Friday, April 14, 2017

DEEP Nerdery: The Last Jedi Speculation

So the trailer for The Last Jedi dropped today, since it's Star Wars Celebration weekend. And it got me thinking seriously about my favourite little corner of the Star Wars (possible) continuity, the idea of the (historically heretical) concept of the Living Force.

Sidenote:
Me, to Jean: have I mentioned my ideas behind the Liv--
Jean: YEEEEESSSSSS.

For those (three) of you whom I haven't talked to about this: in the Old Republic series of games (most strongly in the Imperial-side stories of the Star Wars: the Old Republic MMO), they talk about the idea that the Force, far from being a mystical inchoate field, has a will and a mind of its own, and gives direction to those who know and believe in it, and trust in the Force.

A careful (read: crazy-ass nerd) watch of the prequels also seems to indicate that Qui-Gon is a believer in the Living Force... his disagreements with the Council and his willingness to bend the moral compass he's ostensibly following in the service of (as he claims) the Force do seem to indicate a somewhat heretical bent. And Qui-Gon trained Obi-Wan, who has a, shall we say, relaxed relationship with the truth...which could also indicate that he is also a believer in the Living Force. And Obi-Wan trained Luke, who we've already seen (in Return of the Jedi) isn't particularly attached to doing things in a traditional way, so it would make sense that in his unorthodox approach to combining the Dark and Light sides of the Force he feels that he's being driven by "what the Force wants", which is the core tenet of the Heresy of the Living Force.

So the end of the Jedi, the Last of the Jedi, are an act of renewal and synthesis into something greater, something more in line with the Will of the Living Force.

THE LIVING FORCE IS REAL! THE LIVING FORCE IS REAL!

As a Heretic myself, this makes me really, really happy.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Arrival

I want to talk about Arrival and how amazing it is as a story, but before that, I have to talk about how amazing it is as a film and how amazing it is that the film got made exactly how it got made.

Arrival is based on a short story, "Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang. It's a short story about a woman linguist who handles a first-contact situation without guns or explosions or lasers or really anything science-fiction-y. Just a woman and her colleagues talking (and talking about language). No man takes over from her, no conflict is spurred by her relationship with anyone, nothing weird or strange. So in that, the short story itself is rather odd and special. Special because it is a fundamentally beautiful story, exceptionally well-written, clear and gorgeous and worth reading even on it's own. But I'm not sure you should read it without seeing the movie first, because the movie is amazing in its faithfulness to the story.

And that, in and of itself, is remarkable. I mean, let's be clear. Someone in Hollywood was convinced (after, I understand, something like a decade of fighting) to give the writer of Final Destination 5 and the director of Polytechnique forty million dollars to shoot a science fiction film that stars Amy Adams as a linguist and no one actually fires any guns. The closest thing to a male lead is Jeremy Renner as a physicist who never takes his shirt off or punches anyone, and the climax of the film involves finding a cellphone that makes overseas calls. The biggest chunk of the special effects budget is spent on making circles appear on a piece of glass. This is the kind of movie you expect to see coming out of SXSW that was made with gaffer's tape and flashlights and gets shown in five theatres at film festivals. Except that it stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, and grossed a hundred million dollars domestic. So yes, just the mere fact that this movie exists is in itself remarkable.

But more than that, Arrival is in and of itself a remarkable film because it is really good. I mean, not just OK, not just "good for an SF movie", but seriously, no-kidding good. It's written incredibly tightly and clearly. No characters carry the "idiot ball"; no characters are evil just to drive the plot -- in fact, no characters are actually evil, it's just that some are misguided at points; no characters make nonsensical statements; and at no point does the script resort to technobabble. The closest thing to technobabble is the linguistic discussions around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has lost some of its support since the story was originally written. Like the really good films that play with linearity, like Memento or Primer, Arrival makes even more sense when you see it again, while also being a really great movie the first time you see it.

Amy Adams does this amazing job of playing Doctor Banks as this quiet, careful, precise person, who is shaped (and reshaped) not just by the big things that happen to her, but also by the small things, the little intersections of daily life. Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly mostly hovers in the background, doing math and being confused, and Forrest Whitaker as Colonel Weber is the reluctant military man, who is willing to go to war but recognizes it as a failure rather than a methodology. No one is unreasonable or stupid or lazy or unthinking. This is a movie that is, at its heart, what John Rogers has called "competence porn": the experience of watching people who are really, really good at something doing what they're really, really good at in a way that's enjoyable to those that aren't as good. The whole parable of the kangaroo is both funny and smart, and makes a point that is important to the plot.

I said on Twitter when I first saw this movie that this was possibly a perfect movie because the plot is incidental to the story. And here's what I mean by that: plot is what happens to the characters. And the plot in Arrival is really great, and the growth of the characters on screen is amazing and enjoyable to watch. The story, on the other hand, is what happens to the audience. Story, a good story, changes the way that we the audience see ourselves; it changes how we see the world; and it can change the way we see movies. Arrival does that, too. It asks the audience a question: is there such a thing as determination? Is free will possible? And can those two ideas co-exist at the interface of human and not-human?

There are not many movies like Arrival. And I am very glad that there was a production company that was, however long it took, willing to let artists be artists together. And I'm glad Ted Chiang wrote the short story that inspired the movie that prompted me to read it. So I guess we know where I come down on the question of Free Will...

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

So Here's the Thing -- Mass Effect: Andromeda

I put a crap-ton of playtime into the latest entry in the Mass Effect universe. It's explicitly NOT a sequel; it is a separate game with a separate timeline set in the same universe, but much removed from the events of ME 1-3. But it still leverages the same basic design philosophy as the other ME games: storytelling is more important than "innovative" gameplay, character relationships are a big part of the reason for playing, and driving an indestructible truck with handling like a beached whale across landscapes that feel like they were generated by an Amiga 2000 running Video Toaster is not just enjoyable but hilariously fun.

The gameplay is basically what you'd expect from ME: three-person active squad moving through a (mostly) linear map and shooting things with the various loadouts determined at the beginning of the mission, and while you're there you might as well wander around the edges of the maps looking for things to "press Y to interact" with. These mission sequences are interspersed with exploration sequences where you wander around a map picking up quests (which usually but not always end up requiring a mission sequence) and finding hidden macguffins which you collect for your virtual office desk. And, between the cutscenes and the shooty bits, you have conversations with your squad to make them better at their jobs (and possibly have sex with you).  If you're not a completionist, then you can probably plow through the main story in about 20 hours and therefore miss almost everything that makes this a Mass Effect game. You also probably won't like it very much. There's a fundamentally unpolished feeling to this game, that recons back to ME1 in some respects, but in other respects it feels almost Bethesda-esque in it's grandeloquent missteps and buggy nature. 

And I'll tell you, at 20 hours in, I wasn't a big fan. It felt like a retread with a couple different aliens and the theory that if you liked ANY of the minigames in the previous series, then there would be at least one minigame in THIS game you'll like. Seriously: every gathering and exploring game from the previous series has a version in this game, and for good measure they threw in sudoku as an extra minigame because everyone likes sudoku, right? (Spoiler: not really.) The thing is, at 40 hours in, I was loving it. They were doing that "tell a big story while setting up a GIGANTIC story for the sequel(s)" thing that the BioWare team really excels at. It's fun, and I did end up enjoying it. But I missed the Wheel Of Morality, and I often felt as if the various options presented didn't really mean much, and didn't seem to affect the gameplay at all (which was quite disappointing -- I want there to be clear consequences when I make a decision, and that includes things like "this option is only available because you have 271 light-side points" and other examples. Much like Horizon: Zero Dawn, while there is a response wheel, the various choices seem to have absolutely no effect even on the specific conversation you're in at the time, let alone the bigger story arc. 

Now, as the kind of person who won't leave a map or a corner or a building unexplored, this had plenty of that for me to pursue. But the maps themselves didn't feel particularly expansive, and while there were several of them, they didn't feel engaging in a way I was expecting from ME. And while the dialog was fun and the interactions with my crew clever, there weren't the deep and engaging interactions I've been led to expect from BioWare. And the writing was downright PAINFUL in some points ("pathfound" is NOT A WORD, GODDAMIT) which given the excellent writing of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect worlds was a real letdown. 

Was it the Worst Game Evar? No, not by a long shot. In fact, compared to most of the other games on the market, it was pretty good; certainly miles beyond any of the Tom Clancy or Call of Duty games. But it didn't feel as engaging as other BioWare titles, and I wasn't as invested in the characters themselves (which is one thing that draws me to these titles). But it really does suffer in comparison to H:ZD, which was smaller both in scope and in reach but felt much more tightly put together and much more logically consistent within it's story.

So here's the thing: I think ME:A is money well spent, and a fun time. But I think had I played this game before I played Horizon:Zero Dawn, I'd like it more. It suffers immensely in the comparison, which is a shame, because ME:A is an excellent start. But it's BioWare, and with BioWare I expect something a little more... More. Which I suppose is unfair, really. Would I recommend this game to someone else? That's... a good question, actually. I'm not sure there were enough innovations and enough strong storytelling to suggest this game rather than suggesting someone play Mass Effect 1 instead (despite the intervening decade of development improvements). But I also can't say you should skip it; it's a fun ride, even if it's not brilliant. So, I guess my recommendation on ME:A is if you want something SF-ish and fun and light, then go for it. I have spend 100 hours on less-fun games, and at least ME:A feels like it's making those hours of play worthwhile. 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Wynnona Earp

Since my partner is out of town, that often means that I have real trouble sleeping. I've been doing OK up until last night, but I didn't get a wink of sleep so I binge-watched Season 1 of a show called Wynona Earp on Netflix. Because why not? Woman lead, gunslinging, silly premise, and a good soundtrack will usually get me to watch at least the pilot, so I figured what the hell, I'm not sleeping anyway...

The premise is re-donk-ulous: Wyatt Earp, just before he died, was cursed and that meant the progeny of the Earp bloodline were doomed to kill (or try and kill) the 77 men whose souls would be resurrected again and again until the heir could return them all to Hell without dying themselves. Oh, and also there's a secret agency tasked with protecting the general public against the supernatural. Oh, and also there's a spell that means that the Earp line (and the "remnants" with whom they battle) can't leave a specific part of the West, Oh, and also, Doc Holliday is immortal. You wouldn't be too far off pitching it as "Buffy meets Longmire with a touch of Justified".

The show itself is good; it's not great, but it knows what it is and does a great job staying in its lane while also playing with the standards of the genre(s). It's a Canadian show shot on a shoestring budget starring a bunch of people you've never heard of (unless you watch a LOT of Canadian TV; I mean, I've watched the entire run of The Pinkertons and I haven't heard of 75% of these people). The scripts are funny and tight without being overwound, and the actors do a great job with the material, and the occasional fight scene (as opposed to the at-least-once-an-episode "shooting someone" scene, which is different) is well shot and well choreographed (which is more than I could say for, for instance, Arrow Season 4). I'm always vaguely amused when a Canadian show tries to pretend they're in the US West somewhere; it's the little giveaways (like the tiny Canadian flags on the shoulder patches of the winter coats).

It also has great secondary characters, including possibly the most amazingly hilarious shipping couple I've ever encountered: Waverly Earp (the youngest of three Earp women) and Sherriff's Deputy Nicole Haught, AKA WayHaught. And they are: the actors have fantastic chemistry together. Also, spoilers: neither lesbian dies (so far, anyway). The florid speech patterns of Doc as a man out of time are hilarious if entirely inappropriate, and the actor manages to at least deliver the lines with a straight face, which is enough for me.

Wynnona herself is a hero in the mold that's recently become popular via AKA Jessica Jones: the woman who is played straight up as a the complicated hero that men are almost always and women are so infrequently allowed to be. She's mean and petty and grumpy and angry and sometimes wrong and drinks too much and tends to be trigger-happy (see the previously mentioned Justified Rayland Givens for a classic example) and generally just gets to be messy and adult and real in a way that makes her rather endearing.

I was glad to hear it'd been picked up for another season: it's a fun and easy to watch and I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes gunslinging and demon-slaying in equal parts. Definitely a fun way to pass a sleepless night.