About Author: Adam Shaftoe

Description
E-Mail Adam at adam@pageofreviews.com Follow @AdamShaftoe

Posts by Adam Shaftoe

5

Indefinite Hiatus

This is proving harder to write than I expected. Let’s start with the fundamentals, and then get into the relevant details.

I’m not dying.

To the best of my knowledge, and the knowledge of two surgeons and one hematologist, I don’t have cancer. Though I did have a cancer scare. I bring this up only to say that said cancer scare – or the very small, outside chance of cancer in my immediate future – has nothing to do with this decision.

I’m putting the brakes on the Page of Reviews because, in most ways, it has served its purpose.

I started writing this website in 2009 because I thought I had lost something as a writer. A previous project of mine turned sour – very sour. It was the kind of project born of the limitless ambition (and arrogance) that comes with being a recent university graduate, intent on making himself the second coming of Christopher Hitchens. It was also the kind of project that alienated people I thought were friends. Granted they turned out to be little more than emotional baggage, but who can know these things at the time.

Nonetheless, I wanted…needed something in my life to help me find some footing. And the truth is this, I started The Page of Reviews without any intention of it running for nearly six years. I thought it was a lark that would last me six months, at most. Then a stranger, now a friend, called Matt Moore came along and offered me something unexpected: legitimacy.

You know the rest of the story. This website has been my personal brand since before I cared about things like personal brands. People who I would have otherwise never met now know me and my writing because of this website.

Beyond the vanity of feeling like I’m part of something bigger, I’ve used this website as my forum for arguing that a critical and thoughtful discourse is important to building a meaningful popular and artistic culture. And yet, I look at the work I’m doing here of late and there’s one word that comes to mind: safe.

This website is my kingdom. The only editorial voice here is my own. There’s a freedom in that. There’s also something else, though. It is a notion I couldn’t properly express until I came upon a line of dialogue in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt: a person shouldn’t train alone, because then they are practicing their mistakes.

There’s no one here to challenge me. I can read critical theory books until I drown in praxis, but it won’t offer me a voice – save for my own insecurity – that says, “Adam, this idea could be better. Fix it.”

I heard those voices this year. They came from writers and editors who I respect (and often stand in awe of) telling me that my work shows promise. Someone even went so far as to say my work is good. But those voices are going to be few and far between if I spend most of my time splashing about in the tide pool.

My finite writing hours are spent doing the same old things, over and over, to the point where they have become rote. When I do come across an interesting idea, I’m afraid to develop it past 800 words for fear of breaking the limited attention spans people dedicate to blogs. Granted, selling long form writing – even for exposure (sigh) – is no walk in the park, but I feel I owe it to myself to have the chance to write bigger or different things, rather than doing the same work out of a sense of inertia.

I love this website. I love writing it, and I love you people for reading it. But I can’t have the freedom to do something new while working to twice or thrice weekly deadlines here. I need the freedom to do a twelve-part, one-off podcast, for example, without worrying that it will get in the way of writing the Page of Reviews. I need space to make mistakes without putting them to the public eye to appease a self-imposed production schedule.

In short, I need to know if I can do better as a writer. It could be I’m as mediocre as I’m afraid I am, and a year from now I’ll be right back here with nothing but a year’s worth of ignored/rejected pitches, essays, and short fiction to show for it. But I’ll never know if I can do better if I don’t make the effort.

So it’s not the end. It’s not goodbye. So long as I live, I’ll keep the Page of Reviews online, but the days of new content are coming to a close – unless I fail spectacularly in my attempt to grow as a writer. For the time being, www.adamshaftoe.com is my new home base online.

I’ll still be checking my Page of Reviews email every day for the next year or so. And I’ll still be rambling about this, that, and the other thing on twitter. So, honestly, it’s not good bye. With any luck, the best is yet to come.

 

0

A Mostly Pointless Spoiler-Free “Review” of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

Let’s boil things down to one simple, 80s CRPG-style preamble and question.

You see a movie theatre. It’s playing Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Do you buy a ticket? (Y/N)

Your answer should be yes.

This is mostly everything I’m going to say about The Force Awakens. Not because I’m lazy, but because I suspect it’s all people want to know, at least for now.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I want to say about this movie. I could fill pages discussing the way The Force Awakens hits every mythological beat in terms of telling a story that could be right out of Greek mythology. But that’s not what people want, is it?

Between little old ladies demanding blood oaths against spoilers on pain of a heavy sack beating, a general distrust of the Snakes on a Plane-level of hype surrounding TFA, and oh-so-many Attack of the Clones shaped scars courtesy of Lucas’ second kick at the can, I’m left to ask what’s the fucking point of writing a review? Anything I put together that wouldn’t risk offending sensibilities would be the sort of pale mockery of criticism that comes with the joke of the objective video game review.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a motion picture. It is filmed in colour. There are many actors representing both humans and non-humans. The story is set in a galaxy far from our own, at a point in time removed from our own. The film is paced into three narrative acts, with a prologue and epilogue. The actors convey a range of human emotions in their attempt to tell a story.

I trust the point is made.

While I submit that any story worth its salt can’t be spoiled on the grounds of plot details alone, I’ll not invite the scorn of the internet for my inability to perfectly divine what may or may not offend. To be honest, The Force Awakens is strong enough that I could summarize the plot and comment on its themes without diminishing the experience. But with various plug-ins and apps filtering out Star Wars related comments and content, what’s the point in writing for an audience that doesn’t want it? I write reviews with the expectation that that my words will provide some value to readers. The general buzz around the internet is that said value is neither welcome nor required at this particular juncture.

So if all people want is reassurance, then here it comes.

Is The Force Awakens better than episodes 1, 2, or 3? Absolutely.

Should you go see it? Without a doubt.

Is it going to make you feel feelings other than disgust and boredom a la Attack of the Clones? You bet. All of the feels.

Did Lawrence Kasdan write a good movie? Without a doubt.

Did JJ screw it up? Not even a little.

There. Are you not reassured?


6

Game Review: Thea: The Awakening

Thea: The Awakening strikes me as a game designed for people of rather specific tastes. While that may sound like cheap platitude, rest assured this is not the case. Developed by Muha Games, a studio based out of the UK and Poland, Thea is what would happen if Endless Legend had a kid with NEO Scavenger and the two of them hired Gwent from The Witcher 3 to raise the kid on a steady diet of Eastern European folk lore. Like I said, specific tastes.

The game is set in the eponymous land of Thea, recently emerged out of a prolonged period of death and decay. Assuming the role of a benevolent deity, players guide a single village through this time of recovery. While the general goal is one of survival against seemingly impossible odds – as is the flavour with most games that venture into the realm of permanent death and procedural generation – a story does gradually unfold over time. It’s a slow burn of a story, for sure, but so was Dark Souls and I really liked its approach to narrative development through inches.

Settling into Thea for the first time requires negotiating a small, but noticeable, learning curve. At its core, Thea is a turn-based strategy/resource management game. A player’s village always has a death clock hanging over its head in the form of dwindling food and firewood. This makes the first twenty or thirty turns a very tense affair. In my experience, cleaning out the local monster nests was nowhere near as important as deploying a clutch of warriors and workers to secure a new supply of food. Once those first rounds were behind me, I finally let myself dig into the game’s complex crafting system.

This is where Thea feels like I’m playing the most richly designed worker placement tabletop game ever imagined. Remember, specific tastes. Some of you are going to love micromanaging the equipment and supplies of a dozen simulated people before sending half of them into battle against a Striga – a battle which is played out through a card game. Others are going to find the initial experience fiddly, possibly even intimidating. All I can say is Thea is quick to reward persistence. The relatively stable number of villagers in play means that the first crush of micromanagement trails off fairly quickly.

Returning to a previous point, yes, I said a card game simulates the battles. Thea handles combat, and a number of other skill challenges, through a card battle system. The rules governing this system are simplicity itself. Yet the easy mechanics only serve to underscore the impressive way Thea applies seemingly dozens of stats for each villager into the card battle system.

Even though I found myself simulating a few battles in the mid-game, particularly when my party was powerful enough as to not fear skeletons and mutated bees, I always wanted to play through the card combat. If only to hedge my bets against the way seemingly minor injuries incurred in combat have a way of leading to infection and death if left untreated. Needless to say, this adds a measure of tension to even the most one-sided of battles.

For the purposes of this review, I will admit to not having successfully completed Thea. I’ve lost each of my four attempts to beat the game. The first play though was a wash since I skimmed through most of the tutorial text. Read the tutorial text, people. The second through fourth time met with better results. On each occasion my downfall was in my ambition.

The most precious resources in the game are a player’s villagers. Unlike food and minerals, people are a finite resource. Losing even one villager can make an impact on a player’s overall economic and military health. Losing four because the majority of your fighters were off fighting Striga-bats (yes I said Striga-bats, I didn’t know they were a thing, either) is almost crippling. I watched my village slowly starve to death as my fighters made their futile attempts to bang their swords to plough shears and farm with barely half the efficiency of my dead workers. Ultimately, I resigned the game and started fresh, progressing even farther before disaster struck again.

Yet in failure there is satisfaction. Thea is about rebuilding the world out of the ashes of armageddon. It is a struggle against the forces of entropy. It stands to reason things aren’t going to go to plan the first few times. Like Dark Souls, X-Com, NEO Scavenger, and FTL, losing at Thea only stings temporarily. A new game means a new map and new chances to watch it all go so terribly wrong lead the people to triumph.

In the end, Thea brings together a style that fuses Civilization and a fantasy twist on Fallout, wrapping its package in a mythology that should be reasonably familiar for anybody who recognizes the name Geralt of Rivia. In terms of mechanics, the game does something genuinely fun and innovative with the buzzwords “rogue-like” and “procedurally generated”. Where the art can be a little stock-fantasy in the over world – particularly in a post Endless Legend gaming market - the look of hand-drawn detailing in the card battle system adds a nice flourish to the overall experience. Thea is likely to find a happy home among the sort of people who enjoy reasonably deep RPGs, worker placement tabletop games, or the existential dread of Dark Souls.


1

The Force Awakens Predictions: Part 2 – Redraw the Map

This week I’m diving head long into some hype for The Force Awakens. The first part of this post saw my longshot theory on how JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan are going to take us from The Rebel Alliance to the Resistance. Today’s theory is considerably more boring, but it’s probably a more likely narrative interregnum.

Theory 2 – The Alliance to Restore the Republic worked – to an extent

Return of the Jedi ends with everybody partying on Endor and (sigh) wipe cuts to all the good times people are having across the galaxy. Chuck Wendig takes the piss out of Lucas’ retconned big happy ending with Star Wars: Aftermath. On that note, let’s presume that Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar are able to hold the New Republic together against the machinations of Admiral Rae Sloane and the Supreme Commander.

Sloane and the Supreme Commander are faced with a triage situation. Star Wars: Aftermath shows us that there’s no way they can hold on to their traditional power. Reduced to an armada unified by ideology, the Imperial forces would have little choice but to retreat en masse to the Outer Rim. This strategic withdrawal would allow the Republic to establish its control over the core worlds and the Mid Rim. Essentially, we end up with a version of what we had in the old extended universe novels. The Galaxy Far Away is home to two competing supra nations: the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant First Order.

How does this get us to The Force Awakens? Two words: Cold War.

After transitioning from the Clone Wars to the Empire to the Galactic Civil War, it is safe bet that the Galaxy Far Away is living with some serious war weariness. The First Order, driven from its power base in the core, needs to establish supply lines to keep its armada alive. The Republic needs to establish a system of government that doesn’t depend on fear and intimidation. The emphasis on both sides of the line is stabilization, without playing at full-scale military operations.

Assuming neither side can afford to engage in total war, the New Republic might adopt a strategy of proxy warfare against the First Order. Admiral Ackbar could send specialists and support groups to aid local malcontents against their occupiers.  Over time, these individual cells could become more cohesive, ultimately leading to a formal Outer Rim Resistance movement. I expect their end game would be about denying the First Order its safe harbours and forcing them to over saturate men and material on certain planets. I mean, why the hell else would anybody want to occupy a shit hole looking planet like Jakku?

The line between the Republic and the Order needn’t be limited to territory, either. It would make sense for the First Order to rewrite history on their side of the line. They can’t have the shit hole planets of the Outer Rim knowing that their salvation is just a hyperspace jump away. It might also explain why Rey thinks the Jedi are just fairy tale and not recent history.

Odds of this being right?

I’m going to say 3:1.

I can’t see the Empire carrying on like it is business as usual in the wake of Endor, at least not considering the events seen in Star Wars: Aftermath.

The other thing that bothers me about the idea of the Republic falling and the Resistance growing out of its ashes is the new X-Wings we’ve seen in the trailers. Those look like improved models over the ones we saw in Jedi. If the First Order took over the entire galaxy, one might expect they would outlaw the production of the strike craft that have been responsible for the Empire’s most disastrous military failures. It’s not like they wouldn’t know who was making them for the New Republic/Resistance. Since one doesn’t make hyperspace capable starfighters in their basement like so many pipebombs, the Resistance would need to have a manufacturing base of some sort. And that tells me things can’t be that bad in the Galaxy Far Away.


1

Adam’s The Force Awakens Predictions: Part 1 – A Knife From The Shadows

We’re less than two weeks away from the release of The Force Awakens, and it’s time for Adam to jump aboard the hype(rspace) train. That’s right, even a cynical bastard like yours truly is counting down the days to a new Star Wars movie. Sure, there’s a significant non-zero chance the movie will be dreadful. Good music and decent editing made The Phantom Menace’s trailers augur a good movie. This said, I have a hard time imagining Lawrence Kasdan writing a movie worse than Attack of the Clones.

So let’s pass a bit of time with a two-part speculation fest about what’s gone on between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Based on what we’ve seen in the trailers, which do a fantastic job of channeling iconic images from A New Hope, it’s pretty safe to assume The Force Awakens wants to take things back to the drawing board. For example, young Luke is a “nobody” marked for greatness, and he lives on a desert planet. Rey calls herself “no one”, is marked for greatness, and lives on a different desert planet. The Empire had a super weapon in A New Hope, and now the First Order has its super weapon. Obi-Wan Kenobi trains and guides A New Hope’s archetypical hero; Han and Chewbacca, likewise old soldiers, fill the Chiron-esque role for Rey and Finn. A New Hope had a scrappy band of rebels taking on an evil empire, but this doesn’t make sense for The Force Awakens.

Chuck Wendig’s canonical novel (eat all the dicks, haters) Star Wars: Aftermath paints a picture of the Empire in complete disarray after Endor. Imperial starships and planets, alike, are defecting to the New Republic. Mon Mothma has established a new seat of government on Chandrillia. Admiral Ackbar’s military resources are so great that Mothma wants to begin scaling back the Republic’s navy. This tactical situation doesn’t really mesh with the notion of the The Force Awakens’ Resistance being poorly organized and out-matched by the First Order. The Republic, not the Resistance, should be meeting its opposition with squadrons of B-Wings, Mon Cal cruisers, and starbird-painted Star Destroyers. Various trailer scenes of X-Wings attacking absent capital ship support strike as odd.

Theory 1: The New Republic Collapsed/is Crippled

Suppose Mon Mothma’s idealism bit the Republic in its ass. I can imagine her and Admiral Ackbar getting into it over deployment levels and response rates as her idealism collides with his realpolitik. I can almost hear the cheers from within the New Republic’s senate as tax burdens are eased, military spending reduced – probably for the first time since the Clone Wars – and civil infrastructure projects, long neglected under Palpatine’s rule, finally get off the ground. And on the day Home One gets mothballed, BAM, Grand Admiral Rae Sloane shows up in orbit of Kuat, commanding an SSD strike force. Before the Republic can mobilize a response, she’s blown the hell out of the shipyards and beat a retreat. Days later, she pulls the same stunt at Corellia, then Fondor, and finally Mon Calamari, itself. There’s no need for the Empire to hold these systems when raiding them effectively cripples the Republic’s ability to build-up its forces. Absent their primary shipyards and maintenance facilities, the Republic navy would have to return to its roots as a rebel armada.

What would the Empire need to pull it off?

First and foremost, time. Even with some units defecting to the Republic, the Imperial navy is huge. If Rae Sloane and the mysterious Supreme Commander can secure a proper rear-operating base, complete with supply lines to feed and fuel the fleet, then they need only wait for Mon Mothma to make a tactical miscalculation.

Odds of this being right?

10:1 on this or a variation on the theme. Kasdan isn’t beyond going dark, and JJ is probably inclined to let him go there. More importantly, if The Force Awakens wants to get back to the roots of the franchise, then something very bad needs to happen to the ability of the Rebel Alliance to govern as the New Republic. Or more precisely, something needs to happen to the power that legitimizes the Republic’s ability to rule.

There’s also something else that stands out from Star Wars: Aftermath. At one point an Imperial character says, “The Sith thing to do is to wait until your enemy passes by and stab him from the shadows.”

The Sith from Knights of the Old Republic were opportunists and empire builders. Darth Revan’s greatest success came not from direct conflict with the Republic, but from attacking them from within. He took advantage of the Jedi’s arrogance, subverted their saviour, Bastila Shan, and carved out an empire for himself. What if the Supreme Commander, Rae Sloane, and Kylo Ren are that kind of Sith?

On Friday, I explore my more plausible, but infinitely more boring theory on The Force Awakens.


2

On Kilgrave and the Monster Inside All of Us

I’m currently seven episodes into Marvel’s Jessica Jones. At this point, I think Jessica Jones stands alone within the MCU as being something that is both profoundly meta and effortlessly didactic. Rather than getting into all of that, I want to talk about Kilgrave. More specifically, I want to talk about Kilgrave’s powers.

At first blush, Kilgrave’s power to compel anyone to do anything seems almost subdued. Within the pages of the Marvel universe and the MCU, there are beings blessed/cursed with much more grandiose abilities. Likewise, mind control is far from an original ability. Professor Xavier, for one, could reduce anyone on the planet to a meat puppet. Of course, Charles Xavier would never use his mutant gifts on something as crass as cheating at poker. Xavier is a paragon beyond the reach of mere mortals.

In contrast, I’ve seen Kilgrave use his powers to make money, skip the bill at restaurants, kill people, torture people, rape people and general shape the world around him. The thing that makes him, in my estimation, a stand-out villain within the MCU, a place where so many antagonists are little more than the opposite of the person headlining the movie/series, is the fact that Kilgrave’s powers would probably turn anyone into Kilgrave.

Think about yourself for a moment, dear reader. Are you a good person? Do you generally adhere to some sort of moral or personal code in your daily life? Now consider where that code comes from. Do your behaviors stem from a moral core that provides an immutable right way to live your life? Alternatively, are you good because you recognize, on either a conscious or unconscious level, that civil society depends on a social contract where individual needs are subordinate to a collective good?

In other words, what percentage of your interaction with society is governed by your fear of punishment? Now suppose something (e.g. Kilgrave powers) stripped away your obligation to said social contract. What if you were free to revert to a state of nature, a place of absolute freedom, while everyone else was still bound to a social contract? Would such freedom change you?

For all the good we think we have inside of us, Kilgrave’s ability to compel anyone to do anything, filtered through a personal lens, forces us to consider where our good natures come from. How could any person (other than Batman) resist using his powers? How many compromises could a person make to their self-identified good nature while using his abilities? When would a person cross the Rubicon between man and monster? When would the monster begin seeing themselves as a god?

Would you, gentle reader, Kilgrave a misogynist into a feminist? Given the chance, would you tell Donald Trump to go home and retire from public and private life? Would you use the power to talk yourself into a dream job? I’d probably do all three. And even after running headlong into Jessica Jones’ central ethos – that any act of coercion is a violation – I could probably come up with some way to rationalize my actions. And with each rationalization, I, a generally good person, take another step to becoming Kilgrave.

Kilgrave can then be seen as a meaningful example of what might happen to a normal person if they were given god-like powers. Arguably, none of the Avengers meet my definition of being normal. The unique circumstances that make them who they are (e.g. war hero, billionaire, royalty) prepare them for the responsibility that comes with being empowered beyond mere mortals. Also, Jessica Jones and Matt Murdoch may have powers, but they are hardly the equals of the Avengers in raw ability, and their early childhood is likewise a product of a heroic archetype. When I say normal, I mean someone born outside of the confines of Mr. Campbell’s monomyth.

Kilgrave powers speak to the common person because they can be applied in such utterly banal ways. Jessica Jones hints at this in the way Kilgrave uses his abilities to always get what he wants to eat. Imagine what would become of a person if they won every argument about where to go for supper, what to say on the office Christmas card, and who should take out the garbage? If a person never had to compromise, how long would it take before things like compassion and empathy atrophied? How long could a person be eternally right before the people who would dare to contradict them became tiresome pests? In such a mental place, tolerance and understanding become acts of largess rather than fundamental patterns of behavior.

On the opposite side of the coin, how long could a person use their Kilgrave powers before they created an existential void for themselves? Think here of Homer Simpson when he became the Chosen One. Would absolute power over others lead to isolation and alienation? While there’s a chance this distance from other people might make a person with Kilgrave powers cling to their humanity, it might also encourage them to use their abilities in the pursuit of new ways to fill the void.

Notwithstanding the old Wargames maxim that the only way to win is not to play, I don’t see how a person could use Kilgrave’s powers without progressively surrendering the behavioral constructions that make coexisting with other people possible. Courtesy, manners, and etiquette go out the window when a person can act like the most boorish of French monarchs absent any real consequence.

As superhero antagonists go, Kilgrave is something far removed from the likes of Doctor Doom, Whiplash, Loki, or Ronan the Accuser. Unlike most of the MCU’s rogues’ gallery, Kilgrave is not a foil for the protagonist. Rather, he is a foil for the audience. He exists to remind us of what we would become if we woke up with his powers. He is why we can never be Batman. It doesn’t matter who Kilgrave was before his powers, because we, as humans, are not uncompromising enough to wield them without becoming monsters. Only the truly saintly among us can look in the mirror and not see a Kilgrave waiting for his day in the sun.


0

Trailer Takedown: Captain America: Civil War

Last week the internet lost its collective mind over the trailer for Captain America: Civil War. Critics and media experts, alike, took to their mediums to see who could twitch out the most original (but still exceedingly derivative) explanation for what a big deal it is for the MCU to take on the Marvel Civil War.

As I watched the trailer, I thought about three things.

First, what drugs does a person have to be on to think this trailer heralds the best movie ever?

Second, where can I get some of those drugs?

Third, at what point in the movie will Cap take Bucky to a redneck bar for a little slow dancing.

There is no way I’m the only person looking at this trailer and seeing superheroes so far in the closet they are finding last year’s Christmas presents. So with all due deference to slash-fic enthusiasts, who are rightly torqued up by the trailer, I’m left to wonder what the hell the rest of you are so excited about?

For a movie styling itself as the MCU’s answer to the Marvel Civil War, I don’t think I could imagine a more incipit approach to telling its story. Cap wants to save Bucky, a character who sucked so hard he stayed dead for decades, from the evil forces of the Federal Government. Wow, that conveys so much of the nuance and depth found within the actual Civil War story arc.

Even if Bucky single-handedly manages to destroy Stamford (or commit some other act of domestic terror), thus creating a climate of unprecedented political fear, where the powers that be institute a systematic defrocking of costumed super-heroes and their subsequent regulation under SHIELD, none of that is coming through the trailer.

The Marvel Civil War is a discussion of the 9/11 terror attacks and America’s response in the years that followed. Through the safety of the comic book lens, the long arc of the Civil War asks fundamental questions that put the security of the state and the rights of the individual at odds with each other. These questions aren’t merely the source of some man-pain. The Civil War destroys families and lives. It creates strange bedfellows where Captain America, champion of the anti-registration movement, teams up with known murder and libertarian poster-boy Frank Castle. The Fantastic Four break-up because Reed Richards comes on side with Tony Stark and the pro-registration supporters. Peter Parker throws away his mask before going corporate.

Who looks at the Cap: Civil War trailer and sees anything nearly so sophisticated? And please understand, I’m not asking this to play the role of an angry comic book nerd, outraged about a movie diverging from the source material. The MCU need not adhere to the comic book canon. The issue here is the banal way Disney/Marvel insists on dumbing down the MCU on the big screen (because Big Bucks, Big Bucks, no Whammies). Surely to god there is room for some grown-up story telling in these movies. Daredevil makes gentrification exciting. Jessica Jones invites us to think long and hard about systemic bias against sexual assault survivors. Is it really too much to expect quality writers like Anthony and Joe Russo to raise the discourse in the movies beyond the level of a beef between bros?

Apparently, yes. In expecting the movie-arm of the MCU to give me something smart-ish, I might as well be asking for a Ken Burns documentary of the Superhero Registration Act. Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad. I would watch the hell out of that.

So I guess the takeaway for this takedown is two-fold.

One, this trailer boasts so much man-pouting and unrequited dude-love that I could probably layer over the dialogue from a Brokeback Mountain trailer and still make it work.

Two, my expectations of superhero movies are unrealistic. I’d probably be happier with them if I could enjoy what I’m given. In this regard, I’m likely not normal. Spare me any comments along those lines. I get it.


0

The Expanse Will Fail if it Emulates Battlestar Galactica: A Mathematical Proof

Let’s talk about The Expanse.

Despite what you might think from the title of this post, I enjoyed the pilot episode of The Expanse. I’m happy to see contemporary science fiction trying to repatriate the interplanetary empire trope from the pie-eyed and often crackpot notions established during the Heinlein-era. The Expanse shows humanity’s colonization of Mars, Ceres, and presumably the Jovian moons, coming at the cost of our baseline humanity. Being a belter is not some romantic callback to the Jeffersonian frontier; it is a fundamental rejection of terrestrial humanity as a genetically engineered post-human.

Likewise, The Expanse comes by things like gravity in an honest way. Gravity is either the product of celestial mass, simulated through rotation, or a product of constant acceleration. There’s a bit of handwavium in terms of how humanity engineered itself to endure high/low gravity, but I’m content to let it slide. Magic gravity juice helps spacers endure 30G emergency accelerations? Okay, sure. I’ll bite. It’s an easier sell for the near-future than gravity plating a la Star Trek or inertial dampeners a la figuratively every space opera ever.

Cut to, space battles.

The Expanse’s first episode gets space battles completely, utterly, and miserably wrong. It gets space battles so wrong I might as well have been watching Star Wars. The likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda gets space battles better than The Expanse. Here comes the math.

In the pilot episode, a shuttle called “Knight” is 50,000km from its parent ship, the Canterbury. When a pirate ship appears, it is at a range of 12,00km from Knight. Put the two together and we have space battle occurring at a maximum range of 62,000km. The opening, and only, fusillade of the battle sees the pirate launch four nuclear-armed torpedoes at the Canterbury. Those torpedoes connect with the Canterbury a mere 60 seconds after launch. And this is the exact moment where I call bullshit.

Do you know how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to connect with a target 62,000km away after only 60 seconds? Very goddamn fast. Almost impossibly fast. Fast enough that the fuel they expend getting up to speed would make directed energy weapons a more cost-effective choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have no idea about the acceleration and maximum velocity of a torpedo on The Expanse. So let’s take an Earth example and do a little extrapolation. The fastest contemporary anti-ship cruise missile I could find on the internet is the experimental BrahMos-II missile. It has a maximum velocity of 2.382km/s or 2382m/s.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the space torpedoes of the 23rd century can accelerate to 10x the speed of the BrahMos-II. In this case, that’s 23,820m/s, which is a little more than double the Earth’s escape velocity. Frankly, this seems a bit over-powered, but it’s 200 years in the future; I’m inclined to be generous.

Bearing this in mind, a torpedo launched from a ship at a velocity of 23,820m/s, assuming it launches at maximum speed – likely not possible but I don’t want to over-complicate this by factoring in an acceleration curve – would require 43.38 minutes of flight time before contacting a target 62,000,000m distant. This is also assuming the torpedo flies in a straight line, free of interference from gravity wells. It’s also not withstanding any Delta V bonus the torpedo might get from the pirate ship already being in motion. However, such a bonus would be negligible to this problem for reasons that will soon make themselves evident.

So now that science has killed the action buzz on the 60 second torpedo run, we can ask ourselves how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to have a 60 second time on target.

To cover 62,000,000 meters in 60 seconds the torpedoes would need to be travelling at approximately 1,033,333m/s. For context, the speed of light is 299,792,458m/s. Thus, The Expanses‘ torpedoes would need to be travelling at roughly 0.35% of the speed of light (C) to make the scene congruent to the laws of physics. And before you say that .35% of C is no big deal, consider that the fastest man-made thing ever was NASA’s Juno mission that hit 40,233m/s after executing a slingshot around Jupiter. Quite a ways to go before hitting 1,033,333m/s.

Given this ludicrously impossible speed, there’s really no need for a nuclear warhead on The Expanses’ torpedoes; a suitably dense piece of dog crap travelling at such speeds would have more than enough concussive force to blow up something as flimsy as a pressurized spaceship.

Now to answer the big question: what does all of this have to do with Battlestar Galactica? BSG has many strengths, but it’s depiction of warfare in space is cartoonish, at best – yes, I am talking about Ron Moore’s BSG. Vipers and Raiders engaged in dogfights driven by Newtonian physics look unbelievably cool. Likewise, fighter pilots make for accessible character archetypes. Both of these elements help make BSG an exciting and engaging piece of television (at least in the first two seasons). As a point of practicality, Vipers and Raiders are a brain dead way to wage space warfare. Recall your Douglas Adams: space is very big. Battlestars and Baseships using kinetic weapons and missiles would inevitably do better to wage war at long-range using math and thrust equations to generate shooting solutions. The ranges depicted in BSG (e.g. single digit kilometers) would result in little more than mutually assured destruction. As an audience, we forgive these things because BSG was concerned with providing spectacular looking space battles amid big political/philosophical questions. If BSG kept it real, then Adama ordering the ship to condition one would instantly cut to a team of junior officers pulling out their scientific calculators.

Unlike BSG, The Expanse is selling itself on the strength of its serious, thoughtful, and practical(ish) approach to telling a story in space. Yet in its inaugural space battle, it is very much taking the Battlestar approach. Such a choice subverts the very aesthetic the series is trying to cultivate. And frankly, I might be willing to give this utter physics fail a pass were it not for the fact that the 60 second battle becomes a setup for a broader plot arc.

The Canterbury’s navigator is about to tell something seemingly important to the ship’s XO, in command of the Knight, only to have the phone call interrupted when the Canterbury is nuked. Shenanigans!

Even if Knight and Canterbury were right next to each other when the pirate fired her torpedoes at a range of 12,000km, there should have been – working within the model explored in this post – 8.3 minutes of flight time before impact. This would be more than enough time for the navigator to say her piece and for the XO send her a final dick pic. What? He seems the type.

In no uncertain terms, the math of The Expanse’s first space battle is a joke. If the series wants to dedicate itself to showing the complexities of life in space, then it needs to abandon the Wing Commander elements of Battlestar Galactica and channel a lot more of The Martian. While I might be content to let the space battle faux pas slide once, frequent occurrences will take the shine off the series’ “hard” SF hull plating. Once that happens, they might as well give their starships FTL drives and inertial dampeners.


1

Game Review: Rebel Galaxy

During the summer I had a chance to play with a preview build of Rebel Galaxy. Amid those halcyon days, I was coming off months of playing nothing but Elite Dangerous. Because of that, the slow moving, naval-inspired starship combat Rebel Galaxy stood out as an absolute delight. In its final form, Double Damage Games has only improved on their initial offering. They’ve produced a space-combat game with the sensibilities and scope of Wing Commander: Privateer and the tone of Firefly.

It’s hard to miss the gaming pedigree encoded in the very DNA of Rebel Galaxy. Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer, the power behind Double Damage Games, previously founded Runic Games, which gave us the likes of Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Before Torchlight, Schaefer was lead designer on Diablo and Diablo 2. While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t boast the same hack/slash/loot aesthetic as Torchlight and Diablo, it does convey the same freedom to explore.

Rebel Galaxy’s story is reasonably typical of the open-world space combat genre. Players inherit a piece-of-crap ship from a mysterious relative – in this case, their Aunt Juno. The quest to find Juno leads to encounters with AIs, pirates, and the slightly less-than-upstanding forces of law and order. Without giving too much of the story away, I found it struck the exact right tone for this sort of experience. It captures the best feeling of old-school space opera, banking on a player’s willingness to suspend disbelief in the areas of extraterrestrial carbon-based life forms, FTL engines, and space battles that play out at extreme close range. Sufficed to say, the emphasis is most certainly on the fiction side of science fiction, but that’s just fine with this critic.

Though a person can engage with all the usual suspects of an open-world space game (e.g. mining, trading, cargo hauling) the real fun is found in the combat. Corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and other capital ships lay into each other with massive fusillades of energy weapons. Smaller turrets tend to blast away at the myriad of fighters and small attack craft that populate a battle. The combat is at once filled with urgency, but also slow and methodical. Killing another starship is as much about positioning and timing as it is disgorging hot tachyons at the enemy.

In terms of making money, trade and/or combat are the way to go, at least within my experience. Fetch quest cargo missions are okay, but who wants to be peaceful when they are flying a ship with fourteen broadside plasma cannons? It’s also fairly easy to build up to more impressive starships and better arsenals. Granted, a player will find it hard to go from one story mission to the next without ever stopping to do some work on the side. However, taking the time to hunt bounty or run freight is rarely so arduous as to feel like a grind.

On the subject of trading, I’ll give Double Damage kudos for having more in-game trade data available than what appears in Elite Dangerous. I’m always astonished at games that expect me to believe my computer can plot an FTL-jump but not remember how much I paid for 10 tons of self-sealing stembolts at the previous space station. Though the game could benefit from a bit more trade data, I don’t think anybody will need to have Excel running in the background to ensure they stay profitable.

The only real mark against the game was the odd bit of janky AI. This was particularly apparent on escort missions. Note my use of the past tense. However, Double Damage has proven to be incredibly responsive to feedback, releasing patches very quickly after issues are identified. Playing the game now is pretty much a seamless experience. No frame rate drops. No glitches. No crashes.

While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of the open-world space combat game, its strength is in its ability to skillfully borrow and fuse the things that do work from within the sub-genre. There’s a little bit of Privateer, mixed with a dash of Starfleet Command, with just a splash of Freelancer for good measure. Everything the game does, it does very well. For someone looking for a space game that will let them jump in and feel like Han Solo without twenty hours of prep work, Rebel Galaxy is a sound investment.

Note: I reviewed the PC version of this game using a mouse and keyboard.


0

Trailer Meltdown: Gods of Egypt

I am almost, almost, at a loss for words. The Gods of Egypt trailer is beyond contempt. I honestly took a moment to make sure I wasn’t watching some sort of parody. I mean, nothing real could be this banal, right? Surely it is all part of some weird social experiment. Perhaps it’s a cover for evacuating people stranded in a foreign country. Because in what strange world can King Leonidas and Jaime Lannister pass as, respectively, the Egyptian god of the underworld and god of the sky?

Yeah, I’m playing the whitewashing card. It’s not the damn 1960s anymore. The days of casting Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra should be behind us. I guess Hollywood didn’t get the memo. Butler is Scottish and Coster-Waldau is from Denmark. DENMARK: a country so white it produced Hamlet, the character who is the very definition of white people problems.

And do you know who I really blame for this? Not the writers. Not Alex Proyas (and I don’t care that he was born in Egypt. His parents are Greek and he grew up in Australia; in my books that makes him an honorary white person) Not even the studio…well I blame them a little bit. I put today’s outrage squarely on the shoulders of Butler and Coster-Waldau.

They are the frontmen for the movie, and this makes them part of the problem. Perhaps I could forgive them if they were newbie actors looking to make their mark, taking any job that comes their way. Yet both of these actors are high-profile performers, likely not hurting for money or stability in their career. What’s worse is that unless these two gentlemen are absolutely vapid, they must have known they were working on a dubious project. Something must have registered in their precious little actor heads saying, “this is wrong.” In spite of that, they pressed on, made the picture, and cashed their cheques.

Which brings me to my next point. If the North American audience is too gentile to cope with brown people in leading roles, then why the hell does Hollywood keep mining the non-English speaking world for its stories?

As for the movie, itself, this looks like the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in ages. Everything about it looks awful. I won’t deign to mine the trailer for details. Diving into this marketing would be like putting my hand in dead pig’s ass. I don’t need to do it to know nothing good will come of it.

My bottom line, this movie is part of the problem. Anyone defending this movie is part of the problem. Paying money to watch this movie will make you part of the problem.

A pox on this movie, and a pox on Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

 

Update:

Jesus fucking Christ, they have Geoffrey Rush playing Ra. A pox on Geoffrey Rush as well.