Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Right Way to Watch Star Wars

Like many of my peers, I was introduced to Star Wars as a child, become wildly obsessed and even more so when the prequels started to emerge. Unlike many of my peers, I stayed obsessed well beyond the decent age to be, and I actually liked the prequels... well, for the most part. But that's a different story.

I would like to discuss what I believe is the unequivocally correct way to watch Star Wars. Every once in awhile you run into someone who hasn't seen the movies before, or only has a vague idea of what happens. Here, many Star Wars fans anguish over whether it is best to show this deprived individual the series in chronological order, or in the order that the rest of the world saw. Essentially, which set of 3 do you show first?

Several issues come to mind here:

  • Writing. The originals are better. You don't want to end with bad writing.
  • Special effects. The originals are way worse. The prequels have beautiful lightsaber fights and beautifully special effects. Imagine finishing Ep 3, then turning on Ep 4. Not so fun.
  • The dramatic revelation of the century. Our whole planet and surrounding star systems know that Darth Vader is Luke's father. There is no way even my generation can know how it felt to see that for the first time in the movie theater (unless you were very very sheltered until you saw it). Yet, it seems wrong to present the story in an order where the audience is informed of Darth Vader's identity as Anakin Skywalker before the big reveal at the end of Episode V. Among other reasons, it makes it harder to empathize with Luke at that critical moment.
  • Setting and scenery. Many may like the idea of a structured, ordered Republic shown at the beginning of the Phantom Menace slowly weaken and then massively crumble into the Empire/Rebellion in the originals. Others might prefer to first see the fragmented galaxy in the originals, and then see the "golden age" of the past degenerate into that fragmentation. This may seem like more subtle point, but the visuals are very big deal here.
  • Anakin Skywalker. This is his story after all. His childhood, rise, fall, and redemption. I can appreciate the story that ends with the tragic fall of the hero, succumbing to the dark side, being burned alive and imprisoned within a cold suit of armor. That is just a cool concept. This was a beautiful (for some definitions of "beautiful") way to tie up the story for all of us fans. But perhaps keeping in mind that Anakin is the main character could give us a more intriguing way to order the story.

My not-so-humble declaration of the correct order to watch the movies:

4- You get the same introduction that the world got. You build an understanding of the universe with the good writing and setting of the original movies. You put together ideas of what Jedi are, who Obi-Wan "Ben" and Darth Vader are, and their relationship.

5- Luke struggles to pick up the pieces of Jedi training left to him. He grapples with the struggle of having power and wanting to use recklessly. The big reveal of Darth Vader really is.

1- Flashback. Now that you have been told who Vader is, you get his childhood. You follow this kind, innocent youth as he finds his impossible dream of becoming a Jedi. You also see the Republic and the Jedi at their golden age. You get real lightsaber fights, and see the Jedi temple and the council.

2- You see Anakin's impatience with limits and his raw potential. You see the frightening power he has and start to realize that there must be something wrong with the "perfect" picture of how the Jedi run their order, since Anakin does not get the respect, training, and counseling he clearly needs. He isn't the first teenager to go through the Jedi ranks. He's apparently just the most powerful.

3- The fall. You see the Republic fall apart. The so-called Clone War was just a farce, with both sides led by the same person. The Jedi Order falls in the crossfire, and Anakin loses everything to pursue power and attention he had never been afforded by the Jedi. You see the birth of twins, and learn from their mother's own lips that Leia is Luke's twin sister.

6- Armed with a clear knowledge of the past, you can judge for yourself Obi-Wan's explanation of his previous deception. You also are ready for his reveal that Leia is Luke's sister. You see the final confrontation between father and son, and the emperor's presence is carried directly over from the 3rd movie. You see Vader's redemption and the beginnings of the restoration of the Republic. The series ends with the best of the originals' special effects, and the really good writing of the originals. And it ends where story should: a happy ending.

So next time you want to do a star wars marathon, or introduce the series in full to a friend or child, remember: 4,5,1,2,3,6

Sunday, May 1, 2011

I'm a Leaf on the Wind

Today, I jumped out of an airplane and felt the thrill of 40 seconds of freefall at around 120mph (175 feet per second).

By far, the best part of this was the freefall. Not the plane ride up where I got to see Martindale (where my Grandmother lives), not the rush and jerk of pulling the parachute, or the peaceful glide down where I learned a bit about controlling a parachute. All of those were great, but those 40 seconds were just beyond incredible.

I honestly don't plan on doing this again anytime soon. The plane ride up was cool, but it made me slightly nauseous, as did the winding glide down once our parachute was out. But it was all worth it for the sheer awesome of freefall at ~10000 feet altitude.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Game Review: Mirror's Edge

I recently played Mirror's Edge (bought it in the Steam Christmas sale), and I have to say, I really liked this game.

Mirror's Edge is a first-person platformer game in which you are a "runner" named Faith, and she and other "runners" are a part of a silent resistance to a fascist regime in their gigantic city. The "runners" travel by negotiating the rooftop landscape, and it is essentially a giant obstacle course. The story is a self-contained chapter of what appears to be a larger story of resistance against the corrupt government. This story happens to center around Faith and her sister, who is not part of the resistance, but one of the few non-corrupt police.

The gameplay was pretty good considering it is essentially mostly made up of obstacle courses. I was strongly reminded of Prince of Persia, in which you performed similar acrobatics to get to a goal. Unlike Prince of Persia, however, this is in first person. And they made it work really really well. At times, it may be slightly too forgiving or frustratingly unforgiving, but in general, the game plays well and you can achieve a good level of immersion without getting bogged down in controls.

One aspect that makes the gameplay work is the use of the color RED. Objects that are in the general direction of where you should go will appear stark red, serving as a guide when you don't have the third person advantage Prince of Persia did. This red color is incorporated into the backstory as a semi-magical sight that runners have that reveals routes and possibilities. Various public notices you find in the game warn of people with an affinity for the color red, as they might be runners.

Using the color red made it possible for the obstacle courses to not look contrived. This was a major drawback in Prince of Persia for me; all the things you jumped to and from looked specially set up just for you. Not so in Mirror's Edge. It looks like city rooftops through which you are actively finding a path with the help of your runner vision.

The glaring red color actually does NOT mess with the overall look of the world. The city colors were chosen magnificently well. The look of this game involves severe contrast and shocking colors. It is very bright, with the city buildings mostly white and pale blue, and certain areas splashed with vivid greens or oranges or blues. The look of the world was one of the big reasons I fell in love with this game.

See those two RED cranes? You end up jumping from the tip of one onto the platform suspended by the other. Which brings me to what I love about the game: it feels EPIC. It is like parkour, but infinitely more intense, and with corrupt police that shoot at you. You can try to run by them without getting killed, which sometimes works, or you can disarm them as you come to them, or you can use a weapon from one you disarmed to shoot the others. This last option is really not the best one most of the time. Carrying a weapon makes you move slowly, even a handgun (its a little annoying, but I can see they were trying to make this a fast-paced running adventure, and not an FPS).

The story is well integrated into the fact you are a runner. You need to get from place to place in a city that has security checkpoints and cameras everywhere. So you run across rooftops to go from one plot objective to the next, often times going on detours to evade the police, especially when their puppet realizes you may unfold a serious secret. You also get bits of story in the form of cutscenes that proceed seamlessly from gameplay (the cutscene is in first person, like the gameplay), allowing for appreciable immersion.

This game is not a long drawn out game (like this review). It is short. It plays with a new idea, and it "doesn't outstay its welcome," to quote Yahtzee Croshaw's view of Portal. In many ways, Mirror's Edge is similar to Portal. It does something unique, has a self-contained short plot that is pleasantly not drawn-out. There is only so much you can do with Portal-Gun puzzles, and they knew it. Same with obstacle courses, I suppose, although I can't say I was ready for the game to end.

Finally, I have to talk about this game in the context of gender treatment in videogames. I really loved this game for its other qualities, but the way it handles this issue makes me respect it. You are a female protagonist (common enough in videogames) that does not have large breasts (practically unheard-of in videogames). In fact, Faith is somewhat small-chested**, which is completely appropriate for an athletic runner who depends on speed, mobility, and agility. Second, there is the plot: it doesn't try to pull some role-reversal nonsense by having Faith save her boyfriend. She saves her sister, who is a police officer. My only complaint is that the police bullies you encounter so much are all male. More than any discrimination on the game's part, this just reveals an undercurrent in our culture that is sexist towards both males and females. Males aren't the only ones that could be mean bullies who blindly follow orders, and I'm willing to accept that.


If you played Portal, you should play this game. It is about the same length, and it is a breath of fresh air with respect to world art, gameplay, story, and gender.


** Have a look at this comparison of what the traditional look for Faith may have been, and what they decided to go with. Amazing, right?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dispatches from the Southern Continent.

I have just arrived back from a wonderful trip to Australia to meet relatives over there. As I am currently studying in New Zealand, it would be remiss not to take the opportunity to go see my Australian family. Following are some interesting observations I made in my time there.

Sex and culture:
Sex is a much less taboo subject in Australia. Perhaps I am only contrasting my USA families with my Australia one, but sex is brought up often, talked about very openly, and treated as a conversation piece as normal as the weather. I can see a few consequences of this: crude sexual humor is less shocking than it is in the US, young people seem to be on the whole more educated about how relationship dynamics when it comes to sex should be, and there is no mass delusion and expectation of sexual piety (especially for women) that I feel exists in the USA. It was slightly shocking at first, but rather refreshing once I had mentally adjusted.

Lots of cursing in normal conversation. Words that are saved for extreme cases in my experience are used with abandon. And, just in case you suspect I wasn't being scientific about it, I did take sample conversations outside my family, thank you very much. Even 10-13 year olds on the beach were dropping pretty much every bomb in the alphabet. My main issue with cursing in general is that many of the "bad words" have their origin in sexism. Example: think of as many bad words as you can. How many of them refer to females? Males? There ya go. In Australia, though, I would hope that the increased awareness in the area of sex in general would curb the inherent sexism that can exist in many curse words. I wasn't there long enough to explore this area further.

Cleland Wildlife Park:
So I was in Australia. I had to see a kangaroo, of course! A wildlife park in/near Adelaide one-upped my desire to see a kangaroo. Their setup has large fenced-in areas where they keep the animals. The park is designed so "people paths" are right through these areas. You can walk right off the trail and right up to a kangaroo. Many of them will eat right out of your hand. You could even walk up to an emu, if you somehow didn't notice or could ignore how much they resemble velociraptors from Jurassic Park. I really loved and appreciated the park setup whereby you could have such close interactions with the animals (I must have fed like 10 kangaroos, including a very young one, 2 wallabees, 0 emus, and petted 1 koala). I wish there were places like that in the USA, but something makes me think that greater numbers of people would kind of screw it up. Not only that, but one injury from a scared kangaroo, and the lawyers make sure that everyone pays for some idiot's mistake. Perhaps I'm being too harsh and cynical. Point is, that park was awesome.

I had never met most of the people there, but I nevertheless felt perfectly at home with them. Part of this was, of course, because they were so sweet and welcoming to me. But I also felt the similarity in family dynamic and general connection with these people like at home. It is interesting how the family culture is still so present and palpable even when oceans separate us.

Green Flash:
I saw the green flash while flying from Melbourne to Sydney. It was really cool, because I wasn't even looking for it or expecting it, but it was there.

--Originally posted April 10th, 2010