That Time I Saw Myself as a Persecuted Minority

So, I’m pasty as fuck. I’m a dude. I’m straight. My parents are pretty well off. I guess, at this point, it’s kind of a cliché to say that I’ve been playing life on easy mode. Doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve never had the experience of being discriminated against or dismissed simply because of who I am. I’m not trying to be smug here, I’m just stating a very basic fact of my existence. To use another cliché (it’s ok be cliché if you acknowledge it, right? Right?) my life has been shaped by privelege in ways that are insidious and though I’m always trying to as aware of it as possible, it repeatedly manages to catch me by surprise when I find out about the reality of people who aren’t me. So here’s something I’m not proud of. There was a period in my life when I, despite the aforementioned privelege, really saw myself as part of a persecuted minority. I didn’t really act on my conviction and I grew out of it fairly quickly, but I thought I’d put it out there as a kind of cautionary tale.

It was around the time I turned 20, and really, what kicked it off was a site called Stumbleupon. This was back in 2010 and Stumbleupon was kind of a big deal. Essentially it was a kind of curated version of the internet, tailored specifically for you. You plugged in your interests and it would take you to sites tagged in those categories. You could upvote or downvote a site and as you kept going, Stumbleupon would take your preferences into account, getting better and better at predicting the kind of sites you like to go to. It never occurred to me that it was also getting better and better at screening out anything that would change my mind.

It started kind of as an accident. When I first entered my interest, I cast a fairly wide net. I selected post-modernism, even though I barely know anything about post-modernism, and post-punk even though I barely listen to current-punk. And one of those interests happened to be atheism. Now I don’t have any religious beliefs, but its not something I consider to be a core part of my existence. And neither did I at the time, it was just something that had always been there, sort of in the background. I had always been very pro-science, but I hadn’t necessarily been anti-religion. That was about to change.

As I stumbled around (as we called it) something happened. A certain kind of story kept popping up. In newspaper articles, or blogs or what have you. The story had various permutations, but the core was often the same. It was the story of the well-meaning atheist and the oppressing religious nut. Sometimes it was a student being brow-beaten by a teacher, sometimes it was a teacher facing off against the school, sometimes it had nothing to do with schools (though, for some reason, it usually did). It probably started very innocuously. A news story about creationism taught in science, a kid being bullied for what he believed. But I clicked the “like” button, and somewhere, the algorithm powering the machinery took note. It started feeding me more and more of these kinds of stories and I kept liking them.

Soon, without my realizing it, my worldview started shifting. I wasn’t just me, boring Erik, I was parter of a larger group, atheists, and we were under siege. On all fronts, the masses of barbarism and blind dogma were fighting the forces of progress and it was up to people like me to keep them from winning. Our champions were people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and James Randi. I was fired up, I really was. I mean, I didn’t just believe religious extremism was bad, I believed all religion was bad. It stopped people from thinking, from questioning and it was my duty as an atheist to spread enlightenment wherever I could. It felt really right and, more importantly, it felt really good. I was part of a group and we had a goal, we had a narrative, and we had an enemy. It was addictive.

But I was wrong, obviously. I think in a world where atheists are overrepresented among the highly educated and the rich, it’s very hard to seriously argue that we constitute some kind of oppressed minority. Outside some parts of America, and repressive regimes, I think I think it’s fair to say you don’t really see any kind of discrimination of atheists whatsoever. This is especially true in Sweden, where the the religious party (the Christian democrats) is one of the smallest, and also kind of a joke.

And not only was I wrong, I was finding myself in some pretty uncomfortable camps. There is a kind of European secularism that holds that religious ideas are incompatible with the principles of democracy. And when they talk about religious ideas they mean Islamic religious ideas. Even Richard Dawkins has been known to say things like Christianity can be useful as a shield to protect against the dangerous Muslims. To these people, any concession to religion (only Islam) was a starting point to the death of free speech. Showing respect was the same as giving up on the European cultural identity. The people who were the most hardcore secularist were also the people who were voting for the far-right parties and saying they weren’t against immigration, just mass immigration. This is what did it for me in the end, finding that a person who was a racist and kind of a fascist had alarmingly similar views on religion.

In the end, I like to think I was fairly harmless. Like google, I try to live by a “don’t be a dick” policy (though, like google, I’m sometimes a dick) and together with my natural timidity and the fact that you don’t really meet a lot of religious people anymore this meant that I didn’t really get the chance to spread my anti-gospel. Even though Stumbleuopn isn’t really a thing anymore, that kind of closed loop information system is still very much a part of how the internet functions. I know first hand how easy it is to get sucked into it and how good it feels to be part of it.

What I’m trying to say is, it’s very easy to look at someone who’s a gamergater or a men’s right activist or whatever and think “wow, that’s an awful person” and I guess, in a way, you’re not wrong, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that at the same time there is a person behind those hateful screeds. I’m not trying to defend these kind of people, or suggest we should feel sympathy, I’m just saying we should remember that the internet is a place where it’s easy to get radicalized. If we respond to hate with hate, that’s not going to solve anything.

Like, What’s Up With Marvel Comics? (Super short)

I put the warning super short because, otherwise it felt like a clickbaity title and I didn’t want to, like, disappoint you guys because you matter to me. Yes, even you Michael.

Speaking of mutants, here’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time about the Marvel comics. Why do mutants suffer universal hatred and oppression while normal superheroes are just accepted as a fact of life? I mean, they’re all super-powered individuals right? Why have the people of the marvel universe decided that if you’re superpowers are genetic, you’re a villain and a pariah, but if they come from anywhere else, you’re awesome. That doesn’t make any sense!

Hash tag why is this not a tweet?

*Correction: An earlier version of this post had the word “Michael” not in cursive. This was clearly not conveying the fullness of my emotions, so I had to fix it.

That time when the Harry Potter films completely missed the point.

One of those times anyway.

I just now had a quick thought and – the benefit of having a platform – I thought I’d share it with you.

The Harry Potter films are usually quite good, I tend to think. Maybe the fact that I literally grew up alongside Harry Potter in my imagination makes me a little biased, but I will stand by my opinion. Even if it is a little biased. They’re good. Generally quite good. Mostly good. They’re all right.

I mean, this was literally Harry’s hair. For one year. Someone looked at that hair and said “Yep, that’s perfect for our billion-dollar blockbuster franchise.”

But there’s one scene that stands out as particularly, egregiously bad.

But, as I sometimes tend to, I want to take a step back first and consider the overarching message of the series. It’s kind of hard to pin down, but I usually interpret it as being something along the lines of “racism is bad, don’t be racist.” I don’t think this is a very controversial interpretation.

Voldemort is quite obviously magic Hitler, a point the films underscore by having his followers adopt a mixture of Nazi and KKK iconography, just in case we didn’t get how evil he is.

Look, I get what they were trying to do. Taking the KKK outfit, making it black and adding a skull should have made it scary. It really should have.

We also repeatedly get characters the narrative tells us are the ones who Know Their Moral Shit tell us that wizards are being silly for mistreating house elves, centaurs and giants. Now this isn’t completely unproblematic, because what ends up happening is that the mistreated groups are either white people, running into the same pitfalls as the x-men series, or they’re literal sub-humans, like the house-elves.

I don’t know, I feel like the message that racism is bad gets a bit undermined when you cast your misteated race as literal sub-humans, but maybe that’s just me.

But whatever. Rowling’s heart is in the right place. Or something. She’s right that racism IS bad. And the film I’m talking about, The Order of the Pheonix, doesn’t quite try to contradict this message. But it might as well be.

What I’m talking about is the centaurs. In the books, the centaurs are basically way smarter than humans, despite or maybe because the fact that all they seem to do is run around in the woods naked and occasionally look at the stars. I’m being facetiously unfair. But the centaurs, the book keep reminding us, are smart. Super smart.

In the book, the kids use this fact, sort of, to their advantage. They lead Umbridge into the woods, where she proceeds to insult the heck out of a whole herd of Centaurs who then proceed to in return brutally do something to her (something actually pretty awful if this website is to be believed). The point is, in the novels, the brutal treatment is justified because the centaurs are proud creatures and she just insulted their intelligence and Umbridge is also an awful person. Or something. This point is weaker than I thought it would be.

What I’m trying to say is, Rowling really makes an effort to hammer home that Centaurs are beautiful creatures with vast intelligence that deserve to be treated equally. She doesn’t quite pull this off, but like, she tries really hard ok? Stop ruining my childhood, self. Anyway, let’s look at how the film handles the scene where they attack Umbridge. Where again, the point Rowling is trying to make is that Umbridge is being bigoted and insulting the creatures is intelligence.

So how does the film handle this scene?

Holy fuck!

Yup, the film changes nothing about this scene, except make the centaurs apelike brutes who don’t have speaking parts and only attack Umbridge because “GRRRBLARGH!”.

Pictured: “GRRRBLARGH!”

There is absolutely no hint that they have any type of intelligence, in fact the way they’re depicted calls to mind the evolutionary ancestors of humans.

So, to summarise, the film takes the centaurs, one of the races that Rowling uses to illustrate why we shouldn’t class people as subhumans and turns them into literal subhumans. Somehow, the film manages to take Rowling’s already problematic stance and make it infinitely worse. Good job guys!

The Subtle Brilliance of Mass Effect 3’s Terrible Ending

I haven’t played Mass Effect Andromeda, but I did finish Mass Effect 3 about four years ago. So here’s a post about that game. I think after the sour taste of Andromeda, everyone’s kind of nostalgic about ME3. And for good reason! It’s a good game! “Shame about that ending though,” all the angry nerds say. Obviously, I disagree.

So, first, I have to acknowledge that it’s not a brilliant ending, and I can definitely see why it arouses such intense emotion. Here’s the thing though. Everyone is wrong and I’m right and here’s why. Basically, as far as I can tell, the internet’s had three major beefs with the ending: it had some serious plot holes, it didn’t explain what actually happened and it robbed the players of control. I think this sums up the main criticisms fairly well, so for the rest of this post I’m going to systematically go through why they are wrong.

From now on, I’m going to assume you not only have played the game, but have intimate knowledge of the complicated lore. So, you know, spoilers I guess.

First of all, I’m going to point out that plotting is Mass Effect at its least defensible. Not going to lie, the ending had some serious plot holes. Let’s move on.

This is not the impression I get from the internet. From what I can understand, the weak plot is actually most people’s smallest problem with the ending. And I can see why. As a work of fiction Mass Effect, brilliant though it may be, is clearly within the mainstream storytelling tradition. As such, it contains two core mainstream values: clarity and agency. What do I mean by these? So clarity just means we are always fully aware of what’s happening at all times. In Mass Effect, we are always told what our choices are, whether those choices are good or evil and we later find out what consequences our choices have. I mean, they even clearly mark the good choice with nice blue text and the evil choice with evil red text. And if it’s not immediately clear what the consequences for our options are, up until the ending, everything we have played has assured us that it will be at some point.As for agency, this is expressed in two ways. We have clear control over Shepard whose actions in turn have consequences throughout the universe. This makes for some powerful gameplay moments when you realize, for example, that choices you made in the first game have had an impact in the third game. The main reason the series ending get’s so much hate is because it betrays –or subverts – both these principles.

The fans expected something like the ending to Mass Effect two. In many ways, the final sequence of Mass Effect 2, the suicide mission, is the culmination of mainstream storytelling in videogames. The player makes clearly defined choices and these clearly defined choices have clearly defined outcomes. Clarity and agency in perfect tandem. There’s even a flow chart of all the possible outcomes. Google it. I want to be clear that this isn’t a knock on the game. There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream. In fact, the game is very satisfying, especially if you manage to get everyone through alive. Which, I mean, not to brag, but I totally did. You get the sense that your choices matter, and in this galaxy, you, a single person can still make a difference. It’s a powerful feeling and it explains why the Mass Effect 2 was so popular.

The ending to Mass Effect 3 is the exact opposite of that. Here we are, at the Citadel, all hope gone, the world seemingly about to end. And… that’s it. Suddenly our choices don’t seem to matter. Depending on how many galactic forces we have assembled, the outcome may change slightly, but not in any radical way. We are given a choice, but it’s a strange one. Control the reapers. Destroy all technology. Synthesis. We are used to a clear binary good/bad, but here the game resolutely refuses to give us any hints about which choice is right. In fact, none of the choices seem very satisfying. And it gets worse because the game, again, refuses to tell us what has happened. A cascading energy source travels throughout the galaxy. The Mass Relays are destroyed. But what does it mean? The game doesn’t tell us. Where does the Normany land? The game doesn’t tell us. What the hell is going on? The game, maddeningly, doesn’t tell us.

Adding more salt to an already frustrating insult-wound is the fact that, no matter what choice you make, the cinematics are practically identical. There’s no clarity, because, what the hell just happened? And there’s no agency because all the endings are pretty much the same, Shepard has some agency, but the player’s agency seems invalidated. What all of this adds up to is an ending that is precisely what no one would expect. A total rug-pul. Everything about the series has been telling us this is a mainstream product. It’s a game with a multi-million dollar budget with amazing graphics published by EA. So it’s no wonder that fans are upset with the ending for jettisoning these principles.

But they’re wrong. Whether it was intentional or not (and it almost certainly wasn’t), the ending of Mass Effect ends up being savagely brilliant. No matter how hard we try, the game says, some things in life can’t be changed. Some choices don’t matter, sometimes good and bad aren’t easily distinguishable and sometimes we don’t know what the consequence of our choices are. It’s a hard lesson, made harsher because we don’t see it coming. In fact, it’s almost kind of nihilist. But this is what life is like sometimes. It’s a wonderfully daring stunt to pull off, especially in such a high-profile game as Mass Effect and it’s more than a little disappointing that the response was so overwhelmingly negative that we probably won’t see anything else like it in an EA game again.

Oh well. For what it’s worth, Mass Effect, I didn’t hate you.

Days of Future Past is Overrated

I never saw X-Men Apocalypse because it did not look like fun, so here’e a take on an X-men film that people seemed to actually like. Spoiler: I did not like it.

Actually, that’s a bit harsh. There were some emotionally satisfying arcs, some dramatic moments, some pretty cool effects involving a speedster. What I mean to say is it was just a little overrated. It certainly wasn’t The Force Awakens Bad, but it just felt kind of like the film was a betrayal of it’s own premise. Magneto and Xavier are good friends now, but to save the future Wolverine must go back in time to when the were enemies and make them friends again.

Pure friendship is standing side by side, saying nothing.

And, I guess, stop Mystique from murdering Bolivar Trask, which sets up a chain reaction that bla bla bla because comics. So, I don’t know, I at least expected the film to be focused on the reconciliation between those two characters. I mean, they’re pretty much friends at the beginning of the first X-men film right? I know that timeline is pretty well tortured by now, but still. Those timelines are still sort of vaguely connected right? And the whole premise of the film is that they have to reconcile. But then, the film happens and there’s no reconciliation at all! They’re enemies, then I guess they’re friends for a while, but then they’re enemies again and the good mutants defeat the evil Magneto.

All this does is put one of the most interesting characters from the comics in the same boring villain role. He is at his most interesting as a good guy, still struggling with the baggage of what he’s done but trying to find redemption. Instead they have him chucking football stadiums at nice people like some sort of comic book villain. Goddamn football stadiums.

Or maybe just one football stadium, but who’s counting?

Also, am I the only kind of weirded out by the films treatment of race? I guess mutants are at their most effective when they’re standing for lgbt people, but this DOFP is clearly going for the race angle. Sure, the 70s is not quite civil rights era, but everyone involved is super keen to tell you how Proffessor X is the MLK to Magneto’s Malcolm X, even though that in itself has uncomfortable implications (hey, let’s talk about racism, but let’s make all the actors white!). Also, the comparison kind of becomes sort of strained when the stand-in for one of the most prominent civil rights leader starts chucking stadiums at people. Then there’s that thing where the central message of the films , though it seems to be about the oppressed minority, is actually directed at white people.

What am I talking about? So if we got back to the plot, the whole reason we have an apocalypse is that Mystique kills Trask. The catalysing force is violence perpetrated by mutants. Yes, it comes in response to the oppression of mutants by non-mutants, but the film makes it clear that the violence by Mutants is what sets off the genocide. Even though the method that the genocidal machines are created is through Mystique’s blood in a because-comics chain of events, the film the film still makes it clear that it is the violence of the mutants that motivates the humans to build the sentinels.

This is, really, putting the guilt on the mutants in a way. Don’t lose your shit, the film seems to be saying, or you’ll just make everything worse. I guess this is good advice for anyone wanting to make themselves heard, but it’s also super condescending and really easy to say when you’re in the majority and don’t have to deal with constant systematic oppression. Really, it’s a kind of way to shift the blame, kind of “I mean yeah, we shouldn’t be opressing those guys, but they shouldn’t have got so darn worked up about it either.” Comfortably, now, the conversation isn’t about what we can do, or how we (and here, “we” is the majority) are oppressing this group, but about how irresponsibly they are acting. The onus is lifted from us, and we can feel a little better.

Why The Force Awakens Deserves to be Crushed by a Trash Compactor

Like everyone else, I watched it. Twice. Unlike everyone else I was crushingly, painfully disappointed. I feel like this is enough of a contrarian opinion to fulfill the mandate of this blog, which I guess is “write the stuff no one else will write.” And even if it doesn’t, what the hell. It’s like I always say, I make the rules, I break the rules. So here we go.

Psych! Nope. I’m going to go go off on a couple of maddening tangents. You know what’s a pet peeve of mine? You want to know what really get’s my goat? Who am I kidding, of course you do.

By Jeffrey Pang from Pittsburgh, PA, USA - Ding Ding Ding, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7212691
I’m also pretty sure you want to read about my opinion on goats. For the record, I’m completely neutral to them.

So I’ll tell you. It’s people who say something like, “you can’t complain that this fantasy movie with orcs and elves and magic is unrealistic. All that stuff is already unrealistic!” I  hear this a lot. And you know who are the most annoying people? People who say this. Of course I can complain about this stuff. I can and I will. Now here’s why I’m right and they’re wrong.

A film or a book or whatever can have as many fantastical elements as it wants, and that’s completely fine. Mostly. Within some limits obviously. Some things are harder to swallow than others. If it’s something really tenuous like a dictatorial government successfully subduing it’s citizens by publicly killing randomly selected children once a year, I might have some difficulty accepting that this actually works year after year. So there are limits, but usually this can be fine. Give me your elves and your werewolves and monsters and what have you, and I’ll be down with it. Usually I’ll be more than down. I’ll be up, even. I love that stuff!  I love it so much that I have blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the shit out of that stuff. But here’s the thing. For it to work, it has to stay internally consistent. It has to follow it’s own rules. A work of fiction can have as many fantasy elements as it wants, as long as it clearly follows its own rules. It’s when it stops doing this that I – rightfully! Angrily! Furiously! – begin to complain.

Say your world is one in which there are vampires – that’s fine. Say they sparkle – well that’s a bit silly, but sure, it’s your world, you can do what you want. Say they all have their special powers – now your starting to veer into randomly made up on the spot territory, but as long as you’re consistent you’re still mostly fine. But now say that one of your vampires, who has the power to read all minds suddenly stumbles across a person whose mind they can’t read, well now you’re starting to break your own rules. This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s unrealistic within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. If you give a reason for why this vampire can’t read this person’s mind, it could be  ok, but if you shrug it off as just one of those things, like the power of love, then you are breaking you’re own rules in a major way. This is not ok. This makes your universe as a whole less cohesive and believable, and if any random thing can happen, why does anything matter? Yes, I’m making an allusion to the Twilight books. Yes, there are a lot of other reasons why they don’t work. Yes, I have read the first book, but only the first book. No, I didn’t super enjoy it, but no, I think the level of hate it gets is out of proportion to how bad it is. Side-track over. So, anything can be unrealistic, but if it breaks its own ruleset, it’s internally inconsistent, and this is the worst thing for creating a believable alternative universe.

Now that said, obviously, no work can be completely consistent. If everything about your movie is super cool, and otherwise completely works, we might forgive that in a world where water is super scare, your main antagonist would literally just dump millions of liters of water literally onto the sand.

So much wasted water.

And this is fine! Building a coherent world is hard. No one can ever make everything completley consistent. But the best get close. This is why, to me, the world of Westeros is so compelling. It builds a world with clear rules and then uncompomisingly sets out to follow those rules. Where many authors go through plot contortions to save characters from deaths or gruesome fates, George Martin follows through on the logical consequences of his characters actions. Mostly. Obviously, good characters, dialogue and a whole bunch of other stuff are important too, but if you create a plot in which literally many things that happen is predicated on breaking the fundamental established rules of your universe, then you have a problem. So let’s talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

And, yes, maybe I’m the odd one out here. And I will happily admit the film has a lot of things going for it. It has charm. The characters, especially the new characters, are mostly well-written, pretty well-acted, well-cast and it has some amazing visual set-pieces. And yet, and yet and yet. I can’t love it.

Let’s back up a bit. Again. Let’s talk about what makes Star Wars great. To me, one of the best things about the Star Wars universe was how real the galaxy felt. It felt real because it had a sense of scale. It had a sense of rawness and grubbiness and character. You don’t know what all those guys in Mos Eisly are up to, but they all feel like they could have their own stories, their own crazy adventures. The galaxy felt lived in, by real people. Sure, the details weren’t filled in, but they didn’t need to be. The subsequent films in the series expanded on the galaxy, always hinting at worlds beyond what we saw. The prequels, for all their faults, really work when their adding new places, suggesting new characters. One of the big reason they mostly don’t work is that they then undermine this sense of scale by adding needless connections to the sequels and unnecessary links between characters that didn’t need to be linked. C-3PO is build by Darth Vader. Obi-Wan killed Boba Fett’s father. Chewbacca fought with Yoda. These connections make the universe feel small, answering questions no one was asking, filling in details that didn’t need to be filled in. Breaking the number one rule: the universe is vast and varied. The prequels make it feel small and homogenous and are, thus, within the rules of the work, unrealistic

Ok, but let’s for real, talk about The Force Awakens. I’m going to be the curmudgeon here, but I’m not even going to complain. I’ll just literally tick off the plot and let you form your own conclusions. Then I’ll tell you what those conclusions should have been. By the way, spoilers I guess, though by now, everyone and their grandma has seen the film.

So, one of the first things that happens is that BB-8 sets off in a random direction. On a planet. Planets are big.

You wouldn’t have understood how big if I hadn’t included a reference picture.

Literally, the second person it encounters is the one other person with a connection to the Skywalkers. But ok, maybe the old guy was living near Rey on purpose. Whatever. Moving on. Meanwhile, in space Dameron is escorted to execution by the one stormtrooper having moral doubts, and equally unlikely, the one stormtrooper having moral doubts suddenly finds himself escorting one of the best pilots in the universe. But ok, maybe Finn somehow engineered it so that he was the one to get that mission. They crash, on the planet, which, remember, is big, and literally the first place Finn encounters after walking in an entirely random direction is the settlement where Rey and BB-8 are.

He is just walking in a random direction. Look how lost he is,

But ok, maybe the TIE fighter was already pre-programmed to fly in the direction of von Sydow’s camp. But do you see wha’t happening here? I’m having to make excuses for the plot. I shouldn’t have to do this. So, getting back to the plot, the next thing that happens is that Finn and Rey need a ship, and literally the first ship they encounter is the Millennium Falcon. No wait, that’s not right. It’s literally the second ship. My bad. They escape into space and literally the first ship they encounter – within minutes – is piloted by Chewbacca and Han. Are you seeing a pattern here? Because I’m seeing a pattern here.

I’m going to stop here, but the entire rest of the film is like this. Actually no. I’m not. I just want to bring up how monumentally unlikely it is that Han and Finn would randomly stumble upon both captain Phasma and an escaped Rey all on a battle-station that is several orders of magnitude larger than the Death Star.

This happens seconds, literally seconds after Finn says “hey, I’m just going to walk around randomly hoping to run into Rey.” And the he does. Goddamnit, he does. Very few things make me really angry but this makes me so angry.

My point is this, a description of all the unlikely coincidences in the film is basically just a description of the film itself. And this is breaking the fundamental rule of the universe. That it’s big. These kind of coincidences don’t happen in a big universe. Now, don’t give me that “you can’t expect realism in a universe where there are lightsabers and the force and spaceships that go pew pew!” baloney. Yes I can! I went to great pains to describe earlier on why I can. All that stuff is fine, but these crazy coincidences are fundamentally incompatible with the many rules of the galaxy.

“So what?” you say. “It’s unrealistic, but you’re being a pedantic nerd. Just turn off your brain and enjoy the spectacle,” you say. Well, grr, that is also one of my pet peeves, but I’m going to get onto that one in another post. The point is that because all these moments are so unrealistic, that robs them of their emotional resonance. Stumbling onto the Millennium falcon, meeting Han and Chewie should be strong, powerful moments, but they aren’t, because they’re not earned. Instead of careful plotting, it’s like the creators of the film just decided Rey and Finn meeting Han and Chewie would be a cool moment, so it happens. Yes, all fiction is like this, but good plotting is there to disguise the fact that this is a made up story and everything happens because the author thought it would be a cool moment.

Let’s look at an example that really does work. For this, I’m going to go back to Game of Thrones. When Ned Stark gets his head chopped off (six year old spoiler!) you can perfectly trace the reason why this happened. He had been going about, bungling his way through some pretty damning secrets of some pretty powerful people. People with access to money, power, very few scruples and some pretty sharp axes. So the logical thing for them to do is chop his head off (or well, imprison him and put his life in the hands of an inbred psychpath but now we’re splitting hairs). Obviously, the number one reason Ned loses his head is because George Martin thought it would be a cool moment. But because he has taken the care to root the head-chopping in a logical sequence of events, we as an audience don’t think very hard about this fact. Now compare this to when Rey and Finn find the Millennium Falcon. It would be cool if our main characters find the Millenium for a good reason. But here it just happens. There’s no attempt to create a logical sequence of events, it’s just a dumb coincidence. It happens because screw you, don’t ask stupid questions. Thus, it is completely unrealistic and we (and like, really, only, I) can’t ignore the fact that it only happens because JJ thought it would be cool if this happens. I can’t ignore this fact. And now, neither can you. You’re welcome.

So, ultimately, the reason the Force Awakens Fails to completely engage me, is because there is no logical connection between events. Essentially, the film is just a series of really cool set-pieces, and great character moments linked together by a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences. Taken on their own, the moments are pretty awesome. Together, because they defy the basic rules of the universe and are inherently unrealistic, they add up to an incoherent mess. This is why I’m baffled by the overwhelming critical reception.

Loved Rogue One to bits though. Like, I actually cried when I walked out of the cinema because it was so good. At least it tried.

Correction: an earlier version of this post featured fewer pictures of goats. This serious shortcoming has now been amended.

Correction 2: I’m vaguely aware that I probably mischaracterized the Twilight films. I know this isn’t technically a correction, is actually kind an unrepentant anti-correction but just… don’t send me angry emails about it. Or do! I would love some indication that people actually read this blog. I’d be thrilled. So there’s the correction. Correction: I would love to receive angry emails.

On the Hypocrisy of Nerds and the Folly of Superhoes

Here’s something that’s been bugging me. Nerds all over, got super super upset when Superman killed Zod at the end of Man of Still No Colours. “Superman is super good, he never kills!” everyone said. I’m not here to make fun of that sentiment. I agree, superheroes shouldn’t kill. From everything I read, it seems like it was part of Snyder’s agenda to make the point that sometimes good guys have to kill, or something. And that’s bad. I mean, he could have had superman find a way to incapacitate him or whatever. But no, he wanted to show that sometimes good guys have to kill. For once I agree with the legion of angry fans. It was useless and pointless and completely against what the character and, you know, morality, stands for.

Not pictured: morality

But here’s what’s bugging me: in Avengers 2: The Clusterfuck Setup For Sequels, pretty much exactly the same scene happened, only, like, a thousand times more disturbing. And although that film does mark the moment when we went from “holy shit, Marvel can do no wrong apart from Iron Man 2 and Hulk” to “holy shit, Marvel can make mediocre films that aren’t Iron Man 2 and Hulk” the bones of our complaints weren’t with the final scene. But it shouldn’t have been.

Speaking of the bones of our complaints, can you guys remember what is happening in this scene? Because I sure as hell can’t.

Quick question. Am I describing Superman or Avengers here? After a climactic battle which has taken enormous toll in terms of lives and property destruction, two beings – alien and superior to anything on the planet – battle and one of them ends up killing the other in cold blood for the good of everyone else. If you said “both” well, done, you read the sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.

I’m of course talking about the scene where Vision uses his vision-magic to take Ultron apart. The scene is remarkably similar to the climax of Man of Still Here I Guess, except that instead of being in the middle of killing some bystanders, Ultron is in the middle of harming literally nobody. Vision makes the calculation that the world is better off without Ultron, and kills him.

Seriously, watch these scenes back to back.

At least Superman has the grace to be upset. I would argue that Age of Ultron is even more disturbing than Still, because it’s not a spur of the moment, thing, it’s a calculated, rational, cold-blooded killing of a desperate being begging for its life. Why did we all, and really, I mean you all, get suuper upset when Snyder did this but mostly shrugged when Whedon did it?

Well, I’ve got a couple of theories, and handily they also function as rebuttals to any counterarguments against my argument. The first is that it’s OK, because Ultron is just a robot. He’s not a person, so killing him isn’t wrong. Except he’s not just a robot. The film goes to great length to establish that it’s a fully conscious artificial intelligence. So what if he he doesn’t have an organic body? He’s intelligent, he has emotions, he feels pains. Just because he’s not human doesn’t make it OK to kill him.

Well, maybe you could argue that it’s ok to kill him because he was evil and he was going to destroy all life. And here you have a point, except so was Zod. Either it was ok to kill Zod or it was not ok to kill Ultron. You really can’t have it both ways.

But you can argue that the hypocrisy is OK, because Superman has a legacy and that is he doesn’t kill. That legacy has been built up over decades. So, it’s OK for Vision to kill, but not Superman. But here’s the thing. Vision pretty much is Superman. Ok, he’s not, but he is. They don’t look the same, but their powers, and their power levels are pretty much the same, and forget what I said at the beginning of this sentence, they do kind of look similar, if you ignore the fact that one of them is red.

OH MY GOD IT’S LIKE THEY’RE CLONES.

 

And remember, the film goes out of its way to suggest that Vision is the closest thing to a perfectly benevolent being. I mean, he’s the only one apart from Thor who can pick up Mjölnir (and, I mean, really? Thor? He’s a perfectly worthy being? What criterion is the hammer going off anyway?). So, although he’s not actually superman, the film gives him pretty much all the signifiers of Superman.

So, here’s the thing that really bugs me, apart from the hypocrisy. I wasn’t that fond of either Man of Still Going To Keep Doing This Stupid Gimmick, or Avengers 2, and I found the ending to both a little disturbing. What’s going on is that the filmmakers are trying to set up an interesting moral dilemma. If someone is all powerful, evil, and threatening to kill everyone, is it OK to kill them first? Both films fall squarely in the affirmative. Yes, they say. If an evil, all powerful being wants to kill everyone, not only is it ok to kill them first, it’s your responsibility. The problem is, the question is based on false premises. In the real world, we don’t have inherently evil people who will kill everybody if left unchecked and even if we did, telling them apart from normal people who have gone astray and can be helped is nearly impossible.

This matters, because the worldview espoused in these films is inherently conservative, and borderline fascistic. The view that some people are incurably evil and need to be put down has strong implications for how we view the justice system. It leads to things like the mass incarceration they’re seeing in the States and, taken to it’s logical conclusion, fascism. Obviously Man of Still just a stupid movie, isn’t going to lead to concentration camps, but it does promote the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to make unproductive changes to our justice system. And that’s not cool.

Huh, wow, this was maybe a stronger point than I intended it to be. Oh well.

Correction: an earlier version of this post had the same paragraph twice. Thanks to Michael Gardner for pointing this out me look like a fool in process. I mean, no one would have noticed, but now everyone knows and I look like a fool. Thanks, Michael.

Why Character Creation is Always Going to Suck

Why character creation is always going to suck

So a couple of years ago I bought Dragon Age Inquisition, even though there was another game, doing pretty much the same open-world RPG schtick only better in pretty much every way (I’m talking about the Witcher 3, no I haven’t played that game yet). Yes, I knew what I was doing, it’s because I was invested in the lore.

Sexy, sexy lore.

So far though, I’ve spent about nine hours playing the game, and I’m pretty certain that half of that has been in the character creator and you know what? I still look ugly as fuck. Being the narcissist that I am, I tried to model the character after myself, and after two abortive tries, I ended up with this.

Success!

Yeah. I mean, not necessarily super ugly, just kind of… off. So clearly the Witcher was always going to win this round because there you had professional face-makers spending two years lovingly face-making every handsome scar on that handsome Witcher-face, whereas Dragon Age is going to have normal people who really don’t know what they’re doing, just bumbling around with features like earlobe size and jowls (seriously, what the hell are jowls?).

Look at that smouldering face.

This is a problem for Dragon Age, but actually,  Dragon Age characters are always going to be the post-accident Gerard Depardieu to the Witcher’s George Clooney and the reasons are always going to be more complicated than me being a bumbling amateur and the Witcher people being proffesional Wicher-makers. Like, I totally swear you guys, this is not just me deciding that because I couldn’t make a good character, all character creation is forever the pits.

So yes,, this is not necessarily a knock at the Dragon Age Inquisition character creator. As far as these, things go, it’s a lovely effort, you get to multiple sliders for every feature you can imagine, and then some (fucking Jowls). The problem is that the process of character creation as it stands is always going to be deeply fundamentally flawed. This is true for pretty much every game out there and it has to do with the way that the brain process faces.

To explain why I’m going to have to drop some psychology on you. See, usually, when we look at an object, say a tree, the brain takes the different parts of the image, branches, trunk, leaves, and all that, and then puts them together again, one by one, like a puzzle. When we look at faces, though, it’s different. The brain doesn’t take in eyes, mouth, nose separately, instead, it processes the entire thing in one go. In fact, there’s even a specific brain area tasked with doing only this kind of processing.

Exciting stuff, huh? Actually, it gets more exciting than that, because in what is a fascinating neurological debate, a lot of scientists actually argue that what that area isn’t for processing faces at all, but rather just stimuli that we come across very frequently and… oh what? You want me to keep talking about stupid video game characters? Fine.

This is why police sketches end up looking so ridiculous, because witnesses are asked to describe the face feature by feature, nose, ears, one by one. And they’re astoundingly bad. When people are asked to describe celebrities to police sketch artists, the recognition rate for people who later look at the picture is in the low single digits. As in the low single percentage points. And these are faces like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, that both the witness and the judge should be intimately familiar with.

Bill Cosby in a police sketch? Feels like there’s a joke in there somewhere…

If the above process sounds a bit familiar to you, it should, because this is also how we make characters in video games. The problem is, as we are sliding the size of the nose bridge up and down, our brain has no idea what’s happening, but it knows it doesn’t like it. We may have a rough idea of how we want the face to look in the end, but getting there is just really, really hard. In this case, getting more options may actually be a hindrance rather than a help.

Seriously, what the hell is going in in this video?

So, is there nothing we can do? Are we just doomed to using ugly characters for the rest of our lives? Well, not necessarily. Psychologists have developed tools that allow eyewitnesses to create sketches that are actually pretty accurate. At identifiying celebrities. Which is, you know, a part of the process. Basically, what the most successful approaches do is take a bunch of random features, smash them together to create seven or eight faces and then ask the witnesses to say which faces are the most similar to the person (the celebrity) they saw. The face that is chosen is then used as a baseline to create new faces and the processs is repeated until you get something that’s reasonably accurate.

This is all well and good, but I think the question we’re all really asking is can this be applicable in gaming? And really, I don’t see why it shouldn’t. So hey, Bioware, if you’re read this, and I’m pretty sure you are, you know, get on it.

In defense of Iron Man 2

So Iron Man 2. By now, it’s just kind of an accepted fact that it’s just the worst, so I don’t feel I have to go into why that is. It’s bad I get it. But like a fool I’m still going to defend it. Basically I’m just going to ignore the attacks everyone is making and instead defend the film from the attack that almost no one is making. Because I hate being accessible? Maybe. What almost no one (but not actually no one) is saying is that the film is an a tribute to everyone’s (no one’s) favorite  (not actually a) philosopher and all-round grumpy person, Ayn Rand.

So accessible.

You can find articles arguing for that here, here and here. What I’m going to argue is that this interpretation misses a lot of the nuance of the film, which actually works as a deconstruction of the Randian ideal. And actually, I’m going to go even further than that and argue that Marvel’s most capitalist hero is actually a full-on defender of the role of government in… well a lot of things. Some thing anyway.

But I can see where the criticism comes from. In fact, you can see it in the very first scene. For those who don’t feel like re watching two hours of tedium (or even like, ten minutes), that scene is all about Tony Stark defending his right to keep the Iron Man suit and not have to give it to the government so they can repel foreign invasions. And it’s true, the scene has a lot of parallels to a similar court scene in Atlas Shrugged, which I guess is about this character, Hank Rearden’s right to not to have to give up his Iron Man suit so the government can use it to build railways or whatever (full disclosure: I haven’t actually read Atlas Shrugged. But come on, who wants to do that? Have you guys seen atlus shrugged? It’s a friggin tome! And anyway, I read the sparknotes summary. Well, some of it.). Both Rearden and Stark are super-rich genius inventors who have invented this amazing new way of making Iron man suits. In both cases, the government wants to take away their invention (remember: Iron Man suits) and use it for the public good and in both cases the protagonists argue that the public good is best served by keeping the Iron Man suits in private hands. Both Rearden’’s and Tony Stark’s speeches basically amount to “you want my stuff, well you can’t have it” and focus on the sacred right of property. So there’s a pretty convincing link between Stark and Rand.

Is this Iron Man 2 or Atlas Shrugged? I can’t tell either!

Then there’s this whole capitalism thing. Obviously, there’s the fact that Stark is super-rich corporate executive and did I mention he has a lot of money? He does. Also, there’s the fact that the courtroom scene ends with Stark saying something like, “I have successfully privatized world peace. You’re welcome.” Look, I never said this film was subtle. So, I guess it’s not strange then that people look at the beginning of the film and see the similarity between Tony Stark and Ayn Rand,  and go “yep. That’s pro-capitalist all right. Nothing could possibly disprove that”.

Except, that’s not exactly true. First, it’s important to note that Iron Man 2 and Atlas Shrugged differ in where they place the speech. In Atlas Shrugged, it’s near the end (or somewhere, whatever, space is relative right?), right before the government collapses in an explosion of Iron Man suits (because they’ve taken them all. Moral of the story: don’t take all the Iron Man suits. They explode) but in Iron man 2 it’s actually the first scene. The Hubris scene. In fact, the entire rest of the film is spent showing that pretty much all of what Stark says in this scene is false. Tony says no one else is even close to building a similar suit, but in the next scene we are introduced to evil Russian, Whiplash who has built a similar suit. Tony says he’s never going to give the suit to the government, but later on, he does just that. And if we go back to Atlas Shrugged, the outcomes are completely different. In Atlas shrugged, everything goes to hell because the government wants to take the suits (remember, they explode). In Iron Man 2, when they are denied the help of the premier inventor, the government goes to his inferior rival, which is the catalyst for everything bad that happens. So basically, everything goes to hell in Iron Man 2 because Tony Stark won’t help the government.

Then there’s the case of Stark’s illness. In the courtroom scene, Stark claims that he can sustainably protect America from outside threats. This is not true. If he dies, which the film goes to great lengths to make us believe he will, he won’t be able to protect anyone. And, in fact, what’s killing him is his own invention. Although it might be tempting to make the connection to the unsustainable way we are treating the planet, even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch. But, remember, the explicit connection between Tony Stark and privatization was made already in the courtroom scene (that whole, privatized world peace line). So, if Stark is capitalism, and Tony Stark has a problem in his heart, then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the film implies that capitalism has a problem in it’s very heart.

And speaking of that illness, let’s think about how Tony deals with it. For a superhero famed for his resourcefulness, he deals with his impending doom incredibly poorly. He shuts out his friends, he drinks, and he behaves just generally irresponsibly. In the end though, he solves the situation by creating a new element which doesn’t kill him. Yes, this is incredibly stupid, but if we look past stupid it is, the way it happens is pretty revealing. On his own, he flounders he can’t do it. Instead, it takes the intervention of SHIELD and a message from Howard Stark from the past to help him solve the riddle. How does Tony’s dad know he’s going to need a new element in 50 years? How does Nick Fury know that Tony’s dad knows the secret? Best not to think about these questions. What is interesting to think about, however, is what Howard Stark and Nick Fury represent. As head of SHIELD, Nick Fury, clearly represents the government.

Clearly the government.

Howard Stark, Tony’s father, is maybe trickeir to parse, but I think that probably the simplest reading is that his role is meant to further emphasize the fact that Tony didn’t build himself up from scratch. His wealth, his power, and now even the idea for a new element that saves his heart, was handed down to him, essentially given to him. Are these interpretations a bit of a stretch. Maybe. But remember, these are choices made by the filmmakers. They didn’t need to have Stark be helped by SHIELD or his father. In fact, the film would probably have been better if it didn’t involve these elements. Instead, the plot jumps through unnecessary hoops to work in these interventions, I take this as evidence that the film really wants be saying that the free market, as embodied by Tony Stark, can only be effective through the help of government intervention, as embodied by SHIELD, and the legacy of earlier innovators, as embodied by Howard Stark.

And if you look at the ending, it’s not Tony Stark working by himself that take down Whiplash. Instead, it’s Stark, working in close coordination with Rhodey –  the government soldier who, despite all of Stark’s grandstanding in the opening scene, is actually given an Iron Man suit. Private enterpise assisting the government to take down problems. So, using this analysis, a surprisingly consistent message has emerged. Private enterprise owes a great deal to the government, and as such has an obligation to contribute to the good of society. While this isn’t exactly a radical idea (if I ever get around to doing an analysis of Iron Man 3, I’ll show that film is way more radical) it’s a far cry from the Randian ideals that a lot people attribute to the film. Shame it’s still kind of a terrible film.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the main characters’s name as “John Reardon” not Hank Reardon.

Correction 2: An earlier version of this post described the plot of Atlas Shrugged as being about trains and metal and some other bullshit. This was clearly wrong.