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Diversity in Middle-earth

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 18 2017 · 92 views

Essays, Not Rants! 295: Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don't really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it's hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That's not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn't make it any worse as a work, it's just how it is. So if we're telling new stories, let's ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let's make all the elves Asian!” because that way you'll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don't look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let's make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let's not do that.

Because if we're diversifying Middle-earth, let's let everyone be everyone. Let's have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let's have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it's gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place. But that’s done, and it doesn't excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there's nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you'd have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that's not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we've already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who've kicked butt in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y'know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it's outside what we've internalized as normal for the genre. We're simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that's s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It's what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it's the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can't I, someone who's reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?


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Spoilers and Reveals

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 11 2017 · 91 views

Essays, Not Rants! 294: Spoilers and Reveals

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. That’s a spoiler, right? What about Luke fights Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back? How about Yoda’s the green dude Luke meets on Dagobah? Or Luke goes to Dagobah? Where does it stop being a spoiler and become plot information?

Spoilers used to mean something that’d, well, spoil a surprise, ruin the story. It’d be telling someone that Lando betrays Han in Empire. Since at the point, the story seems to be presenting one thing, but it turns out it’s another. But saying Han and Leia go to Cloud City? That’s just information, it doesn’t tell you anything about the story.

I think we have a tendency to conflate spoilers and plot. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fun to going into something completely blind, but there’s no harm in knowing something. Knowing that Luke goes to Dagobah isn’t gonna ruin Empire Strikes Back.

But then, I’d argue that spoilers don’t always ruin stuff either. I went into LOST knowing that Charlie died, but I still had a ball of a time (and also swore of social media in between the time it aired and I was able to watch it). I started Game of Thrones knowing that Ned Stark died in the first season, but so much of the fun of it was watching how it played out. Saying a spoiler ruins something is indicative of poor storytelling: you know Han, Luke, and Leia are gonna make it out of Star Wars in one piece, but does that make it any less enjoyable? I played MGSV knowing all the twists and turns, yet it’s still a gripping story. A well crafted story doesn’t solely rely on WHAM moments to hook you. But that doesn’t mean I’m trawling through every nugget of information about The Last Jedi. I enjoy being surprised all the same.

Spoilers are a weird beast, is what I’m saying.

Which brings me to Stranger Things 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first season last year and, of course, was ready for the second. I didn’t watch any of the trailers, but that was more due to apathy than any intent to avoid spoilers. But then they put out a mobile game, which, I’d usually dismiss except this one was styled after Legend of Zelda. And not the 3D ones, but the old school, top down, action-RPGs that I love (Link’s Awakening is the best Zelda game; fight me). When Season 2 dropped, the game updated with a new character, Max, and an extra quest. Cool!

But unlocking this new character, however, reveals that they she has a special ability. And it’s a doozie. Like, major turn of events type reveal. I was… less than pleased. Because this had all the shaping of being a big twist that happens part way through the season and shakes everything up. And here it was in this game.

But what makes this such a spoiler-y thing is that it could be a big reveal, an "I am your father" reveal. The sort of thing I’d rather not have spoiled for something I’m about to watch in the near future. 'cuz I got clued in to some of the plot developments by virtue of, y’know, being on the internet. Like I knew that Steve would be taking on some adventures in babysitting (though none of the details), but that’s hardly a spoiler.

So when I actually watched the show, the back of my mind was furiously anticipating That Twist. …aaaaand it didn’t happen.

Finding out that Max has psychic blasts would have been a heckuva spoiler, since it’s a big reveal. That it didn’t happen is a nice gag of the developers (inaccurate game adaptions have a long and storied history) that’s a little frustrating because I kept waiting for it to happen.

But Stranger Things isn’t a show that rides or dies on its reveals. It’s a tightly crafted show, with a plot that starts as a slow burn and picks up as it goes; elements are thrown in play and developed to great effect. Furthermore, it's anchored in strong characters with growth and relationships. Sure, a major plot spoiler would take away some of the surprise, but that's not the main draw. Even if it was, though, I don't think it'd have ruined the show. Spoilers aren't that bad, guys.

But if you dare tell me anything about The Last Jedi that isn't in the trailers…


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Violence in Video Games

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 04 2017 · 60 views

Essays, Not Rants! 293: Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing "Through The Valley," a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is bent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.


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Going Further

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 28 2017 · 60 views

Essays, Not Rants! 292: Going Further

The LEGO Ninjago Movie came out about a month ago and it was, well, firmly okay. Like, it's not awful — it’s entertaining enough — but it never rises to the delightful postmodern heights of its predecessors. But it didn't have to. While The LEGO Movie toyed with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey by making the chosen one as un-special as possible, and The LEGO Batman Movie used the narrative of a love story to reframe the conflict of Batman and The Joker to craft a hilarious new take on the mythos, all The LEGO Ninjago Movie really had to do was tell a raucous adventure story. Which it kinda does, but it’s very safe, one couched in winks at the audience and a foot still safely in the boat, never taking the plunge.

It’s a shame, too, because The LEGO Ninjago Movie had so much in its hand, it just never went all in.

Let’s just look at the setting. We’ve got Ninjago City, this cyberpunk-by-way-of-future-Asia setting with elevated highways and really cool buildings. But we never get to really explore it. All of our time in the city is set against the backdrop of big fights, which, while cool, are hardly space to get to know a setting. Instead, once the plot begins in earnest, we’re whisked out to a much more generic jungle. And like, sure, a jungle’s a cool enough setting, but it lacks the idiosyncrasy of Ninjago City. Jungles are generic, whereas Ninjago City had this spiffy aesthetic that marked is as different from, say Bricksburg or Gotham from the other LEGO movies or even New York and Coruscant. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to rejigger the central plot to go from exploring the jungle to spelunking in the depths of Ninjago City. There’s more personality there and room for imagination, something the movie really could have used.

Because it plays it all so safe. We have this outstanding (and hilarious) cast who are mostly relegated to bit parts where they can offer commentary on the Quest At Hand. If Ninjago is gonna be a send up of typical adventure movies, then let the main characters be a bunch of savvy wiseacres taking the mickey out of the narrative. If it’s gonna be an actual adventure movie, then let it be that, with the silliness seeping in from all sides. But Ninjago couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and instead we have a normal adventure story that’s undercut by its love of winking at itself. There’s no commitment.

So let’s take The Princess Bride. It creates a delightfully silly world, replete with six-fingered men, Dread Pirate Robertses, and ROUSes, but with characters who are completely sold on it. Inigo Montoya searches for the six-fingered man, and though he’s a comedic supporting character, because he as a character is serious about it and because the narrative never ridicules his quest, he is given the ultimate catharsis when he eventually finds him. There’s no winking at the audience, where everything unfolding is an in-joke. Sure, it’s a silly world (there is a place called The Cliffs of Insanity) but because the characters are given a level of emotional honesty, the narrative feels whole.

Even Shrek 2 (objectively the best of the Shreks) treats its characters’ arcs with a great deal of respect. Yes, the movie absolutely skewers fairytales, particularly of the Disney variety, but the story of Shrek trying to fit into Fiona’s world is committed to wholeheartedly. As such we still have a great story in this bizarre world (that we also get time to explore).

A lot of its faults can be blamed on The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s absolutely frenetic pace. The movie barely slows down to give us a chance to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fast paced movie, but the movie barely ever fleshes out anything it has in play, never letting us just be in the space it’s created. It’s a rotten shame, too, because there was so much interesting at its fringes, so much mileage to be had with the banter between the characters, so much capacity for cool with some LEGO-ized martial arts action. Plus, you’ve got the Hero With an Evil Dad trope with the wonderful twist that everyone knows Garmadon is Lloyd’s father. But frustratingly, characters don’t fulfill arcs so much as they check off narrative beats. The movie never trusts its assets enough to capitalize on it, it never goes all the way.

Instead, well, we get something that’s just fine.


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On Visceral's Closure

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 21 2017 · 74 views

Essays, Not Rants! 291: On Visceral’s Closure

I like Star Wars. I also like video games. So naturally I was very excited back in 2014 when it was announced that Amy Hennig, Creative Director of the first three Uncharted games was heading up a new Star Wars game. And not just any Star Wars game, this was gonna be a big single-player action adventure, the likes of which we hadn't had since 2010’s lackluster The Force Unleashed II. We’d been teased years ago with the announcement of 1313 but that was canceled when Disney bought Lucasfilm and shuttered LucasArts, so this new game seemed like them making up for that. And again, this was gonna be a narrative-driven action-adventure game by the woman who directed Uncharted – a series that codified what a good narrative-driven action-adventure game is.

And it's been cancelled.

News broke on Tuesday that publisher EA was shuttering Visceral Games, the studio working on the game. The assets were going to be repurposed for a new project and the creative team are in limbo at best. EA’s given reason was that it wanted to focus instead on games that “keep players coming back” which, given the publisher’s recent output, sounds like multiplayer games with plenty of space for moneymaking microtransactions.

In any case, Amy Hennig’s Star Wars game, which it turns out was codenamed “Ragtag,” is dead in the water.

Which bums me out and ticks me off.

Because we're not getting a Star Wars game. And because this is another point in the trend away from my beloved linear, narrative, single-player games.

There aren't a lot of major single-player games being made. Sure, Call of Duty may have its campaign, but that's really just a thinly veiled vehicle for the far more popular multiplayer. And the games that do feature robust single player, Mass Effect Andromeda, the Assassin’s Creed series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Grand Theft Auto, to name a few, all feature open worlds with space for the player to explore. Catered, intentional single-player experiences are few and far between, with Uncharted 4, BioShock Infinite, and Dishonored 2 being the few that come to mind. These are games that aren't open world, but rather games with a deliberate structure designed for the player to experience a particular narrative. But it seems like major studios aren't willing to take a chance on these games, even with a fantastic creative team behind it.

It’s frustrating, because the same thing happened a couple years ago. Via a terrifying demo, it was announced that there was going to be a new Silent Hill. Not only was this established horror franchise getting a new (and long awaited) game, but it was being headed up by frickin’ Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima, the man behind Metal Gear Solid and a developer that deserves to be called an auteur. But partway through production, publisher Konami decided it wanted to shift focus to mobile games that were cheaper to make and had higher profit margins. Kojima, with his elaborate single player games, was laid off, Silent Hills was canned, and now there will be no horror game headed up by del Toro and Kojima.

That “Ragtag” was canceled is not reassuring for me and my love of these catered experiences. It's hard to overstate how much of a sure thing the game seemed: you had a proven director working with a proven studio to make a game based on one of the most iconic franchises of all time. That EA has decided that the game is not bankable enough and wants to instead use the assets on another project is a mindbogglingly huge vote of no confidence. Again, this is EA, a company who hasn't before let a game being bug ridden or devoid of much content prevent it from being published. “Ragtag” was in production for three-and-a-half years when EA pulled the plug, a decision that by all accounts seems to have caught Amy Hennig and everyone at Visceral as off-guard as we were. It’s disappointing, and honestly kinda heartbreaking, that EA doesn't want to follow through with a game that had so much going for it.

But then, EA is a company, and one of the biggest video game publishers at that. Based on their recent output, they want cash cows they can milk through micro-transactions and buyable add-ons. A solidly paced game, where encounters flow into another and finally reach an absolute resolution with little room for later made content or padded sidequests? Who needs that when you have loot boxes that let players pay more money to be more powerful?

Maybe whatever “Ragtag” morphs into will end up being a good game. Maybe other studios like Naughty Dog and directors like Ken Levine will continue to show that these linear, narrative-focused single-player games still have a place. But no matter what, we won't be getting this Star Wars game headed by Amy Hennig.

And that really sucks.


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The Illusion of Choice

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 14 2017 · 74 views

Essays, Not Rants! 290: The Illusion of Choice

When not raiding Soviet bases to 80s hits in Metal Gear Solid V, I've been playing Until Dawn with my roommate. Now, I don't really do horror, like, at all. But Until Dawn features a supposedly robust choices and consequences system, which I am, of course, a sucker for.

We’ve finished the game and there's been a good deal of payoff to some of the choices we've made. The big thing we're looking forward to, though, is playing it again and making different choices to see what would happen.

Because right now a lot of what happened feels like a direct result of the choices we've made and I wanna know how much of that is really because of what we did. Every little plot turn can’t be the result of our decisions, even though it can feel like it.

A lot of the time, when we play a game with multiple choices, we want everything we do to be impactful and for it to create a tailored set of consequence that are entirely dependent on what we did.

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Doesn’t that sound cool? Every choice you make has consequences! Siding with Miranda or Jack when they argue aboard the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 could spell disaster down the line! If Walker doesn’t spare that guy in Spec Ops: The Line what will it mean for the future?

The problem is, games are a finite medium. What’s done, is done, and has to have been doable. There’s a limit to your free will, a limit set by the game developers and their bother and/or budget. It turns out that choosing Kaiden or Ashley has no real choice on the rest of Mass Effect, as the survivor fulfills basically the same role in the sequels. Picking Udina or Anderson doesn’t have much bearing on Citadel politics, because Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have much of it, and by the time 3 rolls around, Anderson (if you chose him) has stepped down so that Udina represents the humans and the intrigue on the Citadel proceeds accordingly.

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Now, I am kinda picking and choosing some examples, Mass Effect does have some brilliant moments of consequence (whether or not you saved Mealon’s research in the second game has a massive impact on the third – it’s that it’s one of the few choices of that nature that make it stand out so), but a few different playthroughs, the cracks in the game’s design start to show. No matter what, Udina will end up on the council. The Rachni will return whether or not you kill their Queen. Whether or not you sacrifice the Council in the Battle of The Citadel doesn’t mean much ultimately. To quote Eloise Hawking in LOST: the universe has a way of course correcting.

Which is a bummer, because what if, to beat a dead horse, picking Anderson or Udina made for totally different plot lines in Mass Effect 3. Maybe Anderson as Councilor meant that Cerberus never managed to attack the Citadel, but in exchange made the mission to Earth that much harder without him in your corner. It does mean a lot of resources, but it also means a more personalized experience.

I think that might be why I’m hesitant to jump back into Until Dawn. Right now everything happened as a result of my choices. Little tweaks to the game’s horror were because of my answers to questions posed to me (Snake-Clowns with Needles, though the snakes never showed up). Playing the game again (which I absolutely want to do to, why else, see what would happen) will probably show where the seams are and reveal how little impact my decisions had. That it doesn’t on the first play through speaks to good writing.

Because choice in games are an illusion, and will continue to be until you have an infinite number of monkeys typing up an infinite number of outcomes to an infinite number of players’ decisions. But until then, players can be tricked into thinking we have a decision. If the game’s narrative makes the causality feel like it had to happen, like that your choice led you here no matter what, then the illusion isn’t broken. Just spackle those cracks with good writing and we’re onboard.

For the first playthrough or two, anyway. After that it boils down to just gaming the system as much as you can (how can I make sure everyone dies in the most gruesome way in Until Dawn?).


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Giant Robots

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 07 2017 · 96 views

Essays, Not Rants! 289: Giant Robots

It is no secret that I absolutely adore Pacific Rim. Granted, and watching giant mechs and giant mechs beat the stuffing outta each other is only a part of it. See, there’s the pure childish glee to it, the great speech, and, of course, its youthful and hopeful worldview. Pacific Rim is a movie about giant mechs and giant monsters, but it’s because it’s so much more than the battle between Jaegers and Kaiju that the movie made the impression it did, it’s why it matters more than you’d expect.

A sequel was up in the air for a while, and, eventually, Guillermo del Toro stepped aside from directing again and Steven S. DeKnight filled in as writer/director and the project officially went into production. There were rumors online about the studio ousting del Toro, but given that he still has a producing credit and DeKnight was in touch with him, it’s safe to say his vision is still there.

So naturally, I watched the trailer for the sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising as soon as I could. And man, it delivers on more giant mechs fighting giant monsters. And a multinational team, which is something very important to me, obvious. And it’s a glorious trailer, with new robots fighting new monsters in a city and stuff getting destroyed and swords slashing and all that cool stuff.

But all the same, it seems to me that there’s a bit that’s being lost.

Let me preface the following with this: It looks awesome. Mecha action is something near and dear to my heart, and getting to see a glimpse of those behemoths fighting is, of course, a joy. I’m here for it.

But.

Guillermo del Toro’s a self-described pacifist. He deliberately avoids making movies about war, and Pacific Rim was no different. The leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps isn’t a general, but rather a Marshal (named Stacker Pentecost, but the ridiculous awesomeness of that name is unimportant here). The Jaeger pilots aren’t Captains or Lieutenants, but rather Rangers. Pacific Rim avoids much militaristic imagery, and there’s no room for jingoism in a movie about an international team fighting monsters. This is all deliberate, as del Toro "…wanted was for kids to see a movie where they don’t need to aspire to be in an army to aspire for an adventure."[*]

Even the action in the movie follows this trend. Sure, there’s epic destruction, but the operating protocol for the Jaeger pilots is to keep the Kaiju away from the city. When a kaiju attacks Sydney, it’s because it breached the wall that was supposed to keep them out. The fight in Hong Kong is after the defenders have been overwhelmed, and much ado (and a subplot) is made out of making sure civilians evacuate to shelters. When the punching and hitting starts, it’s a lot of punching and outlandish weapons. Gipsy Danger has an energy blaster and a sword, Striker Eureka rockets and knives, Cherno Alpha is really good at punching stuff. It’s fantastical, it’s fun.

There’s a shot in the Uprising trailer that looks like one out of the matrix, with empty bullet shells falling to the ground behind a Jaeger. It’s cool — because of course it’s cool — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it gave me a measure of concern. Part of what made Pacific Rim so wonderful was it being removed from reality; once the Jaegers started going there wasn’t much in the ways of actual guns. All the violence was out there, fantastical, giant robots punching and giant swords and rockets.

I love Pacific Rim. And I wanna love Uprising too. But lightning in a bottle was caught once, and I’m wary of a followup. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe DeKnight’s got more going on than the trailer lets on. Maybe it’ll be as hopeful and idealistic as the first one. But as we get set to enjoy more mecha versus kaiju action, I want to remember how darn special Pacific Rim is, and how much a sequel has to live up to not only in quality but also in theming. Maybe Uprising won’t have the special sauce that made Pacific Rim so good.

But.

It’s still gonna be giant mechs beating up giant monsters.

And I’ll take it.


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We Don't Need No Adaptation

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 30 2017 · 84 views

Essays, Not Rants! 288: Don’t Need No Adaptation

Your Name is an anime film about a couple teens that randomly wake up in each others bodies. One’s a guy at an elite school in Tokyo, the other a girl who lives in a more traditional, rural town. Naturally, hijinks ensure, and I’m left weepy in the cinema as the credits roll.

It’s very much a body swapping love story, but it’s one that holds extra depth due to its intense focus on longing. Much of the romance that blooms between Taki and Mitsuha is due to them knowing each other so well but being unable to really meet. It’s further accentuated by the anime’s gorgeous animation, with some fantastic visual touches that could only be done in an animated movie (seriously, even if you ignore the magnificently crafted narrative, Your Name is a visual wonderland).

Point is, I really like this movie, it is really good, and you should watch it.

It was also just announced that Paramount pictures was teaming up with J. J. Abrams to adapt it into a live action film.

Which is as pointless as it is frustrating.

Look, I’ve nothing against Abrams, he’s a fine director who’s made some of my more favorite films in recent memory (The Force Awakens, Star Trek, Super 8), but you can’t help but to wonder why this movie even needs to happen.

Well, you can: money. Your Name was a ridiculously successful hit in Japan, and, to quite an extent, overseas. It stands to good reason that by adapting it to a more 'conventional' medium (live action film) it will make Even More Money, which, well, cynically, is the goal of a lot of art.

But let’s ignore that for now.

If Your Name, a movie that came out barely a year ago in Japan, is being made into a live action western film, then there has to be some need for it, right? Your Name is a beautiful story, one that I can’t recommend strongly enough (as was insistently recommended to me and I then passed on). It’s something of a shame, then, that it’s an anime and thus will only fall into a niche audience of a) people who will watch an anime film, and 2) an anime film that’s relatively 'realistic' and not as pulpy as the medium is known for.

In which case, yes, by all means, let’s bring this story to a wider audience.

But why?

Why is it that a film like Your Name needs to be 'uplifted' by removing it from where it came? Is it because anime, as a medium, isn’t good enough? Sure seems that way. There’s this weird prejudices against certain medium as not being good enough. A movie can get discounted just because it’s an anime film, just as a story, no matter how moving, can be dismissed if it’s found in a video game. There’s an artistic pecking order, as it were, where certain genres are more artsy than others (drama more so than comedy), and in turn certain mediums are more artsy than others (books over comics). Adapting Your Name to a live action film would, in this mindset, make it more artistically pure. Which is a load of nonsense; mediums are a means of storytelling. There are some stories that only work in one way, (500) Days Of Summer wouldn’t really work as anything except a film and Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye would lose so much if it were anything but a comic book. It’s a matter of we, as an audience, getting over the fact that Your Name is an anime.

Because there are some things that cannot be adapted. Sure, you can make The Lord of The Rings into a twelve hour saga that’s incredible in its own right, but there’s no way to turn Joyce’s Ulysses into anything but its tome without losing so much of what makes it special. Similarly, Your Name is so rooted in not just its Japanese-ness, but in its anime-ness. Many of the visual touches are of the sort you can only do in animation. So much of what makes the film so magical will be lost with the 'realism' of live action, but any attempt to stylize reality (a la Scott Pilgrim) runs the risk of trampling over normal life-ness that makes the heightened reality of Your Name work. The film masterfully straddles an extraordinarily thin line, and it’s one that only works because it’s an anime, not in spite of.

If this adaptation really gets off the ground, then maybe the best course of action would be to just taking the very kernel of the idea (city boy and rural girl sometimes wake up in each others’ bodies and hijinks ensue) rather than trying to adapt it proper. Don’t gild the lily, let Your Name exist and excel in its own right with all of its idiosyncrasies.

And besides, adapting it means losing its dope soundtrack.


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More Thoughts On An Open World

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 23 2017 · 50 views

Essays, Not Rants! 287: More Thoughts On An Open World

I am a big fan of linear, narrative gameplay. I love the Uncharted series for its tight and moving narrative that thrusts the gameplay along and I will critique the Assassin’s Creed games for their tendency to waylay their own plot with an overabundance of pointless side missions. I yearn for games that propel me along, marrying good gameplay with an strong narrative. Including so-called ‘walking sims’ like Journey or Gone Home that may not have revolutionary gameplay, but still use their gaminess to move the player. I like these closely curated experiences that lead me along a journey.

And then, there's frickin’ Metal Gear Solid V.

Though as batguano crazy as the others in the series, MGSV is downright restrained compared to the preceding games. Sure, there are the weird parasites, the bizarrely sexy sniper, and “the day weapons learned to walk upright” (actual quote), but it's not as propulsive as we've come to expect from creator Hideo Kojima. There aren't ten minute lectures on nuclear proliferation or odd digressions into code names, nor cutscenes that rival a television finale for length and spectacle. Oh, the story missions – and their accompanied plot developments – are fun and well crafted for sure, but they're hardly the main draw.

Rather, it's the game’s open world, the well-crafted vistas of 1980s Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region — and all the military kerfuffle it entails. And all the kerfuffles you can cause.

Consider the following.

You, on horseback, come across a Soviet patrol in the Afghan wilderness. You kill them and leave your horse in favor of the jeep. Your target — home to the side quest objective of a blueprint or hostage or some other macguffin — is not too far away. You drive up to the outpost’s outskirts and take out your sniper rifle to start picking off guards. But you miss the fourth one and he shines his searchlight on you, exposing you against the night. The remaining guards rally and start shooting. You figure there's nothing for it so you put “Kids In America” on on your high-tech Walkman and jump in your car.

Shortly thereafter, you're driving your captured jeep into a Soviet Outpost in Afghanistan while blasting Kim Wilde. You dash to the prisoner’s location, drag him out into the open air, shoot the soldier running at you with your tranquilizer pistol, then attach the prisoner to a Fulton balloon to extract him. Your base needs more staff too, so you run up to the tranquilized guard and Fulton him too. He rises into the air with a terrified yell. That gives you an idea – you put Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” on. Gunfire! The other guards are after you! You sprint out towards the desert and whistle up your horse, leaping onto your steed midstride as you disappear into the night.

The beauty of MGSV is that none of that is scripted or planned. Rather it's the game — and me — reacting to emergent developments. MGSV gives you a wild playground and an awesome array of tools, and it's up to you to figure out what to do with it. It's also fun when things go wrong, of course, and you have to conceive some other bonkers plan to salvage your rapidly deteriorating one. You make your own fun, often it's as much — or more — fun than the more planned story missions.

The two pillars of gameplay and narrative are a constant tension. There are some, like game designer/critic Jonathan Blow who firmly believe they are inherently in opposition. But then there are games like Uncharted 4. But then you have something like MGSV that has compelling story missions that keep you coming back, but wonderfully fun, emergent gameplay that provides copious entertainment between missions. It's hard to narrow this down to just one system (though the inclusion of a Walkman and an excellent selection of 80s tunes springs as readily to mind as the game’s base management) and that earlier description of events

When all’s said, I wouldn’t say that MGSV is inherently better than a linear game due to its open world nature; but then, Uncharted 4 isn’t great because it’s linear and well defined. Like how Lost isn’t an incredible television show because it’s an hour long show and not a half-hour one. The trick is to do something good with it.


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Stepping Away

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Sep 16 2017 · 119 views

Essays, Not Rants! 286: Stepping Away

Ed Skrein – the dude who played Ajax in Deadpool — made headlines recently. Not for taking a role but rather for stepping down from one. See, he was tapped to be in the reboot adaption of Heckboy. But the character he was slated to play, Major Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the comics, and Ed Skrein is decidedly, er, white. Upon finding out that his casting would be whitewashing, Skrein stepped down from the role in order to not be part of that machine that decides to make people-of-color white.

And good on him! This is a guy who’s not a Big Actor and had the opportunity for a Big Role, but turned it down after getting hired because, well, whitewashing. So seriously, cheers to him.

'cuz whitewashing’s an issue. The movie 21 took a team of mostly Asian mathematicians and made them mostly white. Aloha famously cast Emma Stone as a part-Asian character with the last name Ng (as a part-Asian, I can attest that Emma Stone neither looks nor fits the part). Then there’s the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie which takes the wonderfully Inuit and Chinese inspired cast/cultures of the cartoon and makes the main characters white.

I can go on.

And what the heck, I will!

Dragonball Evolution made Goku white. Extraordinary Measures stars Harrison Ford as Dr. Robert Stonehill, a character whose achievements are based on that of Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen. Scarlett Johansson plays Major in the American adaption of the decidedly Japanese Ghost In The Shell.

In light of all of that, seeing an actor walk away from a project because he’s a white guy playing an Asian guy is absolutely remarkable. Maybe I have half-a-horse in this race, but there’s a noticeable precedent for making Asian characters (and real people) white in adaptions. Sure, I’ll give something like Doctor Strange a pass for playing around with a stereotype, but there’s a point when it is just recasting a character of color because Scarlett Johansson will get more folks to theaters than Ming-Na Wen.

It's in this context that Ed Skrein’s choice to step down from Heckboy so remarkable. Or at least unusual. Not too long afterwards, it was announced that Daniel Dae Kim, known for Lost and, more recently, not continuing his role in Hawaiian Five-O because the studio did not want to pay him as much as his white co-stars, would be playing Major Ben Daimio in Heckboy. Which, wow, an Asian actor playing an Asian character (albeit a Korean actor playing a character who’s Japanese)? That sounds like a regular fairytale happy ending.

Now, Ed Skrein should never have been cast in the first place. Duh. But the fact of the matter is that this happens far too regularly. It's not that there aren't enough Asian actors to go around, or even (actors of color), it's that there aren't that many roles in these big-budget movies for them. And even if there is one, there's still the chance it'll go to some white dude instead.

Diversity and representation isn't just about creating roles and characters, it's also about making space. It's partially why I find Star Wars’ new stable of characters so wonderful; they're consciously making room in their movies and video games for women and people of color. Making the protagonist of Battlefront II a brown woman also means making the choice to not have a white guy in the lead. Something’s gotta give. It's not always just an easy decision.

So here, at the end of it, there's a part of me that wants to be hopeful. We got to watch whitewashing happen and then be undone. Maybe this means we’ll see more room for Asians and other actors of color in these big films. And then maybe after that we can split hairs about a Korean-American actor playing a Japanese-American character.
But baby steps!






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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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