving on and letting go and all. And yeah, there’s an alien too, but the alien is a plot device. The alien provides an external catalyst that creates the tensions of the story. Without it, Super 8 wouldn’t have worked the way it did.

Not only that, but the alien in Super 8 essentially serves as the manifestation of one of the main themes of the film: understanding. The creature is an empath, able to feel emotions and see it through their eyes. Joe, the protagonist, has been unable to let go of his dead mother. It’s in the alien that he finds a sort of understanding and comes to terms with it and is, at last, able to let go and move on. We get a clear embodiment of the theme that doesn’t feel forced. It simply wouldn’t work in ‘normal’ fiction. The whole chain of events also has Joe develop from a pushover to the guy who’s doing his best to save the girl.

Further more, the effects of the alien’s arrival causes the two fathers in the story to step up and be dads. Their animosity (due to one being the cause of the death of the other’s wife) is put aside when they have to go after their kids.

Would it have been workable without an alien or other science fiction tropes? Possibly. Thing is, a different catalyst like a military invasion or even a serial killer would lend the movie unnecessary weight and implications. The alien allows the movie to focus in on the topics of forgiveness and letting go, without being bogged down by other themes.

One of the many races in the universe of Mass Effect are the quarians. They’re a nomadic race that, a long time ago, created a ‘race’ of AI machines called the geth. The geth rebelled against the creators, forcing the quarians to be the nomads they are. They’re based in massive ships, sending their young adults out on pilgrimages to find things useful for their Migrant Fleet. Furthermore, they wear full bodysuits due to having an exceptionally weak immune system.

Right, I know, it sounds kinda silly. Wandering aliens in spacesuits because of weak immune systems and all that.

But it creates such a wonderful way to look at issues. The quarians are ostracized from the galactic society as a whole due to their faceless nature and that most of the ones seen are only trying to find something to benefit their fleet. The Mass Effect games explores this idea as well as the idea of being excluded from your own race with the quarian character of Tali’Zorah. She’s a wanderer from a wandering people; a young woman who wants not only to do right by her people but right by the galaxy as well. In her we have a tension born of ostracism from both others and home.

Even if it’s subconscious, it makes us think about the idea of belonging and loyalties, of understanding and racism. Due to it’s scifi setting, Mass Effect doesn’t make it overt with words like “Jew” or “African-American” or anything like that; instead we’re giving an almost parableian look at the idea. Normal fiction would run the risk of sounding preachy or patronizing; in Mass Effect it comes with the setting.

Science fiction has been described as a way to run social commentary or satirize situations, something it does very well. The setting is also capable of providing catalysts for fantastic character driven stories (or adventures as the case may be). It’s such a shame that so often the very idea of science fiction gets ridiculed due to the simple fact that it is not reality.

There are some stories that can only be really told with a gap from reality; to say that the themes or points of these stories are somehow less due to them being ‘unrealistic’ is, simply put, unfair.

And c’mon: science fiction has friggin’ spaceships!

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