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Pixel Problems

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 04 2015 · 167 views

Essays, Not Rants! 172: Pixel Problems

I remember seeing Patrick Jean’s short film “Pixels” when it first hit the internet a few years ago. It’s a cool short film with a fun concept. It does what it does and is great for it. Then there was Freddie Wong’s “Old School vs New School” which took a similar idea and, though not quite as visually spectacular or narratively sound, was a great ode to nerd culture (Lara Croft from Tomb Raider gets in the lander from Lunar Lander!).

Then along comes this new movie Pixels, based on Patrick Jean’s eponymous short. It’s always exciting to see an independently made short get a feature based on it, especially one with such a relatively nerdy concept. But based on the trailers and such for the film, it’s, well, it’s looking more Big Bang Theory than Chuck.

And not just because of Adam Sandler.

Although there’s an outlandish concept to accept, (not Kevin James as president; an alien invasion taking the form of classic arcade games) but it serves its purpose well enough. That is, it allows the story to collect a team of former arcade super stars. So far, not so bad. There’s a great opportunity here to celebrate retro-gaming and gamers in general: gamers get to save the world! Nerds get to be the winners.

Only thing is, it’s looking like nerds are the punchline again. There’s no attempt to show the them as anything other than people to be laughed at. They could keep them weird, they could make them normal, or even take a page out of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and have most of them have moved on in their life and now have to access something they thought they grew out of (which, for the heroes of Pixels, would also allow them to recapture the joys of youth). Instead, no, the nerds are social rejects who are thrust into the spotlight for us to enjoy how hilariously out of touch they are. Also, they’re saving the world.

Which, again, wouldn’t be so bad if it felt more like a love letter than, well, whatever this is. Having a fictionalized version of Pac-Man’s creator show up (by name) is awesome, but it’s quickly negated by his appearance being reduced to something of a racist caricature. Because a screaming Japanese man makes for an easy joke. Again, this is based on the trailer, but I have a great deal of respect for Toru Iwatani and it’s disappointing to see someone playing him only to get the short end of a stick.

Which isn’t even touching the film’s gender issues. Michelle Monaghan plays the all too familiar hot-woman-who-tags-along-with-the-nerds, albeit a Lieutenant Colonel. But in doing so the film falls back into the trap of the myth that women can’t be nerds. The film creates a clear gender dichotomy that a woman’s not a gamer and is instead the ‘normal’ character who keeps the others on leash. It’s very rare to see any form of media actually get through this (Chuck had its moments), but nonetheless it’s a bummer. Would it have been too much to rework her character into someone who avidly actually enjoyed games?

Look, Pixels isn’t out yet and I don’t really plan on seeing it (which makes this one of the few things I complain about without watching). But nerd culture is something I’m big on, seeing as it’s something that occupies a large chunk of my life. I want a movie like Pixels, but I want a movie better than it. One where being a nerd is cool and can be anyone, whether they’re socially apt, a man or a woman, or heck, whatever their race is. ‘cause c’mon, nerds are cool now.


Another Life

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 27 2015 · 68 views

Essays, Not Rants! 171: Another Life

I’m me. That’s pretty obvious. I’m a biracial guy in my mid-twenties who lives in New York. I’ve had my own relatively interesting life, but at the end of the day it’s mine. Barring some crazy The Matrix or Total Recall-esque invention, I’m only ever going to live my life. It’s the only experience I’ll get.

Well, outside of certain kinds of fiction. Fiction offers a window into someone else’s life. The thing is, it’s hard to really make someone experience that life. Doesn’t matter how expertly crafted the movie is, at the end of the day you’re watching someone else’s life, not experiencing it first hand. You’ve no actual involvement.

Books can be a little better, as can let you actually into a character’s mind. Something like Ulysses is an exercise in empathy. There’s very little actual plot to the story, rather the catharsis and enjoyment of the story comes from being someone else. I got to spend a day in the head of an Irish man in his thirties in 1904. It was weird, somewhat long, but a completely new experience. Few books can really make you feel like you are someone else, let alone at this level.

So ‘normal’ narrative isn’t really that good at giving you another life. But video games are. Video games are an experiential medium, rather than being a spectator, in a good game the player experiences the narrative. In The Last of Us I got to be a father trying to protect his daughter. Hopefully, I’ll never have to carry my daughter through a crowd of zombie-esque people, but the game gave me that experience. And because I ended up so invested in the action — after all, I was the one trying to protect her — the ensuing story progression was that much more visceral. I got to be Joel.

It’s part of what makes action games like Halo or Uncharted such fun. You’re not vicariously taking part of the action, like when watching Bruce Willis Die Hard his way through Nakatomi Plaza, instead you get to be the action hero. Halo has you fighting off aliens while Uncharted 2 lets you run across the rooftops escaping from an attack helicopter. The player gets to be the action hero.

But it’s not all fireworks and zombies. Papers Please has the player as an immigration officer in a country that’s not unlike a Cold War USSR. Gameplay centers around making sure travelers have the right documents to cross over, and then rejecting or allowing them. This means double checking stamps and forms with a precision that gave me too many flashbacks to my time as a temp at a law firm. There are some choices too, like whether you help the resistance or if you’ll let the old lady with the sob story over even though everything’s not quite in order. But the strongest aspect of Papers Please is the experience. Suddenly I found myself caring a lot more for immigration officers at the airport, since for a few hours at a time I’d gotten to be them. I wasn’t just told their story, I got to live it for a while.

It’s fun to be someone else for a while, to not just be told someone else’s story, but to actually experience it. When games give you choices (from small ones like how best to get through a group of guards in Uncharted to major ones in Mass Effect where which squad member you assign to a task risks their death), they let you take an active part in the narrative. Storytelling then stops being a spectator sport and lets the audience be a part of it.

So yeah. Games are a fantastic method of telling stories.


Love Wins.

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Jun 26 2015 · 82 views



Writing Again

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Jun 22 2015 · 59 views

So for gins and griggles (but actually for practice) I'm working on a full length screenplay. Because I figured it'd be easier to start from something I decided to write a Captain Marvel movie, because she's the best (this was back before they announced that they were actually make one). Much procrastinating later and I finished a beat sheet a couple weeks ago and am going to script.

This is the first script I've written since "Ghosts That We Knew" last August and kinda the first bit of fiction I've really worked on properly all year (been busy, okay?).

As such there's a lot running through my mind:

  • How do people talk?
  • Why do people not talk during some conversations?
  • What's a good snack to get from a bodega?
  • How do people leave conversations?
  • What does a nine-year-old sound like?
  • What is the proper use of CONTINUOUS in a slugline?
  • How do people say goodbye?
  • No, no, keep direction out of your action.
  • What is a conversation?
  • Oh god I'm taking forever to get to the inciting incident.
  • Hey look, this character's actually developing a voice!
  • Holy fish it's taking forever to write ten pages.
  • Is that a natural way to say someone's name?
  • How much description should I give of a location?
  • Man, I gotta read more scripts.


Linear Versus Open World

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 20 2015 · 47 views

Essays, Not Rants! 170: Linear Versus Open World

E3 was this week, which means most major video game companies were showing off the upcoming games they have lined up. There's a lot to be excited for: Star Wars Battlefront looks great, Dishonored 2 is getting Emily Kaldwin as a protagonist, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally in development. But me being me, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the glorious gameplay demo they showed off is what I cared about most.

The game looks great, showing again why Naughty Dog is one of the best in the industry. Telling too is the discussion surrounding the game The Uncharted games, like the more recent The Last of Us, is incredibly narrative focused. More so than role-playing games — traditionally the story based game — Naughty Dog's recent slew of action adventure games have been all about the story. Furthermore, the games are very linear. Where Final Fantasy VII had side quests, Uncharted keeps going in one direction. You're basically playing through a movie.

It's a direction that Neil Druckmann, A Thief's End's creative director, deeply believes in, even if that’s not where many other major studios are going. There’s a tendency towards the open world, where games put players in a massive world for them to explore. Bungie left Halo, a very linear shooter, to make Destiny, something that looks a lot more like an RPG with hints of an open-world. Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed series lets players roam the ancient world, finding their own fun and pursuing optional objectives. The player doesn’t have to have Ezio continue pursing the Borgias, instead they can recruit more assassins or collect money to improve equipment. Unlike Uncharted, they aren’t forced along a single, linear path.

This is arguably one of the great potentiality of games. Players can do whatever they want and craft their own narrative out of a sandbox. Rather than being shepherded along a preset path, players can strike out and find their adventures. Games, after all, let the consumer have a lot more interaction with the story than a movie or book. Letting players explore takes full advantage of the medium.

But it doesn’t always work narratively. Pacing is incredibly important when telling a story. The audience can’t get bored halfway through or even distracted from the central core. I think this is where open world games come up short. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games for what they are: relatively mindless adventure games with some great conspiracy theory set dressings. But more often than not I get waylaid by exploring or doing side-missions and going after treasure. It remains fun enough, but they don’t exactly bring me in closer to the main character’s arc. I couldn’t care less about what Ezio was up to in Turkey, it was more fun to explore Constantinople.

Naughty Dog is instead opting to bring players into a narrative and let them experience it first hand. Games can let you live as someone else and experience things you usually don’t. What Uncharted and The Last of Us do so well is let players live a different life. The Last of Us had me feel like a father, Uncharted 2 let me be an action hero. More than that, though, these are characters we care about. By keeping the narrative and the action zeroed in, the players isn’t allowed to be distracted by side quests. Rather, the character and story remain front and center and with them a genuine emotional experience.


Uncharted 4 Trailer

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Jun 15 2015 · 20 views

*breathing intensifies*


Narrative Contracts

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 13 2015 · 35 views

Essays, Not Rants! 169: Narrative Contracts

Early on in Borderlands 2 the player encounters a fence of electricity in between them and their goal. Claptrap, the voice over the radio, tells you there’s a fusebox on the other side and that if you run fast enough, you won’t take damage from the fence. Your objective changes, now saying to run into the forcefield. So you do, and it deals damage to your shield and pushes you back. Claptrap suggests you do it again, he says you weren’t running fast enough. Seeing as this is a video game and voices-over-the-radio are seldom wrong, and your objective once again tells you to run into it. You do, and the same thing happens.

Undeterred, Claptrap tells you to try again, only for you to once again be electrocuted and pushed back. He then starts to make another suggestion for how to run through it when another voice on the radio comes in and tells you to just shoot the fusebox. And to ignore any advice Claptrap gives you.

It’s a funny moment, in no small part because the player is used to games and objectives being helpful. Borderlands 2 is effectively using the tropes of the medium itself to screw with you. It’s like a betrayal by the game, a really funny one. But it also serves to highlight the contract between a player and a game.

See, when it comes to entertainment there’s this sort of unspoken agreement. The movie’s arc will come to a head and resolution, the book’s narrative will conclude in some way, this essay will make a point at the end that warrants the five minutes you spend reading it. In video games, completing objectives will both advance the plot and progress the player. When the voice on the radio gives you an objective, you do it.

Which is what makes that gag in Borderlands 2 so great. These narrative contracts are vital to maintaining reader interest and telling a good story, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in breaking them. Community, for example, plays fast and loose with the expected promise that a tv show doesn’t know it’s a tv show. There’s something a little unsettling when a character in a tv show refers to ‘seasons’ or seems acutely aware that it’s a show.

Yet in the series finale a couple weeks ago, the characters envisioning how they’d want the Season Seven of their friendship to play out give us a unique look into each character’s psyche. That each scenario is introduced by a truncated version of the show’s opening only further draws the viewer in. What’s key is that the breaking of the rules service both story and humor.

For another example it’s hard not to mention Ulysses. The James Joyce novel eschews much in the way of the plot that’s expected of it. Bits of stories are started and continued, but nothing is ever truly resolved as the modernist novel captures the wandering minds and lives of a fairly average day in 1904 Dublin. Had the book instead followed a more traditional structure, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest books ever. More importantly, it wouldn’t have felt half as realistic and emotionally true to life as it does.

But if we’re talking about books breaking narrative contracts, nothing quite beats Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In an increasingly frustrating fashion, the narrator tells the reader that he, as the storyteller, could do anything he wanted, like set the titular Jacques and his master off on a great adventure. But he doesn’t. Instead the book is one of unmet expectations, where the reader neither gets to hear the true story of Jacques’ loves or is even given a proper ending to the book — rather the reader is given three to choose from. But as an exercise in playing with narrative, it excels.

All this to say that rules are meant to be broken. That said, rules have to be broken right, like in Community or Ulysses. Because unless you’re Denis Diderot, there’s not much point in doing it just to prove a point. Or if you want to screw with your player.

Now I’ve just gotta finish Borderlands 2.


Cold War Relevance

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 06 2015 · 38 views

Essays, Not Rants! 168: Cold War Relevance

Alright. Quick one today because it’s my birthday and I have plans.

I talk a lot about science fiction and how often it works as a way to commentate on current events and what not. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to look at the interplay of fiction when it’s something that happened in the past (See: Gojira). The Cold War too, which was also when modern science fiction began to really take shape, has great influence on the stories of its time.

Ray Bradbury opens his short story “The Last Night of The World” with a simple question: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The answer isn’t wild revelry, rather the husband and wife at the center await the upcoming end with simple acceptance, living the last night of the world as if it were any other night.

Published in early 1951, the short story tries to capture the mindset of people who have been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for two decades. In Bradbury’s view, these people are powerless to change anything about their fate, and thus they feel that they have no recourse but to accept the end of the world. There’s little concern for a matter of how the world ends, it’s just described as like the closing of a book.

By focusing so small Bradbury is able to make implicit statements about those with power. Though the short story lacks actual overt commentary, “The Last Night of The World” is an indictment against the Cold War and the associated political atmosphere. There is an undeniable link in the short story between the end of the world and the actions taken by leaders during the Cold War.From the point of view of the story, the world can only take a certain amount of guns being constantly pointed at each other before the plug is pulled.

In this story, people can adapt to the constant fear of death to the point that when the end finally comes it is not so much greeted as it is all-but-ignored. Humanity can get used to anything, even if it means adjusting to a constant expectation of the end of the world. The end of the world has progressed beyond inevitability; it has become expected.

Compare this to Star Wars, released 26 years later. Written and directed by someone who actually did grow up in the Cold War’s tensions, the movie disagrees vehemently with Bradbury’s message. Luke Skywalker grew up under the Empire, or at least the far reaches of it, and dreams of fighting back. He’s not resigned to his fate, rather, he jumps at the chance to do something about it.

See, Star Wars has to be seen as a piece of Cold War literature. You’ve got the Death Star threatening to destroy an entire planet, reminiscent of the whole nuclear risk thing. A lot of contemporary (American) writings painted the Soviet Union as a faceless, evil, Galactic Empire-esque nation with the United States as the noble underdog espousing a rugged individualism. In light of all this, Luke Skywalker being able to rise up and destroy the Death Star is a statement that, hey, they can win. Not at all unlike how Pacific Rim is a millennial anthem, Star Wars was a generation growing up under the threat of nuclear doom saying that things would get better.

Writer’s Note: Do give “The Last Night of The World” a read, it’s short and findable online. Also, I feel like there’s a connection between the Cold War atmosphere and the idealism of ‘80s movies, but that’s another post for another day.


I’m Going To Use The Word ‘Intertextual’ Because I Want To

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 01 2015 · 31 views

Coulda sworn I posted this on Saturday. Ah well.

Essays, Not Rants! 167: I’m Going To Use The Word ‘Intertextual’ Because I Want To

Intertextuality is a fun word to say. It’s an even funner concept: it’s the idea that one text will reference another. And I'm on a vacation of sorts this week so I'm gonna write about it.

See, when intertextual literature lets its world be informed by the outside. Chuck, for example, uses it to inform characters. Characters’ references to Tron or Back to the Future lets us into their heads and gives us an idea of who they are. When Casey tells an amnesiac Morgan that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, we know that he does actually care about the guy he’s always found insufferable. First off, the show at-large is tapping into the general consensus that Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, was comparatively awful. But more importantly, it’s got Casey entering into Morgan’s nerdy world, something he usually doesn’t entertain. But because he does, we know how far both his character has come but also his relationship with Morgan. Outright telling Morgan he cared would be clunky (and also not true to the character), but the smaller reference feels far more natural. All because of an Indiana Jones reference.

Of course, when talking about intertextuality and characterization, it’s hard not to bring up Ulysses, but that’s mostly because I’ve read it and the book’s kinda taken over my head. The tome portrays a day in Dublin from deep within a couple characters’ minds. Bloom and Stephen, the main characters whose heads the book spends the most time in, both use contemporary culture in their thoughts, but both do differently. Stephen, the intellectual young man, quotes and references Shakespeare and Catholic funeral rites. The former because it’s what he’s familiar with, the latter because of residual guilt over his mother’s death. Bloom, on the other hand, being a rather normal middle-aged man, has advertising slogans and popular songs crawling through his head. Since Ulysses is meant to be as close to life as literately possible, it wouldn’t make sense for it to not have this. Intertextuality here serves to make James Joyce’s Dublin feel even more real. Then there’s also the fact that much of what they reference has to do with their own internal conflicts (see Stephen and his mother) and also elucidates more of the book, but that’s an essay rant dissertation for another day.

Intertextuality, however, extends beyond simple references. Star Wars is deeply intertextual, although it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where contemporary pop-culture isn’t a thing. Rather the plot as a whole is heavily influenced by traditional mythology as well as classic Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featured many ideas and plot beats that were integrated into Star Wars. This isn’t to say that Star Wars is derivative, no more than The Lion King is for taking a lot from Hamlet (or, for that matter, Lion King 1/2 and its relationship to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).

Rather it makes you realize that literature — and that’s literature insofar as film, books, video games, television, comics, and any form of telling a story — is inherently interconnected. Everything references something else and now, with the internet making pop culture osmosis prevalent enough that I can mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and know that a good many of you will get it even if you, like me, haven’t read it.

All this to say that intertextuality isn’t going away, and isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it’s a fancy word for a normal enough thing that, when used well, adds layers to a story that wouldn’t otherwise.


Obligatory Fury Road Entry

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 23 2015 · 151 views

Essays, Not Rants! 166: Obligatory Fury Road Entry

I haven’t seen any of the old Mad Max trilogy, more for lack of bother than anything. Pop culture osmosis ensured I knew what it was about, though; post-apocalyptic wasteland, lots of leather, cars, machismo. So Fury Road flew below my radar during much of the lead up to its release. That is, until the press surrounding it started to discuss how it was surprisingly feminist and was [annoying] a lot of Men’s Rights Activists.

That got my attention.

Fury Road, despite seeming a super-macho movie by way of its car chases and apocalyptic grit, features Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the film’s de facto protagonist with Max essentially falling in to her quest to escape the Citadel with five of the villain’s wives. Furiosa is fantastic. She’s introduced as an elite in Immortan Joe’s army, one with enough sway that when she serendipitously changes course during her mission, no one in her escort questions her. And of course she kicks butt. Furiosa goes toe-to-toe with Max when they first meet and continues to prove herself plenty capable action-wise throughout the film.

But as unexpected as it is to see a woman headlining a Mad Max film, it’s expected that she would be plenty capable in the world. After all, she’s a fighter, someone hardened to the film’s post-apocalyptic setting. Where Fury Road gets really interesting with its character portrayals is with the wives. By all rights, these five should be damsels, albeit ones rescued by a woman instead of a man. They’re not fighters, not drivers, not politicians. In a world like Mad Max’s Australia, what use are they?

The film gives the wives a surprising amount of agency. We, as viewers, are first clued into their escape when we see their empty room in the citadel, “We Are Not Things” scrawled on the walls. This is the central thrust towards them: the wives are not things; they are people.

So they aren’t the load, and they aren’t just Furiosa’s cargo. When the raiding party catches up with Furiosa’s War Rig, one of the villains steadies a shot at her. In response, one of the wives, Splendid, opens the door and places herself — and Immortan Joe’s unborn child — between the gun and driver. It’s an epic moment, one of those big reversals in an action scene that cause a shift in how it all plays out.

Splendid’s actions give credence to their manifesto of not being things. When she puts herself in the line of fire, she’s doing so of her own accord; neither Max nor Furiosa tells her to do it, she makes her own choice. Furthermore, her actions indicate that she knows her own value; she knows how she can be useful in a battle despite being a noncombatant. It’s also worth noting that Splendid’s not out there alone; the other wives are helping hold her to the side of the vehicle speeding through the desert, thus showing that all of them are in this and they all know what they can bring.

Much of Fury Road plays out without dialogue, with visuals being as, if not more, important to storytelling as words. This also makes it a big teacher in the lessons of showing instead of telling: we’re not just told the wives don’t want to be considered things anymore, we see them actively fighting for and using their own agency. We’re not just told that Furiosa’s demanding of respect through others’ reactions, we’re shown it again and again by how she handles herself. With it, the film lets its female heroines make interesting choices. One of the wives loses hope, another one has great faith in their journey.

In other words, Fury Road has a surprisingly feminist bent by writing its women as people.


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grew up on a ship

studies Storytelling

at New York University

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

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