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

First Thoughts On: Charmed

January 4, 2017

So, right at the beginning of December, right before going on vacation, I stopped into the local HMV to look for deals on TV series on DVD, and picked up a few things. I bought “Wings”, the original “Beauty and the Beast”, and the original “Ghostbusters” soundtrack. I also managed to find two things that I had been looking for for ages: the “Top Gun” soundtrack … and, as should be evident from the title, the complete series of “Charmed”.

Now, Charmed was another one of those series that I had watched parts of out of most of the seasons of the entire series, but never really sat down and completely watched. I remembered it fondly, but couldn’t find a good deal on it anywhere, or at least one where the comments didn’t say “The glue might run and ruin it so you might have to send it back”. So seeing it there for a reasonable price — about $1 an hour of entertainment if I only watched it once — made me decide that, yeah, I should get it. And I started watching it.

So what do I think of it?

As the TV Tropes page says — and I’ll spare you the link to it — the first couple of seasons were much more melodramatic. I myself thought of them as more “soap operaish”, focusing on personal drama and relationship drama and less on the details of the warlocks and demons. To be honest, it had all of the melodrama and angst of the later Buffy seasons, only more so, which could grate at times. But once they started getting into the more serious supernatural arcs, it definitely improved, even if the themes mostly stayed the same … and migrated from character to character. For example, at the end of season four the Charmed Ones get a choice of changing their destiny and deciding whether to keep their powers or live a normal life. Piper from the start railed against not having a normal life, Phoebe always thought that the powers were the most wonderful things in the world, and the new witch Paige was just entering into it. It made sense that Paige would take over the “enthusiastic” part, since she had mostly experienced the excitement and power and less of the downsides of constantly being attacked. But the person who was most adamant that they should give up their powers was … Phoebe? And Piper was the swing vote, at least initially? Sure, you can argue that as the eldest sister (now) she wasn’t comfortable arguing that aggressively … except that she didn’t have any problem doing it, oh, for the rest of the season or even the rest of the episode. It would have worked best — even given the roles of the sisters — for Piper to push for returning to a normal life, Paige for keeping them, and Phoebe being torn: remembering how much she loved the powers but also noting how much heartache not being normal has caused everyone. And it would even have made it better that, if I recall correctly, she was the one who suggested looking further into the “witch hunter”, and then her line at the end that helping someone made her feel good, while keeping Piper’s line of making it unanimous while outvoted still make as much if not more sense. About the only thing it doesn’t do is allow for Piper to be just going along with what the others wanted the whole time … but as the swing vote she wasn’t doing that anyway. At best, she was going along with whatever Phoebe wanted, which if built upon would be creating a rift for later between her and Paige, which is not really what they’d want at this point after taking the entire season healing that rift.

That being said, I think it does mostly avoid “Aesop Amnesia”, mostly because the structure of the story, at least through Season 4, is such that they don’t really learn an aesop, but instead accept things. That, for example, Piper would accept that her life is not going to be normal but continue to have the desire for a normal life isn’t really “Aesop Amnesia”, but more reflects her frustrations boiling over at not being able to have what she really wants while understanding that there’s a higher purpose that she has to put first.

All of the main actresses are attractive and the show, to be honest, really wants to highlight that, which I don’t particularly mind. I’d classify it, so far, as a smarter and deeper supernatural “Charlie’s Angels”: Attractive people doing attractive things with a plot that lets them do the attractive things and keep your attention when the attractive things aren’t as prominent, except that the plots and characters are better and build on arcs. In a sense, it fits between a show like “Charlie’s Angels” and a show like “Buffy/Angel”: the plot details and characters are more detailed and can stand on their own more than the former, but it still has fanservice as more of the main appeal than the latter as the plots aren’t that strong. But it’s still entertaining.

Final Thoughts: Knights of the Fallen Empire

December 28, 2016

This story arc was of such quality that not only am I going to cancel my subscription to “The Old Republic”, but I’m hesitant to try the next Mass Effect or Dragon Age game in case it turns out the same way.

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First Thoughts: Knights of the Fallen Empire

December 21, 2016

By the time this post gets posted, I hope to have finished the entire sixteen chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire. I started it early in December, creating a level 60 character based on Isabelle from Babylon 5. A little background on the character:

My original Sith Sorcerer was based on Galen from Crusade and other Babylon 5 works. The general idea was similar to the technomages in Babylon 5: they were cyborgs who were created to serve the Sith and so had implants that allowed them to work or at least appear to work the Force. Galen was the motivating force behind all of my other characters, recruiting them to work to unify the Republic and the Empire, knowing that the violence was pointless and that they’d need to work together to face a larger threat.

At the beginning of Knights of the Fallen Empire, he was busy on a mission so Isabelle took his ship and crew and went after the Emperor, leading to her capture and imprisonment for 5 years before being released. In-game, Galen waits despondently, going about his other duties, waiting for her to send him a message in the Force, as she promised, but hasn’t. So, a lot like the novel series on the technomages.

So, with a background that’s so much more fun than the actual background, what do I think of Knights of the Fallen Empire so far?

Meh.

The Old Republic’s combat, I think we can all agree, is not exactly entertaining. We put up with it to get from place to place and to get the levels and credits and equipment we need to get on with the rest of the game, and we keep moving around to new quests and planets enough that it doesn’t really matter. But we’re at level 60 here. We don’t really need more XP or more credits. I already have about 300,000 credits starting from 0, about half-way through the chapters, and I could get more from one of my other characters. At times, it seems like there’s combat just for the sake of combat here, and that’s the last thing we need in a story like this.

The story is serviceable, but not particularly interesting. It hits a lot of the standard tropes shown in the class stories, and the characters are somewhat interesting, but it really can’t hold a candle to the more focused RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age in that regard. It also moves too quickly to be that interesting as well. We seem to have combat sequences to pad out the time, but that doesn’t leave too much space between story elements for us to be shocked at betrayals.

Ultimately, it’s okay, but it would almost have been better to not do anything if they weren’t prepared to do a full-on KotOR-style RPG. This hybrid of MMORPG and pure RPG-elements doesn’t really work.

First Thoughts on Friday the 13th, The Series

October 21, 2016

So, I was actually looking at commentary on one of the early Friday the 13th video games, and ended up being reminded of an old TV show Friday the 13th, the series. I then managed to pick it up on Amazon, and have started watching it when baseball isn’t on (essentially, 1 – 2 episodes an evening). So far, I’m through the first two disks of the first season, and am actually enjoying it.

The pilot episode was, well, a bit rough. The plot didn’t have the oomph and detail of later episodes, and the acting was stilted in places. About the only thing it had going for it was that it featured an early role for Sarah Polley, who might well have turned in the best performance out of the entire cast. But, overall, the pilot wasn’t a particularly good episode.

However, the episodes I’ve seen after that have gotten a lot better. The acting has improved, but the best part is how all of the primary characters — Jack, Ryan and Micki — have fit in together and formed some good chemistry. In the first episode, the various roles weren’t really clear, but now we pretty much know where everyone fits: Jack is the, well, Jack-of-All-Trades and usually the person who explains the history and significance of the objects, Ryan does the heavy physical lifting and is the joker, and Micki is, at least in the early episodes, the person who doesn’t really want to be doing this, and who is probably the most freaked out by all of it — Jack has the experience and Ryan seems to find it cool — but who overcomes that to live up to her responsibility. She also shows herself to be quite clever at times, even if she falls into the damsel in distress role a few times.

And all of them relate to each other pretty much the way they ought to. They clearly care about each other, tease each other, and annoy each other at pretty much the right times. Their performances seem to almost always reflect that, even when they’re dealing with other things.

There are times when the dialogue and performances are still stilted and awkward, but it’s a great improvement over the pilot. Sometimes the plots move far too quickly and you end up at the end of the episode missing the development of, well, everything. But overall, it’s an entertaining show, and I’m enjoying watching it.

Thoughts on “Civil War”

October 14, 2016

So, I recently managed to watch “Captain America: Civil War”. My thoughts on it will contain spoilers, so I’ll put it below the fold:

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And the winner is …

October 10, 2016

… Valkyria Chronicles Remastered, along with Record of Agarest War and Record of Agarest War 2.

I still wanted to play on the PS3 or PS4, because, well, it and the Vita are the easiest to play while watching TV, and the next couple of months will have lots of sports to watch, and I didn’t want to have to sacrifice one for the other. I also knew that I’d always be able to have something on TV no matter what, so it just generally worked the best. But I kept wanting to play Dragon Age: Origins again, but kept balking when faced with the fact that I’d want to play the entire series and that would mean that I’d have to play Inquisition again. I also considered Mass Effect, but while I could tolerate ME2 and ME3 better than DAI, I also didn’t want to play those games as badly. I considered the Persona games — starting from Persona — but wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy the first two games. I also considered a mix of games, but finally remembered that I had Valkyira Chronicles and that it might be fun, and also that while Record of Agarest War was grindy, grinding while watching sports wasn’t all that bad. Thus, the decision.

I started playing Valkyria Chronicles on Saturday. The game is … interesting. The gameplay is unique, as the combat is a hybrid of turn-based strategy and shooter. You select a squad member to “activate” in turn — as long as you have Command Points — and then you get dropped into essentially a shooter, where all enemies that can shoot at that character do shoot at that character, unless you drop into an action mode — like shooting an enemy — at which point the game pauses. And when the enemy is moving, your soldiers get to shoot at them. Thus, I learned in the second combat mission that sometimes it’s best to not activate some of your soldiers because then they will only get shot at during actual enemy combat actions, but will indeed still get to shoot at the enemy as they move. Sure, you might be able to do more damage if you get to shoot during both phases … but you take damage then, too.

That being said, that I had to replay the second mission so many times suggests that the combat might end up being too hard for me to finish the game.

I’m not that fond of the graphics in the cutscenes, with semi-realistic anime figures over almost crayon-drawing backgrounds. But the characters seem interesting, at least. And you get to fill out a squad with characters that not only have their own classes, and not only have their own properties that give bonuses in certain cases, but also like some of their squadmates, which presumably also gives some bonuses. That’s an impressive amount of personalization of those squadmates. The only thing that would make it better, at least for me, would be the ability to create your own squadmates.

Anyway, we’ll see how the game goes, and if I manage to get into/through the Agarest War games after that.

(If anyone is wondering about the context for this post, it’s here.)

Sorting …

October 5, 2016

So, when I first started this blog, I had a category called Philosophical Writer’s Guide, which was inspired by the Opinionated Guide at SF Debris. I did a few posts in that category, including the analysis of the Prime Directive and a full-form summary/review/analysis of the revamped Battlestar Galactica mini-series. I also have a category called Not-So-Casual Commentary, which started as a bunch of video game columns for a now defunct gaming site. Lately, I’ve started including movies and books and other things in the latter category, which left me wonder what there was for the previous category to do. Do I need both categories? Should I just put everything into “Not-So-Casual Commentary”?

Now I’m doing my in-depth Hugo analysis, and as I look back I note that the Philosophical Writer’s Guide includes a number of posts where I analyze the writing of works more in-depth. While I sometimes do stuff like that for video games, Not-So-Casual Commentary tends to be more, well, commentary, either quick discussions or discussions that focus on more than just the writing. Given that, I’ve made a decision on how to divide the content among the two categories:

1) Philosophical Writer’s Guide will contain posts where I get into the details of the writing or story or plot/characterization concepts used in a work. This will include the Hugo Award analysis posts. However, it will exclude commentary on video games.

2) Not-So-Casual Commentary will contain posts about video games, and then posts that either address all aspects of a work, or more shallow discussions of a work and what it contains.

There may still be some overlap, but that’s why you can put a post into more than one category, I guess [grin]. Hopefully, with this everyone will know which category they want to look at for what sort of content.

Look for the analysis of “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” soon.

Last Shomi Movies

October 3, 2016

So, I had started watching some movies on shomi right before learning that it was ending, and so I figured I’d talk a bit about them before moving on to other ways of occasionally watching movies.

Anyway, the last set were: “Weird Science”, “Airplane!”, “Delirious” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”. I’m not going to talk about that last one since I really like it and watch it regularly, so there’s no new impression for me to talk about. But the other three I either hadn’t watched in a while or had never watched, and so my recent impressions of them might be interesting.

Now, I’m not the target audience for “Weird Science”, but that hasn’t stopped me before … and I did remember the TV show at least a bit fondly, so I thought it would be worth a try. I didn’t even finish watching it, which is rare for me while watching movies. The big problem was that none of the characters were actually sympathetic. Lisa and Wyatt were the most appealing of the bunch, but even they had their “jerk” moments. I quit when Lisa replied to the other guy’s parents question of “Do you go to school with him?” with a snarky “Do I look like I’m in high school?”. For the most part, the put-upon “nerds” acted about as badly as the people they were going up against, and even the potential love interests were too shallow and self-interested to be interesting. Maybe it all got subverted later, but being barely able to tolerate Lisa and Wyatt did not make for interesting viewing.

“Airplane!”, on the other hand, was much more interesting. It definitely went for the “take this serious thing very seriously while being absolutely ridiculous most of the time”, and it worked given the actors they had, most of whom could pull off being overly and melodramatic really well. The very serious reactions to utterly insane premises and situations resulted in a more subtle parody of the genre. The only downside is that the end was a bit boring because it’s hard to make jokes that work in that tense a situation. Also, the camp gay character was out of place and not particularly funny, at least in my opinion.

I had watched “Delirious” before and had enjoyed it, but watching it this time was a disappointment. The concept of a writer ending up in his own story and being able to change it while being opposed by another writer was interesting, but not properly explored. Mariel Hemingway’s character was one that I liked, but the ending where John Candy’s character gets her the job and then gets a date with her didn’t work for me because the only thing she knew about him was that he ran into her and got her the job, and he didn’t know much about her either as he mostly fell in love with her on the basis of her character in the story, not on the basis of her real personality. This problem also carried over to his rejection of Emma Samms’ character, as in the real world it was equally consistent with her character for her to be someone who uses other people or an overprivileged and immature person who is just used to people doing things for her, but who genuinely liked him in some way (even if not as a romantic interest). The latter didn’t justify what John Candy’s character did to her, and the former was established in the soap, not in real-life. Add in that it was a bit boring at times and this was not a good a movie as I remembered.

Anyway, those are my last shomi movies. We’ll see if I find something to replace it any time soon.

To All the MMOs I’ve Loved Before …

September 21, 2016

To all the MMOs I’ve loved before.
That I played for months or more.
I’m glad they came along.
I dedicate this song.
To all the MMOs I’ve loved before.

So, after having finished all of the class stories in The Old Republic, I ended up musing about the MMOs I’ve played that I’ve really, really liked. And it turns out that there have been three of them, that I’ve loved for (mostly) completely different reasons.

Dark Age of Camelot: This was the first MMO that I ever played. I was drawn to it not because it was an MMO, but because it created three legendary/mythological realms that also happened to be among my favourites. I’ve always been a huge fan of Arthurian legend, and obviously given the game this MMO was going to have that as a major component. But the other two realms — Norse and Celtic — were also among my favourites. The whole “online” thing was a detriment, and not a benefit … but no one else was doing anything like this and no one else was even likely to do anything like this. If I wanted it, I was gonna hafta play this and put up with those icky “other players” that I had heard about.

The game itself lived up to expectations, at least in terms of setting and the link to the legends. The realms were noticeably different, and the classes mapped nice to the legends and, even better, were interestingly different between realms. Classes of the same basic role still managed to look and play differently in a way that linked them to the legends. Given this, I kept creating new character after new character to play around with different concepts.

The gameplay, however, didn’t suit me. It was a bit too hard to solo in the game — which is understandable, since you were never meant to solo — and, more importantly, there was no real overarching story to the game to push you to the next area. Yes, you were encouraged to go to new areas and do new things, but there was no story to follow, and you mostly did that to get enough levels to participate in Realm vs Realm … which I had no interest in. I also constantly got lost because the game — like most MMOs at the time — didn’t give you quest markers, the death penalty was annoying, and I was constantly cash-strapped.

This was my first MMO, and it set the stage for my altitis, because it was always so much more fun to start a different character in a different class in a different realm than it was to actually play a character to the higher levels and even into RvR, at least for me. A game with less diversity would have bored me when it got too hard (I’m looking at you, World of Warcraft), but Dark Age of Camelot kept me coming back to try out new classes and new characters:

City of Heroes: If Dark Age of Camelot started my altitis, this is the one that cemented it. The wide variety of costume and appearance options made creating new characters as actual characters far too easy. The varied powersets worked to create actual characters, and also played differently between classes and often between primary and secondary powerset combinations in the same class. New powersets allowed for new characters, making it all the more tempting to start over with a new character.

While soloing still wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t as hard as it was in Dark Age of Camelot. Blasters had the hardest time, at least in my experience. There were overarching stories for each area and starting area that were fun, and I loved the few task forces that I managed to play.

However, at higher levels, again, soloing became too hard. Also, again, there was no overarching story to draw you from area to area, so you moved on when you had a high enough level. And finally, my highest level character got stuck in one of the cases where if you were high enough level to move on but your level was a little low for the quests and enemies you had to face.

Given the diversity and the fact that the introductory quest lines were fun, starting new characters became my standard approach to the game. This was my favourite MMO.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: With respect to everything that I loved about the previous two MMOs, The Old Republic is worse. There is less diversity in classes and settings and appearance. But it has two big advantages over the others. The first is that it is much more solo friendly. And the second is that it has a clear and interesting set of class stories that push you on to the next planet and, ultimately, to the end game. Of the three, it’s the game I love the least, but also the game that I’ve actually hit max level in.

The heyday of MMOs seems to be fading a bit; I don’t hear as much about new ones as I used to. Maybe I’m just not tuned in enough, though. At any rate, I wonder if I’ll ever find MMOs that I’ll love as much as these … all of which I either can’t play anymore or, at least, likely won’t play again, or for much longer (TOR).

The Expression of “Necrotech”

September 19, 2016

After I wrote last week about fiction being used to do nothing more than express an idea or emotion or whatever we have a “Big Idea” from John Scalzi’s site that pretty much admits to that. It’s K.C. Alexander talking about her book “Necrotech”, and all she says about it is, well, that it represents her. She describes the protagonist thusly:

I don’t like boxes. And neither does Necrotech’s protagonist—a type of woman whole sub-sections of societally-minded folk remind us don’t and shouldn’t exist.

Riko is a splatter specialist (that’s Tarantino level of gory mess, in case the title wasn’t clear) with all the agency of a man—and in being this, she tests the boundaries of what a woman in a book is supposed to be in this enlightened age of women’s rights. She is not soft. She is not tender. She would prefer to put a boot in your teeth instead of “work it out”, she lacks all maternal instinct, and her flaws are loaded for bear. With all the swag of a street thug, a policy of pleasing herself first, and a piss-poor temperament for emotions, she’s nobody’s idea of a good girlfriend.

She tends to somewhat proudly think of herself as a bad boyfriend.

And she came from a space of deeply engrained social erasure.

This … is a rather odd idea of what it means to have “the agency of a man”, it seems to me. Moreover, this doesn’t exactly sound like an interesting protagonist to the story. What we have here, it seems to me, is the typical “asshole” protagonist. Except … we aren’t really supposed to like the “asshole” protagonist, nor are they to be written that way. In general, we want to see assholes brought down in our fiction, and put in their place. The only exceptions are those asshole protagonists who are assholes to their enemies but who can be nice to their friends. About the closest I can picture of an actual asshole protagonist who is the unvarnished hero might be James Bond, but even he isn’t really an asshole, as he plays games and does deadpan snarking, but we can see that, at least in part, that’s to keep people at a distance because if he starts to care and he loses them it devastates him, as we see with his dead wife.

Read K.C. Alexander’s description of Riko and tell me that there’s anything like that with her.

So, in general, with asshole protagonists we either see that they really do have a heart of gold that they use the assholishness to hide, or else they get humbled and learn to overcome that, and thus win in the end through that realization. A good example of the latter is the “Justice League Unlimited” episode “The Greatest Story Never Told”. Booster Gold starts as someone who is, well, a prime example of the asshole protagonist. He is incredibly annoying, and only gets topped briefly by the Elongated Man. But as things go along, he gets humiliated and humiliated and has to accept that he is, in fact, a loser, and only came back to this time so that he could be something other than a loser … but his experiences prove that he is, still, nothing more than a loser. But in that the hot scientist that he was simply hitting on points out that he’s the only one who can even try to save the day, so he had better go out and do it. In that, he succeeds … and we finally cheer for him because he’s shown the self-awareness and humility to make him worthy of saving the day and, in the end, being the hero … even if it is only to him and the scientist.

Again, read the description of Riko and tell me if there’s anything like that there.

Unvarnished “asshole” protagonists are unlikeable, but Alexander thinks that some people, well, might like Riko, as she herself seems to. But on what grounds should we like her? It’s not that she has a heart of gold, and it’s not that she learns humility, so what is it that she thinks we’ll find appealing, like she finds it appealing?

I am Necrotech’s Big Idea. Me, and the people like me who are so often told that we can’t, don’t, shouldn’t. That what we are, what we present, is problematic for the greater society. The cause. The fight.

I know why I started writing this woman who does not care what you think of her. Whatever else the overarching themes, I know why Riko is the heart of it, the voice of it, the eyes seeing it all unfold.

I am Riko—with my snarl in place to warn away any asshole who wants to tell me how I should behave, my finger upraised to everyone who ever told me I was doing it wrong, my heart wrapped in diamondsteel where nobody can reach it to re-program what is mine. Like Riko, I’m not exactly bulletproof, but I can take it with a bloody smile and still come back to kick ass.

My name used to be Karina Cooper. I wrote what was, in so many ways, expected of me. And when I started Necrotech, I defied every expectation. And because I did, it suffered every rejection—until I realized that the ‘me’ that had been cultivated was not the me I was. That I had spent my life thinking I was strong and individual and independent, only to learn that I was so very wrong. And most of all, that the book I’d written wasn’t Karina’s story to tell.

Now my name is K. C. Alexander. Riko may be me incarnate—cranked to 11—but I like to be called Kace.

She so effusively loves that character because that character embodies what she thinks she is … or what she wants to be. She sees herself hemmed in by rules — or that she at least was hemmed in by rules — and sees this character as an expression of being free from that. The character is good because of what it expresses, not because of what it is as a fictional character … because what it is as a fictional character is, in fact, unappealing. So those who can relate to those feelings will like the character, and those who can’t won’t. But it seems to me that good fiction — and the fiction that the anti-Puppy side seems to want — allows us to like or cheer for a character even if we don’t feel the same way as they do. Even if we find James Bond to be an old-fashioned, misogynistic jerk … we still want him to win because the character and the context means that he — and only someone like him — can win, and we can in some sense, maybe, enjoy the way he achieves the goal that is both a good goal and one that we should want. Yuri from Shadow Hearts is similar, as he starts as a misogynistic jerk and evolves into a genuinely good character, so we can enjoy the snark as being aimed at his enemies knowing that, at least with his friends, he doesn’t really mean it.

I don’t see anything like that in this description. And Alexander could not be clearer about wanting to expressing ideas, and a number of them:

If you read Necrotech and think it has nothing to do with this woman-who-acts-like-a-man, that’s okay. There are enough Ideas in the book, in the series as it will be play out, to talk about, think about, embrace or reject.

But is she going to argue for them, explore them? Or is she just going to toss the ideas out there and hope that we’ll find them interesting enough to enjoy the book?

My bet’s on the latter.