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

MMO Difficulty …

October 18, 2017

So, recently while playing The Old Republic I decided to dismiss my companion because I was going to do the Rakghoul infection quests and noted that in the past when playing with a companion they either tended to kill all the Rakghouls or at least draw all their attacks, making the infection a bit too difficult to achieve. However, I made a mistake and clicked on myself instead of on the companion, and noticed a setting called “Mission difficulty”, which I had set to “Story”.

Huh. No wonder the game was seeming really, really easy lately [grin].

To be fair, I had probably at some point noticed it and deliberately set it to “Story”, because that’s really how I wanted to play the game anyway. But this reminded me of how important and yet how counter-intuitive difficulty levels are for MMOs.

TOR isn’t the only MMO that did difficulty levels. The one that I’m most familiar with, City of Heroes (sniff), did it before it ended, and I’m sure other MMOs have tried it as well. But it seems kinda off to have difficulty levels in an MMO, since it would mean that you’d have different players in the world playing the game at different difficulty levels. Since one of the easiest ways to implement difficulty levels in an MMO — especially one that is heavily instanced — is to reduce the hitpoints and attack and defense strength of enemies, which can run into problems if you are in fact in a group and have to decide how to adjust them given the players in the group. Even adding attack and defense to the player’s character can cause problems, especially if, say, you give bonuses for damage done. It almost always seems like a safer and easier move to simply pick what you think is a reasonable difficulty level and let people who find it too difficult find a group to help them with those missions.

But the problem goes both ways. Some players will find some enemies to be too easy for them, and some missions thus too trivial, and would rather have a greater challenge, one that tests their skills. Thus, they might even want to play at a level where if you make even one mistake your character dies in order to have a tense challenge that forces them to practice their skills and pay close attention to the battles they are in. Obviously, setting the enemies to have this level of difficulty for everyone would eliminate most of your player base, so without difficulty levels they rarely, if ever, get that sort of challenge, and are bored.

Difficulty levels also provide a hedge against server population shrinkage. There might be a mission that is readily beatable with a group, but very tough to solo. This is fine and possibly even something to encourage when populations are high, but as they decline someone might really want or need to complete that mission and yet can’t find enough people interested in it to form a group to do it. Dropping the difficulty, if they are experienced or geared enough, might let them complete it anyway, even if they can’t find a group. Sure, they might be able to outlevel the mission enough to complete it, but that might require grinding and grinding is boring … and even then, changing the difficulty level means less overleveling they have to do before they can beat that mission.

Difficulty levels seem odd in an MMO, and yet they can indeed be useful to solve some issues that MMOs have and keep MMOs appealing to players longer.

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Thoughts on two books by Adrian Goldsworthy …

October 13, 2017

So, I recently somewhat read two books on Roman History by Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar and Pax Romana. I really liked Caesar, but couldn’t even manage to finish Pax Romana. I could have finished the latter if I had really tried, but I bought and was reading these books for entertainment and found at about the midway point that I wasn’t enjoying reading Pax Romana and wasn’t likely to start any time soon.

I think the main issue is that Pax Romana doesn’t really have a purpose, or at least one that the book supports. Goldworthy frames it as examining whether the Roman Empire could be considered peaceful and civilizing or aggressive and oppressive, but all he ends up doing is talking about how Rome gained its territories and how it governed them. While he generally slips in a comment or two about whether this made Rome oppressive or not, most of the time there’s no real direct relevance to the main thesis, and so if you are thinking about that premise you would be wondering how this all fits. However, most of the time you will have completely forgotten that that was what he was going for, and so simply be working through the details of how things worked in those areas or provinces. But he doesn’t go into enough detail on the everyday life of the people in those provinces or areas for it to work as just giving background history, and there’s no real chronological or even causal/narrative link between the sections to draw you along. Without a strong tie to the overall theme, the sections seem disconnected from each other, and the sections talk too shallowly about their specific topics to work as an interesting examination of those topics. At the end of the day, the topics examined were neither detailed enough to be enjoyed for their own sake or tied enough to a main thesis to work as establishing evidence for whatever conclusion Goldsworthy wanted us to draw.

Caesar works better — and is the one I read first — because it has an overarching framework to work with: Caesar. While there may be quibbles here and there, generally the book both has a reason for detailing what it does — telling us about Caesar — and has a chronological and causal chain carrying us from one chapter to the next, as we examine Caesar’s career. If we have to hop back into the past, it’s because what happened then is important — at least in the author’s mind — for understanding what happens to Caesar next. If we talk about political systems or historical events that don’t directly involve Caesar, it’s because it’s important to establish them in order to understand Caesar and how things got to that point. While the ending seemed a bit rushed, overall we get a pretty good narrative of Caesar and his life, as well as the cultural factors that made Rome what it was at the time and the systems that Caesar took advantage of and opposed.

Pax Romana had none of that, and so ended up seeming, at least to me, like a series of disconnected sections rather than any kind of comprehensive, unified work. And that, ultimately, bored me.

When MMOs Die …

October 11, 2017

So, after talking about how much I still miss City of Heroes last week, this weekend I managed to get in a little of The Old Republic. There’s talk about a server merge, which usually indicates a declining population, which then can indicate that, perhaps, the game isn’t going to be around much longer. And while I recently commented that TOR might end up being the only game I play for about a year, in thinking about it I realized that if TOR died I wouldn’t miss it anywhere near as much as I miss City of Heroes. But I would miss it.

Which gets into the things that a player would lose when an MMO has to fold. For the most part, for me, the things that I’ve missed have been things about the world itself, and not the gameplay or the social aspects. As I commented last week, there aren’t all that many superhero RPGs out there, so losing City of Heroes meant losing that world. Another of my favourite MMOs was Dark Age of Camelot, and there simply aren’t any games out there that combine Arthurian Legend, Celtic Myth, and Norse Mythology and crossover between all of them. In fact, there aren’t all that many games that try to even present one of those worlds, let alone three. And while RPGs in that era definitely occurred before, the eight story TOR does something that the other games don’t have the ability or funding to do.

It seems to me that in order for MMOs to compete, they often had to take on either unique experiences or attach themselves to existing popular worlds in order to stand out from the saturated crowd. After all, in terms of mechanics, gameplay and social aspects there’s not that much room to move or stand out, and if a player really likes that sort of thing they not only can keep playing the game that they first joined, they actually have reason to given that they’d have social networks already built up and a number of in-game advantages. If you want players to move, then, you have to give them something new, and a new and interesting world is probably the easiest and least risky way to do that. This means, though, that when an MMO goes away so does access to that world.

And I think MMOs taking on a unique setting is potentially bad for that setting, because it discourages companies from trying a non-MMO game in that setting. While the MMO is running, it can be seen as too much competition for the new game to handle unless the population is big enough to handle multiple games, which many MMO settings are at least not believed to be. And when the MMO dies and the competition is no longer there, there is always the concern that this means that the target audience is burned out on the setting, and so a new game in that space won’t succeed.

I’d love a new, good superhero RPG. Or Arthurian, Celtic, or Norse RPG. But I haven’t really seen any lately, and so without playing the MMOs I don’t get to play in those worlds anymore. I can and have to believe that if TOR closed that a new Star Wars RPG would get made, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. It’s almost a shame, then, how the MMO surge managed to get games in those settings made, since it’s not likely that their success will translate into getting new games in those settings when they’re gone.

It’s Been Five Years …

October 4, 2017

… and I still miss City of Heroes.

I was musing on that while playing The Old Republic and creating my new character (a Jedi Consular modeled after Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch). I’m always struck when creating characters in any Bioware game just how limited the customization options are despite them seemingly being among the better studios at allowing it. And then I started looking at getting a nice outfit for her because Sabrina would be a fashion plate, and couldn’t find anything all that interesting. Perhaps it’s because I only had 2000000 credits to spend on the GTN and all the good outfits were out of my price range, and the Cartel Market options weren’t that interesting, but I found most of them somewhat interesting but far too similar for me to bother with. And I only cared about looks, not about stats, which makes it doubly depressing when I compare it to City of Heroes.

City of Heroes was probably my ideal MMORPG. Costuming was built into your character creation, so you could style everything about your character before you ever stepped into the world. The powersets were interestingly varied, both inside and outside the main divisions. The hero and villain worlds were interestingly varied. The story arcs were interesting. The task forces were amazing, and didn’t suffer from TOR’s problem where people often try to skip the cutscenes to get on with the rest of it if for no other reason than that about the only thing you got out of them was the story that linked the missions together, as the XP gain and quest rewards weren’t overwhelmingly impressive. All it lacked was TOR’s class story arcs — it actually had more area and quest story arcs than TOR does — and it was starting to build something like that at the end with Going Rogue.

I haven’t heard of any MMORPG doing anything as well. To be honest, I also haven’t heard of all that many new MMORPGs starting up either, and so maybe we have hit MMO saturation. There are supposedly a few independent studios trying to do CoH-like games, but only time will tell if any of them will be completed or be any good.

For superhero games, there aren’t that many out there. Champions Online did not seem like my type of game. I actually tried DC Universe Online, and am not interested in it. I own Freedom Force — both in original and in GOG form — but have never really been able to get into it. Replaying the Legends and Ultimate Alliance games are an option that I’ve mused about, and there’s that DC PSP Legends-type game that I keep considering playing. But other than the online Marvel stuff, I don’t even know about decent superhero type games anymore. And City of Heroes, before it died, was one of the best.

Yes, I still miss it …

First Thoughts on Cheers …

October 2, 2017

So, the next half-hour series that I’ve decided to watch is Cheers, which I picked up for a reasonable price assuming that I watched through the entire series at least once. I’m at the beginning of Season 3, and so far I can say that it’s … okay.

As a show, it sometimes has some humour that works, and the characters are — or at least can be — interesting at times. The show is good in that it sets up character and plot points as throw-aways in some episodes that end up paying off later. Unfortunately, many of those plot and character points aren’t all that interesting, and since the previous points were throw-aways it can be hard to remember that they happened when they come up, a problem that would be made worse if you were only watching once a week instead of about a season a week like I do. In essence, it seems like it was in at the beginning of using continuity in shows and even in comedies to make a better show, but later shows have done a much better job incorporating that than it did, so it looks a little hollow today, like an attempt to do things like that but a refusal to commit to doing that. Which, to be fair, is indeed probably what it was.

The show’s main premise is the introduction of the intellectual, cultured and upper-class Diane Chambers into the working-class bar of Cheers, and the clash that produces. This leads to a lot of banter between her and Carla and Sam, and a little with the other patrons, although most of them are more pleasantly disposed towards her than Carla and Sam at least pretend to be. These snarky and sniping interactions — which, of course, persist even when Sam and Diane are dating — work best when Diane gives as good as she gets, which she starts doing after only a couple of episodes, otherwise it can feel like everyone is ganging up on her. And even then Carla’s sniping is so constant that it is often distracting, and so you just want her to shut up and let the episode get one with … whatever it is that it is supposed to be doing.

This is helped along by my finding Diane to be the most sympathetic character in the show, which is a big problem since the reason for that is that Diane seems to be the only character who actually cares about other people and tries to do the right thing most of the time, and is often opposed by the other characters in that. This ends up giving the impression that Diane is actually moral and the others are amoral at best and immoral at worst. Diane, then, is often seen as trying to care about and reach out to the other characters with them at best taking advantage of that and at worst insulting her for that. As an example, at one point Sam forces Diane and Carla to sit together to try to learn to get along, and Carla spins a tale about Sam being the father of one of her children, and Diane is deeply moved and sympathetic and tries to help … and Carla laughs at her behind her back that she believed that story. How can anyone not feel for Diane and be annoyed or even angry at Carla for that?

Ultimately, what the show ends up doing is setting up a divide where Diane is the good and moral person and the rest of the bar are unapologetically immoral much of the time. Sam is set up as her “different worlds” love interest, a womanizer who nevertheless “falls in love” with Diane. If you are going to do that, generally you set the womanizer up as someone who is willing to manipulate women into having sex with them, but at least won’t take advantage of the main heroine when she is vulnerable, so in at least some instances putting feelings over sex. Sam, in the first season, knowingly is at least willing to take advantage of Diane when she is emotionally vulnerable, and while they hint that it’s because he knows of no other way to deal with women that is never brought up again and, in general, is proven false with Carla. As for Carla herself, she has a small subplot where she ends up getting seduced by her ex-husband who gets her pregnant again so she sets out to seduce a socially awkward bar patron and then tries to convince him that he is actually the father of her child, which he does believe at first. She shows no remorse over this and refuses to even tell him until Diane browbeats her into it. When the guy is, understandably, upset and refuses to marry her — remember, they only had a one-night stand and he was only going to marry her because of the child — at which point Sam tries to convince him to marry her anyway for some reason, even going so far as to insist that if the guy doesn’t marry her, Sam will … which Sam clearly never meant to do, since the guy does walk out and he is quite reluctant to do so, even before she lets him off the hook.

How can you consider any of these actions — and therefore these characters — moral?

The problem is that this breaks down the traditional “upper crust vs working class” divide down along moral lines. Diane is our first and most prominent representative of that class, and she seems to genuinely care about other people and generally acts morally all the time, while the representatives of the working class are generally seem as petty and self-interested/self-centered, not willing to think about how their actions will affect other people and, in general, not caring about that either. Many episodes end up with Diane trying to browbeat them into caring about such things. When Coach’s friend dies and Coach finds out — from Sam — that he had slept with Coach’s wife, and at the memorial when all of his other friends confessed the same thing, even though Coach makes an impassioned speech about forgiving failings he gets swept up in the fervor of burning the person’s standie in effigy, and it is Diane singing “Amazing Grace” that calms everyone down at the end. In another incident, Norm is faced with a woman client who is attracted to him soon after reconciling with his wife, and the entire bar pretty much tries to shame him into going for it … except for Diane, who discourages it and is in fact quite disappointed when it looks like Norm was going to go for it. Even on a practical level, why would Norm do that soon after reconciling with his wife and being happier when he was back with her? If this had been done while they were separated, Diane’s objections would have been ridiculous, but it happening soon after they reconciled makes the temptation seem ridiculous. So what we end up with is a false divide between the upper-crust and the working class where the working class ends up on the immoral side, and this is consistently done throughout the first couple of seasons. The upper-crust, represented by Diane, is moral, while the working class is not.

The thing is, the “upper crust vs working class” conflict only really works when their various sensibilities are different, and it isn’t clear which one is inherently better than the other. In general, the working class tend towards the practical, the immediate, the short-term, and the in-group, while the upper-crust tends towards the abstract and the expansive. If the characters are moral, the working class tends towards helping out and supporting their friends in practical ways without worrying about any other main principle than “That’s my friend” while the upper-crust tends towards general principles. The episode where the bar patrons were worried about the bar drawing in more gay people and so becoming a gay bar while Diane was upset at the discrimination is actually not an unreasonable conflict, at least in terms of appealing to the stereotypes of working class vs upper crust. But most of the conflicts — including that one — are only superficially at best about that sort of moral divide, most often coming across as the working class being morally wrong and Diane — and by extension, the upper crust — being morally right. Sure, moral sensibilities have changed but did anyone ever think that sleeping with another woman right after reconciling with your wife or tricking someone into marriage by deliberating seducing them and deceiving them into thinking that your child by another man was theirs morally right? For the most part, pretty much all of these are at least cases where by precedent we should be inclined towards thinking that the people on the working class side are taking the morally wrong side, and they’d need to do much more to make this more morally complicated to avoid that distinction.

When they do create that divide, things work. But even here Diane is presented as more reasonable than they are. In one episode, Diane wants to watch an opera and when the others don’t want to watch it, harangues them over her giving their things a chance but them not giving hers a chance, and they try for about two seconds and switch back. Sure, Diane was an idiot to suggest the entire multi-hour Ring of the Nibelung opera, but they could have at least let her watch it since the framing was that she really wanted to watch it because it was a unique experience. While having one character always being in the right could make you really hate that character, here I, at least, end up liking her to the detriment of the others because she demonstrates good qualities and seems to be always right, and always right in a way that aligns with her character as presented and the others are wrong in a way that aligns with their characters as presented. And that makes me dislike the working class characters.

I’m also not that interested in the relationship between Sam and Diane. I found the case where they get together and then break up at the end of the season problematic, mostly because they need to bring Diane back to the show and to do that they have Sam return to the bottle, which I thought was a bit out of character for him, given how long he had been off the bottle, and that he didn’t need to get drunk to do the womanizing that he had fallen back into. But the problem had to be big enough to convince Diane to come back to a place that she refused to come back to, and so he had to be drunk and, to make that dramatic, she had to have a nervous breakdown. They just didn’t seem that close to me, and Diane didn’t have that problem when her fiance left her without a word leaving her alone and without a job. So it came across as a way to break them up dramatically and then get them back together, which didn’t really work for me.

That being said, the show is still okay. I’ll probably get through it, but I don’t like it as much as I liked “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.

Thoughts on Beast Wars and Beast Machines

September 25, 2017

So, the last segment of my spin through Transformers was the CGI-based series “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines”. For the most part, I think both of these series were definitely hampered by a move to short, 13-episode series from a longer Season 1 of “Beast Wars”, although “Beast Machines” suffered more than “Beast Wars” did.

While the post-movie Transformers cartoon definitely tried to take on more mature and darker topics than the original cartoon, these series went even further, although oddly while they were definitely more serious they weren’t typically darker overall, at least in “Beast Wars”. There was still a huge sense of fun that the post-movie cartoons seemed to lack, and that was also more absent in “Beast Machines”. So ultimately it started down a path of having more detailed and involved plots and characterizations and character arcs, which worked really well. And they both tended to not only have these be more detailed, but also to have more of them, and to have them all going on at the same time, which allowed for them to advance multiple arcs in the same episode while the overall episode focused on one of them or, at times, none of them.

The thing is that if you’re going to do that many involved and detailed arcs all going on at the same time, you really need the time to develop them all. In the first season of “Beast Wars”, there were enough episodes and few enough arcs that this could be done. But when the seasons shortened to 13 episodes, there wasn’t enough time to develop them all and still develop and resolve the main plot for the season. Season 2 of “Beast Wars” didn’t suffer from this as much, because it could utilize what was developed in the first season. But the third season struggled a lot more with this, ending up with a number of arcs that seemed rushed — Tigerhawk, for example, resolves the Tigertron/Air Razer kidnapping plotline by his showing up to fulfill some kind of prophecy in one episode and then dying the next — which really hurt those arcs. The Dinobot clone is another example. After the wonderfully done death of Dinobot earlier, this whole arc would have to be handled carefully, but it could have been done, especially given its ending. But the clone wasn’t properly developed and there wasn’t room to really go into detail with it, so instead the whole thing seems less than monumental. At least it didn’t feel like it ruined that original wonderful arc, but it certainly was far less than it could have been and seemed almost superfluous.

“Beast Machines”, however, suffers the most from this. For the most part, this series can’t utilize what happened in “Beast Wars” because it’s a new series, back on Cybertron. It also has a mystery to resolve and a clash between the organic and technological to resolve, as well as a number of character arcs. And it has to do it in … 26 episodes. It fails to do that, and in so doing makes many of the arcs seem rushed and, ultimately, unsatisfying, as well as a bit confusing. For example, the arc of Tankor really being Rhinox and then setting out to trick Megatron and Optimus Primal into destroying each other and the organics that Optimus was protecting or trying to revive is a good one … that is hampered by there not being time to show Rhinox developing his hatred of organics or, in fact, actually explaining it, and then Rhinox is defeated after only a few short episodes, which then loses the series an interesting antagonist. And then his redemption arc takes place in a short scene in the first episode of the next season. At that point, the arc really seems like a waste.

And this happened to so many arcs, even ones that carried on throughout both seasons. Black Arachnia’s attempts to restore Silverbolt and, once that happened, having to deal with his guilt and cynicism. Cheetor’s development into a more mature leader. Optimus’ growing obsession and mysticism. They even manage a late romance for Rattrap … started and resolved in the last couple of episodes and that ties too conveniently into the plot of the last few episodes. These ideas were all good and could have been great … but they simply weren’t developed enough and so in general come across a bit flat.

“Beast Wars”, though, is still a pretty good series, especially in the first season to season and a half. “Beast Machines”, though, is merely okay and a lot of that comes from it being a continuation from characters that we already know and like. It was worth watching, though.

How The Old Republic Could Spoil Me For Other Games …

September 13, 2017

So, I’ve been playing “The Old Republic” again. In fact, I just finished off my mostly Dark Sided Pureblood Sith Inquisitor. Calculating from when I got the in-game mails giving me all of the stuff that I get for being a subscriber, it took me about a month and a half of slightly more than once a week on average playing to get through the class story and all of the planet stories. I did enjoy it, although Drellik really, really irritated me.

At any rate, as I was playing and figuring out what other characters I wanted to try — next I’m planning on playing as Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and then taking on a Dark Side Sith Marauder to get the Jaessa romance — I noted that Bioware is right when they say that there are essentially eight RPGs in this one game. Each class story visits similar planets, and all of the planet arcs are the same for each character (depending on whether you side with the Empire or the Republic, of course), but the actual class story differs markedly. This means that I could, in general, cycle through playing one class story after another and be okay with the similarities in planet arcs, since it takes me a while to go through a character. For the planet arcs, using this rate as about the best I could possibly do it would take me about 3 months to repeat one, assuming that I alternate Empire and Republic, which is more than enough time for me to mostly forget the details and so to not have it feel overly repetitive.

Thus, in theory, I could continually cycle through all of the classes, creating a new character, playing through it, and then starting another one. Arguably, this could continue indefinitely. Since I can only play one game at a time right now, this would mean that I’d be playing only “The Old Republic” for at least a year at a time, if not longer.

I don’t think this will happen. That being said, I have just finished one character, have explicit plans to do two more this year, and want to do Smuggler and Agent again at some point, as well as potentially Bounty Hunter. Given that, it’s not as far-fetched as it originally seemed.

Reactions …

September 8, 2017

So, I was watching Chuck Sonnenburg’s review of Technobabylon and had an interesting reaction to it. At one point, the two detective characters are investigating the murder of a married couple, and a flashback shows that the couple is a same-sex couple. And I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “Of course”, in precisely the same way that I react to clearly pandering attempts to appeal to vocal minority/special interest groups. Except … that wasn’t an obvious case of that. Sure, it’s clearly an attempt to portray that sort of relationship, but since those things happen having it just be in the story shouldn’t have been enough to trigger that sort of reaction. Now, later, Chuck talks about how one of the characters is trans, Asian, lesbian and probably one or two other things as well, which does justify that sort of reaction, but why was I reacting to that there? I’d never played the game and there wasn’t anything that really stood out before that, and my reaction to the revelation that the lesbian character was a lesbian only garnered a “Huh” reaction, so why did that jump out at me? I won’t give myself credit for having seen the obvious pattern and so came to the right conclusion from the subtle signs, so why did I react that way when, objectively, I had no reason to?

I think the reaction comes from the current context around discussions of these sorts of issues. Currently, any game that isn’t seen as being “diverse” enough is criticized, and any game or media that is seen as “inclusive” is praised for being that rarest of the rare and doing something great and modern and sticking it to the Gamergaters and all of that crap. Sure, many of the sites I read — who for the most part aren’t gaming focused, interestingly enough — take on that mindset so I see it more often than a Not-So-Casual Gamer should, but it’s still prevalent in the media and in the discourse. And thus when I see something like that appearing in a game or other work my first reaction is to think that it’s there only to appeal to that market, stifle those criticisms, or because the designers or studios are led by SJW-types who think it is important to make sure that’s in there. And that might be unfair, but more often than not, given the state we’re in, it’s also often right.

And I think this sort of backlash explains some of the public reactions to recent movies and games and the like. From what I can tell, “Wonder Woman” didn’t get the same sort of backlash that the revamped “Ghostbusters” did, and when it did it was more from the women who were going on about how “empowered” it made them feel and somehow knowing what men had been feeling all this time — when most men generally didn’t feel anything like that from the male-led movies — than criticism over it being a female-led movie. And the strongest reactions I’ve seen to “Ghost in the Shell” are from the Social Justice side criticizing it for “white-washing” a character that might well have been white originally, not from people complaining that it had a female lead. Besides Sony and the producers/directors doubling-down on the sexism claims, I think one of the main reasons for the difference in reaction is that neither of those could be seen as pandering. If DC was going to start up a DCCU and do a Justice League movie, Wonder Woman had to be there and had to get a movie of her own. And Ghost in the Shell had always had a female lead, so the adaptation doing that only made sense. But when Ghostbusters did it, there was no reason to think that it wasn’t just pandering, and given the context it seemed pretty likely that that was the reason for it … which may or may not have been the case originally. So the same thing applies to my reaction: I had no reason to think that it wasn’t pandering, so it immediately struck me as pandering given the context that pandering is seen as a good thing by so many people.

So, it seems to me that saturating the landscape with these comments and criticisms and demands is a bad thing, and so the people who actually want more diversity in games would do themselves a huge favour by being more selective when they talk about this. The problem is that if they don’t talk about these things, no one will hear about them and so no one will do anything about them. So they’d have to walk a fine line between mentioning it enough and loudly enough that people will pay attention to them and being so loud and constant that they annoy people. However, I can say that this quote from a review by Carolyn Petit of Tacoma at “Feminist Frequency” is absolutely not the way to go about it:

Tacoma feels bold not just in its speculation about technological advancements, but also in its assumption of a present in which stories with a cast of six people and nary a straight white man in sight can elevate everyone’s humanity. So often when I express the need for broader, better representations in games, I’m met with a response that’s some sarcastic variation on “Sure, why don’t we make a game about a queer black Muslim bisexual trans woman?” As if such a character is inherently less human, less deserving of being the center of a story than a straight white cis man.

Tacoma features a black woman, a Muslim woman, and a queer Asian man, among others, and the humanity of every character is incidental, fully assumed and fully granted by each of the others; the game is full of conflict but none of that conflict is rooted in the specifics of anyone’s gender, race, or sexuality. The game envisions a future in which discussions like the one I’m having right now no longer need to happen, because everyone’s humanity is fully recognized. I look forward to the day when we no longer need to praise a game, film, or TV show simply for who it dares to be about, but although Tacoma imagines such a day, and although we need visions of what that day might look like, we’re not there yet.

A review that is praising diversity in a game for deliberately excluding white men is not, in fact, going to help. First, it’s going to draw attention to that fact, which will lead people to think that it’s pandering. Second, it’s highlighting there not being any white males as a benefit, which strikes against diversity. And third, the over-the-top praise for doing gives an incentive for game companies to do it and thus pander to these interests, giving an inherent reason to think that the company really is just pandering. All in all, all this will do is get people to notice these things and roll their eyes at the shameless pandering.

And the sad thing is that I expect that if I had simply picked up and played Tacoma — which I haven’t — without reading the view I wouldn’t have noticed that there wasn’t a white male character, and if I had it wouldn’t have bothered me, and that that would hold true for a large number of gamers. After all, it didn’t bother me in Fatal Frame, or with the female characters I played in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Old Republic and, well, most games I play, and I don’t recall there being this reaction to those games or to Silent Hill 3, which had Heather as the main character. Outside of this context, if the game and/or characters are good few people will care if they are a white male or whatever. It’s when the context is poisoned by either the game or the media making a big deal out of it that it starts to look like pandering and the seams start to appear.

Even if they aren’t there.

Thoughts on “Transformers: The Movie”

September 4, 2017

So, not all that long ago I decided to clean out my closets, which included my collection of DVDs and VHS tapes. In doing so, I tossed out all of my old VHS tapes — since many of them just aren’t playable anymore — and decided to replace them — if I hadn’t already — with DVD or Blu-Ray versions. One of those tapes was “Transformers: The Movie”. And now that I’ve shifted to watching half-hour shows in the evenings, I thought it’d be fun to watch the original cartoon series up to the point of the movie, watch the movie, and then continue on with the rest of the cartoon, as well as “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines”. I’m now past the point of “Transformers: The Movie”.

The movie was definitely pretty dark and brutal. The first scene is Unicron destroying an entire planet, and we don’t get the “great disturbance” and quick kaboom of Star Wars. We see the inhabitants see Unicron start his attack, panic, try to flee, and even have a ship sucked in with a screaming inhabitant. Then, from there, after a little light banter and plot setting, Ironhide, Prowl, Brawn and Ratchet, at least, are killed in a Decepticon attack … and Ironhide gets deliberately slaughtered by Megatron while trying to make a last ditch effort to stop him from ambushing Autobot City. And then there’s the big opening battle, where a number of characters on both sides are killed, and Optimus Prime and Megatron are both gravely wounded. Then, Optimus Prime dies. Then, Megatron and some other Decepticons are left to die to light Astrotrain’s load. Starscream is eventually destroyed by Megatron. Then Unicron attacks the moon bases and seemingly kills Jazz, Cliffjumper, Bumblebee and Spike. Later, Ultra Magnus is killed by the Decepticons. We see Kranix and an unnamed bot killed by Sharkticons. Eventually, we see inside Unicron and see other bots dissolved in the equivalent of stomach acid before Spike and the others are rescued. Cybertron is decimated by Unicron’s attack.

Now, Transformers was on when I was in grade school. It ran at lunch time and often it was shown at school during lunch. Thus, we can imagine that a lot of relatively young children liked the series and would want to see the movie. All of this was likely to leave them utterly devastated. I believe that Chuck Sonnenberg once commented in one of his reviews that the death of Optimus Prime left children crying, and I can imagine that a number of scenes left them that way, especially since many of them seem to be deliberately crafted to provoke that. While the scenes are well done, this “kill ’em all” approach might not have been a good one for a work that they had to know would largely draw children. A number of parents who took their kids to see the movie, I imagine, were regretting that they did so.

The movie itself, though, is fairly well done, and is pretty well paced. Things move from scene to scene quickly so that you can just follow it along without getting bored or distracted. The fight scenes have the right sort of tension and drama to them, and are written for the most part to take advantage of the typical heroes vs villains sort of conflict. Plot elements are not deep but weave into the events fairly seamlessly and quickly. It’s a movie that I could pretty much watch from start to finish without ever being tempted to read while it was on.

If there is a criticism, though, it’s that the new characters aren’t very well developed at all. Sure, we get some hints as to their personalities and goals, but I have watched all of the cartoon and so know the characters already and still felt that they were two-dimensional, if that. There are flashes of character development, but nothing major and nothing at all outside of Kup, Arcee and Hot Rod. Rodimus Prime is introduced too late to really get character development, and Wheelie and Wreck-Gar get none and only seem to appear as plot devices to get the heroes to the next stage. Given how many fan favourite characters were unceremoniously killed to be replaced by these, the lack of character development makes that a poor trade. But the Dinobots almost make up for that themselves, especially Grimlock.

Overall, it’s actually a pretty good movie, and despite its dark tone seems to capture a lot of the elements of the original cartoon while completely shaking up the status quo. The series that follows this is at least starting off much more dark as well, with the Decepticons fighting over scraps of Energon, but while the shift is there at least some of the main elements seem to be intact. I definitely enjoyed watching it.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Tamuli”

August 30, 2017

In addition to the fact that “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” kept distracting me from reading this trilogy, it was very interesting reading this because I was reading not merely or perhaps even not mostly for fun, but instead was reading it to compare it to “The Elenium” and decide which of the two I liked better. So I would say that I found the series entertaining and would read it for fun, but the entertainment factor was muted a bit by comparing it to “The Elenium” and seeing which of the two I preferred.

And my overall assessment is this: “The Elenium” is more personal, while “The Tamuli” is more epic, which might also match the difference in scope between “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”. If you want to think of the works focusing on Sparhawk as Eddings redoing those first two series right, there’s plenty of evidence to consider that the case. I really liked the addition of the other races/kingdoms/civilizations, and the added focus on politics was welcome to me. And I think that Eddings does a good job of weaving the expanded cast into the work so that it doesn’t seem to be taking too much away from the purported main cast. However, I think it also risks making things a bit overly complicated at times, and I miss the more personal, focused story that we got in “The Elenium”.

And for some reason, Eddings’ emphasis on the female characters and their abilities grated on me for some reason. Part of this is likely the current context, where strong female characters showing up male characters is overly emphasized to the point of extreme annoyance. But a big part of it is indeed how they often break characterizations of both themselves and the men to make that point. Aphrael was always going to be a bit of a Mary Sue given that she’s a god, but the “little girl” act makes it more grating, especially when she does it in her Danae guise. Sephrenia ends up blaming Vanion for being too slow to make up with her even though it was her utterly irrational reactions that made him afraid in the first place. Her having to make the first move because of that works, but her having to essentially blame it on him didn’t. But the worst is probably Melidere’s pursuit of Stragen, where she lets him in on her criminal schemes and then says that either he has to marry her or else she’ll have him killed. This is despite the fact that he probably liked her and that earlier she was talking about what signals to send. “Marry me or die” is not a signal, but somehow we’re supposed to consider this the appropriate and reasonable approach. Yeah, right.

The Atans are also altogether far too impressive for the role they had in the story, and are talked up far too much for that to work. And since the most competent of them were women, it feeds back into that same dynamic. As does Xanetia. For too much of the work, Xanetia, Mirtai and Sephrenia run roughshod over everyone else, with Aphrael there to fall back on when they aren’t available for some reason.

Ultimately, however, this can be overlooked, as the rest of the work is pretty good. But at the end of the day, I think “The Elenium” is my favourite of these series.