Monthly Archives: February 2012
Lasers are cool. Face it. Look deep in your heart; accept it as truth. Ever since you and I and everybody else saw Star Wars, we’ve wanted lasers. Not for dinky science experiments or for pointless, boring crap like ‘communication’ or ‘entertainment’. We’ve wanted laser to incinerate our enemies, dammit! We want ray guns!
Well, we’re getting closer. As of 2009, lasers hit battlefield strength. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean raygun-toting stormtroopers anytime soon. That laser they’re talking about has to ride around on a truck. It eats HUGE amounts of energy, it costs as much as a fighter jet (hell, probably more), and if you use it wrong, it probably melts/blows up/lights on fire or all three at once.
And all this just to shoot at mortars.
The inherent problem with lasers/energy weapons is that they don’t really do anything substantially better than we can do already with conventional guns. War is the most utilitarian of all laboratories–a guy with a shovel can kill just like a guy with a $10,000 weapon can kill. If you’re spending that money, it better damned well let you kill $10,000 better than the guy with the shovel/hunk of rock/pointy stick he found on the side of the road. For a laser to be useful, it needs to fill a niche that other military tools don’t or can’t.
For that reason, I find it rather doubtful we’ll be seeing man-portable laser rifles anytime soon. Regular rifles shoot just fine, actually, and until some aspect of military engagements change to force the usage of lasers, they won’t be used. If the AK-47 ain’t broke, don’t fix it (though, this just in, they are). This is the same as the trouble with giant robots, which I’ve discussed before.
So, what would a laser be better at than a gun? Well, a laser causes damage by generating heat, though it can take a
second or two for it to transmit that heat. Kinetic Energy weapons deliver all their force at once, pretty much, while a laser builds up. The good news is that the laser could likely keep the focus on a very precise spot for a comparatively long time. How is this useful? Well, it would be useful in the same way that the military seems to think–anti-materiel, or, in English, for blowing up/destroying stuff rather than people. Think about it: you can, with virtually unerring accuracy, place all the power of your weapon on a single rivet of the enemy tank/ship/plane/gun. If you’ve got troops trained well enough, they could make junkyards of enemy fleets or convoys in a matter of seconds–pretty cool–and with relatively little loss of life (yay, prisoners!). It’s got a use, certainly.
As for ray guns, they might show up, but they aren’t going to be lasers. Perhaps some kind of plasma thrower or radiation sprayer, maybe (but, again, they need to beat out good old-fashioned firearms to make it worth it). That, however, isn’t the direction the military is currently heading for their small arms–don’t think lasers so much as high-tech grenade launchers and ultra- lightweight machine guns.
So, yeah, no lasers for blasting rebel scum. Sorry guys. On the bright side, though, don’t be so disappointed–the blasters of Star Wars were really just plasma weapons, anyway. Those we might still build…someday. If we were really, really mad.
Violence, battle, and peril are a constant in RPGs. I’ve explored the why of this elsewhere on this blog in various places, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that such things are what make the genre tense and exciting in many ways. Few are the games that don’t involve some kind of man-eating monsters, bloodthirsty villains, perilous cliffs, and exploding doomsday devices. It stands to reason, then, that death and, particularly, the deaths of the occasional PC are bound to occur. When this happens, however, it can be a bit of a shock to the players. It can, if mismanaged, create bad feelings between the players and the GM. Of course, if the GM never allows it to happen, bad things also happen. So, how to manage this? Well, here’s my advice on the subject.
Why it Needs to Happen
At some point as GM, you probably need to step up and kill a PC. The reason you need to do this is the same reason that cliffhangers and adventure stories have a tendency to kill characters from time to time: it makes the danger more real. If every time a player gets his or her character in a fatal predicament they are allowed, somehow, to escape it (through the GM fudging the rules, through random deus ex machina, and so on), the party is going to catch on that they are, in essence, invincible. This is very bad, and for several reasons.
Firstly, the players will cease to feel threatened by the dangers that the GM places before them. Just like in a bad adventure novel, the GM has given the players ‘plot armor’ that they know to be impenetrable. This makes the game boring, suddenly. Obviously they’ll be able to jump over that chasm as the castle is collapsing around them. Clearly they can live through their death duel with that vampire lord. How do they know? Well, they know the GM hasn’t the guts to do anything about it.
Secondly, and derived from the first problem, the GM can suddenly become ‘bullied’ by their players. The players can have their characters do outlandish things in the utter confidence that, even if they don’t work, there is little risk their characters will suffer for it. This can begin to break the mood of the game (unless the *point* of the game is to be invincible and do outlandish things, like Toon and the like), and things rapidly become more and more absurd. The game begins to morph from a stylized, internally consistent story to a bad improv long-form show. As someone who has been in his share of bad improv long-form shows, they might be funny, but that’s about all they have going for them. The game goes from adventure to joke. I’ve played in campaigns like this in my time, and the novelty wears off quickly.
Of course, how often and why to allow PCs to die depends greatly on the style of the game. Gritty, violent, and noir settings obviously feature death around every corner, and PCs become much more cautious in their play and less attached to their characters. Heroic or swashbuckling settings feature death much less often, and when it happens it represents a serious dramatic event. Still, even with the most heroic settings, death should be possible and it should be clear that they are possible if things go wrong. Even if the GM doesn’t really want to kill the character if they do something stupid, they should seriously consider permanent disfigurement, maiming, or similar permanent consequences. Consequences are important to create tension; tension is essential for adventuring fun.
How to Manage It
As mentioned above, how to handle killing a PC depends greatly on the mood of the setting of the game. The likelihood and frequency of fatal situations should be made clear to the players prior to the beginning of the campaign. The GM shouldn’t be setting quotas or anything (i.e. I intend to kill one PC every three sessions! Mwa-ha-ha!), but she should say things akin to ‘there will be no holds barred in this game–if you screw up, you’re dead’ or ‘I don’t intend for characters to die for stupid reasons, but they will die if dramatically appropriate or compelling’. This gives everybody a good idea of how dangerous the campaign is, and this is very important for the players to know when constructing and playing their characters. It also should preempt some of the bad feelings that might develop otherwise should a player lose his or her favorite character.
Beyond this, I have a couple rules of thumb:
- The Good Death: Unless the game you are running is exceptionally dark, grim, or violent, PCs should never be killed due to silly accidents, random events, or simply poor luck. They should be killed by important villains, by exceptionally deadly traps (that they are aware of and attempting to evade), or while knowingly placing themselves at fatal risk due to their character’s traits or behavior. In short, they should die thanks to their decisions (good or bad), not due to their luck. Their death should be dramatic, motivating to the other characters, and serve as a significant plot point for the campaign. It should mean something.
- Get Them Back in the Game: Unless the death occurs at the very tail end of a campaign (where it would be silly to introduce a new character that would be played for 2-3 sessions tops), always allows the player to make a new character and introduce them into the game as soon as possible. Death should not be a punishment of the player.
- It Isn’t a Punishment: This bears repeating–PC death is never, never a punishment. If you are a GM forced to use it as a way to regain control of a campaign, you have done something wrong and haven’t correctly set up the expectations of danger in the campaign in the first place (leading to bullying by your players, necessitating death). This is bad news. Ideally, players should think their PCs’ deaths are cool–they get a cool death scene, and they should be allowed to play it up. Then, they get to play a new character (that is every bit as advanced and powerful as their last character, more or less).
- Make the Death Matter: This is the hardest of the rules to manage, but also very important. A PC should not die and be forgotten. Their death should have a major effect on the campaign and the other players; when they die, something new should be revealed, they should be contributing to the story somehow, and something interesting should happen. Don’t kill for no reason (unless you’re running one of those super-deadly games where life is cheap, and then everybody should be on board with that so it shouldn’t be a big deal).
Beyond this, if you find your players getting into circumstances where they really should die, but it wouldn’t fit with the campaign and wouldn’t make much sense, really consider simply maiming them or otherwise afflicting them with a kind of permanent consequence that makes the character interesting to play, but doesn’t allow them to get off scott-free.
Anyway, whatever the circumstances, one cannot run a campaign without the possibility of fatal consequences. If you are GM-ing such a game, it is your narrative responsibility to allow it to happen. You should do it, however, with caution and care to guard the player’s expectations and to maintain the fun they’re happening. If you’re a player, you should also understand that the death of your favorite character is as important as his life in contributing to the fun of the game. Don’t get upset, just roll with it; after all, it’s just a game.
My friend, John Perich, recently drew my attention to this article by Kyle Munkittrick regarding the importance of Mass Effect and its universe on science fiction overall. As a science fiction author, someone deeply involved in the tropes and subgenres of science fiction, and as a lifelong fan of the genre, the article rubs me the wrong way. Mass Effect, while I expect it is a fine game with a well-realized world and excellent storyline (my critique is in no way directed at the game itself), the authors claims seem to indicate to me a certain ignorance of science fiction in general that bugs me.
The author’s central thesis is this:
Mass Effect can and does take ideas to a new plane of existence. Think of the Big Issues in your favorite series. Whether it is realistic science explaining humanoid life throughout the galaxy, or dealing with FTL travel, or the ethical ambiguity of progress, or even the very purpose of the human race in our universe, Mass Effect has got it. By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes.
In essence, it is his claim that the Mass Effect world has managed to effectively supplant all preceding science fiction by virtue of its scope and philosophy. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. I can say this without ever having played the game, and the reason I can do this is simply because all of the things pointed out by Mr. Munkittrick as being unique and special to the game have not only been done before, but done before multiple times and done very well. Apparently, because the game does all of them at once, this makes it automatically superior to any individual exploration of various aspects of this theme, which, to my mind, is sort of like saying WalMart is automatically superior to any other store since they sell all the things the other stores do collectively. If we are approaching literature in the same way we approach the purchase of bath towels, then I suppose the argument might stand. Literature and, indeed, all art, is not to be so quantitatively assessed. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the claims of the article one-by-one.
In this portion of the article, the author puts forward the idea that Mass Effect, by virtue of being a video game, grants the work a kind of special power. This isn’t altogether untrue, of course–you, in a video game of this nature, have unparalleled control over the path of the storyline, something like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books of old. This, of course, facilitates a level of engagement that is altogether different from that of a book (it also dilutes authorial control and symbolic and thematic resonance, in my experience, but I haven’t played Mass Effect, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt by saying it is an exception to this phenomenon).
More specifically, however, the author makes three claims. First is this:
The first advantage, setting, involves the portrayal of alien species and alien worlds with ease. Novels require descriptions, comics require painstaking drawings, films and television require either hours of expression deadening makeup or expensive CGI. In a video game, rendering an asari or a hanar requires the same amount of work as a human. Want a cast of thousands? No problem. Need a mob of hundreds of individuals representing fifteen different species rendered inside an colossal ancient space station? No sweat.
So, if I can paraphrase, the argument is that novels use exhausting words to convey meaning, comics have to actually draw things, and film costs lots of money to make this diversity possible. Video games, however, do so effortlessly, somehow, as though the programmers and graphic artists and game designers of these games haven’t spent years and years of work fashioning this environment with every bit as much effort and work as your average novelist, artist, or movie producer.
Furthermore, and more importantly, this is supposed to be somehow novel or unique. Nevermind that it’s been done before, and often. You would have an awfully hard time matching the diversity inherent in Banks’ Culture novels. Furthermore, if you want to talk non-humanoid, bizarre lifeforms and marginalized humanity, there are plenty of choices to pick from, not least of which are the humans of Stephen Baxter’s novels, which at various times in his 4,000,000 year chronology shows humanity being conquered by the Squeem (an aquatic, collectively intelligent species of fish) and the Qax (a species of intelligent marshland–yeah, you heard me) or being completely embarrassed and marginalized by the god-like Xeelee.
The second and third points in the Medium argument circle around the fact that you can control the main character’s choices and even form, which increases engagement in the work. This I won’t bother to contest–it’s true, no doubt. This fact, however, doesn’t make Mass Effect some great contribution to science fiction unless, for some reason, you lack the attention span or capacity to focus on challenging things like ‘books’ to bother seeing what else is out there or what other characters you can identify with. I’m not certain if this argument is the intention of the author, in that it seems to assume that our modern culture can’t or won’t support artistic mediums wherein we cannot control and shape characters ourselves. It strikes me as a cynical and depressing view of modern audiences.
In this segment of the article, Munkittrick presents the central message of Mass Effect as this:
Mass Effect has a simple message: human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.
This is fair enough–a theme often explored by science fiction, and has been hit upon by many, many authors through the years. Munkittrick, however, is primarily focused upon Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar: Galactica, and a brief aside to Starship Troopers (though I’m thinking he means the movie, though, since Heinlein’s message for humanity is rather more in keeping with Mass Effect’s) and Ender’s Game.
This narrowness of scifi allusions tells me, first of all, that the author doesn’t really know enough about science fiction to appropriately assess how important a contribution Mass Effect is likely to make to the genre. Those five works are, essentially, sticking your toe in the shallow-end of what scifi can and has done. I, and I’m sure every scifi writer and fan, are pretty damned tired of having everything we read or have done being compared to Star Wars and Star Trek. Quite simply, the marginalization and racism against humans in Mass Effect for the purpose of, to borrow the author’s phrase, “destabiliz[e] the player’s sense of confidence in his or her own skin,” is an old storyline. For reference, think of The Time Machine (1895), War of the Worlds (1897), Planet of the Apes (1963), Childhood’s End (1953), Battlefield: Earth (1982), Excession (1996), and so on and so forth. Granted, not all of them do *exactly* the same thing, but I think that’s a sufficient crosssection of work to demonstrate how ‘done’ this storyline is. It’s a perfectly good storyline, mind you, but not a landmark one.
The philosophy under discussion is ‘Cosmicism’, which is basically the idea that humans are too insignificant to understand or construct true meaningful existence in the universe. It is, as the author points out, posited by HP Lovecraft. He also claims that Mass Effect is the only work since then to bother with this postmodernist take on human existence. This is, of course, false (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps the most prominent work to approach the same material, as did Childhood’s End and a lot of Clarke’s other work, as does, on a thematic level, much of the cyberpunk subgenre–or the good stuff, anyway).
In any event, the author proceeds to present a wide variety of storylines that have analogs in other works and all tie this into postmodern thought. This isn’t especially novel, since the other works are also tying it into postmodern thought, because that’s where they got the idea, and HP Lovecraft and the creators of Mass Effect aren’t the only two artists to consider such things. Now, Munkittrick is clearly a big fan of Cosmicism and a devout postmodernist, so the praise he heaps upon Mass Effect I feel, to some extent, is due to his discovery of a video game that simulates his own worldview or, perhaps, allows him to entertain questions he likes entertaining. To state, as he does, that “Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity” is simply not true except, perhaps, for the word ‘blockbuster’. I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘blockbuster’, exactly. I would think that Neuromancer does and it, indeed, has such heavy postmodernist themes that it should least qualify as intellectual precedent.
I don’t want to sound as if I’m getting down on Mass Effect–I’m not. What I’m reacting to here is the willingness of some people, who seem poorly read in science fiction, to make assessments that this science fiction property they just discovered is going to change the genre forever. It’s disingenuous to the genre and to the artists and authors who have worked so hard to advance it. I’m not going to get into how I find Cosmicsm an interesting but ultimately pointless endeavor, or point out how all the ‘aliens’ you can ever imagine are really just humans in different clothing or symbols of concepts humans deal with and that, therefore, giving a franchise crap for having ‘too many humans’ is like criticizing language for using too many words–no, that’s just me spouting my own version of the Good News just as this article is doing here. Instead, this is just me saying:
Before handing things awards, do some more research.
For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.
Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.
Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are the real Klingons, here?
- Why the love affair with a violent death?
- What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?
Who are the Real Klingons, Here?
Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.
Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.
Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?
In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:
- You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
- You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
- You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)
Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.
(cue theme music to Fame)
What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?
Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.
But if you win…
There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.
My Technology in Literature class wrapped up discussion of HG Wells’ The Time Machine recently. Every time I read the work, the thing that most interests me is the simple explanation the Time Traveler gives at the very beginning regarding the feasibility of time travel. In essence, he suggest that we already do travel in time–when we remember something or dream of things past–but we cannot remain for any period of time. Thus, we are as constrained in travel in the fourth dimension just as primitive man was in the third (i.e. you can jump up and down or fall of a cliff, but you can’t remain or travel freely through the dimension of height without the assistance of technology).
Wells envisions the solution to this problem pretty simply–the Time Machine works rather like a railroad engine. It can go forward and in reverse, it has a throttle and brakes, and the ‘engineer’ manipulates the whole process with a pair of simple levers. On the whole, it seems even less complicated than driving a car.
Many have been the time-travel tales since then. However, we have envisioned the process differently. One does not
travel through time in the same way as we walk down the street or fly to Atlanta; the devices involve some kind of sudden leap or jolting transference. The process is instantaneous, or nearly so. We go there in Deloreans or weird tubes (12 Monkeys) or telephone booths or even hot tubs. I sort of doubt, however, that time travel (assuming it’s possible) would work that way. I kinda think that Wells, for all his antiquity, had the better theory.
Consider this: How has all travel, thus far, functioned? Air, sea, space, or land, we move progressively across space. Now, granted, that’s space, and we’re talking time. Time, though, isn’t supremely different than space. We can’t define what makes up space anymore than we can time (ask a physicist sometime about ‘what space is made of’ and get ready for some weird, mostly theoretical stuff). The primary difference, though, is that we are better able to perceive of space than we are time. Perhaps, for this reason, time travel is beyond us–we just aren’t smart enough to ‘see’ it as it is.
Not a Straight Line
The average person on the street sees time as an arrow–we proceed from point A to point B along the minutes and the hours and so on. This is why time-travel stories are so concerned about ‘altering the past to destroy the future’. We are, arrogantly, considering time to be a single path of causality and that, if we change something back then, then we will necessarily alter something right now. Time, though, isn’t a line or an arrow. It’s a dimension, like width, depth, and height. If you could travel through time, you could go sideways as well as back and forth. You could even, perhaps, look at time from a different direction.
The Mountaintop of Boethius
Oddly enough, much of my knowledge of theoretical physics has been supported by existential philosophy, and vice versa. I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but I can readily see the connections. Thus, my reading of The Consolation of Philosophy in my freshman-year western culture seminar fundamentally changed my perception of what time travel might consist of.
In this work, there is a part where Philosophy is trying to explain to Boethius how it is that God can be omniscient while, at the same time, mankind can be given free will. I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but in summation, Boethius asks how it could be that all of his actions and the results of these actions could be known to God and, yet, he might still have command over what he does. Couldn’t he then do something God didn’t expect and upset the whole divine apple-cart?
Philosophy’s answer goes like this: God is not part of the flow of time as Boethius or, indeed, as any mortal sees it. God looks upon the world from a mountaintop, and beneath Him is spread all that Was, Will Be, and Is, existing for Him as a kind of eternal Present. He is able to perceive of all time simultaneously. Thus, He can look down at what any one person is doing now, see how it relates to what they have done, and then see how it will lead to what they will do. Presumably, when taking quantum physics into account here, God would be able to see the outcomes of all possible outcomes of all possible actions, viewing them simultaneously, and thus be omniscient without really interfering with an individual’s decision-making process. This idea is echoed in Grendel’s discussion with the Dragon in Gardner’s Grendel, as well as the Architect of The Matrix: Reloaded.
How does this connect to time travel? Well, it makes the device needed to make it happen both monstrously more complex than any other we’ve seen, but also simpler in operation. All that is needed is to be able to see time as it is–as a kind of dimension across which we may travel in any direction–and then make the machine go there. It’s not an instantaneous jump or a lightning-bound explosion, it’s more like a stroll down from a mountain.
The thing is, though, it’s the kind of stroll only a God seems to be able to make.
The topic of this post is probably nothing new. People have been sounding off on what is wrong with the prequels ever since the ‘New Star Wars Glow’ wore off Episode 1 and all of us, collectively, realized that the troubling feeling in our guts whenever we watched the movie was the fact that it was, after all, a bad movie. I and my friends (most notably my friend Matt M and I) have discussed at length how to fix the prequels and make them good movies–an edit, if you will–and, seeing as the films are getting released again in
MoneyVision…err…I mean ’3D’, now seems as good a time as any to give you my theory for how to make the movies better. I’ll probably write one of these as they are released, just for the hell of it.
Here we go:
Step 1: Stop Complaining About Jar-Jar
Yes, Jar-jar sucks. We all know he sucks. We all wish he weren’t there. Jar-jar isn’t the problem, though. There are plenty of annoying characters in actually good movies and we forgive them and still like the movie just fine (think Roger Rabbit, C3P0, Billie from Temple of Doom, Data, etc.). Why can’t we forgive Jar-Jar?
We can’t because there is no other interesting characters to watch!
Qui-Gon Jinn is exhaustingly boring, Obi Wan is a rebel with nothing and nobody to rebel against, Amidala is like a piece of talking furniture, and Annakin is played like a kid dragged out of central casting and asked to play, well, a kid. Jar-Jar is put in the movie for comic relief, right? But we don’t need or want comic relief in this film because there is no dramatic tension to be relieved.
The Solution: We need to change up the characters, and badly. Here’s my suggestion, as follows:
- Obi Wan should be a bad Padawan–rebellious, defiant, and headstrong. How do we make this work? Simple: It is Obi Wan, not Qui-Gon who wants to bring Annakin back to Coruscant. It is Obi Wan who pleads the case before the masters. It is Obi Wan who somehow convinces Qui Gon this is the right move. This, incidentally, gives Obi Wan even more to be miserable about later. Obi Wan is about improving the Jedi, see? He’s going to make things better, save the galaxy, etc. It’s a tragic flaw.
- Qui Gon should make bad choices. He should be wrong about things, and in such a way that, in the end, he chooses to defer to Obi Wan’s judgement. He should be indignant until, in the end, he dies humble and contrite before his former student.
- Amidala should be attracted to Obi Wan. Yes, I said it. This episode needs a little sexual tension, even if it is one-sided. Having a love triangle to play with later isn’t a bad idea, either. Obi Wan is cool, after all, and Amidala, though a queen, is a teenage girl. Teenage girls love cool bad-boys with magic swords–it’s a law.
- Annakin should be older and angrier. If he’s a character in The Goonies, he should be Mouth and not Mikey. Make him eleven, give him a chip on his shoulder (he’s a slave, after all–we can reasonably infer his innocence is shot). Have him appeal to Obi Wan–Obi Wan sees the same rebellious spirit he has. He’s a powerful proto-jedi already teetering on the edge of the Dark Side.
- Yes, no Jar-Jar. We’ve already got R2-D2 and Amidala/Obi Wan/Annakin to play with if we want to make things light. The Gungans can stay, though.
Step 2: Nobody Cares About Trade Embargoes
Economics-based conflicts play poorly in a space opera. I get it that Palpatine wants to spark a war that allows him to buy a private army, but that doesn’t mean he needs to spark it over a trade imbalance and legal technicalities. It lacks tension for the audience and doesn’t sustain the kind of heart-stopping action the movie needs.
The Solution: The species occupying Naboo wants it for its natural resources–notably it’s biomass. They’re strip miners, loggers, and so on and feel that the Naboo haven’t been taking their pleas seriously. With Darth Sideous backing them up, they finally have the balls to go over and take what they want. If you want to demonstrate that the Trade Confederation are bad guys, have them clear-logging forests, draining Gungan swamps, building giant, ugly droid factories and forcing the people into labor camps. There–evil–we get it.
Step 3: Better Understood Action
Many of the action scenes in The Phantom Menace, while well choreographed, aren’t all that much fun. Why? We don’t care about the outcome. I’ve written about this before , and much of the problem ought to be amended by having better characters, but there are still things that can be fixed. Here, in order, is how I’d run the plot:
- At the start, the Jedi go directly to Naboo where the Trade Federation’s Controller Ship has landed to host a parley between Amidala and the Directors (or whatever they’re called). It is, of course, a trap. When the poison gas pours into the room, the only way to save Amidala is for Obi Wan to seal his lips over hers and breathe for her (bingo–cue infatuation of a young girl for a handsome hero somewhat older than her). What follows is a mad-cap race through the city to the water, where they barely escape (insert CGI robot villains here) by taking the risky course through the Planet Core (over Qui Gon’s objections). We then meet with the Gungan and Amidala/Qui Gon have to negotiate a ship to escape the planet.
- The escape from the planet goes pretty much the same as before, and we wind up at Tatooine. Here Darth Maul is hunting them the whole time and tries to assassinate Amidala. Maul outsmarts Qui Gon and almost gets her, save for the intervention of a young slave who is curiously strong in the force. Obi Wan advocates for his release and, eventually, Qui Gon is convinced after he meets Annakin’s mother. Cue Pod Race for kid’s freedom and then Touching Goodbye (unchanged–Schmi Skywalker is the best part of Episode 1, kid you not). There is no mention of metichlorians, cause who the hell cares *why* the Force works?
- Go to Coruscant, cue drama with Annakin/Obi Wan/Qui Gon. The backdrop is with Amidala/Palpatine. Have Obi Wan explain that he and Amidala can never be together (silly girl). Suddenly Coruscant becomes more interesting, doesn’t it?
- Return, cue big fight. This is roughly unchanged, but sees our characters finish their now-existent arcs: Annakin finds his calling, Obi Wan is (finally) given power, but at the terrible price of his Master’s death, Amidala, hurt by Obi Wan, gives them a hero’s send-off, and Yoda pronounces his terrible prophesy.
See? The movie really isn’t that bad if you just give your characters something to do for a reason. These changes also set things up for the next two movies, too–we’re telling a tragedy here, so we need to work on building pathos. Anyway, there’s my .02, for what they’re worth. Not much, I know, but hey, a guy’s entitled to his opinions, right?
I’d go see this movie, anyway. There’s no way Lucas is getting $15 from me to watch his dull version again. I saw it four times when it came out and twice since then–I’m done.
I have a toddler, so I watch a lot of Disney movies. They get me thinking sometimes about how the rest of the world must view the activities of the characters in these films and, furthermore, what the news headlines would look like if people actually tried this stuff. So, just for fun, here are my takes on the news headlines for all those Disney flicks that happen in times and places where they have newspapers.
#1: 101 Dalmatians
Eccentric DeVille Heiress Torn Apart By Dogs
#2: The Jungle Book
Wild Child Institutionalized
“The Monkeys Want Our Fire”, Claims Boy
#3: Peter Pan
Darling Children Fall to Deaths
Parents Used Dog as Babysitter, Authorities Claim
#4: Alice in Wonderland
Innocent Girl Addicted to Opiates
Governess Under Investigation
#5: Lady and the Tramp
Wealthy Couple Under Investigation for Child Endangerment
Wild Dogs, Rats Found in Infant’s Room
Deranged Woodcarver Arrested for Kidnapping
“He’s a puppet I brought to life, honestly!” claims accused.
Cut-rate Circus Bankrupted by Elephant-Lifting Crane
Ringleader still insists ‘Dumbo’ can fly.
#8: Blackbeard’s Ghost
Local Track Coach Murdered By Mob
I could go on. Got any of your own?
Science Fiction, by and large, deals in monolithic political organizations. The Federation of Planets, the Galactic Federation, the Terran Empire, the Global Hegemony, and so on and so forth. Here’s my question, though: where the hell do these writers get off thinking this is going to happen? The may become a bit of a rant, so here we go:
The answer is zero. Zero times, as in never. Not once, even for a minute.
I mean, I understand the authorial motivation for creating a single world government–the world government in those scenarios is simply an analog for the author’s own national government and culture that, for the sake of convenience, has eradicated or supplanted all other indigenous world governments. It makes things easier, certainly–everybody speaks the same language, politics becomes notably easier to understand, and you can spend most of your authorial energies on writing about the stuff everybody actually cares about (that being ray guns, spaceships, and bloodthirsty aliens).
The thing is, though, that it is enormously unlikely to happen as imagined by so many authors. At the very least, humanity would have to change significantly in order for it to occur. In the fullness of time, perhaps, this will happen, but right now it is practically impossible. Can you imagine the UN actually passing laws? Laws that the rest of the world actively obeys? I can’t. Why listen to the UN? What do I care if some guy in Central Africa thinks Europe has too much money? Who is he and his people to badger me about my use of incandescent light bulbs? Screw him. I say, with full realization that this is a heartless and selfish position, that I couldn’t care less about the opinions or problems of a group of foreigners I barely know anything about.
Scoff at me as you like, enlightened ones, but consider this: I am by no means alone. There is some science behind this, too. It’s called Dunbar’s Number, and it basically dictates the human brain is incapable of maintaining social relationships (i.e. ‘caring’) with more than a finite number of people. Now, this can be made abstract to some extent (I can care about my country or my state or my city, for instance), but the relationship is necessarily different. In any case, this simple concept demonstrates a severe limitation to the establishment of a World State.
This idea is only exacerbated by the fact that there are such profound cultural differences across the world. These differences cause major diplomatic disconnects, misunderstandings, and are great barriers to these peoples making common cause with one another. Do you think the women of the West are likely to embrace Saudi Arabia? Are the Turks ever likely to see eye-to-eye with Greece to the point where they’d merge states? Do you think the Taiwanese are going to be re-absorbed into China without a fight? Not likely. I’d be less surprised if all of Mexico applied for US statehood.
Our future, assuming we have one (and I keep hoping), is going to have disparate political factions and nation-states for
a very long time. Should a galaxy-wide empire be established, it isn’t going to be some kind of Galactic Republic. We are more likely to see the pan-galactic feudal states of Dune or Warhammer 40,000. These governments are not made up of a people unified, but rather by a collection of disparate people subjected to the will of a greater external force that, by hook or by crook, binds the galaxy together to one will.
Sound dark? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I’m afraid I don’t see the alternative, however, unless people cease being people and become something else. Granted, this might just happen, but I’m skeptical. Interestingly enough, if it is to happen, it may come from the places we least expect it. Take the Internet, for instance–if there is any place where human divisions are made less prominent, it is there. Then again, there are also those corners of the internet that make you despair for the future of our race more than anything else (I’m looking at you, comments section on YouTube and Yahoo Answers).
As I’ve said before, predicting the future is ultimately a fool’s game. All I can do is look backwards and see what’s happened before. The evidence, I feel, is pretty clear: No Federation of Planets for us. We are more likely to wind up with the Baroque Machinery of the Golden Throne.
The Good News: A few months back, I earned a semi-finalist finish in the Writers of the Future Contest, which I feel is kind of a big deal. It came with a nice certificate and, more importantly, a personalized critique from scifi writer KD Wentworth. In the overwhelming complexity and drama of my personal life during this same period, however, I feared that, due to my recent move, my ‘prize’ was going to be lost in the mail. It wasn’t; I got the critique yesterday.
Turns out they really liked my story–it was among the very last to be cut. Considering that they receive thousands of entries each quarter, this is good news. Furthermore, those aspects of the story I was most concerned with perfecting (the struggle of the main character, the resolution to that struggle, and the emotional gravity of the situation) was, according to her words, very engaging. Great!
The Bad News: What got my story cut was that an aspect of the story was drawing upon a trope that is as old as the hills–a demon in a box that can turn upon its owner at any time. She and the rest of the judges apparently felt that other stories were more original (and I have no doubt that they were in this regard) and she gave me some substantive advice on how to make the story better by fixing this element. Appropriately, this was the element that I had obsessed over the least and that I hadn’t really considered a problem. Good–I’m learning. That’s supremely important to me.
How Original is Original?
As I have mulled this problem over the last few hours, here’s the thing I keep circling back to: just how different do we have to make things to make them new, but without making them so new that we lose the thematic and cultural resonance we’re seeking. To suggest that fantasy fiction doesn’t draw upon myth, legend, and folklore is ridiculous. My story about a demon in a box obviously isn’t the first, but it also isn’t the last nor will demons in boxes be relegated to some kind of literary no-fly zone so that nobody who writes about them will be successful. Nonsense.
So, then, if I’m to change the demon somehow (and I will; I think Wentworth’s critique is spot-on and really helpful), what kind of change are we talking here? Physical (not in a box but a sheep’s bladder?), operational (it doesn’t want your soul, but rather your eyes or your hair or your sense of humor), metaphorical (it doesn’t represent evil, but simply fear or despair or even, just for the hell of it, hope), or what? Is this enough? Of note, it isn’t called a demon, but rather a ghul, and the setting is sufficiently unique from your average fantasy tale to keep it interesting–I assumed I had done enough to make it fresh. Perhaps it was fresh, but maybe not fresh enough.
But where do you stop?
I’ve written about this problem before. I need to change the rules somehow, shake things up. How is, of course, my trouble (I’m not fishing for suggestions), and perhaps I’m overthinking this. Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful bit of critique for all of us to hear, even if we haven’t heard it said about our own work. We can’t rest on the shoulders of those who have come before us. We do not have that luxury, not when the competition is so fierce.
I need to push myself–go somewhere new, explore. You should too.
Dear Doctor Oblivion,
We here at Financial and Operational Underwriting Limited (FOUL) are pleased to accept your request for our free informational packet detailing our services and advising methods. Please understand that, while this packet does not come with a financial responsibility, that does not mean it is entirely obligation free. You will have noted, no doubt, the fine white powder that was released upon opening the envelope. You have been poisoned with a slow-acting metabolic inhibitor. The antidote may be released at any time by burning these materials and inhaling the vapors released. You, of course, understand. Discretion and informational security is our number one concern here at FOUL.
This document is a basic primer and overview of our recommendations regarding your declared needs. More detailed information may be found in packet’s A-D and, of course, an even more extensive listing of our precise services can be obtained once you sign on as a beneficiary of our services. Presuming the metabolic poison hasn’t killed you first, naturally.
FOUL is fully equipped to finance and support the establishment of a secret base of operations anywhere in the world. Indeed, this is an exciting time for evil geniuses, in that real-estate prices are at an all-time low in many sectors of the world. Some of our most popular packages include:
- Small European Countries: Given the financial duress of much of Europe at the moment, it is an uncommonly good time to purchase or annex a small country, complete with population and infrastructure, for your use. Portions of Greece, Spain, and Italy, in particular, are ripe for purchase, and can be obtained for competitive rates. In those instances, we do recommend the optional ‘Enforcer Robots’ package, as the populations of those countries are currently indisposed towards slave labor.
- Middle American Subterranean: The housing crisis in the United States has also brought the price down on the coveted, but typically very expensive, continental US subterranean base. Indeed, much of so-called ‘Middle America’ is so strapped for new construction and real-estate projects that wide portions of prarieland can be claimed and utilized for your nefarious purposes. That is, of course, once you bulldoze the endless fields of WalMarts and strip malls and put an end to their nefarious purposes.
- Volcano Base: An old standby, our most affordable packages on isolated volcanic islands are available at record lows, primarily due to the vagaries of weather patterns in both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. Please understand that FOUL will not forgive any loans for bases actually destroyed by volcanic eruption. Our geologists have been known to make mistakes.
- Extraterrestrial Bases: Currently, we are not recommending extraterrestrial base options–the moon, orbital stations, Mars, etc.–primarily due to the increased cost of accessing space these days. However, that same inaccessibility translates to even greater security–superheroes and secret agents can’t hitch a ride on the space shuttle anymore, which translates to lower security costs for you!
Minions, of course, are among the greatest expenses an evil overlord can expect to pay. It is difficult to convince the average thug to abandon his familiar environs to work regular shifts in a foreign place. Disciplined, talented people can typically acquire employment in so-called ‘legitimate’ industries and live without being exposed to the murderous disdain of their superiors.However, the global economic downturn once again is working in your favor! As this is written, fully one in four Spaniards is without gainful employment! Vast swathes of Americans are without health insurance! The youth of Britain despair at their ability to find gainful employment in a country slashing government spending at record levels! Rejoice!The FOUL system offers a decent healthplan and competitive salary to the minions it recruits, and we know just where to find fools desperate enough to accept the fine print! In addition to the lowly thugs and social deviants we are usually forced to employ, we’ll give you access to a wide array of factory workers, teachers, public employees, and other blue-collar, hard-working folk. We even offer two-for-one deals on Greeks!
Death traps are a key aspect to any security system/entertainment center at your secret base. We at FOUL take great pride in customizing your portfolio to accommodate a wide variety of tastes and styles, from your basic poison gas traps to your more elaborate laser-labyrinths, fun-house pitfalls, and the ever-popular monster-in-a-pit.
However, we do caution new clients from going overboard on the bells and whistles. Death traps are, frankly, rarely used and can be an enormous expense. Feeding pit monsters alone can cost millions every year, not even including the cost of handlers, trainers, and behavioral specialists. We do not offer refunds on any death trap that fails to operate or is turned against its owner–responsible use and deployment of these traps is YOUR responsibility.
The Doomsday Device
Of course, no portfolio would be complete without options for financing your own personal doomsday device. Naturally, we at FOUL are in the business of fulfilling your dreams for world domination, and we hesitate to place limitations on your creativity and ambition in this regard. However, we do have to remind you that we will not finance any device that blows up the planet Earth itself. FOUL has significant holdings on planet Earth and we cannot support its outright destruction. We are totally on-board, however, for enslaving, obliterating, ethnically cleansing, bombarding, extorting, or conquering any portion of the globe. This limitation strikes us as reasonable and also good business.
All schematics for doomsday devices must be approved by an engineer of our choosing prior to funds being released. This engineer is immediately shot after viewing these plans and delivering his or her report, so full discretion is assured. Proof of their decease is available upon request, though taxidermy costs extra. Currently we are offering discounts to any and all doomsday devices that run on a slow countdown with periodic PA announcements.
We here at FOUL wish you all the best and hope that we can be of service financing your evil schemes. Please keep in mind that the pounding of your heart at this juncture is likely the early stages of the poison affecting you. We suggest burning this portion of the portfolio now in order to maintain consciousness for sufficient time to peruse the rest. Thank you, and we look forward to hearing from you.