Final Fantasy XV; a Beautiful Dearth of Explorative Storytelling

I mentioned Final Fantasy XV back in my year in review, but I would like to spend a bit more time looking at one of the strangest video game experiences I have ever had. For those that don’t know the game, here’s the plot; you play as Noctis (the ultimate emo prince) who, along with his entourage of Ignis (British and likes to cook), Gladiolus (who has the muscles to back up that name), and Prompto (almost endearing in his hyperactivity), goes on a roadtrip to marry his fiance Lunafreya (there’s no joke here because we never get to know her). Shortly after starting that trip, Noctis’s home city, Insomnia, is taken over by their longtime enemies the Niflheim Empire and Noctis’s father, the king, is killed.

We learn of this invasion over a cell phone call.

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Noctis and friends then continue their journey, now going after magical super-weapons and gaining the help of gods so Noctis can take the throne and save his people, and then when the real villain is revealed, save the world. For a while this works, despite the product placement Cup Noodles mission. Noctis and his friends are wonderfully drawn out and their relationship is the most functional thing in the whole game. Together you drive from place to place, never really going anywhere, fight monsters, complete missions, and prepare until you’re ready to go meet Lunafreya on another continent for help.

Then, after fighting an exhilarating boss fight, the game railroads you. Literally.

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Railroading here refers to the action of putting a game on rails, forcing every player down the exact same linear path. It’s coined for making a game similar to riding a train, where there is only one route it can travel down. The irony is that when Final Fantasy XV puts you on rails, they literally put you on a train for the back third of the game.

This is where the game starts to fall apart, barely making it to the end. The story becomes loosely stitched together, with a lot of plot points happening off screen. It leaves you feeling confused more than anything else. Now the director of the game is planning new cutscenes to fill in those blanks and a few more dlc updates, which is a whole other post worth writing about. But I want to talk about those cutscenes.

A cutscene is when the game takes away all player control and treats them to a scene as if they were watching a movie. They’re not necessarily bad, they’re just not the best way for a video game to tell a story. Video games have the unique ability to tell us about a world and a person, not by simply telling us, but by having us discover it at our own pace. For example:

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That’s from Bioshock Infinite, a game that opens with you taking a boat to a lighthouse and finding a flying contraption inside that takes you up to a floating city in the sky. You play through all of this. As you walk around this city you discover the people there revere the American founding fathers as if they were gods, and they carry with them the racial and gender politics of their time. So much so, that when you save a Black woman from being killed all hell breaks loose around you and the rest of the game is spent fighting for your life. And then traversing multiple realities. Which, yeah it’s weird, but you get to discover all of that as you run and fight across this incredibly designed city. I would argue the game would be better with far less of the running and gunning element, so I will offer two more examples from one of my favorite games from last year:

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That’s from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. There’s a large chunk of gameplay, far more than I expected, centered around how young Nathan Drake and his older brother Sam broke into a woman’s house to steal back some of their deceased mother’s possessions. Moving through the house is entirely exploration based, with a puzzle element here or there. But the real joy is entering this mansion and finding it full of incredible archeological items apparently found during the career of the old woman who lives there. As you continue you stumble across letters left behind by the woman’s husband and then her son. You learns her whole life story, how she married, how she left in pursuit of greater adventure, how her son hates her for it, so that when you eventually meet her you understand her. It’s great, so great that the game does it again in its own epilogue.

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This time you play as Nathan’s daughter, Cassie, as you move through the house he built. For the player it’s magnificent to see everything Nathan has made of his life, and through the eyes of a girl who doesn’t know about his adventurous past we’ve spent four games playing through. It’s the best game epilogue there’s been in my opinion.

Which brings me back to Final Fantasy XV, a game that never lets you visit Insomnia until its 10 years on and the end of the world. So when the characters all reminisce about how it used to be, I have no context. The game should have started in Insomnia and let us explore it so we could feel that anguish when we came back. When we go to Niflheim, they should have built the whole country to we could see how different it is from Lucis, Noctis’s country. Which reminds me, they did:

It’s empty landscape, but imagining driving through those landscapes which are so different from any other we’ve seen just makes me sad we didn’t. Even Niflheim’s capital, which we do play through, is all empty hallways!

In the game they talk about how days are getting shorter and nights are getting longer and more dangerous. This is a game where a significant gameplay mechanic is finding places to rest at night because the monsters are too powerful. Imagine noticing that, incrementally, the days get shorter as the game goes on. I’m sure that was the original intention but because the game was forced out sooner than it was ready we’re left with someone relaying that information on a train.

The best example of explorative storytelling in the game is when you inexplicable jumpy forward in time by 10 years.

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It’s night all the time, and you play through some early areas but now taken over by demons. A character you knew as a child picks you up in his car, where he’s kept the little cactus mementos you picked up for him. It hits you like a hammer as he drives you across the map and you see your whole country has been decimated by demons. It works like gangbusters, which is why I know the designers had the capability to get it right, they just didn’t have the time frame.

Still, this was a learning experience for me. I don’t think I would have had the capability to know how best to tell a video game story until I started filling in Final Fantasy XV’s blanks in my head. All the levels it needed to become something truly special. It’s a weird thing to say, but in this case its altogether true.

Is that a thing, learning through disappointment in something?

-JP

PS, outside of its storytelling I do think the game is solid, and I really like the combat system.

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La La Land; Bringing the Past into the Future

La La Land is not a modern film, every inch of it from script to direction to performances has the bearing of a classic. La La Land’s siblings include Singing in the Rain, West Side Story, and Guys and Dolls. All of this is clear by the time the title appears on screen in large letters with quotations marks surrounding it, “Distributed by Summit Entertainment” slyly resting at the bottom, just like the way those classics presented themselves. Director Damien Chazelle even wanted a classic title card sequence just like in those films, but they did not ened up going that way. This is a classic movie musical, it just happens to be made in 2016.

I’m about to go on a brief tangent but I promise it will circle back to the point. Why do we make remakes? Okay, yes, to make money off of an established property, but I think when people first started with remakes they had a different reason. Sometimes you watch an older film and can’t help but think it is held back by the technology of its time. La La Land is that film that’s been made with modern technologies but classic storytelling sensibilities and intentions. Actors have always been strong, and long takes could always allow them to show their skill, but the Steadicam had not yet been invented so those scenes could not be as mobile as they are here. To create a magical realism in a performance space, one with a good amount of color, the film would have to build a set on an interior sound stage. One that looks so different from the real world that the film explains it away as a dream sequence:

Or just show you the set for what it is and let the actors take you the rest of the way:

But today a film can use color correction to create that color as well as good old fashioned lighting. A film can use sky replacement to put the look of a matte painting onto the real world.

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And when the movie does choose to build an interior dream sequence set, its able to use this technology to look and move incredibly.

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La La Land brings these classical film making techniques into the present, a setting they are rarely used in. The technology has changed, but so has society. The leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are more or less on equal footing whereas a classic would favor him over her. In fact, Emma Stone’s Mia has a stronger arc than Ryan’s Sebastian and makes use out of all of her considerable talent.

Although, real talk, Ryan Gosling has no business being as talented as he is. That boy is so pretty he could have picked up a superhero costume years ago and be cashing checks today, instead he works hard to have the skill to match his looks. Emma Stone, on the other hand, is masterfully avoiding being typecast in any one kind of role. She did a zombie comedy, a high school comedy, and a superhero movie, but also an oscar bait period piece, however you describe Birdman, and now a classical movie musical.

La La Land feels like a movie that shouldn’t exist, and yet one that we desperately need. It is at once instantly of the present but also timeless.It’s the kind of film that studios do not produce anymore, and one that clearly wouldn’t have been produced had Chazelle not made Whiplash as well. It is a film I walked out of without a single complaint. A beautiful and poignant film, and one that you’ll be hearing a lot about as the Oscars come around.

Which brings me back to my comment about remakes. Yes, clearly they’re a problem. But that initial idea of showing a classic what it could look like today is still an admirable one. Which is why we should support a studio trend of throwbacks and not traditional remakes. Movies that hold onto the emotion and style of a bygone time but use modern technology and sensibilities to help them achieve what they never could in their time.

-JP

PS, The soundtrack is also top notch. Give it a listen!

You Should be Watching Teen Wolf

Once upon a time there was a pitch meeting at MTV with a man named Jeff Davis.

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Seen here understanding what he’s done

He pitched an adaptation of the classic 80s comedy Teen Wolf.

“Huh. So it’s about a basketball player who finds out he’s part of a family of werewolves?”

No! It’s about a lacrosse player who gets bitten by a werewolf in the woods while searching for half a dead body!

“Wait what? Why lacrosse?”

Well obviously…

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“That’s not really an answer.”

Isn’t it?

“Stop it!”

Alright.

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“What’s with all of the slo-mo?”

Listen to me. Do not question the slo-mo. Embrace the slo-mo. Love the slo-mo.

“Alright fine. Whatever. So the main guy and his dad are werewolves–“

No! His dad is a mostly absent FBI agent!

“I’m confused. This doesn’t sound like a comedy.”

That’s because it isn’t. Teen Wolf the show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer by way of MTV! This Teen Wolf fights monsters that threaten his home town.

“I don’t think you know what an adaptation is.”

And it turns out I don’t care! Listen, I have no fantasies of thinking Teen Wolf is a great show. It’s hardly a good show. But then there are moments, a few each season, when Teen Wolf becomes the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. My comment about it being Buffy isn’t quite accurate. Buffy was a very well written show with a lot of charisma that, for the most part, was directed very blandly. They mostly just pointed the camera in the right direction. Teen Wolf is an exceptionally well directed show with rousing music, its own great charisma, and for the most part sub-par writing.

Let’s break it down! Have a trailer:

Starring

Tyler Posey as Scott McCall, the titular Teen Wolf.

Dylan O’Brien as Stiles, the comic relief character who grows into a co-lead. This is thanks in no small part to Dylan’s place as the breakout star of the show.

You may recognize Dylan as the lead in the Maze Runner movies.

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By the way, nothing speaks to the transformative power of being an MTV star than this guy. At the start of the series he’s a short haired goofball. Now he’s a smoldering hunk.

Crystal Reed as Allison Argent, Scott’s girlfriend who’s family is made up entirely of Werewolf hunters. DRAMA!

Holland Roden as Lydia, who gets the most and best character development across the entire series.

Tyler Hoechlin as Derek Hale, Scott’s mentor werewolf who is basically allergic to happiness.

You may also recognize Tyler as Superman on Supergirl.

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Colton Haynes as Jackson, who is the worst right up until he moves to Star City after season two.

That last one’s from Arrow.

For the first two and a half seasons the show follows a fairly straightforward story curve. More werewolves and worse werewolves. The first season is about Scott learning to control his powers while Allison’s family moves in on him and she learns about their history. Season 2 is about Scott’s existence as an Omega, a wolf without a pack, while Derek’s pack grows in strength and a monster called a Kanima runs around on the loose. Season 3A (yeah it’s one of those) is about Scott’s own growing pack coming up against a pack made entirely of Alpha Werewolves, the strongest kind there are while an evil Druid runs around on the loose. It’s at the end of 3A when Scott, Stiles, and Allison basically open a hellmouth in Beacon Hills when the show starts falling apart a bit.

It’s very clear when you’re watching this show how little Jeff Davis planned ahead. Isn’t that right Jeff?

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I appreciate your apology. Teen Wolf suffers from the same issue as the X-Files. The creator is not the best writer. See, Jeff ends every season with a cliffhanger. A new pack arriving or another monster’s first kill, but the following season is almost always focused on something entirely different. In season 3B the pack fights Oni and an evil Kitsune. In season 4 the pack fights hunters but also inexplicably Mexican Berserkers and a were-jaguar. In season 5 the pack fights the Dread Doctors who freaking suck but also chimeras and a super werewolf. Honestly season 5 is a mess.

Last night season 6 premiered. I’m gonna post the trailer down here because, even with diminishing returns, this show knows how to cut a damn fine trailer.

So the bad guys are Ghost Riders. Which is only weird if you’re also watching Agents of SHIELD where they’re dealing with… Ghost Rider.

Like most good shows, Teen Wolf loses itself a bit as it goes on. The writing staff changed. The actor turn over is too constant. The fans know what they want, demand it loudly, but they never ever know what they need. And yet, I am still on board to the end.

Last night I watched Arrival, which is a very smart movie, then I immediately chased it with Teen Wolf, which is a very dumb show. But you know what? We all need dumb shows. They allow us to “turn off our brains” and go to a much less complex world than our own. That simplicity allows the cinematic, the scary, the visceral action moments to hit harder than other shows, and because your brain is off you didn’t expect anything of that caliber.

That’s when Teen Wolf becomes the greatest thing you’ve ever seen.

You can find all past seasons of Teen Wolf on Amazon Prime instant video. The current season airs Tuesdays at 9 on MTV.

-JP

PS, I apologize if you’re not here for gifs.

Power Marketing

Yesterday the teaser trailer for 2017’s Power Rangers dropped. Take a look:

Now I am a lifelong Power Rangers fan. I think it’s pretty cool that I am the same age as the franchise. I went to the Power Rangers convention, Power Morphicon. But what I am always hard pressed to find online is anybody writing intelligently about a franchise centered around multicolored teen superheroes fighting monsters with giant robots for half hours at a time.

Oh right. The premise is probably why.

But there’s been something bothering me about the early marketing campaign for Power Rangers that I really want to talk about. The trailer carries many influences on its sleeve; The Breakfast Club and Chronicle for example. I also see shades of last year’s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. But you know what franchise’s tone I can’t find here? Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Remember Mighty Morphin?

It’s all on Netflix in its zany 90s weirdness.

Okay, that scene might be a little too ridiculous for the movie. But what I am saying is that it’s strange for this series to be actively running away from its roots. It isn’t like Power Rangers is trying to appeal to a newer and younger fanbase, because Power Rangers is still on TV. It’s in its 23rd season, which means are still growing up on the same kind of show and it’s still ridiculous.

Power Rangers is an incredibly kinetic series. The characters are always moving, either in action or emotion, but the movie has instead made the baffling decision to release the most static character posters I’ve ever seen.

I can see why they would want to start the campaign by introducing us to our new rangers as all of the actors are relative unknowns. Hell, the original characters from the show were essentially cardboard cutouts so this a chance to redefine them as well. But I don’t know about you but I’m not gleaning anything from these posters. If I didn’t already know what movie I am looking at I would be pretty lost there too. They continued that theme with their next teaser poster.

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Hah! Jason doesn’t even get to stand on the car.

Again, the only thing telling you this is a power rangers movie is the hashtag at the bottom of the poster. The teaser trailer referred to this franchise as a “worldwide phenomenon”, So where are the recognizable elements of the franchise? Where are the suits? Where are the giant robots, the zords?

Oh wait, here they are.

And although they only give a fraction of a view of the giant dinosaur themed color coded robots, these are probably the most effective posters the movie has put out. You look at them and you know, yup those are the power rangers. It even says GO GO as a tag line, a call back to the most 90s theme song of all time. These posters can even allow you to gleam a bit of the rangers’ personalities in the ways they relax on their zords, although once again they could do to be a bit more in motion. That being said, after Pacific Rim and Godzilla giant monsters and robots are in vogue right now. Why hide that this movie will have them?

So with all of this rattling in my head, I find myself wondering who they are aiming at with the above teaser trailer. I have talked to a bunch of people who found it appealing. They are all normal socially capable people who have long since moved on from this franchise. It’s only the weird adult fans like myself who are taking umbrage with this. All of this draws me to the most terrifying conclusion of all;

They aren’t making this movie for me.

It’s a fair move to make. Frankly, I was always going to see this movie. So are all of the other grown Power Rangers fans. If this movie wants to hit big it has to draw the attention of those that grew out of the franchise. It’s turned a story of the most good and popular kids in school balancing class and work with saving the world from monsters into a story about a group of outsiders learning to trust in each other, and through that lens trust in themselves, to save the world from an alien (read: mysterious) threat. Or at least that’s what the marketing is saying right now. I wish the movie the best of luck. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.

– JP

PS, while I find the pacific northwest beautiful I do worry that making Angle Grove a small town instead of a city will take away from the scale of the zord fights.

You Have to Vote

On Monday I watched the first Presidential Debate (about as visceral as Monday Night Raw). Later, after the debate ended my roommate came home and I tried to talk to him about it. He said, “you can’t get wrapped up in all that craziness.” I couldn’t even think of a response. How can anybody dismiss this one out of hand?

This is the second presidential election I’ve participated in and I don’t think there’s ever been a more important one.

The prospect of a human monster like Donald Trump becoming the highest power in America is terrifying. The idea that he’s nearly neck and neck with Hilary Clinton is even more so. That’s why I’m making my voice heard to plead to you. If you can vote. Vote.

This post is more or less inspired by the savetheday.vote movement. They’ve released two videos so far. The first is funny and filled with celebrities:

The second one, however, is more effective in my eyes:

I’ve met a lot of people who are utterly disenchanted by the political process. They believe that there isn’t a point in voting and we’ve already failed as a democracy. A decent amount of them were also Bernie Sanders supporters.

The greatest thing the Bernie Sanders campaign did was get a lot of people my age who never wanted to give politics a second glance, and make them fervent supporters of a candidate. Their candidate may not have gotten the nomination but the movement still created a palpable result. Suddenly people were taking a closer look at the democratic process, and realizing all of its massive flaws.

Frankly, any kind of delegate in a primary or the electoral college in the November election is entirely unnecessary in a modern day voting system. I mean dear god why would I want to cast a vote to give somebody else the right to cast a more important vote who may not vote the same way I did in the first place! We don’t live in a time where it’s difficult to count the popular vote, it’s actually really easy, so shouldn’t that be the end all be all?

Because more young people have caught on to this insanity, more are demanding that these things change. The problem is we can’t change these things during an election. If we want to change these systems, we have to bring it up before the general election. To do that you have to bring it up to your congressman or senator. If your congressman or senator doesn’t support your interests, then that’s when your vote matters. You can vote for someone else when those representatives come up for reelection. You can vote for your local government to fix that pot hole in the street by your home. You’re vote can change both the small and the large. But you have to vote.

Jon Oliver, over on Last Week Tonight, gave a whole piece about the insanity of the primary process. He recommended we all email our party leaders on February 2nd 2017 to ask them to fix the primary system.

The republican chair is Reince Priebus, which doesn’t sound like a real name but apparently is. The democratic chair is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, or at least is was until we all learned she and other leaders conspired against Bernie Sanders at the DNC. She stepped down, mostly because we the people demanded her to after she was caught, because that’s the beauty of democracy. The new chair for the democrats is Donna Brazile of Louisiana.

Also, devil’s advocate for a second, if Republican leaders conspired against Donald Trump and prevented him from getting this far would any of us be upset? I wouldn’t be. I don’t think it’s entirely wrong for the party to have a preference.

I don’t want to tell you who to vote for, I just want you to vote. Because it really is the most important thing we can do to make our country a better place. Democracy was founded on the principle that a well informed populace could make the right decision on who should lead them, and we live in a time when our populace is better informed than ever before. Let’s use that! Let’s actually change the world. All you have to do is vote.

-JP

PS, but seriously I’m terrified he might win.

An Anecdote on Democracy

When I was a Freshman in High School, we elected a girl named Nina to be our Class President.

Nina was an Indian girl who took almost entirely honor classes. She was smart and kind and responsible far beyond her years. Under her leadership our class successfully completed fundraiser after fundraiser. The money from these going towards our eventual class trip to Disney World in Florida.

Her tenure for that first year was an unmitigated success, so in Sophomore year we reelected her and the good times rolled. I know her government was strong because, like any good student government, nobody really talked about it. We only really notice when there’s a problem.

Things changed in Junior year. I remember hearing about Nina’s big competition, not by reading any campaign poster, but by hearing guys around the hallways bellow, “ROSS THE BOSS!” at completely random intervals.

Out of nowhere a movement of white men began to elect their own candidate, Ross, into office. Their main reason for running against Nina was, well, “she’s a bitch”.

The election became more of a farce than a lesson in politics. Ross’s supporters would boo Nina when she went to speak at debates. They called her out for being elitist and raised Ross up as a candidate of the people. Despite all this, I figured Nina would win once more. I figured only assholes were voting for Ross, and from what I knew of my class the asshole vote was very small.

But he won.

The campaign against Nina made enough people in the school dislike her that they chose to elect Ross the Boss.

What followed was a year of pure net loss for our class. Our financial savings for our senior trip dwindled as our government planned failing fundraiser after dance after failing fundraiser. It could have crippled us had it continued for another year. Luckily we elected someone else to office and salvaged our trip.

The reason I’m writing down this story should be obvious to anybody paying attention to the presidential election. Candidates and their supporters are acting as childish as a bunch of idiotic High School Juniors. In my school the wrong candidate won, not because their policies were better, but because their supporters were dedicated enough to turn public opinion against the best candidate.

I don’t want to use this platform to tell you who I think the best candidate is. What I can say is, make sure you know what you are voting for and not who you are voting for. Find out their policies, and then take a look at those policies from a third party source. Check them on their blatant lies, because right now they will say anything to win. They’re like a toddler who just wants a cookie SO bad.

I think the American political process is coming up upon a major turning point, and I for one hope it’s one led by logic and reasoning and not passion and anger.

To my nerds out there: Think Vulcan, Don’t Act Romulan.

-JP

PS – But seriously, the Electoral College needs to be removed from the whole process. It’s stupid.