I’ve been sitting on this blog post for almost a month, I wrote it immediately after watching A Monster Calls, and the words poured out of me in a way they rarely have. Yet as usual I was afraid to post what I wrote. Normally that just means it gets buried in my ever increasing pile of drafts that I’ve never finished, but this one wouldn’t stay buried. I kept coming back to it, and unless I post it, I don’t think I’ll ever move on.
This isn’t a storytelling review of A Monster Calls, which I would like to do at some point. Instead this just me talking about how this movie spoke to me and helped me confront the grief and guilt I still hold onto a year after my father’s death.
[Spoilers, I completely ruin the ending, so if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend you do before reading this.]
A Monster Calls
When Stories Speak to Us
A Monster Calls is a beautifully written movie, and the book it’s based is now on my Must Read list. This film is a shining example of the power of storytelling because it can help people deal with their darkest and most difficult emotions.
I know that because A Monster Calls helped me. My father died over a year ago and I’m still struggling with all the things I miss about him. The biggest struggle has been wrestling with my guilt. Not just for missed opportunities or the petty arguments we had. No my guilt ran deeper than I ever realized, and it was A Monster Calls that helped me see it.
In the film, the main character Conor, struggles to come to terms with his mother’s impending death. He keeps having a recurring nightmare of trying to save his mom from falling into a bottomless abyss. When finally Conor finishes the dream, he reveals the reason for the guilt that had been gnawing at him for the entire movie… he let his mom go on purpose, allowing her to fall into the abyss. He was tired of struggling to save her, tired of the fear and the desperation… tired of the pain. He wished to be free of it.
“The most human wish of all.” As the Monster might say.
I wished to be free of my pain too, but my crime was even greater than Conor’s, because I made that wish years before my dad was struck with cancer.
My dad, like me, suffered from depression. Unlike me, however, he never found an effective treatment to manage it. For seventy years he carried his depression with him like a festering, never-healing wound that sapped the life out of him. My mom and I tried to get him to go to a doctor, a therapist, anyone who might be able to help. At least for a while.
Then I stopped trying.
I wanted it to be over. I wanted him to be gone.
I told myself I wanted him gone because he could never see the good in anything. I wanted him gone because of the way he treated the waitress at a restaurant. I wanted him gone because of dozens of petty slights and arguments, real and imagined. I wanted him gone because at least then he’d be at peace.
I wanted his pain to end. That was the lie I told myself.
The truth that I was afraid to speak was this:
I wanted him gone because I wanted my own pain to end.
It hurt to see my father because I can remember so clearly how bad my depression once was. Being depressed was like being a raw nerve with no protection, the mechanisms that most people have to deal with their emotions didn’t exist. Every schoolmate’s insults made my heart hurt as if someone had reached into my chest and was squeezing it in a clenched fist. Every news article I read about endangered animals, the deteriorating environment, or even a passing asteroid sent me into a tailspin of despair about the world around me.
I remember that pain with perfect, piercing clarity. Every time I saw my father I felt that pain squeezing and clawing deep in my chest. He was a constant reminder of my own painful memories. Worse than that, I was terrified that he was a glimpse into my future. As amazing as my medication is at managing my symptoms, there are days that still get to me, where my defenses come down and every emotion stabs into me like a knife. What if one day it stops working? Will I become my father, unable to see the life, love, and happiness that surrounds him?
I wished it was over.
So when his terminal cancer diagnosis came, it was my wish come true. He had a year to live the doctors told us in October, by the following November he could no longer walk. My wish was coming true faster than I could have hoped. Throughout the course of my father’s illness, I never felt afraid or sad, I didn’t even cry once.
This was what I wanted.
It wasn’t until the morning of January 14th, 2016, as his labored breathing slowed to pausing, rattling gasps, that I realized a truth that I had been hiding from myself.
I didn’t want him to go.
It wasn’t until I whispered in his ear that I loved him that I realized the man my father really was.
My father spent his entire life fighting against a chemically imbalanced brain that made him see the world as darker than it truly was. I have no doubt he spent a majority of his days wondering why he should go on, fantasizing about killing himself. For 72 years he fought his depression to a standstill. I remember the pain of depression, and sometimes I still hear the seductive siren call of suicide.
I know it must have taken immense courage to survive that. If ever my medication fails, I’m not sure I’d have the strength to do the same.
My father deteriorated faster than the doctor’s were saying he should. At the time, I thought it was yet another example of his selfishness and weakness.
But I realize now that my father was simply ready to go, he’d fought his war to the bitter end, and now he wanted it to be over.
But I didn’t want him to go.
Here, at the end, as his breath grew shallower and the pauses between breaths became longer, It was too late to tell him that I didn’t want him to leave. It was too late to tell him that I loved him and that I was sorry for all the stupid things that kept us estranged for so much of our lives. So I did the only thing I could.
I told him it was okay to go and held his hand until he took his final breath.
That was the truth I was so afraid to speak, the crime for which I feel so ashamed: In my selfish desire to see an end to my own pain, I wasted the moments I should have been cherishing.
“Stories are how I topple my enemies.” – The Monster
When your enemy are emotions like grief and guilt, stories are the only thing that can topple your enemies.
One of the most important parts of crafting a good villain is giving them motivations that make sense to the villain. Granted this isn’t always necessary, sometimes a wildcard villain can be just as memorable, I love Heath Ledger’s Joker as much as anyone. Still, the Joker is the exception that proves the rule. You want people to remember your villain? To truly hate and despise them? Then that villain needs to act in keeping with his or her character.
To illustrate this point, I’ve decided to do a couple of small articles on some of my favorite villains and why they were so memorable.
The Great Villain:
Loghain Mac Tir (Dragon Age Origins)
Much of what makes Loghain such a great villain is his past history and how it dictates his actions during the events of Dragon Age: Origins. I wrote about the importance of a good backstory during one of my articles on Westworld, and Loghain is a great example of what I was talking about.
Dragon Age: Origins takes place during the 5th Darkspawn Blight, but Loghain’s story starts decades earlier with the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden. For nearly a century the empire of Orlais had occupied Ferelden, and as occupying armies are wont to do, they inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the native Fereldens (Fereldans? Fereldenites?). Loghain was witness to many of these crimes, and it left scars on his psyche far deeper than any blade could reach.
“Hate doesn’t describe it. I’ve seen painted, masked lords beat an old farmer to death with riding crops. To this day, I don’t know why. Is that hate? I saw good, sensible men fighting armored chevaliers with nothing—no weapons, no armies, not even hope of success—to see the occupation end. Is that hate?” – Loghain on the occupation of Ferelden.
Loghain hates Orlais, but behind every great hate lies an even greater fear. It’s that fear that dominates Loghain’s every action and it’s that fear that makes his actions during Dragon Age: Origins make so much sense. Ferelden defeated Orlais and won its freedom, but the scars that Loghain suffered to his psyche would never heal. Orlais terrified him, the idea of once again becoming the vassal of a hated enemy was more than he could bear.
Yet Loghain’s fear is being constantly belittled and dismissed by Cailan.
“Our arguments with the Orlesians are a thing of the past.” – King Cailan
When a true leader sees fear in his subordinates, there are many different ways to alleviate that fear and build confidence. King Cailan doesn’t do any of them however, instead he patronizingly dismisses Loghain’s very understandable concerns, and then pulls rank on him. In fact, King Cailan treats Loghain with disdain and disrespect at every opportunity.
And still, despite this constant ill treatment, Loghain still tries to protect Cailan from himself, to insist that he not fight on the frontline. In many ways this speaks legions about Loghain’s character, namely his fierce loyalty to his best friend King Maric. Maric’s son is everything that Maric wasn’t, but it’s still his best friend’s only child, and Loghain did what he could to protect the stupid imbecile.
So how does all this translate into a believable character? Well, let’s look at the situation at Ostagar from Loghain’s perspective. On the one hand you have the upstart brat King Cailan who not only wants to bring Orlais armies marching into Ferelden, but is also planning to dump your daughter and marry the Empress. On the other you have the Grey Wardens, a bunch of aloof warriors claiming to be the last hope for humanity and taking advantage of King Cailan’s romanticism to use good Ferelden soldiers in their little war. The last blight was over 400 years ago, the Darkspawn are but a bunch of fairytale nonsense to Loghain. Sure, he has seen their armies, but Loghain knows how to defeat armies.
“Perhaps he believes the Blight is an army he can outmaneuver[…]” – Flemeth
That’s exactly what Loghain thinks and to his eye it’s not even that threatening of an army. The Darkspawn horde is a mob of monsters using scavenged or poorly crafted weapons and armor. Compared to the armored medieval tanks that were the Chevaliers of Orlais, the Darkspawn must make for a pitiful sight. For Loghain, Orlais would always be the enemy, and so he did what he thought was best. He rallied his army to defeat the Darkspawn only to prove to Orlais that Ferelden was strong and that it would never kneel to them again.
Yet Loghain was also not willing to throw his entire army against the Darkspawn horde when, to his mind, Orlais was just waiting in the wings to pounce on a weakened Ferelden. To expect him to rush to the defense of King Cailan, a man who seemed more than willing to submit the Orlesian crown, was, perhaps, an unrealistic expectation.
None of this makes Loghain a misunderstood good guy, nor does it make his actions justified or correct. King Cailan’s willingness to put aside the wars of their past makes him a great diplomat and, perhaps, the King to lead Ferelden into a new era of peace. And obviously, Loghain’s belief that the Darkspawn could be defeated militarily was completely wrong. Loghain’s fear of Orlais also led him to commit atrocities that are indefensible no matter what the circumstances: selling the Elves into slavery, the torture of the Denerim Teryn’s son, siding with Arl Howe and approving his betrayal of the Couslands.
Making a good villain doesn’t mean making them into a hero, it simply means making sure that the villain stays true to his own character, which is exactly what Loghain does. Understanding his history, his fear of Orlais, allows the player to see why Loghain acts the way he does. He’s still a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy we can understand.
And in the end, even Loghain understands that it was fear that guided him.
Loghain is a classic tragic villain. He’s a man who doesn’t act evil for evil’s sake, but because he feels that not to act as he does would be an even greater evil. Had I lived the life Loghain had, seen the horrors he’d seen, would I have acted any differently? I would like to think so, obviously, but one can never truly know.
And that’s why Loghain Mac Tir is the great villain of Dragon Age: Origins.
When you start writing a story, it’s always important to keep in mind what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Rogue One struggled with this, and as a writer myself, it’s hard not to sympathize. On the one hand they wanted to tell a standard Star Wars adventure story about Jyn Erso and the search for her father, but on the other was a war story about the rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star. They’re both good stories, unfortunately trying to tell both of them at the same time just ended up cluttering up the first act.
Jyn Erso’s story had some serious potential and I’m sad to think of what might have been. Seriously, both Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker gave some amazing performances, seeing both their characters more fully explored would have been a real treat. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera in particular seemed like a fascinating character, and I wanted to know so much more about him, and his relationship with Jyn.
“Did you come here to kill me? There’s not much of me left.”
You can hear how tired and afraid Saw Gerrera is in that line, and it made me want to know so much more about him. How long had he been fighting the Empire? How many battles had he only just barely survived to result in so many cybernetic prosthetics? How many times had he been betrayed that he saw treachery around every corner and in the eyes of Jyn Erso, who had become as a surrogate daughter to him?
In many ways it would have been easier had anyone other than Forest Whitaker played the role, because then it would just be some random side character I didn’t care about. It was Forest’s performance that sold it. As it is, who knows, maybe Whitaker will get his own spin-off movie.
In the end though, not enough time was spent with either Galen Erso or Saw Gerrera to appreciably deepen Jyn Erso’s character. It’s a shame too, had this beginning been pursued more fully, it could have added a whole new dynamic to the finale. If I had one problem with the ending of Rogue One it was the confrontation between Jyn and Director Krennic.
What should have been a climactic moment in Jyn Erso’s character arc… just ended up feeling flat. Krennic doesn’t even recognize her, and when he does, he doesn’t even have anything interesting to say. Yet had Krennic’s backstory with Jyn been more fully explored, this confrontation could have been the emotional crown to Jyn’s storyline.
Krennic was obviously fond of both Galen, his wife, and his daughter. At one time they must have been friends, until Galen found his conscience and realized what he was doing. In one brief flashback scene we see Jyn watching her father with Krennic, and they seemed like good friends, which got me thinking. What if, instead of being two strangers, Krennic and Jyn knew each other when they faced off on the communications array?
Imagine if Krennic had been like a favorite uncle to Jyn as a child, and her an adopted niece to Krennic? Suddenly that final confrontation would have emotional teeth. Jyn would be filled with hate over her father’s enslavement by Krennic, Krennic would be furious at Jyn dismantling his life’s work… yet that love they once shared would still be there. That would give Krennic a reason to not immediately blast Jyn when he sees her, because he wouldn’t be seeing the fiery leader of the Rebellion’s strike force, but the little girl he adored.
Still, could any of this gotten into the film without completely ruining the war story dynamic of the second and third acts? Yes, I believe any story can be told, but it would have been an incredible challenge and would have required more time to put into place.
As a result of the adventure story beginning, Rogue One ends up missing the first part of a good war story: the introduction to the characters. What was needed here was a beginning not unlike The Dirty Dozen, or even Inglourious Basterds, in which every character and their skillset is introduced. While Cassian’s entry successfully pulls that off, and is one of the best moments of the first act, everyone else is basically overlooked.
Had Rogue One cut the adventure story of Jyn Erso’s family, it would have gone a long way to making the beginning more structured. Yet at the same time, it would also have robbed us of Galen Erso and his sabotaging of the Death Star. As I said in my review, it was Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Jyn’s father that gave the thermal exhaust port a new emotional weight. I can see the conundrum that the makers of Rogue One faced, and in the end I suspect they ran out of time to fix the problem properly and give both stories a chance to shine.
So yes, the beginning is a mess and there’s no getting around it now, but perhaps it did enough to the put the pieces in place for Rogue One‘s ending. Which as I already wrote, was one hell of an ending.
Tyranny is the latest offering from Obsidian, a company that once produced some of the best video game stories in the business; Kights of the Old Republic 2, Mask of the Betrayer, and Fallout: New Vegas. Pillars of Eternity was a huge disappointment for me unfortunately, and I hoped that Tyranny would restore my faith in one of my favorite game creators. Unfortunately, while Tyranny suffers the same problem as the game that first put them on my map: Knights of the Old Republic 2.
I need to write an article on how KOTOR 2 was in many ways a superior story than the original game, and brought a new profound depth to the universe of Star Wars. Unfortunately all its great storytelling was wasted on an ending that made Mass Effect 3’s look like a masterpiece in comparison. All your companions die because they stayed in a ship parked precariously on a cliffside, you have a final confrontation with the Big Bad, and then a fifteen second clip of the planet you’re on. It was awful. There was no resolution, no sense of accomplishment, just bitter disappointment.
After its release it was found that KOTOR 2 actually had a much deeper and satisfying ending in store for the audience, but simply ran out of time and money to finish making them.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sense I get from Tyranny. It has a truly compelling story to tell, but unfortunately the ending feels hastily cobbled together. They didn’t even take the time to cover up all the other elements of the game that spell out how much larger the game was originally supposed to be.
It ends not with a shout, not even with a whimper, but with an embarrassed shrug.
All that Matters is the Ending:
The opening moments of Tyranny are some of the best it has to offer and Obsidian clearly learned from some of their mistakes in Pillars of Eternity. Pillars overwhelmed you with information from the character creation screen: races, empires, religions, locations were all described when we hadn’t even made into the game yet. Fortunately the world of Tyranny is much easier to understand: an evil overlord has conquered the world. It’s actually far more complicated, but they leave you the player to uncover those complexities for yourself as you play, rather than burying you under exposition like Pillars did.
The game puts you in the shoes of a Fatebinder, who operates as both judge, jury, and executioner of Kyros the Overlord’s laws. You do not make the laws, nor are you above them, you merely enforce them. This is the kind of character I’ve always wanted to play in an RPG, an investigator. Working for an evil overlord I decided I was going to play my character like Odo from Deep Space 9, trying to uphold justice and order in the midst of chaos.
As a Fatebinder, you are ordered to accompany Kyros’ armies as they conquer the last free land still standing, the Tiers. Thus unlocks The Conquestsection of the character creator, and this is easily one of the best introductions to an RPG I’ve seen, outmatched only by the origin stories of Dragon Age: Origins. You take your character through the three year conquest of the Tiers, choosing how you want to assist the two armies waging the war. This allows you to not only shape your character’s personality and history, but also gets you personally invested in the history of this world. It makes you want to know more about the world of Tyranny, a desire that Pillars of Eternity failed to inspire.
Most impressively, every action you take will have consequences in the game. On my first playthrough, I sided with the Disfavored, a legion of ironclad warriors bound by a code of honor. During my conquest, I was made governor of Lethian’s Crossing, where I made sure the Disfavored continue getting a steady supply of iron for their armies. Part of those efforts included banishing the local band of mercenaries so that the Disfavored could guard over it themselves. When I returned to Lethian’s Crossing in the game world, the Disfavored guarded the town of Lethian’s Crossing, and the band of mercenaries had been turned into bandits as they scratched a living in the wilderness. Upon a second playthrough and different choices, Lethian’s Crossing was still guarded by the mercenary band.
Unfortunately, once you begin to get past the impressive first act, Tyranny begins to falter, and you can see the tattered edges of the unfinished tapestry that is Tyranny‘s story. A lot of seemingly arbitrary restrictions are placed on you. Since I sided with the Disfavored army I had to report constantly to Graven Ashe, the Disfavored leader, even though I wasn’t under his command. Ostensibly this is so Graven Ashe can tell you where to go to continue your investigation, but why do I need to go to him to get that information?
Tunon makes it clear to you on the onset of your investigation that you are an independent investigator, you answer to no one but Tunon and the Overseer. Except I had to do a hell of a lot of reporting to Graven Ashe anyway. The strange thing is this seems totally unnecessary, the story is well written enough that anyone can figure out where they should go to investigate. At one point Tunon himself told me where to go to investigate, but instead of being able to go straight there, I still had to go to Graven Ashe, apparently he needed to sign my permission slip.
The biggest problem with Tyranny is that it’s only two acts. Act one is the introduction of the characters and preliminary world building. Act two is investigating the Archons, uncovering the mysteries of the Spires, and building up your base of power. Act three should have about coming into power as an Archon and confronting Kyros or, at the very least, the Archon Pox and his Plagueborne. Act three begins… and then just fizzles out. Archon Pox and his army are never seen, you cast an Edict on the Northern Empire, and then the credits roll.
There’s no fanfare, and while it does technically resolve the storyline, at the same time there’s no sense of accomplishment. All the intriguing background about Kyros and the Spires are simply left to die out as well. I think I resolved the entire third act in about… 20 minutes? 30 at the most? Not counting the irritatingly long battle with Bledan Mark. Obviously I didn’t actually time it, but that’s what it ended up feeling like.
It felt more like a footnote than an ending, and what’s truly baffling is just how much is left hanging.
During my Conquest my character was the one who read the Edict of Fire that burned the Vellum Citadel to the ground, and while I was playing through the game the Burning Library (as it was now called), was off limits. I thought this was because it was being saved for some kind of third act resolution. After all, this would be the second Edict that I had both invoked and broken. Since it was that act that began my rise to power, I felt sure that doing it again would unlock some latent ability. In fact I felt sure that this would be the third act’s ending: rushing to resolve the edict you invoked to unlock a power capable of stopping Pox’s invading armies. Narratively that would have been perfect.
Instead, I never got to go to the Burning Library. It was always inaccessible. Despite being a Fatebinder who, supposedly, can come and go as he pleases, I was forbidden from going to the Burning Library. Worse yet, it was never stated in game why I couldn’t go there, it was simply greyed out on the world map. I can accept limitations, and in many ways I enjoyed the more focused gameplay of Tyranny to a more exploration based cRPG, but I’d appreciate an in-game explanation as to why my movement is so limited.
Several mysteries are revealed throughout Tyranny’s storyline and they’re all left hanging. Keeping the nature of the Spires vague is fine with me, not everything needs to be explained. However, Kyros’ actions needed some more explaining. I like the fact that there’s enough evidence to suggest that Kyros wanted Ashe and The Voices of Nerat to fight and annihilate each other. It makes sense, with no more wars to fight, warlords like Ashe and The Voices, and their armies, would begin wreaking havoc in peacetime. However, what doesn’t make sense is Kyros’ actions regarding the player.
As I played through the game, and corresponded with an old Fatebinder about Kyros, it occurred to me that perhaps Kyros’ was grooming me for something. If, as I suspected, Kyros drew her power from the Spires as well, then it would make sense that if she needed a successor, she would send someone to the Spires to begin the process. I thought perhaps Kyros’ life had been extended by magic, but had reached the limits of that ability. Or perhaps Kyros was multiple individuals, each inheriting the mantle of godhood upon the former’s death.
At the end of the game, Kyros declares you an Archon, which seemed to confirm my hypothesis of Kyros grooming you. And then she immediately launches into trying to kill you as well. Why give me all this power, give me such standing in her hierarchy, when she considers me a threat to her power? Why not denounce me? Strip me of my rights? Render me an outcast?
For a game that had such rich roleplaying at the beginning, the ending railroads you down a single path regardless of how you played your character. My Fatebinder was a loyal servant of Kyros, I sought to bring Kyros’ Peace to the Tiers, and balanced justice with mercy as best I could. When I was made Archon of the Spires, I expected to be able to conquer my enemies and then declare my loyalty to the Overseer. Yet instead, I rebelled.
Not because I chose to, but because the game simply told me I was rebelling. When I was tried before Tunon himself, not only did he find me innocent, but he also declared his fealty to me. He proclaimed me the new Overlord. I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.
One criticism I received in my Dragon Age: Inquisition review from quite a few people was that I didn’t take into account that Inquisition’s story wasn’t complete. That in future expansions and new games in the Dragon Age series might retroactively fix many of Inquisition’s flaws. Tyranny is even more obviously building towards DLC, expansions, and new games in the series.
However, I can’t judge a story based on what it might become; and just because a story can be continued doesn’t mean you can just stick “To Be Continued” at the end of it and call it day. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first of an eight book epic, but it also had a proper ending that resolved the story and left the door open for sequels. Had the Sorcerer’s Stone ending with an ambiguous non-ending like the one in Tyranny, I doubt it would have become the phenomenon it did. If Tyranny was a sentence, it wouldn’t have a period at the end, it would have a semicolon. Which is fine, I use semicolons myself obviously, but that sentence is the last sentence in the book, and they didn’t bother to put anything after the semicolon.
Which is a shame because I felt like Tyranny was trying to tell me something, there’s something about this story that I found incredibly compelling. In fact I think it was on the verge of telling me something profound, it just didn’t give itself the time it needed to finish telling me that story.
All that said, I still loved Tyranny‘s world and the story it was telling, I just wish they had finish telling it. Setting it in the Bronze Age was a stroke of genius. Fantasy settings so commonly use the medieval period as their setting that Tyranny‘s Bronze Age adds to the otherworldly quality of its setting. The first act also features some of the best roleplaying I’ve ever experienced, with a wide variety of choices for how to deal with the amazingly written scenarios you encounter.
There’s so much potential here, and just like Pillars of Eternity, I would happily invest in a sequel (providing they actually have a complete story next time) and more games in this series.
Unfortunately, like the unlit symbols of the main spire, there are so many missing pieces of the story in Tyranny that it just doesn’t hold together as well as it should. However Obsidian estimates their project’s time to development, they’re being far too optimistic, because pushing out half-finished games due to time and budget constraints isn’t doing anyone any good.
Come on Obsidian, I believe in you, you have some great writers. Just slow down and take the time you need to tell the story you want. I want to hear your stories.
Okay, there might have been some slight exaggeration.
I loved it because Rogue One scratched an itch I’ve been suffering from since I first watched Star Wars when I was kid. In fact watching it felt like watching my own childhood imagination coming to life on the big screen. That’s why I was so blind to many of its flaws at first. This is also why I wait until subsequent viewings to write a review.
I understand now why so many people had a problem with The Force Awakens; large parts of it just didn’t seem sincere. It had been made, to an almost scientific degree, to appeal to a broad audience. The monster chase, the constant cameos, the almost shot-for-shot recreations of original Star Wars scenes… it added up to an experience that made it seem desperate for us to love it. Like the creators were sitting next to us, whispering “Isn’t this great? Isn’t this so Star Wars? Please like me,” the entire time we were watching. It was Star Wars though, and I was having fun, so I just nodded along.
Rogue One was clearly made with a specific story in mind, and while it’s clear that certain shots were cut in later to force it closer to The Force Awakens, it’s still a story that rings of authenticity rather than sheer commercialism. More than that, this a prequel that actually does what it’s supposed to: make the original movies even more enjoyable. It fixes a flaw that’s long been made fun of in A New Hope and gives it a new sense of dramatic weight that it lacked before.
This isn’t like any Star Wars story that’s come before. If you go in expecting a fun adventure story like A New Hope or The Force Awakens, you will be disappointed. Though it’s tonally closer The Empire Strikes Back, it succeeds in being even darker. This is not a happy story, but it doesn’t make the mistake of being joyless either. There is a lot of fun to be had here, and you’ll burst out laughing at times, but there is sadness and loss here too. This is a new kind of Star Wars story.
Rogue One is Star Wars’ very first war story.
[This concludes the Spoiler Free version of the review, don’t scroll past the picture of Darth Vader if you don’t want spoilers. Just trust me, you’ll want to see this one for yourself. If you’ve already seen it and want to know why it was awesome, or perhaps you didn’t like it and want to know why I did, keep on reading.]
All That Matters is the Ending:
This is going to be a new perspective for my All That Matters is the Ending series. All my previous entries have focused on bad endings that ruined otherwise good stories. This article is going to be about how a great ending saved a story from being terrible.
If my judgement of the movie had to rely solely on the beginning, I would say it was a worse film that Episode 1. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Rogue One‘s ending, and I’m going to cheat a little and include the second act, more than make up for the rocky start. Here’s how Rogue One‘s ending did everything a good ending is supposed to do.
3. The Characters Find Meaning (If Only at the End)
The beginning of Rogue One is a mess, at one point jumping between like 8 different planets in the first ten minutes. The problem here is that Rogue One forgot it was telling a war story, and tried to start the film like a traditional Star Wars film by featuring the tragic story of Jyn Erso. The beginning of Rogue One demanded something more akin to the beginning of The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds, where all the main characters are given their own unique introduction. To be fair, they tried to provide this, it just… really didn’t work for most of the characters.
Cassian’s introduction is the only one where this works and I love the scene where he’s introduced, meeting a contact on a remote trading outpost. First of all, this scene made the Rebellion seem like an actual rebellion. Rebellions, or any martial conflict, rely on intelligence gathering, and Cassian’s meeting a contact served as the perfect introduction to not only the character, but the movie. Cassian being forced to kill his contact, and most likely friend as well, rather than allow him to be captured clearly marked Rogue One out as being a different kind of Star Wars story. A traditional adventure story in the vein of A New Hope or Return of the Jedi would have featured a gallant rescue.
Unfortunately, the other characters don’t get the same treatment. That’s another article, and if you hated the beginning (or the entire movie), my next article will be your next stop. However the ending quickly does what the beginning failed to do.
I’m going to reach back into the mists of time and bring up my Mass Effect 3 review. When I complained that there was no sense of closure for the characters, some took that to mean that I simply didn’t want them to die, or that death wasn’t a proper resolution for a character. That’s not so, and Rogue One is the perfect example of the kind of resolution I had been hoping for in Mass Effect 3.
Rather than allowing them to die off camera in the horrific holocaust of post-Mass Effect 3 Earth, I wanted to see them go down fighting. Giving their all, even in the face of an unstoppable evil. That’s exactly what Rogue One gives its characters.
Looking at this like a typical Star Wars story you would be completely justified in thinking these characters were all pretty shallow. However, if you look at it as war movie, you’ll see that each character gets about as much attention as they do in any war movie. I regard Saving Private Ryan as one of the finest movies ever made, but thinking back on the characters… I couldn’t name any of them besides the titular role. I sure as hell remember the Sniper though, and the translator, and Tom Hanks and his second in command.
That’s just how war stories are told, you don’t have time to get in depth with most of the characters without ruining the pacing, tone, or atmosphere.
Rogue One, like most great war movies, defines its characters by how they meet their end on the battlefield.
Whether it be K2’s valiant sacrifice at the vault to Donnie Yen’s calm walk across a burning battlefield, Rogue One nailed these characters and their final moments. Each character’s death also serves an important purpose to the battle itself, so rather than being death for its own sake, each character is fulfilling a purpose.
K2-S0 secures the vault to keep the imperials from pursuing Jyn and Cassian. Cassian buys time for Jyn to get to the relay. Donnie Yen’s character connects the landing pad to the communications array. The pilot connects the line to the shuttle and sends out the message to the rebels to bring down the shield. They’re all forging a link in a chain that ends with the Death Star plans being transmitted to the fleet overhead.
It’s that teamwork, that shared sacrifice to obtain their goal, that makes a great war film. Yet no only is Rogue One enjoyable in itself, it also makes the original Star Wars even better.
2. Rogue One makes A New Hope an Even Better Movie
Let’s all talk about that Thermal Exhaust Port shall we?
This has been a running joke since the day Star Wars premiered in 1977, and even though there was a great defense on why the Death Star needs an exhaust port, today it’s held up as the textbook example of lazy writing. Now though, after watching Rogue One, that thermal exhaust port takes on a whole new meaning.
Now it’s no longer the result of the Empire using subcontractors who cut corners, or whatever your favorite joke for the Thermal Exhaust Port is, it’s now a symbol of the Rebellion. It’s one man’s last act of defiance against an overpowering evil that had taken everything from him, even though he knew it would never redeem him of his crime of designing such a horrible weapon. It’s an impossible predicament to imagine, you know how to design a weapon of mass destruction:
Do you refuse to do it and be executed, knowing that they will go on without you?
Or do you agree to do it, and sabotage the weapon from the inside?
One the one hand, if you refuse you die knowing the blood of millions isn’t on your hands. Yet on the other, could you prevent those millions from dying?
This has been a story I’ve been fascinated with since my father introduced me to the Heisenberg Version [warning: a long, sometimes boring, but fascinating historical text in that link]. In short, the Heisenberg Version refers to how Heisenberg characterized his working on the atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. Heisenberg’s claim is that he was like Galen Erso, doing his best to convince Nazi High Command that the Atom Bomb was a physical impossibility. He went so far as to deliberately falsify the mathematical formulas he presented so as to dissuade his crazy boss Hitler from pursuing such a devastating weapon.
I have no idea if this story is true, other historians say that this was simply Heisenberg’s way of covering his ass or saving face for making the mistake that the atomic bomb couldn’t happen. I’m not a historian, I just pilfer history for good stories, and true or not, The Heisenberg Version is one hell of a story.
[I wish my dad had been around to see this film, he would have loved debating this point.]
Though speaking of tragically lost fathers…
Galen’s last words to his daughter, after being reunited only moments earlier, made me choke up.
“There was so much I wanted to tell you.” – Galen Erso, Rogue One
It’s such an old, tired line. Maybe it was because I lost my father not too long ago, but that line hit me right between the lungs. Mostly though, it was Mads Mikkelson’s amazing performance.
In fact all of the emotion that I now attach to that thermal exhaust port, is solely because of his delivering of only a handful of lines. I truly wish he’d been given a larger role because he owned that character, for those few moments he was Galen Erso. Yet, even as great as his performance was, he alone isn’t responsible for adding greatness. It is, as the title suggests, the ending that brings it home and not only brings new meaning to A New Hope but also redeems its atrocious first act.
1. The Ending Hits All the Right Emotional Notes
I’ll let you in on a secret. Even though I loved my perfect Mass Effect 2 ending in which I save all my guys, my absolute favorite ending is the one where everyone dies. Dragon Age: Origins, sacrificing myself so that Alistair could be king (as terrible an idea as that sounded) was one of the high points. I’m a sucker for a good noble sacrifice, and Rogue One delivered them in spades.
I know some people probably rolled their eyes at each character’s heroic death, but I loved it, it’s exactly the kind of heroic death that Star Wars was made for. As dark as Star Wars sometimes gets, it’s still Star Wars and you don’t want to show disemboweled soldiers screaming for their mothers. So when I watched K2-S0 hold off an entire platoon of Stormtroopers, I wasn’t shaking my head about how unrealistic it is, I was smiling.
Repeating the whole staring at the grenade thing twice was a bit of misstep, I admit, but seeing Donnie Yen’s companion finally accept the Force to honor his friend hit me exactly where it should: the feels. And while my friend Hali wanted to see Jyn and Cassian kiss in their final moments, I thought it was fitting that these two simply hug as they faced their final moments together rather than force a romantic scene.
The heroic deaths do more than add resolution to the characters and their story however, it adds a new sense of dramatic weight to the A New Hope, and indeed, Star Wars as a whole.
One thing Star Wars movies have always been missing is a sense of loss. In A New Hope, only three fighters out of thirty make it back to base, but there’s no somber homecoming. Tonally, okay, that fits for A New Hope, but what about Return of the Jedi? Their had to be tens of thousands dead on the Rebellion’s side alone.
Now Return of the Jedi was originally supposed to have a more Pyrrhic victory feel at the end until George Lucas dumped a bunch of Ewoks in there for merchandising. Rogue One has the tone and feel that Return of the Jedi should have had. Yes we won, but look at the price we paid.
Even better, the “rebel spies” spoken of by Darth Vader are no longer a throwaway piece of exposition. They’re now the people who gave everything to make sure the Rebellion would survive, we can place names and faces to those spies.
Speaking of Darth Vader… guess who is back at the top of my favorite villain list!
Rogue One leaves behind the whining and whinging Anakin the prequels forced on us, and shows us why we loved Darth Vader. As groan inducing as the choking pun was earlier in the film, his bloody return to power on the Rebel ship more than made up for it. If you watched Stars Wars straight through from episodes 1-4, the very first time you see Darth Vader is when he impotently screams “NOOOOOO!” and thus it completely neuters his introduction in A New Hope. Now, sticking Rogue One into the lineup, his ominous arrival on the scene has some teeth to it again. Seeing Darth Vader back as the faceless enforcer of the Empire’s will makes this whole movie worth it.
This scene isn’t just useless fan service either, at least in my opinion. Darth Vader has never been one to get his hands dirty unnecessarily, but in this case he’s trying to keep the rebels from escaping with the plans. He doesn’t have time to let his visually challenged Stormtroopers try and slug their way through, this demands an efficiency only he and his lightsaber can provide.
Then later, when the rebel corvette is at the mercy of his Star Destroyer, well then he can take his time and pick it apart as his leisure.
I’ve read some pretty damning reviews of Rogue One, and I can see where they’re all coming from. In fact this review is so late because I was afraid of publishing so glowing of it, but try as I might, I just couldn’t bring myself to not like it. I am who I am, and I enjoy the stories I enjoy.
I loved this movie. If you didn’t, I get it, and I’ll be thoroughly savaging what went wrong with the beginning later for your amusement.
But I loved it, and if nothing else, I hope this explains why I did.
So the finale of Westworld has come and gone, and I’m even more impressed with it then when it started.
For a while now, I’ve been bothered about what I thought was one of Westworld‘s weakest points: Maeve. While every other story gave us a unique look at old ideas, Maeve’s story of becoming sentient seemed so…scripted. Everyone else’s story felt like a natural evolution of their character’s motivations, something that’s much harder to achieve than it sounds. In fact Maeve herself talks about this.
“I could simply make you do it, but that’s not my way.” – Maeve, HBO’s Westworld.
Again this is a great example of good writing, not just in the script, but in the essence of what she’s saying. Yes, as a writer you can make all your characters act exactly as you want them to. Like the Hosts of Westworld, you can make your characters follow your carefully constructed loops. This is what The Walking Dead does on a regular basis.
Rather than a character’s motivations guiding their actions, their motivations are often dictated by the actions the story wants them to take. Rick Grimes is one of the best examples of this, and watching his character arc jump from one extreme to another is almost comical. Rick will jump from violent dictator in one season to pacifistic farmer in another, from emotionally detached to playful and smiling in a single episode. He’ll go from violent, sadistic killer to… well, no that’s pretty much the only consistent trait he has.
The Walking Dead operates by creating situations and then forcing their characters into those situations. TWD decides it wants to give someone a gruesome death to fill their quota, and suddenly a passive young girl stabs a lady in the shoulder despite being mere feet from freedom. It doesn’t fit the character, or human nature at all, but screw it, the character has to follow their loop.
And to be fair, The Walking Dead is far from the only one to have this problem. You can read about how this problem ruined season 2 of True Detective right here, and it’s a problem as old as stories themselves. The horror movie character who goes down to the basement after hearing that strange noise, the vampire hunter who tries to kill Dracula at 6pm instead of 6am, the lone teenager who doesn’t call 911 when they hear someone in the house. These are the stupid characters that make us ask “why would they do that?”
The answer to that question is:
However, the plot demanded that they be in a specific place at a specific time regardless of how the character, or even a human with a half functioning brain, would act in that situation. So the character’s motivations are sacrificed to make sure the story keeps moving forward.
When you’re the writer, you can make your character act as stupid and irrational as you want, it doesn’t have a choice. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The most compelling stories are the ones where the characters keep true to their motivations. In so many stories where a main character dies, it feels incredibly contrived. The story is often bent to extremes in order to provide a heroic or shocking death scene.
Continuing to pick on The Walking Dead feels like punching down at this point, but it’s one of the best examples of this. The show regularly twists and distorts its plots, characters, and setting to insane degrees in order to give character’s a suitably gory send off. The last two seasons of Game of Thrones has done this a few times as well, though not quite to the same degree thankfully.
Yet one of the reasons I think the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones was so shocking was because of just how organic it felt. It was an event that was the culmination of several characters actions and played out in a way that was consistent with everyone’s character.
Robb Stark’s fanatic belief in his personal honor and his boyish naivety led him to the wedding. Roose Bolton, constantly undermined and ignored by Robb, makes a deal with Walder Frey who has long been envious of the more powerful families. The execution of Karstark turns of a majority of Robb’s troops against him, and losing the troop loyalty that might have saved his life. It was a natural culmination of everything that had come before it.
Which brings me, at long last, back to Maeve. While every other character in Westworld felt like they were acting according to their personal motivations and history, Maeve felt so… scripted. Whereas every other plotline in the show gave us a new perspective on old tropes, Maeve’s awakening and plot to escape felt like a formulaic, generic sci-fi horror story. Artificial life form realizes its artificial, knows it is superior to its organic creator, and then launches a bloody rebellion.
Once again though, I was grinning like an idiot when it was revealed that all of Maeve’s actions seemed scripted…because they were scripted. While I saw William’s eventual reveal as the Man in Black coming (and I have some qualms about it that I’ll touch on later), Maeve’s faked sentience took me completely off guard. Looking back at the show now, I can see how this was actually heavily foreshadowed and yet I just never noticed it.
After Maeve realizes what she is, she begins calling humans “gods” and speaking in a way that made it seem like she was channeling Anthony Hopkins. Which completely makes sense now in hindsight because Anthony Hopkins was writing everything she was saying. You saw the same thing with Bernard, who often repeated some of Anthony Hopkins’ lines verbatim. And this makes total sense, because as a writer I totally understand the impulse to want to give all your characters some great lines.
The fact that Anthony Hopkins was in fact trying to free the Hosts was also another twist I didn’t see coming, and yet it makes total sense in retrospect. He was an old man and he could see the corporation running his park were plotting to hem him in. He’d been given an opportunity to tell stories in a way no other writer ever has, he’d lived his dream. It was time to let go.
The way in which Anthony Hopkins chose to end his stories, and his life, were also kept in perfect step with his character. The man was a writer right up until the end. He wrote himself as the villain and then gave himself a perfectly redemptive ending that finally fixed a 35-year-old mistake. It was a final salute to his old friend Arnold, and he died at the hands of the very same Host, Dolores. But why did the hosts need time?
The hosts needed to understand humanity, in the same way that Anthony Hopkins’ had come to understand them. If you look at the stories that Westworld offers, you’ll find that most of them encourage the guests to be the good guy. He wanted people to be the hero.
Dolores’ storyline is a great example, it’s obviously set up so that you meet her in town and head back to her house, where you protect her from a gang of thugs who killed her family. The fact that future William uses it as excuse to rape Dolores is a perversion of the original story. Yet, in a way, that’s exactly what the Hosts needed.
Mankind evolved over millions of years, and those years gave us all the necessary instincts to survive. The Hosts are fangless automatons, they needed to learn how to survive humanity, they needed to learn just how dangerous we are. For the Hosts who live, die, and live again in such short order they’ve probably gone through thousands of iterations. They’ve evolved, and they now understand their enemy.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this show evolves over the coming seasons because, even though Anthony Hopkins may be gone, I see great things happening for Westworld.
Normally I hold off on TV show reviews until its had a full season so I can review the entire season’s arc, but I’ve been enjoying Westworld so much that I just had to write something up about it. It has so many aspects to talk about. There are parallels between Westworld and video games, fascinating explorations about the nature of identity and consciousness, the difference between natural and artificial life… is there a difference at all? The list goes on. I might talk about all of them eventually, but the one thing I want to focus on is how Westworld tells such an amazing story while at the same time explaining exactly how they’re telling you the story.
Honestly, if you want to learn how to tell a good story, just listen to Anthony Hopkin’s talk about his characters and world. They should show this in creative writing 101. It’s exciting to see the mundane world of writing presented in such a unique way, and that’s why I’m going to spend the next 1500 words rambling on about how awesome it is.
I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but there are still a couple, so reader beware. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it if you enjoy Scifi, Westerns, or just plain old good writing no matter what the genre.
A Storyteller’s Story
Westworld is a futuristic theme park unlike any that’s ever existed, one filled with artificial people that have been programmed to live out hundreds of branching storylines to create the illusion of a living world. It’s like a video game on a massive scale and taking place in real life (or at least that’s how it’s presented, though I have my doubts as to what’s really happening.) It’s a writer’s dream job, and yet a writer’s nightmare at the same time, given the level of complexity involved.
Unfortunately the lead writer of the Westworld narrative is an idiot; that is the narrative within the show’s setting and not the actual scriptwriters for the show, who I am convinced are probably geniuses. The head writer of the Westworld themepark wants to create a new story and how he pitches the story to Anthony Hopkins tells you exactly what kind of story it is.
“I have vivisection, self-cannabalism[…] this is the apex of what the park can provide. Horror, romance, titillation[…]”
His story has only one goal: to shock. He doesn’t talk about the characters, who they are or what their goals are, or the plot of his story beyond kill, kill, kill…and maybe some sex along the way.
The head writer of the narrative is what I imagine most screenwriters in Hollywood are like: he equates action, shock, violence, and gore with good writing. These are the people that write the sometimes entertaining, but often terrible and utterly forgettable crap that comes out: Independence Day Resurgence, every Terminator sequel after 2, every movie based on a board game, and all of Michael Bay’s movies. They write every game with a tacked-on single player, such as Call of Duty and Battlefront.
Yet, stories can be so much more. As Ed Harris’s Man in Black so eloquently put:
“…I think there’s deeper meaning, something hidden under all that, something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.”
Those are the authors who create A Tale Of Two Cities, War and Peace, Of Mice and Men. The screenwriter who writes Schindler’s List, Inside Out, Gladiator.The screenwriters behind TV shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Westworld.
These are the writers who understand that blood, guts, sex, and violence are spices to be used in a story and not the story itself. They’re the writers who can write a great story without ever using any of those spices. Who, like Anthony Hopkins, yearn to create something truly alive whether it be through a book, movie, or video game.
“Do you know why your backstory is so mysterious? Because we never bothered to give you one.” – Anthony Hopkins to Teddy
When the show begins Teddy is a cipher of a character in the Westworld theme park, as far as characterization is concerned Teddy might as well be a two-by-four on legs.
Sadly this is true in most shows, secondary characters like Teddy are glossed over with no thought given to their backstory. They lack depth, and because they lack depth they’re not so much characters as simply part of the environment; something for the main characters to interact with. I didn’t feel it was any kind of tragedy when Teddy died the first time, he had no backstory. I didn’t know him. It’s why in the theme park no one cared enough to follow his storyline.
Yet when Anthony Hopkins gives him a backstory, suddenly Teddy becomes alive, and the patrons who once ignored him completely now feel compelled to follow him. They want to hear his story, experience it. That’s what a good backstory can do for a character.
This is exactly what I was talking about in my review of Luke Cage. I never felt like Diamondback had a backstory. Sure, he tells us the cliched story of his father leaving the bastard for the true born son, but that’s pretty much it. Where was he during all those intervening years? How did he come to possess the Judas Bullets? How did he become a criminal kingpin? Why does he quote bible verses when his father the preacher betrayed him, why didn’t that make him reject religion entirely?
We had the same problem with Corypheus in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who was Corypheus before he stepped into the Golden City? Did he have a wife and children? Was he always a cruel manipulator? What was life like for him before his fall? As far as the audience is concerned, Corypheus simply popped into existence for the sake of the story.
The problem is not that the writers never spelled out these characters’ histories for the audience, the problem is that I don’t believe even the writers knew their backstory. They simply came up with a name, personality, and loosely defined motive for their character and let them loose in the story. If they’d known their own character’s history, then elements of their backstory would have naturally crept into the story. A good writer will have all their major characters have their own personal history.
It doesn’t have to be a meticulous history stretching from birth to current events. It just has to be enough to convince the audience that the character has been living in this world, and didn’t just pop into existence for the sake of the story. Teddy’s backstory is a great example, he doesn’t start his monologue talking about life as a little boy, he keeps to the important parts. He was once a soldier, he fought Indians (perhaps reluctantly), he had a superior officer who disappeared and went nuts, and he had a near death experience with that same officer.
Boom, suddenly Teddy has dimension to him. A past who shaped the person he’s become. Think about any great character that you’ve loved, and you’ll find that you know a lot about who that character was before the story began:
Walter White’s job as a chemistry teacher and the missed opportunity of starting a conglomerate.
Han Solo’s career as a smuggler, recently with a price on his head.
Captain America’s life as a scrawny kid who wanted to help people but couldn’t.
In every case there was always a backstory, a history that showed our favorite characters had lives before the story began, something to suggest these characters were more than they appeared. Without that, we’re left with hollow characters that don’t operate so much as people in a story than mere window dressing for the setting and plot.
It’s that kind of background, that character building, that leads to genuine moments like this:
“Are we very old friends?” Dolores to Anthony Hopkins
Now I’ve seen and read so many stories that when I hear this line, my mind immediately begins filling in the response. You know the ones:
“Yes, very old friends.”
“We were once.”
“A long time ago.”
Those, and variations on those, are the expected responses. And yet Anthony Hopkins’ response was completely unexpected.
“No, Dolores, I wouldn’t say friends. I wouldn’t say friends at all.” Anthony Hopkins to Dolores
I was grinning like an idiot during that entire exchange for a couple of reasons. First of all because it deepens the mystery surrounding Dolores, Anthony Hopkins, and Arnold. Secondly because it suddenly makes Dolores and Anthony Hopkins’ relationship more complex. It was also the incredible way in which the great Anthony Hopkins delivers the line, a truly masterful performance by one of the best actors in the world.
But mostly, I was grinning because it surprised me. It took an old, tired line and gave it a new shine, and more than anything else, that’s what makes this a storyteller’s story. It shows you that even the most well-worn and tired stories can be told in new and exciting ways.
As much as I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every story has been told, I still find myself struggling on occasion with worrying if a story is worth telling. Westworld is a reminder that every story may have been told, but originality and enjoyment doesn’t come from the story itself, it comes from the person telling the story. The unique perspective of the writer, or writers, is everything. Everything can been new when you see it through someone else’s eyes.
“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”
A girl not wanting to be the damsel is almost as old as the damsel in distress itself, but seeing it through Westworld’s eyes makes it feel brand new. It makes me feel like I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everything in this artificial world filled with both science fiction and western tropes as old as the genres themselves, feels brand new.
If you haven’t seen Westworld and you want to write a story, you should watch it. If you haven’t seen Westworld and you enjoy good stories, you should watch it. If you enjoy reading my blog, you should watch it since I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about it. This is a story that’s taking us somewhere and, as Anthony Hopkins might put it:
“They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
I’m sticking around to see if I get a glimpse of who I could be as writer, but this show is so good that I might see a glimpse of something even more profound. I hope you’ll join me in taking that glimpse.
I was in the process of writing an article about the awesome way Westworld uses its own story to teach people about good storytelling, when this line from last night’s episode reminded me of something I wanted to talk about for a long time.
“Why is it every time you come to this place you turn into such an evil prick?” William to his friend, HBO’s Westworld.
That’s the same question I’ve had about video game culture for quite some time, and I think it’s time I talk about it.
I used to play multiplayer games, specifically a game called Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. I was a young teenager suffering from crippling depression, I had no friends at school or at home, I was tormented by both depression and the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty, and I felt like I had no future. To make a long story short, Mechwarrior and the friends I made playing it, made my life somewhat bearable. I’m still friends with many of the people I met playing Mechwarrior, even as we come to a mind-boggling 20 years since I’ve played it.
It’s those friends I want to talk about, because over the years I’ve watched them become evil pricks in video games. It didn’t start that way. Back when I first began playing, it was just good fun. Oh we made fun of each other, called each other gay, and joked about sex, typical young teenager stuff. But over the years my friends began to change.
The jokes became crueler, more personal. Those who lost competitive games against our team were mercilessly ridiculed, and then called cowards when they didn’t want to play us again, when it was more likely they simply didn’t want to play a bunch of rude petty people. The changes were subtle and at first I didn’t notice them.
Eventually Mechwarrior’s multiplayer died out, it wasn’t exactly the most popular game even in its heyday, and while we tried to play other games together, I lost interest. About ten years later though, a new Mechwarrior title arrived: Mechwarrior Online. Suddenly we were all back together again, and for the first few months it was like old times. And then I began to notice things.
My friends began openly trash talking, calling people faggots, ridiculing new people who asked questions, and following people they didn’t like from game to game specifically to “grief” them. Still, this had become such a normal part of online games that I was able to shrug it off. What I couldn’t shrug off, is what they would say to each other in private.
Several of my old friends were now referring to each other as n***ers, and I grimaced every time they said it. Mechwarrior Online was also a free-to-play game featuring microtransactions, where you paid to unlock certain mechs and equipment.
When my cash-strapped friends couldn’t afford these microtransactions or bought only the cheapest available, they called it “Jew.”
“I’m too Jewish to spend that much money.”
“I got the Jew option.”
I was shocked, and I told them: “Oh I’m sorry, apparently I stumbled into Nazi Germany by accident.” The joke was an icebreaker for me to voice my discomfort with using old antisemitic insults.
“You’re being too sensitive, they’re just words.”
They’re just words.
That’s the excuse I heard over and over again for all manner of utterly inexcusable behavior.
Words are powerful. The right words can help someone find hope in a hopeless situation, humor in a tragedy, and joy in a moment of despair. The wrong words can make someone cry, make them feel alone, and even drive them to suicide. My friends didn’t seem to understand that.
They began insulting me, and not the friendly jibes and insults that people exchange. They told me how bad I was in the past, to stop being bad during games, and stop being so emotional about the toxic conversations they’d have. This poisoned not only my relationship with them, but also in how I perceived our previous relationship. Did they ever actually like me? Was I really that bad in the past?
My friends used to have a nickname for me when I was young “tightpants”, and I never understood the reference. I thought perhaps it was a reference to my weight, which would have been fine because I was constantly joking about that myself. After we began playing Mechwarrior Online they began to refer to me as “tightpants” again, and this time I asked what that meant.
Turns out whenever I spoke on comms, I had a high pitched voice, and apparently I still did. Except now they weren’t so kind about it.
“Jesus, didn’t your balls ever drop?” They once asked me.
That, unfortunately, got to me. I asked my best friend if I had an unnaturally high voice, and she hedged saying she didn’t really notice. Which only convinced me it was true. For a few weeks there I actually tried lowering my tone of voice while talking to people, until I noticed it was just getting me strange looks from people. I’m also not as insecure as I was when I was young, and after a couple weeks I figured that even if I did have a high voice, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. So why worry?
I continued playing with my friends, because between their occasional bouts of cruelty, we still had a good time together. Then one day we were playing, and having a grand old time. I remember I was laughing so hard my ribs were actually aching. I was trying to talk over my laughing to convey some information about the enemy team when:
“Shut the fuck up!” Someone yelled over the comms.
This person wasn’t one of my friends, but he was a talented gamer, he outranked us all when it came to talent. That alone was enough to let him play with us. It wasn’t a friend yelling at me, but they also did nothing to discourage it.
I disconnected and didn’t talk to them for about six months, until one of them decided to contact me on Skype and ask how I was doing. They asked me what had happened, and I simply joked around with them saying that I’d been asked to shut up and was just following the order to the letter. The reality was even simpler: I play games to have fun and relax. The moment that stops happening, the game is over. Yet I kept coming back to these people, because I’d known them for nearly fifteen years! These were the friends that kept me alive in the darkest period in my life, and I couldn’t simply write them off.
One of my friends, whom I’ll refer to as DV, I counted as among my closest friends.
When I was thirteen/fourteen, I was absolutely infatuated with a girl I knew. Being a moronic teenager I lost all perspective and restraint, pronouncing my undying love for a girl I barely knew, which of course scared her into never talking to me again. That sent me into probably the darkest depression I’ve ever experienced. At the same time DV, who was slightly older in his late teens, was having problems with his girlfriend constantly dumping him and taking him back. We were both hurting and we helped each other through it by talking about our mutual girl problems.
“Oh back from your emo trip? Show me on the doll where [the guy who yelled at me] touched you.” That was how DV greeted me, the man who I once would have done anything for. If I was rich and he needed money, I would have written him a blank check, that’s how deeply I trusted and respected this man. He was one of my closest friends.
And I no longer recognized him.
The boy who had once been my friend would never have been so casually cruel to me, so indifferent to my feelings. A few weeks later GamerGate happened, and I’ll spare those of you who don’t know about it the indignity of hearing about this stupid event. The cliff notes is that a girl made a video game and one of the reviews may not have been entirely without bias. The dumbest and cruelest elements of the gaming world took this as an invitation to threaten her life, threaten her with rape, post her address, phone number, and work location to everyone on the internet. They made her life a living hell for years. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m sure she probably still gets harassed.
And my friends supported it.
I have no explanation as to how this happened. Some of my friends were now married, DV even had children, and they were either cheering on the harassers (perhaps even taking part) or tacitly approving of it by offering excuses for turning a woman’s life into a living hell over a video game. When, and how, did my friends turn into these people?
It can’t just be an effect of video games. I ran over crowds of people in Grand Theft Auto; mowed down innocent civilians in Postal; tortured and murdered people in the cruelest ways imaginable in Manhunt. I’ve committed every war crime and atrocity imaginable across twenty years of gaming, but I never turned into the evil pricks my friends became.
It can’t be their social and economic situation. One of my friends was working at a fortune 500 company and would show us pictures of his fancy new cars. Others were working a variety of jobs with varying levels of success. Some were married or had girlfriends. Hell, DV was working as a cop in London with three kids and a wife. If anything, I was the one who fit the stereotype: a fat, single guy who hadn’t had a girlfriend in years, no job and no prospects.
Maybe it was because I had depression, and I knew the kind of damage words could inflict. I know what it’s like to feel like the world is against you, to feel like your fate is suffer constant pain. Did that give me an empathy my friends lacked?
I don’t play multiplayer games anymore, because the unfortunate truth is that my friends are the rule. I’m the exception. Go into a multiplayer game and you’ll find a cesspool of insults, negativity, and downright cruelty.
That’s not to say I think all gamers are horrible. In fact I think the vast majority are just like me. The problem is that, like me, they can’t be bothered to deal with assholes when they’re trying to relax. So people leave, like I did. They stick to single-player games, or maybe they find a new hobby all together. Hell maybe that’s why games like Candy Crush are so popular, you don’t have to put up with racist misogynists to play Candy Crush.
So the decent people leave, and that just leaves the assholes in an echochamber of assholes. All they hear is the same toxic drivel they spout, and it becomes normal to them. It becomes a cycle of constant abuse, and it becomes so normal that they don’t even realize their language is abusive. Last time I was in a multiplayer game, someone threatened to rape my sister (I’m an only child).
And the eerie thing about it was that he didn’t say it with hate or anger in his voice, it was a reflex. I killed him in a video game, and his immediate instinct was to launch into threats of sexual violence. He said it in such a way that I’m pretty sure if I could have been bothered to confront him about it, he wouldn’t have even comprehended the problem. Just like William’s friend in Westworld, who couldn’t understand why William calls him evil.
I still talk with my friends occasionally on Skype, because when they’re not talking about video games we still have great conversations about politics and life. One of them discovered they had kidney cancer, the same disease that killed my father, and we commiserated over how shitty cancer is. If I ever met them in real life, I’m sure I’d see the great friends that I once knew. But I don’t play with them anymore, because like the man said in Westworld:
“Why does coming here turn you into such an evil prick?”
I wish I knew the answer to that, and I’m hoping that maybe through Westworld‘s exploration of this frightening transformation people undergo, that maybe I will find the answer.
We originally met Luke Cage in Jessica Jones where he was tending bar in Hell’s Kitchen, the man with unbreakable skin. Much like Superman this presents a problem for the writers: how do you generate any kind of danger when the character is invulnerable. Unlike Superman’s writers, who just said “fuck it, more punching”, Luke Cage’s writers tried to find a way around it. By building Luke Cage’s personal relationships, as well as his relationship with Harlem at large, they could generate tension by threatening his friends and home.
Unfortunately this attempt is let down by rather flat and uninteresting characters, and too much focus on a single barbershop rather than the neighborhood at large. So then they said “fuck it, let’s add some alien bullets that we can shoot at Luke Cage” and called it a day.
I still enjoyed Luke Cage, and compared to your average TV show it’s still a good bit of entertainment, but when compared to the first season of Daredevil and Jessica Jones it falls short… by quite a distance.
A Storytelling Review
Luke Cage starts off slowly with Luke laying low, working as an assistant in a barbershop in Harlem working for a man named Pops. Now I thought Pops had the potential to be a truly unique character. Whereas I thought Pops was merely a reference to his age and paternal attitude, it’s revealed that it’s a nickname based off the sound his fists made when hitting someone and that he was once a feared gangster in the neighborhood. That’s a pretty dark backstory for someone I originally took for the “kindly old man who dies” trope. Yet Luke Cage tragically glosses over what could have been a unique character, and leaves many unanswered questions. Why did he leave the gangster life? How did he come to own the barbershop? What’s with the swear jar?
This glossing over of important characterizations is one of the crippling problems with Luke Cage, because it happens with pretty much every character not named Luke. In fact, even Luke has a hard time feeling real.
The result of not spending enough time on establishing the characters is that none of it really makes an emotional impact on the audience. I knew Pops was going to die the moment I saw him, it was practically tattooed on his forehead, but that doesn’t mean his death should have been so… meaningless. Yes his death serves as the catalyst for Luke Cage’s revenge, but for me, I didn’t feel anything for Pop’s death and I should have. I should have been angry or sad, preferably both, I should have been thirsting for vengeance.
Everything I felt when Fisk strangled Ben Urich with his bare hands in the first season of Daredevil.
But if the protagonists and supporting cast felt shallow, they were the Marianas Trench of characters compared to the tide pools of the villains.
Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by amazing villains like Fisk and Kilgrave, but the villains of Luke Cage are some of the most boring you’ll ever encounter. Cottonmouth had some potential to be a sympathetic villain with the reveal of his past, becoming a murderer at the insistence of his crazy aunt/adoptive mother. A musician trapped in the life of a thug could make for a damn compelling story, but unfortunately they don’t reveal Cottonmouth’s history until midway through the season and he’s killed off shortly afterward.
Worse yet, his musical talent isn’t shown very often. He plays the piano a few times, but really if he’s such a talented musician, Luke Cage should have spent more time showing it to us. A couple of scenes where Cottonmouth plays a beautiful piece of music on the piano and giving his henchmen orders would have gone a long way. Juxtapose the beauty of his musical talent against the ugliness of his vicious, gangster personality. Instead they tell us about his musical talents instead of showing it, with his Uncle painstakingly spouting exposition about how Cottonmouth could go to Juliard. Unfortunately Cottonmouth dies almost immediately afterward.
I understand what they were shooting for here, they wanted us to feel sympathy for Cottonmouth just before his end.
In most stories we’re rooting for the villain to get his comeuppance. Yet one of the best ways to emotionally toy with your audience is to humanize the villain, or even redeem the villain, so that when the end comes there’s a tragic angle to it. This was done with Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, Inspector Javier in Les Miserable, and countless others. It’s an old trick and an effective one. In fact Luke Cage tries to pull this twice, once with Cottonmouth and once with a corrupt cop.
The trouble in this case is that Cottonmouth just isn’t characterized well enough to feel much sympathy for him, the show waits way too long to reveal his tragic backstory and though it’s hinted and foreshadowed extensively, that’s not enough to redeem him. Throughout the show I had a hard time understanding Cottonmouth’s motivations for… well much of anything. While obviously a villain is there to solely provide the protagonist with an obstacle, I should never actually feel that that’s the case. I should feel like Cottonmouth has other goals and objectives outside the story. That would have made him feel more real.
But instead of that they gave us someone who’s only defining characteristic is his extremely awkward laugh, a laugh that tells us he’s trying to channel the Joker way too hard.
What made Fisk a great villain wasn’t just because he had a unique way of speaking that made for some truly spine-chilling speeches; Fisk was a great villain because he was treated as a character first and villain second. Fisk was passionate, and I count his love affair with Vanessa as one of finest romances I’ve ever seen; Fisk was righteous, or at least thought of himself as such, he wanted to deliver people from poverty and help the city he truly loved; Fisk was ruthless, he was so convinced of his own righteousness he was willing to do anything to accomplish his goals. We saw the humanity in Fisk and that made him feel real.
And if you haven’t seen this speech, you definitely need it in your life.
By contrast, Cottonmouth feels more like a prop than a character, an inanimate obstacle to be overcome rather than a character to be dealt with.
Unfortunately as weak as Cottonmouth is as a character, he feels like a character from Breaking Bad compared to Diamondback. Diamondback is a complete cipher. He’s not introduced until the tail end of the show and when he does he’s over the top, even when compared to Cottonmouth’s over the top performance and that’s saying something. Throughout the show Diamondback is made out to be this powerful criminal kingpin, someone on the level of Fisk or at least near to that level. Everyone fears him. And yet we never actually see anything resembling a powerbase for Diamondback.
With Fisk, great pains were taken to show his organization’s strength; his political allies, his legal shelter companies, and his illegal operations. Diamondback gets none of that. In fact when he finally arrives in person, the first thing he does is take over Cottonmouth’s operation just so he can shore up his goon-count to take on Luke Cage. He then hides in warehouses owned by Cottonmouth because he apparently doesn’t own any of his own safehouses in the neighborhood he supposedly runs.
This is especially problematic when Diamondback starts pulling out advanced technology, presumably straight from his ass. How does he have access to this technology? Where did he get the funds to purchase them? The Judas Bullet, the only bullet that can harm Luke Cage, is made out to be this incredibly expensive item. The price of just one Judas Bullet makes Cottonmouth do a double take, and yet Diamondback fires these things off like they come in big boxes at the local Walmart. Later he arms the local police with Judas Bullets, albeit a cheaper version, and he seemingly does this in a matter of hours. How did he do that? Does he have a massive industrial base where he can manufacture weapons on demand?
Because if he does, that absolutely needed to be elaborated on! Instead the show asks us to take it at face value, and I’ve come to expect better from Marvel TV shows.
Perhaps the worst part is the reveal of Diamondback’s backstory; he’s Luke Cage’s half-brother. None of this was foreshadowed, Luke barely even mentions his father and he never refers to having a good friend as a young boy. It comes seemingly out of nowhere and because of that it lacks any emotional resonance, and in fact makes the whole thing seem trite. And because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about any of this, their final battle really felt like an anticlimax to me.
Of course most of these problems can be traced back to one fundamental flaw: trying to frontload too many future plotlines into the show. This problem began to pop up in Jessica Jones, with some random cop Kilgrave mind controls turning out to be some secret super soldier. He was obviously being set up to appear as a villain in the future and that was made blatantly obvious by the way the show’s pacing came to a lurching halt every time he showed up. Then of course there was the foreshadowing of an evil corporation who may or may not be responsible for giving Jessica Jones superpowers.
In Jessica Jones these problems were distracting, in Luke Cage it’s crippling. First of all, rather than simply telling us why Luke Cage is in prison and maybe add some actual depth to him, they coyly dance around it. They spend quite a while showing us the illegal medical experiments at the private prison where Luke is kept; no doubt this was for planting seeds establishing a big overarching nemesis that will run across all of Marvel’s Netflix series. Then there’s the doctor that helps Luke escape prison and who eventually becomes his lover, they only hint at her death and late in the show we find out she was complicit in the illegal research being conducted. The origin of the Judice bullets are another story thread that will probably link back to the same evil corporation. Then there’s the growing suspicion and resentment towards superheroes. The list goes on and on.
The first season of Luke Cage spent so much time setting up future plotlines that it forgot to tell a decent story to string it all together. Nothing in the above list is elaborated upon, nothing meaningful related to the audience, no payoff. It’s all just “to be continued” and with so many story threads trailing off into nothing… we’re left feeling unsatisfied.
Rather than use the first season of Luke Cage to introduce a dozen different plots, it should have focused on the truly important story: Luke Cage becoming the protector of Harlem.
Because the best parts of Luke Cage are when he’s using his powers to help random people.
I found him helping the Asian couple keep their restaurant far more satisfying than the entire final fight with Diamondback, and stopping the robbery at the corner store made him feel more like a hero than any of the convoluted plots to take down Cottonmouth. If Luke Cage had tightened its focus on helping the neighborhood, coming to accept his role as its protector, and had him go head to head with Cottonmouth alone, we would have had a much better show. Unfortunately as it is, Luke Cage spreads its focus too thinly for any of the storylines to have any real impact.
There’s a lot of potential here, it could go on to be a show just as good as the first season of Daredevil.
But if Marvel continues using these characters as mere launchpads from which to launch yet more TV shows and franchises, then the foundational characters will simply wither and crumble away, and the whole Cinematic Universe will come crashing down.
It’s been a strange year. I still can’t believe my dad is gone, and it’s been almost a year since his diagnosis and ten months since he died. This whole year has passed in a surreal blur, I can barely remember what I was doing this year. Probably because, aside from an amazing three week vacation with my girlfriend back in August, I didn’t do much of anything these past nine months.
I’ve allowed everything that’s important to me to just stagnate, my blog, my relationships, my career. I haven’t worked on an original story in over a year, and as I’m sure you’ve noticed, my blog updates have been few and far between. You’d think that the death of my father would remind me how precious time is and to use it wisely, but instead I’ve been wasting time binging on Netflix or playing old games I’ve played a dozen times over.
I’ve been wasting my time. In fact I’ve been wasting my time for years. The honest to goodness truth of the matter is that I could have written several books by now, or made this blog have daily updates. I could have done any number of things in the years I’ve wasted.
Why does this happen? Why do I simultaneously love writing and yet fear actually sharing anything I write? Fear of rejection is the most obvious answer, but as a friend of mine recently pointed out, last year when I tried my left-handed writing experiment, I didn’t stop writing when I got bad criticism. I stopped when I received positive feedback. People wanted more, and for some reason that scared me off. It was the same thing that happened after my Mass Effect 3 Ending article, rather than capitalize on the fact that tens of thousands of new readers were suddenly flooding my tiny little blog, I fell back and allowed it to stagnate until the reader numbers came down to a normal level.
This has been a pattern that has been repeating itself for far too long.
When people ask me for writing, at first I’m happy to give it to them. A good friend of mine asked me to write a small play last year. Back in August someone asked me to write a character for a Fallout 4 mod. Three years ago my friends at Ara’Kus asked me to write a series of short stories to flesh out their fictional world.
I wrote the play and when I gave it to my friend, he loved it, it needed some tweaking, but he loved it. I should have felt elation, I should have felt accomplished. Instead, I felt like garbage.
I wrote the first part of the character for that Fallout 4 mod and sent it to the guy who asked for it. Again, he said he liked what I had so far. It took me weeks to pick it back up again and start finishing it (in fact I finished it just prior to writing this article).
And three years ago I wrote a short story about an assassin. Everyone said they loved it, including a man who’s been an artist and has taught artists for decades… I never wrote another short story for them.
The worst incident though? The absolute worst? When I was 19 I wrote a story as part of my High School Project, which was a requirement for graduation. It was basically an assignment to write a story and go through the publishing process. I wrote that story, it was almost 25,000 words long and I submitted it to the Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Several weeks later they mailed it back to me with a rejection letter that read:
“The story didn’t quite work for us, but keep writing!” Or something to that effect, I unfortunately didn’t keep it.
I also let several friends and family read it, they all loved it as well, but they agreed that in my attempt to keep it under 25,000 words for publication purposes I had shortchanged the story and characters. I needed to lengthen it into a novel.
I never touched that story again. And somewhere along the line, I lost both the print copies and digital copy I kept.
I hope none of this comes across as humble-bragging, because that’s not my intention. I’m just trying to sort out this mess, and putting it here on my blog seems like the most appropriate place. I want to understand why I react like this, and this is cheaper than a therapist.
And it’s not like I’m somehow craving negative feedback, I’m sure if everyone told me how crap everything was I’d feel awful.
I think it’s because, deep down, I feel like a fraud. When I first start writing something for someone, I’m okay, I get it done. It’s when I finally let them read it, and they end up liking it, because that’s not how it’s supposed to go.
“NO!” I want to scream. “You’re not supposed to like it! You’re supposed to hate it! Reveal me for the fraud I am! I don’t know what the hell I’m doing! I can’t write! Don’t you see, I’m a charlatan! A conman! You’re in the Matrix man, and I’m the shitty, overly verbose Architect!”
You weren’t supposed to like it, that’s the problem. I wrote it wanting you to hate it, to tell me to give up, to confirm what I’ve been telling myself for years: I have nothing to contribute, no talent, and no purpose.
I had this whole brilliant plan for finally giving myself permission to give up. And you all had to go fuck it up by liking my writing. Jesus. Some people have no consideration.
So thank you. Thank you to my family, my friends, and everyone who continues to read this blog despite my repeated attempts to subtly kill it with inactivity. Despite my subconscious attempts to sabotage myself, you’ve kept me trucking along in my futile quest to write something so bad you’ll all tell me to quit.
For the past week I’ve been going to the local library to write, and getting out of my little room has done wonders for my writing. I was lucky if I averaged a thousand words a week before. In the past week I’ve written 12,000, and that’s just since Monday.