Archive for November, 2018

Update on That Accomplishment Thing …

November 30, 2018

So, it’s been about three months since I last talked about how my accomplishment kick was going, so I thought this might be a good time to look at it, especially since Christmas is coming and after Christmas I need to readjust my schedule, so it’s a good time to reflect on it and assess and reassess what I’m trying to do. I’m going to follow the order from the previous post, even though that might no longer reflect what’s going best.

(Ah, who am I kidding? It’s still going to be pretty much accurate [grin]).

DVDs continue to be the star of the new focus. I managed to finish He-Man, She-Ra, and two anime series from my half-hour stack, and am almost through Matt Smith’s run in Doctor Who over those three months after finishing Dynasty. The only thing that hasn’t gone as well as it had when I wrote the previous post is watching movies. Well, it’s both gone better and worse. Rewatching movies that I wanted to rewatch has stalled, mostly because I’ve stopped playing games or, at least, stopped playing games where it’s convenient to watch a movie (more on that later). I wanted to rewatch all the Star Trek movies again and after at least a month if not longer I’ve gotten through “The Wrath of Khan”. However, I’m making pretty good progress on those cheap little horror movies — I’ve finished off the “The Shadows” collection — and am even making some progress on some older movies that I picked up cheap, having recently watched Casper and one of the Naked Gun movies, as well as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. I hope to continue doing that as things go along (they’re pretty good to watch while I’m eating or in an evening when I don’t want to do anything else).

The downside here is that my stacks are getting pretty large. Well, the half-hour stack is going pretty well for now, but the hour stack is getting larger and larger. I have a ton of TV shows that I haven’t watched and want to — made worse by the fact that I’ve actually bought some new ones — and also want to rewatch some of the shows that I’ve already watched, like Babylon 5 or Buffy/Angel. This is getting a bit concerning to me, especially since it will take longer to watch hourly shows than half-hour ones. But still, I’m making progress and now have the actual ability to watch hour-long shows and make progress, so it’s still better than the alternative.

Reading, however, has taken a bit of a hit. After finishing my list of historical works, I started reading some Ben Bova science fiction novels. Despite them being relatively short, I’ve only finished two of them so far. Part of the reason for that is because I don’t read for as long as I used to in the evenings (due to winter coming on I fall asleep earlier in the evenings) and part of it is that I bought some comic trade paperbacks and also a “grab bag” box of 100 comics that I’m now working through. So I expect this to pick up once I get through that. At least the stack/list here isn’t getting any longer.

Video games are a mixed bag, but that’s better than the disaster they were in the last post. I abandoned my Persona 3 run and instead finished off all of my Dragon Age: Origins characters and replayed Dragon Age 2 to do an analysis of it, which was very good. And then I mostly stopped playing games for about a month, except for trying out Cultist Simulator and Sunrider Academy. Since I wasn’t playing games and especially not playing console games, this pretty much stopped me having anything on while playing console games, especially since for DA2 I really wanted to pay attention to the story and found that having the TV on at all kinda drowned that out. So it’s a lot better, but …

… I have a lot of games that I want to or should play. On GOG, I have about 170 games including freebies. I have finished something like three of them — Huniepop and Knights of the Old Republic are the two I remember, but there’s probably another one in there somewhere — and have played for any significant amount of time somewhere around 10 or so of them. I would really like to make a dent in those games. I also have a large stack of console games to play, including new ones that I bought and would like to try out. A big consideration for my schedule in the New Year is trying to figure out when I can play games and which ones I should play to make a dent in that stack/list.

I even did better with little projects, in that I’ve started a couple and a couple of things for them. But I still don’t work on them anywhere near as much as I should. However, some of the timeslots that they would normally been in have been ones where I’ve done things for the blog, like writing posts or watching those horror movies to generate blog content. This is the only reason that I can post pretty much every day right now, which I’m doing so that I can clear out the backlog of blog content that I have … and I’m not there yet (philosophy posts are struggling under this model). Still, I’m even making good progress there, which is taking some of the pressure off of me. So that’s good. Still, I do need to find the time and motivation to do the actual projects that I want to do.

So, things are working out pretty well. The biggest issues right now are built around this model actually being successful, and so my feeling that I can get things accomplished and thus setting bigger goals for myself, which then can add up and seem overwhelming. But it’s still better than it was in almost all areas, and that’s good enough for me.

Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

November 29, 2018

It might have ended up as a bit of a guilty pleasure, but a number of years ago I took an English course covering a number of works, one of which was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen … and I found that I really liked the book, and read it at least once more afterwards (I don’t really know where it is right now, but maybe I should find it to read it again). I’ve never watched the movies, but when I saw the DVD for “Pride and Prejduice and Zombies” cheap I figured “What the hell?” and picked it up to watch it.

Now, the fact that I haven’t read that book in a number of years is pretty important, because that to me is something that really hurts the movie. The main conceit of the movie is to essentially take “Pride and Prejudice” and recast it in a zombie apocalypse. What this involves, at least in the movie, is putting some new scenes in to establish the zombie plot, but for the most part outside of that to keep the scenes the same and, at its best, to recast the scenes and especially the conversations for the new setting. The problem with this is that if you aren’t familiar with the work, you won’t get that that’s what’s happening, and so the best thing about trying this is lost, which would leave the audience trying to treat it as a zombie movie or a historical romance and being puzzled by it. And since I hadn’t read it for a while, there were a number of scenes that I didn’t get, even though I did recall some of them and so managed to “get” them.

And outside of that conceit, it’s not a particularly good example of either of the two genres that it blends, nor is it a particularly good blend of the two genres. The zombie portions are very minor and are really only there to pull off the subversion, and the romance portions don’t stick enough to Austen’s original work to be compelling as a romance. If you wanted to watch it as a zombie movie, you’ll find that the romance portions are too prominent for it to work as that, but if you wanted a historical romance you’ll find that the zombie portions take you out of the romance too often and spoil the mood.

The fight scenes are typical action schlock, with all of the extra posing that you normally see in them, as they’re based on the idealized martial arts of Japan and China. They are so overdone at times that I really wanted there to be a character who refused to train in either and stuck to more traditionally English fighting styles, and did so precisely because they were so annoyed at all the posing that you saw in the Asian forms, perhaps exclaiming “The goal is to kill the zombies, not pose for a portrait with them!”.

The actors are pretty good and work well, but I want to single out Matt Smith here for being the most entertaining thing in the entire movie, which both speaks well of him and somewhat poorly for the movie. I remember that Parson Collins was more staid and boring in the original work, but Smith makes him pretty goofy. Then again, I’m not sure Matt Smith can actually pull off anything other than goofy, so perhaps that was to be expected.

Despite its flaws, this is a movie that I might watch again. To be honest, though, it makes me more inclined to find and read the book (or books) since that would have more room to either build up the zombie plot or make the subversions more clear. Then again, I read the “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” book and was disappointed, so maybe this wouldn’t work that well for me either and I should stick with the original.

Dragon Age 2 Analysis: The Canary in the Coal Mine

November 28, 2018

So, at just before 6 minutes into Part 8, Chuck talks about how DA2 was the canary in the coal mine for what we were going to see in Mass Effect 3, which by all accounts was an utter disaster, especially from a public relations standpoint. He makes a good point about how the scores show that there was a huge divide between the gaming press and regular gamers on Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, with the critics rating the games higher and not dropping the scores much at all from the previous games, but with gamers dropping the score massively from the previous games. I have to concede this point to him, and that it’s an important finding because it shows that what they were doing wasn’t budging the critics, but was upsetting the paying public, and for any business you aren’t going to be successful if the critics like your product but the people who are actually paying for it don’t. That being said, Bioware really couldn’t have taken any real lessons from that difference. DA2 was a troubled product, with a lot of bugs — most of which Chuck ran into during his playthrough — and deliberately subverted the traditional power fantasy, at least in part because of how it was trying to set up for the Mage/Templar conflict in Dragon Age Inquisition. Any of these could explain critics liking it more than the gaming public in general, to either not noticing the bugs as much — I played on a PS3 and had it crashed twice in my last playthrough, whereas the crashes were far more common in Chuck’s playthrough — to appreciating the subversions or the more personal focus just because it was different than what they had seen before. A canary in the coal mine is supposed to be the indication that something is wrong and you need to change course (leave, in the case of a coal mine) but from the scores itself, given the conditions of the game, couldn’t really be that sort of indication.

But Chuck also comments that DA2 was an indication of the direction Bioware was going in, where we are merely participants in their story, which came to its fullest fruition in Mass Effect 3, and with the ending to Mass Effect 3, and where the divide between those advocating for the game on the basis of art and those angry at it for the lack of control became crystal clear. I disagree. I believe that the real canary in the coal mine was actually Mass Effect 2, and we ended up with Mass Effect 3 because the gaming community didn’t complain about Mass Effect 2. Or, to be more accurate, that Mass Effect 2 was well-received and Dragon Age 2 wasn’t.

To start this off, I’m going to reference what Chuck says about Shepard at 15:20 in Part 4:

Shepard is a tank that decides where to go, and goes there. And it takes a concerted effort to force her to change direction. Hawke, on the other hand, is a person who operates the switch on a railroad track. She can decide which way to send the train, sure, but she’s not the one who’s driving that train.

I’m going to rely on Shamus Young’s massive treatise on the Mass Effect games to show that this isn’t true of Shepard in Mass Effect 2. The link is to the start of the Mass Effect 2 section, because Shamus spends that entire section of posts weaving that argument through all of the posts, so I’ll simply be summarizing it. Ultimately, my argument will be that pretty much every complaint Chuck had about the agency of Hawke was present to the same degree if not moreso in ME2, and ME2 didn’t even try to give the basics of motivation or importance to the player, nor did it do so to tell a new or unique story, nor did it do so to set up for ME3 in any interesting way or to build off of anything set up in the original Mass Effect. ME2 was just as controlling as DA2 but for far less reason and it spent far less time to try to build that sense of illusion that Chuck demanded from DA2.

Let’s start by looking at what Shepard’s main goal was at the end of the first game, which was to find a way to stop the Reapers. But what is Shepard doing at the start at ME2? Hunting Geth. And not because they decided that that was the best way to find a lead on the Reapers. And, in fact, not by their own choice at all. Shepard is ordered to hunt Geth by the Alliance, as Miranda lampshades in the first scene with the Illusive Man. And then Shepard is killed by the Collectors, and revived by Cerberus, at which point the Illusive Man “convinces” Shepard to join up with an organization that in the first game was at most minor villains that Shepard might have a personal dislike for (as, if I recall correctly, on at least some origins Cerberus got Shepard’s squad killed by a Thresher Maw). Part of this is convincing Shepard to not keep looking for a way to stop the Reapers, but instead to stop the Collectors from abducting colonists.

Now, here the game is quite careful to not give the player any actual reason to accept this, or think that this is a job best suited for Shepard. The link between the Collectors and the Reapers isn’t discovered until late in the game. Shepard doesn’t have a personal connection to these colonists, nor does any of her companions. For some reason, despite these colonies being at least nominally associated with Earth and the Alliance, the Alliance is uninterested in investigating the disappearances. Nor is the Council, as they aren’t even prepared to send out a Spectre to check it out to see if it’s a threat or if, in fact, it might be related to the Reapers — although their excuse for that is that suddenly they don’t believe the Reapers exist despite that being something that you prove in Mass Effect — or even the Geth. Remember, no one knows what’s causing these disappearances, but none of the people who should be interested in it care, which leaves you to be the one to have to care and have to investigate it despite it being a distraction from what your main goal should be — and what Cerberus really has reason to want to recruit you to investigate for so many reasons — which is the Reaper threat.

The Illusive Man then tells you that the Collectors are behind a special Mass Relay that no ships have entered and come back out of. So, what he wants you to do is figure out how to get through it, right? Wrong. He wants you to go out and recruit a team to deal with the Collectors once you get through it … despite the fact that at that point in time he doesn’t actually have a way to get through the relay. He then gives you a dossier of people to recruit, and off you go. You don’t get to decide what people to recruit, and as far as I remember you can’t advance the story until you’ve recruited all of them. After you recruit the first batch, the Illusive Man gives you a story mission, and then another list of names for you to recruit. When it comes time to figure out how to get through the relay, it’s the Illusive Man who has found the key and sends you to get it. In fact, every story mission is dictated by the Illusive Man, and Shepard just goes off to do it. Which includes a case where the Illusive Man sends you deliberately into a Collector ambush. And when you finally go through the relay and find out in detail what’s happening, you get to the big choice at the end, of whether to keep the base or destroy it … and every character, even those most dedicated to Cerberus, suddenly all say that it would be terrible to give this tech to Cerberus. You know, the people you’ve been working with for the entire game.

And ME3 makes even destroying the base to be a pointless gesture anyway, because the Illusive Man gets that technology anyway … somehow.

You are railroaded into working for Cerberus, anyone you meet immediately distrusts you and won’t work with you because you work with Cerberus — this is why you can’t rejoin the Alliance or the Council, which a number of players are going to want to do — and the thing Cerberus wants you to investigate has no direct relation to what should be your main goal. And at the end, the game bends everything to encourage you to make the “right” choice … and undoes it in ME3 anyway.

I’ve already gone over how DA2 does this better. DA2 tries really hard to give you a connection to and connections with Kirkwall, to encourage you to care about it and want to defend it. It’s also careful to make it clear why you’re the one who is being asked to do these things. The people who ask you to do things make it clear why they have to ask you to do it. And when it comes to those “switches”, the choices matter and the game doesn’t signal what the “right” choice is. At the end, siding with the Templars or Mages is supported by the people that you would expect to side with each side: Merrill wants to side with the mages, Fenris with the Templars, and the others react more to you than to their own ideas. And on top of that, you can convince Merrill and Fenris to side with you even if you side with the group they don’t want to side with. And siding with one side or the other matters to the ending you get, even if you have to fight both of the leaders at the end anyway. And DA2 does this in service of a story that is meant to be a tragedy, and a story that takes a major component of DAO and develops it into something that is a major conflict in DAI, and does so because in order to have that set up we need to have Hawke fail to resolve the issue.

So how is Shepard a tank but Hawke isn’t? Shepard is just going where she is told to go by the Illusive Man, and despite Miranda calling Shepard a hero and icon, no one treats Shepard as such. ME2 gives Shepard no reason to care about the colonists or the Collectors and distracts Shepard from what the first game says Shepard should care about, all in service of this new organization that it is clear — especially in ME3 — that the writers really want to play with, so much so that they demote the Reapers to a secondary villain, especially in ME3. Noting that they don’t really appear in ME2, and so are reduced to Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Game.

No one really complained about this for ME2, or at least not that vocally, whereas it was more of a complaint for DA2. The reasons are, I think, two-fold. First, the companions in ME2 are far more interesting than they are in DA2, despite my liking them for DA2 as well (Chuck considers them all jerks). This allowed people to ignore the story and the Illusive Man for the most part and focus on the much better written recruitment and loyalty missions. The second reason is I think the one that most drives Chuck’s views here: ME2 is far more a normal power fantasy than DA2 is. You go out and do missions that are mostly successful in ME2. You succeed in stopping the Collectors, even if that does nothing to help you stop the Reapers. You don’t have that constant sense that you are merely mitigating the damage like you have in DA2, but instead that you are solving the problems that you came to or have to fix to recruit the companion.

But the lesson learned was that trying to give the player motivations to do something and setting it up so that it was clear that they were the ones who had to do those things wasn’t going to make players like the game any more. So there was no reason for ME3 to try to do that, even though it did, at least, give a motivation for Shepard to do those missions (albeit the stupid one of trying to save Earth at the expense of other planets for … reasons). ME2 was the game where the writers took agency away from the player in service of the story that they really wanted to tell. DA2, on the other hand, was the game where the writers took agency away from the player in service of the story that had been started in DAO and that they wanted to continue in DAI. And the players liked ME2 and disliked DA2. So the writers were free to make Cerberus even more of the focus in ME3 for even less reason. And with Cerberus being the focus, the real story — that of the Reapers — wasn’t developed and so led to an ending that simply couldn’t be satisfying because there was no way to develop it properly beforehand … and the writers didn’t care enough about that plot to do so anyway.

As I’ve made clear in these posts, I think DA2 is a flawed game, but not as flawed as Chuck — and many others — think it is. ME2, in terms of agency, is far worse than DA2 is. But ME2’s companions and adherence to the power fantasy made players appreciate it more, which then led to Bioware ditching taking care in establishing motivations, which failed them in ME3 when an ending was required and they couldn’t get away with no developing it … and then they were puzzled that players didn’t like it. DA2 wasn’t the canary in the coal mine. ME2 was. But no one noticed, and ME3 was the result.

Thoughts on “Feeding Grounds”

November 27, 2018

So, the third movie from the “The Shadows” collection is called “Feeding Grounds”. The main plot is that a group of “friends” are driving to a cabin or cottage or something for a partying and hook-up weekend across a stretch of desert (up North, in Maine) where there have been a number of cases where cars are found abandoned and with the inhabitants completely missing. As the movie goes along, we discover body parts in excrement and eventually discover that there’s some kind of presumably large and/or small creatures out there that sting or bite people to make them sick and then eat them later after, I guess, they’ve been sufficiently weakened, which they or it starts to do to the main characters in the movie.

The first problem for this movie is that it starts by making the characters unlikable and unsympathetic and at odds with each other, and then has to try to redeem them later so that we won’t just want to see them get eaten. Two of the characters had a falling out over a band they were in and want to punch each others’ lights out before the trip even gets started. One of them also had an earlier hook-up with one of the less attractive women, which makes that a little awkward (so, of course, they get paired again). All of this leads to various sniping before they even get sick … except that the first scene — featuring a pair of lesbians who are going to get married and so are completely in love — establishes that one of the symptoms of being bitten/stung is to be more hostile to others. It’s really hard to tell that that’s happening the way it was written.

And, of course, on top of that these people aren’t so unpleasant that we want to see them die by being eaten, especially by something they had no hand in releasing or creating, and so the time the movie spends redeeming them is wasted. As I’ve said many, many times before, we don’t really need to like the characters that much to not want to see them die horribly. What would have worked better was to start out with them being friendly and then have them start acting hostile to each other before revealing that any of them had been stung or were getting sick. Then we would wonder, given the first scene, if they had been stung or if it was just these personal issues boiling over. This would draw out the suspense until they start getting sick and then we know that, yeah, this is bad.

There is one character that is portrayed pretty sympathetically in the movie, which is Mary, the vegetarian girl. She’s generally nice, gets the most upset at the idiot talk two drugged out characters get up to — making light of deaths — and is paired with the most sympathetic male character. Most movies would be tempted to focus on her — especially since she’s essentially the Final Girl of the movie — but “Feeding Grounds” bravely turns her into the mystic mentor, spouting mostly nonsensical ideas about the monster that come out of nowhere and often don’t make sense. The big reveal, for example, is when they notice that she isn’t getting sick, and she says that it’s because she’s a vegetarian and so the monsters know she won’t eat them, which at first glance made me roll my eyes at both her knowing that for no apparent reason — and it’s not treated as speculation — and that it really seemed like a claim that i was because she was so morally pure that they wouldn’t touch her. Of course, right at the end I realized that they might have been hinting that the monsters didn’t feel they needed to weaken her because she wouldn’t eat them and so wasn’t a threat. Except, of course, this is idiotic too, because just because an animal is a vegetarian doesn’t mean that if you attack it it won’t fight back and kill you. If the species is any threat at all, it would make sense to sting it anyway just in case.

Which leads to the ending. After everyone else is dead, dear Mary is left alone. The monster comes at her — we never actually get to see the monster, which is not really an issue for me — and comes towards her. This seems to confirm the idiotic but less annoying idea that it didn’t see a vegetarian as a threat. Except that the next morning the police arrive at a large pile of excrement and Mary suddenly wakes up. So she survived. There are two ways to think that this happened, since she wasn’t going to crawl into a pile of excrement on her own. First, that it swallowed her whole and she came out the other side, but how she didn’t suffocate is never explained. The other one is that the monster came on her and just took a dump on her, which is hilarious and actually makes more sense. Neither’s really scary, though.

While writing this, I thought of another possibility: she was smart enough to hide in a pile of excrement where it couldn’t sniff her out. This contradicts the scene — it had her in its sights — and is never hinted at in the movie. I think I’ll stick with the “Took a dump” theory, just because it’s the most entertaining.

The movie’s not very good. It’s the first of the movies in this collection that I dislike. It moved quickly enough and isn’t that long, but nothing happens. About the best thing I can say about it is that the actresses are very attractive, which seems to be intentional, but that’s not really enough to get me to watch it again. I don’t actively hate the movie, but really, really can’t see a time when I’d want to watch it again.

Doctor Who: Thoughts on Martha Jones

November 26, 2018

So, the next character to enter — and leave — the series is Martha Jones. During my first two watches of the series, Martha was my second favourite companion. You can see how she differs from Rose in her first episode (the actress appeared in another episode before coming on as Martha Jones later), where when the hospital that she’s interning at is suddenly transported to the Moon she notes the issues, does the necessary explorations, and starts taking charge and making sure that everyone is being taken care of. From the start, she’s both compassionate and serious, capable and caring, and yet still does have that urge to explore that’s so important for a companion.

Watching it this time, at least, I really disliked the “unrequited love” angle with the Doctor. As I said when talking about Rose, this really kept Rose front and centre in the story when Martha was more interesting (at least to me). On top of that, it often stopped the scene to make Martha lament her lot, which made her seem a bit pathetic. It often made it seem like she was only traveling with him because she loved him, rather than for the exploration, until the time came for her to use that as a reason to not want to travel with him. I’m not going to say that that sort of conflict is unrealistic, but it just takes up time that could be used exploring her character. It also ends up being a case of “Pair the Spares”, as she ends up marrying Rose’s old boyfriend whom Rose left because of her love of the Doctor, which is a more satisfying way to end it but, again, only because the two of them were so defined by being the ones the “power couple” Rose and the Doctor rejected because they loved each other.

After she leaves, she also goes on to join UNIT and be a competent and valuable field agent, who also plays a key role in saving the Doctor and the world on another occasion. Her later appearances always pretty much had her being an amazing badass, even if in one of them she ends up captured. For the most part, she pretty much has to be considered the most competent of all of the companions of the modern Doctors, as she starts competent and skilled and only gets more competent as things go along.

Her family, especially her mother, end up being more annoying than Rose’s, mostly because while Jackie was mostly harmless Martha’s actually end up causing a major catastrophe through her distrust of the Doctor, that carried on even after he saved all of their lives, which made her seem more like an idiot than like a concerned mother. The inter-family disagreements early in the season also weren’t all that interesting and didn’t really seem to serve any great purpose.

That being said, Martha is still one of my favourite companions, and her arc is one of the companion arcs that I most enjoy, especially considering how much of it happens after she stops traveling with the Doctor. Next up is a companion that I like far less: Donna Noble.

More Flirtin’ With Berton …

November 23, 2018

So, it was about a year ago that I first talked about reading books by that Canadian icon, Pierre Berton. I did buy and read a number of his books after that, but never really got around to commenting again on them or him. I’m going to rectify that today and finally allow myself to move that huge stack of books from the top of the second desk in my room

The extra books of his that I read are, in no particular order: “The Great Depression”, “Vimy”, “Marching As to War”, “The National Dream”, and “Klondike”. Some of these are collections of other works, and cover a big span of Canadian history, from 1871 – 1953. And, all told, they were an enjoyable read.

Berton, in his works, in general gives a fairly detailed view of history. But his great strength is in describing the politics of the times — including the politicking behind the scenes — and the everyday live of people. I know his voice because he was on a number of CBC shows while I was growing up, and I could hear his voice as I read the works, especially the long lists of things that were detailed and yet ordered such that the listing of all of those details was never boring. However, this ability to focus on the more common aspects of Canadian history and society was a weakness when it came to covering military action. Berton simply did not describe battles all that well or in all that interesting a fashion. Thus “Vimy”, though the shortest book, was also the least interesting. If you really want to understand the military history or the battles, there are much better authors to seek out than him.

But if you’re looking for politics or general history, Berton is your man. “Klondike” was very interesting, as was “The National Dream” (covering the creation of the railroad that linked B.C. to the rest of Canada). He covers a myriad of details and angles and yet makes all of them interesting. I also really enjoyed his comments on the politics, as with often wry humour he dissected the back-room political shenanigans and showed that politics was never really clean. He exposed some of Canada’s greatest political and historical figures, and while showing their warts also showed their strengths, showing how their weaknesses caused them problems but how their strengths, at times, saved them. So while there’s not a lot of “action” there, the details were incredibly interesting and Berton’s style kept them from being boring.

While these are often large books with a lot of stuff to pay attention to, I will likely read them again at some point.

First Thoughts on “Sunrider Academy”

November 22, 2018

So, while waiting for the various Persona dancing games to get to me — yes, I pre-ordered them, but I pre-order pretty much anything Persona that I buy because generally it works out for me — I was browsing GOG’s Japan sale and picked up “Sunrider Academy”, a game set in, I think, the universe of their strategy games but which is first and foremost a dating sim. I really like dating sims and so thought I’ve give it a try.

I was enjoying my first playthrough of it. The game has more of a visual novel presentation but you have to pick what you’re going to do during at least three time periods a day, and you have goals that you need to achieve or at least work towards. The big one is, of course, getting a girlfriend by the end of the year, which is a challenge that your younger sister poses to you … although, the game establishes that she made the same challenge last year and you failed it. There are four girls, it seems, that you can romance. Three of them are the captains of the various extra-curricular clubs at your school, while the other is the student council president and your childhood “friend”. You can interact with them at the clubs, or at lunch, or at other events and areas around the city and presumably this allows you to increase your affection with them in various ways to work towards eventually getting them as a girlfriend. The early interactions are pretty slim, however, as you can talk to them about class work, gossip, the weather, or you can just flirt with them. You also get these sorts of interactions with your sister, including the “flirt” option, which I haven’t tried because I kinda hope she isn’t an actual romance option.

The second goal you have is to manage the various extra-curricular activities and return them to a fit state. They all have major issues that you need to start fixing, and there are various competitions that you need to have them do well in to keep things running. If you don’t, they’ll be shut down which I presume is a game over.

Anyway, I was playing my first playthrough and managed to get all of them having at least five members, and then managed to have the Kendo Club win their first tournament … and then due to stress and perhaps lack of fitness I got sick. The problem here is that if you are sick, you will fail doing more tasks, but since stress is a key component of being sick and if you fail a task you’ll get more stressed out I ended up in a death spiral where even trying to relieve my stress — by playing video games at the arcade or strolling through the park — failed and only gave me more stress. And while you can buy medicine to supposedly cure your sickness, I had spent my money on other things and so could only make money by doing temp jobs … which ended up with reduced money if they failed and added stress right back on. Eventually realizing that I was probably doomed this run, I abandoned that playthrough.

I will return, however. I suspect that instead of playing on “Easy” I played on “Normal”, so I’d like to try it out on “Easy” to see if things are, well, easier but where I still have to actually do things to win. The game is relatively entertaining although a bit text heavy at times, and it isn’t really all that clear about what you need to do and what effect everything has in the game. Still, I was enjoying it, and hope to enjoy it more in the future.

Dragon Age 2 Analysis: Importance

November 21, 2018

So another criticism that Chuck makes of Dragon Age 2 is that it lacks the illusion of importance. He uses the question that Varric asks about what you want to do to show that you can’t actually do any of those things, and later says that you need to feel that you have consequence in the world, because, as he says, if we wanted to feel inconsequential we can do that in our real lives (at about 12:48 or so in Part 4). He ties this to focus, in that the story has to focus on the player or else it loses that illusion of importance. While he concedes that some players weren’t bothered by the fact that the player isn’t shaping the events, he still criticizes DA2 for not giving you anything to do or any reason to do it beyond that there’s nothing else to do, even if those things don’t relate to your own goals or desires. Which, to be honest, sounds more like a failure of motivation rather than a failure of importance, and I’ve already talked about motivation earlier.

Later, in Part 12, starting at about 26 minutes, Chuck tries to break it down into chapters, and I think this reveals one of the real issues that Chuck is having with importance: he wants more of a power fantasy than it provided. His chapters tend to be incredibly dramatic with Hawke being incredibly effective and performing incredible feats with everyone else having to rely entirely on Hawke and Hawke always succeeding, or at least mostly doing so in the two he outlines. This is a classic escapist power fantasy.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with power fantasies. But not all games need to provide that or provide that to that level, which brings me to my comments on importance. The importance of importance in a game — no pun intended — is not that you are the most important person in the world and have to always succeed, or have to even succeed. No, what importance provides is a counter-point to motivation for a game. Motivation gives the player the reason why they have an interest in doing those things or getting those results; importance gives the player the reason why it has to be them who has to do it. It ties back to the old standby discussion of Pen and Paper RPGs: if the person giving you the really, really important quest is so powerful, why don’t they do it? It always takes some narrative work to show why the players and their party or group is the best one for these tasks and why some of the other heroes or soldiers aren’t able to do it instead.

Dragon Age 2 is actually pretty good at explaining why Hawke is the one who has to do these things. In the Introduction, Hawke leads because she’s the member of her family with the most skill. And them being competent explains why they get hired to work with either of the two groups that they work with to earn their way into the city. Because we don’t actually see those quests, Act 1 is actually the one that sets this up the worst, as we aren’t sure why Varric has such faith in our abilities and more importantly in our trustworthiness when he tries to sign us up for the expedition. Because the quests that we took on to make the money for the expedition involved the Qunari, it is established before Act 2 that we’re among the few if only people in Kirkwall that the Arishok has any respect for (more or less respect depending on how you deal with him, but it’s still more than most other people). This then provides sufficient reason for the Viscount to send you to figure that out, because the Arishok, in fact, asks for you on the basis of that respect. In Act 3, your stopping the Qunari attack saved many lives and Kirkwall itself, which gives you the title of the Champion of Kirkwall. This means that the people of Kirkwall have a lot of respect for you, and that places you in a unique position to mediate the Templar/mage dispute because your fame and popularity and importance to the city is unrelated to the dispute itself. Meredith has power because she leads the Templars; Orsino has power because he is the Chief Enchanter of the Circle. Both of them get their power from and are responsible for their specific side in the conflict. Hawke, however, doesn’t get her power from either side. Hawke can stay neutral and try to broker a compromise because she has no necessary vested interest in either side winning. Or if she takes a side, it carries more weight for that same reason: she has no real reason to take one side over another (although her being a mage or having Bethany still alive gives her one). That explains why Meredith and Orsino both court her and recruit her for quests in an attempt to sway her to their side; swaying her gives them an additional form of influence that they can use to overwhelm the other.

Now, the game isn’t perfect at doing that, and has flaws. And yes, Varric’s questions hint at goals that you can achieve but never pursue. And yes, for all of your importance you can’t actually resolve the issues peacefully and without bloodshed and even disaster. But, again, DA2 is meant to be a tragedy, and throughout the work and every step of the way it tells you that you aren’t going to be able to magically make everything better and be a non-tragic hero. You’re a tragic hero. This is a perfectly valid plot choice and one that I found interesting. It’s not a standard power fantasy where at the end of the game you save everything through how awesome you are, but not all games need that. I suspect that Chuck wanted more of the standard power fantasy, and the game disappointed him in that it didn’t provide that. And that’s fair. But I submit that DA2 made Hawke important enough to fulfill what is needed from importance, which is to explain why Hawke is the one who has to do this. I can accept that Chuck was not motivated by the motivations provided, but Hawke is important enough to be the one who has to at least try. Chuck’s objections still seem more like asking why Hawke should bother trying as opposed to why she has to be the one to try.

The final part will talk about whether DA2 was the canary in the coal mine that hinted at the disaster of ME3.

Thoughts on “Backwoods”

November 20, 2018

I’ve never really watched the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” style of slasher movie. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched any of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movies, and don’t really have any of them in my collection of horror movies. Well, okay, I recently bought the “Wrong Turn” series of movies because Eliza Dushku was on the cover and I think I confused it with a werewolf movie instead (“Ginger Snaps?”) but suffice it to say that I’m not someone who watches a lot of those sorts of slasher movies. But I am, of course, fairly familiar with the tropes spawned by them, just by the cultural osmosis of having that specific genre of movies become popular classics.

“Backwoods” is that sort of slasher movie. And it also seems to be built around using as many of those tropes as humanly possible.

The problem is that this makes the movie completely and utterly predictable, even to someone like me who isn’t as directly familiar with the tropes. We know who is going to survive pretty much from the beginning of the movie. We know what the threat is. We know that the ranger isn’t what he appears to be. We know what plans the villains have for the women. We know at the end that when the female FBI agent is out looking over the area that the strong villain is going to be there and attack her. Everything is so completely predictable that there are no surprises. In fact, the one surprise was that the boss was killed so early and so easily, although his FBI hat tips off why.

For the most part, the characters are serviceable in a tropey way, from the bad boss who can be a little sympathetic to the jerk who actually goes out as a heroic jerk which was a nice touch. The main male lead is nice and sympathetic in a way that makes sense, and the female lead is the typical “cheerleader type who’s with the jerk but ends up with the nice guy”, although her leaving him first was a nice touch. The jerks are annoying for most of it, but they’re supposed to be, and that helps us feel all the more sorry for our hero.

And the villains are tropey themselves. Based around a religious cult, hidden in the backwoods, pretty much all related, kidnapping women to use for breeding and brainwashing them into it, and they replace moonshine with drugs — and now the DEA’s got a chopper in the air — slightly modernizing it but sticking to the tried-and-true tropes. Did I mention that this movie was tropey?

Other than being too paint-by-numbers, it wasn’t a bad movie, all things considered. The thing is, I can’t figure out who the intended audience is. People who don’t like those sorts of movies won’t be impressed by the tropes, and people who do will find that it doesn’t add anything new. I guess if someone was really looking for that sort of movie and didn’t want to just rewatch the same old characters it might be appealing, but for me if it wasn’t in “The Shadows” pack I’d never have bought or watched it. The biggest thing the movie has going for it to encourage me to watch it again is that nothing will be ruined by already knowing what happened in the movie, but that pretty much just leaves it in the “Could watch it again because it killed an hour and a half without boring me but can’t really see why I’d do that” pile.

Doctor Who: Thoughts on Rose Tyler

November 19, 2018

The next character to exit the series is Rose Tyler. I have to confess that Rose is not my favourite companion. In fact, on the list of companions in the new Doctor Who that I’ve watched — up to Clara — she’s … second last. This is not because I really dislike the character — that’s reserved for the last companion on the list — but more because I really like the other companions far better. So why is that?

Rose always struck me as being remarkably self-centered for the majority of her run. It could be entertaining at times, and she did manage to get serious and do good things, but a lot of things were about her for most of the run. This was a bit grating, especially since it was coupled with her not taking things very seriously a lot of the time. I also think that her character was hurt by not only starting the romance-with-the-Doctor thread in the new Doctor Who, but by also being the idealized version of it. Her character arc even damages Martha’s by having Rose be the reason that Martha ends up with an unrequited love for the Doctor. In a lot of ways, the show bends in response to her gravity, but she’s not an interesting enough character to make that work.

Also, that she almost destroyed all of reality because she wanted to save her father’s life counts against her. Actually, her father issues didn’t reflect well on her but actually gave her father’s arc some gravitas.

A friend of mine commented that he thought that the moment that really defined her character came in “The End of the World”. I disagree. The big scene there that shows her caring for others was the scene with the tech, but that’s definitely presented more as her being overwhelmed by the experiences here and grasping for some sort of normality to calm herself down. Interacting with a simple tech does that, especially since the others were all upper class or elites whereas Rose was clearly working class, and so she finally managed to associate with someone who was of “her kind”, which is a bigger deal in British society than in North American.

For me, her big defining moment was in the next episode, “The Unquiet Dead”. While she strikes up a friendship with the servant again, there she was more concerned and interested in her directly as a person, and was doing so out of nothing more than that sort of concern and interest. She protests allowing the servant to try to contact the aliens out of concern for her and what it might do to her (and turns out to be right). She and the Doctor have an interesting conversation when they think they are going to die, and the consequences of leaving the servant and her friend behind sink in for her, and yet she still manages to soldier on with it. It was in that episode that I was most interested in Rose Tyler.

Ultimately, my opinion of Rose is that her character isn’t all that interesting, even if it isn’t actually all that annoying. It’s not that she’s the most normal of the companions, but more that there isn’t really anything particularly interesting about her character or her plot lines to make her stand out, and yet as the first — and the one the Doctor loved — she gets far more prominence than her character can carry. I don’t mind the character, but like almost all the other companions better.

The next main character to leave is Martha, so that’s who I’ll talk about next time. Spoilers: I like her better than Rose.