We have moved

Hey there everyone,

We have moved this blog to its own site !

You can find us on geeksfromouterspace.com now. In addition, I am now joined by another writer, Lois Lame, who provides her alien opinions on everything from Disney movies to video games.

Check it out!

 

Advertisements
By Clark Kent Without Glasses

I still like Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition

I’ve been playing roleplaying games mostly as a DM (or GM, depending on the system) for about twenty years. In that time, I’ve played and/or run the following games:

  • Het Oog des Meesters (Dutch translation of the German Das Schwarze Auge)
  • World of Darkness
  • Star Wars D6
  • Star Wars D20
  • Star Wars Saga Edition
  • Star Wars: Force and Destiny
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition
  • Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition
  • 13th Age

And out of all of those systems, Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition is in my top three, right after Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the new Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games. Yes, once more, my preference goes to the one that got the most hate thrown at it (see my view on the Star Wars prequels). And once more, I want to stress I don’t mean to be contrarian for its own sake – I have reasons for my opinions.

I have read 5th edition and I’ve been very impressed with how the game was streamlined to make it less complicated while still allowing for lots of options in character builds. I also think the books for 5th edition are much more beautiful, with far better artwork and graphical design than 4th edition manuals had. Despite that, I still intend to stick with 4th edition for now, and I love how it actually plays. Here’s why.

What I want from an RPG

Before I explain why I think D&D 4e is great, I think it’s necessary to point out what I expect from a tabletop RPG, as your preferences may differ.

For me, a roleplaying game is equal parts roleplaying and game, but I do tend to keep those two somewhat separate.

An RPG is not a simulation, and therefore I’m not too concerned about ‘realism’. Game systems that rely heavily on complex rules that can ‘correctly’ simulate all kinds of situations don’t appeal to me at all. As a DM, I’d rather just wing it than look up how long a character can hang upside down before getting a brain aneurysm or something.

One of our games in progress

It’s a game, and therefore it needs to be fun above all. For that reason, I prefer not having too many complicated rules that you need to remember all the time.

As for the roleplaying part, I think it’s most fun when the players and the DM can just act out and narrate the events freely with an occasional dice roll thrown in here and there. I certainly don’t want the roleplaying part to be bogged down by any rules. Of course, you do need some rules, to set limits to what can happen, to make a character’s build (skills, talents, what have you) matter at least a little bit outside of combat, and to add an element of unpredictability to the story for everyone involved (including the DM). But on the whole, I like the roleplay side of things to be as rules-light as possible.

Combat should be the where the game part really shines, and therefore it should be at the heart of the rules system. Outside of combat, the immersive storytelling experience should be what matters most, but as soon as the players roll for initiative, they should get into a ‘gamey’ mindset. This is because combat rules are usually complex, and I don’t want to learn all those rules for something that is really just a simulation of ‘how a combat would play out’. If that is the only purpose of a fight scene, I’d rather ditch combat rules altogether and just wing it with a few skill checks. Complicated rules can be great however, if you use them for the purpose of having a fun, tense, exciting  and unpredictable experience. And that means that strategy and tactics have to be important.

I love playing with miniatures and battlemaps, mostly for the visual appeal (and the fun of painting the minis) but also because they make combat scenarios so much clearer for everyone involved.

The game should be easy to get into. This means that character creation, levelling up and DM’ing should be easy to do. Simultaneously, I like having lots of options at my disposal, both as a player and as a DM. Having both of these advantages can be difficult, as more options automatically means more complications. Thankfully, computer software can be a great tool to meet these challenges. Character builder and encounter builder software is a fantastic tool that still far too few RPG developers make us of.

Lastly, I like the setting to be wildly imaginative and have a distinct personality, but simultaneously I want it to give me as much freedom as possible to come up with my own history, towns, nobility, dungeons and the like.

Why I like 4e

4th edition D&D met all of these requirements for me. Outside of combat, it relies on little more than a fairly short list of skills that pretty much covers most situations. There are also some rules for magic rituals and utility powers, which are pretty light and easy to get into.

Within combat, the system suddenly turns into a very well thought-out, balanced strategic action game. It completely embraces miniatures wholeheartedly, and because of that, tactical aspects of the combat environment, such as range, location, cover, and the like, become highly important. This makes for the possibility of having very fun fights with characters moving around and using the scenery to their advantage.

In addition, 4e is unapologetic about its video game-like take on classes: each class is there to fulfil a combat role, and I for one welcome that, because it makes every player focused on what their character is good at, and that automatically encourages very varied playstyles, which is especially good when you are playing with beginners.

I also really like the powers system. Giving every character a set of abilities that they can either use at-will, once per encounter or daily, was a fantastic idea in my opinion. No longer are fighters limited to simple attacks while wizards have tons of cool spells at their disposal. I know that there are downsides to the system (the game can slow down a lot when players are looking through their options each round) but I think the trade-off is worth it.

A lot of people disliked 4th edition because they felt it just wasn’t D&D anymore. One of the reasons they felt this way was the change from Vancian casting to the powers system. Vancian casting is a name that I think is based on the novels of Jack Vance, but I’m not sure. What it means in practice is that wizards get a number of spells per day. Out of their repertoire of spells, they have to choose a few to memorize before they go to sleep and those are the spells they can then cast for the following day. Not only does this strike me as unrealistic, I also think it’s too limiting. Once the wizard has cast all his spells for the day, his character basically becomes useless until the party stops for a rest. I know that 5th edition made a return to Vancian casting but amended the problem by giving wizards access to a number of less powerful at-will spells, too. How well that works, I don’t know, because I haven’t played 5e yet, but the solution borrows heavily from 4e. What I like still more about the 4e, though, is the fact that there is absolutely no Vancian casting, and that wizard spells function exactly like all other powers, with at-will, encounter and daily varieties. I like the uniformity of that. It feels more elegant to me, making wizards feel less like this completely separate breed of hero and more like a member of the team.

Apart from the rules, I love how 4e approached its setting. The ‘points of light’ setting was a great idea because it offered precisely what a DM needs and not more. You have your deities, your races, your peoples, your general tone and feel, and everything else is pretty much entirely open for the DM to imagine for himself. That’s all I really need. There is enough raw material to start imagining my own reasons why there is a dungeon next to a town, or how a city came to be located on a floating island.

Finally, there is the character building and the support for dungeon masters. If you just used the books, character creation in D&D 4e was a complex and painstaking process. With the character builder software, however, you could make a perfectly good character in three minutes. It was an amazing tool for players. Levelling up was equally made easy by this tool. The software also had a component for the DM, providing adjustable stats for every conceivable monster, as well as an easy way to create encounters suited for the party’s level. The only downside of this software is that eventually Wizards of the Coast decided to make it work exclusively online within a browser. Today, that means it’s pretty much no longer accessible. Only the old offline character builder can still be downloaded, and I highly recommend anyone interested in the game to look it up.

The flaws of 4e

If the design philosophy behind 4th edition doesn’t appeal to you, then it would be pointless to try it out anyway. The game has very clear goals and if those aren’t what you’re looking for, you should stick with another edition or another game entirely. This is definitely not a game for people who like a more simulationist approach to RPGs, nor for those who prefer more attention to non-combat rules or who simply want the game to be as light and quick as possible.

That said, within its design goals, D&D 4e did have one major flaw as well, and it’s been discussed at length by lots of people: combat could take really, really long, especially at higher levels. This is partly due to the tactical nature of the game and the large amounts of options to choose from every turn, but partly it’s also a result of the high amounts of hit points. Fans have tried to amend this by giving monsters lower hit point amounts and greater damage, but in my experience if you fiddle with the core rules, the game experience always suffers from that. The developers did address this problem when they made the (excellent!) expansion The Monster Vault, which contained lots and lots of monsters with some adjusted stats. Another possible solution is simply keeping it in mind as a DM when you design your encounters. Use lots of minions and stay away from soldiers. Still, it’s a flaw in the game.

A related issue with 4th edition might be considered more of a feature by some, and more of a bug by others. The design of the combat system brings lots of situational modifiers with it. A +2 bonus here, a -2 penalty there. Some are the effects of using certain powers and feats, others come from the environment (cover, difficult terrain, what have you). In any case, a single roll of the dice might be modified several times over, which can get complicated and take up your time. Additionally, it’s easy to forget these modifiers. It seems like 5th edition really addressed this very well, streamlining the game a lot in that regard. I personally kind of like all of those modifiers as they do add something to the game, but they can get out of hand sometimes.

Conclusion

In my opinion, Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition is not a perfect game, but it’s a game with a vision, with guts and with some really cool ideas. I also simply like what it tries to do a lot. Some will say it strays too far from the core idea of what D&D is, but to be honest, this is actually the only version that I have really enjoyed so far (I haven’t played 5th edition yet, but I didn’t like 3rd edition). Some will say 4th edition is simply a tactical skirmish game, but I disagree. The framework is clearly that of an RPG, even if some will find that framework a bit too light. All in all, it’s an excellent platform for endless tabletop adventures and I will gladly run more of those in the future using the 4th edition ruleset.

The best movie in the series

This is obviously going to be a pretty subjective article – like all of my articles – but GFOS was never intended to be anything but a subjective, slightly atypical take on fantasy and science fiction. The title obviously refers to my personal favourites in certain big movie series, and I’ll explain why I have a soft spot for those. So I can’t objectively claim they’re the best, but honestly, “best” just sounds so much better than “my favourite”.

I’ll grant that it’s not always possible to pick one best movie. Often I notice that I really like certain scenes or moments rather than an entire movie. This list is about those movies that worked the best as a whole, for me. My favourite moment in a given franchise might even come from an instalment I didn’t pick.

And, of course, I can only pick a favourite when I’ve seen all of them so far. Alright, with that out of the way, here we go, in completely random order:

 

Batman Begins (2005)

Title: BATMAN BEGINS ¥ Pers: BALE, CHRISTIAN ¥ Year: 2005 ¥ Dir: NOLAN, CHRISTOPHER ¥ Ref: BAT067AT ¥ Credit: [ THE KOBAL COLLECTION / WARNER BROS. / JAMES, DAVID ]

Everyone has their own reason why they love Batman. To me, the reason why he is my favourite super hero is because he is a character who descends into darkness, who lives in it, who exudes it, and yet he comes to bring light there. Something about that kind of character really appeals to me. My favourite Batman movie will therefore be the one that expresses that aspect of the persona the most effectively. On the whole, I prefer Tim Burton’s more imaginative gothic interpretation of the Batman universe far above Christopher Nolan’s increasingly bland and realistic Gotham. This trait seems to get worse in Nolan’s films as the trilogy progresses. Luckily, in Batman Begins, one can still feel the mysterious, gloomy atmosphere that Gotham should have. Why Nolan decided to ditch the unique sense of place that comes with the territory in its sequels, I’ll never know. If Nolan’s first foray into the Batman universe had committed this sin as blatantly as The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, it would never have been my favourite. As it stands, it is my favourite Batman movie, and here’s why. I love it because it’s the origin story. As I mentioned before, I like the psychology behind Batman. He’s a noble-hearted hero who is simultaneously more mysterious, dark, threatening and intriguing than any of the villains, which is a rare treat. This movie makes that work brilliantly. It’s the one reason why I would place it above Tim Burton’s 1989 version Batman. Burton’s movie starts OUT as strong as Batman Begins, but then it becomes all about the Joker and that makes it a bit less powerful in my opinion. In Nolan’s sequel, the massively overrated The Dark Knight, the mystique surrounding Batman is completely lost as it becomes a movie about the villains, just like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Too bad, because the real strength of the Batman franchise is… Batman. Batman Begins is the only movie that throughout its entirety keeps the caped crusader himself the monster you’re looking forward to catching a glimpse of. It’s like watching Alien while rooting for the alien. I love it.

The Terminator (1984)

theterminatorThe most beloved movie in the Terminator franchise seems to be Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I can see why. It was big, it was exciting, it was unexpected and it moved the story in a new direction. It also did things with special effects that hadn’t been seen before. You won’t hear me bad-mouthing that movie. In fact, I even enjoyed the third one, which had a really gutsy ending that kind of made up for the nonsensical conclusion to Terminator 2. Still, it’s very easy for me to pick a favourite, and it’s the original The Terminator from 1984. That movie was a lot cheaper and smaller in scale, and that’s exactly why I think it worked better. The Terminator had such an impending sense of doom and apocalypse precisely because of the claustrophobic vibe it maintained throughout. The cheap eighties music had a strangely threatening quality to it that a big orchestral score wouldn’t be able to achieve for this particular kind of story. Linda Hamilton’s character worked much better for me when she was an ordinary woman on the run, rather than the guerrilla warrior she turns into in the sequel. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a genuinely menacing presence, a trait that he lost when he said “Hasta La Vista, Baby”. From that point on, the heavy cloud of fear gave way for a series that was becoming more about action and adventure.

 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

lastcrusadeWho doesn’t love Indiana Jones? According to M. Night Shyamalan, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most entertaining movie ever made. I guess that also means it’s his favourite Indy movie. For me, that title would have to go to the third one, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I really like three out of four Indiana Jones movies (Temple of Doom tonally doesn’t fit in the series, in my opinion) but picking the best one is very easy. While Raiders is the one that started it all, I think it suffers a bit from some overly long action sequences and an ending where Indy doesn’t really do anything. The Last Crusade has a great theme that speaks to the imagination: the grail knights. It’s also full of varied locations and it has the best character dynamics in any of the movies, thanks to Sean Connery’s presence as Indy’s father. The music is the most moving of the entire series, and I just think that Crusade finds the perfect mix of adventure, comedy, action and drama. It’s an almost immaculately balanced script, in my opinion.

 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

aragorn-in-the-return-of-the-kingThis is my favourite movie of all time, period. Granted, on some level it’s very hard to pick a number one out of this trilogy, since the entire series is so dear to me. When push comes to shove, though, my gut immediately says part three. So why is that? Here’s the thing: I can usually explain what I love about a movie in a rational way, but in this case that’s a lot harder. When someone asks me why I love this film so much, I’m inclined to just gasp and say: “haven’t you seen it?”

Alright, here goes: The Return of the King gave me a feeling I didn’t know existed before. It was so grandiose, so epic, so uncompromisingly ambitious and yet so intimately beautiful and so expertly crafted, it’s almost painful how good it is. The music alone reaches every possible emotional level.

The movie’s grand spectacle, its excellent acting, its wonderful attention to detail, all of those things are unprecedented, but they are not the reason why it’s my favourite movie of all time. The real reason is this: this film does what all art should aspire to do. It lifts me up. It inspires me to go on. It teaches me hope, friendship, compassion and faith. It actually does that. Hundreds of movies talk about these things, but this is one of the few that actually have that effect. When I’m faced with a hard challenge, I think of Frodo on Mount Doom. When I have a friend who is in trouble, I think of Sam and I’m inspired to support them. That’s unique.

 

 

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

revenge-of-the-sithI’ve written a lot about the Star Wars prequels on GFOS and why I feel they are criminally underrated. Let me try to explain very briefly why I feel that Revenge of the Sith is the best movie in the entire Star Wars saga.

When I saw the original trilogy, I loved it, but I always felt it showed just a glimpse of what the Star Wars universe was supposed to be. I sensed that George Lucas wanted to do so much more and that there was still a great promise hidden in this grand universe, lying just beyond the reach of the original trilogy. I think Lucas’ last endeavour in the series, Revenge of the Sith, truly manages to fulfil that promise.

Whereas all the other movies in the Star Wars series are enjoyable space epics, this is the one where it really feels like space opera. Revenge of the Sith is grand, passionate and dark without ever becoming self-important or overbearing. It’s a visual tone poem, copiously rich and thoughtful in texture and colour, perfectly paced, brilliantly edited as well as a masterful conjoining of over 30 years of storytelling. The music score alone rises to lone heights. And then there is the sombre wisdom of the film: “so this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause”.

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

pirates-of-the-caribbean-on-stranger-tidesYes, I know, the obvious choice would be The Curse of the Black Pearl. And I do love that first movie, but I have to say I have some problems with it as well. The first Pirates movie introduced the immortal captain Jack Sparrow to us, who is obviously the whole reason why this franchise took off. But it also had Will Turner and Elisabeth Swann, two characters who started out great but became annoying before the end of the movie. The second and third films have a whole list of serious storytelling and characterisation problems, but I personally felt that with On Stranger Tides, Disney pulled a soft reboot that actually worked. This is the first movie to put Jack right in the center, where he belongs. It doesn’t rely on a headache-inducing plot full of betrayals and counter-betrayals, but instead it puts us on a straight road to the climactic finale. And that road is one of crazy adventures and ridiculous oneliners. On top of that, Ian McShane’s Blackbeard was the first villain to actually make an impression in this series. And then there were the mermaids, of course. Who couldn’t like those?

Alien (1979)

alienLike The Terminator, the first Alien movie is my favourite precisely because it is smaller in scope and scale than the others. The sense of atmosphere and mystery is quite unique in the genre. Alien also builds towards its climax at a perfect pace. Many modern horror and sci-fi films can still learn a lot from Ridley Scott’s original. I enjoyed James Cameron’s sequel Aliens as well, but it was a completely different genre. That was a great decision, because you simply cannot reproduce the original Alien. Any attempt at that would have been a disaster (*cough*Alien³*cough*), but while Aliens is a brilliant example of a sequel done well, my ultimate preference is still for the original. And I have to agree with the consensus that the third film was an absolute abomination and the less said about the fourth one, the better, if you ask me.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

If you follow my blog, you will know that I’m a huge Tolkien fan. There are many among my peers who are less than enthusiastic about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy for its over-the-top action and out-of-place comedy. While I will agree that the films do increasingly deviate from the tone and style of Tolkien’s writing, I do think that this is an absolutely fantastic trilogy – especially when you look at it purely on its own merits rather than as an adaptation. In my view, good fantasy films are like diamonds: extremely rare and extremely precious (hey, maybe I should write an article about that). If you ask me, all three of the Hobbit instalments are brilliant fantasy films. They all have great characters, great acting, gorgeous locations, impressive music, great storytelling and a rich mixture of humour, adventure and emotion. Still, the first one is the only one that really gets the Tolkien vibe right. The atmosphere of this film is pretty much perfect in my opinion. It’s almost impossible to describe exactly what I mean. Perhaps the best I can do is simply pointing to that one scene where all the dwarves are gathered in Bilbo’s living room, standing around the fire and singing in low voices ‘far over the Misty Mountains cold…’ And then there’s that close-up of the fire and that beautiful shot of the embers and smoke rising up from Bilbo’s little chimney into the starry night. That’s what I mean.

hobbit

A look back at Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy

If you take a look at some of my earlier articles, you might get the impression that I dislike Christopher Nolan’s films because of my criticisms of The Dark Knight. This is certainly not the case. I do like Christopher Nolan’s work, to some extent. Well, I have an ambiguous attitude towards it.

I love the fact that his films have original and complex storylines, that they have their own style, that they manage to be personal blockbusters and that they convey real, serious themes. They are also all exceptionally well-made when it comes to acting and production value. Call me old-fashioned (please do, because I am) but I also really appreciate how Nolan manages to impress audiences without any recourse to profanity, nudity or violence (really, it’s remarkable how little blood there is to see in his action scenes).

On the other hand, what I dislike about a lot of Nolan’s work is what I perceive to be an inconsistent tone in visuals and dialogue, overly convoluted plotlines, terrible pacing, a self-important attitude and a lack of imagination and atmosphere.

In the end, the positives outweigh the negatives for me because at least Nolan makes an attempt to offer something of value. His movies are clearly about big themes like morality, society and what it means to be human. I may not always agree with what he’s trying to say, but I love that he actually is trying to say something meaningful in his big-budget blockbusters.

The Dark Knight Trilogy

Over the past few days, my wife and I re-watched the entire Dark Knight Trilogy as it has come to be called. It was the first time I watched all three movies back-to-back. Afterwards, I felt compelled to write about my final feelings on this trilogy.

Much like Star Wars, I think Batman means different things to different people. We all have our ideal version of Batman in our minds. To me, the best version that I have seen to date are the first two seasons of the animated series. Those cartoon episodes had everything I loved about Batman: the dark, gothic atmosphere, the unique and original villains, but also the subtler character stuff, the emotional connections and the uplifting ideas that are inherent to the material.

Batman Begins

Title: BATMAN BEGINS ¥ Pers: BALE, CHRISTIAN ¥ Year: 2005 ¥ Dir: NOLAN, CHRISTOPHER ¥ Ref: BAT067AT ¥ Credit: [ THE KOBAL COLLECTION / WARNER BROS. / JAMES, DAVID ]

Released in 2005, Batman Begins actually comes pretty close to the tone of the animated series and it’s my favourite out of all the Batman movies, including Tim Burton’s work (I haven’t seen Batman vs. Superman yet but I don’t expect much of it).

Batman Begins was all about the idea of Batman. It was an origin story, but it also delved into the psychology of Bruce Wayne and the Jungian themes behind the whole Batman persona. Besides that, it was a well-paced, well-told story with a clear identity: while serious and gloomy, it remained firmly in comic book territory. It felt like a modern myth, which is what superhero stories ultimately are.

My only gripe with Batman Begins is that it tried to be realistic. Batman is inherently not a realistic character, and the world he inhabits is not realistic either. It’s ultimately a fantasy setting with larger than life heroes and villains, but Christopher Nolan seemed to want to shy away from that. Fortunately, I think he actually found a decent middle ground. Batman Begins presented Gotham City in grim hues of sepia, complete with mysterious fog and rain, all of which helped to set something of a gothic atmosphere (albeit in a realistic way). In addition, the plotline involved hallucinatory drugs, which gave the filmmakers an excuse to conjure supernatural creatures on the screen without actually being fantasy per se.

Batman Begins had a wonderfully balanced tone: it explored moral philosophy in an accessible way while still allowing for the boyish sense of wonder and adventure that comes with the comic book territory. It was also a very focused film: the story was about Batman, and his entry into Gotham City was both mysterious and impressive, because there had never been anything like him before: a mythical figure suddenly appearing in the midst of the modern world to wreak havoc on the criminal underworld. The film had a normal running time and a suitably over-the-top plot. It was a superb adventure movie and it felt like Batman to me. I really only have good things to say about Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight

darkknightopening

Whatever popular opinion may dictate, I maintain that The Dark Knight was a massive disappointment and an unfortunate deviation from the path set by Batman Begins. In fact, the very first shot of the film was a bit of a let-down: a helicopter view of the skyscrapers of Gotham in bright daylight, looking terribly modern and ordinary. At the snap of a finger, the atmosphere so carefully created in the first instalment was just gone, and it never returned in the entire trilogy. Nolan had clearly decided to move even further in the ‘realistic’ direction, and that meant Gotham had to look just like any other metropolis. Suddenly, Batman didn’t inhabit a slightly different, more gothic version of our world, but he actually lived in ours, and that’s where things started to go wrong. You see, I don’t think you can take characters like Batman, Scarecrow, Two-Face and the Joker and try to put them in an entirely realistic context. There is an inherent silliness to all of these comic book figures, which works perfectly when you see them in their natural environment: that strange fantasy world where villains can come up with the type of insane plans we’ve come to expect from the Joker, and where heroes can suddenly turn up out of nowhere and then disappear again into the shadows. Within the fantasy world of comic books, the adventures of Batman make sense. In the real world, they don’t. So why did Nolan insist on trying to put Batman in the real world?

The first half hour of the film felt like a deliberate attempt to suck out the atmosphere that Batman Begins had built up. Bruce Wayne’s beautiful mansion was exchanged for a cold modern penthouse. The Batcave was ditched in favour of a brightly lit, mostly empty concrete bunker.

The tone of the film became, for lack of a better word, mundane. Whereas Batman Begins had Tom Wilkinson playing a mobster in typical 1930’s Al Capone-style, adding to the naïve charm of the setting, The Dark Knight just uses your average ‘realistic’ criminals. Where Batman Begins focused on the hero’s journey and spent a lot of time on spiritual and psychological themes, The Dark Knight devotes that time to social commentary and talk of trials, guns, money and jurisdiction.

While the plot was praised for its complexity, it’s absolutely full of holes, as I have pointed out in a previous article. Besides all the problems with the Harvey Dent storyline, there is also the ridiculousness of the Joker’s schemes. In a real comic book movie like Captain America: The First Avenger, I would never have been bothered by this, but in Nolan’s ‘realistic’ Gotham, it became very jarring to me how the Joker managed to plant bombs everywhere, hide detonators, leave calling cards and plan twenty steps ahead of everyone else all on his own without any real resources to speak of. He became less of an anarchic psychopath and more of a chaotic evil sorcerer from a D&D adventure. Absolutely nothing was impossible for him, and no matter what happened, it was always part of the Joker’s plan.

joker

And then there is the ending. Oh, boy, that ending… What happened there? I’ve previously stated how Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face made absolutely zero sense, but how the movie played out his part in the story is also kind of pathetic. You don’t set up the rise of an iconic Batman villain who has featured in countless comic books, only to kill him off after less than ten minutes of screen time. I am truly surprised that there were apparently very few die-hard Batman fans who were annoyed at this. More importantly, though, what Batman and commissioner Gordon decided to do at the end of the movie didn’t make sense either. There was really no need for Batman to take the blame for Dent’s actions.

First of all, the movie kept telling us that Dent was Gotham’s white knight and that everyone looked up to him as the pure-hearted hero whereas Batman was distrusted, but it never made us feel that. Given the choice between a competent district attorney and a mysterious dark knight who goes straight to the criminal underworld and personally beats the crap out of it, who do you think the average citizen will prefer? Of course they would love Batman much more: his mystery, his boldness, his willingness to do the things that nobody else would do… This is precisely what people admire, much more than some politician who promises to fix it all by the book. So I never believed that the people of Gotham would have been unable to handle Dent’s fall from grace.

“He was the best of us,” Batman says. Was he? I never saw any evidence of that. To me, Batman was always clearly the best of them. Not only was he obviously the coolest, he was also shown to be the most morally upright throughout the movie. Unlike pre-crispy Harvey, he never let a coin toss decide the fate of a man’s life. I think Batman’s fall from grace was much worse for Gotham’s morale than Dent’s. Think of all the little boys who would imitate Batman on the playground and how truly devastated they must have been when they were told that their hero was actually a murderous psycho. If our friends were dead set on lying anyway, why not blame Harvey’s murders on the Joker? At least that would have been a little bit true.

And finally, what kind of terrible moral message did they end this movie on? “Sometimes people don’t need the truth, sometimes they deserve something better”. Pardon my French, but that really is bullshit.

There are so many problems with this film that I’m still baffled to this day at the exorbitant amounts of praise it received. Sure, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was good, but it wasn’t that amazing either. Besides, the acting in Nolan’s films is always good, but that doesn’t mean the storytelling is. There is one scene I really liked, though. The ferry scene. That was a great depiction of a moral dilemma and it was nice to see a ray of light in this very dark movie.

 

The Dark Knight Rises

rises

I’ll keep this last one short, because I have less to say about the third movie. I’ll credit The Dark Knight Rises for one thing: it made a decent effort to take back the awful message at the end of the second film. The lies that Gordon, Batman and Alfred had told all took their toll in this film and that at least showed that lying was never a good idea. The film also restored Batman to his rightful station: he is the hero of Gotham. I’m so happy they cut that whole nonsense of him being the “silent guardian, watchful protector,  dark knight”, pretty much anything that sounds cool but not a hero.

catwomanUnfortunately The Dark Knight Rises had one big problem: it was boring. I’m going to use a word I don’t like to use, but it was bloated. This movie could easily have cut thirty minutes and it would have been much more exciting. It featured far too much of those annoyingly clever little exchanges of dialogue that became popular when Casino Royale was released. The scenes between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle were pure torment as far as I’m concerned. Which is too bad, because I really liked Catwoman in this film. I also liked Bane as a villain. But again, good characters don’t make for a good story. The plotline was once again horribly convoluted and lacking in focus. It also didn’t bother to explain anything, like where Batman got that flying monstrosity from when he returned to Gotham at the end. Things just happened, and they happened so fast you just shrugged and assumed you missed the explanation.

The atmosphere from the original movie was still completely gone, even more so than in The Dark Knight because this movie took place in bright daylight most of the time. It was tonally even more uneven, switching around between socio-political ruminations and campy superhero fights, with a bit of folklore and mythology thrown in for good measure. It didn’t have a clear identity and instead felt like it was written by three completely different people with very different interests and tastes. Some may like the contrast in that, but I found it jarring.

But at least The Dark Knight Rises offered a good finale, one that reminded us: “hey, this is a comic book movie”. It was big and heroic and over the top, and it was kind of cool. As a whole, though, this film was far too self-important and far too long and it ultimately just made me think: what if they had just stopped after Batman Begins? Wouldn’t that have been enough? Well, for me… Yes, it would have.

Is Obi-Wan Kenobi not the hero we think he is?

Good, evil and moral relativism in Star Wars

I’ve certainly established myself as a defender of the Star Wars prequels, and by extension a defender of George Lucas. I keep on defending those films for their artistic merits – even if a majority of fans disagrees with me. However, over the past two and half years, a lot has changed in my outlook on life and this has affected the way I look at Star Wars and in particular my favourite film in the series, Revenge of the Sith. There are some things that trouble me.

Really, the problem I encountered all comes down to this line:

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

This line is said by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin after the latter has fallen to the Dark Side and taken on the name of Darth Vader.

It was a sudden, unpleasant shock to me when I realised that the movie I had so passionately defended for the past eleven years actually seemed to espouse a philosophy I cordially and utterly despise: moral relativism, which I hold responsible for a lot of the mess the world is in today.

Relativism and absolutism

Of course it’s hardly even necessary to point out what is wrong with this line. Its fallacy is self-evident: to say that only the bad guys deal in absolutes is itself a form of “dealing in absolutes”. To condemn moral absolutism is itself absolute. And yet, it sounds good and wholesome, doesn’t it? It sounds open-minded, tolerant, nuanced and critical. It sounds that way, but it isn’t any of those things. The idea that moral absolutism is bad comes from a misinterpretation of what moral absolutism means. Very often, we think it means judging people as either wholly good or wholly evil, but that is a huge mistake. In fact, moral absolutism is not really about judging at all. It is about submitting one’s self to something greater. It is the acceptance of an unchangeable moral law. The moral absolutist holds the imperatives of this law in higher regard even than desirable consequences. Moral absolutism implies principles of justice and mercy that apply to everyone, everywhere. It recognises vices such as greed and pride and honours virtues such as compassion and self-sacrifice. It frames morality not just in terms of consequences in the outer world, but also in terms of what certain behaviours and attitudes entail for the moral agent. As such, it calls murder evil because it violates a person’s right to live and because murder stains the soul of the murderer. It calls forgiveness good because it grants a new chance to the forgiven and because forgiveness cleans the soul of the forgiver.

Moral relativism on the other hand, makes everything murky. Under moral absolutism, murder is always wrong because it is murder. Under moral relativism, it can be okay, depending on your point of view. Moral relativists generally believe that people are allowed to craft their own morality and that different rules apply to different people. Moral relativism can very, very easily be used to move the goal posts and change the nature of good and evil according to the agent’s wishes. It is a philosophy that was favoured by people like Benito Mussolini, chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin.

Unfortunately, moral relativism is also very popular among nice, well-meaning people of today who sincerely intend to be decent folk. This is simply because popular culture has embraced this philosophy for its perceived (but false) promises of neutrality and open-mindedness. In practice, it’s actually impossible to be truly morally relativistic. The same person who will say that it is okay for them to commit act X because they have their own private moral outlook, will depend on an absolute moral code to denounce the actions of another person.

Anakin is not Jesus

Going back to Star Wars, let’s look at the placement of that troublesome line in the dialogue. Obi-Wan responds to Anakin, who says: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”. This is the “absolute” that Obi-Wan refuses to accept. Others than I have pointed out that Anakin’s words echo the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30. Of course, we have to take into account that Anakin is nothing like Jesus (despite Anakin’s virgin birth). Christians believe Jesus is God, and God is the source of the very moral code I was defending here. Therefore, Jesus has every right to say these things. In Star Wars, there is no Jesus speaking. It’s Anakin who is speaking. And he is a very flawed human being who is making himself the moral centre of the universe, which is precisely what moral relativism does. With that in mind, Obi-Wan is absolutely right to denounce Anakin’s words.

The problem that I had with the line is the way Obi-Wan refutes Anakin. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” implies that anyone who compels a choice for or against themselves is a Sith, the Star Wars equivalent of a devil. I don’t think that’s true. Plenty of good people have spoken this way, leaving no room for middle ground. It goes for a lot of issues in real life. Let’s take a very simple one: if you’re not against terrorism, then what are you? I know there are people who have a self-styled attitude of “understanding where terrorism comes from”, but does that mean they are not against it? Sometimes, there simply is no middle ground.

Enter the Dark Lord

The question remains: is George Lucas’ intent here really to denounce moral absolutism through the mouth of the movie’s hero? If it is, I am disappointed. However, let’s look at some of the other evidence. In the duel that ensues (still the greatest duel ever filmed), there is another exchange between the battling heroes:

  • Obi-Wan: “Anakin, chancellor Palpatine is evil!”
  • Anakin: “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”
  • Obi-Wan: “Well, then you are lost!”

I can think of no clearer rejection of moral relativism than this. It’s very clear that Obi-Wan at last gives up on Anakin precisely because his former pupil takes his own viewpoint and establishes it as an objective moral reality. This is the darkness of moral relativism at work. Where does Anakin get such a terrible idea? Well, let’s rewind a bit to an earlier point in the film: the wonderful scene at the opera, when Palpatine first starts to lure Anakin to the Dark Side. There we find this exchange:

  • Palpatine: “All who gain power are afraid to lose it, even the Jedi.”
  • Anakin: “The Jedi use their power for good.”
  • Palpatine: “Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way… including their quest for greater power…”

Here, the Luciferian arch-villain of the entire saga is clearly using moral relativism to lure Anakin to the Dark Side. It returns again later in the film, when Palpatine reveals himself to Anakin:

  • Palpatine: “My mentor taught me everything about the Force. Even the nature of the Dark Side…”
  • Anakin: “You know the Dark Side?”
  • Palpatine: “Anakin, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace… a larger view of the Force.”

The evil one represents goodness as narrow-minded, unsophisticated, unadventurous and dull. This is very seductive, very effective. I don’t think George Lucas is on Palpatine’s side here, but he seems to understand quite well how evil thinks.

So what about Obi-Wan?

Still, this leaves us with the troubling line “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”. Could it be that Obi-Wan is not the flawless hero we took him for?

Let’s flash forward in narrative time to the original trilogy, more precisely, to Return of the Jedi. There is a scene in the first half of the film where Obi-Wan’s ghost actually turns into a pretty troubling figure, and I don’t just mean that from the viewpoint of moral philosophy; he’s simply an all-around jerk here. At this point in the story, Luke has learned that Darth Vader and his father, Anakin Skywalker, are in fact one and the same, even though Obi-Wan had told him that Anakin had been murdered by Vader. The jerkiness starts when Luke confronts Obi-Wan’s ghost with that lie:

  • Luke: “Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.”
  • Obi-Wan: “Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

You know, if I were Luke, I wouldn’t be satisfied by that pathetic excuse at all. It’s actually pretty galling that Obi-Wan doesn’t even hint at an apology, even in death, but instead turns to a half-assed defence of his deceitful words. Luke’s expression doesn’t seem all too satisfied either when he replies:

  • Luke: “A certain point of view?”
  • Obi-Wan: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

So again, instead of saying something like: “I know, I should have been a bit more clear, but I wanted to protect you from disappointment” or something like that, Obi-Wan addresses Luke in a high and mighty tone with a condescending bit of lecturing. And not only that, but it’s a worthless lecture to boot. What does that line even mean? If only Luke’s point of view had been a bit different, Darth Vader wouldn’t have been his father? Anakin’s fall suddenly turns into being murdered by another man because “point of view”? What nonsense! Can Luke’s point of view change anything? I don’t think so. I have to say, this line really angers me. It’s pompous and stupid at the same time. But the scene goes on. A few lines later, Luke tries to suggest a non-violent solution to dealing with Darth Vader.

  • Luke: “There is still good in him.”
  • Obi-Wan: “He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil.”
  • Luke: “I can’t do it, Ben.”
  • Obi-Wan: “You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.”
  • Luke: “I can’t kill my own father.”
  • Obi-Wan: “Then the Emperor has already won.”

What?? So after lying to Luke and then arrogantly pretending it was all some sort of wise lesson, Obi-Wan is now manipulating the poor boy into murdering his own father?

This entire sequence actually makes me doubt if Obi-Wan really is the heroic figure we thought he was. I have to be honest, I always really liked Obi (particularly the version we see in episodes 2 and 3), but perhaps he was never meant to be someone to look up to. Perhaps Lucas wanted him to be a deeply flawed character, misguided in his own way, stuck in a philosophy full of holes and pathologically unable to admit to any fault of his own. Who knows, that might be the reason why he returns as a ghost, rather than becoming “one with the Force” and moving on to greener pastures? Maybe Obi-Wan still needs to learn a few lessons? I don’t know. Considering the noble and heroic spotlight that is shone on the character, maybe George Lucas actually does agree with Obi-Wan, in which case he isn’t really the purveyor of wisdom that Star Wars fans across the world have made him out to be.

George Lucas isn’t Jesus either

While I think Lucas has some positive themes in his movies, I wouldn’t take him or Star Wars itself too seriously. Listening to some interviews with the man has convinced me that Lucas’ philosophy is a shaky amalgamation of superficial aspects of various religions. It lacks any real substance and doesn’t dare to really take a side beyond the obvious stuff that hurting people is bad and being compassionate is good. Still, there are moments of real brilliance and insight sprinkled throughout the Star Wars saga. And in the end, isn’t Obi-Wan proven wrong? Vader can be redeemed and it happens through the love between him and his son. Now that is a theme I can get behind, and it saves Return of the Jedi for me, even if it is at the cost of Obi-Wan’s status as “wise mentor”.

In the end, I’m afraid that the Star Wars saga has simply become too big for its own good. George Lucas is a visionary filmmaker with some great ideas, but he is also a muddled philosopher and he has some obvious problems as a storyteller. There are amateurish turns throughout the saga that could have been easily fixed if he had had a tighter plan from the beginning. For example:

  • The whole business with master Sipho-Dias and the clone army in Episode II was vague and confusing and it never really got explained;
  • It was a strange idea to introduce Obi-Wan as the mentor figure in Episode IV, only to kill him off and replace him with Yoda in Episode V;
  • Lucas played out the big climax of the Death Star too soon by putting it at the end of the first movie. As a result, the second Death Star in the last movie is much less impressive or scary.

Those things don’t bother me all that much because they only show that Lucas is just a guy telling his story, adjusting it as he goes along. Like The Lord of the Rings, this tale clearly grew in the telling. It actually kind of adds to the charm that there are some obvious flaws in the storytelling resulting from that. The problem is that Star Wars became so big and so popular that people started taking it very, very seriously. The irrational hatred of the prequels is closely tied to this. People expected Star Wars to give them something that no movie can give: a substitute for religion. And that, it simply isn’t. Star Wars is an amazing movie series and an exciting universe full of wonder and adventure, but not something to base one’s outlook on life on.

 

“Mature, dark and gritty” is nonsense

“Mature, dark and gritty.”

I’m going to be up front about this: I don’t like this cluster of words, especially when applied to fantasy. Whenever I hear a movie or a game described in this way, I can’t help but cringe.

The reason why I don’t like these terms when they are put together is because they are always held up as some kind of standard of excellence for entertainment to live up to. In this article I want to explore why the thirst for “mature, dark and gritty” is misplaced, particularly when it comes to fantasy storytelling.

What is mature, dark and gritty?

In order to make my point, I’ll have to settle down and define what I think these terms are meant to convey. I’ll start with the easiest one: “dark”.

Superman darkified by making him frown and adding rain.

The term “dark” has been applied to everything from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas to realistic tragedies about drug abuse. It covers a huge range of moods and it can be applied to the plot, the characters or the setting of a story. On the whole, I think people use the word “dark” mostly to describe an overall oppressively unhappy mood. In fantasy, a dark story is usually told in a setting that conveys that darkness outwardly. In dark fantasy settings, the weather sucks, people have dirt on their faces and it’s often literally dark.

I love dark fantasy. I have absolutely no problem with it. In fact, I write dark fantasy myself. It’s only when “dark” is attached to “gritty” and/or “mature” that I start rolling my eyes.

“Gritty” is a tougher one to define, but I think it’s usually related to characters’ behaviour. Applied to video games, I think that Castlevania and Dark Souls are clearly dark, but they aren’t gritty, whereas The Witcher is perhaps less dark but definitely grittier. I’ve heard people describe a gritty setting as one where the darkness is more realistic, hits closer to home and is more relatable. I disagree. I can easily think of a few stories that deal with very real-world situations such as loneliness, death and disease in a realistic way without being gritty. The way I see it, gritty stories insist on showing things in a dirty, ugly light. They tend to include things that were traditionally shunned in high culture such as graphic depictions of sex and ugly language. They leave at least part of the audience with a general feeling of wanting to wash their eyes and ears afterwards.

I generally don’t like gritty fantasy. I think it pulls fantasy down, out of its naturally lofty sphere of myth-making and into the filth and muck of daily life. I’ll come back to this topic later, but first I want to address the final word: “mature”.

This is the most contentious of the terms because what exactly is a “mature” story? I think everyone will agree that mature storytelling is intended for mature audiences. Now the question becomes why it’s reserved for such audiences only. Is it because the themes discussed are too intense and complex for younger minds? Or is it because there are elements in the story that are so shocking that we want to spare kids from them? If it is the former, I think that the term “mature” is well chosen. If we mean the latter, I think we need a new word for that.

My biggest gripe with the word “mature” is that it is often used for things that try really hard to appear mature by including elements that are not family-friendly. Very often, they aren’t actually mature in the way they handle that content.

It’s not necessarily better

What annoys me most of all is when people say things like “Game of Thrones is like Lord of the Rings but it’s a lot more mature because it’s dark and gritty”. What they mean is that they think it’s better because it contains graphic sex, extreme violence, morally ambiguous characters and a nihilistic outlook on life. And they don’t mean better because they personally prefer the grittiness. They mean truly more elevated and closer to the Platonic ideal of a fantasy epic.

To my personal taste, The Lord of the Rings is better, in part because it does not contain such elements, but I also realise that this is not an objective criterion. If I want to uphold The Lord of the Rings as objectively better than Game of Thrones, I know I should use very different arguments, like Tolkien’s wise approach to human nature in his characters, his beautiful language or his powerful themes. The amount of content that is only suited for a mature audience has little bearing on objective quality. And that goes in the other direction as well. The film Devil’s Advocate contains a good deal of sex, profanity and violence, but I think it’s a great movie. I will not for a moment claim that the similarly themed Brendan Fraser comedy Bedazzled is actually better simply because it manages to avoid adult material. I also understand that the grittier elements of Devil’s Advocate were there to convey the film’s central themes.

This is what a great director looks like.

But there is this attitude in the air that adding adult-only material to a story somehow increases its prestige and its legitimacy as serious art. This is totally unwarranted. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are perfectly acceptable for a twelve year-old to read, even if the average kid probably wouldn’t understand a lot of it. There is not much “gritty” about a celebrated film like Citizen Kane or a novel like Pride & Prejudice. Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, two of today’s most beloved filmmakers, tend to avoid graphic sex and foul language in their films, even when they depict characters and situations where that would be appropriate, like the scummy villains in the Batman trilogy. I would say that in most cases, graphic sex, gory violence and cursing are really not necessary to make a work of art great. Don’t take this to mean that I feel it should never happen. I believe this is the artist’s prerogative. But I personally don’t care for it and in many cases, I feel it’s a cheap way to appear edgy and “mature” without doing the much harder work of having those qualities come out of the actual plot, characterization and themes.

As for maturity in fantasy, I will not say there is no place for it, but I believe fantasy is at heart a progression of the older genres of myth and fairy tales. These stories were powerful because they embodied the inner, spiritual world outwardly. The monsters and the magic are really portrayals of intangible qualities like moral virtues and vices. Because of that, a certain level of simplicity is appropriate. Tolkien’s Orcs should never have complex, understandable motivations because they are simply depictions of evil. On the other hand, Tolkien’s heroes include flawed, complex people like Boromir and Théoden. It is precisely the struggle of real, flawed men against pure, simple evil that makes The Lord of the Rings powerful, because we all have evils in our lives, so we can all relate. The Orcs are simply a way of showing that evil in a clear and recognisable way, and the battles that ensue show the courage and self-sacrifice that is needed to confront those evils. When confronted with our own vices, it helps to be reminded of Frodo’s heroic journey to muster the courage to deal with them. “Mature” themes in fantasy are usually understood to entail moral ambiguity and speaking of good and evil in murky, muddled tones. I believe there is already too much murkiness in our thinking about good and evil. Fantasy can help us make the distinction clear again.

I do think there are places for dealing with morally complex issues in storytelling. But fantasy is precisely that genre that is least suited to it, in my opinion.

Why it’s worse in video games

The clamour for “mature, dark & gritty” has become huge in video games recently, and developers happily answer that call. Dark and gruesome settings full of extreme violence have been around for a long time and have become even more popular of late: Doom, Dark Souls, you name it. In the case of those games, though, there is no pretence of delivering a “mature”, thematic story that touches on real-world issues in a thought-provoking way. These developers know what their audience wants: a scary, challenging adventure that delivers the thrills of destroying all the horrible enemies coming at them. This is nothing new. What is new, is this strange mutation that has come up lately. Developers are now trying to find ways to deliver an emotional experience through their games, like a great movie or a book. Older roleplaying games started doing this by telling stories of sweeping, epic quests: Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic come to mind. These games often include moral choices. Originally, those moral choices used to be pretty straightforward: you could either become a cartoonishly evil Sith or a noble Jedi Knight. I’m going to say something very unpopular but I preferred it that way.

Baldur’s Gate.

With the franchises of Mass Effect, Dragon Age and The Witcher, roleplaying games on PC and consoles have moved more in the direction of truly difficult decisions where the outcome isn’t always clear. In the first Mass Effect, an important mission goes haywire and you can only save one of your two team mates. The other one will inevitably die in a fiery explosion. When I first played that game, I thought it was absolutely amazing, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed that moment. I get that it’s not supposed to be enjoyable, but rather heart-wrenching. I did appreciate what Bioware did there and I thought it was a fine experiment in interactive storytelling. But it’s not something I wanted more and more of. Of course, that did happen. The Dragon Age and The Witcher series take the concept much farther. The world is bleak and depressing, people are nasty to each other, and you as the protagonist are constantly faced with gut-wrenching moral decisions where there really is no clear answer what the best choice is – sometimes there are only bad ones. Gamers laud this development as “realism”, but I wonder… At what point does this tangled moral mess stop being realistic and start becoming parody? It’s like the show Game of Thrones. At first, audiences were shocked to find out that this was a fantasy world where good guys could die and bad guys could proceed unpunished. Realism, right? But then it just went on and on, killing off likeable and villainous characters indiscriminately in a completely amoral, indifferent universe. I know a lot of people have stopped watching because after a while, it just gets dull. I also don’t believe it’s necessarily realistic. After a while, you just start feeling that life isn’t really like that. We know life is tough and bad things happen to good people, but it’s not pointlessly, relentlessly cruel all the time.

Going back to video games, there is a paradox when that kind of brutal naturalism is combined with the traditional trappings of gaming. In Dragon Age: Origins, you’re agonizing over the right choice in a situation where a possessed little boy with magical powers is an immediate threat to everyone around him. Can you kill a child to save a large group of people? Is there another way? Serious, brooding moral discussions… followed by video game combat where you’re blithely chopping off the heads of your enemies and cheering as you pick up loot from their dead bodies.

The possessed boy terrorizing Redcliffe castle in Dragon Age: Origins.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with viciously slaughtering your foes in a video game, because it’s super fun and in the end, it’s “just a video game” – a phrase many gamers hate. I understand why they hate it. They want the artistry behind their entertainment to be recognised and I agree with them. On the other hand, you can’t have that artistry be mostly about spectacularly cool fights with bad guys and then expect to be taken seriously as thoughtful, subtle drama at the same time.

It’s perfectly possible to appreciate the masterful craftsmanship that goes into the graphics, the gameplay mechanics and the questing of a video game without the need to justify it as “serious drama about real life issues”. I don’t think “serious drama about real life issues” is in any way more important or superior to fun, exciting escapism with some clever challenges and beautiful visuals.

My point is that video games don’t really need serious quests about the haunting mistakes of the past, the disappointments of life or the difficulties of choice in complex ethical issues. Non-interactive entertainment is usually a much better platform for that kind of dramatic storytelling. Is there room for it in video games? Well, I’m not going to say it’s not allowed, but this gamer is not that interested. Novels generally aren’t as good for blood-pumping action scenes as movies are. Movies are not as good at conveying the inner psyche of their characters as books are. In the same way, video games aren’t as fit for “mature” themes as other media are. Sex and romance in video games usually come across as puerile and pubescent and I don’t think the technical evolution of the medium is going to help very much to change that.

I’m not ashamed to say that I play video games for fun. I think they are a great platform for fantasy world-building and telling stories of survival, heroic conquest, fighting against insurmountable odds and other old-fashioned macho stuff like that, because you get to experience the thrill of accomplishment as the player. For this reason, I can enjoy some darkness in a game à la Diablo, Batman or the dungeons in Skyrim, but I don’t care for “mature” and “gritty”.

I love how this game did “dark”.

I’m one of the few players who don’t seem to want more complex moral choices. I liked it fine when the Star Wars games gave you the option to choose the heroic or the evil storyline. I love that I can choose to join the profoundly evil cult of the Dark Brotherhood in Elder Scrolls games, or I can become the noble chosen hero of the world. I don’t want to be presented with heartbreaking choices or social commentary in my epic fantasy world. That’s not what games are about for me, and there is nothing inferior or “guilty pleasure” (a term I hate) about that.

Aristotle said that entertainment and friendship are more elevated and valuable than work, because they are things we do for their own sake, whereas work is something we do for an ulterior motive. In the same way, I think appreciating a well-crafted fantasy world and having fun in it is more valuable than using it for the ulterior motive of confronting harsh reality or mulling over political philosophy. Besides, it’s fantasy. Why are so many people so adamant about pulling down the magic, grandeur and beauty of fantasy and have it wallow in the drab and ugly realities of the most downtrodden parts of real life? Don’t we have enough of that already?

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

The Warcraft movie is awesome

My background

I never played World of Warcraft but I did enjoy the strategy games they made way back in the nineties, when I was a kid. The Warcraft I remember most playing looked like this:

stunning graphics in 1995!

So my understanding of the lore of the Warcraft universe prior to this movie is extremely basic at best, even though I am all about epic fantasy.

I wanted to see the Warcraft movie, not because I’m a connoisseur of that universe, but because it was the first fantasy movie since The Hobbit trilogy ended in the kind of style that I always want to see. What I mean is the kind of epic fantasy that is set in a completely different world, featuring elves and dragons and mighty armies clashing. That’s the kind of material I want to see most in a big blockbuster movie, and despite the huge success of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth adaptations, it’s still extremely rare, and it’s even rarer to see it done well.

I guess I was feeling a bit starved, because I have to admit that the trailers for the Warcraft movie only looked mildly interesting to me, but I was so ready for this movie, just because of the genre it represents. On top of that, I’ve always had a thing for Orcs the way they were portrayed in the Warhammer and Warcraft settings: big, hulking, green guys with massive tusks and huge weapons. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. I just like them, okay?

The movie

So I finally saw this movie the other day, going in with enthusiasm but low expectations. Video game movies have a terrible track record, as everybody knows, and I was prepared for this being another kitschy, braindead action spectacle. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

The Warcraft movie is awesome! Not only does it look amazing, boasting some of the coolest CGI creatures and sets I’ve ever seen, but it’s actually a really, really good story. And I say that as one who is not immersed in this particular lore, but who simply loves good epic fantasy. In the first 15 minutes of the movie I had a little bit of trouble keeping up with the rather large amount of characters being introduced, particularly on the human side, so I got a little bit worried that this was going to be for hardcore fans only. Luckily, that fear subsided pretty quickly as it became clear who the most important characters were and their names were thankfully repeated enough times for my tiny brain to remember them for two hours.

durotan

Even as something of an outsider, I could tell that writer/director Duncan Jones really loves and respects the lore of this universe. The movie made no attempts to dumb down or commercialize the storytelling. The plot isn’t reduced to noble humans fighting evil Orcs, but it shows nuance and subtlety, with heroes on both sides trying to navigate a difficult conflict. It treats the thematic material with respect, such as the addictive and corrupting influence of unbridled power, even on those who mean well. The movie never tried to win over the sneering hipsters by being edgy or ironic or self-aware or forcing modern sensibilities into its fantasy world. Instead, it took the world and the characters seriously and presented an actual earnest tale of heroism, adventure and tragedy.

And this is precisely why critics hated the movie and audiences loved it:

warcraft

You see, audiences are still just normal people who love a good tale. And movie critics are apparently still the same boring, snobbish, pseudo-intellectual hipsters they were back in the nineties. I haven’t really paid attention to them for years, but I had kind of hoped that some evolution would have occurred. With the rise of genre movies (particularly superheroes), you would expect to see a change of attitude in reviewers. Since a huge part of moviegoing audiences obviously loves escapism and special effects, it would be normal for the press to respond to this by hiring some writers who share this enthusiasm. Instead, the press once again proves its arrogance and elitism by basically sneering at the tastes of the common man.

Well, let them. As audiences grow more confident in what they want, Hollywood will be forced to respond by giving it to them, and the obnoxious snobs will either have to capitulate or fade away. I for one am happy that at least one filmmaker dared to make the decision to believe in this material and not treat it as a joke or a platform for social commentary because it’s “just a video game movie”.

Well done, Duncan Jones!

The Witcher 3 is not that great

Disclaimer: if you are a really devoted fan of this game, just don’t read this article. You won’t like it.

I admit I use this blog to vent a bit, or to put it more mildly, to express some of my less popular opinions on geek culture. It’s not intended to be contrarian per se, because there are times when I agree with the majority. Rather, from time to time I want to write what I feel isn’t being written or said enough. There will be articles where I just gush all over a movie or a game that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but there will also be times that are the opposite of that: when I want to knock something down from its undeserved pedestal. This is one of those times.
Last year there was a lot of talk about a certain video game involving a white-haired protagonist with a gruff voice. “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” has received mountains of praise and awards. Many say it’s the greatest video game RPG of all time. One of my best friends is a massive fan of the Witcher franchise and he shares this opinion.
For a long time, I was very resistant to the game, but I finally did succumb and decided to give it a fair shot. I played the first Witcher game back in 2008, although I never finished it. I found it a very frustrating experience, beautiful to look at but horrible to play. I tried a demo of the second Witcher game and decided it was a continuation of those same trends.
Now in 2016, a year after the original release, I have finally played The Witcher 3 (partially).
Do I think it’s a good game? Well, objectively, it has enough good qualities to give it a passing grade. Calling The Witcher 3 just plain bad across the board is unfair. It has too much to offer and it was clearly made with too much love and effort to simply bash it like that. Nevertheless, I really don’t think it is at all the masterpiece so many people have made it out to be. I would say it’s a rather mediocre game that gets some extra points for effort and good customer relations on the part of developer CD Projekt Red.

the-witcher-3-banner

Here are some quotes I pulled from Metacritic:

“Witcher 3 is a masterpiece”
“the best fantasy RPG I have played to date”
“one of the best games I have ever played in my entire gaming experience”

Those first two quotes are from official reviewers, by the way.
Call me stupid, low-brow or, heaven forbid, “casual”, but I really don’t see it. The Witcher 3 just barely makes it to “adequate” in my book, and it definitely won’t enter my top 10 list. It’s not exciting enough for me to finish playing, not because it’s a completely horrible playing experience, but because it’s not good enough to justify the enormous amounts of time that it demands.
First of all, you should know that a late medieval, heavily European dark fantasy setting with grim fairy tale-like aspects sounds exactly like my kind of thing. It’s actually a description that applies to a good deal of my own work as a writer. This is partly why I’m so conflicted about The Witcher 3. I probably would have just shrugged and moved on if there had been nothing about it to appeal to me. As it is, the environments, the clothing, the creatures, even the colour palette, are all so finely tuned to my personal tastes it’s almost weird. And I’m the kind of player who is primarily into gaming for the chance to be immersed in another world. It’s certainly not the aesthetics of The Witcher 3 that put me off. If anything, they were what drew me in and kept me playing for as long as I did.

peopleThe character of Geralt is growing on me, but I feel extremely confined playing as him. Geralt is an established character I don’t particularly like. It feels weird playing a roleplaying game and not having any say over your character’s personality. The dialogue system is great and allows players to showcase different sides of Geralt’s personality, but he is still Geralt, the taciturn, sarcastic, womanizing witcher. He is a well written version of that type, I suppose, but it’s just not a type I want to embody.

The setting is great, but the whole thing is brought down by how it is handled. The creators of this game have tried to combine mysterious tales of the grim and supernatural (orphaned children in the forest playing with a ghostly friend who lives in a cave and has lost his voice to evil magic) with realistic politics (a war with no clear good or bad side) and even a good dash of the kind of bleak social realism that reminds me of Belgian movies (drunken deadbeat father tries one last time to gain the respect of his family). I suppose to many people this cocktail is precisely what makes it work. Me, I adore the dark fairy tale stuff, I don’t care very much for the politics and I actively despise the “social realism”. I play video games precisely because I don’t want to see that kind of “Belgian movie” material in them. This opinion of mine extends to the entire fantasy genre itself. If you’re going to paint a somber, naturalistic picture, make a movie set in the slums of Dublin or something. This is not what the fantasy genre is for, as far as I’m concerned. Much like award-winning movies, this kind of grit tends to manipulate the audience by tricking it into perceiving an aura of quality and respectability that isn’t really there. It’s just bleakness and social issues, which in themselves have no actual artistic value.

bloodybarronTo illustrate this point: The Witcher 3’s most praised questline was the one involving the Bloody Baron (the aforementioned deadbeat father). Almost every single review and comment I have read about this questline says that it is the narrative peak of the game and the most emotionally powerful quest ever put in a game. For that reason alone, I felt I should at least persevere through this questline, and so I did. After finishing it, I decided to put down the game. I concluded that if this was the best part, I don’t see the point of continuing for another 70 or 80 hours. It wasn’t bad or anything, but it just left me stone cold. By general video game standards, it was a decent, well-structured quest but I didn’t think it was very emotionally engaging and I certainly don’t think it set some kind of new benchmark for in-game storytelling. It’s often over-the-top gloomy while simultanously treating a huge tragedy in a bizarrely careless fashion (I won’t spoil which one) which reeks of amateurish storytelling to me. This tone of extreme gloom mixed with laconic cynicism runs throughout the game and – pessimistic as I am about modern society – I fear this is probably a big part of why the game is so beloved.

On the whole, the storytelling in The Witcher 3 (so far) ranges from adequate to good with frequent dips into the boring and the silly. It certainly feels needlessly stretched, which became obvious to me pretty quickly even though I never even got that far into the game. Point and case: in order to find someone dear to me I need to talk to a character who will tell me where she went if I first find his wife for him. He then sends me to another guy who has seen his wife. That NPC will tell me where the the previous NPC’s wife went, if I first find… his goat! The quest-in-a-quest structure, with each additional layer becoming more banal than the last, borders on self-parody.

In addition, there is a big problem with the pacing and the structure of the storyline. The writers seem to forget that what might work in a Christopher Nolan movie doesn’t necessarily work in a game. The narrative jumps around in time and place in ways that just don’t fit the medium. For example: the game opens with a pre-rendered cinematic that shows a flashback of Yennefer (whom you do not know if this is your first experience with the franchise) on the run from a battle. The scene is intercut with Geralt looking for her the next day (very reminiscent of Aragorn tracking the hobbits in The Two Towers). The game then opens with an in-game cinematic of Geralt sleeping, followed by … another flashback? No, apparently, it’s a tutorial in the form of a dream, involving Geralt in the Witcher stronghold with his true love Yennefer, Geralt’s friend Vesimir and a child, Ciri, in there. You later find out that this doesn’t make sense because Yennefer was never in the Witcher stronghold and Ciri is actually an adult now. The dream turns bad, Geralt wakes up, and then we find out that he’s actually looking for Yennefer, not Ciri (ah yes, that opening cinematic!) but now he’s also worried about Ciri because of the dream. But first he has to find Yennefer. Getting a headache yet?
Okay, so the actual game begins with a long sidequest involving a griffon that has nothing to do with Yennefer or Ciri. Then you meet Yennefer… And you have to go look for Ciri. It’s a very clunky structure for a story by any standards, but especially for a game. Players with no knowledge of the backstory will be particularly confused.

As you are playing, Geralt’s adventures are often intercut with flashbacks where you get to play as Ciri. A terrible idea if ever there was one, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Ciri shows herself to be infinitely more powerful than Geralt ever was. Playing her feels like cheating. This makes the whole idea of rescuing her feel completely unnecessary. Secondly, the sequences involving Ciri really amount to nothing more than glorified cutscenes, where the playable parts are actually quite annoying because they are pointlessly easy and – what’s worse – the cause of more lengthy loading screens. Finally, these sequences take away the feeling of roleplaying and dampen the urgency of the narrative. You’re yanked out of your experience of “being Geralt” and given insight he shouldn’t have. It would have been better if Geralt had simply heard about Ciri’s whereabouts and that’s it (even though the game is already far too verbose).

That brings me to the next issue: the dialogue. I suppose it is well-written, but it feels too much like the writers are patting themselves on the back for how smart and snappy their writing is. I personally prefer the silly faux-Arthurian language of older RPG’s, which is much more charming to my ears. This feels a bit too much like HBO for my tastes. For the record: I adore Tolkien and I don’t give half a crap about Game of Thrones. That should say something about my preferences in style.

Anyway, despite these qualms, the story was still enjoyable enough, albeit far from amazing. I would probably have continued playing if the game had been, you know… fun.
And this is my biggest gripe with The Witcher 3. It’s simply not fun to play. Granted, the awards and the praise this game has received probably tell a different story, but as far as I’m concerned, they should have just made it into a movie or a TV series and it would have been much better (still not quite my cup of tea, but at least something that could have worked). As a game, to me it was actually a dry, joyless experience that demands to be taken seriously while simultaneously holding your hand like you’re a toddler.

abilitiesYes, this game, which had so many fans exclaim “finally, a true RPG!”, stifles and restricts the player in ways no other RPG in my memory has ever done… which kind of defeats the point of it being an RPG if you ask me. Not only are you restricted to playing as Geralt, but Geralt’s abilities are also very narrow and predetermined. He’s a swordfighter who uses alchemy and a staggering repertoire of no less than FIVE magic spells! Sure, you also get a crossbow at one point, but that’s more of a fun little accessory than anything else since it’s so weak. Everyone in the world who plays The Witcher 3 is playing the same character and probably with a very similar build, not only because the amount of abilities and weapon choices is so limited, but also because some abilities are clearly overpowered compared to others. For example: Quen is a magic ability that makes Geralt completely invulnerable for a while. Obviously, upgrading this ability is going to pay off much more than investing all your points in Aard, which is simply a telekinetic blast.

On top of that, leveling up is a gruelingly slow process, even early on. If it’s anything like other games, the pace will only get more glacial as you play longer.
The game also really holds your hand in the bread and butter of the gameplay. It’s like one big tutorial. You’re always following on-screen instructions. Most quests require you to go look for something or someone. This is when you get to activate your Witcher Senses, which amounts to pushing a button that lights up important clues in red. Simply follow the clues and click on them. Geralt will then mumble something to himself like “Blood’s still warm… Can’t have gone too far…” or “Hmm, small print… Must have been a child” or something like that. It’s a fun little gimmick at first but it quickly becomes mind-numbingly boring.

Gameplay is constantly interrupted by cutscenes. Sure, they look great, but they take me out of the game the whole time. See someone waving at you in the distance? Approach them and there will be a cutscene, I promise you. There’s a good chance Geralt will also be saying a bunch of dialogue you never chose to have him say, but don’t forget, this is a “true RPG”!

The-Witcher-3-World-Map-3
The “open world” is to be taken with a planet-sized grain of salt, by the way. Everything in the game is locked to a specific level, so it actually plays out more like an MMO where you move from one zone to the next. Sure, the zones are relatively big and there is “much to do” in each zone, but in practice this really amounts to little more than a few bandit camps and monster nests spread out over an otherwise featureless, boring map. Look, I love forests. I really do. And at first I liked walking around in The Witcher 3’s pretty woodlands, but they became extremely dull and repetitive very quickly. There’s just no real sense of discovery in this game, especially when compared to Skyrim but frankly, even Guild Wars 2 does it better. Don’t expect to get sidetracked by spontaneous adventures in multi-layered dungeons or discovering unique fortresses, statues, strongholds, hideouts, shrines, lakes, waterfalls or anything actually interesting like that. Don’t think for a moment that you will be rewarded for venturing into the wild by finding an awesome ancient treasure. Don’t think you will meet lonely travellers who can teach you a skill or sell you a unique trinket. The Witcher 3 offers only a pale shadow of the sense of freedom you get in Bethesda games.

Now, the worst part of The Witcher 3 is the combat and the movement. Others have remarked this, but Geralt is kind of hard to handle and his horse is even worse. Unfortunately, moving around and fighting are the two most important and common things you’ll be doing in the game (well, after watching cutscenes, that is). Fighting is simply a very poor version of the kind of combat you see in action games like the Batman Arkham series, Dark Souls or Kingdoms of Amalur. It’s actually reminiscent of older European RPG’s like Gothic. Geralt dances around like a ballerina, swishing his sword in ways that stop looking cool after the second fight, so you’re really just making a fool of yourself prancing around like the Witcher fairy princess. With every attack, the guy just has to make a twirl. He must get really dizzy and disoriented during these fights, which is one thing the controls emulate perfectly.

There are lots of other little annoyances and bits of criticism I could add, like the absolutely horrible “item degradation” mechanic, by which I mean the fact that your weapons and armour break down after a while and become useless until you repair them. This mechanic was in Oblivion (a game I still love and play) and I hated it there. In The Witcher 3, it bothers me even more because everything involving repairing and crafting is such a chore here. But the truth is I probably would have shrugged at this and other complaints and just enjoyed the game anyway if, at its core, it had been a fun game. The big problem is, there are times when it barely feels like a game at all. To me it’s like the developers are so sure of their artistic vision and storytelling skills that they expect the player to just go along and let them take over the controller. I really, really miss some real player agency. “What do you mean, player agency? No other RPG gives you so many choices with such real consequences!”

on the road
See, I don’t really care about those “choose-your-own-adventure” type consequences that everyone’s always talking about. Sure, we get to make choices in the quests which lead to different outcomes, but I honestly don’t care all that much about that. Besides, what does it matter if you cannot predict the outcome anyway and quests end in some form of tragedy no matter what you do? That kind of “choice” is not what I mean by player agency in an RPG. What I want is the ability to have some input into what the experience is to begin with. I don’t want to just make reactive decisions based on situations that are forced upon me. I want to be able to use my imagination. I know very few games outside of The Elder Scrolls series really give you that option, but at least Bioware’s games allow you to craft your character’s personality and abilities according to your own preference. CD Projekt seems to be proud of taking away your ability to make the game your own. The Witcher 3 feels like going to a restaurant where there’s no menu because the chef is so amazing he’ll make what he wants and you’re going to like it! Except I don’t like The Witcher 3’s food all that much. The whole thing feels shoved down my throat. And that, more than anything, is what makes it ultimately a rather dull and oppressive experience, in my opinion.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses Tagged

The prequels were better than The Force Awakens

First, my review

Initially, I had intended to just write a review of The Force Awakens but as the internet is already bursting with those, I’ll do it from my very specific viewpoint as a fan of the prequels.
When it comes to The Force Awakens, I am of two minds. My inner 13-year old says “that was awesome” while my older, wiser, but unfortunately more cynical self says “ooooh dear, they really messed it up”. In short, I enjoyed the experience, but I also disliked a lot of it.

naamloos
What I liked: I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable movie. In terms of pure popcorn entertainment, it certainly delivered. I also want to express my admiration of the new protagonists, Rey and Finn, both of whom turned out to be awesome, relatable and fun characters.

What I didn’t like: all of the concerns I expressed in the article I wrote in May have not only been realized, but surpassed. Visually, the film’s appeal is almost entirely based on nostalgia rather than imagination. Even the new creatures felt like inferior versions of old ones. For example, the new Stormtroopers look less intimidating than the originals and Kylo Ren looks like an early rejected draft of Darth Vader. Nothing was specifically improved upon in the design department. It felt like the designers were so insecure about what exactly a Star Wars movie should look like that they just stuck with what they already knew. In fact, this is CONFIRMED by art designer Doug Chiang’s earlier remark that, quote, “the terrifying part is we don’t have George”.

I also didn’t like the much-ballyhooed return to ‘practical effects’. The puppets and rubber masks were frankly embarrassing in this day and age, when CGI can bring creatures on screen that are so much more believable than Admiral Ackbar. In fact, even this movie itself contains some CGI creatures that obviously looked better. But, hey, most of my friends keep telling me that the 1980 rubber Yoda puppet was more expressive and realistic than the 2005 CGI version. Clouded their judgment, the Dark Side has, if you ask me.

But in particular, the plot of the movie is more derivative than I had even thoug2554663369761914ht possible. The story is so blatantly unoriginal my jaw dropped at times. Every element was a direct copy of something from the original trilogy. The worst offense was Abrams’ insistence to return to the Death Star plot device for a third time! People complained when that concept was rehashed in Return of the Jedi, over 30 years ago. They even complained how the droid control ship in The Phantom Menace echoed that story thread too much. Now they’re doing it again?
Even the one ‘shocking’ event that everyone is talking about (I won’t spoil it here) is really just a spin on an event that occurred in the original Star Wars film.

J.J. Abrams is a genius at making movies that make you go “wow, awesome!” while you’re in your theatre seat, but as soon as you start thinking about it afterwards, you find all kinds of things wrong with them. The Force Awakens is definitely in that category.

I’m not going to be cynical, I’m not going to be cynical, I’m not going to be cynical…

Ohhhww… Okay, it’s pure nostalgia-pandering. The story doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have anything to say, it doesn’t have anything to add to the Star Wars universe, it’s just a fun thrill-ride in which nostalgia plays the same role that over-the-top CGI effects play in Michael Bay’s Transformer movies: a straightforward way to make your movie cool and get bums in seats. In itself, that doesn’t offend me, because it’s harmless and it is fun.
But while it’s a fun movie and I had a great time with it, at the same time, there is something about the whole event that really annoys me. It’s not so much the film itself, but the fans’ reception of it.


What I miss about the prequels
 
The ubiquitous bashing of the Star Wars prequels has become practically unavoidable. You just can’t have a conversation about these movies without someone bringing up the same old talking points that I’m not even going to repeat here because if you are the kind of person to read this blog, you know what they are. So don’t expect me to go into Jar Jar or the acting style of the prequels, because frankly I’m done with those topics.

hansolo2

I will only briefly state that I find nothing wrong with Jar Jar, and if there is one character that is both pointless and annoying that tags along with the heroes, let me just say it’s Chewbacca in the original trilogy. Seriously, he just roars and complains and doesn’t do much more than that.

Anyway, while this universal prequel-hating is all the rage, The Force Awakens is getting rave reviews across the board. People are hailing it as some sort of masterpiece and, frankly, it shocks me. Are people that easily manipulated? I understand that if you’re a fan of the original trilogy and you don’t care for the style of the prequels, you’ll prefer this one. I get that. But the sheer lack of criticism here is frankly hypocritical when you take into account how these same people picked apart every little detail of the prequels.

Well, I prefer the prequels over The Force Awakens. In fact, seeing this movie has cemented in my mind that I generally prefer the prequels over all the others. That is because The Force Awakens delivers an updated remake of the original trilogy and does it so well that it makes it painfully clear how the prequels differ from the other Star Wars movies. And in doing so, it is brought home to me why I miss the whole tone and feel of those films.
So what is it that I love so much about the prequels that this new movie doesn’t have?


Politics
 
Well, let’s start at the beginning. This movie opens and you find out that there is a New Republic, there is a First Order and there is a Resistance. The First Order are the remnants of the Empire and the Resistance are the good guys who fight them. That is all the politics we ever get in The Force Awakens.saucer1

I’m absolutely no fan of political messages in movies (especially since they tend to be crappy messages), but I loved how the Star Wars prequels handled politics because it was done with style and dignity and it added an enormous amount of depth to the plot and to the universe itself. In Episodes 1-3, I get a real feel of the galaxy, its culture, its customs, its inhabitants. We see how people live, how they form societies. We see how the Jedi Knights interact with the Republic, we learn about the way the Force works and we see enormous amounts of new creatures, locations, vehicles in every single scene. These films are bursting with clues about the universe.

Not only that, but the way the politics worked in the plotline was brilliant. The galactic senate was a beautifully condensed version of an entire civilization that had become decadent and corrupt. The way Darth Sidious played into that was executed with careful intellect, nuance, subtlety and interesting historical echoes. When the Sith’s plan finally comes together in Revenge of the Sith, there’s a real sense of payoff to years and years of evil planning and scheming. That makes it powerful and heartbreaking and I think it speaks to our times as well.

maxresdefault


World-building
 
Politics are really just one facet of world-building. The prequels are a brilliant exercise at that. It goes beyond the workings of the Republic. Sprinkled throughout the trilogy are little hints at a vast and epic timeline of history, full of grand deeds and terrible betrayals. In the original trilogy, the word Sith wasn’t even really used outside of the novelizations. Darth Vader and the emperor were just bad guys with Force powers. The prequels gave rise to the whole concept of the Sith. heir history, their philosophy, their modus operandi… Sure, many of those things were really fleshed out in the Old Republic games and books, but the prequel trilogy planted the seed and gave those ideas a legitimacy within the Star Wars canon. This created the feeling of the Star Wars galaxy being a story on a truly epic scale, with much more going on behind the scenes.

Star_wars_map_star_wars_galaxy_map_official_galactic_map_star_wars_universe_1
I remember when I visited the Star Wars exhibition in Brussels some years ago. Near the entrance to the exhibition, there was this giant timetable chronicling the history of the Star Wars galaxy: the discovery of hyperspace, the founding of the Republic, the wars between the Jedi and the Sith, etc. It saddens me to think that Disney has really just thrown all of that out of the window. Sure, there was crap in the Expanded Universe, but I think most people will agree that the real crap mostly came from the stories set after the movies. The Old Republic era is beloved by prequel fans and OT purists alike. The reason for that is that these stories provide a backbone to the Star Wars universe. They’re like The Silmarillion of a galaxy far, far away. To me, that’s important and exciting. Far, far more so than whether or not Han shot first.

The Force Awakens seems averse to the very concept of world-building, making it more of an adventure movie, but less of a fantasy movie. The movie feels very small-scaled, even more so than the original trilogy did. It felt like the universe really only consists of little groups of good guys fighting little groups of bad guys, but none of it has a sense of grandeur. By contrast, the prequels felt like history and prophecy unfolding before our eyes. There was a grand, epic scale to the Clone Wars and the fall of the Republic and a larger-than-life, operatic feel to Anakin’s fall in the midst of all this. All of that is completely lost in the new movie.


Technology
 
The prequels get a lot of hate for their perceived over-reliance on CGI. Other people than I have pointed out with empirical evidence that there were tons and tons of practical effects in the prequels, but I think that’s beside the point I want to make. I’m opposed to this idea that practical effects are inherently better, and I say that as a huge fan of eighties fantasy films. In fact, I think The Dark Crystal, Legend and The Neverending Story are all better films than the original Star Wars, at least when looked at purely from a present-day standpoint.

George-Lucas-Sith
My point is that George Lucas was always about pushing the technological envelope. In the original trilogy, he did things with special effects that nobody had ever seen before. That is part of the reason why people were so impressed with these movies. When he made the prequels, George didn’t decide to sit on his laurels and simply continue on in the same vein. Instead, he went out to push the envelope even more with the greatest tool that was available to him at that time: digital technology. It only makes sense that he would do that: he’s a risk-taker, a visionary and an experimenter. The prequel trilogy did wonders with pixels. They were among the very first movies shot on digital cameras. That in itself was a bold move.
What does JJ Abrams do in The Force Awakens? He deliberately decides to shoot it on 35mm film. In this day and age, the only reason why a director would do that is because he’s a technophobe who can’t stand the fact that the technology of the medium is moving on (sorry, Christopher Nolan, but it’s true). Digital cinema today simply looks better than 35mm does. That’s a self-evident and objective statement. Maybe in 2002 it didn’t, but surely today it does. As soon as The Force Awakens opened, I noticed the slight grain in the picture. It wasn’t bothersome, but it was so unnecessary. Why would you move back in progress when you’re making a Star Wars movie, of all things?


Lightsaber duels
 
The prequels had lots of imagination and creativity on display in their designs of creatures and ships. By the way, people complain that the whole “used future” ethos was lost, but that is not true. It is absolutely there on Tatooine and Mustafar, whereas Coruscant and Naboo look appropriately clean and pretty, and so do the designs of royal ships and senator’s apartments. That only makes sense.

EP1_ILM_1951

In the same way the designs became more ambitious, so too did the whole take on lightsaber combat. The lightsaber fight in A New Hope was downright pathetic and even the most ardent fan will have to admit that. I love the duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but mostly because of the emotion of what’s going on. In terms of the actual fight, I think the duels in the old trilogy looked pretty clumsy because they were wielding the lightsabers like they were heavy medieval swords. I think that’s wrong. Lightsabers are energy weapons. They’re supposed to be incredibly lithe and quick.

In the prequels, lightsaber combat was taken to a level nobody could even anticipate. The three-way fight between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul was a magnificent setpiece that combined impressive acrobatics and choreography with interesting set design and the most exciting music track of the entire saga. Then the confrontation between Yoda and Dooku surprised us again in Attack of the Clones, and the duel in Revenge of the Sith is probably one of the great visual masterpieces of our time. Famous art historian and critic Camille Paglia — an actual intellectual — has said as much.

Watch that little video, it’s not long. I agree completely with Paglia in this regard. By contrast, I hardly even noticed there was a lightsaber fight in The Force Awakens. There was one, but it was pedestrian and boring and even clumsier than the ones we used to get in the older films. It didn’t bother me, but boy, do I miss Mustafar.


Something to say
 
As I wrote in my article back in May, one of the reasons I love the prequels was the fact that Lucas didn’t fall into the trap of superficial nostalgia, but took risks. He did this with all the unique characters, creatures and locations ILM conjured upon the screen, but he definitely did it with the story.
You can go and nitpick every little detail about the plot and complain how this doesn’t make sense or that is contrived, but when it comes down to it, the truth is that every one of the Star Wars prequels had a unique and original story to tell within the framework of the larger saga, and when taken as a whole (as the haters are wont to do), the prequel trilogy actually tells an incredibly ambitious and fascinating tale. It’s mythology, mystery and tragedy in a space fantasy setting. If you feel it wasn’t executed well, I think that’s fine (although I would obviously disagree) but anyone has to admit that at least it was different and personal.
rotj-endThe stories in those movies were part of a mythological project, just like they were in the original trilogy. When you put all six of them together, you get a grand arc: the story of how one generation goes through life and screws up, and the next generation faces the same challenges and finds a way to repair it. All of this is expressed on both the intimate scale of the Skywalker family, and the galaxy-spanning epic scale of the fall of the Republic and the war with the Empire.
What does The Force Awakens do? It doesn’t continue that grand arc. It doesn’t take it to a new place or comment on it. Instead, it just repeats the most popular part of it. That’s why I say this film has nothing to say except that Star Wars is cool.

It’s strange. Everyone complains about Hollywood’s sequel/remake mentality, but when an auteur like Lucas comes out and actually does something personal and different with his intellectual property, everyone rushes out to bash him long and hard enough until he retires. Then when an obviously corporate remake of their beloved original is released, suddenly that’s a masterpiece. I guess it makes sense that if you revere A New Hope in a religious way, you’ll see The Force Awakens as the second coming, because that’s exactly what it is: the second coming of A New Hope.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

My take on the new Star Wars

As any readers of this blog may know, I’m a big Star Wars fan. Unfortunately, we have a climate where I have to clarify this by adding that I love the Star Wars prequels as well. I dislike having to do that, because it implies the assumption that most Star Wars fans do not love the more recent films. Well, I do. I love them a great deal, perhaps even more so than the original trilogy, although I admire those as well.
In short, I think George Lucas is an underappreciated genius and a true artist and nowhere is this more obvious than in his magnum opus, Revenge of the Sith, which is in my opinion the most effortlessly magnificent entry in the Star Wars saga. But in this article, I want to talk about something else.


Recently we got the second trailer for The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film outside of Lucas’ influence. Once again the internet is abuzz with merry anticipation and near-drunken excitement. There seems to be a palpable sense in the online community that this new film is going to signal the dawn of a new era in Star Wars fandom – one where everyone is happy and we can all get along, whatever our differences of opinion regarding the existing six films may be, because Disney will bring us something wonderful for everyone. I’m afraid this position is very naïve. No matter what we get to see come December, some will love it and others will hate it. That’s simply inescapable.
Remember, back in 1999, everyone went crazy over the trailers for The Phantom Menace. Hype-o-meters around the world exploded months before the film even came out. People were practically ready to quit their jobs just so they could see that movie. Suffice it to say that not everyone was equally pleased with how it turned out (again, for the record, I love that movie). I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade but I just hope that fans aren’t getting overly excited again because that level of anticipation can backfire on you.
Personally, I’m not worried about disliking The Force Awakens. I’ve got a blu-ray set containing six amazing films that tell a satisfying and complete story. Even if the follow-up to that set ends up sucking, I’ll always have episodes one to six to enjoy.


That said, what’s my take on what we’ve seen so far?
Well, I don’t think the film will be bad. Disney’s a very professional company and they make good stuff. J.J. Abrams is a very competent director and Lawrence Kasdan is obviously a great choice for the screenplay. If they produce something objectively awful, I’d be very surprised. And the trailers look cool. They have a great “feel” to them. They feel very much like Star Wars. So much so, in fact, that I’m a little bit wary precisely because of that.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, it was something like no one had ever seen before. Today, that film is no longer the dazzling display of visual fireworks it used to be. It’s still very enjoyable, but no one will say it’s particularly fast-paced or overwhelming. I think today, people’s love for that film mostly stems from an appreciation of its story and its themes, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves. The real excitement has to do with the huge gooey pile of nostalgia involved. And while nostalgia is a nice, fuzzy feeling (one that I’m very prone to myself, incidentally) it is dangerous business. It’s at least as good at clouding people’s judgment as alcohol is, perhaps better, since the effects of alcohol at least wear off after a while, whereas nostalgia only grows stronger over time. I think it’s clear that Disney is VERY aware of this human trait and that’s what has me furrow my brows a little bit.
Everything we’ve seen so far of The Force Awakens has included: a dusty desert planet, old-school vehicles, Stormtroopers, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Is it cool? Of course it is. When I saw those trailers, I loved them, but once the delirious excitement cooled down a bit, I realised that everything there was basically nostalgia with better visual effects. The final part of the latest teaser, showing Chewbacca and Han Solo saying “Chewie, we’re home” made the message extremely clear: fans are made to feel safe and comfortable in the presence of characters they’ve known and loved for over 30 years.


Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but to my feeling, there is a certain manipulative quality to it that has nothing to do with storytelling. This is fine for a trailer, of course. After all, the whole point of it is getting people to watch the movie when it comes out and I’m sure nostalgia is a very, very good way to do it. What makes me feel a bit sceptical is my (hopefully wrong) suspicion that the film itself will be built on three ingredients: nostalgia, nostalgia and nostalgia. With J.J. Abrams as the director, this is not an unreasonable suspicion. Super 8 was basically that. I enjoyed that film a great deal but it was a pure throwback to the Spielberg movies of the eighties. That’s nice, but I don’t want a new Star Wars film like that. I don’t want Star Wars to be “nice”, I want it to be visionary.
While we may disagree about George Lucas’ choices, I think it’s fair to say he always surprised us and did something new and different with each film. He was always exploring the boundaries of his imagination. Looking back now, I think the trailers for The Phantom Menace really had more originality and imagination to them than the ones we’ve seen for The Force Awakens so far. There were unusual creatures we hadn’t yet seen like Watto and Jar Jar, there was this amazing queen in her fantastic geisha-like outfits, an underwater city, giant fish, a Sith warrior who looked like a medieval demon,… It was unique!


The most unique thing in the trailers for The Force Awakens was that little ball droid. I loved that. But everything else was kind of very, very predictable for a Star Wars title, wasn’t it? Again, I’m not saying the film will be bad and I know it can still be very surprising, but I’m a bit wary.
One of the reasons why I loved the prequels was precisely that Lucas didn’t fall into the trap of superficial nostalgia, but took risks. In doing that, he gave us a new vision of the Star Wars saga. Sure, a lot of people hated it so much they still can’t shut up about it 15 years later, but I applaud George for this. The prequel trilogy wasn’t there to have older fans relive the magic of their youth, but to tell its own story and shine new light on its universe. This is something only an auteur like Lucas can do. In many ways, he was Star Wars up until very recently. Now that George Lucas is no longer the defining factor, what will it become? It can no longer be one man’s vision. I hope Disney somehow succeeds in honouring what Lucas did. The best way to do that, would be to show some imagination, like he always did.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses