The Writer Returns to the Block

So those of you still with me after these months of silence: my humblest thanks for sticking with me through another bout of depression. You’re probably confused now, since my last post was so smugly self satisfied that it was practically an invitation to my inauguration as mayor of awesometown, population 1. Well I did believe what I wrote, at the time at least. Yet the human brain can be an absolute bastard sometimes, and it wasn’t long before it began taunting me:
What if that was your one and only shot, and you fucked it up? What if you never make it as a writer? What if you never find love in this lifetime? What if all of existence is a sucking black hole of misery and despair from which there is no escape?

 

My mind escalates things quickly.

My mind escalates things quickly. 

Of course it didn’t help that my living situation was uncertain at the time, though I didn’t publicize it on here I was actually living with some friends for a few months. My first time living away from home. Things started brightly, my friends were extremely accommodating and it was a real pleasure living there. I got on a semi routine schedule, and began applying for jobs so that I could eventually move out on my own. Riding the high of a new experience I did really well… until I couldn’t find a job. After a solid month of submitting applications and not getting a single nibble, I began slipping into old habits. Staying up late watching netflix, playing video games 12 hours a day. It wasn’t pretty.

After leaving my friends I went through a couple months where I didn’t even know where I was going to live, and a freeway underpass was looking like a more and more likely option as time went by. It’s hard to concentrate on writing when you spend all your time worrying about living out of a tent and wondering what garbage can cuisine tastes like.

Though I admit I was looking forward to being roomies with the Freemont Troll.

Though I admit I was looking forward to being roomies with the Freemont Troll.

Fortunately I was able to stave off homelessness thanks to my awesome friend Hali!  I’m now living in an awesome loft apartment with my three cats, complete with an amazing view of the Puget Sound. It’s basically a perfect perch for doing writing, because the beauty of the Puget Sound never fails to inspire me.

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So with things settling back into a normal rhythm I can start concentrating on my blog again. I’ve got plenty of material coming up, including posts on Doctor Who, the first 4 chapters of Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2, and plenty of other amazing, stupendous topics that I just haven’t quite thought of yet. I know they’re there though, so stay tuned!

 

 

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Games, Microsoft and the Future

So apologies for my long silence everyone, but exciting things have been afoot. About three weeks ago I applied for a job with Microsoft as a Game Writer, which has pretty much been my dream job since I began writing professionally. I didn’t actually take it that seriously at first so I slapped together a sample piece of writing in about fifteen minutes, and sent it in,  figuring there’d be a long line of qualified writers with years of previous game writing experience behind them. Compared to industry veterans, what chance would I have? Well it turns out I had a really good chance, because I heard back from the recruiter almost immediately.  After talking with him over the phone, he said I sounded like a great candidate and he’d forward my name on to the project lead at Microsoft. All of that took place over the course of about two weeks, two weeks of delirious happiness. Had I finally made it as a writer?

I spoke with the team leader at Microsoft last Monday and was, unfortunately, completely unprepared for the kinds of questions he was asking. He asked me to describe my creative process and… well I couldn’t really give a coherent answer. I told him I make a general outline, and there are usually a couple of drafts I go through, but that’s it. I can’t describe how I write, I just sit down and do it. The rest of the questions were similar, how would I interact with the team? How would I work side by side with a graphic artist? How would I interact with stakeholders? I did my best to give coherent answers, but I think most it was just rambling. How would I interact with these people? I have no idea, I won’t know until I meet them and get a clearer picture of what kind of work I’m doing. That’s why I was really hoping to get an in-person interview, where it’s easier to get a feel for people thanks to all those subtle, subconscious clues we get like body language.

A firm handshake can be the key to getting a job... also a bribe never hurts.

A firm handshake can be the key to getting a job… also a bribe never hurts.

Unfortunately last Thursday I found out that I didn’t get the job. I’ll admit, this was a crushing disappointment and I’ve spent much of the last week just moping around feeling bad for myself. After mentally regrouping however, I’ve taken stock of what I accomplished; I manage to impress enough people that I got to talk with the project lead at Microsoft! Not only that, but the guy read my blog and revealed he worked on Bioshock: Infinite before Irrational Games closed and that he really enjoyed my articles on the subject. Microsoft is a notoriously difficult company to get a job with, and I managed to get a phone interview with a project leader! Most people don’t even get past the job application.

That’s not meant to be a boast, but rather my own realization that I have real talent. I didn’t attract attention through a long, impressive resume or an impressive educational pedigree, it was entirely my writing. A piece of writing I wasn’t even taking seriously because I figured there wasn’t an ice cube’s chance in hell I’d get the job. Clearly I’m doing something right, the last twenty years I’ve spent writing haven’t been for nothing. Scribbling stories out as a little kid about dinosaurs and ninjas, the aborted novels I tried writing as a teenager, and the four years I’ve been working on this blog have all been contributing to my future. Part of me is always doubting, maybe I’m at talentless hack and I’ve been merely deluding myself for all these years. Attracting the attention of a huge company like Microsoft though, that’s not just a fluke. I didn’t make it through four levels of interviews because of dumb luck.

So no, I didn’t get the job, but holy shit I came so close! And next time I get an opportunity I’ll be more prepared for the questions they’ll ask, and I’ll spend more time on the writing sample, because now I know… I’m a good writer. And for someone who lives to tell stories, that means everything to me.

“Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” – Mark Twain

Mark Twain's quote on writing.

 

No wood chopping for this writer, no sir. I’m going places.

And the first place I’ll be going is a little blue box that travels through space and time. Keep an eye out for it later this week.

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Burial at Sea: The Cycle Ends

And so we come to the end of the journey, in more ways than one. With the death of Irrational Games, this is truly the end of the Bioshock series as we know it.  In a way I’m glad they had time to wrap up the storyline of Infinite, but in other ways I wish they’d had more time to give us a more satisfying ending. One filled with more closure and understanding, and less with random retcons and useless scenes.

Burial At Sea: Part 2

A Storyteller’s Review

I suppose it's fitting that it ends where it all began.

I suppose it’s fitting that it ends where it all began.

When we last left our heroes Zachariah Comstock had just suffered a heart bypass via pneumatic drill while Elizabeth solemnly watched in an attempt to satisfy her hunger for vengeance. Of course we all know that’s a hunger Elizabeth will never satisfy, so Part 2 of Burial At Sea begins with us waking up as Elizabeth and staring into the face of Comstock’s corpse. Having achieved nothing beyond petty vengeance and ruining the life of one little girl, Elizabeth is tasked by Atlas to find a way off his prison in order to save the girl she just screwed over.

Like Bioshock Infinite, you spend most of your time trying to figure out what the hell just happened but somehow this plot didn’t seem as coherent as Infinite’s. Infinite was a complex plot filled with time travel and multiple dimensions, but I always felt the plot knew where it was going and the great character interactions kept me invested in the story even when I had no idea what was happening. Part 2 of Burial at sea, by contrast, sort of meanders around for most of its story and I felt like it didn’t quite know what it wanted to do with itself. It doesn’t help that Elizabeth is suffering amnesia, making her just as confused as the player. And like the first part of Burial at Sea, I felt that the majority of our time was spent just killing time and waiting for the story to resume. I liked the conversations Elizabeth had with her hallucination of Booker, but again, these were too sparse to fill the hours of vent crawling and sneaking around. When the story is present, and not just taunting you from the other side of a locked door, it’s pretty good but also filled with strangely unnecessary scenes and plots.

Daisy's Retcon is horrible in Burial at Sea Part 2.

I don’t think even the Luteces understand what the fuck was supposed to be going on here.

There are a handful of absolutely baffling scenes that seem to serve no purpose to either the story, the characters or even for the sake of entertainment. The one that really sticks out is Daisy Fitzroy’s retcon. At one point you have to use a tear to go back to Columbia to retrieve a McGuffin in order to progress through the story and while crawling through the vents of an airship you meet the Lutece siblings convincing Daisy to kill Fink’s son so that Elizabeth will become “the person she needs to be”. I really hate this scene because it’s utterly unnecessary, killing Daisy Fitzroy wasn’t the pivotal moment that turned Elizabeth into a vengeful killer, it was an important step along the way but not the pivotal moment. It also ruins Daisy Fitzroy’s character and the motivation of the Vox Populi, first of all why should she even take orders from the Lutece siblings? For one, they’re supposed to be dead, and two they were Comstock’s henchmen for most of their lives, so why would Daisy trust them? Is she also a time traveling, dimension-hopping demigod that just somehow knows that’s what she needs to do? You could remove this scene from the game and it wouldn’t change anything in the story. Nothing. I still don’t know why it was included.

At another point in the game you explore a bit of Songbird’s backstory, but that too retcons the previous storyline and explores things no one was interested in. Instead of exploring Songbird’s origins and creation, the game focuses on why and how it bonded with Elizabeth, which would have been fine if it had something to do with Songbird’s personality or had anything to do with the story at all. The game takes us tantalizingly close to some answers regarding the enigmatic Songbird, only to then totally disappoint by showing us that it bonded with Elizabeth because she plugged a hose back into its beak. “The lion with the thorn in its paw” is the analogy imaginary-Booker uses. They then use this completely anticlimactic reveal to show how the Big Daddies bonded with the Little Sisters, which I’m pretty sure Retcons the original Bioshock since I think the Little Sisters used pheromones to command the Daddies. Not to mention this retcons the previous chapter since Sally called for Mr. Bubbles before they were supposedly bonded. Again, removing these scenes from the game wouldn’t have changed the ending or the overall story of the game one iota.

Those are the two most egregious scenes in the game but there are plenty of other quests and plots that just seem to hang there like the frayed ends of a broken rope. For instance, the McGuffin I mentioned earlier turns out to be locks of Elizabeth’s hair. Again I thought this was another important part of the story at the time, like the Little Sisters are all clones of Elizabeth or something like that, but no it’s just another obstacle slowing down the story’s pace.

They might as well have made the McGuffin this doll head for all the impact it had on the story.

They might as well have made the McGuffin this doll head for all the impact it had on the story.

So after an interminable amount of time crawling through ducts and tranquilizing more bad guys than Solid Snake, we finally get to the meat of the story. After raising the prison and setting in motion Atlas’s war for Rapture, Elizabeth has to find the ‘Ace in the Hole’ in order to free Sally. Long story short, after more meandering around, you find the Ace in the Hole is “Would you Kindly?” the phrase that will set in motion the events of the original Bioshock. And we finally reach the end: Elizabeth gives Atlas the phrase and allows herself to be killed.

“It’s like a wheel of blood constantly turning…”

That’s how Elizabeth describes her existence and it’s what I’ve been saying through all the different writings I’ve done on this game. Fortunately in this ending Elizabeth finds the same strength her father showed in the ending of Bioshock Infinite. Elizabeth’s life, like Booker’s before her, is a constant cycle of betrayal, pain and revenge. She could have spent the rest of eternity trying to satisfy her lust for vengeance, but it wouldn’t have helped. And as she realized during this episode, she was fast becoming the very monster she was hunting. She took Sally away from the only person she could call a father in order to use her as bait. Ruining a child’s life in order to achieve your goals, gee, that sounds somewhat familiar. Yet it was this realization that made her return to this time, to set aside the rage and the pain, to achieve something that was truly worthwhile. In her omniscience she saw all the doors, all the paths of rage and hate that had been laid out for her, the never ending cycle of blood.

But behind one the doors, she found hope. She found a place where she could do something good.

Elizabeth couldn’t save herself, no matter how hard she tried. She would never be able to just live a normal life, never experience life with her real father, never dance in the streets of Paris. What Elizabeth could do, was prevent the same thing from happening to five other innocent girls like her. Saving Sally was about more than simply rescuing her from Atlas, it was about saving her from living the same life Elizabeth led. It was about giving them the life she never had the chance to live. It was about giving those five girls the life that twisted monsters like Andrew Ryan, Atlas (Fontaine), and Comstock sought to steal from them.

Elizabeth couldn’t right all the wrongs that had been inflicted on her, she could never go back to the girl she was, but here in this moment in time, she could save five little girls. And she was willing to make the sacrifice, the same sacrifice her father made, only this time it worked.

She gave them the father, the childhood and the future she never had.

She gave them the father, the childhood and the future she never had.

It was a bittersweet goodbye, but overall I think this was a great ending for the Bioshock series. In her final moments Elizabeth defies Andrew Ryan (and Ayn Rand) by sacrificing her own life to save the life of five strangers, altruism at its finest. She defies Comstock by choosing to accept responsibility for her actions and not hide them behind a cloak of rationalization and excuses. And she defies Atlas-Fontaine by showing him… he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is.

I found this ending to be incredibly emotionally gratifying, it let us say goodbye to the Elizabeth we all knew and loved: the one who was kind at heart and generous of spirit.  The cold, detached Elizabeth that drowned her father and used Sally as bait to kill Comstock died the moment Elizabeth realized what she was becoming. Elizabeth dies as the person we all grew to love, and sets aside the rage and anger that had haunted her for so long.

Goodbye Elizabeth, you were one of the finest characters ever featured in a video game.

Goodbye Elizabeth, you were one of the finest characters ever featured in a video game.

All that said, what holds this ending back from becoming the greatest video game ending ever, is all the sloppy writing that comes before the ending. The unnecessary scenes and retcons, the unanswered questions, the endless padding that killed the pacing. It was a brilliant ending for the series, but everything leading up to that ending…just didn’t work.

I love the ending…I just wish everything that had come before had been as touching and as memorable.

 

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How Star Wars Went Right: The Prequels vs The Clone Wars

So I lied earlier, I’ll be doing the comparison between the Prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars now, since it’s taking longer to choose the episode arcs I want to write about than I thought (currently it would take a book to cover all the things I want to cover.)

The Plan

clone-wars-palpatine

The Prequel Version:

We all knew that Senator Palpatine was the villain the moment he stepped on stage in Episode I. We knew it, the cast new it, everyone knew it. Yet despite the fact we all knew it, the prequel trilogy tried to make it some big mystery with “Darth Sidious” and treating the audience like a bunch of idiots who couldn’t possibly connect the two together. This is a huge problem because in order to preserve the mystery, they never showed us Palpatine actually doing anything evil. This is supposed to be the True Lord of the Sith, a master manipulator who’s enacting a plan so devious that the Jedi can’t even see it, let alone stop it. Yet the only kind of political maneuvering we see in the prequels is Palpatine’s replacing of Valorum as Chancellor. Then, two movies later, he walks into the senate with his melted face of pure evil and announces he’s taking over the Republic and making it an Empire. And the senators applaud? Really? And the Jedi, who we’ve been told are the heroes of the galaxy, are slaughtered wholesale and not one person finds that odd or objectionable?

"Hey everyone, I know I look like evil incarnate but it was totally the Jedi. Yeah, they're responsible for everything. Also, I'm declaring myself Emperor. You know, for kicks."

“Hey everyone, I know I look like evil incarnate but it was totally the Jedi. Yeah, they’re responsible for everything. Also, I’m declaring myself Emperor. You know, for kicks.”

In the end, Palpatine doesn’t take control of the senate through any kind effort on his part. He gains control of the senate and the republic because that’s what the script demanded, it wasn’t a natural evolution of events, it was completely contrived. We never get to see the plan that brought about the end of the Jedi, which is a shame because as The Clone Wars shows us, it’s a brilliant plan…

The Clone Wars Version:

The Clone Wars dispenses with the mystery portion of Palpatine and as a result, shows us everything the Prequels didn’t. We get to see how Palpatine’s smooth diplomatic skills and ability to manipulate people came to turn the Republic into the Empire. Palpatine doesn’t just walk into the senate one day and announce he’s taking over, it happens in degrees.

He drives the Republic into crippling debt by escalating the war and creating more clones, which in turn leads to more Jedi leading troops on the frontlines and leaving the Jedi Order increasingly vulnerable. With the Jedi becoming the generals of the clone armies, Palpatine succeeds in corrupting public opinion about the Jedi, painting them as the war hungry fanatics behind the war. Palpatine derails peace negotiations by first assassinating the Separatist Senator who suggested them and then allowing Separatists to bomb Coruscant to make the whole peace negotiation look like a ruse meant to lower Republic defenses. And as the war continues to escalate, driven by the fear that Palpatine so masterfully creates, the Senate allows Palpatine to centralize more power through his office until he controls the entire Republic military. Every move he makes and every interaction he has with the senate is specifically designed to make him look like an honest man of the people, a simple politician who was thrust into a situation beyond his control. He plays his role so masterfully, no one even suspects him to be the orchestrator of a plot centuries in the making.

And while he has the senate, people of the republic, and even the Jedi dancing to his tune, he slowly turns Anakin to his side.

Palpatine and Anakin in The Clone Wars

Whispering poison in Anakin’s ear…

Using Anakin’s already existing anger and frustration with the Jedi council, Palpatine plants seeds of doubt and hate in Anakin’s mind.

Anakin’s fall in the prequels never made sense because he basically went from good, albeit confused, young man to slaughtering everyone he’s ever known and cared about in fifteen minutes. Okay sure, he straight up murders mother-fuckin’ Mace Windu, but to go from that to essentially killing a class of kindergartner Jedi is a big leap.

Fortunately in The Clone Wars, we get to see more of the subtle manipulation of Anakin. We get to watch as Palpatine sews seeds of doubt in Anakin’s young mind, and then cultivate those doubts with frustration and fear. Palpatine almost becomes a father-figure to Anakin, which only makes it easier for him to slowly sway Anakin to the dark side.

And since his character in The Clone Wars is so much more relatable, his downfall becomes truly tragic…

The Romance

Anakin and Padme's Romance

 The Prequel Version:

The Star Wars prequels have the singular distinction of containing the most stilted, awkward and downright creepiest romance ever put to film. Scientists have had more success programming robots to feel love than George Lucas had filming a love scene with Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. Padme came across as a kind of whinging tween girl and Anakin kept looking at her in a way that made the entire audience afraid we were about to see Darth Vader: Sex Offender.

There are few things in this life that are truly awful to behold; war, pestilence, death… the romance scenes in the prequel trilogy.

The Clone Wars Version:

What the movies couldn’t do with a massive budget and award-winning actors, The Clone Wars managed to do with just a handful of scenes and a smattering of dialogue. Less is definitely more when it comes to romance scenes, and Anakin and Padme snatching small moments in the show to be with each other was infinitely more romantic than the holiday retreat to Naboo during Episode II. Anakin’s utter devotion to Padme, rather than coming across as the creepy fixation of a future serial killer, actually becomes an endearing trait that deepens Anakin’s character. A less creepy Anakin also makes Padme’s feelings for him seem genuine and not a manifestation of Stockholm syndrome.

Anakin and Padme in The Clone Wars

A single, well-timed glance can convey more meaning than a hundred lines of dialogue.

Some of the best moments showcasing Anakin and Padme’s relationship are the ones where they’re not even trying to be romantic. Arguing over the politics of the war for instance, provides both an excellent overview of the Clone War and makes their relationship seem far more real, because real people argue all the time regardless of how much in love they are. When they’re in public, they’re joint attempts to remain cold and neutral to each other to maintain their deception also goes a long way to establishing their romance. The decision to imply their romance was not only a wise decision, but probably also a necessary one since you don’t want to go boring kids with a bunch of romantic dialogue they won’t understand.

Their relationship also gives the audience a much needed human perspective on the Jedi and their teachings, and more specifically, the flaws in those teachings…

The Jedi

Jedi-Sith

The Prequel Version:

If the Jedi have one flaw that I simply cannot come to grips with, it’s their Vulcan-like dedication to eliminating emotions. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, shut the fuck up Yoda! Maybe anger is just anger, it doesn’t have to lead to hate. If anything you’re teaching young Jedi to be afraid of their emotions and it’s that fear that’s leading to suffering.

I can understand wanting to control your emotions, that’s something all humans have to deal with, but the Jedi teachings seem to promote the utter elimination of emotion. In order to control your emotions, you have to understand them and the Jedi seem to have no desire to want to understand them.

In the prequels when Anakin seeks guidance on his visions of the future and Padme’s death, Yoda’s advice basically boils down to “go meditate on the force.” Yeah, big fucking help you scrawny green toad. Anakin could have found more useful advice in a fucking fortune cookie.

The Clone Wars Version:

The Jedi teachings we see in the Clone Wars are far more rounded and fleshed out than what we got in the Prequels, much resembling the wisdom of Yoda’s teachings in the original movies. Most of the wisdom of the Jedi wasn’t displayed through Yoda though, but through Plo Koon.

Master Plo Koon was one of those silent pieces of set dressing in the prequels, the one with the badass face mask.

Plus that breathing mask just looks badass.

With a mask like that, you know he means business.

I think one of the best moments for Plo Koon in the series is when Ahsoka is kidnapped and Anakin is sitting around worrying about her, blaming himself for her kidnapping. Now Plo Koon is very close to Ahsoka as well, but the difference is that Plo Koon isn’t blaming himself and while I think he’s concerned, he’s not worrying himself. He recognizes that it’s a situation he can’t hope to change, but more than that, he trusts Ahsoka to take care of herself. He tries to teach Anakin this lesson by telling him that, if he trained Ahsoka well, she’ll find his way back to her.

And that’s something we all struggle with: trusting other people to take care of themselves. When it’s someone we care about, humans have the bad habit of constantly worrying that something bad will happen to them. We can’t trust them to take care of themselves because we’re not there to control them. That’s what it boils down to, and what leads Anakin to falling to the dark side. It was his fear that Padme would somehow die that drove him to seek the Emperor’s help, since Yoda basically handed Anakin a fortune cookie and told him not to worry about it.

Had Plo Koon been Anakin’s adviser, perhaps he would have found a way to come to terms with his fear and trust Padme to take care of herself. Maybe he could have come to accept the fact that sometimes bad things happen, and there isn’t anything he can do about it. That he’s a Jedi, not a god.

So what I’m saying is, this whole thing is Yoda’s fault.

The War

CLoneWars

 

The Prequel Version:

It was a war full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing. Since the Clones had no character and, for all we knew, as soulless as the droids they were fighting all the battles ultimately became nothing more than eye-candy. War loses all its horror when no one gets hurt, that’s why we can all play war games and not get PTSD, no one gets hurt. If we found a way to fight wars using nothing but droids and clones while eliminating all collateral damage, we’d probably never stop fighting. We never saw a single refugee, a clone trooper with no legs being wheeled around, or even any kind of economic downturn on Coruscant. If you were an average, everyday citizen in the Star Wars Prequel Universe, you probably wouldn’t even know there was a war happening.

The Clone Wars Version:

You start seeing the true cost of war on Ryloth, where the series really begins to pick up. The battle in orbit over Ryloth was far more interesting than the Battle of Coruscant because, for one, there was actual build up to the fight and the show didn’t just plop us down in the middle of an incomprehensible maelstrom. There was tactics and surprise attacks and maneuvering, like how you’d actually fight a battle rather than dozens of ships lining up to broadside each other like we’re in the 19th century. Secondly, Ahsoka’s bombing run and her disastrous defeat, finally showed us the cost of battle. Ahsoka losing her clone wingmates helped give me a new perspective on the Clones and how they related with the Jedi. Ahsoka is devastated by the loss of her clone pilots, and that was enough to give the battle some real emotional weight. Once the characters actually became involved in the battle, instead of just being present, all the action of the Clone Wars came together.

On the ground we begin to see the cost of the war on ordinary people as Ryloth, home of the Twi’leks, is turned into a bombed-out ruin. Finding the orphaned child finally gave me a sense that yes, people are dying and losing their homes in this war. The clone’s interaction with the orphan girl also gave the clones some humanity, laying the groundwork for the characterization that would make the clones pivotal to the story, and making me care about their lives.

Saving innocent refugees? Now that's a cause worth fighting for.

Saving innocent refugees? Now that’s a cause worth fighting for.

I think the absolute best battle showcasing the war is the battle of Umbara, an inhospitable rock whose native inhabitants refused to bow down to the republic and fought tooth and nail against the republic. First of all this was just a great change of pace for the show. After fighting battles in relatively clean, well lit places, the battle on Umbara’s eternally fog shrouded surface really made you feel the dark, claustrophobic fear of battle as the Clones were forced to fight meter by bloody meter for the planet surface. Second of all, after fighting soulless droids for most of the series, clones facing off against other humanoid opponents made the battle feel that much more brutal; especially since these people were fighting for their independence. They may have been fighting for a twisted dictator, but then again, so were the clones. Neither side knew they were fighting for the same person, the clones thought they were fighting for the Republic and the Umbarans thought they were fighting for their freedom, but they were all fighting for the Emperor. It all just highlighted the utter pointlessness of it all.

And the pointlessness of it all was driven even further home by the madness of the war when General Krell came on the scene, a cruel and calculating Jedi who relished in the slaughter of his clone troops. Sending wave after wave of clones against invulnerable tanks was such an infuriating sight that I would have executed Krell myself if I’d had the chance, and inspiring that kind of hate and disgust in me isn’t easy to do. It’s something I didn’t expect from a kid’s show, that’s for sure. As terrible as war is though, the show reminds us that war also inspires acts of true valiance and courage, and the ending of the episode arc is probably one of the finest I’ve seen.

 

Darkness, brutality and secrets. An episode tailor made by the Sith.

Darkness, brutality and secrets. An episode tailor made by the Sith.

None of this is to say that The Clone Wars is haute cuisine, or a narrative on par with A Game of Thrones, obviously it’s not. But then it doesn’t need to be, and it succeeded in what it set out to do: create a compelling, dramatic and fun space opera. Like the original trilogy it told a great story in a way that would entertain kids while making sure there was enough going on to hold the interest of adults. It managed to do something I thought was impossible: it redeemed star wars in my eyes.

I guess we’ll find out whether or not Disney can take advantage of this opportunity and build on the trust The Clone Wars built or whether the new trilogy will drive the final stake through the heart of Star Wars. Coming up this week will by my write up on some of the best Clone Wars Episode arcs and an analysis of the Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock: Infinite. As always, any critiques or requests would be greatly appreciated.

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The Clone Wars: Star Wars Made Right

So Netflix recently added Star Wars: The Clone Wars to their catalog of streaming shows, and I decided to give it a try. As much as I hated the prequel trilogies, I still love Star Wars and I wanted to see if the Clone Wars could do anything worthwhile with the Clone War setting. Not only is the show thoroughly enjoyable but it managed to do the impossible: it redeemed the mistakes of the prequel trilogy!

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

A Storyteller’s Review

Star-Wars-The-Clone-Wars-Season-4-Episode-15-Deception

The Clone Wars begins badly, the first season ends up feeling like a kid’s show where the young main character, Ahsoka Tano, helps teach those stupid kids about life and love. The characters are goofy, and the Battledroids “Roger, Roger” gag gets old the first time they use it, and there is a disconcerting lack of violence. I don’t mean disconcerting because I’m a sociopath who thrives on bloody death and mayhem… well okay maybe I am, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Obviously I wasn’t expecting this show to be a Tarantino-esque slaughterfest where humans contain more blood than most hospitals, but this is called The Clone Wars, I was expecting at least some violence. Instead, any actual deaths seemed to occur off camera and the show even seemed squeamish about showing Battledroids being destroyed.

I almost gave up after the first couple of episodes but then, I thought, most series have a rough first season. Even The Next Generation and Deep Space 9, two of my favorite shows, had some pretty awful opening seasons. So I skipped the first season and started on season 2.

The Clone Wars Season 2, fortunately, starts maturing rapidly and begins drawing you into the story. The show wisely begins phasing out the wacky dialogue of the battledroids, General Grievous becomes a cruel and calculating general instead of a bumbling comic relief character, and Anakin and Obi-wan start showing the friendship that Alec Guinness manage to establish with a single line of dialogue.

"And he was a good friend." - The Great Alec Guinness

“And he was a good friend.” – The Great Alec Guinness

By the third season the Clone Wars is truly exceptional with interesting characters, good action, and excellent effects.

Whereas Anakin was an insufferable ass in the prequel trilogy, he actually turns into quite a likable and ultimately tragic character in The Clone Wars. You can also see the frustration and rage hiding just beneath the surface, and watch it erupt every time something goes wrong for him. Obi-wan remains mostly unchanged from the prequel, which is fine because I actually liked his character in the movies, but we also get some more backstory for him that makes him more relatable. Amidala is shown to be a shrewd and capable politician whose dedication to peaceful negotiation not only makes sense, but deepens her character (unlike the movie where her pleas for peace seemed to come straight out of her ass like a bad case of royal flatulence). Finally, Chancellor Palpatine is revealed to be the cunning master manipulator he’s supposed to be, and as you watch his schemes develop you’ll come to understand why he is Lord of the Sith.

The most surprising characters of all, however, are the Clones. The battles in the prequel series lacked any kind of emotional impact because it was a bunch of droids vs a bunch of soulless clones, and since we never got to see any civilians get hurt, the clone wars of Star Wars III felt like one of the cleanest and most polite wars ever fought. Giving the clones character was not only a brilliant move, but a completely necessary one as well, because without them the story loses all its humanity.  Rex, Cody, Headcase, Fives, Echo and the rest all have their own personalities and you’ll come to know every one of them. “We’re men, not machines” is the line they use whenever they encounter someone who dismisses them as ‘just clones’ and its absolutely true. They’re the only thing that makes the ‘war’ in Clone Wars real, because as the war expands, the cast of clones shrinks as more of them are killed in battle until only a few remain standing. And as the war grows, so too does the intensity of the action.

And what spectacular action it is!

And what spectacular action it is!

Their squeamishness over showing violence completely evaporates as well, and some of it becomes downright brutal for a kid’s show. Thanks to the fact that lasers and lightsabers cauterize wounds instantly, the show can show decapitations and severed limbs like no other (non-HBO) show out there. Even the blaster wounds start looking nasty when you see the burning hole left over in some poor clone’s chest, or worse, some young kid that die shockingly often in this series. Again this isn’t some kind of psychopathic desire for violence I’m expressing, it’s the fact that this kind of real action adds weight and meaning to the action. Seeing a single young Jedi get a blaster bolt through the chest in The Clone Wars packed a much bigger emotional punch than the entire Jedi massacre scene in Revenge of the Sith. In fact all the scenes featuring the Jedi are infinitely improved in this show.

As the prequel trilogy wore on, the lightsaber fights grew more and more ridiculous until it all ended in a 45-minute ballet between Anakin and Obi-wan that succeeded in doing the impossible: making a lightsaber fight boring. Fortunately The Clone Wars has struck a nice balance between style and action. There are still enough acrobatic maneuvers to make the fight interesting to watch without slowing down the action and pace of the fight itself. When a character pulls out his lightsaber in The Clone Wars you’ll be saying to yourself “Yeah! Let’s do this shit!” instead of “Oh God, not again!” like you probably said in the prequels.

"Can we hurry this up Ben? I'd like to kill you and go home before my kids enter college..."

“Can we hurry this up Ben? I’d like to kill you and go home before my kids graduate college…”

It’s in Season 5 and 6 where this show goes from excellent to downright exceptional. The show begins tackling issues that Star Wars has usually been unwilling to address, such as: the Jedi’s use of children as recruits, their role in galactic affairs, and their use as a military force. Finally, without giving too much away, season 5 sees the completion of Ahsoka Tano’s character arc. Ahsoka probably grew the most as a character throughout the show, going from an overly enthusiastic and naive kid to a capable and effective Jedi. In fact it’s through her eyes that we really get to see how the Jedi order operates, and through her experiences that we get to see the flaws in the Jedi teachings. She turns out to be the wisest character in the show and watching her grow throughout the show was probably one of the best parts of the show.

Season 6 is where the show really hits its stride, and the beginning episode arc of Season 6 is absolutely phenomenal. Since Order 66 is known to everyone I’m gonna go ahead and say that the first four episodes are about Order 66 and one of the character’s brave attempt to uncover it. You might think that, knowing Order 66 is executed successfully, it would be a boring episode because you know the outcome. But then you’d be wrong. Knowing that the character fails in his mission is what makes these episodes so emotional to watch, because even though you know he has to fail, you’ll be rooting so hard for him to succeed and watching him fail will so much more difficult for it. His bravery and creativity in the face of overwhelming odds is truly one of the shining moments of the show.

And there are so many shining moments.

And there are so many shining moments.

The Clone Wars is not only a worthy successor to the Star Wars canon, but in many ways exceeds its predecessors. There a few bumps here and there; some of the episodes appear out of order, Palpatine’s voice actor changes for some reason in a couple episodes, and of course there are a few goofy episodes that don’t add anything to the story. These are all minor ripples compared to the one big ripple that disrupts what was an otherwise enjoyable saga: Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars brand. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Disney buying Star Wars might do wonders for a series that was on the edge of becoming a self-parody, but it came at an inconvenient time for The Clone Wars. Following their purchase of Star Wars, Disney put a hold on all current Star Wars productions, which unfortunately means The Clone Wars ended without having the opportunity to wrap up several important storylines or include any kind of closure whatsoever. So you’ll end up getting involved the show only to have the carpet ripped out from under you and leave you crying for more.

Though I don’t appreciate the abrupt ending, it might be for the best because in the end I’d rather be left wanting more, and the final season of the show happens close enough to the events of Episode III that you’ll be able to pretty much guess what would’ve come next.

The Jedi Temple after the Massacre in Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith

Though, no lie, I would kill to have seen this recreated in The Clone Wars.

Though I admit I would have liked to have seen Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader occur in the show, if only to give us the tragic downfall of a good man that we were robbed of in the prequels.  And if Disney can get the same writers and cast back to do a new season I certainly wouldn’t say no.

If you’re still not sure about the Clone Wars, you can check out my review later this week which will cover what I thought were the best episode arcs. I’ll also be comparing and contrasting The Clone Wars against Revenge of the Sith to illustrate how they both attempted the same thing, and why only Clone Wars was successful at it.

 

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Titanfall: Story Failure

I was so excited by Titanfall’s amazing gameplay and the small details that brought the backstory to life that I, perhaps, had unrealistic expectations for the campaign. I was hoping for a campaign as innovative as the gameplay and with the same attention to detail that they gave to the in-game visual and audio elements.The short version is that the campaign sucked. The long answer is that the campaign sucked hard. 

The even longer answer follows…

Titanfall:

A Storyteller’s Review

Titanfall_wallpaper2560x1440

The story begins… you know I have no idea where this story begins, and that’s a problem that runs through the entire campaign. I enjoyed the opening movie actually, it was minimalist but did a good job of giving you the general setting. However it was more of a mood setter than any kind of real introduction, and the lack of any sort of beginning absolutely kills any chance of a good story.

There are no characters, just ciphers. No factions, just names. And nothing to connect you to the amazing universe they’ve created. And make no mistake, it’s truly a remarkable setting that draws you in, which is why it’s such a huge shame that it all goes to waste on an utterly forgettable campaign.

Strangely enough the story on the Titanfall website proves to be far more interesting than what we see in the campaign. As you can see on their website, the IMC and Militia are made to sound like these two morally ambiguous factions fighting for resources and power. Unfortunately in reality it just turns into The Empire vs The Rebellion from Star Wars.

"Come on, get in, we've got work to do!" - Your Titan.

“No, pilot, I AM your father!”

I’m not asking for Game of Thrones style factions and intrigue mind you, but even Star Wars took the time to introduce you to the factions, who they were, who lead them and what their objectives were. For instance the Militia is obviously fighting for “freedom” just like the Rebellion, but the Rebellion also had a plan for obtaining that freedom: overthrowing the Emperor. The Militia doesn’t seem to have a plan beyond blow shit up, a method I can totally respect, but that’s a means, not an end. The IMC is similarly directionless, what exactly are they fighting for? And why are their soldiers so willing to die? I know they’re supposed to be a big evil corporation, if recent history has shown us anything it’s that war is only profitable if you’re not the one actually fighting it. You can’t war profiteer if you’re expending billions on equipping and replacing your soldiers. But okay, maybe Titanfall decided to tell a story about the characters instead. Except, well, they’re not any good either.

What little we see of the Militia characters are all plucky, friendly, and utterly selfless husks that exist only to be heroic. The IMC are all ruthless sociopaths that literally enjoy using their robotic killbots to slaughter helpless farmers. The only exception is the one IMC character who defects to the Militia, and you’ll know he’s going to defect after only a couple minutes of dialogue. It’s so cartoonishly caricatured that it almost completely ruins the otherwise unique setting of the game.

I think that the guys over at Respawn already have the perfect format for delivering a great story: the multiplayer maps. They already totally engrossed me in the Titanfall’s story with just the tiny details in the maps and dialogue. With the addition of just a little extra effort, they could tell an absolutely phenomenal story without ever having to deal with a campaign again. Let’s face it, most people picked this game up for the multiplayer and I suspect the only reason people even played the campaign was because it was required in order to unlock the Ogre and Strider Titans. The key here would be to do what Half-Life 2 did and leave most of the story elements in the background. I think Half-Life 2 went overboard with this tactic, especially since it was a singleplayer game, but it would be perfect for a multiplayer-only game like Titanfall.

The amazing visuals are let down by the awful storytelling.

The amazing visuals are let down by the awful storytelling.

I feel the dialogue is actually the strongest part of the narrative and would be the easiest way of relaying more story information without disrupting the pace of the gameplay. Not the character dialogue from the plot, god no, but the dialogue from all the grunt NPCs. Playing the game this last week, I’ve heard even more of the terrific dialogue I praised last week. Nothing makes you feel like a badass pilot than running past some friendly grunts and hearing this conversation:

“Friendly pilot spotted!” – Grunt 1

“What’s so special about that?” – Grunt 2

“Just wait until you see what he can do!” – Grunt 1

Again I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the general gist of it and it’s lines like these that make you feel like you’re a character in the Titanfall story. Respawn needs to use this incredible strength to continue telling their story, and more importantly, make us feel like we’re a part of that story. Have their soldiers begin referring to battles or events in their universe, or the units they serve under. Have them occasionally say “I know that Pilot! We served together on [Blank]!” to add a sense of continuity and accomplishment. Of course dialogue is only one option.

Titanfall is designed in such a way that there are plenty of ways of introducing new story elements while not hampering the multiplayer game with unskippable cutscenes. For instance the Burn Cards are an awesome gameplay mechanic that gives you special abilities or weapons that you can use once per game.

Note the quotes at the bottom.

Note the quotes at the bottom.

The quotes are good start, but not enough to really expand the universe they’ve created. Instead they should rename these cards and replace the quotes with small descriptions. For instance, some of the most common Burn Cards you’ll receive will be “Amped” weapons. Rather than waste this opportunity on a generic term like Amped, use it to tell a story.

For instance, replace the text on this card:

Amped_R-101C_card

With this:

R-102-A Carbine

Using this burn card will grant you a prototype R-102-A carbine, a more powerful version of the standard 101-C. 

This rifle was developed by IMC and deployed with the 132nd Division. The weapon ended up on the blackmarket after the 132nd turned pirate. 

Another example:

250px-Bc_summon_atlas

Modified Atlas

Call in a specially modified Atlas Titan.

This Atlas once belonged to an elite pilot who made numerous modifications to increase its performance. Though the pilot died in battle, his Titan is still ready for battle.

Of course these all just examples, and not the only way to introduce new story elements. And even though Titanfall’s campaign was ultimately useless, I think Respawn has it within themselves to create a truly remarkable story. Their efforts may have been wasted on trying to create a more conventional campaign, but their ideally suited for crafting a more minimal story. The maps and dialogue from grunts is already incredibly immersive, which is half the battle. The rest of the battle will win itself, providing Respawn is willing to pick up its weapons and fight. Metaphorically speaking that is.

Okay...maybe not so metaphorical.

Okay…maybe not so metaphorical.

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Standby to Fall into Titanfall’s Story

When I first heard of Titanfall, I was filled with doubt. I enjoy playing multiplayer games occasionally, but for the most part I can’t get into them and for anyone who knows me, you know why. No, it’s not because I’m an introverted, antisocial hermit…well okay, not just because. It’s because I love stories, and that’s the one thing multiplayer-only games like Titanfall usually fail to provide. Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, while undoubtedly filled with fun gameplay, always put you in the role of some unnamed soldier in a conflict with no context. So when I began playing the Titanfall beta, I wasn’t expecting much…

And then I found myself standing in the belly of a dropship, looking down out of the open bay door at the city below and finally leaping out with my friends. With that first jump out of the dropship, I fell straight into Titanfall’s story and found myself totally immersed in its universe.

800px-Dropship

The greatest leap of faith you’ll ever make.

There are plenty of other reviews out there that point out exactly why this game works so damn well on a technical level, but so little of it seems to focus on just how much effort clearly went into story and making sure the game immersed you in that story. Perhaps it’s because, like I pointed out in September, telling a good story is a magic trick and if you’re a good enough magician, people won’t even realize it’s a trick so they understandably haven’t covered it. Yet Respawn Entertainment have done such an outstanding job with these small details that it absolutely deserves as much praise as I can heap on it. Telling a good story in a video game is a totally different animal from every other medium, and the small, intricate details you’d never bother describing in a book can be vital to immersing a player in a video game’s story.

Jumping off that dropship and hearing your commander’s orders really draws you into the story, and suddenly you feel like your really part of a military operation and not just some mindless grunt. Your commander also keeps you constantly up to date with how the battle is going, letting you know when you’ve lost objectives or if the enemy team is ahead of you in points. The constant tactical updates makes sure you really feel like you’re in a battle rather than just a competition in a video game. The small team sizes, 6v6, also means that you’re constantly playing a significant role in the battle. I never once felt like I was just a faceless, unimportant pawn while I was playing Titanfall, and that went a long way towards making me feel like a highly-trained Titan pilot and drawing me further into the story.

You might be wondering how you can feel like you’re in a real battle if there are only 12 people on the map, because I was wondering the same thing. Well that’s what the Grunts are here for. They’re NPCs that populate the map and fight each other, creating the swirling chaos of battle as they maneuver around the map. Not only do they provide a much needed sense of life and urgency to the battles, but they also make sure that traveling across the maps is never boring. I would been happy if they’d just added the grunts, but Respawn Entertainment went one step further and actually gave these NPCs a life of their own.

Finally, a game that actually plays like its promotional material!

Finally, a game that actually plays like its promotional material!

While running up some stairs to secure an objective I ran into two grunts from opposing sides in hand-to-hand combat, it was already on my way so I figured I’d put a bullet in the bad guy and move on. I did, not expecting an NPC to acknowledge anything had happened but the grunt put his hands on his knees like he was struggling to breathe and gasped “Thanks man, I owe you one.” I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember it exactly, but that was the gist of it. It’s kind of sad that I wasn’t expecting any kind of response actually, I’m so used to game developers cutting corners when it comes to the finer details that Respawn Entertainment putting in that extra effort completely blew me away. During a later gunfight, having narrowly escaped from an enemy Titan, I ducked into a small building and found myself next to two grunts. One was writhing on the ground while the other was putting pressure on a wound and telling his friend “you’re gonna be alright!”

While these may not sound significant, and in fact aren’t significant in terms of gameplay, they’re absolutely critical to a good video game story and play a huge part in why I found myself completely immersed in the story. Of course the game is called Titanfall, not Gruntfall, and when you get your first titan I guarantee you’ll be grinning ear to ear.

A Titan ripping an enemy pilot out of his Titan.

Oh I’m sorry, you weren’t using that were you?

The Titan is more than just a suit of armor or a walking tank, it’s your buddy. He’s got your back when you need to go inside a building to cap an objective and when things get hairy and you need to leap out of a window to escape, he’ll be there to catch you. When you’re running towards your Titan with bullets whizzing all around you and the sound of a stomping Titan chasing after you, only to have your Titan reach out and place you in the safety of its cockpit, you’ll probably feel like that’s the greatest thing you’ll ever experience in Titanfall. Then when you turn around, rip the enemy pilot out of his Titan, gun down the remaining grunts and leave them behind in a field of burning wreckage, and you realize how wrong you were.

Like everything else, your Titan is designed to immerse you in the game as well. Everything from the animation of taking your seat in the cockpit and watching the viewscreen flicker to life, to listening to the computer warn you of 3-to-1 odds, makes you feel like you’re really piloting this awesome war machine. The Titan is also a character of its own, and once you’ve customized it to fit your style and play with it for a couple hours, it really will seem like an old friend. It’s almost like a loyal dog, and it’ll gladly follow you into the mouth of hell.

"Come on, get in, we've got work to do!" - Your Titan.

“Come on, get in, we’ve got work to do!” – Your Titan.

To be honest I don’t know much about the story aside from the brief blurbs on the factions and settings on their website, but the fact I’m already this excited for it is saying a lot. They’ve already won major points for avoiding the standard “Evil Corporation vs Plucky Colonist” trope by leaving both factions in a murky grey area of morality, and if they put even half as much effort into the overarching plot and characters as they did for all the minor details, we’ll be in for one hell of a ride. I’ll be keeping you all up to date on how this multiplayer story comes to life and if it lives up the promise I saw in the Beta. In the meantime:

Standby for Titanfall!

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