Archive for the ‘Philosophical Writer's Guide’ Category

Thoughts on “Ready Player One”

April 23, 2018

So, I finished reading “Ready Player One”, and overall found it … okay. I’m going to talk about it in detail, and even though the book isn’t that recent the movie is so I’ll continue below the fold:



Thoughts on “House of Demons”

April 9, 2018

So, when I made my original purchase of three horror movies, I thought that they were essentially B-movies. That turned out to be a bit of an incorrect assumption, but my expectation was that maybe they’d be clunkers, but maybe they’d be interesting. And as it turns out, I actually somewhat liked both “Living Among Us” and “Family Possessions”.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

Again, this is a recent movie and I will be spoiling the plot in detail, so I’ll continue below the fold:


Thoughts on “Family Possessions”

April 2, 2018

So, the second horror movie that I watched was “Family Possessions”. Again, this is a relatively recent movie and I’m going to talk about the plot in detail, so I’ll continue below the fold:


Thoughts on “Living Among Us”

March 19, 2018

So, as I said at the end of my thoughts on Jem, I was going to talk about some other things for the next little while. What happened was that I was browsing in Walmart and saw some cheap horror movies on DVD that I thought sounded interesting. I didn’t think much of them at the time, and figured they’d be like the old, schlocky B-movies but, hey, they cost about $10 and might be interesting. So, I bought three and as of the time I write this, I’ve watched all of them, and have things to say about all of them, which is what I’m going to do for the next little while. And this worked out so well that I went back and bought some more — which I haven’t watched yet — specifically to talk about on the blog and generate content for the blog. So you’re going to see a number of these for a while.

The interesting thing is that after I watched each of the movies, I went and looked online for reviews to see what people thought of them. In general, the reactions were quite positive, and far more positive than I’m going to be about them. It seems that these aren’t, in general, considered cheap movies that do some kind of horror, but are taken seriously as being innovative or strongly artistic. Given that, my looking at them in-depth seems far more reasonable and far less unfair than it might have seemed at first.

Since these are relatively recent and I’m going to provide massive spoilers as I talk about the plot, I’ll continue below the fold:


Final Thoughts on Cheers

November 27, 2017

So, I finally finished watching all 11 seasons of Cheers. And I have to say that while the show improved significantly after Diane left, season 11 was the season where they pretty much ran out of ideas and it all went downhill. It was a really good idea to end it where they did.

Sam and Rebecca, despite being the two characters whose actors got first billing, faded into the background in the later seasons. Sam ended up being a supporting character for the most part, while Rebecca was turned into a B-plot character most of the time. Which in some way makes sense, since they really focused on her dysfunctions and so the easiest way to use her character was to trigger a dysfunction as a background funny event and then use that as the B-plot for that episode. But there wasn’t really much more to her character and so no where for it to go. Even her getting married at the end was a quick ending that served little more than to have Rebecca act dysfunctional for the final episodes. Kirstie Alley did that well, but I still tended to prefer her when she was in tough mode than in dysfunctional mode.

Sam’s sex addiction storyline makes sense to me, because it seems to me that while it was something that he enjoyed, there ended up being an undercurrent of that also being a status symbol for him, especially since the bar patrons liked to live vicariously through him. As he aged — and clearly had problems with aging — it became more and more important to him as a sign that he still had it, and less as something that he did for fun. This could, then, have led to it being something he did even when he didn’t want to, because if he failed then it would greatly impact his own self-image. So he had to keep up a large string of successes, even as it seemed to become less and less interesting to him, especially since if he even decided to not pursue it the regulars would pressure him into it, like they did with the competition with Henri. Which had a great ending, where Sam decides to not pressure a purportedly vulnerable woman to get the number he needed to win or tie the event … and then after she says that she spins that line as a test and that her and her two friends — who do everything together — were interested in going out with him, and so Sam gets to say to Henri that he is obviously broken up over losing to Henri as he leaves with three beautiful women.

They also added a new semi-regular character in Paul, but I never warmed to him. As he was new, we didn’t have the years to get to know him like we had for the others, but he also didn’t really have a specific role — like Cliff and Norm — at the bar to slot into. Thus, he ended up being kinda a generic loser, which wasn’t very interesting. At the end of the day, as a character he didn’t have any more development than the other semi-regular bar patrons, but he seemed to be shoehorned into more situations that they were and so was made more prominent, which kinda made him more annoying than entertaining.

As the show progressed, Woody lost a bit of his naivete and was more often willing to engage in mean-spirited humour, which hurt the character. The problem is, though, that you couldn’t really keep him that nice forever, and a lot of the jokes he made were things that you’d expect from someone who grew up in a rural area. However, since Carla’s entire schtick was based around being mean-spirited — although she got some development later — the show could slide towards having more mean-spirited humour than was probably good for it. Good-natured ribbing was par for the course given the environment, but with Carla none of it was good-natured, except possibly at times with Sam. Which meant that while I might have liked Carla more when I first watched it, this time I found her to be annoying.

It’s also fairly clear from this why Frasier was the one who got the spin-off show, as the two most interesting storylines, at least to me, was his with Lilith and Woody’s with Kelly. And while I would have liked to have seen more of Woody and Kelly — as their pleasant but naive and often stupid personalities really broke up some of the nastiness — there wasn’t much that you could do with that specific line, and attempts to develop them, as already stated, risked making them less nice and so less pleasant to watch. There’s just more sorts of humour and development you could do with Lilith and Frasier, either together or, at it turned out, separately.

I actually liked Lilith as a character, but strongly disliked the part of the plot where she had an affair. The problem is that her having one made little sense. Even during the affair plot, she talks about how great the sex was, so it doesn’t seem to be a lack of sexual satisfaction that causes it, but then about the only other reason for it would be a lack of emotional support … but Lilith was so emotionless most of the time that it would make more sense for Frasier to cheat on that basis instead of her. It probably should have been built more around her career entirely, with her leaving him precisely for the chance to go into the Ecopod and the affair developing there, which would also have played into the fact that based on how she talks she quite likely has a pretty high sex drive, and thus might have a harder time abstaining from sex than Frasier would. Still, it was one of the better storylines.

One thing that happened to me a lot while watching Cheers was that as it seemed to drop subtle hints about its plot twists I often figured out what was going on before they actually revealed it, like with the one case where Diane has a dream within a dream where Sam changes and pushes for a relationship and because he changes so drastically we know that this must be a dream and where when Frasier receives a letter from Lilith asking for a divorce when she storms into the bar we can pretty quickly guess that it was her boyfriend who sent the letter even before he reveals it. To the show’s credit, figuring out the twists doesn’t usually make the scenes less entertaining, and in fact might even add to it as we wait to see how far things will go or how it will be revealed, and pat ourselves on the back for being right.

Cheers also probably relies on continuity far more than almost any other sitcom I’ve ever watched, constantly making references to things that happened in the past and often elevating small scenes that were almost forgotten into full-fledged plots. That these generally worked is also to the show’s credit. I have no idea if they planted seeds in case they needed to use them later or had them as throw-away jokes that they were inspired to use when they needed it for a plot, but whatever the case it provided something that I haven’t seen in a lot of sitcoms.

Now, onto the ending, where Diane came back. I can see why they did it, but it both came up and was resolved too quickly to really matter, and if you weren’t pining for Sam and Diane or weren’t hoping for a resolution to their relationship or an explanation for why Diane never came back you really wouldn’t care much about it, and so it will come off a bit flat. If you didn’t care for their relationship, then it will seem like time wasted that could have been used exploring better storylines.

At the end of the day, my overall assessment of the show is that it was … okay. It was rough in some parts, but for the most part never really fell below “meh” even in its worst episodes. So it was pretty much always watchable. The Sam and Diane relationship probably dragged on longer than it should have, and the show really hit its stride when it ended and the satellite characters got more focus, only to peter out towards the end. I probably will watch this again at some point.

Further Thoughts on Cheers (End Season 5)

October 23, 2017

So, the first five seasons of Cheers is dominated by the Sam and Diane relationship. Which is unfortunate, because this arc is the least interesting out of the ones they had, featuring the least interesting characters — at least at the time — and is also filled with nonsense in an attempt to wring dramatic tension out of the relationship.

At the end of Season 3, Diane is proposed to by Frasier, accepts, and then tries to call Sam to, it seems, get him to admit his feelings for her and/or talk her out of it. When Sam finds out about the upcoming marriage, he rushes off to Italy to try to stop the wedding. The arc ends at the beginning of Season 4 with Diane having left Frasier at the altar, and Sam having had to go through a number of trials to stop a wedding that never happened. And both Sam and Diane are quite aware that the other did that.

So how come they don’t get together after that? At that point, neither of them can really deny their feelings for each other, and there isn’t even a real explanation of them thinking that the passion was there but that the relationship wouldn’t work. Even then it’s clear that they aren’t going to be able to move on any time soon, and so at a minimum Diane probably should have stayed away from the bar and gotten a job somewhere else. But none of that happens because the show can’t let that happen, but there’s really no way to top this when it comes to their relationship. If this event didn’t convince them to get married or at least get back together, it seems that nothing could. And yet they still have to play this tired arc out and try to keep the tension in this relationship going somehow.

After a full season of this, they have Sam date a politician, who says that she wants marriage. This triggers Sam to think about marriage, and ultimately to ask Diane to marry him, who initially says “No” and then reconsiders, only for Sam to withdraw the offer. Not only is this in and of itself mostly ridiculous, it leads to Diane adopting the very annoying trait of consistently insisting that Sam is going to ask her again while Sam vehemently denies it. And the worst part of it is that given what has gone on before we know that Diane is right, but she’s being very smug and annoying about it. In an episode where Diane smugly insists that he will ask her that day, he does … and she says “No” again. At which point, they probably should just give it up, but instead they go to court and the judge insists that Sam propose in order to not be charged, which he does, she accepts, and they head to the end of the season planning a wedding. Which was also stupid, as it never really resolves why Diane said “No” the other times.

But since they don’t get married at the end of the season, you’d think that what makes them break up would follow from that, right? Nope … well, at least not directly. What happens is that Diane’s first fiance Sumner conveniently comes back right before the wedding — I think it was in the season finale — and says that he’s sent Diane’s book to an editor friend of his who thinks that it might be worth publishing, but only if Diane finishes it. He later confirms that it would be published, setting up a situation where it is believed that Diane has to choose between marrying Sam now or finishing the book. Sam convinces her — over her protests — to take the time to finish the book, which just happens to involve her going to Sumner’s cottage somewhere for six months. Diane insists that she’ll return, but she never does and the book deal ends up falling through. Diane is hinted at having gone to Hollywood to write for TV, probably a comment on Shelley Long focusing on making movies after that point.

But here’s why this really doesn’t work for me: bringing Sumner in at that point was just too convenient. Everyone should have suspected that he was doing this to try to break Sam and Diane up and possibly make a move on her himself. That he happens to send her novel off at pretty much the same time as he found out about the wedding and happens to send it to a friend who happens to think it will work and it just so happens that he has a secluded place available for her to work is an awful lot of happens to absorb, and yet no one questions his motives. If this had been set up more episodes in advance where there would have been time to question and verify what was happening, this would have worked out so much better. As it stands, it really looked to me like Sam and Diane got suckered by Sumner.

You can argue that Shelley Long’s decision to leave came too late to really do that sort of set-up, but then all they needed to do was have Sam or Diane have doubts about what her consistent “Nos” meant. Even if they had to leave the door open for her to return, this could have easily been resolved with her deciding that she needed more meditation time and then resolving that either way at the beginning of this season. As it stands, it’s a nonsensical ending to a nonsensical and boring story arc.

This is not helped by Diane being Flanderized a bit and becoming more annoying because of it. She always did have a streak of thinking that she was smarter and better than she really was, but she was always presented as being cultured and, for the most part, having some talent but ruining it by being overly ambitious and thus complicating everything. In Season 5, she’s far less competent and far more often overlooks failings that she really should have been able to spot. For example, in one episode she is trying out for ballet and gets a bad review of her abilities. To be nice, Frasier changes the recommendations to be more flattering, which ends up prompting her to barge in and try out for a professional ballet troupe to follow her dream, but Sam and Frasier stop her before she can make a fool out of herself. The problem is that she had a video of it, which makes everyone in the bar laugh at how ridiculous she looks. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to not see how her dancing really looks while dancing it, so that’s fine. But she watches it with them. And despite her having to know what the dance should look like, she thinks she did well, and it’s only when they tell her that they faked the review that she realizes otherwise. Well, sure, she might decide to trust the famous teacher over her own opinion, especially when that tells her what she wants to hear … but Diane had shown some self-awareness in the past, and this just sails right on past it. We might be able to believe that she could delude herself that badly about writing or poetry — although in those cases given how she does immerse herself in those media she’d likely be more derivative and think herself creative than be really, really bad — but with this she really should have known better.

And it isn’t even funny.

However, Cheers can be clever at times, and by now we’re starting to see its strength, which is its characters. Sam and Diane as characters work so much better when they are supporting the other characters and not hogging the spotlight. The relationship between Frasier and Lilith is much, much more interesting that the one between Sam and Diane. After starting from a disastrous first date, they end up on a show together, and Diane realizes that Frasier is in love with Lilith. Given her nature, she decides to intervene and tell Lilith about it, and then try to make her over in order to attract Frasier. What’s wonderful here is that when Diane tells Lilith that Frasier is in love with her, Lilith’s immediate reaction is that she’s not the type of pretty girl that people fall in love with, which made me immediately react with puzzlement. This seemed to come out of nowhere, and Bebe Neuwirth is a very attractive woman. But this results in Fridge Brilliance when you realize that the person who, so far, has made the biggest deal out of her looks is … Lilith. Diane simply says that she needs to dress better and use more … some makeup. Frasier, when he badmouths her, tends to talk about how cold and emotionally repressed she is, not about how unattractive she is, and give his personality he wouldn’t have asked her out the first time if he didn’t find her attractive. And if anyone else comments on that, it’s as a quick aside. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that she might have been awkward as a teen, and to avoid the teasing retreated to what she was better than most people at, which was things that involved intelligence, and thus cultivated the ideal intellectual manner, including the look. Since she wasn’t surprised that Frasier asked her out the first time, she had to think that her peers at least wanted to have sex with her, but could have fobbed it off as being the result of a male dominated field and her being one of the few women available. Her cold manner and aggressive intellectualism — worse than Frasier at lot of the time, who is pretty bad at it himself — would make most men not want to pursue a relationship with her, justifying her comment, and we can note that that is indeed what Frasier dislikes about her, and her more open style of dress and reaction to his flirting is probably more responsible for what gets his attention than simply that she looked hot. This underlying dynamic makes the relationship a lot more interesting than the shallow — and quickly dropped — idea of the cultured vs the everyday clash of Diane and Sam.

What the later seasons did better was avoid the split between the moral cultured class and the immoral or amoral working class. When Norm finds out that the person he is up against for a promotion is sleeping with the boss’ wife, while Diane is clearly opposed to him using that to get the promotion, Carla is also strongly opposed and Sam is uncertain about doing that as well. It’s pretty much left to Cliff to push for Norm doing it, and even here there isn’t a clear right answer.

That Norm doesn’t do it leads to another example of the importance of character. After he choose not to do it, the boss tells him that the reason Norm lost the promotion to the other person was that Norm’s wife Vera didn’t fit in with the other wives. Vera really wanted him to get the promotion so that they could buy a house. Norm is outraged and ends up quitting, and then has to tell his wife what happened. While he says that he plans to tell her the truth, he can’t hurt her that way, and so ends up accepting all the blame himself, proving that he really loves her despite his constant comments about her. This character development only carries on later when Diane tries to help Norm get noticed at a new job and get a promotion, and after his colleague steals Norm’s — bad, as it turns out — idea Norm finally says that he doesn’t want to big a big shot and just wants to be a worker drone, and is happy that way.

Woody makes a better replacement for Coach — the actor passed away in Season 3, I think — because as someone who is young you can maintain the naivete and stupidity without ever having to use the character as a mentor, which works against that. And Carla’s sniping got old, as it seems that pretty much everything she said was a snipe and it often interrupted the show to try to get in some cheap humour, which hurt her as a character.

So far Cheers is still “Okay”. Sometimes it’s clever and sometimes monumentally stupid. As I go on into season six, I’m finding that there’s more clever and less stupid, which is a good thing.

The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

Gaming and Power Fantasies

October 9, 2017

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.

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”.

Post Transformers: The Movie World

September 18, 2017

So, what struck me about the Transformers cartoon post-“The Movie” is how unlike pretty much every other series that I’ve watched — which to be fair is pretty much G1 and Beast Wars — the most interesting and driving personal conflict in the series wasn’t Galvatron vs Rodimus Prime. For the most part, any real conflict or rivalry they had was shallowly done, if at all, and not a major factor in the series. On the other hand, the conflict between Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus got more direct play and was the more interesting conflict. How did this happen?

First, Galvatron in that cartoon was absolutely insane, which was noted by the characters on numerous occasions. He didn’t have the megalomania and overall evil of, say, G1 Megatron or Beast Wars Megatron, with them being evil and having mental tics but being, overall, competent and manipulative villains. While both had a temper and definitely didn’t brook betrayal or treachery — at least against them — and often went out of their way to repay perceived or real slights, they in general were still competent and not as much of a danger to their own side as they were to the enemy. Far too often, Galvatron’s competence vanished leaving him with only power to recommend him, power that he sometimes used against his own allies in his zeal to destroy the Autobots, as was noted in “Webworld”, the episode where Cyclonus ends up having him committed in an attempt to restore his sanity so that he can more effectively lead the Decepticons. Overall, this led to a general overarching impression and plot where we have the Decepticon lieutenants — particularly Cyclonus — having to work with and work around an unstable Galvatron, made all the worse for Cyclonus because he was the one who set out to recover Galvatron, seeing him as the last hope the Decepticons had after their defeat by the Autobots. Having to admit that his revered leader wasn’t really helping in “Webworld” struck deep at him and brought home to the audience just how serious Galvatron’s insanity really was.

And this can be an interesting line to take, focusing on the Decepticons reacting to an unstable leader who nevertheless is powerful enough that he can’t just be done away with and who is enough of a figurehead that the Decepticons will automatically rally to him for the most part, whereas without him the Decepticons might fall back into fighting amongst themselves again. The problem is that this sort of storyline tends to shift the focus a lot to Cyclonus, and away from Galvatron as leader. But then maybe they could have set up a conflict between Cyclonus and Rodimus Prime, but that didn’t work for two reasons.

First, Rodimus Prime wasn’t all that impressive as Autobot leader. They deliberately set him up as the inexperienced and reluctant leader, not someone who had sought it out and someone who was more impulsive than a good leader should be. And, again, this could work. But it works best against a strong Decepticon leader, one who can try to manipulate those impulsive tendencies and doubts and force Rodimus to overcome them to oppose him, like Beast Wars Megatron. Galvatron is not that sort of Decepticon leader, and Cyclonus is in general too Lawful to pursue those courses most of the time as well. So with nothing to play off of Rodimus comes across as an ineffective leader, not as a worthy leader growing into the role. Second, Rodimus doesn’t have anything that lets us see him as the natural or superior Autobot leader. He is handed the leadership for being the “Chosen One”, but aside from that he’s singularly unimpressive as leader. He doesn’t have Optimus Prime’s or Optimus Primal’s inherent leadership ability and charisma. He doesn’t embody the Autobot principles like Optimus Prime did (sometimes not seeing to care about making peace and peace conferences, for example). He’s not as physically impressive as Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal were relative to the other characters; Ultra Magnus and Springer, for example, seem more overall physically impressive. He’s not regarded as the most skilled fighter on his team, like Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal were; Grimlock and Ultra Magnus are likely better fighters. He doesn’t even have a unique and impressive weapon or abilities like Optimus Prime — his laser rifle — and Optimus Primal — flight — had. So outside of the Matrix choosing him for some reason, we have no idea why he should be leader.

Second, the better counterpart to Cyclonus is clearly Ultra Magnus. As was lampshaded in one episode, Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus are mirror images of each other. Alignment-wise, we have Lawful Evil and Lawful Good. Both of them are dedicated to their leaders … or, at least, Ultra Magnus was to Optimus Prime, although he can be a bit frustrated by Rodimus Prime at times. And, heck, both of them are frustrated by and often have to work around the leadership failings of their leaders. However, neither of them have any interest in leading themselves. The conflict between them and the “Enemy Mine” situations they sometimes enter into is indeed a good conflict between similar yet strikingly different characters. Their conflict is interesting, and any attempt to slide that over to Rodimus would only create a conflict that was less interesting by contrast.

So, what we have is a series where both leaders aren’t the sorts of characters that can carry the main conflict of the series or being the main focus of the series, while their lieutenants in general were. It’s no wonder that, at least to me, some of the more interesting episodes are the ones that focus on Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus and their conflicts with each other, and not on Galvatron and Rodimus Prime.