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Trusting The Story

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Aug 05 2017 · 50 views

Essays, Not Rants! 280: Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn't terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan's concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don't really know what's going on in the beginning, so long as you're willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that's the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.


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Top Nine Movies of 2016

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 29 2017 · 138 views

Essays, Not Rants! 279: Top Nine Movies of 2016

There comes a point in time when you realize you aren’t going to get around to watching those movies on your list. And then it’s almost August and you’re still thinking about 2016 movies and honestly it’s just embarrassing at this point.

But then again, that’s why it’s a Top Nine, to save one space for that extra movie. Because there are movies out there I know I’d like, like Swiss Army Man or maybe Patterson. And Midnight Special. Man, I can’t believe I still haven’t watched Midnight Special. Maybe even some others that I’ve forgotten. But not La La Land, La La Land was awful.

Look, I had a busy year. So with no more excuses, here are, in a vague semblance of order that is liable to change, my top nine of 2016.

9. The Magnificent Seven
I know that, objectively, this movie is just kinda pretty alright, but I can’t help but to really like it. And of course it’s because it’s about a multiracial band of cowboys doing the hero thing. If your movie gives me a #AsianCowboy, of course I’m gonna be game. I want more movies with teams like this, so, here we are.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
I don’t know how I feel about the whole Cloverfield branding thing, so let’s ignore that. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in suspense, where half the horror of it comes from your own brain trying to piece together what’s going on. It’s terrifying, without ever resorting to cheap scares.

7. 20th Century Women
It’s hard to put exactly into words what I liked about this movie. It feels like a snapshot come to life, like an attempt to capture a very specific point in time with a very specific group of people. It’s wonderful and bittersweet, the sort of movie that leaves you feeling that this has been something.

6. Rogue One
I have said a lot of things over the past year about why I love this movie. In summation:
  • Epic battle against good and evil
  • AT-ATs and Star Destroyers
  • The good guys aren’t just white dudes
  • Again, the main heroes are women and PoC.
  • Star Wars, yo.
5. Zootopia
A movie about a bunny cop and a sly fox teaming up to solve a crime sounds overly cutesy on paper, but Zootopia succeeds in telling a pretty raw story on prejudice, but without it feeling overly moralistic. Plus there’s a gorgeously realized world in it that you just wanna explore.

4. Captain America: Civil War
Yes, the Marvel movies always get high praise for me. Especially Civil War, which levied the MCU’s eight years of history into a really affecting conflict. It’s an excellent example of causality in fiction, where just about every plot and character beat feels earned and is either pay off or set up for another. It’s excellent all around.

3. Sing Street
I’m not quite sure why I fell in love with his movie. Maybe it’s fresh on my mind because I read the script recently, maybe it’s because it’s such a great coming-of-age story, maybe it’s because it plays out a teenage fantasy so well. More than anything, though, the movie feels honest. There’s no winking, no tongue in cheek; Conor’s quest to start a band and woo wannabe-model Raphina is treated as being perfectly legitimate and not an adolescent flight of fantasy. It may not go quite as far as it could, but it remains a wonderful film.

2. Moonlight
A lot of people have probably said why this movie works better than I can. It’s a beautiful, almost haunting movie. It’s gorgeously intimate, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Stories let you live someone else’s life, and Moonlight does that so well.

1. Arrival
There are movies that, when hooked on an interesting premise, will be really happy about it and make its whole thing. Arrival has a great twist to it, but it’s not one done just for the kicks nor does it self-congratulate itself for it. Rather, it’s born out of a story about understanding, language, and otherness. Arrival is an incredibly unified movie where everything, its visuals, plot, and characters, all revolve around its central theme. And it’s an excellent movie to boot.


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What's The Point of Movies?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 22 2017 · 85 views

Essays, Not Rants! 278: What’s The Point of Movies?

I’m replaying Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (and it is wonderful) and I can’t help but to be reminded that there’s supposed to be a movie adaption of this game happening. Like, it’s been in development since 2010. Every now and then there’ll be some announcement (apparently Tom Holland is playing a young Nathan Drake now?), but then it fizzles out into the background. Kinda like how film adaption of The Last of Us went, there was a bunch of buzz, and now we’re three years later aaaand… nothing.

But video games are being made into movies. There was that Assassin’s Creed film last year that nobody saw and meanwhile Alicia Vikander looks pitch perfect in the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movies (this time based on the reboot of the Tomb Raider video games). This isn’t a post about development ######. This is about adaptions.

A Thief’s End takes around fifteen hours to play through. Now, I bring up Thief’s End because it doesn’t have as much gameplay-and-story separation as, say, Halo. Exploration is part of the narrative in A Thief’s End, both for the dialogue between characters as it happens, and for it being part of the game’s central quest. Basically, it’s not filler. It’s a fifteen hour game and a fifteen hour story.

Fifteen hours is, obviously, thirteen hours longer than your typical movie. It’s about the length of a full season of Star Wars Rebels, or the final season of LOST. It’s longer than the entire extended Lord of The Rings trilogy.

In other words, why bother compressing it into a two hour movie? What’s about movie do better than other forms of story? Let’s ignore the fact that big movies get budgets several orders of magnitude bigger than tv shows or whatever, why two hours and not more? Books give you hundreds of pages to explore character and plot, tv shows a couple dozen episodes a season, and video games hours and hours of gameplay. If you’re telling a story, these mediums offer you much more space to explore it. More time to hang out with characters and experience this fictional world.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s why you don’t eat a pound of bacon. Crazy Rich Asians has five-hundred pages to tell its story and ends up meandering around and having little plot, if any, until the last hundred-odd pages where it’s a rushed jumble of half-rate melodrama. There’s a film adaption coming, and maybe compressing it into two hours will do it some good.

'cuz that’s what happens when you set a limit on the time to tell your story: you gotta focus on the important stuff. The film adaption of The Princess Bride dispenses with a lot of the satire and sideplots in favor of a great love story and the relationship between a kid and his grandfather. Movies, good ones, have to zero in on what really matters to a story. Fundamentally, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2 is about family, and by only have two hours, the movie is able to home in on it. Every character confronts the notion of family in one way or another. Even thought the movie’s plot does waffle a bit, it knows full well what it’s about. The runtime of a film forces a cohesiveness to the story, if it’s, y’know, done well.

A Thief’s End isn’t a great example of a game-to-movie adaption, since the structure is so wonderfully tight (seriously, I’m taking notes). There’s not as much narrative fluff to trim as, say, the new Tomb Raider or even Mass Effect. The abounded film adaption of Halo could have done interesting stuff by zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship set against the fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Movies feel whole, more complete than a tv show (which, by nature, needs to have room for one more episode) or video games (which tend to be longer because, dude, they cost sixty bucks).
I don’t think A Thief’s End should be directly adapted into a movie, and the only reason I have any want for Uncharted to become a movie at all is so non-gamers like my parents can fall in love with these characters. But I don’t think a cinematic adaption’s gonna 'elevate' it more than it is. Movies do some things great, but so do video games (and tv, and books, and comics, and plays…). Maybe we should let some games just be games, and let movies do their thing.


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Haven't We Heard This Before?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 15 2017 · 87 views

Essays, Not Rants! 277: Haven’t We Heard This Before?

Spider-Man’s a superhero whose central theme is conveniently spelled out for us: with great power comes great responsibility. And it’s a great one too. A nobody gets given amazing powers and has to learn what to do with them. It's a pretty essential part of most incarnations of Spider-Man, be it Miles Morales or even more recently when it's Gwen Stacy that gets bitten by the radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Woman. It's always that balance of power and knowing what to do with it.

When there comes time for a cinematic Spider-Man that's the theme of the (two) hour(s). In Sam Raimi's original film, Peter Parker's irresponsibility is what gets Uncle Ben killed, and his acceptance of his responsibility leads to him fighting Green Goblin. The conflict of the second Spider-Man is him giving up the mask, only to take it back up because he's the only one who can stop Doc Ock. In Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-Man we see Uncle Ben die (again), providing the impetus for Peter to use his powers to stop crime. Powers, responsibility, and Peter Parker reluctantly being the hero.

So Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have its theme waiting for it: responsibility and all that (most likely through the death of Uncle Ben). Except Peter is already Spider-Man. And Uncle Ben is already dead. And Peter really likes being Spider-Man.

Right here this sets up a different sort of superhero narrative. The usual internal conflict for a superhero is their unwillingness to do the heroing (and so the climax is them deciding to hero). Tony Stark becomes Iron Man out of a sense of guilty responsibility, not for the fun of it. Thor’s a self-serving blowhard who learns humility. Batman operates out of a just vengeance. Spider-Man usually Spider-Mans out of a sense of responsibility. But this Spider-Man really likes crimefighting; he gets a thrill out of the heroics. In fact, he wants more: he wants to be an Avenger. Like Iron Man.

It's hard to give an eager hero internal obstacles. Tony Stark is hung up on guilt and the idea that he has to do it alone which makes things difficult for him. The Guardians have to overcome their infighting and greed to fight Ronan. Even Captain America questions if it's worth it. But Homecoming's Peter is go-go-go. He's got the power, and he's fighting crime with it. Where's the classic Spider-Man theme?*

Here's part of Homecoming's genius. Responsibility in this movie doesn't just mean crimefighting and heroing, it's the reason for doing so. Peter, in the aftermath of taking part in Civil War's airport battle, wants to be an Avenger. He wants in on the big leagues. He bugs Happy Hogan to tell Tony about what he's doing and he chases the Vulture because this is his chance to make it big.

The film's climax, and Peter's self-actualization, comes when Peter decides to hero not for the glory or to impress Tony, but instead to save the day. It may not sound like a huge difference, but, without spoiling anything, the film makes the distinction clear. It’s when Peter heroes for the greater good and not for himself, that he becomes a real hero. Spider-Man Homecoming is still a movie where Spider-Man learns a lesson in responsibility, it just plays out differently than usual.

We've had enough versions of Spider-Man over the past fifteen-odd years for the idea of a new Spider-Man to be met with a hint of tiredness. Here we go again, Spider-Man has to learn how to Spider-Man and responsibility. And Homecoming is about that, but it handles it in a much different manner than prior renditions. You don't need an edgy and avant garde narrative with brand new everythings to tell a new story. Sometimes just digging into your core theme is enough. I think that's why Homecoming is able to be quintessentially Spider-Man while still feeling incredibly refreshing. Jon Watts and the team didn't feel the need to completely reinvent Spider-Man, rather they explored the story a bit more and found something new.


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Hanging Out

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 08 2017 · 81 views

Essays, Not Rants! 276: Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It's a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I'm about halfway through) it's been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I'm totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there's a clear reason why.

And it's not the spaceship thing.

It's characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what's needed for the scene. They've no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it's fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It's a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it's when he's mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It's around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you've spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It's great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that's a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.


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Why Am I Reading This?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 01 2017 · 130 views

Essays, Not Rants! 275: Why Am I Reading This?

There aren’t a lot of books that take place in Singapore. Wikipedia’s category page for Novels Set in Singapore lists only twenty-six. Now, there are books missing from that list (I added one to the list while writing this), but let’s take this as a sample group. A cursory glance shows that many of these books are not set in contemporary Singapore, but rather around the second World War or before the country was established as it is now. None of them are books you’re probably gonna happen upon, and a few are long out of print.

Point is, not a lot of books about modern Singapore.

Which is why, upon finding it on display in a bookstore in the Village, I added Crazy Rich Asians to my reading list. The blurb sounded interesting enough; a Singaporean-living-in-New-York (Nick) brings his ABC girlfriend (Rachel) to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to meet his parents (who are crazy rich). Should be fun.

Of course, the main reason I picked up the book and read it was because it was a book by a Singaporean about Singapore. I haven’t read a book that would fall into either category since… well, I can’t remember.

And for most of the book, it’s why I kept reading. The prose of Crazy Rich Asians, is passable at its best, perfectly perfunctory and rife with massive chunks of exposition. Most frustrating of all, it is bereft of a voice. It could almost be excused as just lackluster writing, except that we catch glimmers of one in the footnotes used to translate bits of Singlish or explain a reference to a Singaporean institution (but, for some reason, not to excise the paragraphs of stilted exposition that exist in the text). Writer Kevin Kwan does shine through in parts, particular when capturing the idiosyncratic speech pattern of Singaporeans, or small details about the food (and importance thereof) in Singapore. But it is, for the most part, a bit of a dull read.

But I can forgive lackluster prose. Michael A. Stackpole is not the most deft writer, but his X-Wing books are well-plotted and offer a fun, pulpy read with distinct, memorable characters. Crazy Rich Asians, however, has only the barest bones of a plot. Rachel gets a chunk of culture shock when she realizes how rich Nick’s family is, meanwhile Nick’s mother tries to break them up, seeing as Rachel doesn’t come from an established family. There’s also Nick’s cousin who suspects her husband of infidelity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these plots, except that they’re all stretched out over the book’s five hundred-odd pages, with little development for whole swaths of the book and interspersed with small subplots that offer little insight into characters or the bigger, overacting plots. It’s like an open-world video game with too many sidequests in book form. The big issue, besides the whole pacing thing, is that so much of the conflict is contrived. Which, again, wouldn’t be an issue were the characters interesting; but Nick, Rachel, et al. feel more like ciphers than characters, hollow shells who act and react however best to move the plot along or, more often add to The Drama. When the book finally resolves with the most overdone trope ever, it’s more an eventuality than a culmination. Characters don’t make choices, character’s don’t have inner conflict, characters don’t have character.

So why the heck did I keep reading? Besides, y’know, my aversion to complaining and criticizing material I don’t watch/read/play. Simple answer: Singapore. I’ve spent around half my life in that country at various points and have a complex relationship with the place. There’s a thrill to seeing it in fiction and recognizing places and foods. I suppose for people without a connection to the country would find the book intriguing for the, well, exoticness of Singapore and it’s super-rich elite. It leaves a weird feeling in my gut. To me, Singapore isn’t exotic; it’s pretty normal, so exoticizing someplace like Singapore is odd in and of itself, and downright bizarre when the book’s appeal seems to hang on that hook. We get it, Singapore is a unique place, but you’ve gotta do something with it. Tolkien didn’t just create an encyclopedia of Middle-Earth, he sets epic stories in it to flesh it out. Kwan’s characters never become more interesting than Singapore, and a location, no matter how exotic, shouldn’t be what drives a story.

There are two more books in this series, and I’m mildly curious about whether they improve. But as it stands, Crazy Rich Asians is an immensely frustrating book. I want to see Singapore and all its idiosyncrasies in fiction, I just want to see it done well. I guess I kept reading with the hopes that hey, it’d finish well, but so much for that.


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Andromeda: After The Fact

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 24 2017 · 34 views

Essays, Not Rants! 274: Andromeda After The Fact

I finally finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda and dutifully started my second (this time as Sara instead of Scott). Ramping up the difficulty to Insanity makes combat much more frantic (and thereby makes the brilliant combat systems that much more fun), but we’ll see how far I get through it before I decide to finally replay Uncharted 4 because a) it’s a better game, 2) I haven’t replayed it, and iii) my god I want to play a game that was actually finished.

Because there’s no doubt that Andromeda was rushed in some places. Its combat may be incredibly fluid, but a much of its mission design is outright boring. Some of the character models look great, but the animation in some parts is glitchy at best and magnificently awful at worst. And the writing. In parts, its great; in other parts it reads like a hasty first draft. And all this is not getting into the wonky pacing and exploitable systems that plague the game. But Andromeda is still a stupid amount of fun – it wrapped up well enough that I started a New Game+ after finishing it the first time. In fact, I’d say that most of its issues are emblematic of the central tensions in many AAA video games.

So let’s start with its look, something that’s gotten a lot of grief on the internet. And rightfully so; it’s very weird to talk to someone who’s mouth is moving, but eyes are lifeless. There’s a fairly important cutscene where a character model just didn’t show up. Heck, even some of the romance scenes, which developer BioWare is famous for, are halting and glitchy. It’s a mess, heightened all the more since the character models and general graphics are pretty good. The animation issues, at times, overshadow everything else that’s going on. Sure, you have pretty worlds and characters and a sometimes-well written and often well-voiced script, but it’s easy to forget all that when the character’s acting is wooden. So maybe BioWare and publisher EA should have pushed the release back a couple months to work out the kinks.

But why is there such a reliance on a game looking 'good?' We’re reaching a point 'good graphics' has become standard, with some, like Kojima Production’s FOX Engine, verging on literally lifelike. Thing is, when everything looks good, that’s no longer enough to stand out, and if your animation is shoddy – as in Andromeda – it becomes glaringly obvious. Other games find ways to complement their graphics: Uncharted 4’s animation is unparalleled, and games like Borderlands and Dishonored stylize their characters and locations. Then there are smaller, indie games like Sportsfriends or Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime which have simple, even retro, graphics, but ones that work with the gameplay.

Which is where Andromeda’s pretty good. Gameplay is solid, the addition of the jetpack and different AI making it much more dynamic that prior Mass Effects’ waiting-and-shooting. And with difficulty on Insanity, it’s got me using the new Profiles feature as much as I can. Andromeda is fun. But some of its missions are terribly repetitive: you go down a lot of corridors and clear out a lot of cookie-cutter bases. Sometimes there are moments of genius, like getting to dash through a battlefield in your space car or the narrative gives mystery to exploring an ancient alien superstructure, but when the vast majority of side missions are fetch quest after fetch quest, it gets really dull. Andromeda is a long game – I logged over 90 hours by the time I beat the game – but its myriad of fetch quests make it out to be padding out the length. Not to mention they distract from the central narrative (which, once it gets going, is actually not half bad). So is quantity or quality better? Uncharted 4 is a fifteen-odd hour game, but its narrative is incredibly tight and doesn’t fall into repetitiveness. It would take a lotta work to fill four full days worth of gameplay with Interesting Stuff, so maybe Andromeda could have used some tight cuts?

I will complain about Andromeda a lot. But I also really liked the game – again, I’ve started a second playthrough. I think that AAA games like Andromeda are reaching a tipping point where the old rubric of what made a game exciting (graphics! gameplay! big budget!) are no longer enough to make a game stand out. I do wish Andromeda was better than it is, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad game. Rather, its flaws are ones we see in a lot of other AAA games – look at Destiny. Maybe there’s a shift coming in the way games are made, maybe the next Mass Effect, whenever it comes out, will get things right. In any case, it’s a perfect adequate game. But we’re reaching a point where that’s not enough anymore.


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Mixed Results

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 17 2017 · 76 views

Essays, Not Rants! 273: Mixed Results

I really liked the movie Balto as a kid. And for a kid, it makes sense. It’s about a talking dog, and there’s a goose and a couple polar bears in it too. Plus it’s a story about the outsider getting a chance to prove they belong by doing an Epic Heroic Thing and earning their place.’

Also, it’s a story about being mixed.

Like me.

I’m mixed, biracial, half-Asian; whatever the term du jour is. Which is something I mention every now and then on this blog, because it’s part of who I am and thus how I interpret the world around me and, with it, the narratives that the world creates. In other worlds: I tell you this because it directly impact the way I see stories.

And this is important, because Balto is half-dog, half-wolf, which is a major part of his identity in the story. He doesn’t fit in with the dogs because of his wolfness, but he can’t exactly run out and join a pack of wolves. He doesn’t belong to either group. Over the course of the movie he (spoiler) proves himself to his peers and, more importantly, realizes that his being half-wolf is a good thing, not a drawback. The plot progresses and he gets to save the day.

We don’t see a lot of mixed-race narratives, period. TV Tropes has precious few examples, and many of them are either informed traits or their entire story.. Sure, we’ll see interracial relationships play out (Hello, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), but anytime the product of one of those shows up, if the question of identity is addressed, chances are it becomes their whole thing. Growing up, Balto was the only story I knew that had a character who was explicitly mixed and dealt with that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t the only thing he had going on; he still got to do the hero thing.

It’s quite unfortunate, then, that I didn’t see much of Star Trek until I was eighteen, but even then just the Abrams film. But that’s a movie about Spock’s journey as a character, one that’s inherently related to his own status as being half-Vulcan, half-Human. Again, the importance here is that though the story deals with Spock’s identity, it is not the extent of his arc. He still has a story of learning humility and teamwork and saving the day and all that, one aspect of which is, of course, struggling with his identity.

I wanna stress just how rare this is. When stories come up with biracial characters that touch on their identity, that’s usually the be all and end all of their story. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has Sarah Jane, a half-white, half-black girl who passes white and so uses that to her advantage. Her story is one of someone rejecting one identity in favor of another and thus all but abandoning her mother in pursuit of hedonism. Yes, it’s a story about someone who’s mixed, but it’s about being mixed. Most of the time, when someone who’s mixed shows up in fiction and has a role, that’s their story. It’s about coming to terms with their identity, or realizing that they should embrace both halves and what have you. There’s no conjunction; they don’t come to terms with their identity and save the world, they don’t get to embrace both halves and make the big jump to fund their step-dad’s conveniently priced surgery.

This is why Balto mattered to me so darn much as a kid. I got to see someone in a movie dealing with some of the ###### I dealt with. I got to see someone do all that and still save the day. It’s about being different, but still getting the normal treatment. Differently normal, if you will. I do think stories about mixed people being mixed are important, but equally important are stories where they – we – get to deal with the stuff and still be the hero. I want stories about mixed people that aren’t just about being mixed; I’m more than just someone who’s half-white, half-Asian.


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But What About The Men? 2: Sexy Lamps

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 10 2017 · 90 views

Essays, Not Rants! 272: But What About The Men??? 2: Sexy Lamps

Back at a con panel in 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel, etc) coined the Sexy Lamp Test. Its rubric is that if you can take a female character out of a story and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still works, then "you’re a [beeping] hack." Like all tests used to judge stories (ie: Bechdel), it’s not perfect – mostly because it’s a little too vague. But it still provides a good starting point to examine fiction.

Like I love The Dark Knight, but Rachel in the movie is very much a sexy lamp. She doesn’t do anything that affects the plot in a major way. She’s there for Bruce and Harvey to pine over and then to be 'fridged and give Batman some angst. Still a great movie, but there are issues with how the film handles women.

Conversely, Star Wars aces it. You can’t replace Leia with a lamp that goes along for the ride, she does way too much – her first appearance is giving the Death Star plans to Artoo and setting the movie’s plot in motion. Throughout the film she does stuff, she has agency, she makes things happen.

You with me so far? Because here’s where we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman. And dudes.

Steve Trevor is The Male Character in Wonder Woman. Sure, we’ve the villain and the other soldiers, but Steve Trevor is The Guy. He buddies up with Diana early on in the film and they go out and Do Things. Given that Diana is the protagonist of this movie, Steve becomes, quite naturally, the deuteragonist of the film and fulfills what in any other movie would be the 'girlfriend role.’

This is one of Wonder Woman's acts of brilliance: the film flips the roles. Steve is the one who buoys Diana's force of character, he's her tie to the real world, and he's the one whose main role is to support her and her arc. Like I said, he’s the girlfriend.

Consider Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. Though this was later remedied in her tv show, she doesn't really affect the plot much in the movie. She supports Steve Rogers and helps out here and there, but at the end of the day doesn't really change the plot much more than a talking sexy lamp would. Oh, she's still a really great character, but the plot doesn't position her in such a way that she does stuff. This is one thing the Sexy Lamp Test exposes: cool characters who don't actually have much agency or effect on the plot. Like Boba Fett, who outside of going to Cloud City offscreen, has no more narrative impact than a lamp in dope armor. Except Peggy is actually one of the main characters of The First Avenger.

Steve Trevor of Wonder Woman, however, does quite a bit in the movie; considerably more than your typical 'superhero girlfriend.' Without spoiling too much of the film, it's his actions - particularly one he does of his own volition and not under orders - that set most of the plot in action, and in the final act he gets to make a Big Choice that changes the course of the climax.

A sexy lamp Steve Trevor is not. And maybe that can be chalked up to good writing, but I’m gonna blame it on Steve being a guy. Imagine this; it’s the climax of the film and the main male character does nothing. Maybe he drives a car so the main female character can go save the day, but elsewise he watches. It’s basically unheard of, and uncommon at best (look at how much Peeta and Gale get to do in the climaxes of The Hunger Games movies). But it happens all the time for female characters. It’s what Peggy does in The First Avenger. It’s what Pepper does in Iron Man 2. Sexy lamp or not, it’s easy to cast aside the supporting female character, the 'girlfriend role,' at the climax. But Steve Trevor still gets to Do Stuff, and Important Stuff Of His Own Accord at that.

For all its subversions of norms, Wonder Woman doesn’t neuter the agency of its male lead. Which, woo, equality! But at the same time, it shows how unfair the treatment of women in blockbusters – especially superhero films – is. We’ve got the first female-led superhero in over a decade and we still have a dude who goes around saving some of the day. Oh, it’s still Diana’s movie; but Steve gets an arc just about any other female character would kill for in just about any other film. Even in a movie about Wonder Woman, the dude still gets special treatment.

Which in this case means fair treatment.

And therein lies the problem.



For the first But What About The Men???, go here.


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Fast Car

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 03 2017 · 54 views

Essays, Not Rants! 271: Fast Car

I really like Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car," and I realize I’m saying this as someone who’s around thirty years late to the party. Beyond its great musicality, there’s the poetry to it. It speaks to a wanting for a life that’s more than you have, one beyond your circumstances; but also to the dashing of that dream when reality ensues. All in all, it’s a beautiful, melancholic song.

Which I don’t really relate. Or more, can’t. See, I’ve lived a privileged life. I come from a home with functional parents in a healthy relationship; I never had to work to support my family or put my education on hold to care for my parents. The "I" of the song and I have little to nothing in common.

"Fast Car" speaks to something deeper than the surface it transcends circumstances. It’s not hard to relate to wanting something more than you have, to wanting to drive away from your lot in life. But Chapman doesn’t just try to paint the picture of those emotions; instead she describes the circumstances that create the feelings. Instead of telling us how to feel she crafts a narrative that elicits it. Specificity lends it empathy; by describing the events in such detail, Chapman is able to really dig into that wanting. It’s so vivid, it’s real. The fast car drives from metaphor into reality.

But it’s still a very particular narrative, that of a poor, black woman. It's a story about her and her experiences. So what business do I, a half-white half-Asian man who’s not living in poverty, have listening to it?

Now there's the universality of art. You don't have to have lived on a boat to appreciate John Masefield's poetry. Homegoing is still a brilliant piece of literature whether or not you have any relation to the African diaspora. Good works bring you into a world and state of mind, often through specifics. It's how you make an unknown world known, how you spark a feeling that you can't describe.

The stumbling block here, especially with something like "Fast Car," is adopting a narrative or set of experiences as your own. "Fast Car" isn't my story and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise. I love the song and I love singing along, but fundamentally I know it's not my song. It's the difference between appreciation and appropriation. If you were to make a video adaption of "Fast Car" and make the leads middle-class and white, you'd be completely missing the point.

This is something I'm thinking through, and a lot of this rant essay is me spitballing. I was introduced to "Fast Car" (and Tracy Chapman proper) when an indie band I love covered the song four-odd years ago. Now, they didn't change the pronouns or the lyrics at all, but it's still a white guy singing. Does that fundamentally affect the song? What about me and a friend singing it a karaoke? Am I thinking about this way too much?

In all honesty: I probably am. When Barcelona sings "Fast Car" they aren't making any claims to the narrative. It’s a thirty year old song and a really good one at that; maybe a cover of it costs some of its subtext, but I don’t think there’s anything, well wrong with it. Maybe it’s like reading a good book, where you get to experience another life as your own for a bit. I don’t have a point to all this, more I’m curious about the way I interact with art, especially with narratives that aren't about me.

In any case, "Fast Car" is a great song, and I do really like both Barcelona’s cover and Tracy Chapman’s original.






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josh

twenty-five


grew up on a ship


studied Narrative (Re)Construction

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

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