Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’m not a gamer by most definitions, but I like video games.  I don’t play many of them any more though, mostly for practical reasons: I have jobs and family and other interests. Aesthetics is a part of it—I’m largely uninterested in most of the products on the market—but I probably wouldn’t play much even if companies still made games I might like.  (This is probably why no one bothers; no sense selling to people who aren’t buying.)

Some games I get excited about though.  Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of them.

Promotional image from Bioware and EA, the companies who make and own the rights to everything Mass Effect

The original Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of all times.  In fact, it actually transcends that a little bit.  If I were to combine games, movies, television, plays,  and books into a single genre, Mass Effect would be one of my favorite things in that genre.  I like it a lot.

Mass Effect 2, to put this gently, was trash.  It was certainly a letdown compared to the first, and residual good will from the first is the only thing that could make it bearable.  Mass Effect 3 was generally better, but the ship of good will had sailed for me by the time it came out.  So the Mass Effect trilogy is rather like the Matrix trilogy in this, only the first one is good, and it probably would have been better had the sequels never been made.

Why in the world be excited about another sequel?  Good question. I don’t have a good answer.  A part of it is probably hope that some good from the original can be resurrected.  (I always hope for resurrection.)  A part of it is the basic pitch: the idea of exploring a new galaxy, and the indications that the game takes the thrill of exploration seriously.  A part of it is that I got a PS4 for Christmas.

In any event, here I am.  I thought it might be interesting to discuss the game while I play it.  Admittedly, this might only be interesting to me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Let’s begin, shall we?

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Teasing a Terrible Star Wars Movie (Continued)

Last time I started writing about my thoughts on the recently released teaser for the next Star Wars movie, Episode VII.  In the grand scheme of the internet debate, I don’t suppose my thoughts amount to much–I certainly don’t expect them to have any effect–but here they are.  I think the glimpses we’ve been given point to a movie with some serious problems, and in particular some serious problems trying to continue what was good and unique about the original Star Wars movies.

It’s been suggested that I’m being hasty, judging a movie by only a few seconds from it.  The movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum however.  I see similarities in the teaser to elements that were problems in other J. J. Abram’s movies.  He has certain tendencies; the problems in his movies follow certain patterns.  When I notice similarities between the teaser and his other work, I think it’s fair to assume that he is carrying his tendencies forward into Star Wars, and that familiar problems will likely come with them.

It’s also been suggested that nostalgia has blinded me, that I would hate any new Star Wars material because nothing can live up to the original trilogy in my mind.  I leave it to you to judge for yourself whether my objections are rational or some sort of emotional backlash.  While I greatly enjoy the Original Trilogy, I don’t think those movies are perfect, just good, unique, and worth watching.  Meanwhile, I can envision countless sorts of new material that I would be excited to see so long as a certain quality is preserved, a quality I will call, for lack of a better phrase, the Star Wars atmosphere.  My objection to the teaser is that the Star Wars atmosphere is mostly lacking, and I’m not sure J. J. Abrams understands it.

Let me explain by returning to the teaser about thirty seconds into it.

Storm Trooping:  The Movie

After the rolling droid, and culminating in some sort of embarkation maneuver, we get a few quick glimpses of storm troopers.  For the record I have no particular trouble with the new storm trooper design; I think it looks great.  My problem with these glimpses is the camera work, although it’s difficult to unpack what I mean.  The essential question is this:  what are these shots supposed to communicate?

Probably my most petty complaint is stylistic.  There’s a trend over the last two decades to make movies a more visceral experience, especially any sort of movie with action.  Filmmakers don’t just want to show action, they want the audience to experience it, at least in part.  Consider the difference between the first and later Bourne movies.  In the first we saw the many fight scenes from a fairly stable and slightly removed perspective, because the intent was to let us watch what Jason Bourne was doing.  The later movies involved faster cuts between camera angles that were closer and more varied, all up in the character’s business, to use the phrase.  The goal (presumably) was to let us feel the fights more than see them.

I’m not a fan of this particular trend, most obviously because I don’t even really want to see a lot of violence, so I certainly don’t want to experience it on any other level.  I also think it’s a lazy and ineffective sort of storytelling.  It’s something that people do because they don’t trust the story to communicate it’s importance effectively.  To use the above example again, because the director didn’t trust the visual of Bourne’s fights to communicate danger, intensity, urgency, or whatever, he used camera tricks instead of narrative, staging, acting, and all the other better tools at his disposal.  I think the result looks sloppy, not to mention frequently incoherent.  Camera tricks are no substitute for a good story.

Science fiction movies in particular always face the temptation to devolve into meaningless action.  One of the best qualities of the original Star Wars trilogy is that they kept their focus on character and story.  In fact during the filming of Return of the Jedi, when Mr. Lucas was asked about how he was going to top the lightsaber duel at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, he explained that he wasn’t even trying.  Instead he was going to trust the characters and the story to make the end of Return of the Jedi intense, and that approach paid off.  The lightsaber fight at the end of Return of the Jedi is entirely forgettable, but the scene isn’t.

Now to go back to the storm troopers, what we have is a jiggling and flashing close up of some storm troopers in formation, a jiggling and flashing close up of storm trooper guns, and a jiggling and flashing close up of storm troopers advancing down a ramp.  These seem to indicate an “up in the character’s business” filmmaking style, and a particularly jiggly one.  In short they seem to be indicative of  J. J. Abrams usual style, but J. J. Abrams nearly never trusts his characters and story and frequently descends into meaningless action, often incoherent action.

Another important thing to note is this: the wider and more stable cinematography of the original trilogy actually helped communicate the scope of the action.  While a close shot of one or two stumbling troopers might communicate the visceral feeling of a shockwave, the wider shot of an entire hallway filled with stumbling troopers communicated the scale of what was shaken.  While a camera trick might communicate the visceral feeling of an AT-AT causing the ground around a single soldier to explode, the wider shot communicated the overwhelming presence of the AT-ATs when compared to the rebel soldiers running around on foot.   “Up in the character’s business” style always makes things smaller, because so much context is eliminated.

But all of that is actually secondary.  My main complaint concerns a matter of more basic perspective.  There’s a famous story about Hitchcock, during the filming of Psycho, having to re-film the detective’s ascent of the stairs, because the original camera perspective made him seem like a villain rather than a victim.  Here we have something like the reverse: these shots put us in the middle of the storm troopers, identifying and sympathizing with them.  They’re the heroes going into danger, rather than the danger the heroes are going to face.

Current rumors suggest that a converted storm trooper is the hero–the first scene of the teaser adds some support to that–but then he would become a hero precisely by ceasing to be a storm trooper.  (Which might be why the storm trooper from the desert isn’t wearing his helmet.)  I suppose, as a part of the plot, a whole group of heroes could dress up like storm troopers and then ride into danger, in which case these storm troopers might actually be the heroes, but that seems unlikely.  If it turns out to be the case, I’ll happily retract this part of my complaint.

In the original trilogy, the storm troopers were the embodiment of the vast, monolithic, and unassailable empire.  That was one of the clever effects of having them all look identical, even anonymous.  (They don’t even seem to have names, just numbers.)  They collectively became imperial might, rather than being individuals.  One might get shot, but there were always more, endlessly more identical storm troopers, always coming at the protagonists like an unstoppable wave.  (Sure in real life it’s important to remember that even one’s enemies are human beings, but Star Wars isn’t real life.  More on that in a moment.)

Think about how storm troopers were used in the original trilogy.  We didn’t see them preparing to board Princess Leia’s ship, we just saw them pouring through the door, too many to stop.  We didn’t see them preparing to storm the rebel base on Hoth, we just saw them pouring through the door, too many to stop.  We didn’t see them preparing their ambush on Endor, we just emerged into the forest to find the entire surrounding area was filled with them.

So even if these storm trooper shots didn’t flicker and shake, even if they weren’t so close that it’s impossible to tell context, they would still be entirely wrong because we (the audience) are with the storm troopers rather than being confronted by them.

There are a couple of obvious objections people might raise.  For example, they might suggest that humanizing the villains could provide some interesting moral depth, making the world more grey.  That isn’t Star Wars though.  Star Wars has clear good and evil.  In fact clear good and evil are essential to the story.  In the last moments of Return of the Jedi, with Luke representing good and the Emperor representing evil, we don’t want Darth Vader to arrive at some sort of compromise between or mix of their two positions, we want him to choose a side.  The drama in Star Wars is always like that: it’s about whether a character will choose good, never about what good is.  In fact, the most morally grey characters in the original trilogy, Han and Lando, have their grey-ness portrayed as a failure; they’re likeable heroes precisely because and only when they stop being grey and become good.

People might also suggest that these scenes come from the beginning, when we’re getting to know the storm trooper who will eventually become good.  Maybe we’re glimpsing storm trooper life from our (eventual) hero’s perspective, so we’re supposed to sympathize with him, not the others.  Think how much more effective it would be though to view things from the another perspective.  Perhaps we could start with the perspective of where-ever the troopers are attacking.  A drop ship (or several) appears.  Endless waves of merciless and identical storm troopers appear and represent imperial might.  Then afterward, one of them takes off his helmet and looks around at what they’ve done.  He suddenly becomes an individual, we understand what he’s seeing–if the actor is good, we’ll understand what he’s thinking and feeling too–but storm troopers remain a sort of idea, the unstoppable endless wave of evil power.

The Scene I Don’t Mind

After the storm troopers we see a woman driving away on a speeder.  She’s obviously in some sort of hurry, although we don’t get any clue about why.  This scene I don’t mind.  It doesn’t thrill me–I can’t imagine that it’s intended to be thrilling, which does inspire questions about why something so largely forgettable was included in a teaser–but I can live with it.

I don’t mind her hurry, and am not talking again about irrationally frenetic action, because there’s no reason to suspect that her hurry doesn’t make sense (e.g. quick erratic movements or ten seconds of empty desert).

THE AWESOME PART

Then there are X-wings skimming across water.  At this point I very nearly forgot all of my complaints, because this sequence is just great.  I wish there were some sort of wider shot for scope, like I mentioned above–something to tell us how many X-wings are involved in the battle they are no doubt racing toward, or something to tell us about the danger they’re about to face–but there’s no reason to suspect that there isn’t something like that which was just not included in the teaser.  (Imagine how awesome it would have been if the pilot pictured had said, “All wings report in,” and then there had been a wider shot of dozens of fighters skimming across the water.)

If you don't like this shot, I don't think you and I can be friends.

If you don’t like this shot, I don’t think you and I can be friends.

If the teaser had just been X-wings skimming across water, it would have been enough, and I likely would have retracted all of my previous doubts about Mr. Abram’s upcoming Star Wars film.  I would have joined the happy throngs of excited fans.  Instead the trailer was more than just X-wings.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on “He Won’t Seem Evil Enough If We Don’t Invent a New Sort of Lightsaber,” and “Just Hold The Camera Still, Man!”

Teasing a Terrible Star Wars Movie

The first teaser for Star Wars Episode VII has hit the internet.  (I’m dragging my feet about calling the movie by it’s humiliatingly stupid name.)  I know a lot of people are excited by it, but I’m not.  I had pretty low expectations going into it, too.  Nevertheless, it disappointed me.  With people saying that it hit all the right Star Wars “notes” though, I thought I’d try to explain my position.   I don’t suspect I’m going to change anyone’s opinion and of course I’m not going to convince J. J. Abrams to fix anything–he will likely never even hear of me–but here are reasons why I’m more convinced then ever that the new Star Wars movie will be terrible.

Star Wars Hopes

There Has Been an Abstraction

The teaser begins with what appears to be an establishing shot of a desert.  For those first four seconds I was entirely on board.  Then the voice-over started.  I usually don’t mind those–and I’m ok with the particular voice in question–but there were two problems.  First, the speaker seemed to be having trouble with the dialogue; his rhythm and enunciation were awkward, like a person trying to read a poem dramatically even though he doesn’t understand it, or a person saying things in a foreign language that he doesn’t know.  The words may be right, but there’s a disconnect.  It feels off.

In this case however, the problem isn’t really the speaker.  The dialogue in question is terrible, especially for Star Wars dialogue.  We’re going to come back to this later too: there’s a certain flavor to Star Wars, and that flavor is important.  For lack of a better word, we’re going to say that things in the Star Wars universe are functional, or perhaps “lived-in.”

Think of it like clothes.  Some people have two sorts: fancy clothes and everyday clothes.  The fine clothes are for special occasions only, because they can’t really endure anything but careful treatment.  If people wore their fancy clothes all of the time, they would wear out or get ruined.  Imagine newlyweds who wore a white dress and a tuxedo at their wedding, and then also while cleaning their house, lounging around watching television, and hurriedly eating spaghetti before a meeting.  This is why people have everyday clothes; the everyday clothes are for their actual lives.  They’re plainer but sturdier and more reliable.  The Star Wars movies introduced us to a universe that was ancient and lived in, and everything in it was of the plainer but sturdier and more reliable variety.

Even the language was that sort.  In the original trilogy, we get introduced to some vague concepts and some complex relationships, but nobody uses any vague or complex language.  The dialogue instead approaches vague and complex things along the most functional path.  As a common example, we don’t know what it’s like to be connected to the Force and then to feel something significant through it, we can still understand the idea of a disturbance because that’s a purely practical word.  It doesn’t make anything more complicated than it needs to be.  It points something out and lets the characters get back to doing things in response to it, and characters doing things is the point of the story.

Compare this to the first sentence in the teaser:  “There has been an awakening.”  Aside from justifying the title of the movie, it doesn’t communicate anything.  Seriously, do you have any idea what the speaker is talking about?  Do you have any idea what characters should do in response to it?   It’s just a fancy word for the sake of being fancy, and it doesn’t do the basic thing that words are supposed to do.  Now imagine he had said, “There has been a disturbance,” instead.  You might need to see the movie to know what specifically he was talking about, but at least you would know what he was saying.

What we have in the trailer, especially as the voice-over continues, is an awkwardly delivered fancy-clothes soliloquy,  What we should want is a well delivered everyday-clothes soliloquy.  That would be more like Star Wars.

So, just a few seconds into the teaser, we have two signs of trouble:  J. J. Abrams either doesn’t recognize or doesn’t care that the actor is having trouble; and J. J. Abrams either doesn’t recognize or doesn’t care about the atmosphere of the trilogy who’s legacy he’s attempting to continue.  This may seem minor, and maybe it would be, but then the teaser continues.

A Very Urgent Desert

After a full ten seconds of seeing empty desert, we find out that it isn’t an establishing shot at all.  There’s actually been a storm trooper below the frame, presumably for the whole time.  What’s he been doing there?  Why did we need to looking at nothing for so long before he stood up?   Why did he stand up so quickly?  If he was in such a hurry, why not just stand sooner?

All of these are questions ultimately about directorial decisions, and all of them have the same basic answer:  J. J. Abrams likes cheap surprises and frenetic action.  He is of course entitled to like those things, but his eagerness to employ them tends to get in his own way (assuming that his goal is to make good movies).  Consider his recent Star Trek movies; they’re frequently muddles of hurried jumping, as though the plot were trying to imitate a rave.  None of the rush and bother really services the story though; it neither advances nor depends upon the story at all.  It’s just a series of throwaway moments.

It’s an effective method of preventing boredom, I suppose, or at least suppressing awareness of it, but I tend to think that plot and characters are a better method.  One way to get an audience through a two hour movie is to fill it with exciting moments, whether they’re important to the movie or not. (In Mr. Abram’s films they’re usually not.)  Another way to get an audience through a two hour movie is to make the movie itself interesting.

Is it important to the movie that we not know the storm trooper is there, that he’s there by surprise?  Is it important to his character that he’s desperate never be found lying in the desert, so that if he found himself there (presumably against his will) he would stand up really quickly as though the whole thing had never happened?  Or is it more likely that this is just a throwaway moment to inject excitement, something to startle the audience a little bit for no particular reason?

Movies full of throwaway moments become throwaway movies (like the recent Star Trek movies).  Either J. J. Abrams doesn’t expect any more than that, which is sad, or he has no confidence in the movie’s ability to be interesting on it’s own, which is disappointing.  Neither is a good sign for the next Star Wars movie.

All of the R2 Units had Scheduling Trouble

Then we get to the rolling droid.  At this point in the teaser I finally uttered my first sigh of resignation.

First, this is a terrible design for a droid.  If you want your droid to be mobile, which of these seems better, giving it wheels or having it’s entire body roll on the dirt and rocks?  I know that most of my inventions involve the sort of inherently self-destructive behavior exemplified by the latter.  And this ignores the obvious question of how the little thing’s head is associated to the rest of it.

Even more, this is a terrible Star Wars design for the reason I explained above: it’s not functional.  This is not the sort of droid that the people of the universe could use in their everyday lives–it would break in one of a thousand ways–so it’s probably not the sort of droid that they would want. Attach it’s head and give the things wheels; problem solved.  Instead, it’s a jarring change from the rest of the technology we see; it doesn’t fit in the Star Wars universe.

Instead it’s just novelty for novelty’s sake.  It would fit into Abram’s Star Trek Universe, but only because that universe’s technology is marked by a chaotic mess of poorly vetted ideas.  The technology is just a physical expression of the “throwaway moment” phenomenon I mentioned above.  Someone had an idea and they put it in the movie, because ultimately nothing about the movie mattered and so it didn’t matter if the idea was good.

Clearly someone wanted a cute and plucky droid, so they made one without too much thought.  Maybe they thought the rolling body would be an entertaining visual.  They were right.  It certainly fits with the “frenetic action” theme I mentioned above too.  It’s a perfectly charming throwaway moment.  It’s terrible Star Wars though, and it’s hard to imagine that the rest of the movie will be good if no one cared enough about it to rule out such a stupid and distinctively unfitting idea.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on “Storm Trooping: The Movie,” “He Won’t Seem Evil Enough If We Don’t Invent a New Sort of Lightsaber,” and “Just Hold The Camera Still, Man!”

Caillou Has Terrible Parents

Tonight my daughter was watching the cartoon, Caillou, so I was watching Caillou too.  Children’s shows are an occupational hazard of parenting.  I suppose it’s possible to avoid them–huzzah for the parents who do–but I find that sometimes I need my children to sit still for 20 minutes.  Cartoons are more humane than a full body cast, which is about the only other thing that might accomplish the goal.  (I haven’t tried the cast for the record.  I’m not a monster.)

If you’ve never watched Caillou, it’s a cartoon about a four year old, his family, their many mild adventures, and the lessons Caillou is supposed to learn from them.  I think it was originally French–the name Caillou is French for “pebble,” I think–but for more than a decade it’s been on television where I live too.  (I haven’t been watching it for a decade.  I’m not a monster.)

Either way, important to this story is the fact that Caillou has a younger sister named Rosie.  Clearly, when they were devising names, Caillou’s parents loved his sister more than they did him.  My best guess is that she’s supposed to be about one and a half years old.  At most she’s two.  For the sake of generosity, I’m going to go ahead and assume she’s two years old.

Tonight’s episode began with Caillou and Rosie playing in their room, fighting over toys as children are wont to do.  Finally Caillou plotted to distract his sister with a fort made out of pillows, but being two she got distracted early and ran off while he was building it.  When he turned around, she was gone.

Of course the audience was privy to a bit more information.  We saw her chase a toy car into the hallway, fumble with it while toddling around at the top of a staircase, and finally run away into one of the many other rooms upstairs.  Her parents were nowhere in sight.  This is when I started to get a little bit disturbed.  I’ve had a toddler by the top of stairs; I paid very careful attention at that moment.

Meanwhile, Caillou believed (not unreasonably, given his age) that his sister must have decided to play hide-and-seek.  He began his search.  This is when we discovered what his parents were doing while their young kids played alone upstairs.  His father was baking cookies in the kitchen.  The kitchen didn’t seem to have line-of-sight to the stairs, and anyway his father was singing and not really paying attention to much.  His mother was sitting on a couch and reading a book.  The room she was in didn’t have line of sight to the stairs either.

I don’t want to harp on this too much–it’s actually fairly minor in the grand scheme of things–but Caillou’s parents were completely ignoring their children, who were playing (and fighting) in an environment that likely included dangers in addition to stairs.  We’ll come back to this, though.

After searching upstairs without success, Caillou ran into the kitchen and told his father that he and Rosie were playing hide and seek.  His father responded that Rosie had run off into a different room.  Then Caillou ran to his mother and said that he and Rosie were playing hide and seek.  His mother responded that Rosie had run into a different room.  It’s possible that his mother actually pointed outside, since that’s where Caillou searched next, but I’ll give his mother the benefit of the doubt and assume that searching outside was an act of Caillou’s own initiative.

Now at this point I think his parents ought to have been somewhat suspicious, even for people inclined to be relaxed as parents.  Two year old children don’t play hide-and-seek.  They have no patience for seeking.  They have no patience for hiding.  It’s really just elaborate peek-a-boo to them.  In my experience every two year old who hides will promptly announce where he or she is.  Two year old children want to be found; they don’t want to hide well.  Also, they are not particularly inventive, so most of them couldn’t hide well if they tried.

Even if they assumed Caillou was lieing, his parents ought to have wondered where their daughter was, since she was now alone.  If they assumed Caillou was telling the truth (from his own perspective), they ought to have wondered how such a simple game could have gone so catastrophically wrong as to keep an eager two year old from being immediately found.  Or, since they had both apparently seen Rosie running through the house, they could have told Caillou that obviously Rosie had gotten bored with hiding and was doing something else.

Then they should have explored what that something else was.

They should not have assumed that Rosie was actually hiding, and hiding so well as to avoid the notice of her brother.  They certainly shouldn’t have returned to their previous activities without some sort of cursory investigation.

But of course they did, so that their four year old could advance outside unsupervised.  Presumably they were also sanguine enough with the idea of a two year old alone in the neighborhood that they didn’t think it strange for Caillou to look outside.  Why would he have done that if Rosie was still in the house?  (Again, toddlers are not hard to find.)

At this point, it would have been reasonable for them to assume that both of their children were outside, that their toddler was outside by herself, and that nobody knew where she was.  Naturally it was very important that they finish the cookies and the book.  In any event Caillou finally got frustrated and returned to his parents to ask for help, otherwise they might have continued baking and reading for years.  This is about the time that his father was putting the cookies into the oven.

The timing here is actually important.  Assuming that Caillou was quick when searching all of the places he was shown searching, their toddler had been missing for about ten minutes. She was likely not in the house.  She may not have been in the immediate vicinity of the house.  Naturally they began leisurely to search the house.

As a frame of reference, I once lost track of my daughter for about twenty seconds.  She was playing in the yard.  I was working in our garden.  I looked down at some weeds, and when I looked up she was gone.  (She had run off behind some building and down the street.  I think she saw a cat and wanted to pet it.)  I did not continue weeding; I found her.  Also, there was so much adrenaline in my system that I could have punched an elephant through a bank vault.

To give them some sort of credit however, the first place Caillou and his parents looked was behind the closed door to the bathroom, to make sure that Rosie hadn’t drowned herself while they were mixing ingredients and enjoying a good novel.  They didn’t seem particularly worried by the closed door however, which seemed to suggest that it wasn’t unusual for their toddler to go into the bathroom and shut them out.  I guess they might just have been preparing early for life when she’s a grumpy teenager.

Either way, let me fast forward.  They finally found Rosie back upstairs in the kids’ bedroom.  (The audience got to see her climbing back upstairs after her otherwise undocumented adventure.)  They found her as the cookies were finished baking.  As a rough estimate based on my own experience with cookies, that’s something like an additional ten minutes.  By the time they found Rosie, she’d been missing for probably twenty minutes, maybe more.

And yet they didn’t seem to care.  Maybe they exhausted all of their love after straining to give her a name not destined to produce long-term emotional scars.  (The other kids have names like Leo, Emma, Billy, and Sarah.  His name is Caillou, pronounced “Ky-oo,” and it means pebble.)

(If your name is Caillou, I apologize for insulting your name.)

Finally, as a fitting end to the episode, Caillou’s father took a tray of cookies out of the oven and gave it to the kids.  He was wearing oven mitts.  They were not.

I suppose if you don’t care when your kids get lost, and you’re fine with any injuries that might result from a total lack of supervision, a few carelessly inflicted burns won’t sting your conscience too much.

And yes, I realize I’ve spent too much time thinking about a cartoon.  My kids are safely asleep though, and I know where both of them are.