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Signs of the Times

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 07 2015 · 164 views

Essays, Not Rants! 190: Signs of the Times

The Uncharted games are what got me really into gaming as an adult (well, them and Metal Gear Solid). With the release and my subsequent acquisition of the Nathan Drake Collection, I’ve spent the past couple days replaying Drake’s Fortune, the first game in the series, for the first time in a few years.

And the game still holds up, because of course it does. Drake’s Fortune still looks great eight years after it came out (due in some part to the Remastered nation of the Collection) and it still plays great. Punching and shooting bad guys is as fun as ever and the platforming remains surprisingly deft.

It’s certainly different from the later two Uncharted games, though. Drake’s Fortune lacks the wide variety of verticality that became a hallmark of the series. The game’s firefight arenas are oddly linear. Sure, sometimes you have to shoot up to kill a pirate-mercenary-baddie, but climbing around to flank them from above isn’t so much an option as is continuing on down the differently-dressed corridors of gunfire. Also of note is how oddly lonely Drake’s Fortune seems, especially compared to Among Thieves. Where the later games would have you running around and exchanging banter with someone throughout the game, be it Elena, Chloe, Sully, or Charlie. Drake’s Fortune has Nathan Drake on his own for huge swaths of the game, to the point where it sometimes feels that Naughty Dog was deliberately setting him up to be alone. Sure, we still get him talking to himself now and then, but the lack of banter is noticeable. It also does a disservice to Elena and Sully, who frequently opt to sit out a part of the adventure for some arbitrary reason. Or maybe Among Thieves just isolated Drake more organically. I’m replaying that next.

But what’s most striking about Drake’s Fortune is the parts where it seems so old. The video game landscape looked very different in 2007 than it does now, particularly in narrative-focused adventure games like this. For example, there are a few glaring quick time events where you literally push x (or o) not to die. It’s obvious where the mindset comes from, trying to add some new actions to the game. Drake can jump off a falling ledge now (if you push x at just the right time). These quick time events, besides being annoying (dude, I don’t wanna have to push x not to die randomly during the final showdown!), are jarring when you look at the steps taken in Among Thieves, where the player is in control as a building explodes or a city crumbles. Drake’s Fortune’s quick time events feel lazy and, well, unimaginative.

They do add variety, though, but Drake’s Fortune was clearly born out of an era where gameplay variety meant a couple jet ski chapters and one where you manned the gun on a truck. And sure, it does succeed in switching up gameplay from the usual run-gun-climb, but it feels like a crude method to do so, once again something later Uncharted games have improved on by changing up the area where you run-gun-climb. Not to say it’s bad by any means, rather it’s very much a sign of when it was made. Drake’s Fortune is very much a video game from 2007.

I suppose then that it shows the growing pains of video games like Uncharted went through. Some concepts and features feel have-formed in comparison to what they would become and others feel downright old. All that to say, I can’t help but to wonder how games will look eight years from now; what mechanics that games employ now will be old hat then?

Oh please let it be micro-transactions.


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This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, JEB!

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 31 2015 · 327 views

Essays, Not Rants! 189: This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, JEB!

I don’t really talk about politics on this blog…ever. Well, aside from, y’know, the historical or entries on diversity or women in fiction. But every now and then something shows up that’s nonpartisan enough but still related enough to what I usually write about for a good discussion.

An interview with Jeb Bush (Or JEB) has been making the rounds lately, wherein he’s asked who his favorite superhero is. This alone is worth noting because we’re at the point in where a presidential candidate can be asked about superheroes. Yes, this is a part of nerd culture becoming mainstream, but it’s also a reflection of superheroes forming a new mythology. They can be discussed as a cultural touchstone no matter who you are. Point is to say that the fact that he was even asked this question is remarkable in and of itself. Superheroes have become a new pantheron, to some extent; though decidedly fictional, they are a sort of example of humanity in all its forms (which, y’know, is all the more the reason to have a more diverse lineup, but I digress). There’s probably a whole other paper in that idea, but not here.

Anyway, after mentioning that watching Marvel movies makes him wish that he owned the company — which I’m not even gonna touch here — he decides that Batman may be his favorite, albeit a dark choice. But he’s aware of Supergirl being a thing, courtesy of the new advertising blitz, and thinks she’s hot.

Okay. He could have answered the question one of a dozen very neutral, safe ways; but he chooses to bring Supergirl up… because she’s hot? Dude, no. It’s fun that this is the sort of question we can ask a presidential candidate, but at the same time, but why does one of the more serious presidential candidates think it’s okay to talk about her looks as a defining factor? Even if a question like this takes center stage, a female hero still gets the short end of the stick. Yes, she got mentioned — that’s great! But she gets mentioned only to be reduced down to a pretty face. He could have mentioned that she could fly — that’s in the marketing too! — but nope, she’s hot and that’s key.

“But Josh,” you say, “you’re making way too big a deal out of this, it’s just one guy’s opinion!” Well, straw man, remember what I said earlier about superheroes being a new mythology? It goes with it then, that the perception of them is a reflection of culture as a whole. And Jeb’s comments reflect a culture that still judges a woman by her appearance rather than her abilities.

Which is really frustrating, because there’s a steady cultural shift away from female superheroes defining characteristic being their looks and related attributes. Carol Danvers got a new outfit and is firmly regarded as Earth’s Mightiest Avenger. I can’t speak for the show (having not seen it), but it looks like Supergirl is doing something similar, for starters by giving her a costume that’s more practical than titillating. Going beyond the world of comics, Fury Road mad us like Furiosa because she was baddonkey and capable, not because she was ‘hot.’ Furiosa, more so than Carol Danvers or Supergirl, has been recognized for this in a big way.

In the movie/TV world characters are idealized, and this means prettified, but while handsome male characters can still be interesting, the pretty women are often there just to be pretty. While kick butt grungy women are awesome, to really even out the gender imbalance we need to allow for attractive women to be interesting and valued for qualities beyond their looks. Because it’s not fair when a male character needs no justification, but a female one does — and it’s her looks.

In any case, we, as a culture, from presidential candidates on down, have gotta stop defining women — in fiction or not — by how attractive the are. In the meantime, we should at least talk a lot more about how hot the new Batman is. But especially the new Aquaman.


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The Honest Truth

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 24 2015 · 130 views

Essays, Not Rants! 188: The Honest Truth

A lot of stories aim to be real. Or as real as you can be while being a, y’know, story. The challenge here, of course, is figuring out what real is.

One interpretation of ‘real’ is realistic. No spaceships, because spaceships are far from commercial right now. No superpowers or superheroes, because those aren’t things. And no magic either. Y’know, realism.

So like Lost in Translation. It’s about two people in Japan, and just about there. There’s no monsters in this Japan; Godzilla’s not here to do its thing this time. It’s a story about people, being lost, and being understood. This isn’t communicated through metaphor or by using fanatical elements to play it up. Everything’s communicated through Bob and Charlotte’s interactions, it all feels real. For these two people out of their element, the mutual feeling of outsiderness brings them together. There’s this sensation that, yeah, you could be one of them. But Lost in Translation is still very romantic — and not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but that of something being idealized. Tokyo itself is almost magical in Lost in Translation.

‘Realism,’ then, tends to be interpreted as gritty. Compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of The Rings. Despite both being very much fantasy, the former is more ‘realistic.’ In Westeros there’s political machinations, religious bickering, prostitution, and gory violence you don’t come back from. It’s realistic fantasy! It makes for a very different tone and world from Rings, but it works for the story the show is telling.

Mr. Robot also aims for realism. Now, one thing the show does really well is do hacking proper. No one hacks the mainframe by reversing the polarity of the hard drive; all the technobabble is real (which is great, let’s have more of that). Now, Mr. Robot also adds other things of ‘reality.’ There’s the grime of New York City, there are events outside of the characters’ control that sends the plots off the rails, there are these bibs and bobs that are all there to make the show seem more real, seem like an honest portrayal of the world.

Not that it does anything. Look, I wasn’t impressed by Mr. Robot, and I know I’m ragging on it; but for all its attempts to construct a very ‘real’ place, the characters and events don’t resonate. It doesn’t matter how real the world is, if we don’t care for the characters, we don’t care for the story. Even if we’re angry at the characters, that’s still feeling something.

There’s nothing inherently added by including the gritty details of life. Fiction, despite being a well-crafted lie, relies on honesty. The reason something like Star Wars resonates so well is because the characters feel true; Luke’s wanting to be more than a farm boy on Tatooine is something all far too recognizable. Both Thrones and Rings have characters with tangible motivations and responses. We understand Tyrion’s hatred of his family and Boromir’s desire to bring honor to Gondor. Beneath the dragons and Elves there’s an actual honest emotional truth. Lost in Translation is built entirely on that emotional honesty; it’s an exercise in empathy. The stories that really work, work so well because they feel true, even they aren’t.


Postscript, because I absolutely have to mention this:
Hardcore realism can have a role in fiction, minutiae can work. It just has to be incredibly well done. Like in Ulysses, by James Joyce, which has all the ins and outs and dirty humanity of a normal day (plus or minus a little bit of oddness here and there). Ulysses works, though, because of the honesty within it. Bloom is still haunted by the death of his infant son and we, as readers, are invited to try and understand what it’s like to go through your day like that. There’s a verisimilitude to it that lends it the honesty that makes it successful.


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The Right Hook

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 17 2015 · 135 views

Essays, Not Rants! 187: The Right Hook

So I’m using this blog to spitball ideas for a paper. And no, it’s not on boxing.

What gets us hooked on a tv show? As in, what is it that makes you keep coming back? What was it about the shows we’re discussing in class — Sherlock, Mr. Robot, Firefly, and Daredevil — that made them stick (or not?).

Sherlock is an interesting case. Each episode nears the length of a feature length film, making it an odd hybrid of film and television. But the show hooks you early in the first episode. Partly because of the familiarity we as a culture have with the mythos of Sherlock Holmes and thus there’s the inherent intrigue in seeing in reinterpreted in a more modern setting. That alone wouldn’t necessarily be enough; fortunately it’s augmented by the incredibly interesting characters of both Sherlock and John. John’s characterized quickly as a war vet looking for a way to make life livable; Sherlock’s an insufferable genius. Because the characters are so darn interesting, you can’t help but to be interested in finding out what will happen next to them. Really well defined protagonists, plus plots that keep pushing them makes it irresistible.

Which Mr. Robot tried valiantly. You’ve got a character who’s somewhat Holmes-ian: freakishly good at something, socially un-adapted, something of a drug habit, insufferably, etc. But where Sherlock of Sherlock has various normal characters to balance him out, everyone in Mr. Robot is off their rocker to one degree or another, making protagonist Elliot seem, well, negligible. That and the fact that the show relies on really lazy storytelling techniques (creepy Scandinavians, diabolical Chinese, killing women for manpain, killing/threatening women because edgy) and mistakes shock value for actually value makes it much harder to get into, or to invest in to the extent that you can in Sherlock.

Investment then, like in banking, is key. It’s not so much as being hooked by a show as getting invested in it. Get invested enough and the sunk cost fallacy will keep you yearning to find out who the mother is even if the quality deteriorates. A lot of the time, this comes down to one of two things: Character and Premise.

Daredevil’s premise trumps its characters. Not to say that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk aren’t developed characters: they’re incredibly rich and compelling. Understanding them and who they are is a great part of the show. But the set up, that of a vigilante fighting to defend his slice of New York against crime, is what gets you. That and the whole superhero aspect of it all. You wanna see how this battle of good versus evil is going to play out and what twists are gonna happen as it goes along. In a sense, it’s a lot like Mr. Robot, only with better defined characters and the ability to actually tell a good story. Now, without its excellent characterization, Daredevil wouldn’t be as exceptional as it is; but it’s the premise that hooks us.

For Firefly, however, it’s all about the characters. Having nine well defined characters means you have someone to latch onto off the bat. Could be Mal ‘cause he’s hot, or Zoë ‘cause she kicks butt, or any of the others for a myriad of other reasons. It’s the characters that anchor you through the bizarre space western setting that’s interesting and all, but primarily serves as a backing for the inter-personal drama that develops. It’s set on a ship (which is a great place to set stories, by the way), forcing each nine to interact no matter what. Every plot is done to facilitate either character growth or conflict: let’s see how Wash responds in an action capacity! Showrunner Joss Whedon himself describes it as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” We get hooked on the characters and want to see what will happen next.

So what, then? Good television is a balance between premise and characters. You can’t have one without the other and shows that do it really well (Daredevil, Sherlock, and Firefly) have great staying power. There’s a hook, and you’re stuck on it.


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More Thoughts on Destiny's Story

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 10 2015 · 197 views

Essays, Not Rants! 186: More Thoughts on Destiny’s Story

So with my Rationale out of the way, I picked up Destiny’s expansion-sequel The Taken King and put… many… hours into it. It’s a huge improvement on the base game and, for a change, feels like a complete game with stuff like story and what not. Which is great, because Destiny had world building in spades, and now The Taken King is building on it and giving characters actual personalities.

These personalities are revealed through some newfound conflict beyond the original good guy Guardians versus the vague-but-evil Darkness. It’s still good versus evil, but now some of the good guys bicker. Zavala disapproves of Cayde-6’s flippancy who in turn thinks Eris takes things way too seriously. Little things, to be sure, but they add a depth that was sorely lacking in the game’s first year. Story is character, after all, and character gets revealed through conflict. Points to Destiny for finally showing an understanding of how that works.

That said, the game’s always been brimming with narrative architecture. The world is rife with details that hint at a great history behind everything. There are names like Toland and Alpha Lupi that show up in gear descriptions and bits of lore that hint at so much more. Oryx, a name that shows up here and there in the first year is the titular antagonist of Taken King, making a bunch of pieces finally fall into place. Plus, Destiny’s lore is incredibly diverse: the Guardians in gear description are woman, Chinese, and Indian. There’s a variety in the background.

But does this work?

The first year of Destiny seems to point to no. One of the biggest criticisms of the Destiny was its lack of story and no amount of world building can compensate for a disappointing narrative (I’m looking at you Elysium). Halo’s story worked in part because of Cortana’s commentary on Chief’s missions and discussions with various allies about what to do next. In Taken King, Bungie imitates their older games and gives context to the gameplay. Now there’s a more tangible reason for why you’re running, shooting, and punching villains. By making the Vanguard and Ghost interesting characters with personality too, there’s a sense of being part of something larger than just the mission at hand.

More interestingly, in Taken King a lot of small tidbits are given a larger purchase. Recordings of Toland play a small role in the story and make the prior mentions resonate all the more. Because now Toland’s not just a mythical name, he’s a mythical name with a connection to a character that affects how the story plays out. There’s a reason and a why to the details that color the world.

But then, there’s no indications as to what the Kessel Run is in Star Wars except that Han Solo made it in less than 12 parsecs. Yet it adds such a sense of texture to the film — it works in Star Wars. Maybe the overabundance of details wasn’t Destiny’s big problem, maybe it really was the lack of an appropriately substantial story.

Well, there it is. Ya gotta have story.


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When Science Dreams

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 03 2015 · 158 views

Essays, Not Rants! 185: When Science Dreams

The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.

But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.

It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.

Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.

Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.

Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.

Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.

So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.

Or at least get to Mars already.


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And Now For Something Old

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 26 2015 · 173 views

Essays, Not Rants! 184: Now For Something Old

I’m busy this weekend. I’m writing a rationale, essentially a jumbo-sized one of these blog posts about everything I’ve been studying since coming to college to prove that my studies have had a point (which is, currently, Narrative (Re)Construction). As I’m focusing an inane amount of brain power into writing this paper, I don’t have time for a proper post this week.

So let’s go back to before Essays, Not Rants! and find something old.

The year is 2012 and Josh is futzing around in unemployment and playing Mass Effect 3. Josh being Josh, he decides to write a thing about it. Which I’m representing below in all its three-year-old glory.



The close to the Mass Effect Trilogy came out a week ago and since then I've been playing through it. I've been meeting up with old friends, brokering alliances, and fighting evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things with the eventual goal of taking back Earth and saving the galaxy from said evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things.

One of the things I love about Mass Effect is the immersion. Now, those of you who've heard me talk (rant) about video games will know that I highly value immersion in a video game (that and cinematic/plot). Mass Effect does this exceptionally.

The man saving the galaxy is named Joshua Shepard, he was raised on a (space)ship and, I like to think, bears a passing resemblance to me. It's fun, I get to be the hero, saving lives, deciding what to do in circumstances, making big important decisions.

Then I watched one of my favorite characters die.

I was powerless to stop it, right? I mean, I had no choice in the matter, it was what the plot demanded, yeah?

But no, I did have the choice.

Instantly my mind backpedaled to a moment not to long area. I (as Shepard) chose to speak up about something.

I could have chosen not to. I could have lied and reneged on a deal but, in the long run, wouldn't that have saved my crewmember's life?

Guys, I could have saved him.

And then I realized that this is what makes Mass Effect so immersive, so real.

Choices.

Everything I do has consequences.

I could look ahead; crack open—who am I kidding—google up a strategy guide and see just where each choice I make will take me.

But really? Where's the fun in that. Where's the adventure in knowing where each step will take you?

Hang on. That's like life, isn't it?

Everything I do has consequences.

For example, staying up till 1 am writing a piece on a video game (and then proceeding to go investigate the supposed defection of some Cerberus scientists) will further mess with my sleep cycle and result in me waking up late tomorrow.

Sure, it's not the same as having a imaginaryish friend dying, but, still.

Point remains.

I don't know what my actions will cause tomorrow. I can guess, I can do the right thing. But, like in Mass Effect, something will happen. Sure, I tend to doubt my decisions are as grave as Shepard's, but hey, they're choices nonetheless.

Writer’s Note: I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3 lately (when not, y’know, writing this rationale or doing other homework) and the choices the games present you with are almost as interesting as the illusion of choice. The game wouldn’t work with too many variables because, well, how do you program that game? Every now and then its inner workings show through, but hey, I’m really looking forward to the next game in the series. If only because the plethora of video game criticism I’ve read since then makes me super curious about the future of open-ended virtual storytelling. That and I love the Mass Effect universe.


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The Question of So What

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 19 2015 · 296 views

Essays, Not Rants! 183: The Question of So What

A professor who I had, who I didn’t really like, once told me that I could probably connect any variety of works. But that didn’t necessarily mean I had an essay. Another professor said that you know you’re paper’s successfully if there’s a point that could be proven wrong. Most succinctly, when I presented an idea for a paper to her, yet another professor responded with “So [beep]ing what, Josh; so [beep]ing what?”

Which, y’know, is a really good question. I can talk a bunch about how Madame Bovary’s titular protagonist wants a life akin to what would be known as the melodramatic genre, but where’s the point? That’s what I had to figure out if I wanted to write a legitimately good essay. Well, stories are a lot like that too. You can have a plot and all that, even be perfectly plotted and so on, but so what? A story’s gotta have a point.

This is the big thing with action movies. On the one hand, we have Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road; arguably two of the best proper action movies, well, ever. Both of these movies have clear themes, which both amount to the ability of anyone to step up and be a hero, regardless of profession and gender, respectively. Look at the massive reaction to both movies, Die Hard remains a staple nearly three decades after it came out and is referenced constantly. Time will tell if Fury Road has the same staying power, but it’s sure looking that way.

And why do these films stick? Because the points made them matter. Look at The Expendables, it’s good dumb fun, but the only real point to it is that it’s really fun to see ‘80s action heroes on screen together. It’s pure mindless fun, and there’s certainly a time and a place for that (The Expendables sits proudly on my shelf), but I doubt most people will really care in a few years. Or take a look at Expendables 3, which dispatched with the famous cast in favor of younger ones; it was still mildly fun, but tried to be something it wasn’t (a movie about the old becoming to old and having to hand the baton over, but not give them the proverbial sins-of-their-fathers instead of, y’know, watching action heroes do action hero stuff).

It’s science fiction that rides on this a lot. Star Wars has the good old anyone can save the world theme driving it (along with a very clear good wins thing). Godzilla has a lot to say about nuclear weapons and is at its best when it uses its kaiju as a metaphor. Or, at the very least, most memorable.

Neill Blomkamp’s filmography may be a good example in and of itself. District 9 is plainly an allegory for Apartheid that has us sympathizing with someone who’s an obstinate racist who’s forced to confront the other on a personal level. It works so well because it’s not content to present institutionalized racism in another guise, it actually says something about it. Elysium, on the other hand, says very clearly that a stratified healthcare system has issues and… well, that’s about it. It amounts to commentary saying nothing, which you can kinda maybe afford in a weekly blog, but not so much in formal papers and films.



Oh, and for the record, the importance of interpreting Madame Bovary as Emma wishing to enact melodrama is that it paints her as a quixotic figure actively escaping blame for her own failings.


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Same Story, But Different

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 12 2015 · 240 views

Essays, Not Rants! 182: Same Story But Different

Pacific Rim is predictable; you’re not gonna win any prizes for pointing that out. It’s not like The Last of Us or District 9, which subvert the expectations of the audience. When you watch Pacific Rim you know what’s gonna happen; Raleigh and Mako will team up, something will happen that lets them prove themselves, and there has to be some last minute complication.

Yet it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, and one of my own favorites. No, it’s not narratively groundbreaking, but it’s nonetheless great. Why?

Because when you dig beneath the foundations of how to tell a good story — y’know, plot, character, conflict, structure; all that good stuff — you get to what a good story is about. Namely, why is this story being told? What makes it important?

These are one reason why Edgar Wright’s movies are so great. Though the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim VS The World may seem at first blush like simple comedies, there’s actually a lot more going on beneath the surface. Scott Pilgrim isn’t just a pulpy story about winning a girl’s heart in a world where the rules of video games apply; it’s actually a fascinating meditation on the nature of relationships. Sean of the Dead is about being willing to deviate from the routine. The World’s End is so remarkable because beneath its fun veneer of getting the old band back together and preventing (or, er, causing) the apocalypse via a pub crawl is a story about sobriety and growing up. Without preachifying, the movie looks at friendship and escaping from problems. Now, it’s not the whole point of World’s End — a particularly profane phrase containing Legoland remains a highlight — but the more ‘serious’ themes give it great staying power.

Not that the theme has to be ‘serious.’ Star Wars explicitly follows the Hero’s Journey, and makes no attempt to do anything really new. It’s mythological, plain and simple. But when you ask what Star Wars is about, sure, there are the lasers and spaceships and Wookies, but it’s also about a farmboy stopping the Empire. Star Wars resonated with my dad in the seventies and resonates with me when I watch it today because of its simple enduring theme: anyone can be a hero. It tells an old idea so exceptionally well and with great imagination. One of the reasons The Phantom Menace fails is, arguably, that though it’s cool and shiny and has all the trappings of a Star Wars movie, its theme is, well, murky at best and nonexistent at worst.

So Pacific Rim. The movie proudly wears its themes on its sleeve, if you’re willing to look. Amidst the giant mecha fighting giant monsters is an undercurrent of hope against imposing doom. When Pentecost says they’re canceling the apocalypse, he’s not just issuing a rallying cry for Jaeger pilots. Pacific Rim is expertly crafted, nothing lags and the twists are all in the right, albeit predictable places and it fully commits to its outlandish premise of mecha vs kaiju. It’s with its defiantly youthful tone that Pacific Rim really becomes a great movie.

There are only so many stories to be told; there’s a reason the site TVTropes exists, it’s why Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Thing is, there’s always gonna be a new meaning to stories. The whole prince-and-pauper story has been retold over and over again in different contexts with different connotations. The story can have been told before, but it’s what it’s about that makes it special.


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Expository Conflict

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 05 2015 · 299 views

Essays, Not Rants! 181: Expository Conflict

Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.

The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.

Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.

Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?

And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.

Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.

It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.

This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”

Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a breweryor where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there's gonna be something the audience doesn't know and will have to learn (seriously, if you're doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you're still gonna have to tell us why she's going to her grandmother's). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let's keep Othello on trial.






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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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