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Gamey Education

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 25 2014 · 142 views

Essays, Not Rants! 097: Gamey Education
 
For some reason, my high school World History teacher saw it fit to skip over the entire Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. This thus left me with the general feel that those empires were a completely disposable era of history. That’s high school in South Carolina for you.
 
This all changed when I begun playing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
 
The basic conceit of the Assassin’s Creed series is built around genetic memories; that is the idea that your DNA has the memories of your ancestors and, if you’re lucky, your ancestors were hooded assassins. You spend much of the game romping around Crusades-era Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, or Revolutionary War-era USA (depending on the game). What adds to the fun of stabbing soldiers in the back is the attention to detail the team at Ubisoft put in these games. Landmarks — both famous and less so — are rendered in game for your scaling pleasure. Not just that, though, every landmark/city/person of note you encounter is accompanied by a database providing a quick rundown of the Hagia Sophia/Boston/Cesare Borgia.
 
So back to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. Revelations follows Ezio Auditore as he travels to Constantinople and his exploits therein. You’ll encounter a young Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim I, and Sehzade Ahmet, among others. Investigating the surroundings in Constantinople reveal those afore mentioned database entries and bits of history. Steadily, you begin to put together a functional history of the Ottoman Empire as well as the remnants of the Byzantines. Or, in my case, everything I know about the Ottoman Empire I learned from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
 
This is something that makes the Assassin’s Creed series relatively unique: they’re history lessons. Sure, the main plot of the game seldom revolves around real life incidents, but bits of actual history find their way into the plot (eg: how horrible the Borgias were). These games are decidedly not educational games, but by immersing the player in the world, you wind up learning stuff anyway. You’re able to recognize places like the Rose Mosque and the Basillica di San Lorenzo since you use them to navigate the city. Figures like Niccolò Machiavelli stick in your mind because of their importance in the game. You’re not so much taught by the game was you are immersed. You’re learning by doing.
 
There’s another game I’ve been playing a lot this past week; Kerbal Space Program. It’s an independent game by Squad wherein you run, well, the Kerbal Space Program. What makes it different is that it’s a bizarrely realistic space simulator where getting into orbit requires managing thrusters, detaching stages, adjusting your angle of ascent, and paying attention to your apoapsis and periapsis. You also learn what words like apoapsis and periapsis mean.
 
Kerbal is more intense than Assassin’s Creed in it’s ‘educational’ department. In order to be half-decent at the game you are forced to learn these concepts. Even if you’re not exactly clear on the math —and if you’re me, then you’re definitely not clear on the math — you wind up with a working understanding of stuff like thrust-to-weight ratios and atmospheric drag. Why? Because you have to. The information isn’t just background set dressing or details to make it seem more real; it’s vital knowledge to making sure your rocket doesn’t become a fireball. Though that’s fun too.
 
I love video games and it annoys me to no end how often they get written off as meaningless drivel. A game like Kerbal Space Program teaches players rocket science, though more for the fun of it than any practical reasons. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty worked as a functional analysis of Meme Theory (amongst a lot of other stuff) — back in 2001, before memes were a thing. I learnt a lot of my eight-year-old vocabulary from the Pokémon games. All this to say that you can learn a lot from video games.
 
Now then, I have a few more ideas to send Kerbals flying into space I wanna try out.


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Playing With Expectations

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 18 2014 · 113 views

Essays, Not Rants! 096: Playing with Expectations
 
In celebration of the wonder of Netflix, I decided to watch Drinking Buddies the other night. The premise is nothing new, Luke and Kate are coworkers with incredible chemistry who are, unfortunately, in relationships with other people.
 
What makes the movie such a joy is how the film plays with this idea. All the building blocks are in place, but the plot dances around them and subverts them. The scene where the Luke and Kate would/should kiss and fall in love is there. However, well, they don’t. Not then, and though the sexual tension is brimming between them, it never happens throughout the plot. Instead, the film looks at Luke’s relationship with his fiancée and Kate with her boyfriend while exploring the nature of Luke and Kate’s relationship. It’s been classified as a romantic comedy of sorts, but it disregards elements of the genre at will. Drinking Buddies teases the idea of a romance, but ultimately tells a story about, well, drinking buddies.
 
For someone who consumes as much media as I do it’s always fun to see a story that does something different (in a meaningful way, as opposed to just adding lesbians). Pacific Rim hit every beat the usual blockbuster does, but did so while running its own commentary on the world as it is. But I’ve written extensively on that movie (and will continue to do so), let’s look at another movie.
 
Like (500) Days of Summer (so much for something new). Like Drinking Buddies, it’s been billed as a rom-com and it, for all intents and purposes, at first seems to shape up to be one. One of the earliest scenes is of Tom and Summer sitting on a bench holding hands, a ring on her finger. We’re told this takes place on day 488, so we know it’s near the end. As an audience, we expect Tom and her to end up together, even as we see their relationship fall apart.
 
Many of the tropes of the romantic comedy are in full effect, yet they’re used almost ironically. Tom’s happy walk after getting together with Summer concludes with a flash-forward to his dejection after they break up. The whole idea of Meeting The One is taken brutally apart. But then, the narrator did say it was a story of boy meets girl, but not a love story. It plays with what we’d expect from the sort of movie it is, ultimately giving us something very different. And y’know what? It works.
 
Similarly, one would expect Scott Pilgrim vs The World would be a relatively straightforward movie: Scott fights Ramona’s seven evil exes in order to be with her. Basically an action movie’s formula mixed with a romantic comedy. Easy.
 
Only, this is Edgar Wright; it’s never that simple. As I said a couple weeks ago, the movie offers an interesting look at what’s vital in relationships. This isn’t what you, heck, this wasn’t what I expected at all when I first saw the movie. The movie seemed simple enough going in, but proved itself able to supersede both genres to create something new. Edgar Wright gave us an honest look at relationships through a comedic, video game-y, action-y lens. It did something different.
Back to Drinking Buddies, a movie unlike much else you’ll see; it’s slow, the dialogue is improvised, and not much happens. It’s a slice of life. I saw it based on a poster I’d seen a few months ago outside an independent cinema (and hey, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick) and while watching expected it to go the rom-com route. But it didn’t, and it didn’t in a way that made for an interesting story. And for that, it succeeds.
 
Writer’s note: The discrepancy that I harbor an intense dislike for Blue Is the Warmest Color yet really liked Drinking Buddies is not lost on me. Especially given the critical/audience dissonance on the former (that is, audiences didn’t like Drinking Buddies as much as critics did). Chalk this one up to personal taste.


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I Didn't Get Blue Is the Warmest Color

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 11 2014 · 204 views

Essays, Not Rants! 095: I didn’t get Blue Is the Warmest Color
 
There. I said it.
 
A lot of press surrounds Blue Is the Warmest Color for one reason or another, and with it winning a bunch of awards and ranking on some year end movie lists, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
 
Long story short, I wasn’t a huge fan. Short story long, well, that’s what the rest of the post is for.
 
The concept seems interesting enough; we follow Adèle and the ups and downs of first love in her relationship with Emma. It’s something we’ve seen before, this time in a lesbian context. So far so good, but things fall apart when the concept leaves the paper and gets on screen.
 
Blue Is the Warmest Color is visually dull. Sure, there’s a lot of blue in the beginning, but it’s there almost indiscriminately (rather than in a way that would relate to Emma and her blue hair). The camera angles are repetitive; it’s the same medium close-ups and close-ups over and over again with framing just a little too tight. It wouldn’t be so bad were it not used for the majority of interactions. But then, maybe that serves the story. There’s little attempt to beautify the action. When Adèle eats it’s messy and pasta sauce dribbles down her chin; crying in the movie is snotty and unattractive; and dialogue is (at least translated) to sound banal at times.
 
So it could be then argued that the film wants to discard the hyperrealism so frequently found in ‘normal’ film, and this supposedly honest look at a relationship will be shot accordingly. Basically, the antithesis of (500) Days Of Summer, which, like Blue Is the Warmest Color, was more of a story about love than love story, except this time rather than seeing things through Tom’s hyperrealistic, romanticized point of view it’s told ‘realistically.’ Cool.
 
Only all that is thrown out the window when it comes to those scenes. Y'know the source of half the film’s press and, arguably, a large amount of its problems. Now, they’re shot in that same non-hyperrealistic way as the rest of the film: the lighting is stark and harsh and there’s no sweeping romantic soundtrack in the background. Yet it lacks a sort of emotional honesty. There’s no prelude to any of Adèle and Emma’s scenes and, barring the third, there’s nothing of pillow talk. They just happen.
 
Granted, this is hardly unique to Warmest Color, but it struck me as jarring that a film that focuses so heavily on relationships would have this be so abrupt. Worsening them is the lack of character showing through in the scenes. There’s no dialogue between Adèle and Emma nor attempt for their relationship (beyond the obvious) to show through their actions, it simply transpires as a sort of pseudo-pornography devoid of personality.
 
But then personality isn’t something the film thrives on either. Emma, the focus of Adèle’s affections, comes off as just another, albeit lesbian, Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s when Emma enters the story that Adèle is brought out of her unsatisfactory heteronormativity into a more interesting life. She’s quirky, she’s an artist, she’s different, and she has blue hair makes her stand out, especially when juxtaposed with Adèle’s bland surroundings. Now, Emma is by no means the worst offender, Adèle does not achieve a ‘happily every after’ through her and Emma has a measure of an inner life (though it is still primarily defined more by outlying qualifiers [her job, class, sexuality] than her own personality), yet she still plays the part. That aspect of their relationship feels like something we’ve seen dozens of times before. Adéle’s character suffers in a similar way; she feels defined more strongly by her nature as bookish, working-class teacher than by some of her other traits.
 
Not to say it’s all bad. There’s a fight between Adèle and Emma towards the end that is powerfully acted and genuinely compelling. For me it was the first time I suddenly felt myself really caring about their relationship and it became painful to watch, in a good way. The film does have its moments of excellence, it’s just bogged down in all the rest.
 
Which then confuses me as to why its receiving all those accolades. Now, I’m aware I’m someone who tends to harp on the idea of ‘high art,” but I found the only thing truly remarkable about Blue Is the Warmest Color to be its frank approach to LGBTQ themes. Have it be about a heterosexual relationship and it’d be all-but-mediocre.
 
It’s not enough to praise a movie simply because it features an LGBTQ romance at its center. It’s the same problem I have with Christian films or some approaches to women protagonists. As much as I’d like to see a good LGBTQ film, I can’t bring myself to just give it an A-for-effort. So yeah. I didn’t get Blue Is the Warmest Color when I watched it and, given its overlong three hour runtime, don’t much feel like trying again.
 
Writer’s note: Look, I just didn’t get it. Maybe if someone broke it down bit for bit and explained just why it was so great, sure. But ‘til then, I don’t understand the fuss.


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Relationship Advice from Scott Pilgrim

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 04 2014 · 146 views

Essays, Not Rants! 094: Relationship Advice from Scott Pilgrim
 
Scott Pilgrim vs The World is one of my favorite movies. There’s the video game-y nature of it; a world that’s realistically unrealistic where fights look like Street Fighter and people explode into coins. With that, Edgar Wright and team put a great deal of love into making it; sound effects are borrowed everywhere from Legend of Zelda to Seinfeld. It’s a great movie.
 
For those of you who haven’t seen it (or fall outside its fairly narrow demographics), here’s a rundown of the plot: Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona Flowers, but in order to be with her he has to fight her Seven Evil Exes. Mixed in with that is his struggling band, dealing with baggage from an old relationship, and breaking up with Knives Chau. Again, it’d be easy for this to be pure pulp and just a fun, silly story, but Wright and team give it its due. Though their world may not be strictly realistic, the characters and their relationships are. We see the effect ‘meeting’ Ramona’s exes has on Scott and we watch tension build between them (especially when Knives is involved).
 
So where’s this relationship advice, you ask? In the climax, we find out that love isn’t enough for a relationship.
 
Let’s back up. What’s the biggest in most romances? It’s, usually, the moment where the guy decides to throw it all away and go after the girl. Harry runs through New York to find Sally. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet. Lloyd Dobler holds the boombox over his head (although, wonderfully, this isn’t the climax, but you get the idea). It’s that Big Moment of Love.
 
Scott Pilgrim, being at its heart a romance, plays this trope straight. Having lost Ramona to Gideon, Scott decides to set out to the Chaos Theatre to win her back by fighting Gideon. He arrives, fights his way in, and tells Gideon he wants to fight him for Ramona. When asked why, Scott responds that he’s in love with her. Scott thus earns The Power of Love and is awarded a flaming sword (from his chest!) with which he duels Gideon.
 
Great! That’s our Big Moment of Love! If there’s anything years of movie-watching should have taught us, know that Scott knows he’s in love with Ramona, he’ll beat Gideon and live happily ever after.
 
Only that’s not what happens here. Instead Scott gets himself killed.
 
Fortunately, however, Scott got a 1-Up earlier in the film and, after some brief soul-searching, uses said 1-Up to confront Gideon again. Again, Gideon asks him if he’s fighting him for her. Scott’s reply is different: “No, I wanna fight you for me.” And this time Scott earns the Power of Self Respect, gets a purple flaming sword, duels Gideon, settles things with Knives and Ramona, and fights Gideon again. With the Power of Self Respect.
 
Herein Scott Pilgrim vs The World suddenly does something that most romances don’t. Love isn’t enough. Thus far Scott has been fighting the exes simply because he has to if he wants to be with Ramona. It was Gideon who orchestrated the whole thing and, the first go round, Scott fights him like any other of Ramona’s exes, so he can be with her.
 
Only that didn’t work out.
 
The second time round, Scott fights Gideon for himself. This guy’s been screwing him over all along, yanking Scott’s chain. So Scott fights him not to win over Ramona, but to get his own back. Scott isn’t playing Gideon’s game anymore at that point, this time he’s engaging him on his own terms. The idea implicit is that in order for a relationship to work, you have to be able to be a person in your own right.
 
Sure, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is hardly the only place you’ll see this. (500) Days Of Summer did something similar: Tom gets his life together after Summer, dragging himself out of the routine and finally into doing something he loves, no longer looking for love to solve all his problems. What makes Scott Pilgrim special is that in a movie with bass battles and subspace highways we have an interestingly important commentary on relationships.





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