Thursday, May 29, 2014

Save the Princess, Save the World

"Well excuuuuse me, princess."
If we’re not hearing about some kid who was corrupted by violent video games, we’re hearing about how it’s an industry dominated by creepy misogynist males. Yesterday, I read an article by Jeopardy! winner Arthur Chu that somehow manages to link both things together. He uses the latest killer psycho as a springboard into a discussion about “nerd culture” and misogyny.

His argument wanders a bit between various media, but the crux of it is this:

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses? Do they tap into their inner John Galt and try blatant, violent rape?

It’s rather amusing that he would bring up Super Mario Bros. because anyone who’s ever actually beaten that game knows that even after going through all those castles, the princess doesn’t so much as kiss Mario at the end. She merely says, “Thank you Mario! Your quest is over.”  In fact, fans enjoy pointing out Princess Toadstool (or Peach if you prefer) doesn’t demonstrate much romantic interest in Mario despite his numerous rescues, and that evidence suggests the only person to get her in bed was actually Bowser.

So why would we keep rescuing her if she’s not going to fall into bed with us in the end? Because that’s not the point of the quest, and everyone knows it.  We male gamers have had to listen to this tripe for years now about how rescuing the princess is some misogynistic exercise that turns women into mere objects we fight to possess.  Fact is, Mario never set out to rescue Peach because he thought he’d get laid, and neither did the player controlling him.  We do it because a wrong has been committed against her, and we’re the only ones around still able to rectify that wrong.

Treating women like trophies is the bad guy’s shtick, and it’s that villain’s choice to act on that evil impulse which spurs an otherwise unassuming hero-to-be into action.  The hero doesn’t strip the princess of her power and freedom; he sets out to punish the villain and restore the princess to her rightful place as ruler of the kingdom.  Once she regains her power, she’s free to reward a hero in any way she wishes, be it a simple thank you, a kiss, wealth, power, or even a cake.  (Since the cake is a lie, the real reward is having grown into a capable adult during the journey, but that’s a much longer discussion.)

If a gamer wants to collect and abuse women, they’ll have to pick a game where they are not a white knight rescuing the princess. They’ll be playing something more like a Grand Theft Auto game, where they’re at best an anti-hero and at worst an outright villain.  Even then, it’s clear to any normal human being that the behavior of that kind of protagonist is not to be emulated in the real world. Otherwise we’d have an epidemic of nerds stealing cars and trying to run down people on sidewalks for fun.

Violence, misogyny, and all around immature behavior is not a function of “nerd culture”; it’s a fact of the human condition, one of which geeks and nerds are acutely aware. Most of them have been pushed around, disrespected, and otherwise treated like crap their entire lives, which is why they spend so much time buried in their favorite fictional universes.

Young male geeks and nerds submerge themselves in the role of the hero because they have the very natural instinct to pick up the sword and defend a woman’s honor from the villains who will always exist.  They may not understand social niceties or the intricacies of female behavior, but the instinct to protect is still there.  Casting that instinct as a latent form of misogyny that should be repressed only serves to empower villains, not women.

But with all that said, I haven’t answered Mr. Chu’s question, have I? So what do video games teach a guy to do when his princess still isn’t in this castle?  Fight his way to the next castle.

*h/t to Sarjex, for the graphic. Check out more of her work in her store.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Oh My God, It's a Godzilla Review!

"They are all...perfect."

Typically when I sit down to write one of these reviews, I take a quick look around the Internet to see what others have said so as not to sound repetitive and help crystallize my own thoughts. With this new Godzilla film, it seems opinions are all over the place. I, for one, thought it was awesome.

Perhaps the most commonly cited criticism is that we don’t get to see enough of the titular monster wrecking stuff. They’re not wrong that the big man’s actual screen time front and center is rather limited, but in this case it’s actually a good thing because destruction porn is getting old.

The reliability of CGI has shattered any limits as to what a filmmaker can put on the screen, and unencumbered by those limitations, they’re never forced to figure out how to sell the movie’s world to the audience. Instead of trying to one-up each other with better stories, characters, or emotional moments, they do it with longer, more explosive action sequences. In essence, they’ve forgotten the art of the tease. They just strip everything off and rub it in your face until one of you is finished.

But Godzilla isn’t a cheap thrill. Godzilla builds an atmosphere. It gives you a glimpse here and a glimpse there, letting your imagination take over and fill in the details. Just when you think you’re about to see it in all its glory, it dances away and you want to shout “oh come on!” Then finally, when the anticipation becomes nearly unbearable and you lean over the edge of your seat in frustrated expectation, only then does it go all the way. In that instant, your imagination merges with the reality before you in a glorious volcanic eruption of blue flame.

I think I may have cheered a little in the theater, even.

Fact is director Gareth Edwards did a fabulous job setting the tone, and I can’t remember the last time I was that tense in a theater. Long, steady shots and slow pans to reveal human characters right amidst the action really help sell the scale of it all, and as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of strategic obfuscation of the monsters to build suspense. That’s coupled with some really great sound design, so even if you can’t see one, you can hear it.

This movie is LOUD by the way. Godzilla’s roar will rattle your teeth, and Alexandre Desplat’s score starts out rather oppressive too. Fortunately by the end it settles right in to put the finishing touch on the ambiance. All in all, it’s impressive just how much Edwards was able to do with a little bit of leg and some heavy breathing to set the mood.

Of course directing includes getting the most out of your actors too, and that leads to the second major criticism out there, which is that, with the exception of Bryan Cranston, the actors are wooden and/or their characters are too shallow. That’s true. None of these people have much more to do than react to things. Most critics wanted the movie to focus on the dynamic character Cranston plays, but it actually centers on his son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is much more sedate.

However, that actually worked for me on two levels. First, not having somebody chewing scenery or droning on for a half hour about their clichéd problems let me ride along with this guy, rather than simply watch him deal with this stuff. Second, since Cranston sets the tone early with such a rich performance, it felt intentional that some of the other characters were not so full of pathos. Given Cranston’s character spends so much time manically obsessed over what happened at the beginning of the film, one could expect his son to distance himself by burying his feelings to the point of constant stoicism. In addition, he’s a soldier whose job is to deal with bombs, and so he comes off as a guy who is simply compartmentalizing, rather than wooden. I don’t think it would’ve worked to have him Shia Labeoufing his way around.

I’d say the only real misstep on that front is with Ken Watanabe. His performance reeks of an incredibly deep back story, but we never really find out what it is and his character has so little to do that he could be cut from the film entirely. Then again, his is the one that officially kills any idea that Global Warming caused this mess, so that’s a bonus.

Ironically, Godzilla himself is surprisingly expressive. He’s not the dancing anthropomorphized kids’ version, but his face does convey a range of feeling from being cranky at being woken up to desperation to stay alive. Despite complaints from the Japanese that he looks fat, I think he was incredibly well realized, a grizzled veteran of a more violent age.

That kind of describes the whole movie: a remnant of a different time brought to the modern era. If you remember what it’s like to worry and wonder about something peeking out from the shadows, I think you’ll enjoy this new Godzilla, but if you’re looking for hardcore monster on monster action like Pacific Rim, this one’s not for you.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Godlike! Epic Games & Free Markets

Ah, those were the days.

Last week Epic Games announced they are making another Unreal Tournament (UT) game. Unreal Tournament is a first-person shooter franchise that helped define my college experience, with the first game providing comfort on many a lonely eve my freshman year and its successor Unreal Tournament 2004 being a go-to game for the cadre of friends I amassed over my tenure there. Years later I’d buy a brand new PC just to play Unreal Tournament 3, and though UT3 turned out to be a disappointing entry in the franchise, the idea of a new UT game is still pretty exciting. What’s especially interesting about this one is the business model Epic has put forward:

Mark Rein, the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament studio's VP, teased a new game last week. This Unreal Tournament will be a free game -- "not free to play, just free."

Fans with an Unreal Engine 4 subscription can participate in the crowdsourced development the next Unreal Tournament, with fan-created mods playing an integral role in its life post-launch. Epic intends to create a marketplace where creators can give away or sell their custom content. Epic's cut from those sales is what will pay for the game. 

Epic is certainly no stranger to giving players the freedom to modify their games. Previous UT games came with tools to build mods and maps, and players could run their own servers with these custom changes installed. The game clients even facilitated distribution of mods by automatically downloading them when someone joined the match rather than requiring that player to obtain it beforehand. Still, that’s a far cry from making user-generated content a central facet of the game and giving its creators the option to get paid for their work.

Presumably Epic hopes that this will generate some interest in and subscriptions to their Unreal Engine 4 development kit, but it’s still an intriguing way of going about it. They’re essentially betting on their player community not only being involved and productive, but actually becoming successful indie game developers as a result of that experience. I don’t think it gets much more consumer-friendly than that.

It’s just another wonderful example of capitalism at work in an industry that has largely managed to evade the grubby hands of government regulation and subsidy. Even the famed Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that handles all those parental advisories you see on video game covers is a non-profit organization to which companies voluntarily submit their games for review. So the market is free to function like good markets do.

As a result we get literally free games and an industry that responds to the desires of the consumer, once it figures out what the consumer actually wants of course. When that desire is clear, loud, and direct like the backlash last year to some of Microsoft’s policies for the Xbox One, you’ll see even a corporate giant do an about face. When it’s a little murkier, the changes take longer. For example, overzealous Digital Rights Management (DRM) has given way to convenience-providing services like Steam, and pay-to-win freemium business models are being phased out for more balanced pay-as-you-go options like we’ve seen with The Walking Dead.

And since the big players can’t squash a little one under onerous regulation quite as easily as they can in an industry more deeply in bed with the government, they still have to worry about being upstaged by small, independent developers. One guy spending a few hours coding a simple mobile game can become a breakout hit overnight, and employees unhappy with the direction their studios take can leave to form their own development teams.

Imagine if instead we had a video game industry run like the health care one. You’d be mandated to have at least one video game system in your home, but the stores would only sell a combo pack of a Playstation 4 with a Wii U. Every time you turned the system on, you’d have to pay a $20 copay. The games themselves would cost $1,000 each, and you’d need to fill out three sets of paperwork about your gaming habits before being able to enter the store. (Though I think Game Stop does that already.) Of course the only store that would actually take your money would be the run down Walmart in the seedier section of town. Oh, and you’d occasionally be forced to buy your deadbeat neighbor the latest of Call of Duty.

Personally, I prefer the free market where Epic Games decides to try turning me into a producer and I get to play a game for which I’d gladly pay at no cost to me even if I never contribute a thing to the game’s development.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Tangled Web


"What? I'd rather be in The Avengers too."

The Amazing Spider-Man could best be summed up with the word “unnecessary.” It was a reboot made to keep the rights to everyone’s favorite wall crawler from going back to Marvel, and nothing about it was the least bit remarkable. It could’ve been a passable superhero flick on its own, but it’s a bad case of déjà vu when held against the previous Spider-Man installment made by Sam Raimi.

Now we’ve got the sequel to the reboot…just typing that phrase I feel a disturbance in the Force. In fact, any time Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman write a script, a shiver goes down my spine as though…well you know how it goes. I didn’t realize they had written this one going in, but as soon as their names appeared in the credits, I said “well, that explains everything.”

They’re the genius pair who gave us such exceptionally written films like Transformers and the Star Trek reboot. That is to say, they’re exceptionally full of ridiculous contrivances, laughably bad science, stupid one-dimensional characters, and dead end plot threads. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is no different.

A director who blows stuff up as well as Michael Bay or one who replaces half the script with lens flare like JJ Abrams can usually overload the sensory input of the average audience member long enough to keep them from noticing most of those problems, but the aptly named director of this film, Marc Webb, is not one of those guys.  As a result there's nothing to distract from the movie stumbling face first into a cobweb of worthless plot threads that stick and never want to let go.

Similarly, the action sequences start off quite enjoyable, but are quickly bogged down by an excessive use of slow-motion ramping in which Spidey’s spider-sense is treated less like an early warning system and more like an omniscient awareness of his surroundings.  This amps the sense of déjà vu up to eleven by telegraphing exactly what will happen, waiting a few seconds, and then showing it.

Another problem that may or may not be due to the script is Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, who is so self-assured and cocky even without the costume on that the conflicts of the film feel more like mild inconveniences rather than life threatening events. That said, Garfield and Emma Stone have great chemistry, no doubt due in part to their real life relationship, which makes their scenes together fun.  It’s just a shame that the movie turns their romance into an endless retread of “will they, won’t they?”

Of course, if it weren’t for Orci and Kurtzman’s trademark character teleportation act, she wouldn’t be around often enough to make it as tedious as it is. But hey, I guess it’s not totally impossible that normal human Gwen Stacey could cross a panic-stricken New York City in the middle of a blackout to arrive mere moments after Spider-Man so they can bicker as she finds herself in mortal peril. Again.

Meanwhile Jamie Foxx disappears into the special effect that is Electro early on, and Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborne is basically a walking talking contrivance so we get no help on the villain front. The cherry on top is Sally Field acting like every scene that includes Aunt May is the most important thing in the movie, rather than belonging on the cutting room floor.

“Too much” being the theme of this movie, Hans Zimmer crafted a score that just blasts away as though each scene is the most epic thing ever put to film.  Though I've enjoyed a number of Zimmer's scores over the years, I didn't even care for the melody of this one, bombast aside.

So what’s left to say? I could follow their example and pad this out with nitpicking individual stupid moments, comparing it to the far superior Sam Raimi sequel, or just ranting about how I wish Orci and Kurtzman would stop putting their grubby hands all over some of my favorite franchises, but like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that would just be unnecessary.

*this post cross-posted over at http://theirfinesthour.net/