Archive for March, 2014

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Podcasting After Dark at Ad Astra

That’s right, another Ad Astra is upon us, and once again yours truly has conned his way into being a panelist. Even though I’ll be speaking on four panels this year, there’s only one that I really want to shamelessly self-promote: Podcasting After Dark.

Podcasting After Dark is exactly what it sounds like. At 11pm on Friday night, in the Richmond Room of the Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel (600 Hwy 7 Richmond Hill, ON), I will be co-hosting a podcast that will be more exciting than the World Series, World Cup, and World War Two combined.*

Joining me for this once-in-a-lifetime** live podcasting experience will be:

Madeline Ashby, science fiction writer and author of vN and iD.

Candice LePage, co-host of the Limited Release Podcast.

Matt Moore, horror writer and author of Touch the Sky, Embrace the Dark.

Sufficed to say, it’s some heavy-weight talent, and unlike last year when Nick Montgomery – the other half of the Limited Release Podcast – and I hosted Podcasting After Dark***, I wanted to go into this podcast with an actual plan. Otherwise, the four of us would probably spend the hour talking about Community.

My first plan involved finding talking points common to each of my co-hosts. That approach got a little esoteric and weird. How weird, you ask?  I briefly entertained a talking point on a hypothetical web series written in the style of Stephen King on the subject of robots having sex with humans.

Instead, I’ve decided to take a page from Inside the Actor’s Studio and leave things to fate. I will be going into the podcast with a stack of index cards, upon which will be a single question or talking point.

Some of these topics will be thoughtful: genre television that passes the Bechdel Test

Others, less so: T’Pol VS Seven of Nine – Strong female role models or teenage stroke material… or both?

A few will be downright bizarre: Nicholas Cage: Good, Bad, or Pacific Rim?

And a few more will be whatever I feel like stealing from @midnight this week.

Here’s where you, good reader, come in. From now until 10:59:59pm on Friday, I’ll be taking any and all suggestions**** and including them in the question bank. And depending on the size of the crowd (and their level of inebriation) that comes out for Podcasting After Dark, we might solicit the audience for a few ideas.

So there you have it. Podcasting After Dark, this Friday, at 11pm, at Ad Astra.

On the off chance you’re interested in hearing me talk about other things, I’ll also be doing the following panels.

How To Be A Lovable Critic – Saturday 2pm, Newmarket Room

Can the Author Become the Critic? – Saturday 6pm, Newmarket Room

Sci-Fi Classics: Fact or Fallacy – Sunday, 2pm, Newmarket Room

*I have no evidence to support this claim.

**We did this last year, and given half a chance I’ll probably do it again next year.

***Last year’s Podcasting After Dark happened at 11am on a Sunday.

****”Any and all suggestions” is not an invitation to be an ignorant asshat.


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Tabletop Review: Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set

It’s fair to say that I have come late in life to Dunegons and Dragons. When I discovered the game decades ago, overly paranoid parents thought it would turn me to demon worshipping and suicide cults. Since then, I’ve played through a few encounters here and there using second and third edition rules, but never with enough depth or frequency to say that I understood the mechanics of what I was doing. With my current gaming group evolved to the point where we are comfortable at the prospect of making our own fun, the time seemed right to dive headlong into the great grand-daddy of all RPGs. Yet in purchasing the Red Box starter set to Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, I can only quote that oft-heard line from Arrested Development, “I made a huge mistake.”

Thus will I begin this review with a dramatic retelling of The Quest To Learn a New Game System.

Our story begins with a nameless hero admiring the clever pedagogy of the fabled Player’s Book of the Red Box. Taking the form of a single-player choose your own adventure story, this tome of knowledge has a Miyagi-like sensibility to its teachings. Narrative and exposition led to choices for our nameless hero. Choices led to the fates dicing with his future. Dicing led to math, and before our hero could say, “hobgoblin,” he had gone from sanding the floor to doing Karate.

Now named Aeryk Rassalon, a human wizard fluent in the common tongue and the deep speech of monsters, he stood triumphant over his foes. Rich in coin and experience points, Aeryk came to the final passage of the mystic Player’s Manual…

You’ve completed the solo adventure in this book, but your adventures in the Dungeons and Dragons world are just beginning! Gather some friends and have them create their own characters by reading through this adventure like you did.

Even with intelligence and wisdom of 18 and 14, respectively, Aeryk grew confused.

It took three turns of the hour glass for Aeryk to negotiate the layered tapestry of the Player’s Manual. Try as he might, he could not imagine making fellow adventurers endure the same process just to roll a character. Indeed, Aeryk recalled a time long since past when his noble friend Jonathan did roll a character in the span of an elementary school lunch break. Should not the wise and all knowing Player’s Guide be a tome of straight forward knowledge, clearly indexed and measured as a means of catering to diverse learning styles? Moreover, where was the Arcana of the Sages which governed the spellcraft that the gods saw fit to bestow upon him? Though his command of Magic Missile was without question, Aeryk knew not how to invoke the Fountain of Flame, even with the help of the Red Box’s reference cards.

At the intersection of incredulity and anger, Aeryk’s character sheet became a play thing of cats and Adam re-emerged from his conceptual slumber.

“Surely the Dungeon Master’s Book will spell things out,” I said to the cat as he gleefully batted about Aeryk’s character sheet.

Though the DM book contains a starter campaign, guidelines on how to write and design original stories, and an ever-so-brief bestiary, it offers nothing on detailed spell instructions or, what I deem to be the most important part of starting an RPG, clear and linear instructions on how to roll a character. Taking my outrage online, I discovered that to make a character without jumping through the Player Manual’s hoops – not to mention its very limited classes and races – I would need to buy the full player’s manual.

Who knew it would only take three hours for me to hit the point of exponential growth in the D&D spending curve? After buying a bigger player’s manual, I would need a new DM manual. Once I was done with the DM manual, I’d probably need a monster manual to design a campaign. Here I thought D&D was supposed to orbit around communal story-telling, not me spending more money on books than I did during my final year of Undergraduate studies.

To reiterate, I knew that if my group and I got serious about D&D, we would need to buy some supplemental resources. But the bait and switch nature of the red box is nothing short of terrible. I compare this expereince to when I bought the Battletech 25th anniversary box set. That set gave players everything they needed, with no caveats or exceptions, to engage in the glorious robot on robot warfare that is Battletech.

If I wanted to build a custom lance of mechs, I could do that. If I wanted to know how a Large Laser meted out damage compared to an AC/5, there were reference tables. In the three hours it took to unbox and read the first Battletech rule book, I knew enough about the game’s mechanics to easily manage two, six-hour combat sessions, up to and including when my opponent wanted to know if he could “Death From Above” one of his mechs on to one of mine. The problem with the D&D starter set is that no matter how many times I read the given rules, I can only play the game in the exact way it wants to be played. Creativity, even something as rudimentary as creating a character, requires doubling down on the expense of the initial box and buying more materials. That, in my humble estimation, is poor design and lousy product roll-out. A game developer shouldn’t resort to trickery to get people to invest in their IP. Ideally, the IP should be good enough that I, as a gamer and customer, want to spend more of my money.

Thanks but no thanks, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. I’ll be returning you for a refund and giving either Pathfinder or Apocalypse World a try.


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Video Game Review: Talisman Digital Edition

Like many Games Workshop tabletop games, Talisman strayed a little too close to Dungeons and Dragons to ever get past the censorship of my overly-paranoid parents, who presumed causation between fantasy RPGs and suicide. Only in the back nine of high school did I get my first taste of Talisman. In the years since then, I’ve always admired how Talisman’s design hinged upon random chance while still facilitating a strategic experience. More recently, I’ve wished for a Talisman PC adaptation, if only to ameliorate the fact that Talisman is such a real estate heavy game once a few fourth edition expansions come into play. Enter Nomad Games and the utterly fantastic Talisman Digital Edition.

There is a certain secret sauce to making a good tabletop to digital adaptation. I like to use Blood Bowl as my litmus test. That particular PC game replicates the front end of its parent tabletop experience, but doesn’t automate the back end to the point of alienating the player. Likewise, Talisman DE does a fantastic job of duplicating the Talisman aesthetic while maintaining the “dear god I need to make this throw,” feeling that defines Talisman’s game play. To that end, Nomad Games made the brilliant decision to automate the various chits and tokens of Talisman while leaving the dice – or a virtual simulacra thereof – in the hands of the players. Thus it has come to pass that I’ve literally screamed at my monitor after four consecutive failures to throw greater than 3 on a 1D6 while attempting to cast the command spell and win the game. Make no mistake, when that experience is back ended, as it was in the recent digital version of Space Hulk, the essential tabletop magic is suffers.

Talisman DE is also unique among the GW tabletop games turned digital in that it still looks and plays like a tabletop game. There are no animated monks dashing across rendered forests to do Battle Chess style combat with dragons. Instead, static pieces move around a two-dimensional board. With a click of the mouse, a player can look at another player’s character sheet, followers, or equipment. Combat is an elegant comparison of vital statistics and dice rolls. All of these mechanics preserve the artwork from the original tabletop game (assuming you care about that sort of thing, which you should) as well as a sense of engagement between the players. To put it another way, most tabletop to PC/console adaptations are about adding video game sensibilities to tabletop games; Talisman DE is about bringing the tabletop experience to the new mediums.

For the uninitiated, Talisman’s core game play offers an interesting blend of PvP and PvE. After picking one of sixteen character classes, players must make their way through the game’s three regions before coming to their ultimate goal, the Crown of Control. Reaching the Crown requires a sense of timing, as well as levelled-up character. Push for the crown too early, and you’ll perish in the attempt. Wait too long and risk other players beating you to the punch. As players contend with surly mystics and randomly spawning monsters, so too must they manage each other. Dice rolling prevents wholesale ganking, but PvP battles add an interesting diplomatic and tactical twist to the game; do you risk alienating the group to steal a powerful weapon from a lone rival, or leave your fate to chance?

With this very faithful adaptation of Talisman comes a few of Talisman’s potential sins. I say potential out of fairness for the fact that I am a fan of the game, and these things don’t bother me. However, someone who is contemplating Talisman DE as a point of entry into the franchise – and make no mistake, this game is the best and least expensive on-ramp to the world of Talisman – should know what they are getting into. First, Talisman is not a one-hour game. Even with a digital timer keeping pace, a game of Talisman can easily stretch into a two or even three-hour affair. Considering that Nomad Games has nine, count ‘em nine, expansions planned for Talisman – all of which are based on existing tabletop expansions and all of which layer into the main game – Talisman DE promises to become an even more time intensive affair. Second, strategy and chance are equal partners in Talisman. If you don’t like dice determining your fate, then this is not a game for you. Third, when the fates smile on a player, it is possible for said player to start running away with the game. There are in-game mechanisms to compensate for this, but they too are equally wedded to chance and strategy. In the short term, it can be frustrating to the point of table flipping, but in the long run the odds balance things out.

In terms of Talisman DE’s interface, I’d say that the game was good when it launched and has only got better since its first update. My only initial complaint was that it seemed a little click heavy. The first update corrected that problem and offered up some additional free content to boot. As for the game’s learning curve, Talisman DE opts for in-game guidance rather than an overt tutorial. This decision allows first-time players to learn by doing. It’s a smart move that lets newbies and veterans alike jump right into the game.

On the negative side, Talisman’s AI can be a little erratic. Generally, the AI is competent, but there are moments when it makes incredibly stupid decisions. On one occasion an AI player picked a fight with me, despite the fact that its victory hinged upon throwing greater than five on a 1D6 and me rolling less than 2 on a 1D6 saving throw. The odds were not really in the AI’s favour on that particular bout.

The only other shortcoming that I can see right now, which has nothing to do with the game’s design, is that Talisman DE doesn’t quite have the critical mass of players to offer multiplayer gaming on a moment’s notice. Though my multiplayer experiences have been nothing but positive, largely due to a well-built lobby system and a classy player base, they have been something of a fishing expedition. I’ll open up a public game, set my house rules (another fun post-release feature), and wait for people to show up. Wait time for a full four-player game runs between five to ten minutes, which considering the niche market isn’t really that bad.

Ultimately, Talisman Digital Edition is exactly what this critic wants in a digital iteration of a tabletop game. It perfectly captures the fluid PvP meets PvE charm of the source material, streamlining nothing and only back-ending the book keeping incumbent upon an RPG in a box. At a $14.99 USD price point, Talisman DE offers an amazing value. The $79.99 USD gold pack, which includes all future expansions, might seem pricey, but I would consider it a worthwhile alternative for a person who likes the core game and knows they will never buy a physical copy of the game.

Bravo, Nomad Games. I look forward to seeing the future expansions.

Talisman DE is currently available on Steam.


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Star Trek: TNG’s Symbiosis – Terrible For So Many Reasons

Hi everybody. I apologize for last week’s unexpected blog vacation. My partner and I had a dear pet cat die suddenly on the Sunday before last, and I thought it best to not write my way through the loss. Given how my disposition ranged from grim, at worst, to distracted, at best, last week, I probably would have ended up writing nothing but angry crap, anyway.

That brings me to today’s post, which wouldn’t have happened as you’re reading it now were it not for the fact that part of my apartment flooded yesterday. Also, I’m not sure what god(s) I’ve managed to piss off, but I’m willing to make an act of contrition.

Before embarking upon a day of working from home/monitoring apartment repairs, I watched a full episode of Star Trek TNG. Anyone who follows me on twitter knows that I usually manage to catch half an episode before leaving for work, which affords just enough material for my #MorningTNG tweet. Today’s episode, Symbiosis, is something of a head scratcher in that I can’t tell if it’s a generally poor episode, or if the episode, written by Robert Lewin, is made terrible through its laughable attempt to latch on to the “Winner’s Don’t Use Drugs” phenomenon of the late 1980s.

Good ol, William S. Sessions, he infiltrated so many arcades in the 80s

Overall, the episode is desperate to mobilize the Prime Directive as an entry into a morality play whereupon Dr. Crusher realizes the “medicine” that planet Herp is selling to planet Derp is actually the finest smack that the 24th century has to offer. Crusher demands that Picard take actions to end this exploitative relationship i.e. deny the drugs to the Ornarans, out the Brekkians as drug pushers, and offer humanitarian aid to ease the withdrawal symptoms plaguing the entire Ornaran homeworld. Instead, Picard falls back on the lazy, and dare I say cowardly, narrative of non-interference. The Captain’s thoughtless adherence to the letter of the law catalyzes a series of events that will throw one planet’s economy into absolute turmoil and probably condemn millions to die from withdrawal on another. Behold, Federation mercy at its finest.

In and of itself, this conflict isn’t half bad. Except for the fact that the episode ends where the real story begins. The only substance comes from Beverly lecturing Picard on medical ethics and the Captain doing only slightly more than nothing to resolve his moral quandary. Do we know what’s more interesting than nothing? Anything.

It’s a perfect Kobayashi Maru, and Picard’s reaction to the situation is to invoke Wargames and do nothing.

Meanwhile, the episode sees fit to waste a few minutes of the audience’s life, framing young Wesley Crusher as the innocent boy from the future who doesn’t understand the appeal of drugs. Tasha, who grew up in Star Trek’s equivalent of Darfur, turns the episode into an after-school special, with young Wesley affirming that he just doesn’t understand why someone would want to get high, and Tasha hoping that he never will. I don’t think there’s a moment in the history of Star Trek that I’ve taken less seriously than that moment. Even this one…

 

If the above wasn’t bad enough, there are also a few episode breaking technicalities in play. As he so often does, even in season one, Picard has something of a relationship of convenience with the Prime Directive. Recall that he should have let the planet of sexy, oil-massaged, well-tanned, space hedonists execute Wesley for disrupting a flower bed. Instead, he literally offered up a soliloquy as Deus ex Machina before beaming up to the Enterprise and sailing off into the sunset. Now that the son of his future ex-wife isn’t on the chopping block, the Prime Directive returns to being an absolute. How very convenient.

Of greater interest is the fact that if Picard is truly keen on upholding the Prime Directive in Symbiosis, he never should have answered the distress call which prompts this entire episode. Even though the Ornarans are capable of space flight, their civilization has fallen into decline such that they can’t maintain their small fleet of interplanetary freighters. Data illustrates this point when he informs the bridge crew of how the Federation’s previous contact with this particular solar system reported the two planets to be in the early stages of space flight. Thus, the balance of probabilities suggests this is a pre-warp civilization, and Picard violated the Prime Directive the moment he rescued the Ornarans, Brekkians, and their cargo of space smack. That may not justify an “in for a penny, in for a pound” mentality wherein the Enterprise further meddles with these primitive people, but it’s hard to imagine Dr. Crusher not making this argument to Picard.

I’ll give the first season of TNG a pass when it comes to poor costume design, uneven acting, and a tendency to rehash the better stories of TOS without adding anything new to them, but even as an artefact of the 1980s war on drugs, Symbiosis is a terrible offering.


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Star Citizen: A Study in Attention Fatigue

Two years ago, the mere mention of Star Citizen, Chris Roberts’ in-development space combat sim, had me frothing at the mouth. For those of you who don’t know, Chris Roberts is the game design god who created the Wing Commander franchise. Now, after twenty-some months of Friday afternoon update emails from Roberts Space Industries, which today included the news that Star Citizen has cobbled together $40,000,000 in crowd sourced funding (BTW, Kudos RSI), my enthusiasm has waned.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to play this game, and I really want the title to be a success. I just had no idea that watching a game come together from the bleachers would be so dull. In days past, the opaque and arcane nature of game development ensured that things didn’t appear on the popular/critical radar until a product was near to completion. Now that I have watched a few games come together from inception to production delays to completion, I find myself growing ever more blasé when I hear about a new game that is promising to verb the adjective-noun in the finest tradition of ­that game franchise we all love.

Awesome. Sounds cool. Call me when it gets to a beta build or at least an alpha with early access buy-in. Otherwise, I fear that this tendency toward endless cinematic trailers and pre-alpha build hype is going to take many a good game and unjustly raise expectations therein to Phantom Menace levels.

I understand that this is the way the winds of game development are blowing, but I can’t be the only person whose default reaction to a “hurry up and wait” situation is lethargy. There’s only so much enthusiasm I can muster for concept art and developer blogs. These things are cool, mind you, but if I can’t quench my primal gamer desire to have it right the fuck now, then I at least want to know when I should set my alarm clock for the game’s arrival to a playable state.

As a critic, there’s only so much I can say about newly released starship classes, in the case of Star Citizen, or another game’s ephemeral geegaws, which usually conceptual and subject to change as the game gets built. Make no mistake, I would like to write about those things, but I don’t want my audience to hate me for making mountains out of mole hills.

Dare I ask if anybody else feels this way? Or do I chalk this post up to the fact that I have a head cold that is making me miserable?


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Thoughts on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos

Sunday night’s premiere of Cosmos, an iteration of Carl Sagan’s 1980 miniseries of the same name, put me in mind of the “Introduction to Astronomy” course that I took as a first year undergraduate. Therein, I already knew much of what the professor had to say, but I was nonetheless happy to be there.

I also expect that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brief introduction to the known universe, the cosmic calendar, and humanity’s relatively small role within the grand scheme of it all, probably doesn’t come as news to the sort of people who frequent my website. That’s right, I have a very high opinion of the people who take the time to read my words. So even though Cosmos has an innate appeal to science and space minded nerds, I don’t think we are meant to be its target audience.

Everything about Dr. Tyson’s seemingly effortless narration, combined with his obvious passion for the topics under discussion, is designed to take the viewer by the hand and lead them through a space so large that it almost defies imagination. The “imagination ship” itself, Tyson’s and Sagan’s conveyance through the cosmos, gives the audience permission to step out of their known world and into places that are largely conceptual and theoretical. Where this voyage could easily get bogged down in figures and measures of quanta, Cosmos is firmly rooted in the qualitative. In that light, this first episode, and probably the series as a whole, presents itself as something that is primarily concerned with exploring ideas framed within the scientific method, rather than the theories that underwrite those ideas.

Ideas also fuel what is likely the most potentially contentious part of Cosmos‘ first episode: the life and death of Giordano Bruno. I say “potentially” as I imagine the 6,000 year old Earth crowd are busy writing angry letters to Michelle Bachmann about how Cosmos and its “science”  are the biggest threat to humanity since that time Lucifer rode a tyrannosaurus into battle against the heavenly host. Nevertheless, the animated depiction of Bruno’s death at the hands of seventeenth century Rome’s secular authorities, acting on the orders of the Catholic Inquisition, embodies the type of persecution that existed in pre-enlightenment Europe. To the series’ credit, Cosmos stops short of a full-on condemnation of the Catholic Church’s history of repressing thoughts that ran contrary to doctrine. Instead, it offers a version of Giordano Bruno who decries the Church fathers, telling them, “Your god is too small.”

Bruno’s words are a reminder of why we, humanity in the year early 21st century, need a show like Cosmos as a touchstone for the general viewing public. Carl Sagan presided over a Cosmos where space, at least for Americans, was a viable battleground for the Cold War. Now, the world views space through ever shrinking NASA budgets, an orbital station beholden unto Russia’s good will, and a few robots, probes, and telescopes scattered throughout the solar system. Closer to home, economic turmoil, inequality, wars, and an uncertain future offer every reason for a person to turn inward and think only of themselves or their very small community. Yet in a single episode, Cosmos serves as a reminder that there is more to creation than the day-to-day things that fill news crawls and twitter feeds. We are part of something majestic and wonderful. Perhaps then the audience is meant to consider Bruno’s words and understand that our world is too small.


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A Random Thought on Man of Steel

It’s no big secret that I have some unusual thoughts on Man of Steel. I’ll spare everybody the rehash, and simply offer up a link for your reading pleasure.

At any rate, while driving home from a twelve hour day at work, I found my thoughts returning to the idea of General Zod as the misunderstood hero of Man of Steel. Recall that while the last son of Krypton was moping about Earth, General Zod was trying to find some lost remnant of Krypton. That’s when it occurred to me; perhaps the moral conflict between the House of El and General Zod pales in comparison to the crimes of the Kryptonian government.

Consider that Krypton is a technologically advanced planet at the core of a vast interstellar empire. Yet somehow said empire fell into decadence and decline. Granted failed colonies are nothing new in the history of terrestrial empires, but famine, privation, exposure, and gross incompetence – all things which brought down colonies on Earth – should be factors beneath an intergalactic empire. Furthermore, we see no evidence of poverty or privation on Krypton in Man of Steel; thus it is probably safe to assume that the Kryptonian colonies didn’t starve to death or die from a lack of basic health care or social services. So what brings down Krypton’s empire? Arguably, a willing and intentional neglect from Krypton.

All things being equal, an advanced and enlightened people should be able to perpetuate themselves barring a massive ecological catastrophe. The only thing requisite to a thriving Kryptonian society is access to the species’ genetic codex. Does this mean that Krypton’s empire died because the home world was too lazy to ensure that their colony worlds had access to the genetic material necessary for procreation? Wouldn’t that make Krypton’s leaders the biggest bunch of bastards the universe has ever known? I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility, since these are the leaders who thought it best to tap into their home world’s core as a power source, despite the dire warnings against such an action from their top scientist.

Next question: where am I going with this? During my attempts to reframe Man of Steel as the tragedy of General Zod, I couldn’t find a way to suitably justify his rebellion against Krypton’s leadership. However, if Krypton’s leadership, across multiple generations, was carrying out a systematic genocide against their own people, then Zod’s genetic mandate to protect Krypton at all costs would have demanded he take some action. Pair that with the reckless exploitation of Krypton’s natural resources and Zod is perfectly justified in his coup d’état.

Hail Zod, saviour of Krypton and the true man of steel.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 – Episode 22

After multi-episode battles, race wars, and prison riots, the twenty-second episode of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 offers a much needed pause so that the audience might catch up on the nuances of the war. Though, once again, the episode’s primary focus is on Gamilas, it devotes just enough time to the Yamato to set up the final conflict between humanity and the Gamilans.

The use of the Captain’s Log trope to introduce the episode is something of a cheap expository device, but I dare say it is necessary to spell out a few things that the series previously glossed over. Specifically, Admiral Ditz is indeed in charge of an insurrection against Desler. I will admit that his mission to liberate Gamilan prison planets seems like an odd way to sow dissent. Ditz’s quest will certainly yield loyal soldiers, but without a fleet of ships behind him, his actions seem largely symbolic. Then again, Ditz was supreme commander of the Gamilan fleet; thus he was ideally placed to fill the fleet with supporters who could execute simultaneous Red October style coups on his order.

The episode also spends some time further defining the relationship between Gamilas and Iscandar. Through Ditz, the audience learns that Iscandar is not simply an item of political desire for Gamilas, but an object of worship. Blue and white skinned Gamilans, alike, scrape and bow before the very mention of Iscandar. Desler’s plan to exploit this reverence sees him passing off a captured Yuki as Yurisha – the Third Princess of Iscandar. With Yuki at his side, Desler announces to his people that Yurisha has agreed to a union between the two sister planets. The gambit is not entirely surprising given the way in which the series’ iconography has framed the Gamilas/Iscandar relationship as one of 1930s Germany and Austria. However, the writing does take the “we are one people” conceit a step farther; Desler announces to all of Gamilas that Iscandarians and Gamilans were once a single species, which at some point in the distant past was bifurcated into the current binary.

Despite this return to the simplistic framing of Gamilans as Space Nazis, with Desler on a personal mission to bring civilization to the barbarian species of the cosmos, I still find myself intrigued with the Gamilan side of the story. Desler, is far more ambiguous than the series first let on. He’s certainly a tyrant, but is he a tyrant with good reason? Are there worse things than the Gamilan Empire?

It’s also worthwhile to ask how complicit Desler is in the persecution of his own people? It often seems like the Imperial Guard is to blame for the crimes against Gamilan civilians. Despite the aural similarity, to Japanese ears at least, between Albet Desler and Adolf Hitler, could the character be a closer analogue to Emperor Hirohito? Are his actions beholden unto the Gamilan military junta, rendering him little more than a ideological figure head? Or is he complicit in the atrocities of the empire? Let’s not forget that we’ve seen the Gamilan fleet bombarding a rebel planet into extinction. Are Desler’s finger prints on those actions?

The episode ends with Desler ordering the firing of what appears to be a wave motion weapon at the Yamato after it warps into the Gamilas/Iscandar solar system. I suppose the final four episodes will offer up a verdict on Desler and his government.

Stray thoughts:

The prevalence of saluting in this episode makes me wonder what happened to the old cross chest Terran Space Navy salute? Perhaps the writers thought it necessary to balance the Gamilan “heil five” with something more definitively Terran.

A girl-talk session with Yurisha, Ens. Yamamoto, and Melda Ditz sort of passes the Bechtel Test. They aren’t explicitly talking about men, but the topic of conversation hovers around non-gendered relationships before shifting to ice cream and star fighters.

Kodai rejects a plan from Lt. Nambu to rescue Yuki from Gamilas and hates himself for the decision. Both he and Okita are resolute that the Yamato’s mission is to Iscandar, not Gamilas. Presumably Nambu’s plan involved using the wave motion gun.


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Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality – A Study into Mediocrity

Community’s fifth season has been an about face to the televised impressionism of the series’ second and third seasons. That is to say, unlike the fourth season, which could have been helmed by any appendage of the Hollywood institution, season five shows us the hand of the artist, Dan Harmon, in almost every scene. Thus, when I watched Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality my first reaction was that Harmon must be writing his way through feelings about Donald Glover leaving the show. One need only look at the brilliant camera work that captures Abed Nadir’s essential loneliness as he Robocop Kickpuncher-walks his way down the empty corridors of Greendale Community College to see this. Yet such an interpretation seemed too easy. Perhaps the gas leak season would resort to such an obvious tactic, but Harmon’s style is almost always more complicated than that.

Puzzling through the issue put me in mind of Harmon’s writing process. This, for example, is Harmon’s story circle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With that in mind, I began to look for the episode’s common thread. What do all the characters want? In terms of Britta, Abed, Buzz, they want what they have always wanted: to be the person of stature that they imagine themselves to be. The episode then presents these three characters with the kryptonite of all those who aspire to greatness: confirmed mediocrity.

Consider that Britta has always wanted to make the world a better place. Through “selling out,” Britta’s old friends have done just that. Britta, however, is a bartender and perpetual college student. What good can she accomplish in that? Indeed, what does that say about her potential to ever do anything measurably good?

Abed learnt everything there is to know about popular culture as a means of compensating for his Asperger Syndrome. Though he uses media to connect with people, his ultimate goal is to produce something of his own that will let people connect with him. Except his work is soulless and bereft of humanity. Abed can’t even come up with a character name that is endearing. Remember Hector the Well Endowed?

 

Through his creation of Jim the Duck, Buzz wants to be more than a failed cop-turned teacher at a third rate school. He wants the world to see how frustrated he is with the way the mundanities of life can grind a person down; hence we witness Jim the Duck’s perpetual catch phrase, “What the hell?” What a shame Buzz’s work is crude, shallow, and dependent upon a single gimmick.

Despite their lofty goals, all three of these characters run face first into the revelation that they are nothing more than average. Is there a more terrifying revelation for a person who defines themselves as a certain thing, either publically or privately, than to be told that they are mediocre at said thing? As Britta, Abed, and Buzz face this uncomfortable truth so too do their story arcs descend into the chaos side of the wheel.

Their return to the light side sees the episode revisiting the series’ most common and also most heartening motif: the study group/save Greendale committee – and by extension the audience – is better together than they/we are on our own. Duncan, a perpetual joke of a therapist, encourages Britta to deal with her existential crisis on her own, thus shattering her cycle of  perpetual codependence, which often prevents the character from accomplishing anything for herself. Meanwhile, Abed and Buzz find writing partners in each other, such that they might rise out of their mutually exclusive creative mediocrity.

Perhaps that’s why this episode seemed so out of place with the rest of the season to date. Everything else so far, especially the sublime Basic Intergluteal Numismatics, overflowed with confidence. Invoking Futurama’s Bender, Community and Dan Harmon proudly proclaimed, “We’re back, baby.” Yet this episode turned its eye inward and used a cheap shot against the new RoboCop movie, literally spooging over the work of others i.e. Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, to touch upon the first fear of lofty goals. Namely, that a person’s best individual effort might only amount to being average in the eyes of the world. Who is that person then? Who is the writer that spends 10,000 hours at practice only to be esteemed as passable? Who is the revolutionary that can’t inspire grass roots social change? Who is the everyman that tries and fails at being unique?

Thankfully, the moral of this episode doesn’t demand an answer to that question. Instead, it reaffirms the series’ core message that an individual as an island unto themselves will never be capable of reaching the heights of those who are part of something larger. From the nascent relationship between Buzz and Abed to the reaffirmed friendship between Jeff and Duncan (which was largely an attempt to find a new foil, comedic or otherwise, for Jeff now that Pierce is dead), this episode tells us that nobody gets to the top on their own. For that message, Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality demonstrates that Community, despite re-piloting, is still concerned with the same themes as it was five years ago. This won’t be the best episode of the season, but it still rings true as classic Harmon, nonetheless.


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Shaftoe Labs Presents: The Worst Video Game Idea Ever

In the wake of last week’s Super Mario hooplah, I got to thinking about video games. Specifically, if I were an evil capitalist – and gods willing one day I will be – how I could I make a game that would ruin video games? What sort of game has the power to simultaneously make tons of money, show utter contempt for its audience, and be evil enough to get the attention of Republican media wags, whose lowest common denominator, daytime cable news discussions would generate the kind of free ad campaign that Madison Avenue can only dream about.  Here’s what I came up with.

NB: To head off any “you have too much time on your hands, Adam” comments, I would offer that I cooked up this idea while on a treadmill, and there’s really not much to do on a treadmill other than think about odd things.

The Worst Game Ever – Doctor Mario’s Clinic

Please to note that this game will be built on the back of an existing title, namely Doctor Mario. Thus, it will have instant brand and name recognition. At Shaftoe Labs, we don’t waste time with original concepts.

Like all things evil and game related, Doctor Mario’s Clinic will be a free-to-play browser game that will also have crappy ports on to Apple and Android mobile devices. For completely arbitrary reasons, the Apple version will be better than the Android iteration. Doctor Mario’s Clinic is also going to be geo-locked for an American audience, if only to make Canadians want to play it even more. Eventually, it will get a Canadian release, but not before every Canadian blogger has authored an angry op-ed piece about the ills of targeted marketing. Alternatively, the Canadian release will happen after Doctor Mario’s Clinic gets shamed on CBC’s Under the Influence.

Here’s how the game itself shapes up. While Mario and Luigi were saving the Mushroom Kingdom – and participating in illegal street races – they were also spreading all sorts of Earthling germs about a land that no natural immunities to human ailments. With serfs and civil servants, alike, calling in sick, Princess Peach fears that unrest from the lower orders might lead to an outright rebellion against her dynasty. Once again, she charges an unemployed plumber from the Bronx with propping up her reign. After a quick study at the University of Phoenix Online, Mario gets his MD and opens up a for-profit clinic. (What? You think the Mushroom Kingdom has socialized medicine? Get real.)

After that introduction, the rest will be a standard free-to-play experience.

- Listen to Toad the Delivery Man talk about his cheating wife for three hours, or pay him $2.99 and he will offload your 500 units of penicillin in begrudging silence.

- Collect $3000 coins in treatment fees to advance to the next level, expand the clinic, and begin treating patients with typhoid.

- Uh-oh, a new super bug has made all previous drugs useless. Wait 24 hours to research a new treatment, or pay $2.99 to bypass the Mushroom Kingdom’s FDA oversight and proceed directly to human testing.

Here’s the best part: once people start complaining about the criminally exploitative and embarrassingly expensive nature of Doctor Mario’s Clinic, Nintendo need only take a page form the GOP playbook, and blame poor people for not having enough money to play the game properly.

You’re welcome, internet.