Episode Nine: Good Like Sunkist

Gus and Bob celebrate John’s absence by flaunting their access to HBO GO. Gus shares an interesting anecdote about Calvin Klein models, and Bob reveals his vendetta against Jimmy Fallon. Topics include True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, Batman/Superman, and Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. Come on come on come on!

Episode Eight: Hans, boobie, I’m your white knight.

John gets perhaps a little too tough on people that like the TRANSFORMERS films and we reminisce all too briefly on Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez comedy classic MEN AT WORK. The TWILIGHT films are mentioned. Along the way we talk about John McClane and his crazy adventures, twenty five years to the week from DIE HARD’s original theatrical release.

Big, not dumb: Why I love PACIFIC RIM

 

My favourite moment in PACIFIC RIM was predictable. Not predictable because of my towering intellect or my rapacious consumption of popular culture either. It was just predictable. In fact, lots of things in PACIFIC RIM were predictable. For years, my father would utter lines in a TV show or a disappointing film just before they came out of a character’s mouth, and would then beam while saying “I wrote this.” My parents are not writers, but they know when they’re being fed a load of rubbish. People use terms like “derivative” and “lacking in originality” to describe films, books and games that do this. Simply put, doing the same old thing is lazy and the audience can tell. It’s a frustrating experience. A film that telegraphs its entire plot at the ten minute mark isn’t much fun. Usually, anyway. Clever filmmakers and writers can pull it off. There are classic tales, classic tropes. There are heroes and there are villains, there is young love and there is loss, there are traitors and there are surprises in our midst. Bad works of art take these tropes and throw them at you, expecting you to swallow them because people have been doing that for centuries. Good works of art take these tropes and respect them. They place them in the centre of the room and take them seriously. It’s not much of a leap from there to taking your audience more seriously.

People understand creators that respect them. One of the things that continuously baffles me about the success of the TRANSFORMERS and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films is that those films don’t respect the audience at all. They just throw slop at us and expect us to come back for more. In general, however, people don’t take well to it. Audiences appreciate films and books and other works of art that understand the audience is coming into the cinema or the theater or opening the page with certain expectations and certain hopes and desires. This is where PACIFIC RIM excels. To use that utterly horrifying term so ubiquitous in film criticism, it “delivers.”

What does it deliver? Well… this is a little simplistic, but that also feeds into the kind of film that PACIFIC RIM is… it’s fun. I had a lot of fun watching the film. Now, there are different types of fun. There are some who argue that TRANSFORMERS films are harmless fun. The disturbing racism aside, those films are not harmless. They are aggressively stupid, anti-intellectual and condescending. The TRANSFORMERS films hand the audience a piece of garbage that is really loud and not much else. Guillermo Del Toro is a man that respects the audience, a man that knows we will respond to something better. He wants to make a good film, end of story. PACIFIC RIM is a good film. It’s loud and lots of stuff happens on the screen, and the story is simple; but the sense of scale is immense and immediately impressive, and the story is being played out between believable characters. Simple characters, yes. Believable ones. A father that loves his son, even if the son is a bit of a dingbat. The taciturn commander and father figure (not just to one, but to all) that ultimately conveys his approval. A good guy who will save the day, a man that isn’t perfect but that is still something special. A young woman who wants to prove herself and whom, ultimately, the good guys cannot do without. Simple stuff, engaging stuff. If I had to pick a word, just one, to describe this film I would probably pick “honest.” PACIFIC RIM isn’t trying to fool you or talk itself up, it is what it is and you can take it or leave it.

That’s why I love PACIFIC RIM.

Now, my favourite part? Our hero, after the standard early setback, has been sidelined from an important battle. Things go wrong, and he is put in at the last minute, just as we all know he will be from the moment his commander turns to him and gives him the “you’re sitting this one out” order. The advanced Jaeger piloted by our dingbat quasi-antagonist has run into some trouble, and in the background the hero’s Jaeger is dropped into the ocean as we get ready for him to enter the fray. I got so excited I think my heart skipped a beat. I lifted a little out of my chair. That hasn’t happened to me in years. And I knew it was coming. There was nothing even remotely surprising about this turn of events in the least, and I wanted to punch the air like a buffoon. That takes some serious skill on the part of the filmmaker.

When a film like this does such a great job of recreating classic archetypes while still entertaining, it creates its own type of suspense: an acute sense of anticipation. The battle of which I speak is a magnificent spectacle and achievement of special effects, design and directing effort. It’s already a fantastic scene before the hero makes his entrance. However, the audience knows the hero is going to get involved. So, we know it’s going to ramp up from there. We end up with the fantastic experience of enjoying a fantastic action sequence while knowing that it is going to get better in only a few minutes. That’s rare. It’s much more common to find yourself getting distracted or bored, knowing that there’ll be some kind of upping of “stakes” in the next few minutes.

Furthermore, the action in PACIFIC RIM generally fits in with the story. Our hero has to come back from a traumatic event. High prices have been paid by humanity in this story and more will be exacted. A victory for one of the Jaegers over a Kaiju isn’t just another crash-bang-wallop sequence; it’s a personal victory for the pilots of that Jaeger. They vindicate themselves, and we root for them to do so.

Nevertheless, high prices are paid. Again, Del Toro more or less telegraphs key dramatic moments ahead of time. He’s comfortable doing this because he knows that we are not idiots and that we have seen this kind of film before. We know that certain dramatic moments are coming. He uses that knowledge to create anticipation. It’s a far different sensation from the cringing groan produced by melodrama that purports to be in a vacuum where nobody has ever seen a film where character x falls in love with character y or character z dies in tragic circumstances. This is why I loved PACIFIC RIM, because it’s a movie that tells a simple tale, that knows its tale is simple, but understands its audience will appreciate a story told with respect and a modest level of sophistication. It’s not all about giant robots fighting giant monsters.

The giant robots helped, though.

Episode Seven: “Chinese Democracy” Projects – Not actually a G ‘n’ R cast

Another episode that almost bit the dust but was saved from technical oblivion, just. And shouldn’t you be glad? John declares his love for Apollo Creed, Bob talks us through the Half Life hiatus and Gus challenges everyone on their knowledge of the Boy Meets World and Moesha fictional universes.

This week’s huge mistake: John gets Bob Oedenkirk’s name wrong. That’s just unforgivable.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Davis.

 

I was going to write a post on the history of the individual today. I had plans to set aside some time and fire off a decent length post that rambled here and there on the impossibility of what (good) historians are continually trying to do… But I’m not writing that post today. Ryan Davis, co-founder of the website Giantbomb.com and long-standing figure in the video games industry, has passed away. 

I didn’t know Ryan Davis personally. Not that I shouldn’t feel sadness; when anyone passes away at the age of thirty-four, it’s only natural to feel sad. He just got married. From what I can gather, he and his wife had a phenomenal relationship: nerdy, loving, close in a way that is difficult to describe other than to compare it to your own closeness to your partner. I know these things, or have inferred these things, because Ryan shared a lot about himself on twitter, at least in jokes and comments thrown out into the public realm. I listened to him on multiple podcasts for years. I wasn’t always his biggest fan and I didn’t always agree with things he said. There were plenty of times, though, when he made me laugh or got me thinking about a game or a particular idea, or simply produced and hosted an entertaining podcast. He and I came from very different backgrounds, we became different people and we never met. Apart from our age being similar and our chosen hobby being the same, I’m not sure he and I had much in common at all.

But I am sad. Sad enough that it didn’t feel right to sit down and write a blog post today that talked about something else. Human life is lost all the time. Every day. Right now. There’s not enough time to mourn everyone. I loathe the odd circus that gathers around death in celebrity circles as much as anyone. This is different. Ryan Davis made his mark in a community that has grown dramatically in the last twenty years but has retained a certain insularity. Sometimes this leads to terrible things and sometimes it leads to wonderful things. A lot of people felt like they knew Ryan Davis. I have to confess, I never felt this way, but I let him into my life for a couple of hours every week for years. In the car, on the way to work, at the gym, in my home. Human life is lost all the time. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop and think about one human life that has been taken away. I won’t claim to be devastated by Ryan’s death because I’m not. All I can say is that I feel this terrible sadness; I know exactly what his friends and family are going through. They’ll receive countless messages of support and sympathy from across the world in the days and weeks ahead. I’m not in a position to offer any real solace. However, I can be honest to myself. We recently passed through an anniversary for a dear friend taken in the prime of his life only last year. I remember how that felt and I know how it feels now. I don’t know exactly how Ryan Davis’ close ones feel right now, but I have a sense of it. I share that sense of it, because although I never met the man and I complained about his opinions as much as I praised them, I understand that sense of loss. Although I can do nothing, I wish I could do something. I suppose I can at least think about him and give credit to the life he led and be thankful for the times he made me laugh. It’s no small thing, to make someone laugh. To create a personal connection with someone you’ve never met, no matter how small or fragile.

Ryan Davis is in my prayers and I hope that some small part of that intent, that energy, can contribute to the support that his family and friends need. I know, from what his friends are saying about him publicly today and from listening to the guy on podcasts for almost a decade, that he would probably think this post is a bit daft; but I wanted to show some gratitude for that tiny part he played in my life, and I hope that in some small way that contributes to comforting those that knew him best.

Episode Six: Happy Daft Punk Fourth of July

Our first music episode devolves into a discussion of America and the anniversary of its founding by the Vulcans after James Cromwell flew into space, only to besmirch the honour of Americans everywhere by discussing the achievements of British and French people. Grilling, Kanye West and Riff Raff’s rhyming of “rhinoceros” with “immaculate” are also mentioned.

Narrative theme and gameplay in The Last of Us

I mentioned this briefly on last week’s podcast, but one of my favourite things about The Last of Us was how it successfully married theme and gameplay. This was particularly noticeable given what a huge problem I had with the disconnect between the two while playing Bioshock: Infinite. In Bioshock, the player is presented with a marvelous world that appears “open” in many ways but in practical purposes is not. However, that’s not my major issue with the game in regards to the clash between theme and actual gameplay. Rather, Bioshock becomes terribly repetitive in asking you to kill people, over and over again, before closing with a bold narrative denouement that in many ways subverts and rejects the typical paradigm of (supposedly) masculine style gameplay. I loved the ending to the game and I loved the statement, but it felt a little hollow considering I had spent hours upon hours killing people whose only real crime was being sent to kill someone their superiors told them was an enemy of the state. Sure, it’s an evil state led by a racist dictator, but still. What did these people do wrong? I was reminded of Rob Lowe and his friends waiting in vain for Dr. Evil’s henchman to join them for his bachelor party only to be informed that he was in fact now deceased.

It’s a major problem for the game that is only exacerbated by other decisions. For example, fighting ghosts and then conversing with them as a significant part of the game’s plot. Bioshock:Infinite ended up being frustrating in many ways, though perhaps only because it raised the bar so high. Ken Levine’s thrilling closing statement genuinely brought the game to another level, and one could argue brought the craft of story-telling in games to another level, but we were still left with some pretty well worn tropes and that basic inequity of the modern video game: killing dudes. Lots and lots of dudes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last year. I’ve become a different type of video game player as I’ve gotten older, but there remain millions of video game players with a similar mindset to my own. I was never bloodthirsty, but I excused an awful lot. Killing people in video games didn’t carry any serious weight. It’s a tough place for video games to be. Do we really have to limit ourselves to killing Nazis and aliens? Surely that is even more limiting. The larger issue here is how frequently developers feel confined to basic narrative and gameplay norms. I find it completely understandable. Video games often take years to make and from a project management standpoint alone a completed video game is a remarkable achievement. Herding the skills, interests and creative desires of large groups of people together into one project is no mean feat. It’s extremely challenging to start challenging basic archetypes beyond that.

The success of The Last of Us in breaking some of those archetypes had a profound effect on me. The game is remarkably violent. You can’t escape the fact that it’s violent. There’s nothing fantastical about the violence(bar some odd decisions regarding “finishing move” type animations) and it’s difficult to simply dismiss it. There are some out and out villains in the game, it’s true, but the majority of the characters presented in any detail occupy a nebulous territory between evil and not all that evil. Including the characters that you yourself control. Indeed, one of the things I like most about The Last of Us is that the most admirable characters in the game are NPCs. The melee combat in the game forces you to confront the humanity of those that you are removing from the game.

The reality does break. The game, despite appearing to promise early on that sneaking around will always be an option, occasionally places physical obstacles in your path, forcing you to engage. Some parts of the game have traditional “waves” of enemies. And, as mentioned above, there are a few animations here and there that look like they came from a Gears of War game. However, all in all, the violence in the game is challenging and not escapist. I found The Last of Us difficult to play at times. Particularly in the last half of the game, the player is asked to back the character s/he controls against opponents that are not clearly defined as “bad people.” Perhaps misguided by principle or by an evil figure; not innately evil in their own right. The Last of Us does not cheapen the narrative by bowing down to the hero worship so typically accorded by video game characters to the player. There is no walk through a gaggle of NPCs where your character’s name is called out and his general coolness and popularity confirmed. In fact, you walk through a group of people that want little to do with you and are far more interested in your companion.

As the game goes on you watch your character make difficult decisions, not always appearing to need an awful lot of time to weigh up the options. A clear theme comes through: in this world, where danger is ever-present and trust of others is virtually absent, you do what you can to survive. This is understood by all. The principle dominates interactions between people with relatively intimate relationships, people with strictly commercial relationships or other relationships driven by interests related to security and self-preservation and people who have just met. You will do what you have to do. When it comes time to take up a weapon against an uninfected human, you will do what you have to do. It is hard. It is unrelenting. It is violent and messy. You will not be allowed, as the player, to duck the clear moral implications of what’s happening. Whereas in Bioshock: Infinite you killed large numbers of faceless cops and other foot soldiers of a corrupt regime with little or no consequence, in The Last of Us you are confronted with the harsh reality of a world filled with human predators and are forced to fight back. The experience of playing the game, not just in terms of observing character exchanges and watching the well made cut scenes, was remarkably immersive and always congruent with the narrative themes being explored.

Perhaps it’s not always possible. To be fair to Bioshock:Infinite without wanting to ruin the game completely, the game’s ending makes clear demands of the player and in many ways turns the dynamic on its head. The problem is that the dynamic was so consistently displayed and presented without question to the player for hours of gameplay. There is also significant difficulty in controlling the desire of the player. When playing MMOs for example, my prime interest is in exploring the game worlds created. I’ll grind along the way but I want to see cities, rural communities and the mountains, rivers and wildlife of the game’s broader environment. For me, well made territories enhance that sense of exploration and the “theme,” if one can call it that, is at one with the gameplay.

Similarly, the PC interface allows the player to experience theme with an intimacy not always possible on console. Games set in space, in particular, allow the player to feel a sense of immersion, the HUD representing an actual window into this other world. Particularly with more complex games such as the X3 series, the complexity of having a large number of commands spread across the keyboard does just enough to leave the player with a strong impression of actually controlling one’s ship. In this latter example, the concept of thematic involvement is open to the player from the start: you might never choose to actually try and complete the game’s main story.

The Elder Scrolls games similarly offer this power to the player, but not all games can offer such a deliberately broad experience. Indeed, even games that do find themselves caught in the same limitations of many other games. Take Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that produces the feeling of a living city so expertly that a simple game mechanic such as fast travel can be enjoyed as part of the gameplay itself if the player so chooses. Sitting in the back of a taxi cab and looking out upon the city Rockstar created was one of my favourite parts of that game in the early hours. At some point however the time arrives to shoot some guys, get in a car and drive away quickly. Although of course you don’t have to. You can do what you like, I suppose.

By no means am I arguing that all games should aspire to align theme perfectly with the mode of gameplay. I myself enjoy many video games that don’t even try. There is a certain language you learn as a video game player, dependent on the success of certain games. Halo defined what shooters “felt” like to a generation of video game players, for example. That language allows us to choose to ignore things that clearly don’t make sense. For example, in many games my character becomes an odd, huddling kleptomaniac, scurrying around kitchens and drawing rooms grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down while people are trying to talk to him or her (normally him). It rarely bothers me. If I let it bother me, it would have an extremely negative impact on my ability to enjoy a huge amount of video games, and I don’t want that. However, The Last of Us showed me that it can be done effectively, that the player can experience the story not just in between cut-scenes and thanks to the occasional interchange between the characters while exploring a relatively safe and isolated environment. While playing the game I was continuing to live the story and digest its themes while engaging in its most scripted and, for lack of a better term, “game-y” parts. It was remarkable, and I hope there’s plenty more to come.