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2013 in Review

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 28 2013 · 98 views

Essays, Not Rants 041: 2012 in Review
 
That’s right people, I’m doing it again.
 
Once again instead of a usual post I’m going to look through some of the posts from this year and link ‘em. Because it’s something appropriate to do at year’s end and not because a buddy of mine and I watched two movies in two separate cinemas and last night and I’m working today.
 
Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts
 
#5: Two More Hours
On occasion my blog posts are, there I say it, topical. This usually happens during those weeks when I get time to see a new movie (this last semester was spent mostly working on a movie of my own). One of these was Ender’s Game and in that post I explain why it needed two more hours. Hence the title.
 
#4: Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity
I had a creative writing class this semester that took a hard approach to genre fiction so a handful of my posts were rants essays of my addressing some of those thoughts. I do like this one because Gravity was fantastic and I love getting to talk about science fiction.
 
#3: Projection and Empathy
This is one of those spitball essays where I figure out what I’m writing a paper on that, surprisingly, found quite an audience. So here’s to you, dear readers, for reading me bouncing thoughts. And yes, I did quite well in that class.
 
#2: Too Many Characters, Too Little Time
Behold, another instance of me being topical. I really enjoy Game of Thrones (even The Red Wedding, though that’s a very different sort of enjoyment), so writing about it was fun. I still stand by this post, and I still want Joffery to die, and I still haven’t read the books.
 
#1: Why I (seldom) Write About Ships?
Another one of those that grew out of my creative writing class, this one’s my defense of setting my stories in space. It ended up being a rather bloggy post, mostly due to me talking more about me than stuff, but I do really like it.
Fun Fact: My dad shared this one on Facebook, giving me one of my busiest days and instantly propelling it to the second most viewed post of all time (behind that one post that keeps catching search queries).
 
And there we have the five most viewed posts. As with last year, what follows will be a few posts that I really like, for various reasons. These posts are also posts that aren’t in the afore top five.
 
Josh’s Pick of Three
 
#3: Becoming Iron Man
I wrote a few posts on Iron Man 3, most of them analyzing Tony Stark’s character (hey, I wrote a big paper with him as one of the subjects around the same time). I’m picking this one out because it’s one of those occasions when I pick something apart. And it’s about Iron Man and I had to have at least one Iron Man post here.
 
#2: A Grownup Video Game
I love The Last of Us. It’s all over this blog and I wrote a paper on it. This was written when I was only a few hours in to the game, but it still hits the nail on the head. That game is phenomenal. On a side note, I was thinking of calling the post something along the lines of Adult Video Game or Video Game for Adults, but, well, I feel like I would have gotten the wrong sort of attention.
 
#1: Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse
Pacific Rim is my favorite film of the year. Granted, I’m still catching up with movies (I really want to see Inside Llewyn Davis and her, for example), but Pacific Rim wins my pick for not only its awesome mechas-fighting-kaiju action, but for its themes. It’s a movie that goes beyond its action into a very hopeful movie about making the world a better place.
I also did a close reading of Pentecost’s speech, which I’m quite proud of.
 
And bam. That’s 2013. Fifty two posts in as many weeks, so here’s to you, readers, for actually reading the stuff I write. See you next week wherein I will most likely cite two completely unrelated works to described a point.
 
Here’s to 2014.
 
Oh, and if you will, watch my movie.


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In Defense of Escapist Fiction

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 21 2013 · 142 views

Essays, Not Rants! 092: In Defense of Escapist Fiction
 
A term that I see thrown around a lot regarding my preferred fictions is “escapist fiction.” You might have seen it before; films like The Avengers and Pacific Rim are just escapist fantasies, especially when compared to ‘real cinema.’ Or video games are just ways to live out a fantasy and science fiction a way to avoid problems and reality.
 
It’s an interesting criticism, to say the least, one that sometimes culminates in me giving up and closing the tab halfway through. The idea is that a lot of fiction (and, of course, video games) are easily written off because they’re escapist.
 
So what exactly is escapist fiction? Wikipedia has a (surprisingly short) article on it that sums it up as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” So basically, it’s genre.
 
As I said before, it’s here that the criticism comes out; the idea being that these forms of fiction are a method of avoiding problems; a means of escape. Rather than confronting or dealing with problems, they encourage readers/viewers/players to just ignore it and go off in a fantasy world. They’re fluff; shallow, non-serious entertainment.
 
I disagree. Hence the name of this blog post.
 
Way I see it, there’s enough of life happening in the real world. Enough irresolvable conflicts, enough wars without a good guy and a bad guy, enough people leaving, enough [crud] in general. Escapist fiction often offers a world where there is a solution, where there might be meaning and, when barring that, action can be taken. Because in fiction, the Evil Empire can be overcome by a backwater farmboy.
 
These ‘escapist fantasies’ are ways out. When life gives you lemons it’s far more fun to read a story where those lemons can be overcome rather than one dwelling in them. Returning to the Star Wars example, it’s at its core the idea that some nobody could wind up as the hero, save the princess, and defeat the bad guys. Luke’s predicament early in the film is relatable to any nineteen year old (or older, as the case may be). Stuck in a lousy job, feeling trapped in the middle of nowhere and wanting to do something more. Something bigger. He does and, by proxy, so do we.
 
Pacific Rim is a ‘millennial’ approach to the apocalypse, one that may not be quite as nuanced and subtle if it were a film by David Fincher and Daniel Day Lewis, but the movie does address ‘topical’ issues. There’s the idea of self-sacrifice, of overcoming grief, and of connection all wrapped up with saving the world. No, it’s not ‘serious’ fiction in the way that, say, The Book Thief or Dallas Buyers Club are, but it’s not to say that reality isn’t woven into its being.
 
All this to say, escapism is awesome. Escapism is coming home from a lousy day at work and running through Renaissance Italy and attacking guards. It’s a way out, a way to do something beyond life. There is a time for more ‘real’ fiction, but that is not to say that escapism is any less serious. In any case, J.R.R. Tolkien defended his work in two sentences better than I did in this post: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?" In other words; life can be a bit of a bummer sometimes, so let’s get out of it sometimes.
 
 
On a different note, watch my new short “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!


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Defying Conventions

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 14 2013 · 122 views

Essays, Not Rants! 091: Defying Conventions
 
I’m still not done spitballing this essay (which is problematic, seeing as it’s due on Monday) but I’ve narrowed in my focus to make it more relevant to the class. Rather than comparing Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us, I’m going to look at the latter game and how it does away with many of the accepted conventions of narrative video games.
 
Academically. Because I can.
 
See, for the most part narrative video games have taken on three very common tropes. Now, these aren’t bad. Phenomenal games like Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Halo 4 employ these to great effect. What The Last of Us does is dare to do away with these.
 
Take saving the world. We see it everywhere in games; just looking at my shelf we have Mass Effect and the Jak and Daxter trilogy, all about saving the world (or community or what have you) from some evil. Within these games a lot of the drama comes from the need to save the world. Look at Mass Effect 3, in it Commander Shepard has to save the galaxy from the apocalyptic Reapers. There is great tension in the game due to the ever-present threat of the reapers. Every action Shepard takes, particularly with diplomacy, is heavier because if he fails the galaxy then the galaxy is lost. Commander Shepard must save the day.
 
Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us, does not have the world at stake. The story is not about Joel saving the world, it is about Joel bringing Ellie to a destination. It’s a video game about a journey where the goal is almost irrelevant. The tension in the story is steadily born not out of any grand importance but out of the relationship between the two main characters. The Last of Us goes smaller and far more personal and manages to pull it off. Here we have a video game with a comparatively small focus, one unlike many of its contemporaries.
 
So then what is the central tension of The Last of Us? In most video games (and even several books and movies) it boils down to the fundamental conflict of good versus evil. And why not? It’s a universal conflict. The central theme of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is such. Will Nathan Drake do the right thing? It’s handled with a deal of nuance better than other games (say, any Final Fantasy), going so far as to have each love interest in the game embody one side of Drake’s duality. Among Thieves is a stellar game about good and evil. Sure, there are a few shades of gray thrown in, but still; a story about good versus evil is not bad.
 
The Last of Us is built on shades of gray. Joel is not a good man. We hear hints throughout the narrative of what he’s spent the twenty years since the outbreak doing. He was a raider, he killed people, he’s been a thief. He is not a nice man, if anything, he’s a hollow man no better than the others in the wastes. So what then of Ellie, the fourteen-year-old you’re charged with protecting? In any other story, no matter the medium, she would be Joel’s morality pet. Instead, Ellie is a fallen character unto herself: she’s willing takes up arms to kill others and will fight to survive no matter what. She is by no means an objectively ‘good’ character in the way Nathan Drake or Shepard are. What we have in The Last of Us is a story that hinges not on any sort of morality. Instead it is a story about surviving at any cost.
 
Which brings us to the third trope. Video games are more than about survival, they are often power fantasies, whether it is mowing down terrorists or fighting off invading aliens. Again, this, along with the other two tropes, is not bad. Video games, like many other mediums, are a form of escapism. In Halo 4 you are the Master Chief, an incredible super soldier who can stop the Covenant and The Didact and his Prometheans. You singlehandedly take on entire armies, thereby defeating evil and saving the world. In Halo 4 you get to be the hero and you are capable of being a one man army.
 
In The Last of Us you are constantly on the run. You never have enough ammo (it’s the only game I’ve played where having seven bullets is considered a lot), you are frequently low on health, and any more than two enemies usually means you’re in trouble. Rather than making you feel powerful, The Last of Us makes you feel desperate. If you miss this shot you won’t have enough ammo to kill the other soldiers hunting you. Unlike many other contemporary games, your health in The Last of Us does not regenerate, meaning if you take damage you have no way to recover beyond expending a valuable medkit. You are not all powerful: you are vulnerable and doing what you can to survive.
 
Though it discards many of the accepted norms of its medium, The Last of Us does it with a finesse seldom seen. The game does not subvert these tropes just for the sake of them, but rather to drive home the theme. The comparatively small stakes, the lack of a grand morality, and the vulnerability all work together to create something unique. The Last of Us is a AAA-studio game unlike many others before it, due in no small part to it daring to do something different. Neil Druckmann, creative director of the game, wanted something to raise the bar for the industry as a whole. It’s arguable this game has helped elevate the medium.
 
Now then. Let’s write this essay.
 
 
What else do I do for school? Make movies. Watch my newest short, “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!


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Projection and Empathy

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 07 2013 · 107 views

Essays, Not Rants! 090: Projection and Empathy
 
Every now and then I repurpose this blog to spitball various ideas for papers I have to write. These are usually not terribly coherent. I’m doing it again.
 
For my class on Melodrama (yes, it’s a thing) I want to write about video games, because I can. Particularly Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us and the different ways each game immerses the player to build drama.
 
In Mass Effect 3 you are Commander Shepard. You choose your first name, you choose how you look, you choose your backstory. Beyond that the game allows you, the player, to choose what Shepard does throughout the game. Say you’re faced with someone refusing to let you past. Are you going to try to talk him into it; or will you hold a gun to his head until he listens to you? The game gives you that choice.
 
Of course, a lot of Mass Effect is far more subtle than that. Your attachment to your crew is based on your own actions. How much time you spend getting to know them and whether or not you help them out with their side stories is entirely up to you. You’re never obligated to spend to interact with them. But then, the fate of your crew is up to you.
 
Say you decide to cure the genophage in order to have the warlike krogan on your side in the fight against the Reapers, though also allowing the krogan to become a major contender in the galaxy (and threaten a war), To do so, the scientist (and friend) who delivers the cure will die. He doesn’t have to, of course. You can lie to the krogan Battlemaster (and friend) and say that you tried to cure it while the scientist goes into hiding. Or you can order him not to go and renege on your deal. Or you can tell him to go up anyway, knowing he will die. And if you do, you know it was your choice. So his death (or your betrayal) hits harder because you know you had the choice.
 
The Last of Us gives you no choices. The player is constantly ushered and ordered along, never given a say in the events. You live out the story that unfolds. Now, The Last of Us owes a great deal of its drama to its deft writing and exceptional acting, but playing as Joel —and allowing his goals to become yours — drives home much of the emotional weight of the game.
 
One of the strongest examples appears early on (and I’ve mentioned it before) During the game’s opening you play as Joel as he tries to escape with his daughter, Sarah. For a few minutes you’re running through town as Infected close in behind you, Joel’s daughter in your arms. Your goal mirrors Joel’s throughout the scene, get Sarah to safety, which makes her death all the more painful.
 
After all, you finished the ‘level,’ you got to the checkpoint without dying. By right you should be safe, you should be clear. You should be safe. There’s no going back, there’s no way you can prevent her from dying. Furthemore, the affect of her death is intensified because you, the player, failed too. Your goal was to get Sarah to safety and you failed.
 
Unlike in Mass Effect 3, The Last of Us, immerses the player through empathy (rather than projection). The player does not direct the flow of the game, thereby becoming the protagonist in the process, rather the player’s mindset is molded to that of Joel’s. They’re two different ways of creating drama that, when used as well in these two games, really work.
 
Hey, wanna see a movie I made? Of course you do. Check it out here.





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josh

twenty-three

grew up on a ship

studies Storytelling

at New York University

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