Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Thoughts on “2 Broke Girls”

May 14, 2019

So, I’ve finished watching all six seasons of “2 Broke Girls”. This was a series that I had mused about watching for ages and managed to find for a decent price a while ago, mostly because I had seen and liked Kat Dennings in the Thor movies and the premise sounded somewhat interesting. That it featured two attractive women as the stars didn’t hurt either. But in the end it was a disappointing series.

The basic premise of the show is that Caroline Channing, the daughter of a wealthy financier, loses everything because it turns out that her father was pretty much scamming everyone to make his fortune. She meets diner waitress Max Black (played by Dennings) and ends up getting a job at that diner and moving in with Max as her roommate. It turns out that Max is making money selling cupcakes and Caroline then believes that they could turn that into a business, which then is what happens over the next six seasons.

The show is very joke intensive, mostly snarky insults and sexual jokes. The problem with this is that the show spends so much time tossing out jokes that it really doesn’t have time to do anything else. Sure, its rapid-fire jokes mean that you’re probably going to come across something funny relatively quickly, but most of the jokes aren’t that funny and become very predictable, so that you can often seem them coming. Still, again, there were usually one or two at least amusing ones in every, say, five minutes of the show, and some of them were downright funny. It’s just kinda overwhelming at times.

It also means that plots drag on longer than they should. On a few occasions, they spent multiple episodes exploring plots that didn’t have enough content for more than one or two. For example, there’s one sequence where Max is trying to get to her old boyfriend after he blocks her to try to reconcile, and it takes about three episodes for them to get there, but even with the disastrous things that happen to them — plane crash, stolen credit cards, he goes somewhere else — the plot really runs out of steam long before that, and if they hadn’t been so focused on tossing funny scenes and jokes in there they could have wrapped it up in an episode or two at most. This also happens when they go to Hollywood to negotiate about Caroline’s movie, with there being very little happening there that couldn’t have happened with them still in New York. To compare it to a sitcom like “Three’s Company”, they had certain jokes that they wanted to be focused around — misunderstandings, Jack pretending to be gay, his clumsiness, and so on — and seemed to think “What kind of plot do we need to be able to do that?”, whereas in “2 Broke Girls” it seemed to me that most of the time their plot ideas followed the catchphrase of a friend of mine from high school: “Wouldn’t it be funny if?”. A lot of the plots were simply putting together events that sounded funny and then tossing their standard jokes into the mix and hoping to produce something good. But it ended up making their episodes kinda like cupcakes themselves: kinda enjoyable, but devoid of substance so you’d get tired of them if that was all you ate.

The Hollywood plot also suffered from having to foist the creator fan character Sophie into the plot, as she goes there to see some kind of healer about having a baby. The show really wants us to like Sophie, as whenever she arrives in a room there’s whoops like you’d get for someone like the Fonz or Kramer from “Seinfeld”. The problem is that she’s not a very good character and has no real interesting role on the show. You’d think that being of Polish descent myself my big problem with her would be how she’s supposed to be Polish but the stereotypes about her have nothing to do with actual Polish people (for example, you would expect her wedding to be Catholic because that’s pretty big in Poland, but instead it’s some kind of weird semi-Christian type of thing) but that doesn’t bother me since it’s clearly done for laughs and isn’t to be taken seriously. My problem with her is that she’s entirely selfish and self-centered and self-absorbed and prone to snarky insults, especially towards Caroline. This might have worked out — she likes Max and doesn’t like Caroline — except that if we want someone to be snarkily self-interested and make sexual jokes a lot, well, that’s what Max is for. Even her snarking at Caroline doesn’t work because Max already snarks at her more than enough to make those sorts of jokes, so what is she there for? Having her get together with the pervert cook Oleg doesn’t help, as both of them are annoying and inappropriately sexual but Oleg is supposed to be and he gets numerous moments where he helps them out just because they need the help. She doesn’t even get that and it seems that the show expects us to not find Sophie annoying, and there aren’t really any jokes that she brings to the table that the others couldn’t make just as well: Max snarking about Caroline, Oleg making jokes about strange foreign custom, Max and Oleg making jokes about odd sexual practices, and so on.

The humour is also often very mean-spirited. Max and later Caroline constantly insult Han, the owner of the diner, with rapid-fire insults pretty much any time he talks to them. This also continues after, again, Han goes out of his way to help them with their problems. This, then, makes the continued insults seem ungrateful, and most of them are simply insults about his height and looks and not firing back against him being, say, too uptight or trying to boss them around. It gets better when he starts to fire back more often, especially with Max, but it never quite becomes mutual snarking to show that they care about each other and does more seem like general insults. At least they do help Han out later in the series.

There’s also a lot of jokes about Caroline that come across as mean, especially with regards to her body. There are a lot of jokes about her being flat-chested. Now, if this was just about her having much smaller breasts than Max, that would be okay, and there are some jokes where that’s what they’re referring to and it allows Caroline to fire back at her, like at least one case where the joke is mostly over Caroline focusing on attracting men to her legs because her breasts won’t do it for her. But no, a lot of the time the joke claims that Caroline’s breasts are small to non-existent. Now, I’m not going to oppose that on the basis of an opposition to body shaming, but the worst part about those jokes is that they, well, aren’t true. When Caroline wears a tight shirt or sweater we can see that she is definitely not flat-chested. So, again, the jokes come across as being mean rather than as goodnatured teasing.

The show ends up suffering from a lack of sympathetic characters. Earl — the cashier — is fine but has a rather limited role. Han comes across sometimes as long-suffering but also a bit cheap. Oleg is not someone you’re supposed to really like. Sophie is just plain annoying. So that leaves the two main characters. Max is mean and snarky but can generate some sympathy based on the stories about how crappy her life has been … but often being incredibly irresponsible hurts that. Caroline starts off as being sympathetic but at the end has her self-absorption dialed up to 11, making her more annoying. So, at the end, I didn’t really want to watch either of the two main characters or the creator-pet Sophie. What they really should have done — and it did start out that way — was have Caroline be “Spoiled Sweet”, being someone who has always had things work out for her and so assumes that that’s how it will always work out for her and how it should work for everyone else, while keeping Max as the bitter and cynical one because things have never worked out for her ever. Then, as the show progressed, Caroline would keep her optimistic attitude but temper it with some realism, while Max would learn that sometimes things do work out if you try and so that never trying is a bad idea. There are hints of this throughout the show, but this progression really should have been the focus. But, again, the swarm of jokes makes it hard to do this sort of thing in the limited time left over for plot and character development.

By not following this progression, the show also seems to try to reset their condition after every season, finding ways to reduce them to limited money or put them back into similar situations. It’s not quite a reset button because they’ll at times change things — set up their business somewhere else or change to a dessert bar — but for the most part something bad happens to set them back financially, at least. It would have still worked if they had let them get ahead a little but still have a lot to do to accomplish their dreams, because doing that is indeed hard work and takes time. And this tendency to do that to set up for the next season means that they don’t get an ending, as season 6 sets them back financially again and sets up a conflict between their boyfriends that never gets resolved because the show was, presumably, unexpectedly cancelled. I’d find that a problem like I did with “Reboot”, but I found that I didn’t really care that much to be all that bothered that it didn’t get an ending.

So, what did I think of the series, at the end of the day? Well, I didn’t want to watch it again right away after finishing it like I did with “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. But while I was happy to get to the end of it so that I could watch something else, I didn’t have to struggle through it like I did with “She-Ra”. It’s a show that I could watch again, but now have so many other things to watch that I can’t think of any possible time when I could that I couldn’t find something better to watch. The show is mildly amusing but not particularly entertaining.

The next series was chosen because it has style, it has flair and, well, it’s there. Stayed tuned if that doesn’t mean anything to you.

Thoughts on “Thrawn: Alliances”

May 10, 2019

I’ve always liked Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels, and have always liked the character of Thrawn, so when I was browsing in a bookstore and saw “Thrawn: Alliances” it was definitely a book that I had to pick up despite my being rather unimpressed with the new Star Wars canon in general. However, “Alliances” ended up being disappointing.

The general thrust of the book is a split story between the time right around Star Wars and the time of the Clone Wars. Thrawn and Darth Vader are sent by the Emperor on a mission to investigate a Force disturbance in the Outer Rim, in a place where Thrawn and Anakin Skywalker ran into each other investigating something else. The book switches between the two timelines and eventually connects the two.

Here’s the thing: given that the cover of the book shows Thrawn and Vader, one would expect that most people who bought the book would be interested in at least one of those characters. However, the Clone Wars plot also includes Padme and spends a lot of time focusing on her, as her actions are important to that plot. But she’s not that interesting a character and that plot isn’t that interesting to take that much time away from Vader and Thrawn. It would be different if the scenes generally related back to the plot in the later timeframe, but that rarely happens. Yes, there are some connections, but about the only interesting one is if Thrawn knows that Vader is Anakin, which the book hints at but never outright states. This makes the scenes where Anakin is directly involved, even with Thrawn, seem extraneous, let alone the scenes with Padme.

Another problem with the book is that it focuses a lot on Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmesean ways, especially in the Clone Wars part of the book. There is a lot of focus on his ability to observe what’s going on around him and draw conclusions from that. The issue is that that is impressive, certainly, but what is most interesting about Thrawn is his ability to take that information and turn it into a creative tactical plan. As most of the events here are at the personal level, that gets underused. This turns the book into far more of a simple action story — especially in the Clone Wars section — which is not what I, at least, buy a Thrawn book for.

The interaction between Vader and Thrawn had its moments, but I think that the Clone Wars section took up time that could have been used to develop it more, and it often turned into Thrawn pretty much begging Vader to let him do what he wanted to do and Vader at first resisting from pique and then eventually giving in. At the end of the day, the interesting premise of the two of them having to get along and work together seems to be mostly wasted.

It’s not that great a book, and I can’t really imagine reading it again any time soon. The writing is still good and Thrawn is still an interesting character, but nothing interesting really happens and so it seems more superfluous than interesting.

Thoughts on “Daria”

May 7, 2019

I had caught a couple of episodes of “Daria” when it was running on YTV here in Canada, and remembered liking the show. It was available on Crave TV, but I was also browsing in a store and say the complete DVD collection of it for a pretty good price, and so bought and watched it. And it was indeed still a good show.

The key to this show is that it’s not afraid to let Daria be wrong, even if she’s right most of the time. There’s obviously a lot of idiocy in her school and town and a lot of cases where people simply go along with things to be popular, but there are a number of occasions where Daria is overreacting to things and gets called out for that. Of course, to pull that off you need to have characters that can do that, and Daria has them. The most prominent one is Jane, who is like Daria in rejecting the shallow social customs but is different from her in that it doesn’t seem like a matter of principle with her but more something that she fell into. Given her family history and her artistic sensibilities, she wouldn’t really mind being more included but simply doesn’t really fit in and isn’t willing to trade her art for popularity. Thus, she can snark along with Daria most of the time but also point out when Daria is going overboard. This combination works perfectly for the show.

The other person is Daria’s mother. While Daria’s father is, to put it mildly, a flake, Daria’s mother is more grounded while still being caught up in the common social mores and standing that Daria dislikes. This allows her mother to be wrong most of the time while still being able to bring Daria up short at times. She wants Daria to be social and get the benefits of that, and can’t understand why it’s so easy for her sister Quinn but Daria won’t even try. Most of their disagreements over this end in some sort of compromise between the two, but again this gives another character who can call Daria out and show her that she’s wrong.

This leaves us with Daria being a character who in some sense refuses to go along with the crowd in principle but also as a character who refuses to go along with the crowd out of a fear that if she tried to be popular she’d fail. At least if she doesn’t try her unpopularity will be voluntary, and not just caused by rejection. A number of plotlines emphasize that.

I think the show made a mistake, though, with Daria’s boyfriend Tom. The problem with him was that he didn’t really add anything to the character. Starting out as Jane’s boyfriend first didn’t really add much, as the build up to the revelation that they liked each other was too short for us to really feel the conflict there, and the resolution of their hurt feelings happened in a movie and then that Tom dated Jane first was used as a running gag. But Tom himself didn’t add much, despite them trying to make that happen. He was part of a wealthy and socially upstanding family and that they tended to do and care about the very things that Daria tended to despise was played with a bit, but the issue was that Tom himself didn’t care much about them, so there wasn’t that much of a conflict. It would have been better if Tom had been more normal, wanting to do those things and do those things with Daria but not wanting to push her into doing things that he knew she didn’t like. This, then, would have made Daria’s initial reaction that maybe he was ashamed of her valid but leave room for the discovery of what he really felt, and then make it possible for Jane or her mother to comment that Tom did things with her that she liked and he didn’t, which would have made the debate over how much she should sacrifice of her desires or principles for the person she’s dating make more sense and be more poignant. Instead, it’s not something that he wants to do and so would be mostly for show, so Daria’s too much in the right here to make it an interesting debate. And Tom didn’t bring anything else to the table to challenge anything about Daria’s worldview.

Now, they are going to do a remake of “Daria” called “Daria and Jodie”. As you can tell from the title, they are going to elevate a relatively minor character, Jodie, to prominence alongside Daria. As far as I can tell, they are going to have her replace Jane as Daria’s best friend. The problem with this is that the Jodie character is one that’s very achievement oriented, being very involved in everything and being generally quite popular. This makes her the complete opposite of Daria. While they’re both equally intelligent, they have radically different worldviews. There are only two ways, then, that close a friendship can go for them. The first is that they keep clashing over their worldviews and end up at best respecting each other but not agreeing on them, which doesn’t work for best friends, especially if both of them have to be right. The second — and more likely — is that each of them will start to accept parts of each others’ worldview, and come to a mushy compromise, which will take away some of the best aspects of the show. This really seems like an attempt to give a black character prominence at the expense of the show itself. If they really wanted to make black characters more prominent — and the lack of black characters was lampshaded in the show itself — then they really should have just gone for a more ensemble show instead of doing this.

At the end of the day, though, I liked “Daria” and will almost certainly watch it again at some point.

Thoughts on “Venom”

April 30, 2019

Full disclosure: I fell asleep during this movie.

Anyway, “Venom” is clearly Sony’s attempt to create a movie in the mold of “Deadpool” (ick) with it being a darker and more vicious movie while still trying to splice a good bit of humour into it. The movie, unfortunately, spends well over half of it simply detailing the plot, which leaves little time for the humourous part of the buddy act between Eddie Brock and the symbiote, especially since we need to have a symbiote vs symbiote final battle. So while there is some humour in the first half of the movie, the best parts are only in the last half and too few and far between.

I also don’t find the premise of the movie credible. These symbiotes, as far as I can tell, come from outer space and came to invade the Earth, but the Venom symbiote eventually finds a compatibility with Eddie — and his ex-wife? — and through bonding with Eddie decides that Earth should be spared, which causes him to revel against his fellows and save the Earth, at least for now. This is a bit convoluted for this sort of movie, especially since it relies on us believing that Eddie is a nice enough person to convince the symbiote to pull a Heel-Face Turn while being morally ambiguous enough to accept the things that Venom itself does, like eating people. Eddie is interested in justice, sure, but not to a strong enough degree to be that convincing while still accepting Venom’s harsher actions. It probably would have been better to drop that invasion notion and simply have the symbiotes be explorers, or to have the Venom symbiote be escaping from his fellows and managing to bond with Eddie. In fact, having him bond with Eddie and then have superior abilities could have been what gets the other one to find someone to bond with for the final battle, and the hint that there are others out there who now might know about the power boost could be used to generate the other symbiote villains. This would have been simpler and would have allowed Eddie to be more grey without having to have the sappy “You convinced me” storyline when we don’y really see anything that should have convinced the symbiote to change its stance.

I also found the battle scenes too busy and too hard to follow, especially the final one between the two symbiotes.

Ultimately, the movie was okay. I don’t regret watching it. But I don’t really have any interest in watching it again. It has its moments, but not enough to really interest me. Unlike some other superhero movies, I don’t find myself going over all the mistakes it made later, but also don’t really have any reason to ever think of it again now that I’ve watched it.

Very Early Thoughts on “Cute Knight Deluxe” and Other Hanako Games

April 24, 2019

So, after considering buying it for years, I finally broke down and bought “Cute Knight Deluxe” from Hanako Games, along with, well, pretty much everything else they’ve made so far. The main appeal of the game to me is that it’s pretty much a life simulator, where you start as a young girl just turning 18 and have until 21 or 22 (I think) to make a life for yourself. There are a tonne of endings, and so after playing the demo a couple of times it really sounded like the sort of game that appeals to me, where you can act in the world the way your character would act and end up where that sort of character would end up.

I’ve played the game to the end once, and now I’m not so sure that really works as well as it seemed at first. The risk with games like these is that there will be certain things you need and certain ways that are obviously better ways to get it, and so you will always be encouraged to go down certain paths unless you deliberately try to avoid them, which ends up making the game a lot harder and so less fun. Here, you need gold to buy things and prepare for adventuring and take courses and the like. You can earn gold by taking certain jobs. However, if you aren’t very skilled at a job, then you’ll fail when you try to do it. Not only do you not get paid when you do that, but it causes you to be upset and depressed, which reduces your “Dream” score. If it drops too low, I think that the game will end. I found that with training courses and the like my character was pretty good at stocking shelves at the library, at least after a while, but that didn’t pay very much. However, at least for my character, busking tended to bring in a lot more money. There didn’t seem to be a way to advance my standing or pay at the library, and courses kept getting more and more expensive, meaning that I needed money to keep advancing but the job that most aligned with that didn’t pay enough. Also, you have HP which determines what you can do, but it runs down as you do things and you need to rest to restore it. The cheapest way to do that was to keep my Sin level low so that I could stay for free at the Church, which meant that I did a lot of things in the Church, which then ended up with me getting the ending where you associate with the Church at the end. That kinda worked for my character, but it makes me worry that trying to do anything else will be too difficult, although adventuring, if you can stay alive, should bring in gold to replace staying at the Church.

Some of this might be ameliorated by picking a better birth month, as it will give me better stats for certain career choices and so start me out better with them so that I can do those things without risking failure.

I also had a pretty easy time with the pageant and the wizard duels once I had some training in. For the former, my charm was high and my knowledge really high, so that usually resulted in easy wins, and the one time I participated in the duels my knowledge gave me a massive MP pool so for the most part I only needed to keep guessing and so outwait them.

For the other games, I think that “Black Closet” and “Long Live the Queen” interest me the most. The former is a management game with a traitor mechanism, and I like mystery games with traitor mechanisms. The latter has a more involved plot and set of events, but isn’t quite as customizable. I also like the premise of “Science Girls!”.

Thoughts on National Lampoon’s Vacation

April 16, 2019

So at the same time that I came across the collection of Michael J. Fox movies I also came across a collection of National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, containing Vacation, Christmas Vacation, European Vacation and Vegas Vacation for a ridiculously low price. Even if I didn’t care for them, the price was certainly right.

The first thing I note about the movie is that the main song is ridiculously addictive but that for the most part they only ever really play the chorus part … which is the part that’s really addictive. It does work for the movies.

The basic format of the movies — and the one established in the first movie — is a bunch of loosely interconnected events that happen as the Griswalds take a family vacation somewhere. The problem with this is that because they are loosely interconnected for the most part what happens is that they try to go somewhere and do something and Clark — the father, played by Chevy Chase — does something incredibly stupid that allows something disastrous to happen, and then we move on to the next event. In the first movie this was okay because it was new and there was a stronger goal — to get to Wallyworld — but in European it just got really, really irritating. Christmas and Vegas dodged this a bit by Christmas having more people around to cause problems and having the subplot of Clark hoping to get his bonus so that he could build a pool for the family, which let there be something else for us to focus on and build some kind of plot out of, and Vegas having all the family go off in their own directions to do things that were disastrous so that Clark wasn’t just a total idiot (although he was still idiotic). So, for me, Christmas and Vegas worked the best, Vacation had its charms, and European was a dull slog.

The actors for the children changed in every movie. This was lampshaded in I think Vegas. Vegas was also the movie with the most attractive daughter, out of necessity because she was supposed to be getting into the party scene with her cousin and so did need to be attractive to make that believable.

Ultimately, the movies were okay. I might watch them again, but am more likely to watch Christmas and Vegas again than the other two.

Thoughts on “Star Trek: The Animated Series”

April 9, 2019

When I subscribed to Crave, I got access to a lot of Star Trek (which is why I’m currently watching Voyager). This included “Star Trek: The Animated Series”, which I had never seen and so had only experienced through Chuck Sonnenberg’s reviews. So it was interesting to watch them myself.

This was a Filmation work, and while it isn’t quite up to the standards of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” it still retains its ability to have fairly poor animation that you don’t notice most of the time, because the stories are structured so that fancy animation isn’t required. This series, perhaps because of its nature, has more examples where the demands of the scene are more than the animation can deliver, but mostly it’s okay.

The voice acting is done by the actors from the original Star Trek series, but unfortunately is uneven. Leonard Nimoy does the best, but whether that’s because of experience, skill or just because Spock is an easier character to do isn’t clear. For everyone else, for the most part their biggest issues seem to be that they have a more subdued and passionless delivery than they had on the original show. Yes, even William Shatner seems to have issues emoting in the series.

Storywise, for the most part it attempts to provide similar stories to what was on TOS in a cartoon format. This is hit or miss, mostly because a lot of those stories really could have benefited from a longer presentation that they don’t get here. Still, it makes for a smarter cartoon than average, even ones that came later. It would have been interesting to see what they could have done with the premise in more modern times, when multi-part and arc cartoons were more popular — like Justice League — and so could have relied on that to provide deeper storylines.

All-in-all, it was entertaining to watch. I might watch it again at some point.

Thoughts on the Michael J Fox Comedy Collection

April 2, 2019

So, I was browsing in Walmart and came across a collection of Michael J Fox movies for about $10, which was a deal that I couldn’t resist. It doesn’t include the “Back to the Future” movies, but does include probably the more famous of the movies he did around the time that he was doing “Family Ties”, which is where I first encountered him. I’d never really watched these movies, though, so I didn’t have any real preconceptions about their quality.

The movie that I most recognized was “The Secret to My Success”, mostly from seeing the commercials for it, especially the scene where he’s in his underwear in an elevator pretending to be doing muscleman flexing, mostly because it was the weirdest thing in the commercial. So, arguably, this is the most famous of the movies on the disk. Unfortunately, it’s not the best one. The main premise is that Fox’s character leaves his hometown to get a job in the big city, but it falls through. He ends up going to his uncle, who gets him a job in the mailroom at his company. However, he notices someone getting fired, notices an empty office, and uses his mailroom contacts to set himself up there pretending to be a new hire and starts working the business and solving problems. He ends up attracted to and feuding with their whiz kid, and finally they manage to save the company from a takeover, saving many jobs in the process.

The big flaw in this movie is that the main plot is weak and the interaction with the love interest inconsistent and annoying. Oddly, Helen Slater who plays the love interest doesn’t come across as attractive or interesting enough for him to be that interested in her, and their fighting seems off. But worst of all, that she is established as someone who competes with him makes her look incompetent because she bears the brunt of suggesting the things that he things are a bad idea and don’t work. This gets even worse at the end because there supposedly they need her help to prevent the takeover and yet the movie hadn’t established that she was that smart to be that important to the plan. For the most part, she’s never really established as being what she needed to be for the character to work, but as the love interest we really need her to be for the movie to work.

Still, it was all right.

The next movie is “The Hard Way”, where Fox plays an actor trying to get a part as a hardnosed cop who arranges to work with an actual police detective played by James Woods who’s trying to solve a murder case while starting to date again after his divorce. Comedy ensues. The acting performances are good, but there’s not really much to the movie at all other than the performances of the actors. Again, not the best movie, but okay.

The next movie is “For Love or Money”. Here, Fox plays a concierge who is trying to earn the money and find an investor to build his own hotel on a piece of land that he has an option on. He finds one that is interested … but who is also a dishonest businessman who, although married, is dating the love interest. Fox gets suckered into doing favours for him, which includes arranging for the trysts with the love interest, covering them up, and entertaining her when he can’t make it. Eventually, he finds out that the businessman isn’t going to leave his wife for the love interest, and she learns that the businessman is trying to scam Fox out of his property. They both tell each other about that at the end, satisfy the love plot, and then when it looks like Fox will lose the property a businessman that he spent much of the movie helping to rekindle the romance in his marriage gets his prospectus by accident and ends up being the head of a major bank and willing to get him the loan he needs, allowing him to build his hotel.

This is the best of the movies. The love interest is probably the most attractive of all the movies and also plays the most active role. She also seems to have the best chemistry with Fox. The story allows Fox to be genuinely competent, and yet drives most of its humour from that competence, with only some times where things being complicated drives the humour, but the rest of the movie has established that he’s capable of handling it, so we’re more interested in seeing how he does it. This role is also one of the more sympathetic ones in the pack, as he clearly does care about the people he’s helping, especially the businessman with his wife, which is what makes the ending predictable and yet somewhat satisfying. This movie was pretty good.

The last movie is “Greedy”, where Fox plays the estranged nephew of a very rich man who is near death and whose family wants to get their hands on his fortune, and use Fox’s character to do so. This has become more urgent because the rich man seems infatuated with a young woman and they fear he’ll leave his money to her. After a series of events where Fox and the girlfriend both act more and more greedy in trying to get the money and save it from each other, the rich man reveals that he’s actually poor, and Fox is outraged … but then relents and offers to put him up in his home, whereupon the rich man reveals that he really is rich and was just testing them to see who didn’t care.

This movie was okay. The plot is a bit more interesting and involves more characters, and there’s more of a character arc for Fox’s character. The big issue is that the ending is overly convoluted and the rich man is too annoying and greedy for us to be happy that he was taken in at the end, which kinda ruins the purportedly happy ending … which was predictable as well, which doesn’t still. Still, again, it was an okay movie.

The pack was certainly worth what I paid for it, and I could watch all of them again at some point. Of them all, though, “For Love or Money” is the one that I think I’d actually like to watch again.

Thoughts on “The Store of the Worlds”

March 28, 2019

I’m not a big fan of short stories. Even for a write that I like as much as Roger Zelazny I’ve always had a hard time getting through most of his short story collections. However, Robert Sheckley is an exception to that. Included with my original copy of “The Status Civilization” was “Notions: Unlimited”, a collection of his short stories, most of which I enjoyed and some of which I loved. When I bought a number of Sheckley works a while back, I also picked up “The Store of the Worlds”, a collection of his short stories. And then I didn’t read it. After finishing off “The Gripping Hand”, I decided to finally sit down and read it. There were some stories in there that I hadn’t read, and some of the stories in “Notions: Unlimited” weren’t there that I had liked — “Gray Flannel Armor” and “The Leech” being the two notable ones — but, overall, it was a good collection of Sheckley short stories.

Sheckley’s short stories tend to be on the cynical side, highlighting something that’s short-sighted or ridiculous in society and taking it to an extreme and yet logical conclusion, like dating in “Gray Flannel Armor” or love itself in “The Language of Love”, where the main character tries to overcome his inability to express his feelings of love by learning the precise language of love … only to discover that the woman he was doing it for is only someone that he is rather fond of. He mixes this in with humour, as at the end of “The Language of Love” the protagonist writes back to his mentor that he was now married to someone whom he felt “quite a substantial liking”, while his mentor mutters that all he could manage was “vaguely enjoyable”. But many of them take on more substantive issues, with “Watchbird” in particular taking on AI and automation, with the essential point being that relying on machines to learn things might well end up having them learn the wrong things, causing more problems than what they were created to solve. He also takes on prejudice in a very satirical way with “The Native Problem”, where a later traveler from Earth encounters a colonization ship who believes him to be a native and can’t be convinced otherwise, and so merely for self-preservation he ends up going along with it. Sheckley also does some more standard and direct science fiction with stories like “A Wind is Rising”. And many of his stories have unhappy or unpleasant endings, and rarely do you get an unqualified happy ending. So they aren’t stories to read if you’re trying to shake yourself out of depression.

Ultimately, though, Sheckley is unique in that he’s an author where, for the most part, I’d rather read his short stories than many if not most of his novels. This is not to say that his novels are bad, but that his short stories are really, really good. To return to my theme, the worst of his short stories are better than the short stories I read when analyzing the Hugo awards, showing just how far those have fallen over the years. I’m absolutely going to read this and these again.

Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop

March 27, 2019

It’s been a while since I talked about an “Extra Credits” video. For the most part, this has been because I’ve generally had other things to talk about when it came to video games, but it’s also due in part to the fact that after the main presenter left the videos have focused less on more controversial issues in gaming and instead on pretty standard gaming things, which don’t leave me with a lot of things to say one way or another.

At first glance, “Mechanics Shaping Story – Re-examining the Core Gameplay Loop” seems like another one of those videos. After all, that mechanics and story can interact in good or bad ways isn’t controversial and many, many people have examined in many, many discussions just how the mechanics and the story can interact with each other to improve the experience or to hinder it. So is there much to say here?

Well, as it turns out, there is, because how the video talks about their interaction ends up overstating the impact and through that ends up discussing the influence of the core gameplay loop in a way that is a shallow representation of that loop and suggests loops that, in fact, are poor ways to implement what they want to implement.

The big thing that they use to drive the point home is Pokemon, pointing out that it was influenced heavily by JRPGs which were heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, and the main gameplay loop in that one is essentially get character skills and equipment, go out and kill monsters for XP and loot, use that XP and loop to increase the skills and weapons of your character, go out and kill more monsters, rinse, repeat. As such, despite the fact that Pokemon presents it as trainers and Pokemon developing a friendship and the actual combat as being friendly competition, at its heart the game still has that violent underpinning that they imply it can’t really escape.

Before delving into that question, I think it makes sense to look at the example that they say broke this main gameplay loop, the tabletop game invented by their guest, called “Pugmire”. The original design wanted to keep the underlying D&D mechanics, but wanted to remove the more violent aspects of the core gameplay loop. And so the decision made was … to remove all XP and gold/loot from the game. Levels were only gained by doing things in the world and learning something, and not from gaining enough XP to level up. This, the video claims, makes options like bluffing and fleeing an encounter more feasible and so changes the overall dynamic of the game.

The first thing to note about this is that “Pugmire” is not the first game to use that sort of model. Amber Diceless, for example, does not give out XP for killing things nor do characters generally gain loot, and any additional character growth after character creation is at the whim of the GM. In one game of that that I modded, characters asked me to give out some points so that they could expand their abilities, which I did, but I had added items in the original character creation that could grant abilities but really were supposed to be used as plot and character points. The idea of removing XP and loot is not a particularly original one.

In addition, to get the effects that “Pugmire” wanted, you don’t even have to remove XP and loot. To use a video game example, “Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines” keeps XP and loot, but does not reward XP simply for killing things in the world. You gain XP for achieving things and completing tasks. In the game itself, in general completing tasks by stealth or by social skills gives the player more XP than doing it through combat. Also, the player has to manage their Humanity and Masquerade stats, and in general engaging in combat and killing things too frequently results in lowering those stats. If they fall too far, the character dies and the game is over. Thus, there are massive benefits for not engaging in combat and doing things like bluffing them, intimidating them, seducing them or sneaking past them, while keeping loot and XP in the game. So you don’t need to remove loot and XP to break that core gameplay loop.

Which allows us to return to Pokemon and note that it, itself, actually does break that core gameplay loop. Or, rather, it takes what that core gameplay loop actually is and applies it to a differing world or story. While most D&D games, at least early on, were all about killing things and looting their corpses, that was just the gloss on top of the actual gameplay, which was instead about characters going out into the world, facing challenges, using what they gained from those challenges to improve themselves, and then using those improvements to face more difficult challenges. JRPGs used that, in general, in service of their stories, where as you went along in the world you leveled up so that you could face the next challenge. Thus, the player grows in power, but they in general have to grow in power because as the story advances the stakes become higher and the threats become greater. You aren’t going out there to kill things and take their stuff, but to eliminate a threat to the greater community, a threat that keeps increasing and as you go along you learn things that make you better able to eliminate that threat. Sure, you do that by killing enemies and taking their stuff, but that’s only because they are directly in the way and, in fact, place themselves there. Your purpose is not, in fact, to do that. This is why D&D was able to evolve relatively seamlessly to a model where you can get the bulk of your experience from completing quests rather than from killing enemies in the world.

Pokemon takes that core gameplay mechanic and makes it family friendly, by stripping away the murderous gloss and recasting it entirely as competition. The goal for any trainer is to find Pokemon and train them in various ways for competitions, and then have them go out and engage in those competitions, learn from it, and so be able to participate in greater competitions at higher and higher levels. While the competitions themselves involve fighting and sometimes injuries and fatigue, the point is still the competition and not the violence. That makes the Pokemon model similar to Olympic level boxing, wrestling or martial arts. Your victories give you rewards, not loot, and you gain XP from winning competitions, not from killing enemies. This is in fact the core gameplay mechanic of D&D stripped of its war game gloss, and the failure to identify that makes them misinterpret what Pokemon is doing as well as misunderstand what needs to be changed to produce a game that doesn’t have its main rewards be on the basis of killing things. You don’t need to eliminate XP and loot, but only need to make it so that those things are given out on the basis of accomplishments and not simply for killing things.

When they try to give an example of a creative way to marry the gameplay mechanics to the story or feelings of the player, they again make a mistake because their analysis is too shallow. They use the example of the horror tabletop game “Dread”, which uses a Jenga tower as its main gameplay element. To take an action, players have to draw Jenga blocks and place them on top, and if they tip the tower then, at least, the character fails their action and probably dies. This does increase the anxiety of the players and provides a progression where later actions are more likely to fail disastrously and so are seen as more risky and, again, more tension-inducing.

The problem is that it’s increasing the wrong sort of tension and anxiety.

Shamus Young talked about this in talking about how killing players in horror video games might not be the best way to generate fear:

Consider these two types of fear:

  1. 1. Oh no! The grue is going to eat me! How horrible!
  2. Oh man. The grue is going to eat me and I haven’t saved in half an hour.

Now, if your goal is to just create a serious challenge for tenacious players to overcome (and some people really do like that sort of thing) then routine player death is a required component of that. But I think in most cases the extreme difficulty is part of a misguided attempt to make the game more frightening. You feel the first kind of fear when you’re immersed in the game. You only feel the second when you are not immersed. The first kind is the thrilling kind. The second is an immersion-breaking killjoy.

The Jenga tower’s tension is, in fact, an example of the second type of fear and anxiety. You aren’t feeling anxious because your character is in trouble and you’re hoping that they can overcome it. You’re feeling anxious because the tower is looking pretty rickety and you aren’t sure that you can move the required blocks to complete the action. At that moment, your anxiety is all OOC anxiety, not IC anxiety. The anxiety is not being caused by the situation inside the game itself or by the atmosphere it conveys, but simply by how you aren’t sure if you, as a player, are skilled enough to help your character avoid disaster. You aren’t really worried that your character will die, but are worried that you’ll pull the wrong block and knock the tower over.

Ironically, dice rolls work better for maintaining the right sort of anxiety and fear because they are nothing more than a mechanic for resolving the encounter, and so their anxiety level is determined entirely by the context. If you’re examining a dead body for clues, you may not care very much about the outcome of a roll, but if that’s the difference between life and death for that character you are probably going to feel very anxious about the result of the roll. With the Jenga tower, trivial actions might be anxiety inducing if it might tip the tower, and crucial ones might induce no anxiety if they are early enough in the game that you’re almost certain to be able to place all the blocks safely. This goes against what a horror game should be going for.

A video game that does this well, in my opinion, is Fatal Frame. The game involves a young teenage girl going to look for her brother, who has disappeared, in a haunted mansion. The character isn’t supposed to be some kind of combat veteran, and so the game doesn’t actually give the character any weapons. As Miku has the ability to see spirits, the game focuses on that by giving her a camera that she can use to see and capture the images of spirits to aid her in her investigation. As the camera can capture spirit images, it can also capture spirits, and thus is her primary means of defending herself against the ghosts. In order to use it, Miku has to drop into a first-person mode by raising the camera, which also limits her field of vision, which means that the ghosts might disappear from that and so be able to sneak up on her. This adds to the tension and fear of the game without making the enemies either heavily armoured or armed, and Miku can advance without having to find better weapons and so ending up a one-person walking ammunition dump.

Horror games that make the primary method of defense running away and hiding like “Clocktower” and “Haunting Ground” also do this, by making it so that the character and the player, in general, all want to do the same thing: run away from and hide from the monsters that are facing them. In real life, people aren’t going to be likely to see zombies, ghosts, or hideous monsters and demons and decide that the right thing to do is draw their guns and calmly target their weak spots. When the only choice is to run away, then players will be running away just as the characters would, which then does better align the gameplay and what feelings the game is trying to get the player to feel.