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Godzilla (2014): Good, but Needs Less Hollywood

Yes, spoilers inc for the latest Godzilla.

So, I saw Godzilla Open Paren 2014 Close Paren, in my usual effort to be caught up with modern geeky cinema, especially having heard mostly good things about it.

And, yes, it is very good. The action’s great, the cinematography impressive, the ideas and designs are creative, and even though we’ve got the usual “Scientist telling the Military not to act, and the Military acts anyway and they turn out to be wrong” stuff, it’s never malicious, and the military officers are always presented like people who are trying to save lives, aware of the risks but they’re using the best plan they’ve got that doesn’t involve watching people die.

And holy god those effects. Sure, it’s a lot of “Fight scenes at night and in the smoke to make the CGI cheaper”, but god DAMN are they not amazing to watch. So god damn many amazing looking shots, and it’s not just eye-candy. The moment when the two MUTO’s meet… it’s honestly a little romantic, and hard not to go “Awww…” a little. And, most of all, it made things seem real. As in, if these three giant monsters existed in our world, with these motivations, this is what it would really look like. Suspend your disbelief for the existence of those giant monsters, and you’ll make it through the film without a twitch of incredulity, and it’s so nice to see a movie take its ludicrous premise that seriously (see the Square-Cube Law¬†for why all three monsters make physics teachers cry ūüėÄ ).

It’s not perfect, of course. Nothing is. I’ve never liked the “Nature’s Wrath personified” concept. It always feels like a¬†bit of a cheat, trying to invoke God without, well, bringing up Religion. The acting in some places is stiff and clumsy, and the blatant teases of “Ooooooh, giant monster showdown comi- PSYCH! But check out all the aftermath!” comes across as someone who knows why Jaws didn’t show the monster until the final act, but doesn’t understand how to pull that off. We should be anticipating the oncoming storm, not lamenting missing the fight that the filmmakers refused to let us see.

And that’s not counting the fact that the hero’s family is basically… it’s a young, attractive white male soldier (and not just a soldier: A soldier specialized in disarming bombs, so an even more heroic soldier!), with a very young, white son and a blonde haired, white wife who’s either a nurse or a doctor, but probably a Nurse, given what we see. The only way it could be more stereotypical of Hollywood action films would be for the wife to be pregnant with a baby girl too…

Compared to last year’s Pacific Rim? Without question, Godzilla¬†is the superior film. Even though the humans in both films were about on par with each other in terms of dullness, Godzilla is better shot, better performed, and rarely ever¬†made me question what the hell characters in the film were thinking, as opposed to once every few minutes in Pacific Rim.

But there’s one thing¬†that I didn’t fully grasp until the drive home… and I think it’s one of the biggest problems with Godzilla (2014).

Where’s the Tragedy?

If you add up all the people killed throughout Godzilla? It’d probably hit six digits, not counting the amount that would be lost due to rioting, disease, disruption of basic services, hazardous debris from all the destroyed buildings, etc. And yet… we really don’t see much of a sign of how horrific this truly is.

There’s two parts of the¬†attack on Hawaii that really serve to underline this. In one, a random little girl and her family are focused on, with Godzilla’s arrival, and they have to run away from the Tsunami that’s being caused by, well, giant monster coming out of the ocean. In the other, Ford Brody (aka our hero) is keeping an eye on a Japanese kid while on a monorail, which gets attacked by the male MUTO.

In both instances, people die. A lot of people. The Tsunami sweeps away streets full of people… but the little girl and her family make it out alive! On the monorail, the track gets damaged, and people start falling off… but Ford rescues the kid before he can plummet to his death!

I know, expecting them to show a dead kid in a summer blockbuster is… doubtful, to say the least. But this extends to the adults too. I racked my brain trying to think of anyone that received even the barest amount of characterization that we saw die, and the list…

  • Bryan Cranston (well, Joe Brody), who dies from wounds suffered in the first monster attack. However, we do not exactly see him expire: We see EMT’s working on him, and later¬†we’re shown his bodybag being zipped up, after being told that he died.
  • Serizawa’s crew… probably. His assistant we know survives, but their deaths are not shown, and the only reason their deaths are implied is because Serizawa has no one else besides her and Cranston (and son) be brought along to the aircraft carrier.
  • Several soldiers, who either die off-camera assuming they do, as, again, their deaths are only ever implied, not confirmed, or die on-camera… but as a speck of gunfire being snuffed out by one of the monsters, at least 10-15 minutes since you last saw their face.

The affect of all this is pretty simple: Godzilla (2014) doesn’t want the audience to feel sad. This is still Hollywood fare, and it feels like it. We get no real impression of any of the victims, there’s no connection to them. What we get is countless images of the brutal destruction, and it is seriously impressive… but that instills awe, not fear, not sorrow.

Because of that, we’re never in any real fear for the protagonists. They weren’t willing to kill off unnamed children, why would they kill off the generic love interest, let alone the hero?

…Godzilla, not the, you know, bomb-disposal American soldier.

Imagine if Ford hadn’t been able to save that Japanese kid on the monorail. That, after seeing the little girl escape to safety, he plummets to his family-friendly demise. A little boy, about the same age as Ford’s own son, a child that Ford had promised to return to his parents, befriended in a small way… and he’s just not fast enough to save him.

It’d give everything he does after to get to his family more weight. It’d give a face to the countless deaths in Hawaii a face. It’d give a bit more doubt to the fates of the major characters.

But, no, because this is a Hollywood film, and it wants the good guys to win, the audience to leave happy. And who would go to a film about San Francisco being destroyed (…again) willing to get kicked in the gut?

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Captain America 2: Trying to Have your Apple Pie and Eat it Too

Okay, first things first: There is no way to talk critically about Captain America 2 (aka Captain America: The Winter Soldier) without spoiling the hell out of the film. Spoilers are coming below, but suffice to say that it’s an excellent movie, second best of the MCU films to this point, only behind the Avengers (and only just barely). If you haven’t yet, go see it.

Still… there’s no such thing as a perfect movie, and Captain America 2 has a… its not a flaw, exactly. It’s something that’s a bit worrying for the future of the Marvel films, although it seems hard to see it as a flaw quite yet.

So, What is Captain America 2 About?

A habit I’ve started getting into with films, games, music, books… really, any piece of media that I feel a bit uncertain about¬†is to ask myself two questions:

1: What, thematically, is the story about?

2: Why does, or doesn’t, that work like it should?

With Mass Effect 3, the thematic issues were easy for me to draw out, because of how much I had already been immersed in the series as a whole. With Burial at Sea, the story fell apart because it stopped being about Elizabeth and became all about the original Bioshock. And so on.

So, when I walked out of Cap2, I was honestly a little bummed. I had gone in expecting a mature and intelligent discussion on the Privacy vs Security debate, with Captain America (amazingly portrayed as usual by Chris Evans) on the side of idealistic beliefs that Privacy should be sacrosanct, and Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury on the side of pragmatism, that idealism is a weak defense against people that want to kill you.

Well, that’s not what I got, because it turned into a fantastic Spy Thriller where it turned out that SHIELD was infested, to the core, by Captain America’s old nemesis from the WW2 era, the formerly Nazi super-science group HYDRA.

And that bummed me out. One of my favorite portrayals of this debate was from Deep Space 9, in the two parter “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”, where high ranking Starfleet Officers perform a military coup of the Federation out of a fear of Changelings, aliens that can perfectly mimic the appearance and voice of anyone, infiltrating and subverting the Federation. What worked was that the bad guys were acting, in their view, in the bests interests of the Federation. The threat was real, their intentions were generally noble, and even our heroes recognized it, but that:

“If the Changelings want to destroy what we’ve built here, they’re going to have to do it themselves. We will¬†not¬†do it for them.” -Captain Benjamin Sisko

But, upon further reflection, that’s not what the movie’s about, that’s not the lesson it’s trying to teach. That’s the lesson they TEASED, of course, because the actual lesson involves a pretty massive spoiler.

No, what Cap2 is about is the darker side of this topic.¬†The assumption many tend to have is that the people violating the privacy of the everyday people are ‘just’ overzealous good guys. They have our best interests in mind, it’s just the extent of what they’re allowed to do that’s the problem.

The point of HYDRA having infiltrated SHIELD is to say “No, the people with the power aren’t always the good guys. This isn’t going to always be freedom versus security. We need to limit this power to make sure that if any¬†bad people get in charge, they can’t abuse it.”

It’s a good message, and after realizing that, it has raised my opinion of the film a bit.

But only a bit. Because Captain America 2 still doesn’t work great for me…

Why Doesn’t this Work?

The problem is HYDRA and their plans.

First… no matter how much you try to divorce HYDRA from Nazi Germany… there’s some pretty damn clear visual parallels. The film basically Godwins¬†itself as soon as the HYDRA reveal hits, not because the bad guys are suddenly Nazis, but because the bad guys are no longer remotely relatable, understandable or sympathetic (excluding the titular and largely redundant Winter Soldier).

The bad guys all being HYDRA basically signifies “All these people are now Morality Free targets”, that can be eliminated without issue, like Zombies, Robots or Nazis. Only at one point do they even try to make a single HYDRA character’s views seem sympathetic… which is really a dumb scene because the defiant and proud SHIELD leader¬†refuses to kill¬†people to save innocents… and there’s no implication that this isn’t one of the guys from The Avengers that was willing to nuke New York to possibly save the world.

Because… it’s HYDRA. They’re evil. They’re a secret conspiracy infiltrating SHIELD dating back to the early Cold War, sprung up from a former Nazi super science group, that dropped the Nazism for simple megalomania, formed because the last remaining leader of HYDRA, Armin Zola, was brought over to the US to help build SHIELD, and then his brain got uploaded into a few thousand 70’s era magnetic tape computer banks, which my computer science degree tells me is completely absurd on the face of it and he’s managed to come up with an algorithm that determines the future potential of everyone in the world, and the evil plan is to murder tens of thousands of people to ensure that world domination will be theirs…

…that above paragraph¬†is the big problem with Captain America 2, because… it sounds so much like a silly Silver Age comic book its kinda amusing in retrospect.

I mean, I honestly have no real problem with Zola being uploaded to Magnetic Tape. The reveal of THAT was just so bloody audacious and impossible that it looped back around to entertainingly acceptable. It’s the sort of silly that suspension of disbelief is made for.

The problem is, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is trying to have its cake (…well,¬†Apple Pie) and eat it too. It wants to be a serious, mature look at modern concerns about privacy and security, and when it focuses on that it is indeed wonderful. But it also wants to stay true to its comic book origins and the silliness that can bring.

And the more worrying part of this is that one of the most common defenses of all that is “It’s a comic book movie”, almost as though its origins means that the serious and the silly can be divorced from each other and considered separately, because I doubt that’s what will happen. What is far more likely to happen is that the attempts by the Marvel films to go into more serious subject matter gets knocked back by the more artistically minded as “Oh, it’s just a comic book movie. One of the villains is a brain uploaded to magnetic tape, it’s not¬†supposed to be taken seriously”.

That attitude, I worry, is what might kill the MCU, in an artistic if not financial way. Sure, there’s something to be said for smart concepts presented in an easily approachable way… but these films can’t just rely on their Comic Book past as justification for the silliness.

The best Super Hero film thus far, in my eyes, continues to be “The Dark Knight”, because it never relied on “Comic Book Movie” as a defense. It stayed true to the characters for the most part, stayed true to the principal behind the comics… but just about everything was justified in the film and felt like something that could really happen in our world… and made the explosions and violence and death all the more terrifying.

Don’t get me wrong. Captain America 2 is a fantastic action film with a strong message about the dangers of allowing for government violations of security ‘for the greater good’, and it does not deserve to be dismissed as ‘just another Comic Book movie’.

But I worry that, in some circles, and the circles that matter most, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

After all, as bad as the NSA’s oversteps in violating our privacy are… I don’t think anyone could rationally compare them to the results of a former Nazi super-scientist made immortal on magnetic tape orchestrating a massive conspiracy propagating a secret conspiracy of almost-Nazi villains.

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Bioshock: Buried at Sea

The final piece of DLC for Bioshock Infinite came out this last week, and after banging my head against the terrible storytelling of Diablo 3, I picked it up for myself, because I have been waiting for this for a while.

I didn’t actually get the first episode for Burial at Sea when it came out in December. Reviews came in saying that it was short and rather unfulfilling, clearly the first half of a story… which I do rather agree with, after playing it for myself. Running around Rapture in its prime was fun, and the ending was gloriously awesome, but everything in between was woefully short and wanting.

That said, Episode 2 has gotten some much better marks from the press, and I definitely see why… but in a sense, it left me with the opposite feeling as I had with Episode 1: The bulk of the game was gloriously fun, but the ending… left a lot to be desired.

What is Burial at Sea?

If I had to describe Burial at Sea in one sentence, it’s a prologue for Bioshock, set in pre-shit-going-bad Rapture, using Booker and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite to set up things… and that makes sense.

Bioshock’s biggest strength, after all, was Rapture. It was a city that existed entirely as a metaphor for Objectivism. A city in a unique environment, where the richest prosper and the poor must suffer, where industry is allowed to do as however it wishes to do, where empathy is not merely a weakness, but a cancer upon the noble, inquisitive mind.

The big problem with Bioshock, though, was that this attitude extended to the characters. Suchong is a scientist unbound by the petty trivialities of morality, Steinman is a doctor more interested in profits and scientific advancement than he is in treating his patients, Ryan as the true believer… but one that assumes that he’s among the best destined to rise to the top and infuriated when that proves not to be the case… and Fontane aka Atlas as the reason why Objectivism won’t work: Because once someone comes along who knows how to cheat the system, everything falls apart.

The only real characters who don’t fit this are Tenebaum, who does little and basically counts as the “Good Guy” NPC for much of the story, and the player character, Jack, who… has no personality to speak of whatsoever, because he’s a blank slate avatar that the player can easily slip into.

The result of all these characters as metaphors, though, is that they’re just metaphors. You gain allegory, but you lose reliability and complexity, and there’s no one clamoring to see more of these characters.

By contrast, the one of the biggest¬†weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite was that it did little with its American Exceptionalism centered city of Columbia… but did a ton with the protagonists, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth Comstock. To go into what made those characters so grand… would be difficult to do, let alone without spoiling every major plot element of Bioshock Infinite. Let’s just say that these two characters aren’t metaphors or examples or strawmen or anything. They’re living, complex people that grow and change over the course of the story.

All that is why Burial at Sea had such a huge draw: Taking those two beloved characters from Bioshock Infinite and placing them in the city of Rapture? Who could ask for more?

Did it work?

I want to avoid major spoilers… but I really can’t, because the big problem with Burial at Sea is the end.

So, spoiler time.

In¬†Burial at Sea, Episode 1, Elizabeth comes to a version of Booker DeWitt in Rapture and hires him to help find Sally, a little girl that went missing… and a little girl that Booker sorta adopted for himself, but lost. This leads them down a merry path of bloodshed until they reach the girl, whereupon its revealed that she’s been turned into one of Rapture’s creepy Little Sisters… and that this Booker is actually a version of Father Comstock that has been trying to hide from the things he’s done, including to his own verison of Elizabeth… and he promptly gets killed by a Big Daddy, just as Elizabeth had planned.

(Look, I’d go into the Booker/Comstock thing… but lets just say its complicated, and quantum, and move on, because it really doesn’t matter much after this)

In Episode 2, we actually play Elizabeth, as she realizes that she used a little girl as bait to kill a completely monster, and goes out to try to rescue her, although devoid of her powers from the previous bits, because… she died in god-mode, and now is a regular girl.

…look, this series is kinda weird, okay?

Point is, Atlas has Sally, and Elizabeth needs to do all sorts of things that build up to the events of Bioshock, kickstarting the revolution, all while wondering what god-her was thinking with this, and being aided by the voice of the Booker from BSI, the good Booker, although its stated that he’s just a voice in her head or something… until she realizes, just before the end, what god-her was thinking: By doing this, she can save Sally, the girl she put in danger, and set into motion the events that will culminate with Jack coming to Rapture, killing more or less everyone still alive over the age of 10, and saving all the Little Sisters… but killing Elizabeth in the process.

And that last part is the big problem with Burial at Sea: At the end of it all, it becomes about Bioshock, not Bioshock Infinite. It stops being a story about Elizabeth’s struggles to save a young girl and becomes about Elizabeth sacrificing her godlike powers, immense perspective and even her LIFE in order to enable the admittedly heroic actions of a… nobody. Such a sacrifice for the sake of Bioshock’s lackluster ending doesn’t build the ending up, it tears the wonderful story of Burial at Sea down.

The Good end of Bioshock was disliked by many, largely because it’s so saccharine after such a dark and brooding game, and Burial at Sea just tries to raise the stakes on that even further. Keep in mind, because of Elizabeth’s actions in starting the revolt that will end up destroying Rapture, all of the following things will happen:

  • All the residents of Rapture, excluding the Little Sisters, will either be killed horribly, or turned into the psychotic murders known as Splicers, many of whom Jack will end up killing. It’d probably be fair to say that the death toll would be in the tens of thousands, if not more.
  • Included in that total are all the children that live in Rapture that aren’t turned into Little Sisters. Just because you didn’t see them in Bioshock (…because gruesomely murdered¬†children is hard to pull off without an AO ESRB rating), doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
  • A passenger plane flying over the Atlantic ocean is hijacked and crash-lands into the ocean, likely killing everyone aboard with the exception of Jack.
  • Elizabeth, a woman explicitly defined as being omniscient of the present and future, with powers beyond knowing, gives up her power to become mortal, do all the above, and die.

And yet, the ending tries to play this all off as a good thing. That this living god found the Little Sisters to be more important than everything else, and that there was only one way to save them: By killing tens of thousands of people, most no more guilty of abusing the Little Sisters than 1850’s Georgians were guilty of abusing slaves, including probably hundreds of innocent children, and dying herself. There are justifications one could make, explanations, ideas about how this could all logically make sense, sure. The limits on Elizabeth’s powers, and the nature of Bioshock’s multiverse, are so ill defined that there’s certainly an explanation somewhere in there. But Burial at Sea makes no real effort to explain it.

I don’t want to say I disliked Burial at Sea, far from it. One of the first things I thought after finishing it was that I would be a very happy man if all DLC was as smart, well written and tightly focused as Burial at Sea was.

The problem is that, in trying to bridge the gap between Bioshock’s Rapture and Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth… in the end, it gave up on Elizabeth, and just focused on Rapture’s downfall and, arguably, the weakest part of Bioshock. Despite everything wonderful that had happened before… the ending just drags down what could have been a nearly perfect experience.

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Diablo III: Reaper of Souls: Same Shitty Storytelling, Different Year

So, last weak the expansion pack for Diablo III came out, “Reaper of Souls”, advertised as being about an angel basically going evil and deciding to kill all humans because humans are evil and suck, and since I’m still a fan of the Diablo series, and genuinely do love the gameplay, I picked it up.

Yes, this was even after remembering my post last year, The True Tragedy of Diablo III, which was largely about how disappointed I was by Diablo III’s storytelling. Not the outline of the story or the themes involved, of course. Frankly, I’d love to see that theme explored more, the sense of continued optimism and eternal persistence in the face of gloom, dread, tragedy and personal mistakes that was woven throughout so much of what passed for Diablo 3’s story.

I played through the new content, and, aside from a few bits that were just on-the-face dumb (the ending is pretty sudden and uninspired, not really resolving the events¬†as much as just stopping), the story continues in Diablo 3’s grand tradition of coming up with interesting story ideas and doing jack shit with them.

Spoiler time, so apologies if you really, genuinely care about what the storylines in the new content are, but here’s what I can remember of the major and minor story elements:

  • Angels in the service of the crazy-and/or-evil Angel of Death, Malthael, descend upon the large city of Westmarch and start killing everything they see, turning the slain humans into Reapers, undead beasties that go around killing more people. The Nephalem hero from Diablo 3 shows up in Westmarch and gets to work stopping it, especially once the hero finds out that the Ebon MacGuffin (I mean, Black Soulstone) from Diablo 3 got stolen by Malthael as well.
  • When the rest of Heaven found out about Malthael going rogue, they had sent another Angel to try to find him and turn him back to the light, however this other Angel grew to agree with Malthael’s cause and joined up with him. And he clearly didn’t go alone, showing that Angelic Purity is hardly universal or reliable.
  • Each of your companions have their stories develop further, be it bringing down the Templar’s corrupted order, finally finding Lyndon’s brother, only too late, or discovering that one of the Enchantress’ sisters betrayed them all, instead of allowing herself to be sacrificed for Eirena’s sake.
  • While Westmarch is being invaded, there’s still politics going on. The city is ruled by stuck-up nobility, many of whom are showing their true colors in the horror. The long-abused underclasses are taking advantage, French Revolution style, but end up killing nobles seeking to help save the city, and even the King is murdered by a rival noble, seeking to put his family back on the throne… all while Angles are coming down and killing everything in sight, in the grandest tradition of idiots refusing to see the big picture.
  • And there’s smaller acts of heroism in there too, be it soldiers fighting and dying to protect civilians from the angelic horde,¬†a random man¬†rescuing a young woman, only to turn out to have been a deserter now bound for the noose, even a sorcerer trying to find a way to save the souls being taken by the Angels, only for the spell to fail with nearly disastrous results.
  • As you finish things in Westmarch, you find out what Malthael’s plan is: To use the Ebon MacGuffin¬†to destroy everything with demonic heritage. While this doesn’t seem bad without context, it is a little bad when you remember that Humanity is the result of an Angel and a Demon’s union… and so Malthael plans to destroy all of humanity to rid existence of the demonic taint.
  • You also find out that the person that can best hunt down Malthael is Adria… the woman that betrayed the good guys in the main campaign of Diablo 3, killed the one of the most benevolent characters in the game¬†and is a woman that the heroes, as well as most of the players, would be oh so happy to tear limb from limb… and so you need to hunt her down, mindful that you need to get the information from her before you kill her.
  • Once Adria’s dealt with, after some ominous words about how Diablo will find a way back, you need to go after Malthael, and are assisted by a very grumpy Angel named Imperius, who knows that Malthael needs to be put down, but can’t bring him to do it himself… so will just give the Heroes a bit of a leg up, even if he won’t stop being a dick about it.
  • And then you find out that, to destroy Malthael, you need to absorb the spirits he had taken of some of your countrymen (the people depending on your class), and thus becoming an embodiment of¬†your class and your people.
  • Of course, you end up fighting Malthael, but during the fight Malthael shatters the Ebon MacGuffin, powering himself up as a result for the One-Winged Angel form (…although he still has two wings). With the killing blow, however, you find out that killing Malthael may have ended up setting Diablo free once again, and the game ends with Tyrael wondering if the Nephalem heroes will ever become corrupted and evil… because they’re certainly powerful enough to take down the Angels.

Sorry for the wall of text above, but that was rather the point: There’s a lot of story elements in Diablo 3. Angels falling and becoming evil, people fighting each other even in the face of a greater threat, small acts of heroism and sacrifice, the chance for revenge versus the need for life saving information, an adversary coming to your aid, growing stronger through spiritual methods and the eventual worry of power corrupting even the most noble souls…

And, like in Diablo 3’s main campaign, they do very, very little with it. Even the bigger elements barely get touched upon. Story elements are shoved to the side whenever possible, even when there’s chances to make them work better. There’s a few points in the game where “You need to go do these things so we can draw the gameplay out some more” shows up, and its little more than transparent excuses for you to go around and kill things.

I know what the reaction is: It’s Diablo. You don’t play it for the story, you play it for the gameplay! Who cares if the story is shit, it’s an action RPG, the story’s just there to drive the action! The problem I have with it is twofold:

1: Shit is shit. The story’s a part of the game, it has cutscenes, cinematics, voice-overs, there’s achievements linked to finding all the conversation stuff in the game. If its in the game, its worth criticizing, and given that they put time and money into the story, why shouldn’t the quality of it be criticized?

2: It’s not an excuse plot. I WISH it was an excuse plot.

Diablo 1 and 2 had wafer-thin stories that were used to string the action along. There were good elements in there, sure, but it wasn’t given a huge amount of focus, outside of the cinematics that did a great job of setting up the next bit of story. The thing is, when you get a thin excuse plot that exists just to drive the action? Its easy to ignore, it doesn’t get in the way and it provides a bit of fun.

Diablo 3, and now the expansion, are not excuse plots. They put money into them, there’s inventive ideas with strong themes involved, ideas designed to build up the world, a real sense that the game is supposed to MEAN something.

The problem is that Blizzard is using the same old strategies in their efforts to ‘tell’ the story. Brief conversations consisting of 3-5 lines, spaced 15-30 minutes apart, depending on the subject. Journals you’ll find lying around the level, which are all too easy to miss in the chaos of battle. A handful of cinematics that are mostly exposition. Occasional sidequests that are meant to ‘enrich’ the world, but are entirely self-contained because the levels are randomly generated, so they can’t be sure which small zones you’re going to stumble across this time.

It all merges together into what can only be described as Homeopathic Storytelling: A small amount of good story and plot in there, but so heavily diluted by the action and refusal to force the players into the story at all. The story so often gets shoved aside for the sake of gameplay that it gets ridiculous after a while, thin excuses for plot cul de sacs popping up here and there that never get brought up again.

Like with the main campaign of Diablo 3, there are elements in the story that are worth exploring, that nearly DEMAND exploring. Because Blizzard fails consistently to do so, the game suffers badly.

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A Response to Jim Sterling’s “Monetizing Whales For The Retention Of Virality” video

(If you haven’t yet, you should probably watch¬†the video in question.¬†Yummy, yummy context.)

First off, I want to say that I greatly respect Jim Sterling’s work. He’s a great reviewer, does fantastic videos on the video game industry and tends to be a nice counterpoint to a lot of the other video game journalism that tends to be afraid to outright criticize publishers and developers doing terrible things.

Of course, while I respect him, that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with his points on occasion, as I do with some aspects of his latest video. His video tears into the GDC conferences that occurred last week, and that many of the panels had names that were, well, somewhat disheartening at first glance.

Again, please watch the video, because I don’t want to accidentally misrepresent his points on the subject, and i’d like to just go right at them. Also, I’d like to stress two things:

1: I did not go to GDC, so I can hardly speak¬†on the actual content of the panels myself. Its entirely possible that the panels were indeed all kinda evil… but Jim Sterling didn’t go either, and at no point brings up the content himself.

2: I want to avoid “Games need to make money” as an argument. It’s a trite cliche, and while on the surface true, it doesn’t say “How much” or “What is acceptable and what isn’t” and “”But chasing bad profits is a bad idea for all involved”. Lets just assume that a game needs to make, at the very least, a small amount of money… because, for everything made commercially, that’s true.¬†

First things first…

The Introduction Example

The panel that Jim Sterling was talking about, which he calls “How to Safely Monetize Teens” is… actually not that bad, apparently.

First off, it’s actual title was “Monetizing Teens in a Safe and Legal Manner“, and came with the following description:

This session will discuss how to maintain parental control over teen spending in the digital era, while also safeguarding their identity. By facilitating a parentally approved transaction, this can protect game developers against chargebacks and friendly fraud.

Based on that description… it seems like a legitimate concern and a pretty important topic. The title is inflammatory, to be sure.

And, as luck would have it, one of the attendees live-tweeted the session: “The #monetizing #teens #GDC panel“, and, from context, seems to have mainly been about the legal issues involved and urging to try to keep parents in control, and the panel never really dived into anything controversial, the panelists largely dodging the trickier questions.

Granted, as the author of the post, Ben Abraham, wrote:

I wonder if before the talks title went viral,¬†there was plans for a more audacious talk – a talk in which the industry’s monetization mask would have slipped, and gone completely unnoticed…

Which is possible, and probably why the people doing the panel tried so hard to dodge the questions, but as the tweets seem to indicate, the prepared presentation seemed more focused on trying to avoid getting teens to spend their parents money without a care in the world.

So, that’s part one…

Doing Talks on Monetization Models

Let me be honest: I hate the term whales (in this context, F2P players that make up the vast majority of purchases), and I think that any game that chases whales exclusively is setting themselves up for massive failure. I have no doubt that a lot of the panels and sessions that Sterling name-dropped were full of terrible ideas and weak monetization strategies that would kill a good game if implemented to their logical extent.

But note the word “A lot”. And not “All”.

The problem is… well, Monetizing F2P games isn’t easy. The way you make a F2P game is to make the best game you possibly can and then make the game less enjoyable in specific ways so that you can sell them back to the player. Even the most innocuous methods, like new outfits¬†or emotes¬†with no statistical benefit to the player, is removing things from the players so they can be sold back to them, in exchange for getting the REST of the game for free.

It’s a bit of a paradox, and there’s a lot of games that do it terribly, like the iOS Dungeon Keeper, Trexels and Heroes of Dragon Age (…2/3 of them from EA, cough cough). And there are some¬†games that do it well (although its hard to say which ones without getting into revenue numbers, but Loadout and Path of Exile have been praised for their F2P generosity).

Ideally, the point of these panels would be to share what worked, what didn’t work, what worked in the short term but fell apart in the long term, and so on and so forth… and I’d wager that, in at least one of those panels, that’s what happened.

But… yes, as long as games require at least a modicum of funding in order to be made and supported, there needs to be discussions on how to best make money without hurting the overall game. Otherwise, it’s probably that you’ll see more follow-the-leader terrible ideas like Dungeon Keeper iOS.

Of course, I can’t say for certain. But lets face it: Every essential part of video game development will need to be discussed and debated and such, and Monetization is probably always going to be on that list.

Reducing the Backlash

I’m honestly trying to find this panel in the GDC 2014 listing, but thus far? The closest one I’ve found is “You Own the Game but the Community Owns You“:

Gamers believe they own the brands, which is a bit of a dilemma for the developers and publishers who have to make decisions based on a much broader need base than a vocal minority. Ideally, game companies won’t make or need to make decisions that go against this outspoken group, but often there is a need. So gamers feel jilted, like the game cheated on them, when they never understood the nature of their relationship.

Okay, the description is maybe a bit douchey, but it’s not like there’s not a reason this panel exists. For example, Jim Sterling put out a video last year titled: “I’m Going To Murder Your Children“, with the following description:

If your first response to a game creator doing something you dislike is to get personal with them and threaten their families, you waive any righteousness you might have had. Seems like a no-brainer … yet so few of us seem to have brains.

It’s sad this episode had to be made, but here’s a¬†Jimquisition¬†about how you’re a total piece of shit if you threaten to murder somebody’s child. Yes … this had to be pointed out.

That’s the backlash that was almost certainly being talked about. There’s plenty of legitimate reasons that a game developer might do something the is in the best interests of the game as a whole, but the players may react poorly to:

  • You overpromised at E3 a few years ago about what the game would be able to do, and now have to disappoint the players now so that they don’t feel cheated when the game does come out.
  • A popular item/character/weapon is overpowered, and you need to nerf it to bring it in line with the other weapons.
  • Someone made a mistake, something bad happened with the game and you need to get the players to understand this as you compensate them for the problems.
  • The game, or an update to the game, just wasn’t as good as you thought it’d be.

The point is… these things all happen, and there’s absolutely a need to be able to communicate with the players well enough in order to make the bad news not… well, spring up death threats and vitriolic hatred that the video game industry is so good at.

In any case, Jim Sterling, if you’re reading this? I do apologize for the snarky comment I shot at you over twitter. Unfortunately, making clear and accurate points can take more than 140 characters, so I do hope these 7500+ characters will do a better job of it.

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Why I (Kinda) Hate Pacific Rim

(Yes, spoilers for Pacific Rim inbound)

So, a few weeks ago, I saw Pacific Rim with my dad and my sister, after hearing all this hype about how awesome it was, how epic it was, how mind-blowingly awesome it was, how it might not be doing much in terms of high art, but it was just such a blast, you just have to see it!

I went in, saw it, and was left there in an eternal limbo, waiting for something interesting to happen with the damn movie. I was waiting for a compelling character to show up that I hadn’t seen in 500 other movies before. I was waiting for a surprising plot element to come about. And worst of all, I was left waiting for an interesting action scene, particularly an action scene where I could see what was happening.

…and it sometimes feels like I’m the only one that saw this bland, generic action film with a large special effects budget and about two brain cells shared between the writers of the film.

“But it’s just a dumb action movie! Just turn your brain off and enjoy it!”

That line above is one of the biggest bits of defense I’ve heard for Pacific Rim, and… no, I’m sorry, but that didn’t work for me. Now, part of that’s just me. I generally have trouble with “Turn your brain off and enjoy” films, my brain keeps wanting to latch onto plot elements that make no sense and pull me out of the film.

Part of it was that I went into the movie not knowing much about it beyond “Mechs vs Kaiju”, so I wasn’t immediately prepared for “Dumb action flick” like I was for the Expendables II, which I saw for the first time (and loved) on Netflix a few days later. I generally try to go into movies knowing as little about them as possible, because I like to be surprised by plot twists, and we all know how often movies get spoiled by their own promotional material.

But, part of it was Pacific Rim itself, because not only is the script dumb (…which I hope isn’t a controversial opinion), but it doesn’t hide the dumbness well. It doesn’t do enough to distract from the dumbness with quality, well placed action scenes.

Major Spoilers Inc.

The structure of the movie is basically thus (the numbers based on how they felt to me, might be more, might be less):

  • 3 minutes of expository narration, describing the first part of the war, with brief snippits of action.
  • HUGE ACTION SCENE (at night and in the rain, a pet peeve of mine, but you can see things okay)
  • 2 minutes of expository narration about the latter part of the war, leading to modern day.
  • 5-10 minutes of White-American-Hero in a stereotypical “Retired badass getting pulled back into the action” bit.
  • 30 minutes of varying scenes about how Japanese-Love-Interest-And-Sidekick is clearly the best match for WAH and how Intimidating-And-Badass-Black-Leader won’t let her go into combat even though it’s obvious that she’s going to, interspersed with introducing the Chinese and Russian mech teams that get, oh, 5 lines of dialog all movie and are totally not Red Shirts who will die to show the situation’s serious, as well as the Australian-Jerk-Ass that definitely won’t die heroicly, as well as wacky-nerd-antics that make you wonder what happened to all the other scientists in the world that would be going gaga over the xenobiology and wormhole physics on display here
  • After IABBL finally realizes the blindingly obvious about how he can’t very well have any of those unnamed characters assist WAH in the mech,¬†5-10 minutes of the first dry run that nearly kills everyone in the base because JLIAS has deep seated trauma that only WAH can help her with.
  • 5-10 minutes of angst over the aftermath of the suicidally idiotic dry run, as well as a nerdy scientist doing science things to move the plot forward.

…and, after alllllll of that? We hit our second full action scene, where the two Red-Shirt mechs (hah, Russia and China are the RED shirts…) get their asses handed to them to prove the situation’s serious, then we get two more action scenes after that so the White-American-Hero and his sidekick (…who does nothing else the rest of the movie, I will note) can kill the monsters and prove they are badass…

But, yeah. That’s the problem I have with Pacific Rim. It takes an hour to get from Mech Fight 1 to Mech Fight 2… and Mech Fight 2 is all about killing off the two interesting looking teams, bringing us back to the bland characters I’ve seen countless other times.

This is what “Good Dumb Action Movies” do well: They distract you throughout the movie by throwing in more action scenes at fairly regular intervals.

Look at “The Avengers”, for example. It probably doesn’t count as dumb, but the intro has an exciting car chase, by the time Loki gets onto SHIELD’s base you’ve got three other actions beats tossed in to keep the tempo up. There’s a stretch of actionless scenes in there, which builds up to the first big action set-piece on the SHIELD base, and that quickly leads to the finale in New York, which is a huge action set-piece.

Giant Spiders, Dude

There’s a talk by Kevin Smith out there, where he goes on about his experience creating a script for a Superman movie, and having to do it under Jon Peters. One of the big things from this is, well, the Giant Spider bit that’s become something of a laughing stock, and for good reason… but the point Peters was making rings true to me.

What Peters was saying to Smith was that you need an action beat every ten pages. And while the way he was trying to fill that hole was idiotic, the principal, taken as a soft guideline, is a good one: Regular action beats can make an action movie better by not giving the audience time to think about any problems in the script.

Pacific Rim doesn’t have that. It tries to have two action beats in the slog that is the second act, but one of those is a spar between the two love interests, and the other is a flashback, and neither have any stakes, or involve what we were going to see: Mechs vs Kaiju.

So, sorry for the rambly thoughts. If you loved Pacific Rim, then more power to you. But don’t try telling me that I’m wrong for hating it a bit, because I just couldn’t stand sitting through it.

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