Tag Archives: Serenity

The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

One of the most striking features of the planet Elaaden is a huge derelict Remnant ship. Sticking out broken over the desert planet, the ship could hold answers for the mystery of the old killer robots that populate Mass Effect: Andromeda. The latest game in the Mass Effect video game series has a strong focus one exploration, namely that titular distant galaxy. There’s so much to see, so much to find out.

But I still haven’t gone to the ship, despite having done basically every other sideqeust available on the planet. This isn’t so much a case of saving the best for last, as much as it is putting off what I expect will be a fun-if-pointless mission.

Because the Remnant Derelict is not a Priority Mission (that is, a story mission), it’s highly unlikely that any Major Plot Twisting Details will happen. If there is some massive revelation about the Remnant waiting in the wings, whatever’s aboard that ship will either tease it or corroborate it, depending on when I play it in relation to that story mission.

Andromeda is an open world RPG. There are Priority Missions I play one after another, these make up the main plot. I complete Mission A, then I can do Mission B, and so on until the game ends. Meanwhile, there are these sidequests, things I can do around the galaxy be it earning my squad’s loyalty or blowing up a Kett tower. Those sidequests can be done in any order and at any point after you’ve unlocked them (usually by completing another sidequest, or progressing to a certain point along the Priority Mission chain). This means that I could have explored that Remnant Derelict when I first found it a couple Priority Missions ago, or I could wait and only explore it after I’ve finished the main story – and the central plot played out. Thus, the mission has to accommodate either timeline. This in turn limits the developments that the sidequest can have, nothing can happen here that would affect a Priority Mission in a big way.

Consider, if you will, a hypothetical game based on Firefly and Serenity. Midway through the movie, we find out that the Reavers, a savage group of spacefaring barbarians, were in fact accidentally  created by the Alliance (spoiler). In the hypothetical game, you wouldn’t find this out in a sidequest, it’d be a  paradigm-shifting story quest that would affect the crew through any major plot developments. Thus if there was a sidequest where you could explore an old Reaver ship or an Alliance Databank, this twist wouldn’t be there. Anything you found would be cool, but self-contained.

This is the hurdle that open games have to deal with. Something more linear, like Uncharted or Halo, progress in one direction like a movie, scene 1 into scene 2; there’s no scene 1.5. Every level/chapter/scene will affect the plot in some way. Giving the player a choice means the game’s writers and programmers have to have planned whichever path the player takes.

In Kingdom Hearts the player can visit a variety of worlds in whatever order they want. They’ll pal around with Aladdin, Alice, and Ariel, then have to go to a specific world where More Story happens. This isn’t too pressing most of the time, but as the plot picks up, visiting Halloween Town or Monstro’s belly feels like a filler episode in the larger narrative of Sora and Mickey’s adventure. They can’t impact the plot too much because the player may have another world to complete before the next Big Story Moment.

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don’t mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player’s agency affects the distribution of the game’s narrative.  Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can’t seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg’s, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players’ decisions.

But video games are still a young genre. The amount of player agency in Andromeda would have been unheard of twenty years ago. It’s a bummer that it can’t anticipate and account for everything, but who’s to say games won’t in the future? Exploring a virtual world in Andromeda is a great experience, even if it exposes some of the issues with open world games. Yes, the narrative failings are frustrating, but it’s a step forward towards what games could be. Risks propel the medium forward; who knows where we’ll be in twenty years.

Of course, I could be totally wrong and that derelict ship may have a crapload of secrets about the Remnant and it turns out Andromeda has untold variations of its Priority Missions prepared in its code with each one voiced and animated ready to go. But the point stands; for all the issues with open ended video games, the potential remains. And that’s exciting. Bring on the AI game masters!

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But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

I write a lot about strong female characters here, heck, it was my first post. It’s still something I really care about, seeing how often it pops up in my blog posts here. I’ve got a small list of characters I bring up often: Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Chloe Frazer, Katniss Everdeen, Zoë Washburne, etc.

Thing is, it’s easy to conflate the idea of a strong female characters with that of a woman who kicks ass. When we compare Katniss from The Hunger Games to Bella Swan from Twilight the former is clearly the stronger character. When asked why the easy answer is that she does stuff, herein taking charge and fighting. So does Captain Marvel. And Arya Stark.

We see this particularly in areas which already have a history of relegating women to the back burner, like video games or the action adventure genre. Damsels meant to be saved by strong men, the voice of reason, or to be relegated to being a person of support. Thus being promoted to action hero seems like quite the step up.

So comes the masculinization of women, where women are placed in male roles and can do everything a man can. The new question that comes with this is whether they’re losing depth because they’re becoming less of a woman. After all, they’re pushing for violence, a ‘masculine’ way of problem solving, instead of finding non-violent means of conflict-resolution, like manipulation. But assuming a strong female character must be good in combat is a flawed idea. Women – people – don’t have to go around kicking ass to be a strong character.

Take Zoë and Inara from Firefly, both arguably strong female characters. The former, Serenity’s tough-as-nails first mate, is badass in the more masculine way. Inara, however, wielding diplomacy, is as strong without being masculinized. She’s strong on her own terms, kicking proverbial ass without having to carry a weapon.

So which portrayal is more feministic? Both masculinizing women and confining them to feminine traits run contrary to feminism since it genders a set of actions and traits. Is Zoë stronger since she’s nearly indistinguishable from a man? Or is it Inara, who fights in a more ‘feminine’ sphere.

So now what? Women are, surprise, people; people are, also surprise, different. And people do different things. To say that a man can succeed as a character in both action and drama genres but a woman only truly succeeds if she’s placed in a drama is a terrifyingly narrow view. If we want to advance the role of women in fiction, we can’t limit them to certain roles. We need women doing everything.

This is one of the reasons I love Game of Thrones. There’s a great deal of variety to the roles women play, and a lot of them are wonderfully well written. Ygritte the Wildling archer and Margaery the politicking queen-to-be are very different women and both great characters. Yet neither would work in the other’s roles; they’re strong on their own terms and in their own ways. You can’t discredit Margaery because she’s worming her way to the top of the political sphere because she’s not running around with a sword, likewise with Ygritte for being an archer rather than a politician. This show, known for the HBO-iness of its content, displays a great deal of nuance and variety with its women. Sure, some are problematic and shallow, but there remains the potential for a woman to be strong and badass, no matter her position.

To return to the comparison of Zoë and Inara in Firefly, we need to accept both as strong women because choosing one over the other would confine the ways in which a female character could be strong. Kaylee, the mechanic, though she’s neither forceful nor a fighter, can hold her own and adds necessary element to the crew. Even River, who more often than not seems to fulfill the role of damsel, is fully realized and not just a shadowy archetype.

There is a danger in making all female characters masculine, but the same could be said of making all female characters the same kind of anything; we need women portrayed in every field. Soldiers, spies, engineers, doctors, and so on. A truly inclusive media should be just that: inclusive.

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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.

Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.

But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?

Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.

So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.

Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.

But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?

Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.

Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.

I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.

Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.

But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.

 

Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost…bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again; for now it’ll have the tag ‘bloggish.’

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Heroic Motivation

I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:

Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?

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With Regards To Motivation

I have a research paper I should be writing. I also have a stack of books near me ranging from On Free Choice and The Will by Saint Augustine, Iron Man and Philosophy, Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Finding Serenity, The Existential Joss Whedon, my own annotated copy of Life of Pi, The Philosophy of Joss Whedon, and a few others too. These are what people in academia call ‘sources’. I think I know what I’ll be writing about, but I’m not quite sure yet.

So, once again, I’ll be writing an essay (that’s not a rant) to hone in on it.

One of the ‘texts’ (a fancy word for story, apparently) I’ll be looking at is Uncharted 2. Because I love said game and the class is called ‘Adventure Narratives’ so it must be done. I wanna explore the tension of Nathan Drake between the two women: Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher. No, not the love triangle, but rather how they represent his inner conflict. Chloe, who’ll pursue her goal with a keen sense of self-preservation versus Elena, who’s sense of justice overrides everything else. They represent Nate’s struggle to choose between what’s smart and what’s right. It’s fascinating, really, a layer of depth you wouldn’t expect in a video game. Ultimately, Nate chooses to do what’s right, to follow his duty.

(Note: Elena and Chloe are far more interesting than just representing Nate’s duality. But that’ll be in an essay for Games 101)

So maybe I’ll write about the duality of man/the hero, how the hero must choose between right and wrong. Interesting, but let’s read further.

In Christopher Robichaud’s essay “Can Iron Man Atone For Tony Stark’s Wrongs” he explores the duality of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Tony Stark was the one who screwed up his life and put weapons in the hands of criminals. Iron Man is the one fighting to make things right. Iron Man is an atoner; he does the hero thing to try and redeem who he was as Tony Stark. There’s his motivation, and that’s why he does what he does.

Wait. So maybe instead of looking at the tension, let’s ask why an adventure hero does what they do.

In Life of Pi (which is a book I read for this class, and I must include one from the reading list), Pi tries his best to stay a moral man adrift in the lifeboat because he’s a religious man three times over. His motivation is to please God, to serve him even when things look bleak.

Swell. Now let’s look at Firefly, because this is my research paper and if I want to write about Firefly for class then I damn well will. K. Dale Koontz wrote the book Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon which is proving to be a fascinating read that I’d like to give a proper look at when I’m not hunting for sources. In it he explores Mal’s faith and morality, exploring why he does what he does. In becomes apparent that after Mal’s loss of faith at Serenity Valley, the man chooses to rely only on himself and his crew. Threaten them, you threaten him (see Ariel, 1.09). But why? Koontz believes that underneath his calloused shell, Mal has a wealth of love for his ship and crew. It’s love that makes Mal take action, it’s love that drives him. This is driven home at the end of Serenity, when Mal tells River what the first rule of flying is: “Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.” (Whedon) Love is at the core of Mal.

But does this motivation of love apply to the others too? Pi’s religious reverence is certainly fueled by a love for God, so love is there too. That’s an easy one.

Nathan Drake chooses to do what’s right perhaps out of a love for Elena and her sense of justice. We see this echoed in Drake’s Deception when he apologizes for letting her down. His love for her means he wants to do what’s right by her. Hence his going after Lazarevic and being the hero, like what she would do.

It’s with Tony Stark that things get hairy. Or does it? In the film Iron Man, he saves the day at last when he stops caring solely about himself and is willing to love his fellow man.

So I guess it’s love, love of something more than oneself that motivates heroes to, well, be heroes.

Now let’s write this paper.

Btw, I have a new video. Check it out here.

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Earn Your Ending

Did you see Warm Bodies? Because you really should. It’s a great movie (and has zombies). And I mean a really great movie. We’re talking that sucker gets added to my BluRay collection the day it comes out.

Of course, the comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable and rightly so: both have the same ‘genre’ and tone: zombie films with a level of comedy and romance. It’s their themes, however, that set them apart. Warm Bodies is overflowing with heart. See, Warm Bodies decides to set aside the dark and somber mood oft considered a prerequisite for a zombie film and instead gives it a blast of life and hope.

Warm Bodies has a legitimately happy ending. Not like I Am Legend or Zombieland but a real happy ending. Even though things got dark, even though sometimes it looked almost hopeless and the world was coming down, they still got their happy ending. A real happy ending, not the “the world’s gone to hell but they have each other” ending, a proper happy ending.

It’s the same sort of ending you find in Paperman or The Princess Bride or Star Wars. That sense that there’s good in the world, that it can be found no matter what. But more than that it’s the sense that what’s wrong can be set right, that happy endings exist.

Sometimes the idealistic happy ending doesn’t work. I love Serenity, but that movie’s ending is more bittersweet than happy. It’s not bad: good stories don’t need happy endings. Sam said it best in the film adaption of The Two Towers when he tells Frodo about the stories that really mattered. They’ve got darkness and fear, but they’ve got heroes too, the ones who keep going even when things look bleak. But good wins and there’s hope. The Lord of the Rings embodies this so well. Aragorn and the rest are fighting a hopeless battle against the forces of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are struggling to get to Mount Doom. But the Ring gets destroyed and good wins.

What’s important is that the characters earn their ending. They can’t have it just given to them like in fairytales, they have to fight for it! The guy in Paperman could have given up and gone back to his life, Westley could have not rescued Buttercup. Mal could have aimed to behave. But they didn’t and we get the story, we get the ending that leaves us hopeful. We see them prevail, we seem them fight for it.

In order for an ending to provide the appropriate catharsis there needs to be a a something at stake. It doesn’t have to be life threatening: look at Paperman. If we hadn’t seen the guy’s dull job and his boredom with normalcy we wouldn’t have cared about him trying to win the girl. Knowing that he’s tired of life as is, knowing that he wants this break. Furthermore, if we hadn’t seen him fail and fail again we wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed as much. All this makes the happy ending worth it.

I first read Life of Pi seven years ago and now I’m reading it again for school. At the end of Part One, right as the family gets set to sail to America, author Yann Martel takes a break from Pi’s story to return to the metanarrative of Martel listening to Pi tell his story. Martel recounts him running into Pi’s son and shortly after seeing Pi holding his daughter with all the love a father can muster. At this point in the story we don’t know what happened to Pi, just that it was something terrible that haunts him to the present. But we get this glimpse of him with his young daughter and it’s here that Martel writes one of the most important lines in book:

“This story has a happy ending.”

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Why Science Fiction

Science Fiction is a setting (not a genre) that frequently gets written off and ignored because it’s deemed inept to deal with more serious topics. But science fiction has leave to deal with heavy subjects in a way ‘regular’ fiction only wishes it could. Science fiction – good science fiction – has and will always be about people.

The world will change, but people will always stay the same. People will always want to control, people will always want more, people will always want love, people will always yearn for adventure, and people will always want to find home. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th, 21st, or 26th century: people don’t change. The best science fiction examines humanity – consciously or not – in ways that other fiction can not.

Ender’s Game can easily be looked at as just another story about mankind repelling alien invaders. We’ve got the buggers/formics poised to destroy humanity and the only hope lies in the kid named Ender Wiggen. But it goes beyond that: it looks at the idea of empathy (and the lack of it) as a tool and a weapon. It is Ender’s immense capacity for empathy that makes him an excellent leader and brilliant tactician, but it’s his ability to withhold it that makes him a brutal opponent. His empathy endears Bean, Alai, Petra and others to him, his brutality puts a very permanent end to his victimization. It’s this ability of his that allows him to understand his utterly alien enemy and defeat them, but ultimately come to love them. Because he understood them he could love them with all his innocence.

Ordinary fiction would spend too much time trying to explain how and justifying why child soldiers were being trained the way the International Fleet trains Ender and friends. The concept of an enemy so completely unknown, so plain inhuman would feel terribly contrived in conventional fiction. In Ender’s Game we go with it because it’s the setting. We get the innocence of a child and truly alien enemy. Why? Science fiction.

Everyone dreams. Everyone wants to escape. Inception gives us a world where we can escape into our dreams. Yes, there are practical uses for this (typically of the espionage and thieving variety), but what would we really do with this technology? Would we would run from the world and its problems into our dreams, into dreams where everything is how and as we want? Christopher Nolan examines the concept of being able to escape in this fashion and the questions of reality that ensue. If our dreams are better than life would we not chose to stay in that world? What would reality mean then? What would we do?

In Inception we see people running from reality and trying to create their own. It’s what we do in our daydreams and it’s what we do when we go to the movies. But in the world of this movie it’s something they can do on a whim. Some people hide in them, some people will use them, and some simply remain unaware. It’s on the humanity within the story that science fiction thrives. We see people act and can’t help but to wonder whether we, like Cobb’s wife, would just want to live in our imaginary world.

Finally; Serenity. The idea presented in Joss Whedon’s film is the question of control. Of course, we’ve heard stories about totalitarian governments clamping down on freedom and forcing them to behave. But it’s in this setting that the Alliance has not only the will but the ability to truly control their population. If free will and the capacity to make choice is taken out of the human equation what then remains?

Science fiction allows us to explore the idea in a world where it’s possible. Because we’ve agreed to believe that the technology exists we can see the implications. Serenity asks what would people would do if they found a world without choice. Five hundred years in the future we will still aim to misbehave: especially if misbehaving is the right thing to do. Set against a backdrop of spaceships and planets is the story of an artificial family just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of home.

So why science fiction? The setting lets us create worlds where the impossible is just a part of life. This impossible factor lets us ask what people would then do. District 9 asked the question of aliens and segregation, Alien created a unique horror film, Jurassic Park demonstrated the fallacies of playing god. Sure, the setting can be seen as just a vehicle for a parable, but it’s a world where imagination runs wild.

Good science fiction is about the people in the world. It’s a simple concept: the world will change but people will stay the same.

Plus, science fiction is just so friggin’ fun.

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