Archive for July, 2013

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Game Review: Spartacus Legends

It is a truth universally known that a television or movie franchise of good fortune must be in want of an awful video game attempting to cash in on the gravy train. So when I found out about Spartacus Legends, I met the news with great reservation. I didn’t fear for yet another shitty free-to-play game, cranked out as a means of boosting DVD sales, but rather that Starz, Ubisoft, and Kung Fu Factory, would do to the late Andy Whitfield what Ford did to Steve McQueen back in 2005.

 

Despite promises from Starz that the game would be ready in time for Spartacus’ third and final season, Spartacus Legends met the summer on Xbox Live and PSN with minimal fanfare from either the parent company or the gaming press at large.

Thoughts weighed heavy upon troubled mind as I prepared to set aside the rose scented words of critic, and embrace the mantle of lanista. Free-to-play games have seen Jupiter put cock to unwilling ass many times in recent years. And though Spartacus Legends is untested as new steel, freshly cooled from smith’s embrace, it does but stand tall among other games which part coin from hand through trickery and deceit. Let us then turn thought to noble purpose and show all of Rome what glory awaits those who would seek glory on the sands of the arena.

Okay, I really wanted to write the whole review as if I was in an episode of Spartacus, but that’s just not going to work. Let’s go back to normal English since I already mentioned Jupiter’s cock.

Despite being a free-to-play game, Spartacus Legends offers a passable, if somewhat repetitive, single player experience. As lanista, the player must recruit, train, and equip a stable of gladiators. Winning fights earns fame/experience points and silver, thus unlocking better equipment and more impressive venues within Capua’s walls. Defeating an opponent in a “primus” battle earns the former laurels in addition to gold, the game’s premium currency, and combat perks.

Normally two-tiered game economies skew toward extensive grinding such that would-be players will cough up real world money if only for the sake of convenience. Spartacus Legends doesn’t have that problem. This fact alone should probably be enough to get people to try the game.

For want of a particularly thorough tutorial, wherein we see a Spartacus who stands as memorial to Andy Whitfield rather than shallow attempt to cash in on a man’s legacy, I spent my first twenty matches fighting in the outskirts of Capua. There I learned the combos and parries of sword and shield, double sword, and double dagger fighting. The combat engine is far from Injustice or Mortal Kombat, but a few degrees better than abject button mashing. The sounds effects and occasional lapses into slow motions echo what any fan of the series would expect from Spartacus’ highly stylized combat. The only recurring drawback is the dozen cat calls and exhortations that come from an in-game lanista. These get very old, very fast.

The fight mechanics are also clever enough to allow for some significant nuance as a player progresses through the single player campaign. There are a total of nine combat styles in the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I learned this the hard way when I sent my finest double knife gladiator into a mystery battle in the pits, a high-risk/high-reward combat venue. Not only did my foe have a combat rating that doubled my gladiator’s, but he wielded a two handed hammer. The fight did not end well for Achilleus.

Which brings me to my next point about the game: perma-death. The nature of free-to-play gaming is that it wants a player to be constantly winning so that they never want to quit. Spartacus Legends is quite content to humble upstart gladiators, all to the sounds of the crowd chanting for their death. Knowing that each fight could be a gladiator’s last instantly increases the stakes for the player. Thus the temptation to play as a berserker is tempered by the knowledge that these men, and their unique skills, could be lost forever. Had the gods not blessed me with the patience of a saint, I would have easily seen controller smashed upon wall for my inability to see gladiators to honoured victory.

Oh look I lapsed back into Spartacus speak. What fun.

The most disappointing part of the game is the fact that nobody seems to be playing it. At any point a player can enter one of their gladiators into a multiplayer combat queue. Doing so offers almost double the rewards in terms of fame and coin compared to playing solo. Pair this with the fact that the lethality of a match can be controlled through the choice of venue and players should have every reason to go online with their warriors. Yet nobody seems to be doing it. The three multiplayer battles that I’ve had, wherein my record stands at 1 win and 2 losses, came after waiting in a combat queue for at least fifteen minutes. So either all the PvP is happening in Capua’s coliseum, a place I dare not tread with my measly warriors, or nobody is playing the game. That said, the single player is challenging enough to keep a player interested while they hone men into gods – for about five hours or so.

In the end, Spartacus Legends is probably one of the few free-to-play games that can rightly call itself a game, rather than a limitless engine for profit. The combat is equal parts satisfying in victory and utterly frustrating in defeat. There are some rough edges in terms of the voice acting and the fact that combat ratings never quite seem to give a clear indication of how well a foe can fight. Would that more people were playing PvP matches I think the game could really shine. The one thing that it does share with most free-to-play games is no obvious endgame. Once all the primus battles and legend matches are complete, what is a lanista to do with their gladiators? Without additional content or a more robust player base this game is going to go stale very quickly. Still, Spartacus Legends is remarkable if only for showing that developers and publishers can produce free-to-play games that aren’t just skinner boxes. Would that all free-to-plays offered the teeth of Spartacus Legends they may not be held in such contempt by serious gamers.


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Will Kickstarter Dropkick Video Game Criticism?

I like Kickstarter. More often than not, Kickstarter and crowd sourcing at large have proven themselves to be excellent tools for helping artists bring their vision to life. And despite the Zach Braffs of the world, who would see crowd sourcing used as a way of funding narcissism projects, I remain hopeful that merit and creativity will continue to guide the internet’s collective decisions fund worthy projects. Yet I worry that the same esprit de indie, which saw great games like FTL brought into the mainstream, will marginalize the role of independent video game critics.

I’m going to use Double Fine Games’ Broken Age to illustrate my point. Tim Schafer – seen above – whose contributions to gaming and game culture are beyond reproach, set a new benchmark when he took to the internet in search of funding for Broken Age. The project secured $3,336,371 in funding through 87,142 backers. Impressive as it is to raise funds on an order of magnitude greater than one’s stated goal, I’m more interested in the number of backers the project received. Of the 87,142 people who supported Broken Age, 47,946 pledged at the minimum $15 level, ensuring they receive a digital copy of the game upon its completion.

Suppose that a meagre one percent of those 47,946 people are would-be critics. Those individuals go on to post a review of the game to their blogs, facebook, or other public outlets. Without having to give away so much as a single Steam key, thus eating into gross sales, Double Fine Games could see nearly five hundred reviews, independent of the major games journalism outlets, emerging out of the wood work. If that happens, if the people who already bought into the game are in a position to promote it at no cost to Double Fine, where does this leave the independent critic/reviewer?

When I send my supplicant email out to Double Fine’s Marketing/Press contact, wherein I justify why they should trust me to write an objective review of their game, why should they bother taking a loss on the bottom line when there is already a captive market apt to proselytize through, at the very least, word of mouth if not the written word? Worse still, what happens if the subtext of my email is translated as, “I think your game is interesting enough to write about, but I don’t have enough faith in you to pay up front for it.” Where’s the motivation for Double Fine to roll the dice on me producing a positive review of their game when my request can be seen as an implicit lack of faith in the final product?

Adam: Can I please have a review copy of your game? I’m ever so eloquent in my critical discourse.

Developer: Did you support our kickstarter?

Adam: No.

Developer:

 

It’s not my goal to be alarmist with this piece. I don’t think the sky is falling, nor do I think that this is some conspiracy laid out to silence the smaller voices of criticism. Kickstarter and crowed funding have created a renaissance for small to medium sized developers/studios. It’s allowed for a creative freedom that has been too long absent from gaming. That said, Q4 of 2013 and Q1 of 2014 are going to see the release of a number of successfully crowd funded games, thus marking our entry into uncharted waters. And as we navigate this new frontier, I want to make sure that the professional courtesy that developers have offered to independent critics in the past continues to exist going forward.


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Nuke the Dome and Bring on Ben Richards

To date, I have watched every painful episode of Under the Dome. Who knew the “bottle episode” could be stretched out into an entire series? Furthermore, I have no idea how this series has managed to sell a great many people on the idea that maudlin human drama is a suitable substitute for meaningful conflict. I mean, did anybody actually think that the bomb was going to so much as scrape a single knee in Chester’s Mill?

In lieu of flogging the already dead “adapting this series was a mistake” horse, I’m going to offer a better idea. Next summer the powers that be should adapt The Running Man into a 13 episode summer mini-series.

Despite what the movie of the same name might lead a person to believe, The Running Man is probably Stephen King’s most prescient novel. Almost every part of the original manuscript would resonate with a modern audience. Even a semi-skilled screenwriter and showrunner could adapt TRM into an Emmy worthy project.

King’s dystopian vision of America hinges upon a divide between rich and poor so pronounced that the two socio-economic groups have their own currency. To have even a few New Dollars in the slums of America is to leverage a significant amount of material wealth. In the wake of Detroit filing for bankruptcy protection, I think reality has paved the way for the story’s conceptual framework

Then there’s Ben Richards, the eponymous running man. Richards has the perfect story for television. He’s a family man living in the slums of Co-Op City. After knocking up and marrying his teenage girlfriend, Richards drops out of school to began working in a factory. Despite quick wits a quicker temper leads to a fist fight with his boss. The black mark disqualifies Richards from all but the most menial and dangerous labour. So when Ben’s daughter gets sick and his wife takes to prostitution to afford a doctor, Richards goes to “The Network” to submit himself for consideration in “The Games.”

The sadistic game shows are much more than just cheap entertainment for the masses. They’re also a means of social control. Oh, by the way, it’s at this point that Suzanne Collins can doff her hat to King. Despite Richards’ bad attitude and lack of education, he proves to be something of a radical sprit – the kind of person who might, one day, make trouble for the established order. This fact qualifies him for prime time’s hottest game show, The Running Man.

The premise of the game itself is a potential gold mine for a producer apt to find cities whose cups runneth over with tax credits. Branded a fugitive, Richards must survive in America for 30 days. The novel sees Richards running across the Eastern seaboard. Why not take some creative liberties and have Richards run to Atlanta for some sweet Georgia tax credits?

Of course the fun doesn’t stop there. The Running Man is the embodiment of social media gone wrong. Remember when in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing the whole city got locked down and everybody became a social media vigilante? Recall how innocent people had their name and reputation smeared when twits on twitter circulated misinformation, and the legitimate media legitimized the nonsense? All of that mob mentality in a non-real space is a part of The Running Man’s experience. In the novel, a confirmed Ben Richards sighting earned spectators 100 New Dollars. A tip leading to Richards’ capture or death was worth 1000 New Dollars. Imagine how much smart phone product placement could be naturally worked into this series without breaking the story. Update TRM’s audience interaction so that a still picture of Richards is worth X, but a youtube clip is worth Y and it easily interfaces with modern technology. What’s more, the commentary on digital culture practically writes itself.

But where’s the conflict? What is there to carry the story from week to week? First and foremost there is Richards’ survival. For playing The Running Man, Richards earns 100 New Dollars every hour he eludes the Network’s Hunters. If he runs for the whole month, he earns a pardon and one billion New Dollars. A few callbacks to a tricking wife and sick kid should be enough to keep hope at the core of this story, at least out of the gate. But there’s another rule to the game. For every law enforcement officer a Runner kills, he earns 100 New Dollars. While Richards is far from possessing a murderer’s personality, thus keeping him accessible to the audience, he does make a few necessary kills along the way. Insert inner turmoil and “ends versus means” rationalizations. Also, Richards’ cop kills morphs the spectacle of a game show into an outlet for future America’s collective anger.

This outrage, in addition to the fact that the Network’s audience is brain addled by a near-Orwellian ubiquity of television, brings us to the final layer of The Running Man’s story. Every corporate entity in the novel is born out of a liberal mind’s worst Reaganomic nightmares. Think OCP from Robocop, only worse. Richard’s flight from the law reveals a world on the verge of environmental collapse at the hands of the established order. The best/worst part therein is that the problems, mostly pollution related, could be fixed at any time. Instead, the corporations choose to ignore long-term issues in lieu of maximizing short-term profits. Meanwhile, the people on the wrong side of the economic tracks are too poor to do anything but survive from day to day. Those with the money and means to affect change spend their lives watching TV and getting stoned out of their respective trees. But a Runner, possibly the best Runner ever, is positioned to make a change with the world watching his every move.

But Adam, there’s no room in this would-be series for an obligatory strong female character.

Fine. Ben Richards is now Betty Richards. And with the stroke of a pen The Running Man is the most progressive show on television. Betty Richards, unwilling to watch her husband sell himself to buy antibiotics for their kid, goes down to the Network and becomes a contestant on The Running Man. I can already see Dan Killian, the African American president of the Network in the novel, tenting his fingers at the thought of bringing in a female Runner for sweeps week. Did I say an Emmy for TRM? I meant Peabody.

Despite the giant steaming dump Arine’s movie took on The Running Man’s name, the 80’s schlock came nowhere near the novel’s core ideas. Over the last few decades, these themes have only grown more apt to work within the existing technological and ideological framework of our world. Six seasons of Mantracker should be more than enough proof to show that a “reality” series about people being hunted makes good television. Now all we need is a production company that is willing mobilize the inherent fiction of reality TV into telling a scripted story.


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Spoiler Alert: The Actual Problem with Spoilers

Be warned: I reveal some surprise plot points on Dune, Moon, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones in this post. I would argue none of these things constitute a spoiler, per se. However, if surprise is important to you, then you might not want to read on. This is your only warning.

Between sessions of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, I asked my gaming group for their thoughts on a suitable statute of limitations for spoilers. Wearisome groaning followed as this not the first time I’ve posed such a question. The resulting discussion did precipitate some fun tangents on the precise nature of a spoiler, rules governing trans-media spoilers, and a critic’s obligation to avoid, or at least indemnify themselves against, potential spoilers. One of the more controversial suggestions was that a medium-specific piece of popular culture – Game of Thrones the HBO series versus A Song of Ice and Fire – must be two-years-old before a person can assume it has entered public consciousness such that it can’t be spoiled.

For example, it’s not a spoiler to say that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. It would be a spoiler to say that Walder Frey kills Robb Stark at Edmure Tully’s wedding. Though I think that’s the exception rather than the rule because who on twitter and/or facebook, regardless of if they are a Game of Thrones fan, didn’t hear about the details of the Red Wedding?

Out of this discussion I began to think that we, as media consumers, are doing ourselves a real disservice through an obsession with spoilers. I posit that the conventional spoiler isn’t about “ruining” an experience, but is rather black flag which masks a shallowness in storytelling. The extent to which the spoiler allegedly “ruins” the story is directly proportional to the weakness of the writing.

Let’s consider Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, Dune. Suppose I tell you that Duke Leto Atreides dies at the end of the novel’s first act. Is this news a spoiler? I should say not. We learn of Leto’s impending death within the book’s first fifty pages. Leto himself knows he is walking into a trap on Arrakis. He and his inner circle suspect that the Emperor is likely in collusion with House Harkonnen. In revealing that he dies, I’ve done nothing but give away a single plot point. Considering that the genius of Herbert’s writing is found in deep subtext and layered themes, there’s not a sensible person who could accuse me of ruining the novel over this one detail.

I could make a similar point with a recent movie. Moon’s Sam Bell is a clone. Have I ruined the movie? Hardly. Moon is a story about purpose, existential dread, isolation, and individual agency in the face of large corporate entities. None of those things are so closely married to any lone plot point that discussing what physically happens will break the experience.

The moment a narrative ceases to be about big ideas, or even medium sized ideas, is the moment spoilers become relevant. Consider the third season of Battlestar Galactica. Who are the final four Cylons? Who cares? The names ultimately proved as meaningful as Ron Moore blindly throwing darts over his shoulder. Even when Galactica went off the rails, it still offered enough substance that my telling you that Tigh, the Chief, Anders, and girl-Billy are the final four doesn’t do anything to marginalize the overall story (even if the back nine of BSG are significantly weaker than the front).

So when the internet gets its knickers in a twist over somebody spoiling the big reveal at the end of an episode of Doctor Who – PS: the Name of the Doctor is a giant fake out - or some other series, film, or book, I think we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves some more important questions. Are we really angry at the spoiler for revealing the most fundamental building block of a story? Or are we actually disappointed in the people crafting said narrative because they can’t be bothered to elevate storytelling beyond plot? I think it’s the latter. And I think all of our handwringing about what fans owe each other as members of a community can be traced back to the fact that sometimes the stories we love, or want to love, aren’t really as deep as we would want them to be.

I’ll close on this point. I’ve known who Tyler Durden is for the last fourteen years. This knowledge doesn’t preclude my enjoying re-watches or re-reads of Fight Club. The same goes for knowing Keyser Söze’s true identity in The Usual Suspects. Now ask me how many times re-watched I’ve watched The Sixth Sense since its release. Stories of that variety are all plot and no thought. Once the surprise happens, what is there to reinforce a long-term value to the story?

Spoilers: they’re what you complain about when the thing you’re complaining about isn’t that good to begin with.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – Episode 9

Oh huzzah, it’s another one-off episode of Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Fortunately, this self-contained story aims to be a little more high-concept than what the series has previously offered. The plot alternates between two stories: one is an I, Robot meta-parable; the latter informs the former as Sanada and Analyzer interrogate a captured Gamilan android.

Analyzing the Gamilan robot makes for both an interesting episode and something of a new direction for the series. Where the source material played it fast and loose in terms of actual science, Sanada’s interrogation is framed around using universal concepts to find a common point of understanding between Earth and Gamilas. During a briefing for the Yamato’s senior staff, Sanada reveals that the Gamilans share foundational models of mathematics and physics to those known by man. He then speculates that it should be possible to use mathematics as a linguistic root between the two civilizations. It might only be lip service to science, but it’s an improvement over the original. Anybody else remember that time Kodai and Yuki were hanging out on Pluto with little more than their uniforms and open faced helmets to protect them?

Sanada, having wiped the captured android’s memory, assigns Analyzer to the task of creating a dialogue with the enemy machine. In another nod to science – and as Japan’s answer to Enemy Mine – Analyzer is unable to simply dump encyclopedic knowledge into the robot’s mind. He’s teaches the machine to understand human ideas and abstractions, just as a parent trains their toddler when they enter sentience. It’s around this time that the story ventures into a metaphysical realm that should be familiar to most genre fans. The Gamiloid, dubbed Alter by Analyzer, hacks into the ship’s network and discovers the Yamato’s “Goddess”. Having touched what he believes to be something neither machine nor biological, the Gamilroid breaks out of containment and begins searching the ship for the Goddess.

Fans of the original series will remember that the Yamato had a “magic” navigation system that led the ship to Iscandar. The reveal of the “Goddess” in the sealed automatic navigation room takes a step back from that easy out of the 70s and into the realm of cybernetics, probably. Starsha of Iscandar originally dispatched one of her sisters to bring the wave motion core to Earth. Perhaps Yamato 2199 will expand on that to the extent that the Icandari ambassador was also necessary as the Yamato’s biological core a la Karan S’Jet of Homeworld. I’ll put a pin in the discussion for now, if only because I’d like to know if I’m right before I commit to any detailed discussion.

As Alter runs rampant throughout the Yamato, Sanada, Analyzer, and the security officers debate Freudian theories of self, up to and including the age old Star Trek argument that humans are just machines of a biological nature. It’s a bit cliché, but it injects a bit of humanity into Sanada, who to this point has been little more than the cold scientist doubling as an equally cold executive officer.

Analyzer catches Alter when his legs snap on the deck of the Yamato. Please to note the symbolism.

The final showdown between Analyzer and Alter goes so far as to work with the “horrors of war” trope in that we see how these two individuals become friends despite being on the wrong side of a war. Again, it’s a bit of a cliché, but thankfully it’s not quite as heavy handed some of the series’ other subtexts. Also, if injecting some grey areas into the story requires walking down well worn paths of science fiction then I’ll give the episode a pass.

How then do we frame the main story within the aforementioned I, Robot, meta-narrative of Observer #9? As I said earlier, I suspect the story of a robot boy falling in love with a robot girl amid the sands of Mars loses something in translation. The parable reveals that despite being a machine, Observer #9 has a heart. This “heart” becomes his most closely guarded secret. If we take “heart” to be synonymous with “soul”, then the symbolic relevance of this story is quite obvious. This bit of meta-fiction shows that within the series humans have acknowledged, or at least entertained the notion, that non-humans can be alive. Therefore, Sanada, who requested the story be read on the Yamato’s radio, may embody a hope for a diplomatic solution to the Earth-Gamilas war. If humans and machines can co-exist, why not Humans and Gamilans? (Spoiler alert: in the original series Kodai destroys planet Gamilas)

Ultimately both of the episode’s stories share the themes of likeness between divergent entities. Analyzer and Alter may be mechanical representatives of their respective worlds, but they are removed from the ideology of the war. Similarly, the quest for identity and love between #9 and the robot girl asserts that life, regardless of type, shares desires along common lines. Add to this what we now know about the differences between blue and white Gamilans and I expect this mood of universality to become more important to the broader plot.


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Book Review: iD – The Second Machine Dynasty

It may be out of place for me to include rough notes in a finished review. However, I’m willing to risk the critical faux-pas in sharing the first words I wrote about Madeline Ashby’s iD, the sequel to her debut novel vN: “Meta as hell.” And truth be told I’m cleaning that up a little bit as somebody once informed me that it’s not classy to drop F-Bombs in the first paragraph of a review. At any rate, should Dan Harmon find himself in need of an additional writer for Community’s fifth season he would do well to consider Ashby. She possesses an impeccable talent for weaving originality out of layers of referential nods, all cumulating in subtexts so deep a single review could not do all of them justice.

iD begins a little after the concluding events of vN. Amy and Javier, the eponymous von Neumann androids of the first novel, are living on the semi-sentient island Amy fashioned as a refuge for vN who wish to live far removed from human influences. Things turn ugly when a human shows up and rapes Javier through a manipulation of the Asimov-style failsafe built into he and every other vN. Skip ahead two beats and the island implodes, the vN are scattered, the digital essence of Amy’s homicidal grandmother Portia – who has always reminded me of Shodan from System Shockescapes, and Javier, written as a protagonist with almost no personal agency, begins a quest to find Amy.

Changing perspective from Amy in vN to Javier in iD reveals something of a more brutally honest speculation on how humans might use sentient machines designed by a Millenarian doomsday church. Amy grew up in the safety of suburbia and her entry into womanhood, as well as the world at large, was that of a stranger in a strange land. The vN who iterated Javier abandoned his son to a South American prison. From there Javier’s back story parallels that of a migrant worker, only with an additional layer of debasement because he’s not human. Worse still, though a testament to the strength of the book, is how Javier always seems to be on the edge of consciousness with respect to the way he is treated. The failsafe programmed into the vN not only keeps them Three Law compliant but adds a measure of Stockholm Syndrome to their daily existence.

As a stand alone feature, this commentary and narrative voice is quite apropos. It’s also a structural safety net in case a would-be reader has been living on Mars for the last fifty years and has no framework for understanding the novel’s in-jokes, references, and allusions. For readers who can engage with Ashby’s meta-storytelling, the conflict and fine details alike strike with all the more force.

Another benefit of this metatextual writing is that it creates an instant rapport between the audience and the author, further facilitating some incredibly efficient world building when both reader and writer are on the same semiotic page. More important, however, is the ability of the referential writing to stress the underlying notion that the world of iD could be our world. When the culture, both popular and esoteric, is shared between reality and fiction it leads the reader to a place where they are hard pressed not to think about machine rights as an emerging issue if technological growth continues along its current trajectory.

At the same time, it’s not all nods and prods at the dystopian/technocratic worlds of Akira, Brazil, Portal, and Blade Runner. About half way through the novel I came across a chapter called, “The Man of Constant Sorrow.” For those who don’t know, this is the song George Clooney et al sang in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a Coen Brothers adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. With one single chapter title it seemed like Ashby was daring me to re-read the novel through the lens of Javier as South American android Odysseus. Is the vN populated city of Mecha his Ithaca? Is Amy the story’s Penelope? I got about as far as framing the Baccarat hustler Javier meets as Cerce before I realized I was pushing even my own broad tolerance for tangents within a review. Meta as hell, indeed.

 

On a point of style, the novel’s ending felt like something of a game of chicken between Ashby and her readers. iD’s plot continues to build right up until the final pages. Only when I reached a point of “Dear god, how can she possibly finish this with so little left to the book?” did the prose adroitly call back to near-forgotten details from the opening act as a way of eloquently tying everything together. Now only one question remains: is the subtitle of The Second Machine Dynasty the island that Amy built, or the grander future she envisions for her kind at the end of iD? If the latter, does that mean we get another book?

iD is the very rare sort of sequel wherein knowledge of the first book isn’t a prerequisite. Ashby goes deeper into a future populated by humans and sentient robots without reinventing the wheel she built in vN. Though the structure of the story could be viewed through a classical lens, Javier is so far from the tropes of a Greek hero (or modern hero since they’re basically the same thing now) that he emerges as a commentary on conservative character writing. Meanwhile, the novel offers more layers than the offspring of Community and Inception, each of which says something different about design, surveillance, genetics, parenting, and other topics that I probably missed along the way. With these themes bound up in an ongoing discussion on human-machine relationships, iD proves approachable to all, but quick to reward the intelligent reader well versed ingenre storytelling.

iD – The Second Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Published by: Angry Robot Books


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Mending Community: An Open Letter to Dan Harmon

Dear Dan Harmon,

Welcome back. No, I mean it. You are Napoleon returning from Elba. Except I’m sure this will work out much better for you than that did for him. I mean, you’d never invade Russia in winter, right?

I know that among my social circles your return to Community will be a hailed as the restoration of the status quo – the status quo being alternate dimensions, 16 bit video games episodes, and the culture on culture commentary that came to define the series in the first three seasons.

Yet I suspect you’ll also be returning to a different place than the one you left a couple of years ago. A thirteen episode season puts more pressure on the writers, cast, and crew to be on top of their game, all the time. Chevy Chase quitting the series paired with recent news that Donald Glover is only available for five episodes creates some considerable gaps in the study group. Say nothing for the fact that your predecessors pulled a West Wing, leaving the narrative in a really ugly place. How do you keep writing Jeff Winger into the series when he’s graduated and working at a local law firm? Do you know what I call a middle aged (Sorry, McHale) man who keeps hanging out at a community college despite having graduated? Chang. Or a professor.

Please don’t make Jeff a professor. Just bring back John Oliver.

In that light, I would, with great humility aforethought, like to offer a suggestion on one possible way to quickly and effectively undo the mess of season four while simultaneously stamping “Property of Dan Harmon” on season five.

Season five’s first episode begins with a flashback to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In the story’s most crucial moment the camera pans back to the Remedial Chaos Theory multiverse graphic only to emerge in a reality where Abed rolls a natural twenty. I know, this may be one too many returns to the realm of alternate timelines. Considering the hit or miss way season four ended, I don’t think the fans will hold a meaningful application of parallel universes against you.

Anyway, Abed’s natural twenty ripples through the rest of season two in subtle, unexpected, and long-shot ways. Leonard becomes student body president. Chang gets charged with kidnapping despite Jeff and Shirley’s best intentions, but gets off on a technicality. A relatively short time spent in county lockup makes Chang more unstable but just vulnerable enough that he is actually welcomed into the study group. And maybe, just maybe, Annie pulls the trigger on Pierce during the Mexican stand-off. Pierce still has his hissy fit at the end of season two but this time he actually leaves the group. Fast forward to season three opening with a Hawthorne funeral. Only instead of Cornelius being dead, it’s Pierce who died in an airplane bathroom after banging Lee Meriwether. Jeff quips, “He died doing what he loved.”

Abed responds with, “This seems oddly familiar.”

The group retires to Troy and Abed’s new apartment. The camera pans across the room revealing a strategically placed box of Yathzee in the background. Abed suggests that Pierce’s death will foreshadow a dark year. In a callback to the S1 Halloween episode, Jeff will remind the group that Pierce, for all his flaws, knew how to live. By the power of a Winger speech, they vow to spend their year channelling Pierce’s love of living, only without the racism and early onset dementia. Thus does the fifth season become the third season in an alternate timeline.

Why would I suggest a course that some might see as a lazy copout? First and foremost, starting again in season three actually puts Community in a place to end with six seasons and a movie. Otherwise, the series will drift farther away from the study room and into the terrifying and unfunny realm of having to find a job after college or failing that Graduate School.

Additionally, I’ve always seen the third season of Community as the one where the hand of the artist, yourself, was most visible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Mr. Harmon. But even season three’s opening musical number can be read as a giant raspberry to the powers that be at NBC and Sony, who wanted Community to be something more mainstream. The remainder of the season hardly pulls any punches on that note. And please believe me when I say, I wouldn’t see season three changed. It is what it is and I enjoy and admire it on those grounds. I do, however, wonder how season three and four might have naturally evolved were the Sword of Damocles not always swinging a hair’s breadth above your head.

Therefore, Mr. Harmon, I suggest, knowing that you will likely never read this letter – but it was fun to write it anyway – that you take a page from George Martin’s vast book: to go forward, you must go back.

Sincerely,

Adam Shaftoe, would-be Greendale Human Being


0

Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


24

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Giant robots. An army of Kaiju. GLaDOS. 3D that doesn’t feel like a cheap tack-on to justify jacking up the price of admission. Well I think that about covers things. Review over. Thanks for coming out, everyone.

Seriously though, I expect that the coming year will see a lot of Mass Effect cosplayers rapidly modding their N7 combat armour into Jaeger neural interface suits. Mark my words; if there is a cosplay stock market, buy Pacific Rim.

The proposition of taking the tropes of Japanese monster movies and making them work for a Hollywood audience is simultaneously a simple and impossible task. Kaiju movies need to be focused on action, presenting a spectacle that appeals to the inner child who still thinks professional wrestling is as unscripted as a brawl in ancient Rome’s Coliseum. Yet that action has to be underwritten by science, specifically environmental science, to the extent that the Kaiju is a manifestation of humanity’s arrogance and hubris. It needs to be awesome enough to fire up the audience, but smart enough to have a moral message. And that is exactly what Guillermo del Toro has given us in Pacific Rim. It strikes the perfect balance between the works of J.J. Abrams, Roland Emmerich, and Ishiro Honda, all through del Toro’s own wholly unique visual style.

I won’t focus too much on plot summary because, really, monsters versus robots. Do I need to draw you a picture? The Kaiju invade through a space-time rift in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Unable to effectively fight the Kaiju with conventional weapons, the nations of the world commission the Pan Pacific Defence Corps and their army of Jaegers, combat robots driven by two human pilots. Fast forward to the first act and the scope and frequency of Kaiju attacks has risen to a point that the PPDC is deemed ineffective by the nations of the world. After a scene that injects a little X-Com/XCOM appropriation into the milieu, the PPDC’s operations are shuttered in lieu of building a big wall around the Pacific. When the wall fails, the marginalized PPDC and their four remaining Jaegers become the last hope for the world.

There’s an obvious intelligence to Pacific Rim’s casting. The international PPDC team looks and sounds appropriate for a movie set in and about the Pacific Ocean. Idris Elba heads the PPDC as the taciturn Field Marshall Pentecost, who is a clear nod to the characters of Gendo Ikari, Captain Juzo Okita, and every other strong silent leader from anime history. Charley Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi co-pilot Gypsy Danger, the Jaeger seen in all of the movie’s promotional material. Other Jaeger teams, red shirts though they be, represent China, Russia, and Australia. Torchwood alum Burn Gorman and Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame round out the cast as the PPDC’s Odd Couple science division.

Given Hollywood’s recent and flagrant tendency toward whitewashing, I can only imagine how awful this cast could have been. Instead, we hear both Japanese and English spoken aloud throughout the movie. Kikuchi’s character is no tittering bashful schoolgirl cliché, waiting to be taken into sexual maturity by a brash American lead. Like all the other characters, she’s as damaged by the Kaiju War as anybody else. From that pain, Kikuchi’s character finds the strength to be Hunnam’s equal partner in piloting Gypsy Danger.

You hear that, Hollywood? You don’t have to sexualize the shit out of a female Asian actor/character in a lead role for the audience to take her seriously. You can even leave the romance between the two leads unspoken and mostly in the background, and we will still feel the connection with as much impact, possibly more, than if you cram in a PG-13 sex scene.

It goes without saying that a Guillermo del Toro picture is going to have a certain artistry to it. Even though Pan’s Labyrinth was weak in terms of storytelling, it had the benefit of looking unlike like anything at the time. Similarly, Pacific Rim is so heavily invested in presenting a vision of digital art fused with physical sets that it also looks like nothing else I’ve seen of late. Eat your fucking heart out, George Lucas and Michael Bay.

The only thing that even comes marginally close to matching Pacific Rim’s visuals is Battleship. Though a Jaeger using a tanker as a club against a Kaiju sort of closes the book on any meaningful comparisons there.

Most impressive is the fact that Pacific Rim marks the first occasion I haven’t walked out of a 3D movie grumbling about how I would rather watch movies in 2D. Even with 3D technology most other movies do little to move outside the paradigm of fake depth on a flat screen. They use all the old camera tricks of perspective, line, and character blocking to craft an illusion. Employing swift pans and camera motion through scenes, Pacific Rim’s 3D creates an experience where the audience is not observing from across the room, but situated in the center of the action. It’s not the holodeck, mind you, but it’s enough to see how the movie’s cinematography has evolved past the standard playbook to incorporate an additional dimension into the principal photography. Kudos to Guillermo del Toro and his director of photography, Guillermo Navarro.

My only issue with the movie is that of runtime. While the second and third act were both well paced and effective, I could make a case for the first being a bit bloated. Personally, I don’t care. From a critical point of view, I don’t think many people would complain if ten more minutes of Pacific Rim were left on the cutting room floor.

Perhaps the most important thing I have to say about Pacific Rim is that when the script said something to evoke a headscratch, the atmosphere and narrative proved compelling enough to make me not care about the answer. Unlike a certain other film from this summer, Pacific Rim kept me immersed in its story from start to finish. Even in a post-mortem analysis, I haven’t found any flaws in the story that are serious enough to break the movie. Perhaps this is because Pacific Rim isn’t trying to be Transformers; wherein the movie wants to be all things to all people. It’s content to be an over the top piece of robot vs monster battle porn, which skilfully appropriates from 50 years of Japanese and American pop culture to emerge as something unique.

So let’s go back to my first point on this review as a way of summing up. Kaiju. Jaegers. Sophisticated uses of 3D. Cohesive plot. Need I say more? I do? Okay. Ron Pearlman.

Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Ron Pearlman.


3

Bizarro Man of Steel: The Tragedy of General Zod

Anybody who watches the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother is likely familiar with Barney Stinson’s rather unique take on film criticism. In short, Barney determines the protagonists of Hollywood blockbusters in a very literal way. He sees the T-800, not Sarah Connor or Kyle Reese, as the true hero of The Terminator. Die Hard is the story of gentleman thief Hans Gruber, who literally dies hard at the end of the story. Barney even goes so far as to name Johnny Lawrence and not Daniel-san as the true Karate Kid.

Even though Barney’s anti-hero revisions are meant to show how out of touch he is with reality (and human empathy) by virtue of his high-paying job at Goliath National Bank, they got me thinking about if it was possible to reframe Man of Steel along similar lines. And as you’ll see, what began as a piss take actually turns into a not entirely awful reinterpretation of Man of Steel as the tragedy of General Zod.

Let’s begin with the obvious. On a literal and figurative level, Zod is much more apt to claim the title of “Man of Steel” than Kal-El. In almost every scene we see Zod wearing his Kyrptonian battle armour. Only at the end does he willingly discard it for his final battle with Superman. Meanwhile, Superman spends the entirety of the film in either human clothing or his Kyrptonian spandex.

One point for Zod as the Man of Steel.

If we consider “steel” as a defining character trait, then Zod also stands head and shoulders above anybody from the House of El. From his rebellion on Krypton to his death on Earth, Zod is resolute in his righteous belief that Krypton must be preserved. Unlike Jor-El, who would have left Krypton’s fate to chance genetics, despite sexual procreation being so out dated on Krypton that it was deemed heresy, Zod was willing to make the hard choice of building a life raft out of the best and brightest of Krypton’s gene pool.

Furthermore, Zod embraced Jor-El’s plan for a diaspora. Yet in the face of a disagreement on how best to facilitate the exodus, Jor-El commits the ultimate act of selfish cowardice. He steals the Kryptonian genetic Codex and imbues it within Kal-El, who then gets blasted into the depths of space. In two moves, Jor-El single handedly screws over any hope for Kyrpton’s future, conveniently repackaging a desire to secure his progeny in the lofty cloak of good intentions.

When Zod emerges from the Phantom Zone to find Krypton destroyed, he does not despair. Zod and his crew take to the stars, an act which is equal parts duty and genetic predisposition, to find some last vestige of Krypton’s empire, a task made infinitely more difficult because of Jor-El’s selfishness.

And during those thirty years spent wandering in the wilderness, what is Jor-El’s legacy doing on Earth? He’s lamenting his powers, wishing to be human instead of what he is. He’s defying the pragmatic advise his adopted father, a man more like Zod than anybody is willing to admit. Case in point: when Jonathan Kent tells young Kal-El that letting a bus load of children perish might have been the right thing to do, he is showing the sort of steel that we will never see in Superman.

As an adult, Kal-El seems incapable of taking action on his own. The last son of Krypton needs a human priest to stir him to action in the face of Zod’s arrival. Stop and think about the irony of that for a moment. A Kryptonian needs a human who espouses myths about a big man in the sky, a myth which Kal-El could shatter at any moment by virtue of living and breathing, before he can decide to protect his adopted planet. I ask you, where is the steel in a man who needs to be manipulated into action by backwater mystic?

Two points for Zod.

Let’s change gears for a moment and look at the narrative structure of the story. In doing so we will see that Man of Steel is no adventure in heroics, but the chronicle of a doomed man, fated to die for being who he is. Zod fits all of the criteria for a tragic figure under the Aristotelian model. Zod is a moral character. He does not “make fortune from misery.” Compared to Jor-El, who is utterly selfish, and Kal-El, who is indecisive and lacking of internal fortitude, Zod’s sole motivation is to preserve Krypton. As supreme commander of Krypton’s armed forces, Zod is “highly renowned and prosperous.” And most importantly Zod’s downfall comes not from any weakness or frailty, but from his source of strength. He is utterly dedicated to Krypton. That dedication, which borders on fanaticism, proves to be Zod’s ultimate undoing.

Some might argue that Zod’s characterization is that of a meaningful antagonist, and not an anti-hero. In that light, Man of Steel should remain Kal-El’s heroic tale. And perhaps it would were it not for the morally dubious actions Superman takes in his attempt to protect Earth.

If the events of the film make anything clear it’s that Superman could have killed Zod at any time, thus ending the threat to Earth. Why not break Zod’s neck before wreaking billions of dollars of insurance claims in Metropolis? Superman kills Zod when the General is at his most powerful, having fully acclimatized to life on Earth. Conversely, Superman is at his weakest during this battle, courtesy of the Kryptonian world engine. Ergo, Superman chose to let the battle play out as it did.

Above and beyond that, Kal-El willingly commits an act of genocide against Krypton in destroying the ancient scout ship. Could there not have been a third way on that point? Smash the engines but save the unborn Kyrptonians so that they might one day be resurrected to live in peace with humanity on Earth? Maybe settle them on Mars or Europa? But no, after fifteen minutes of remedial Kryptonian history lessons, Superman assumes the ersatz moral authority to decide that “Krypton had its chance.” How heroic.

Of course, if hologram Jor-El had it in him to smash Zod’s mothership into the moon (if he can change the atmosphere, he can steer the ship. End of Line), Kal-El never would have had to choose between Earth and Krypton. On that note, I’m not sure who is the bigger coward: the ghost who doesn’t want to die, or the super being who hides behind humanity. Certainly neither man deserves the mantle of hero.

Thus do I submit that General Zod is the only morally unflinching man of steel in Man of Steel. He lived and died in the service of Krypton, which is more than we can say for either Jor-El or Kal-El. Zod’s story is the story of a man driven by genetics and principle to protect his civilization no matter what the cost. His death is a tragedy at the hands of a lesser man. The irony is that if Kal-El had heeded the lessons of his adoptive father, he probably would have had the stomach to do what was necessary when the time came, rather than dragging humanity into a war of the worlds which would effectively exterminate the last vestiges of his homeworld. General Zod lived and died as a Kryptonian. The tragedy of his death signals nothing less than the loss of the last true son of Krypton.