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A Celebration

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 31 2018 · 109 views

Essays, Not Rants! 314: A Celebration

I’m a nerd. That kinda really goes without saying. Spend five minutes on my blog and you’ll see me talking about Firefly, giant robots, The Lord of The Rings, comic books, Jacques the Fatalist, and looking at video games through a surprisingly feminist lens. I really enjoy this stuff.

And over the years nerd culture has gotten more mainstream. Superhero shirts are in these days and Star Wars is cool again. It’s pretty neat to these things that used be kinda niche getting brought into the limelight, with the praise and big budgets that follow.

So nerdy stuff is in, and the cherry on the sundae is Steven Spielberg making a movie based on a very nerdy book: Ready Player One.

(Yep, this is it, the post on Ready Player One)

Preface: I first read the book a couple years ago and I really enjoyed it. There’s a chapter about getting a perfect score in Ms. Pac-Man which, as someone who makes a beeline for the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet in an arcade, was a lotta fun to see in a book; it spoke my language. Now, sure, author Ernest Cline has a tendency to cross the line from enthusing to over-explaining. And his handing of his female characters does leave a lot to be desired given that it’s 2018. And, yes, it borders on a self-insert fic with its nerdy fantasy fulfillment.

But with all its flaws, there are some great things in it. This is a book that sees value in the digital. Much of the book takes place in the OASIS, a virtual world everyone can log in to and play games and live life. Experiences in the OASIS were treated as being real and worthwhile, which as anyone who’s gone deep into a video game can go, is how it feels (I don’t remember mashing buttons when I look back on games, rather I beat that Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn, I assembled a crew to stop the Collectors in Mass Effect 2). It’s unusual to see a book take what’s essentially a video game so 'seriously,' in that the virtual stakes matter. Adding to that, here was a story that treated online friendships as being as important as real life ones. Unlike other depictions of nerdom (and really, a lotta stories) which tend to demean them, this one valorized these relationships. And as someone who’s made some of his closest friends online, it’s something I really liked about it.

So the movie adaptation gets announced and people start paying a lot more attention to the book and its flaws came under scrutiny. As well they should, because there’s no excuse for poorly written women and bad prose can always be better. But then there’s the criticism where Ready Player One is compared to The Big Bang Theory. And that’s, well, wrong.

The Big Bang Theory came about before nerd culture was hip and the central joke of the show was that those nerds were dorky. I watched — and liked — the show at first for its references but over time grew tired of it and, after a while, insulted. This was a show that was laughing at me and folks like me, not with me. Yes, they make deep cuts and go the distance to get some things in, but ultimately it’s not a show that makes nerds good joke fodder, but not someone you’d like to be. Halo nights were seen as a dumb alternative to going out, not a really fun thing to do. Ready Player One does the opposite: It makes being the biggest nerd a hero-worthy quality. We don’t enjoy reading about Wade because his situation makes him the butt of a joke, we wanna be him.

Enter the movie. The adaptation improves on the book’s flaws; pacing is better, less expo-speak, the love interest Art3mis is both better and a little worse. And dear god it’s nerdy. A bunch of Master Chiefs from Halo rush into a battle where overhead flies in flipping Serenity and then a FRICKING GUNDAM jumps out of her hold to fight a certain giant Kaiju. But what’s so wonderful about Ready Player One — and Spielberg’s direction — is how much the movies loves its subject matter. The Spartans’ guns have the exact right sound effect when they fire (and when the needler gun shows up, same!); and the pose and movements of the Gundam feel lifted from the anime. The movie doesn’t just throw the images around, it wants to get them right. And it’s so freaking satisfying. It’s much more than just lip-service.

The nerds in Ready Player One — and that’s all the main characters except the villain (which is a statement in itself) — are cool. They’re the ones who can do stuff and, more importantly, they have fun. Art3mis teases Parzival with a chestbuster puppet, which, dorky as it is, feels real. It’s not funny because lol, Alien reference; it’s funny because it’s a gag for the characters too. The movie celebrates being a nerd.

The movie’s not all nerdy jokes, though. Yes, it’s got more nerdy references than you can shake a stick at (Hadouken! Adventure!), but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s really cute. The movie dispenses with a lot of the technicality from the book and zeroes in on a really fun, dare I say it: '80s-esque adventure story. Sure, it’s got its problems, but at the end of the day I was so enchanted by it that I stopped caring. Without the references, it’d be fun enough, but with them all, and how they’re treated, it really feels like a celebration.

Plus, Aech’s homemade Iron Giant is referred to as a MOC, which is a term you usually only hear in the LEGO fandom. But now it’s there in a movie. And that’s really freaking cool.


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Lost The Heart

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 24 2018 · 106 views

Essays, Not Rants! 313: Lost The Heart

Sometimes it’s hard to explain why something good is so good; why does this one movie work. Other times, you have an example of the same thing executed less well and you’re all “ah, that’s why that one was so good.”

So let’s talk Pacific Rim Uprising, and by extension, the original too. Ostensibly, both Pacific Rim and its sequel are about giant robots fighting giant monsters. What made the first one great, though, was that it was about so much more, about connection, about unity, about hope and idealism. Somehow, in the midst of it all, Uprising doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first.

For one thing, Pacific Rim effortlessly tied together theme with world building. Consider drifting. The mental strain of piloting a Jaeger (one of those giant mecha) is so taxing that you need two people connected by a neural link, a drift, in order for it to work. It makes sense enough in the universe (them’s just the rules) but it also lets the movie explore its theme of connection. You can’t pilot these mechs and save the world by yourself; you gotta be willing to connect with someone else. You can’t fight the monsters alone. In Uprising, drifting is given lip service but never really explored. The movie doesn’t get into drifting or is ramifications the way it could, which is a bit of a bummer given how rich an opportunity it is.

Similarly, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps takes on a more militaristic personality in the sequel. Right off the bat, the PPDC is introduced as doing security and policing, a far cry from the ragtag resistance in the original. As the plot gets going, we see more formality in the ranks, a lotta officers-on-deck and the like. These elements may have been in the background of the original, but, given director Guillermo del Toro’s own pacifistic world view, were never really the focus. Uprising leans further into the paramilitary side of the PPDC, making them more warfighters and less of a resistance. It’s nowhere near as militaristic as, say, Transformers or even Iron Man, but, in light of the original, it’s lost some of its youthful idealism. Even the protagonist’s big speech at the end sounds ripped from a war movie, one that’s of course answered by a chorus of sir-yes-sirs; a far cry from the call to believe in something bigger that was Pentecost’s We Are Cancelling The Apocalypse speech in the first.

I know that’s an unfair comparison; We Are Cancelling The Apocalypse is the best call to arms speech that’s not in Henry V or given at the foot of the Black Gate. But that speech is really the thesis statement of Pacific Rim (check out my old breakdown over here). Pacific Rim unabashedly takes its Jaegers and Kaiju deathly seriously, and has so much fun with it. Uprising, however, keeps one foot on the shore, not quite willing to jump in. Pentecost’s big speech is mentioned, almost in a tongue-in-cheek way, by a few characters. Most telling, though, is that when the Kaiju reappear they are quickly given codenames, as in the first. Where the original acted as if calling a monster Knifehead or Otachi was perfectly normal, Uprising has a character summarily dismiss the codenames once they’re given. It’s a small thing, but it belies the film’s attitude of being slightly too cool for all this giant monster stuff. And so we lose some of that wholehearted commitment that made the original so special.

Maybe I’m being a little too hard on Uprising. And maybe that’s because I hold the original in such high regard. Maybe it’s also because the movie kept dangling narratives I really like but never explored it. Newcomer Amara is inducted into the Ranger program and trained to be a pilot, but we don’t really go into the whole cadet story, which is a shame, cuz I love those stories (Kingsman, Ender’s Game). Nestled in there too is this multinational team doing stuff (which is my mostest favoritist thing, end of story), but we don’t spend that much time with Amara’s team. And you can’t show me a team consisting of an American girl, Russian girl, Indian dude, Latina, and Chinese guy and then take it away from me.

Were this not the sequel to Pacific Rim I think I’d be a lot more forgiving. It does a buncha things well and does deliver on that sweet sweet giant robot action. The Jaeger’s names are unapologetically awesome (frickin’ Saber Athena) and there is still that multinational bent of the first. But Uprising doesn’t quite have Pacific Rim’s heart, and that’s a darn shame.


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Learning To Write Again

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Writing Mar 22 2018 · 115 views

Yesterday I posted the third chapter in my ongoing comedy Good Makuta, Bad Toa. Which is me revisiting a comedy I'd written way back in 2004, when BZP was new and I was... much younger. And I'm doing it for fun, and am having a lotta fun with it.

And I'm also learning how to write again.

See, over the years writing's gotten harder, even as I'm getting better at it and trying to get paid for it. Secret is, writers actually hate writing. And this is me forcing myself to write, and to write something really silly where I'm not overthinking what happens next. Heck, I'm not even proofreading and am letting my typos lie where they fall.

I've got... way too many projects I should be working. Editing a draft of THE CONDUITS. Working on a script with my roommate. Three other scripts that are percolating around. A book idea that I really gotta get off my butt and write. A short or two with friends. I've got shtuff I need to do, but, writing's hard man. Good Makuta, Bad Toa's my way of forcing myself to stop obsessing and to be willing to write those cruddy first drafts. To write, y'know.


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Of Men Mighty and Mega

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 17 2018 · 154 views

Essays, Not Rants! 312: Of Men Mega and Mighty

Mega Man was the video game I cut my teeth on. Well, more accurately, Mega Man X4. It was a tough game that I worked my way through as a kid. Didn’t beat it until at least three years after I got it, but still picked up Mega Man X5 and Mega Man X6 (and Mega Man 8) in the meantime to fight the new bosses, master the new levels, and get my butt kicked time and time again. I got better, beat them, got into the harder Mega Man Z games (look, the naming conventions are weird but make sense). Every couple years I revisit them, particularly Z3 and X5, my undisputed favorites.

All this to say, I know my Mega Man.

So what makes a Mega Man game? Theme-wise, it’s good robots fighting a bunch of bad robots, usually eight, then fitting a bigger boss. Mechanic-wise, it’s a lotta jumping and shooting mixed in with being able to get a defeated boss’ weapon which is another boss’ weakness. There’ve been some variations here and there (the X games added dashing and wall kicking), but for the most part, things are quite similar.

For the sake of convenience, I’m excluding the Battle Network and Legends games from this, since those are an RPG and Action-Adventure respectively, and are different genres from the others which are very much pure Action Games.

Point is, there’s a particular sort of gameplay when it comes to Mega Man.

But, I’d argue, that a big part of Mega Man’s game design goes beyond that. What makes (well, made) the Mega Man games so distinctive was how well they did what they did. The mechanic at it’s core: running, jumping, and shooting, was perfect. The controls were as tight as they got, and the levels just right for them. Mega Man’s jump was also precise, you always knew right where you were jumping. Dashing as X or Zero was equally so, and the moment you took your finger off the button, they stopped moving.

This meant that no matter how crazy the stage design got (and good grief some stages are maddening), you were always in control of your character. Bottomless pits and spike traps were (usually) more challenges of dexterity than outright attempts to kill you. The stages were fair, with most new obstacles being obviously such. This meant that when you died (and you will), it was more often than not because of a mistake on your part, one that you can see. The games were about slowly learning stages and bosses, and then executing everything flawlessly.

And, most importantly, they were fun as all get out. And Capcom no longer makes them.

But a few years ago Keiji Inafune, someone who worked on the original Mega Man games, was Kickstarting a new game that looked an awful lot like Mega Man: Mighty No. 9. The game’s a platformer, you run, you jump, you shoot, you beat bosses and take their abilities. Heck, the game was number nine, a clear reference that both the original and X series ended at number 8 (besides the retro revival for the originals).

Mighty No. 9 was released a couple years ago, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this week upon it being free for PlayStation+ Subscribers.

And it is not a good game.

Lackluster visuals and presentation aside, it’s just… not really fun. It’s not the difficulty, rather it feels like the game cheats. Jumping onto a moving vehicle feels like a gamble, and avoiding attacks is luck more than anything. Sure, it’s fun to figure out a boss’s weakness and lay into it, but it’s missing that special something.

Namely, the precision that made Mega Man such a great series. Platforming feels wonky, the 'AcXelearte' dash is as likely to get you killed as out of trouble, and there’s no wall kick that made the X and Z games so interesting but instead a ledge grab that feels finicky at best. The gameplay loop just doesn’t work.

Part of what made the Mega Man games such fun was reaching that point of flow, where you kinda mesh with the controller into a sorta zen as you try and finish a stage and beat a boss. Instead here I am, a lifelong gamer, fumbling with the controller in Mighty No.9 'cuz Beck won’t grab on to a frickin' ledge. Look, its boss fights are fun, I’ll give it that, but it just doesn’t feel like Mega Man — which it’s quite clearly intended to. Maybe were it not so clearly meant to be such it wouldn’t feel this bad a game.

Actually, it probably would. It’s clunky, and really makes me miss Mega Man.

So I’ll probably end up replaying X5 or Z3 next. Just gotta beat this game next because I will not be daunted by poor game design!


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Beauty in Destruction

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 10 2018 · 174 views

Essays, Not Rants! 311: Beauty in Destruction

I saw Annihilation this week, which, y’know, shouldn’t really be surprising. I like Alex Garland as a writer (Never Let Me Go is heartbreakingly beautiful, Dredd is a solid action movie) and enjoyed his directorial debut in Ex Machina. Annihilation is science fiction replete with a primarily female cast, so it checks a lot of boxes for me.

And it’s a wonderful film, truly haunting with some moments of absolute horror, but one that is essentially devoted to the pursuit of the sublime, of that terrible beauty. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the trip to end is one that stays with you.

It’s also super clear that Alex Garland has played The Last of Us. No, plot points aren’t borrowed from Naughty Dog’s great game. There’s no fungal virus and it isn’t about the relationship between two very different people. But Annihilation, though based on a novel, undoubtedly draws on the video game in its portrayal of the world beyond the Shimmer.

The central plot of Annihilation deals with the Shimmer, a phenomena radiating from a crashed meteor wherein everything within its thrall gets, well, weird. The mystery of the Shimmer and what lays within is the big question of the movie and drives Lena and her team to investigate. Over time, it becomes clear that the Shimmer affects organic life somehow, and changes it.

A heads up, though, some minor spoilers for Annihilation are inbound. Unless you’ve seen the trailer, than you’ve already seen what I’m talking about (I hadn’t, and upon watching it now, wow, that thing reveals a bunch).

It affects people too. Lena and her team come across a prior expedition from about a year before. The members were affected by the Shimmer, and their bodies begun acting up. At the bottom of the pool they find the remains of a person who has since become almost plantlike and fungal and merged — grown — into the wall. His legs are still there, seated, but his entire upper torso has, for lack of a better word, flowered. It’s gruesome — his skull is several feet above his legs at the top of the 'plant' — but it’s also beautiful, in its own way.

The Last of Us (which, coincidentally, came out a year before the book Annihilation is based on did), features the same image. Over time, those infected by the fungal cordyceps will stop moving, settle down, and grow into their surroundings until all the remains is the vague silhouette of a human being surrounded by waves of fungus. While playing the game you will encounter these strange 'corpses,' sometimes moving them aside, sometimes just walking past. They’re grotesque, but at the same time beautiful.

The same can be said of how The Last of Us portrays its apocalypse. The world’s been ravaged by neglect and the Infected, and yet it’s somehow still beautiful. The flooded desolation of Pittsburg is tattered with trees and greenery growing through and around buildings; it’s all so lovingly rendered that the landscape of the apocalypse almost loses its despair and takes on its own serenity, grandeur. Consider the giraffes, and how amidst the bleakness there was such beauty. Annihilation has its share of abandoned structures and desolation, but the Shimmer speckles it with flowers and other bits of pretty. Somehow the abandoned is beautiful, even with the horrors inside.

What connects Annihilation and The Last of Us isn’t just the imagery (although, dude, those bloomed corpses are super similar), but rather how unique is how they portray destruction. Other similar stories with wastelands, be they the thousands-of-years-later ruins of Horizon: Zero Dawn or bombed-out town in your war movie of choice show beauty in contrast to destruction. Look at that shell of a tank, now look at the majestic tree next to it. For Annihilation and The Last of Us, destruction is intrinsic to beauty; it is the former that causes the latter: there is worth in the decaying frame of a half-sunken house, the corpse of an infected is as beautiful as it is terrible. It’s a haunting aesthetic, one that informs the incredible atmosphere of both works.


Addendum: A quick google shows that, yeah, Garland’s played The Last of Us and it’s one of his favorite games (alongside Bioshock). So maybe I’m not crazy about the influence the video game had on his movie, after all, artists steal.


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Do You Like Comedy?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Mar 07 2018 · 126 views

I started writing one. Go read it and post, but no spamming or flaming. Lots of KUTGWs please.


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Simple Pleasures

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 03 2018 · 140 views

Essays, Not Rants! 310: Simple Pleasure

I saw Game Night last night and it’s a delight of a movie. It takes a clever conceit (an immersive game night goes a step too far) and builds on it to great affect. There are some really clever turns that mix with a movie full of a surprising amount of heart and some great laughs. It’s a lot of fun and I really liked it.

I mean, it’s not, y’know, an important movie by any stretch. Like it’s not one that’s gonna go down in the annals of comedy, probably. But it's a lotta fun.

Kinda like the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven. I can acknowledge that it is not a super great movie, it doesn't go as deep as it could with the assembled talent, has a climax that borders on perfunctory, and is by all accounts a shadow of the, well, magnificence, of the original.

And yet.

I really like it. Enough so to put it on a year end list. And yes, I'm totally willing to admit that it's because of the Asian Cowboy. And also because multinational teams scratches a very specific itch for me. I don't really care about the movie’s flaws; I can acknowledge them, but it hardly diminishes my affection for the film. I doubt anyone's gonna remember it in five-odd years. But.

There's the book Ready Player One. It's a nerdy nirvana of a book, rife with references to 80s pop culture in all its forms. I know it smacks of wish fulfillment, which given author Ernest Cline’s own childhood in the 80s, definitely casts the novel, where an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture is needed to win the race and basically become the richest person ever, into a somewhat juvenile author’s fantasy.

And yet.

It's such fun. The references, from the most obvious to the deepest cuts are fun, and getting them makes you feel like you're part of the club; it's like a nerdy Ulysses. Ready Player One is the first (and only!) time I've seen Ultraman referenced outside of Asia; and he's a mild plot point! There's a chapter dedicated to Wade trying to get a perfect score in Pac-Man, which, as someone who can do a perfect run on the first five levels of Pac-Man, I very much appreciate the detail. It's also a book that treats online friendships as legitimate, which, hey! That's really cool!

I know Ready Player One is definitely not high literature, but it makes no claims as such. It's a fun read, and I love it for that. It's entertaining.

And isn't that what entertainment is supposed to be? Yes, there is the empirical good and bad (The Only Living Boy in New York is two hours of my life I'm never getting back, somewhat assuaged by running a commentary in an empty theater with a good friend), but past a certain point is it enough for something to be fun? I feel like there's often such a rush for a piece of fiction to be Important that we forget about the fun of it all. Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is not a super deep or particularly outstanding game; but it is a ridiculous amount of fun to play. And that's why I like the game. It's why I really like The Magnificent Seven and Ready Player One, they're fun.

Game Night’s a lotta fun, and I did really like it. And at the day, I think that’s enough. I don’t think I need to justify that to you (or myself), Sometimes it’s enough to just be entertained. 'cuz, y’know, it’s entertainment.





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josh


grew up on a ship


lives in new york


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

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Josh works for LEGO at the LEGO Store at Rockefeller Center. Despite this, any and every opinion expressed herewith is entirely his own and decidedly not that of The LEGO Group.

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