Archive for the ‘Philosophical Writer's Guide’ Category

Thoughts on “Allure”

December 13, 2018

So, after subscribing to Crave, I went and looked through all of the movies they currently have on offer and made a list of the movies and TV shows that I wanted to watch at some point. One of the movies on the list was “Allure”, which looked to me like one of those little drama movies that I watch on IFC (Independent Film Channel): a movie about some sort of dramatic situation that kills some time and might be interesting. As such, I wasn’t expecting to talk about it at all, and when it came on at 6 am I figured that I might as well take the time and watch it. And after watching it, I actually really do want to talk about it.

The plot is basically this: a woman named Laura who has a fairly screwed up life is doing house cleaning for her father’s company, and meets a 16 year old girl, Eva, in one of them. Eva is having a hard time with her mother, especially the fact that she has a new boyfriend and they are going to move out of the house somewhere else. Laura is … interested in Eva, sees the move as a threat, and convinces Eva to run away and live with her. She then carries out a semi-plan to essentially abuse her and manipulate her not only into staying but into a sexual relationship. The reason that I call it a semi-plan is that Laura seems to be too screwed up to actually commit these sorts of plans or even to come up with good reasons for them. At one point she locks Eva in a room and her explanation for why she did that and why she needs to keep her there makes no sense, and eventually just results in Laura guilting Eva into staying by repeatedly saying that Laura will be sent to jail if anyone finds out what happened. Since Eva was very upset by being locked in the room and considering that she hadn’t known Laura for that long when that happened, I’m not really convinced that she wouldn’t still run out immediately afterwards. If Laura had been better at manipulation — explaining it that someone was coming over or something and she needed to hide her, for example — then this would have been better.

The real issue, though, is what indeed makes that scene not work. For most of the movie, I was puzzled and often bored by the focus on Laura. We find out lots of things about Laura’s life and circumstances, and find out relatively little about Eva at all. The movie spends its time focusing on Laura and Eva tends to be a side-story in Laura’s life. But … Eva is the sympathetic character, and Laura is her abuser. Laura clearly grooms and manipulates Eva into a relationship that is bad for Eva, and Eva clearly wants to leave but is lied to and manipulated into staying. At one point, Laura is beaten up as part of a revenge plot against her — that she is made vulnerable to because Eva isn’t ready to have the sort of sex, at least, that Laura wants — and I was wondering where this was going go … and then was puzzled when it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. This led to me feeling that the movie dragged as it focused on Laura instead of Eva, the one that it should be focusing on.

But the ending was a revelation, explaining why all of that stuff was there, because the ending only works if we feel sympathetic towards Laura. At the end, Eva and Julia go swimming at a pool around Christmas with Eva being very depressed. She dives into the water and lets herself sink to or towards the bottom — a scene that is used for cuts throughout the rest of the movie — and then presumably hears Laura calling her name, comes to the surface, grabs some of her things and runs off into the snow and cold. Laura then goes to her father — who earlier had apologized for some unspecified sin in the past — and says that she’s completely alone now but that she’s okay with it, and drives off into the snow. Presumably, she has realized that she destroys everyone around her and is going off alone to avoid doing that, but unless she’s sympathetic we aren’t going to care, and this is only compounded by the fact that the movie never tells us what happened to Eva. We can presume that she just went home, but she could have frozen to death as well for all the movie cares or establishes. But, again, Eva was the sympathetic character. She’s the one we care about, because we get to see her life being ruined by this and know that she did nothing to deserve it. And while the movie hints at abuse in her past — presumably from her father — the only time this is stated is when Laura is trying to manipulate Eva, and when Eva confronts Laura’s father about that Laura pretty much acts like that never happened. And considering how screwed up Laura is, it’s hard to know what really happened there, and so we don’t really get a sense of “Cycle of Abuse”, but more a sense that the movie is trying to make us feel sympathy for a mostly unrepentant abuser.

A big part of the issue is how passive Eva is throughout the entire movie. If Laura had had a more glamourous life that Eva could have been drawn into, then the movie could have played it off as the two of them growing closer together more naturally and then having Laura’s screw-ups inadvertently destroy Eva, which then could lead to the revelation at the end. But Laura, from the start, is manipulating Eva, and Eva seems to be for the most part dragged by Laura into all of this by Laura playing on her issues and insecurities. Thus, the destruction seems to follow from direct and conscious actions taken by Laura, even as her own issues cause her to act out in excessive and problematic ways. This makes the revelation at the end hollow, because Laura didn’t destroy her inadvertently, but destroyed her with direct actions, and with actions that she also noticed were hurting Eva. Her revelation is the wrong revelation. She is not revealed to be an abuser, someone who always abuses — there is an earlier scene that hints that she stalked a previous love interest — and thus has to deal with that, but as, again, someone who does this inadvertently. And that kills anything the movie wanted to portray here.

There’s no recommendation for watching or not watching this movie, because the point of this post is just to point out that oddity of a movie that is trying to humanize the abuser at the expense of the humanity of the victim, which is why it fails miserably. It’s not an exploitative movie, and seems to be making a point, but relying on us feeling sympathy for a pretty unrepentant abuser is not a good way to go.


Thoughts on “The Windmill”

December 11, 2018

So, let’s skip the next movie in the “The Shadows” collection and move on to an even more cost effective example: “The Windmill”. I was browsing in Sunrise Records and saw this movie for $2, and figured that I really, really couldn’t lose at that price.

The basic premise is that a bunch of tourists are going on a tour of windmills in the Netherlands. As things go along, we find out that they all have histories where they have committed grave sins. The lead character starts seeing things, gets the bus to stop right by one windmill that isn’t on the map, at which point the bus refuses to start. As they try to find help they all start getting killed by a strange figure. At first, only the lead character sees any murders, and since they note that she’s on anti-psychotics they don’t believe her and even think that she’s the murderer, but later all doubt is removed. There’s also one innocent on the bus — the son of one of the sinners — and later the Japanese guy manages to avoid getting killed by actually feeling remorse for his crimes, leading them to discover the truth: they are being taken their sins by the supernaturally powered miller who has made a deal with the Devil.

The movie, in and of itself, is okay. The premise is pretty much straight Virtue Horror, and the movie itself pretty much sticks to that. It even gives itself a way to kill off any innocents, by later having the bus driver be in on the deal and just psychotic himself, and thus cleaning up any that the miller won’t kill so that they aren’t found out. This works more or less well, although parts of the movie drag as it tries to set up these things and keep the suspense up.

The real problem, though, is the ending, where the movie seems to break its own rules. Jennifer, the lead character, seems to have her sin be her murder of her father, although given the background it seems that he pretty much deserved it and was abusing both her and what I guess is her younger brother. Then, it is revealed that when she took the kid out of the trailer and lit it on fire, the kid went back in and she was too scared to go in after him. This, as a sin, is a really interesting take. After they decide that burning down the windmill again close the gate and at least let them escape, Jennifer is caught outside and seemingly faces the demon, and then the windmill starts burning with the son — the only remaining survivor — inside, she hesitates, rescues him, seemingly killing the bus driver in the process, and then they sit outside watching the windmill burn … and then it seems like the miller comes out and kills her, dragging her back into the windmill before it collapses. Presumably the son dies as well as he was a hemophiliac and had a wound that would eventually kill him. The bus driver is then revealed to be still alive — he was dabbing the flour that the miller made from the blood of the victims on his neck wound, which presumably healed him — and picking up a new set of sinners for the mill.

The problem isn’t that this leads to a downer ending. Downer endings are depressingly common in horror movies. The problem is that this ends up being a pointless ending. Like the original ending of “Happy Death Day”, doing this invalidates a large part of what happened in the movie. What is the point of having Jennifer rescue the son if that isn’t to show that she redeemed herself for her sin? But if she redeemed herself, then the miller wouldn’t have been able to touch her, as was established with the Japanese guy earlier. So, did she redeem herself, or not? If she didn’t, then that scene was pointless and the movie was deliberately lying to us or at least misleading us to build to a rather unimpressive downer ending. But if she did as the movie’s structure implies, then the movie cheats to give us a surprising downer ending, and if a movie cheats we aren’t likely to think of it all that fondly.

And the sad thing is that they didn’t even need to do this in order to set up for either sequels or for the idea that this is going to keep going on. It would have been perfectly reasonable to have them return to the city and simply leave on the basis that no one would believe them anyway, and thus go off to start a new life together with a maternal-son relationship since they both would have lost all their family — the father’s crime was the murder of his ex-wife, the son’s mother — but could have had a new life together. And then they could show the bus driver welcoming a new group to the bus, ending with the same scene of seeing the windmill restored. Supernatural intervention was already established, so we could easily see how this could come about. There was no need to kill off characters that the movie had spent a lot of time making sympathetic just to make a downer ending or one that suggested sequels.

As it is, the ending sours me on what was an okay movie before that. And I’m not alone. I was considering this a pretty good horror movie up until the ending, but the ending ruins a lot of the good that it did throughout the rest of the movie. Still, I could probably watch it again, and it’s definitely in the top half of the horror movies I’ve watched.

Doctor Who: Thoughts on Tennant’s Doctor

December 10, 2018

So the next major character to leave was the second time a Doctor left, which was when David Tennant left and was replaced by Matt Smith. Now, through my first two watchings of the show Eccleston was my favourite Doctor, and that hasn’t changed this time around. The first time I watched Tennant’s Doctor, I didn’t care for him all that much, but he eventually grew on me. Watching it this time, I liked him more from the start and figured out why I had that reaction the first time.

The Doctors of Doctor Who end up inviting similar comparisons to the various James Bonds. For me, personally, I find that Connery was the best all-round Bond, being able to pull off the seduction, fighting and humour aspects equally well. Brosnan was the second best all-round Bond, while in contrast Moore was the most humorous Bond but was aging enough to make the fighting and seduction aspects harder for him to pull off. Dalton was the darkest Bond, but didn’t really have the other aspects down all that well. I haven’t watched the latest movies enough to say anything about Craig. But the point is that there are aspects of Bond movies that always or almost always appear, and the various Bonds can be rated against each other based on how good they are at each of those aspects.

For the Doctor, there are also a number of aspects that are generally played up. Since the Doctor saves the world a lot, he has to be credible at doing so and often intimidating while he does that. There’s often serious drama, so the Doctor has to be able to pull off drama. But Doctor Who is also a lighter show, so the The Doctor not only has to be able to pull off often-utterly goofy humour but also the sense of amazement and fun that characterizes the show. I found the Eccleston was probably the best at being able to pull of anger, intimidation, amazement, fun and utter goofiness, and so was the best all-round Doctor of the modern Doctors to my mind.

Tennant is probably the most intimidating of the Doctors, and pulls off the drama as well as if not better than any of them. He also manages to pull off the enthusiasm quite well. The problem is that there’s an inherent dignity to him that precludes him being really, really goofy most of the time. Thus, most of his humour comes across like it did in the first episode, where he’s nostalgic about blood control but not really goofy about it. It’s funny, and it works as humour, but it does lose an aspect of the show that tends to be present and requires other companions or characters to add that goofiness back … and none of Tennant’s companions had personalities that really lent themselves to that: Rose was the love interest, Martha was too serious, and Donna took herself too seriously for that.

That being said, that inherent gravitas made Tennant the perfect choice for the Time Lord Victorious. From the first episode where he declares “No second chances. That’s the kind of man I am” to his stone-faced treatment of The Family, Tennant from the start is someone that you don’t cross, and even in the first episode his treatment of Harriet Jones shows that he has declared himself the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong, and he won’t let anyone or anything, even history itself, interfere with that. Eccleston’s Doctor was angry, but Tennant’s Doctor was scary. And so we can see, at the end, why the Time Lord Victorious was a bad, bad thing, even if the famous person he saved’s outrage was based on reading too much into a statement of his. He didn’t care about humanity anymore, but only if things worked out according to his moral senses. Tennant’s gravitas, as I said, brought that home as well as or better than anyone else could have.

I still like Eccleston better than him, though. But he remains my second favourite of the modern Doctors so far.

The next main characters to leave are Amy Pond. And Rory Pond.

Thoughts on “Netherworld”

December 4, 2018

So, the next movie on the “The Shadows” collection is “Netherworld”. I admit that I was looking forward to this one, since the premise sounded interesting: a young man inherits an mansion and is drawn into black magic and voodoo. However, the movie doesn’t really do anything with or live up to that premise, despite there being so many things you could do with it.

When I first started watching it, I thought that it seemed to be an older movie, just in how it all looked. It seemed to be relying on older filming techniques so that things seemed less sharp or clear. It turns out that this is indeed the case, as the movie was made in 1992. And this might more than anything else explain its failures. The movie seems to try to use gore, surreal images, and sex to drive the horror and interest. It has a disembodied hand that kills people by squeezing their eyes out, it uses images of things like beating bird’s hearts, there are a number of sex scenes, and the plot itself tends towards the odd and surreal most of the time. However, none of these things are actually all that unique compared to what we can see in movies today and, potentially, even at the time. “Twin Peaks”, a TV show, was more surreal than anything in the movie. The classic horror slasher movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street had more core. And most other exploitation movies had more and more interesting sex scenes.

Since none of this is all that novel, all that leaves is the plot and characters, none of which are actually all that interesting. The main plot is that the protagonist is left the mansion by his father, who hopes that he’ll cast a spell to bring his father back to life. It becomes obvious fairly quickly — even though none of the characters figure it out until the end — that this will involve his father taking over the body of his son, kinda ruining the big twist. The main secondary characters are the housemaid, her daughter, and the voodoo priestess who is to cast the spell. Once the daughter gets interested in the protagonist, her mother gets upset and tries to kill him to save her daughter from … something. The priestess, who is portrayed as a villain throughout most of the movie, punishes the mother by blinding her for … some reason. Well, okay, that one makes sense because she’d be interfering in the plan … but the mother early on expresses a desire for him to complete the plan, and the protagonist doesn’t do anything himself to be seen as that big a threat other than being genuinely interested in her daughter. Motherly overprotectiveness doesn’t justify trying to kill someone, let alone someone that is supposed to be the only person who can do something that you seem to want done. If the movie had established that the mother was worried about the father coming back because, by all accounts, he was pretty evil and decided to try to prevent that because the protagonist’s attentions to her daughter reminded her that if the father came back he’d do worse that would be better, but the movie never actually establishes that. At least it makes some sense that everyone would turn on the father when it was clear that he was going to take over the protagonist’s body, and it is established that the father found the spell and turned to the priestess to be the one to cast it, which thus explains why she didn’t know about it until it was almost too late, but when the plot makes sense it’s dull and when the plot doesn’t make sense it’s just nonsensical, not surreal.

The best defense I can make of this movie is that perhaps these things were more unique in 1992 and the movie just hasn’t aged well. But the things I referenced above were all there in 1992 and did it far better. And if you’re aiming for surreal — or even for sex — you don’t really need a big budget to do it, so that can’t be an excuse here. As it stands, the movie is at best nothing special and at worst boring. “Netherworld” ends up on the borderline of movies that I might watch again (more on that when I finish all of them and summarize all of the movies in this pack).

Doctor Who: Thoughts on Donna Noble

December 3, 2018

So, the next major character to leave is Donna Noble. During my first two runs, I hated Donna Noble. She placed at the bottom of my list of companions and was the only one that I actively disliked. Would I think better of her this time?

As Eccleston once said to Rose’s mother: Eh … no.

The problem is with Donna’s basic character, which is only revealed well-into her arc and in fact mostly at the end: She’s someone who portrays astounding and utterly incomprehensible self-assurance and self-importance because, deep down, she doesn’t think that she is at all important and desperately longs to be. The problem is that from the start all we can see is that incomprehensible self-importance: she’s bossy, quick to anger, quick to react to slights, and doesn’t really show any skills to justify the attitude she cops towards, well, pretty much everyone. Even in her introduction, it’s that trait that allows her to be tricked into what would be the marriage that will fulfill the goals of the villains. She comes across as entirely vain for pretty much the first part of her run.

And while she’s caring, she’s utterly unrealistic about it. In the episode with Pompei, she is adamant about trying to save everyone despite the Doctor saying that that’s a really bad idea and with us knowing with certainty that it would be a really bad idea. She’s so direct about this even as the Doctor — who was nice enough to take her along on this journey in the first place — gets increasingly annoyed and angry about it. Should Donna really be that challenging to the person who actually knows what he’s doing here. Yes, he does save the family later, but other companions had been able to convince him to do similar things without being so annoying about it, so it doesn’t seem like it was required.

And another issue is that once her craving for importance is discovered, it is given to her … and she proceeds to be very annoyingly arrogant about it. When she gets the Doctor’s power from the Tardis, she acts even more arrogant than the Doctor does — and the Doctor can be pretty arrogant — and then her big fear is losing that thing that makes her important. We generally aren’t all that sympathetic to people whose main goal is being or feeling important.

And that, to me, is the big problem with her character arc. She does improve, but she improves to pretty much the level, at best, of where Amy Pond is when Amy’s being really, really annoying. She’s still arrogant and self-important even as she is better than she was at the start, especially being less shallow. But the real problem is that her arc never has her overcome in any interesting way her desire to be important and to be more important than anyone or everyone else. She doesn’t, for example, decide to stop caring about being important and so, through that, ends up becoming important. When she accepts that she isn’t important — in “Wrong Turn” — she ends up proving that considering herself unimportant was the mistake, not that she should stop worrying about being important. Yes, her sacrifice was moving, but it didn’t seem to me to reflect huge character growth on her part. And it didn’t strike me that her accepting the power from the Tardis was her giving up her self-importance, but instead her embracing it — and doing so later made her even more self-important than she had been even in the beginning, even as it’s hard to believe that that could be possible.

If Donna had had to give up the power at the end and her memory of it and all of her character growth to save someone else, then that would have made a more interesting arc and could have slightly redeemed the character. But she had to do that to save her own life, and didn’t want to give up that power and importance when it happened. That left her as a character that needed to feel important and more important than others more than anything else she wanted in the world, potentially including her own life. But those sorts of characters aren’t all that sympathetic, and they’re generally annoying to watch unless that behaviour is just a set-up for their character revelation at the end when they realize that being important wasn’t something that should matter to them. Donna Noble never gets that realization, and so, at least to me, simply remains a very annoying character.

Next up: Tennant’s Doctor.

Dragon Age 2 Analysis: The Canary in the Coal Mine

November 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on “Feeding Grounds”

November 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who: Thoughts on Martha Jones

November 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon Age 2 Analysis: Importance

November 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who: Thoughts on Rose Tyler

November 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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