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Before yesterdayStories by Dylan Greene on Medium

Kingdom Hearts: A Beachside Burial

Spoilers for Kingdom Hearts 3

If you told me as a kid that there was going to be a crossover of Final Fantasy and Disney characters stuffed into a game, I’d be pretty thrilled. I know that because that’s exactly how I felt as a kid.

If you told me that it would eventually culminate in a barrage of Heartless, Nobodies, Unversed, an ever-increasing roster of original characters and Sora’s heart turning into an AirBnB, I’d laugh in your face.

Nevertheless, the idea of Kingdom Hearts at least corresponded to the well-publicized theme song “Simple and Clean.” Creatures called the Heartless are invading worlds based on Disney films and it’s up to the player to close the keyholes with their magical Keyblade.

It was a fun romp, an action RPG that was an interesting experiment. But now, that vision of the franchise has largely been eclipsed by the door to darkness that the followups managed to open.

Overstuffed

It’s very clear that Kingdom Hearts was originally going to be one installment, since Chernabog was originally the source of all Heartless. Obviously, this plot element was dropped, but this is also why his boss battle remains in the game. For the most part, Kingdom Hearts wraps up pretty smoothly. Ansem is defeated, Mickey and Sora close Kingdom Hearts, Kairi is separated from Sora, and it ends with Sora, Donald, and Goofy looking for King Mickey and Riku. A thread for the next game, but not much else.

The problems with the narrative happened almost immediately, with the subsequent games attempting to find a suitable villain for both the story and gameplay.

Chain of Memories was slightly confusing, at least from what I can remember from my teenage years. That said, it wasn’t overwhelming in its approach. The premise of Sora losing his memories makes this thematically appropriate.

I can’t say the same for Kingdom Hearts 2. The moment when the headaches start is when Mickey reveals the existence of Xehanort, that the “Ansem” the player beats wasn’t actually Ansem.

There’s a hidden problem with discussing the narrative of Kingdom Hearts. Most fans will acknowledge that the plot gets messy and difficult to follow, with the need to either play all the games in order or to watch hours of YouTube videos worth of cutscenes. The plot possesses the complexity of a political thriller, which is ultimately at odds with its comparatively simple theming of darkness, hearts, and friendship.

What seems to be missing from discussing the plot of Kingdom Hearts is the fact that many of these retcons are not only confusing, they actively undercut or completely nullify previous parts of the story. The series says to you “Nope, didn’t count!” Ansem? Nope, it’s really Xehanort. Sora wins over the will of the Keyblade through his epiphany about friendship? Nope, it’s because he has Ventus’s heart inside him. Roxas’s understanding that he has to become part of Sora, part of something bigger? That moment when he glumly states, “Guess my summer vacation is over.” Well, they got a vessel for him so he’s back.

Bring back Xion, bring back the researchers who became Organization XIII. Maybe Maleficient will show up to look vaguely menacing before fading into the background and Pete crosses his arms. You won’t see them again.

There’s no finality at all, no sense of conclusion. No one can ever stay dead or submerged in darkness, or otherwise removed from the action. Death is a revolving door. Remember the Birth by Sleep characters? Bring them back too.

By the time we get to Kingdom Hearts 3, A-plots, B-plots, and Z-plots fight for narrative dominance. Your best bet is just to not try remembering anything, and the narrative handles it the same way. Sora stumbles about like a stoner coming down a high, crashing into a world and asking “Wait, why am I here?”

There isn’t a clear goal like in Kingdom Hearts 1 or 2 that serves as the narrative throughline. Olympus is where Sora goes to find his strength, but that plot thread is quickly forgotten. One minute he wants to bring back Roxas, another minute he’s looking for a black box. The group stumbles through Disney universes like cosmic photobombers, fitting given that Sora has a Gummiphone. When Sora finally uses his Keyblade, it feels like a sudden jolt. Wait, that was a thing still? I think he only did that once throughout the entire game, twice if you count him picking up Aqua’s Keyblade.

Riku has gone from a rival to a full-blown self-insert for Tetsuya Nomura, now conspicuously looking more like Noctis from Final Fantasy XV. FFXV salt is further emphasized in Toy Box, where we’re treated to Verum Rex, the version of Final Fantasy XV that Nomura desperately wanted to make. Riku spends most of the game off doing his own thing with Mickey, being all dark and edgy in whatever PG way he can.

The very core concept of Kingdom Hearts gets even murkier. It enters the narrative way late, and by that time you’ve heard a whole bunch of self-indulgent dialogue full of hearts, Nobodies, and darkness. What do those things even mean anymore? Why are we in the Disney worlds? The plot doesn’t really mention why they matter in this context. The narrative of the series has outgrown the game’s overarching structure.

Self-indulgence extends to much of the character dialogue. Overlong diatribes about hearts come forth, so do scenes between characters that really don’t seem to advance the plot or do anything for character depth. Much of the decision-making revolves around fanservice and milking existing iconography. Roxas eating ice cream with Xion and Axel carries less weight as it gets trotted out yet again.

It also becomes painfully clear how the games treat their female characters. Kairi mostly exists to be captured or sidelined. Kairi is such a token character that every female character outside of Larxene is copied straight from her. Aqua, Xion, Namine — they serve the exact same role and share the same personality.

But let’s just say for a moment that you’re not concerned with whatever Xemnas or the three different versions of a single character are babbling about. Maybe you’re just here for that Keyblade-swinging action.

In a perhaps unconventional way of being ludonarratively harmonious, the gameplay is just as overstuffed and confusing as the narrative itself. You have: Attacks, magic, items, summons, formchange, Attraction Flows, team attacks, shotlock, and flowmotion.

All of these are from previous entries, crammed together in a kitchen-sink fashion. It doesn’t feel like these mechanics really mesh well with each other or create interesting play experiences.

The player has little in terms of direct control over Attraction Flows and team attacks, and you won’t use shotlock unless you’re using Airstep to hop around. Your brain can’t process all that information in moment-to-moment gameplay so you’ll default to just mashing the attack button and getting the reaction command when it pops up. After it ends, you’ll see the spots where you could’ve used Flowmotion and remark, “Huh, I guess I could have done that.” But you’ll never really get around to doing it, why would you when just mashing attack works just as well?

This turns most battles into waiting until Attraction Flow or formchange happens, and it feels like the player is only tangentially responsible for winning that fight. It’s hard to ascertain exactly what you did wrong, if anything.

Making upgrades? Leveling? Does any of it really matter? Does the Little Chef Bistro do anything for you outside of Ratatouille references? You’ll probably go through most of the game before realizing that you’ve gotten AP that you can use to equip new abilities. Do you even need them that much?

Exploration is non-existent. The whole level design of Kingdom Hearts consists of paths that funnel you to the next open arena to fight. There are no interesting side areas or treasures that you can find, you can snapshot Lucky Emblems, but why would you? There’s probably some form of reward at the end of it, just like there is for literally all of these things, but it doesn’t feel intrinsically rewarding.

There’s gonna be gimmicks, loads and loads of gimmicks. By the time you get invested in them, the world’s main quest is complete.

The conclusion to this is about as nonsensical as it can get, a return to Scala Ad Caelum where Xehanort and Eraqus’s chess game comes to a close. This framing device of a chess game further diminishes the narrative agency of the other characters, they are pawns to be moved and placed.

For some reason, Xehanort gets redeemed and it’s revealed that he had good intentions. None of this makes sense and I feel like Xehanort’s actions have rendered him irredeemable, saved only because of authorial bias.

But it’s all worth it to see Isa throwing a Frisbee on the beach, I guess.

This is not the end of Kingdom Hearts as a franchise. Sure, Sora is revealed to be “dead” but it’s clear that this will amount to nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

I can’t help but wonder if Square-Enix will trim the fat from the narrative and gameplay, aiming for a tighter gameplay experience and accessible narrative. But I admit to being cynical about that.

It puts me in a position where I really don’t think I could recommend Kingdom Hearts as a franchise to anyone. I don’t think a newcomer is going to like “either watch all these cutscenes on YouTube or buy the complete package and play all of them.” Not only that but by this time it’s going to be hard to invest in the characters because there’s no real stakes or tension.

Was it worth playing Kingdom Hearts 3 for me? I guess in a way it was what I needed to let go of it as a franchise, but it didn’t feel good at the end. This is one of the rare moments where I think a hard reboot would best move that they could make, but I’m certain that’s not happening. Judging by the presence of the villains from Union Cross, it feels like it’ll just keep wandering aimlessly for the next few years. I feel like a door has closed on the series for me and it’s going to take more than a Keyblade to get that open again.

Return to City 17

I’ve been meaning to upgrade my gaming PC for quite some time, and when I first heard about Half-Life Alyx it was what sold me on both a…

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The Politics of Mega Man X: Are You a Maverick?

The central conceit of Mega Man X is that robots have evolved to a point where they can think and feel for themselves, thanks to Dr. Cain’s discovery of Mega Man X. But as the age of the Reploid began, along with it came Reploid crime.

In every Mega Man X game, you are a Maverick Hunter. This mans you’re tasked with dealing with Mavericks, who serve a similar function to Robot Masters in Classic games.

The origins of the Maverick virus began as Evil Energy. This was a plot point in Mega Man 8, though subsequent games introduced Roboenza, also rumored to be a Maverick virus progenitor.

The OVA “Day of Sigma” which serves as a curtain riser to Mega Man Maverick Hunter X has a short bit of dialogue where X asks Zero the cause of going Maverick. Zero chalks it up to programming errors and short circuits in the electronic brain. Because this takes place in a rebooted version of Mega Man X with some pretty major changes, it’s difficult to answer just how canonical that information is.

That being said, in X4 it’s revealed that Zero was far more pivotal to the Maverick Virus. He began his life as a Maverick, created by Dr. Wily as a final weapon to defeat Dr. Light once and for all. After wiping out Gamma’s unit, he picks a fight with Sigma. In the ensuing battle, Sigma shatters Zero’s head crystal, transferring the virus to him.

Sigma eventually begins the Maverick rebellion, which leads to the events of the series.

No Other Option

During the series, the only way to meaningfully interact with Mavericks is to fight them. The game’s mechanics, being a run-and-gun platformer, lead to the Mavericks being the game’s boss battles.

Within the lore, and particularly within Mega Man X’s characterization, there are some wrinkles about being Maverick. Vile is known as a Maverick Hunter who’s a loose cannon, and Zero’s role as a Maverick Hunter after his time as a Maverick indicates that it’s possible to lose Maverick status.

But, perhaps oddly enough, there’s little in terms of discussion about finding some sort of cure. In Mega Man X5, Lifesaver discusses Zero’s unique reaction to the Sigma Virus with Signas. Within the narrative and gameplay, Zero’s power grows as the virus merges with him. But Lifesaver never asks if this can be harnessed to make some sort of cure. That option isn’t even considered.

Later games have dialogues with the Mavericks that will usually include a mention of “I’m not Maverick” or “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” But these sorts of questions are quickly discarded, even the reluctant X usually ends up solving these problems with his buster.

Initially, Mega Man X5 was supposed to be the end of the X franchise before the Zero series began. After executives at Capcom wanted further games developed, this meant several narrative threads had to be revised and reshuffled.

X was originally meant to be the villain of the Zero series, having gone to further and further lengths to eliminate the Mavericks. There are hints of this in Mega Man X4 when X says “When I become a Maverick, you need to take care of me.” In Mega Man X7, Zero dreams of X’s dark ambitions, but this is all aimed specifically at X.

There is little discussion of whether or not the Maverick Hunters are a useful force in society, whether or not there should be methods other than gunning them down. There are dissidents, which will be given a separate article, but the player isn’t meant to question the role of the Maverick Hunters or the morality of what the characters are doing.

The only exception is in X7, when X decides to retire from hunting. This ended up being one of the game’s lore reasons for X being unavailable at the start of the game. That conviction doesn’t last long, and he returns within the game. He is also immediately playable in X8 and the morality of the Maverick Hunters isn’t really questioned.

Base Assumptions and Ideology

At the heart of this, the player is asked to buy into the worldview that the Maverick Hunters are a force for good. It asks the players to consider what they are doing as morally right. Of course, Mega Man X is a game about robots fighting other robots, removed from real-world conflicts and the moral questions that surround them.

But not every game is like Mega Man X. Some games put you in the shoes of military personnel or law enforcement. You’re not asked to deal with a fictionalized group of robots that are afflicted by a computer virus, but with people who are stripped of all context to make into video game baddies that the player takes down.

This isn’t to say that every narrative needs to grapple with the moral quandaries of war or conflict, but it helps to be cognizant of who we see as the good guys and why. Perhaps the Maverick Hunters are the good guys, but would we really know if they weren’t? After all, the player has no choice.

Tell Them Everything’s Going to Be OK

I can’t remember the last time I woke up in my own bed. It hasn’t really been that long, maybe a couple of weeks since my girlfriend and I started with social distancing. I stopped stress-vomiting, something that has been going on for three years now.

I’ve taken the days stuck indoors to work on my writing projects, to the point where I’ve completed a major writing project that I thought would take years. I’ve only got a few more weeks of college left, and only one class. I’ve binged shows and movies in the background, and I recently discovered that I could finally watch Donnie Darko, which was one of the films on my bucket list.

I was entranced by the film, perhaps because it spoke to me as someone walking through life in institutions that clearly had no clue how to handle things. The adults in Donnie Darko have no clue how to reach the kids and speak in empty platitudes, people like Donnie slip farther and farther down because no one is really looking out for them. It deals with 80s era suburban alienation, but it feels like little has really changed.

Above all else, as the movie’s tension escalates, we keep hearing reassurances that “everything is gonna be ok.” The movie, of course, knows otherwise. It understands that things aren’t going back to normal, and every narrative beat is arranged to reinforce that.

I can’t think of a more apt parallel to our current COVID-19-soaked discourse.

The End of OK

As I’ve watched things unfold on Twitter, where Trump’s call for businesses to be reopened on April 12th is making the rounds. We’re seeing the scramble of baby boomers who voted for Joe Biden under the promise that we can somehow return to the Obama years. We’re seeing the cognitive dissonance of libertarians programmed on Cold War propaganda and suddenly come around to the idea of free checks.

Sure, some people are insistent that this demonstration of capitalism struggling under stress is somehow an indictment of socialism. But that’s beginning to wear thin. GameStop attempting to defy the order of nonessential businesses closing isn’t motivated by socialist camaraderie.

Broken Dreams

For me, COVID-19 comes at the tail end of a long, protracted college career that I’ll be glad to have behind me. It comes at the end of fifteen years of living in a toxic household with people who did nothing to help or support me, always pawning me off to somebody else.

I was constantly promised that Things Would Get Better Soon. That I just had to Hang On A Little While Longer. The goalposts kept shifting, and it was clear that the baby boomers from whom I sought advice couldn’t really see that the world had changed. They couldn’t understand that a job waiting tables can’t pay rent anymore or that the era of steady jobs that you held onto for life was over.

I know I’m not alone on that.

I’ve had to watch as my friends struggled in dead-end jobs for years, delaying college because bills and rent don’t wait until graduation. We’ve normalized the instability in our lives, making no plans for the future because we don’t know what’s going to lie ahead of us. College will end for me not in front of a commencement crowd, but at my girlfriend’s home on her couch.

Sure, there will be a date later, but I can’t help but feel like this is just another point where the milestones of old have broken down. By that time, I’ll already have moved on to looking for work. Maybe I’ll have a job, maybe I’ll have enough to move out…

Maybe…

Night after night I ask myself how I can promise a better future for us both. Even I don’t always believe that day is coming. Our context is so defined by our stagnation that the idea of living in a simple one-bedroom apartment feels like a completely alien experience.

Even after COVID-19 passes, we millennials are still going to return to a world already rotted out by late-stage capitalism. The pandemic has already strained that which was already under tremendous stress. Our political leaders have callously opined that we should send people back to work to die for the economy.

I’d like to say that there’s a silver lining to this. That there’s an understanding now of the fact that we’re all in this together. This will no doubt radicalize people, but I wonder if it will last.

Likewise, I can tell that the election is going to be dominated by discussions about the handling of this pandemic, but will it be understood that there’s no going back to the normal that got us here?

At the end of the day, I have confidence that I’ll be able to do what I need to do and finish out the class I have left. But I still wonder what will be left standing at the end of this. Above all else, I think millennials deserve better answers than what’s shoved in our faces.

The Politics of Megaman X: An Introduction

Whenever people talk about politics in games, there’s a tendency to believe that if a game isn’t explicitly billed as political, it must be completely devoid of politics.

Of course, all media is reflective of the political context in which it exists. It was with that in mind that I decided to write a series of articles about the politics of a game series that is very near and dear to me: Mega Man X.

Mega Man X emerged as a 16-bit successor to the Mega Man Classic games on the NES in the early 90s, it’s most recent entry was Mega Man X8 on the PlayStation 2, excluding the “Maverick Hunter X” remake of the original game on the PlayStation Portable.

Perhaps most notably of the subseries is the fact that it changes tone to something darker and sleeker than Mega Man Classic. It’s also known for being harder than its predecessor, and it attempts to do more in regards to storytelling.

This increased focus on storytelling interests me due to the fact that a simple good vs. evil story is complicated by other narrative layers that vary from game to game. The world of Mega Man X changes, unlike Classic where the capture of Dr. Wily means that the status quo is restored.

With that in mind, join me as I explore the politics of Mega Man X!

Getting Fate Core: Playing Dynamic Characters

13 February 2020 at 08:28

I end up GMing Fate Core a lot more than I get to play, so it was difficult to tell how well I was doing in a player capacity. But, as I’ve been hard at work with producing Cloudrunner: Fate of the Skies, I’ve been poring over sections of the SRD and looking around at what constitutes good play.

I knew what worked, at least I had a vague idea. But I didn’t really integrate playing a dynamic character in my sessions until my recent Fate of Cthulu campaign. Bringing back my usual character, Downton Sinclair, I quickly found myself in a position to try putting what I learned into practice.

When coming from a D&D background, the mindset is that a character sheet usually grows in volume. You start with a few tools and then grow from there. Fate Core handles this differently, with your character already having access to a few more tools than a first-level D&D character.

So there’s less emphasis on power-based growth, your power level will likely only increase a few times throughout the course of whatever campaign you play. But the tradeoff is that you have more flexibility to make character tweaks.

This is a huge stumbling block for lots of new players. Coming from a D&D background, they view the swapping out of aspects, skills or stunts as fundamentally a loss of those aspects, skills, or stunts. But this isn’t so much of a loss as it is an assessment of what is “outward-facing” about your character.

In the case of Downton Sinclair, his original trouble aspect was that he was living in the shadow of his much more successful brother, Upton Sinclair. But it was pretty clear that Upton Sinclair was never going to make any sort of appearance, and Downton seemed to get under the skin of one of the leaders of the Amazon expedition to the lost city of Carcosa. So naturally, I changed my trouble aspect to match.

This didn’t mean that his resentment towards his brother wasn’t still there. It simply wasn’t a relevant part of his character at the moment. There was nothing that could emerge from the narrative with his previous aspect, and hence the character changed.

A minor milestone is meant to be a time where you reassess your character sheet, is what you have working right now? Can you swap things around or change something to reflect where the narrative is? That’s where things get interesting because you can slowly reshape your character until you end with someone very different.

I feel like once you get that down, you’ll be able to create characters that interact with the narrative in interesting ways. If you’re looking at your sheet and saying “I can’t do anything with this,” that’s your cue to change it. It will lead to a more satisfying play experience.

People Used to Be Here: Existential Emptiness in Old MMOs

28 November 2019 at 20:44

My first MMORPG was Final Fantasy XI. I’ve played Everquest, World of Warcraft, lots of f2p games, and currently play Final Fantasy XIV. I…

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The Late Capitalism of Smash Ultimate

A Nintendo Switch turned on to feature an assortment of games, including two cartridges.
Image by InspiredImages @ Pixabay

I want to start this article by first saying that I’ve gotten so much joy out of Super Smash Bros Ultimate, and still consider it one of the best local multiplayer experiences that I’ve ever had. I still have to buy the season pass, but I am certainly not seeking to do a mean-spirited takedown.

What I do want is to place Smash Ultimate into a relevant cultural context, what is its place as a cultural icon and a cultural product?

The First Punch

Super Smash Bros began its life as a unique take on the fighting game genre. Instead of lengthy button combos, you have simple directional moves. Instead of a health bar, you have a damage percentage that affects how far you get knocked back.

Playing the original Smash, one can notice the humble beginnings of the game. There are only a smattering of stages, a small playable roster, and a decidedly budget look. It has perhaps the best marketing one could ask for, but no one knew exactly how well it would do.

Beta64 showcases Smash’s origins before it was turned into a crossover game. It was far easier to leverage fan’s pre-existing attachments to beloved characters like Mario, Link, and Samus than to create new characters. In that sense, the consumerist leveraging of positive brand association was always part of the game. But it’s far less pronounced than later entries.

Melee!

It wasn’t until Melee, which still has a dedicated fan base that plays competitively, that many of the established trends were put into place. Melee served as an extremely polished sequel in terms of gameplay and visual presentation.

But perhaps most notably were the inclusion of two characters, Marth and Roy, from a then-Japan-exclusive franchise known as Fire Emblem. Until then, most Western gamers had no idea what this was. Soon after, Fire Emblem made its way into other markets.

This was where one of Smash’s secondary functions began. The inclusion of characters in Smash can be used to gauge audience interest. With the release of Brawl, the door was opened for third party characters.

Smash 4 was where the idea of Smash as testing the water for franchises and characters was expanded upon. The most notable example being the return of Mega Man.

During this time, Capcom had canceled every single Mega Man project, including the highly-anticipated Mega Man Legends 3. It was clear that Mega Man’s inclusion in Smash 4 was a way for Capcom to see if a new Mega Man game was a safe bet. This went even further with the fulfillment of fan expectations such as including Cloud and Bayonetta.

Late-Stage Ultimate

Throughout the ages, Smash’s scope has ballooned into a bloated affair. Ultimate, in its attempts to be the definitive edition of Smash, has included every character from every previous version of the game. Transparently, this is an attempt to unify the player base.

Additionally, a robust single-player campaign called “World of Light” was added to address complaints about Smash 4’s lack of single-player options. But it’s here where we can see the final result of “make it bigger” thinking that has informed the trajectory of Smash.

Opening up World of Light is like showing up for a meal and learning that the main course is a turkey the size of a house. The sheer size of World of Light, the number of fights you’ll end up being in, not having much of a direction of where to go and stumbling through the campaign largely by accident make it a disorienting experience.

The true purpose of World of Light is to showcase the spirit system. These replace trophies from previous entries and confer benefits when spirits are equipped. In practice, this means canceling out a stage hazard or boosting an attribute to make winning a fight less painful.

But more than that, the sheer number of spirits and character highlight a contradiction in the design ethos of “bigger is better.” Because there exists such a massive number of spirits to pick from all sorts of franchises and platforms throughout time, the end result is paradoxically alienating. Unless you’re a die-hard fan, you will subconsciously be reminded of the fact that there are so many games that you haven’t played.

There is literally too much content to adequately process, and your brain instead reverts to taking a passive role. A fight becomes one of many, it becomes better to have the computer pick for you. This further serves to alienate the player from the process.

But Smash’s functionality in the wider scope of Nintendo’s market is to sell systems and accessories. People will buy a Nintendo console for Smash, I certainly did. They will also buy controllers because this is a game where the controller type is crucial. The amount of hardware sold as a result of Smash alone is a significant part of its purpose. This is the game keeping the GameCube’s controller going.

The Limits

But above all else, one must remember that all of these assets didn’t magically spring from the ether but were created by people. Smash has become a game made by multiple corporations, an enormous amount of cross-brand promotion, and a massive dev and publishing team.

Series director Masahiro Sakurai used IV drips to keep working. I’m curious to know what the conditions were like for the lower-level employees who were tasked with grunt work.

In the past, these stories were framed as heroic narratives of dedication. My attitude has changed to something far more critical, there’s something fundamentally perverse about the notion of “you must suffer to make art for us.” The human needs of creatives are the same as anyone else’s, but we think of it as optional considerations as opposed to doing the bare minimum of human decency.

Smash Ultimate serves as late-stage capitalism’s effect on a single franchise. The overproduction of content, hardware, and related DLC have produced a pattern of unsustainable growth. Should another Smash game follow, it must be even bigger and better than this one, which is already a tough act to follow.

To be honest, I don’t want a new Smash game after this. No doubt, one will be made, but I feel like Ultimate really should be the series finale it is implied to be. I want fresh local multiplayer experiences, games that can occupy that same social niche. Above all else, I want Sakurai to rest.

Child’s Play and Bezosian Horror

Content Warning: Violence, discussions of animal cruelty

Photo by Amber_Avalona, Pixabay

My girlfriend and I recently made the decision to see the Child’s Play remake in theaters, spurred on by good reviews. It was a good decision, and while I don’t partake in the horror genre as much as others, I found Child’s Play to be quite prescient.

Horror, and by extension our fears, are culturally based. The monsters of old aren’t merely creatures who want us dead, they are representations of cultural fears. The genre, as often described, has often conservative or even reactionary roots. In slasher movies, sexual promiscuity is punished at the edge of a knife. Horror narratives frame black and female victims as “getting their just deserts.” The final girl remains virginal and untouched by vice, rewarded by the narrative for her good behavior by living to see another day.

Of course, this isn’t to say that they can’t be interpreted in other ways. Stepford Wives is a harsh condemnation of the gender roles imposed by suburban America. Get Out applies the horror to the white liberal who wants to appropriate black culture for their own selfish ends.

Child’s Play’s original incarnation featured a serial killer whose soul was transferred into a doll. However, this version of the narrative deals with a more contemporary source of anxiety — the implications of smart technology, a Bezosian horror.

(Spoilers ahead)

The first thing the audience sees is a commercial from Kaslan, an obvious Amazon clone with a line of smart tech appliances like TVs, speakers, and even cars. The crisp and clean marketing of the commercial immediately contrasts with the grimy reality of the doll’s sweatshop origins in Vietnam.

The doll’s murderous intent is now the result of a worker’s final act before his suicide: Remove the behavioral restrictions and violence inhibitors. This is presented humorously, as a simple binary “Violence inhibitor switch.”

The doll makes its way to Karen Barclay, who gives it to her hearing-impaired son Andy as an early birthday gift. Karen, played by the excellent Audrey Plaza, is a retail clerk at Zedmart. The doll christens itself Chucky, and begins to interpret Andy’s utterances in sinister ways.

Chucky’s violence starts with the Barclay’s temperamental cat. Then it extends to Karen’s adulterous boyfriend, Shane. Chucky’s next kills feature the lecherous voyeur and electrician Gabe and the sweet but naive Doreen. The climax occurs at the unveiling of Buddi 2, leading to the lockdown of the Zedmart and a final confrontation with Chucky.

Throughout the narrative, Chucky’s problem isn’t one of outright sadism. Chucky consistently interprets hyperbolic statements like “I wish Shane would go away” as a directive for his murder. His statements about “opening up” Andy is a direct mirroring of Gabe’s attempts to resell Chucky on eBay. Andy’s friend Omar teaches Chucky to say “This is for Tupac!” when he kills Shane.

Chucky, being a Buddi line doll, also has the power to control smart tech. Chucky manages to control everything from TVs, speakers, drones and cars. Gabe’s reliance on his Kaslan products, “Kaslan, turn on the lights” is what leads to his demise, as does Doreen’s trip in a self-driving car.

In the end, Kaslan conducts an internal investigation and just happens to determine that they aren’t responsible for the incident.

This is gussied up for the purposes of entertainment, but it nonetheless plays into our modern anxieties. Kaslan’s logo features a prominent eye, the smartphone plays a role in uncovering Chucky’s whereabouts. Throughout the film, Kaslan is portrayed as an omnipresent but distant entity. Its existence is assumed, not questioned, and conclusively has no accountability.

Currently, we are at a cultural crossroads in regards to technology. The smart tech that can make lives better for the disabled also demands that we trust someone who wants to sell something to us. We are now keenly aware that our electronics are made with child and sweatshop labor, that the working conditions of Amazon warehouse workers are abysmal. We know that Amazon could kill someone tomorrow and nothing would change.

The true horror is not in the imagery of a knife-wielding doll, but corporate dominance unhindered by any sort of social accountability. Corporations, much like Chucky, have no built-in mechanisms that inhibit their destructive impulses. The promise of market-based meritocracy is all but a facade.

Why Twitter (And Others) Can’t Be Saved

Photo by geralt at Pixabay

One of the things I think about a lot in our current age of digital discourse is the means of which that discourse is shared. As news has slowly painted a picture of dysfunction about social media and the behavior it encourages, I’ve come to an understanding about the platforms we take for granted:

Most of them are built to encourage bad behavior.

There is some discussion of this, but it’s still quite commonplace to assume that if the right users came along, things would be better.

Not the Right People, Definitely the Wrong Place

The idea undergirding this belief is that social media is a tool and that as a tool it can be used for all sorts of behavior.

But, just as one would normally not think to use a wrench to do the job of a screwdriver, these tools are built with a specific function and through their interface determine who will be using it.

Many of these platforms started off as personal projects that managed to catch on, and while that contributes to the narrative of the underdog beating the odds, the reality is that this has resulted in the creation of platforms that fundamentally fail to understand how human beings work.

Reddit was built with the assumption that the upvote/downvote system would lead to vibrant discussion. Twitter assumes that the ease of access will connect people (though to what or whom is conspicuously absent).

Any sort of press releases or interviews will obfuscate the nature of the systems that these platforms are built upon, this can also be seen in the opacity of interacting with the platform support. In actuality, it’s pretty shocking how little these people know about their own platforms, at least that’s how it appears.

For example, Reddit will always attract users who use the upvote and downvote system as a weapon and brigade other subreddits because those are core functions of Reddit. Twitter will always attract users who will send quick, snarky takedowns to the targets of their abuse because that’s the kind of interactions the platform encourages.

Can you find something good on Reddit, on Twitter, on other toxic platforms? Of course, but they are working against the system and not with it. They exist in spite of the platform’s structure, not because of it. Often, this means that these people are very dedicated or content with being a smaller voice on the platform.

Dead Blue Bird

Twitter is the ur-example of the design failures that lead to toxic user experiences. By adhering to tech-bro libertarian ideology that permeates Silicon Valley, the platform has produced a hostile user climate which is damaging for both discourse and the user base as a whole.

It can’t be saved.

I did not come to this conclusion, cynical as it sounds, from my sentiments. If anything, I asked in what ways could one fix the problems with the platform. What I found were several practical avenues:

  • Get rid of dot replies. This is one way that abusers target multiple people.
  • Hide followers by default. An abuser should not be able to have access to a list of followers.
  • Require a “drawbridge”, where both parties must consent before interaction occurs.
  • Require a default wait time of several days before being able to talk normally. Until then, a moderator must approve everything the account sends out. This is to discourage sock puppets and spammers.
  • Ban neo-Nazis, fascists, and serial harassers.

There are likely other actions that could be taken, but let’s assume that these fairly basic steps are taken. What would be the result?

A significant amount of traffic, engagement, and user interaction would be lost, which means lost revenue. There would be massive amounts of harassment levied at Twitter support, hurling freeze peach arguments at the unfortunate soul tasked with pulling that trigger. “Conservative voices are being silenced!”

It would almost immediately kill Twitter. These very steps build so far away from Twitter’s core design philosophy that one’s efforts are better spent on creating a new platform.

The Wrong Lessons of Yik Yak and Imzy

There are two platforms that currently come to mind in regards to attempts to resolve the toxicity of platforms: Yik Yak and Imzy. Both of which had failed, and which could feasibly offer lessons about how to proceed.

The first of which is Yik Yak. Originally a geolocation-based social network that was known for its applications on college campuses, it met its end after a short bout of popularity. It became with complete anonymity and after some controversy. A common narrative is that when the platform started to require a username led to its downfall.

This is wrong. Plenty of other platforms require a username and function just fine. The real problem that Yik Yak had was in its core design philosophy. Mainly, it went against the utility of firing shots at other students and professors. Harassers who used the platform knew exactly what they were doing, and the platform drew exactly those kinds of people.

Where the problem really started was in including total anonymity at the start, because the toxic audience that first came to it became its core. This was a black hole that they could not escape from, and one that Twitter cannot escape from.

Imzy, likewise, was built to be a kinder Reddit. For what it’s worth, it seemed to deliver on that promise. The discussions I had were genuinely better than other platforms. Imzy’s approach was not wrong, but it ran into one major snag.

Due to being “unable to find a place in the market”, the platform was shut down before it could grow further into something self-sustainable. The network effect means that entrenched platforms are always going to have an advantage over new contenders because social media platforms definitionally require many users and subsequent discussions

But even platforms that are incredibly popular still aren’t nearly as profitable as one would think. Reddit is still not profitable and keeps going due to Silicon Valley investments. YouTube’s figures are notoriously well-kept and there’s a level of opacity. Part of the problem is that YouTube is trying to position itself as a TV competitor. The sheer volume and scale of managing all that content requires a serious amount of funding, which is why most YouTube competitors fail.

Humane Social Media

The difficulty with producing humane social media is that it has to take the potentiality of abuse into account. Not everyone has good intentions and if you build a platform that rewards and encourages bad behavior, you’ll see it overtake your platform.

This is also not going to work as a capitalist platform because the incentive structures of capitalist social media emphasize “engagement” and will bias their moderation decisions based upon who has a larger audience, as can be seen by how Milo Yiannopoulos faced no consequences until he started going after Leslie Jones.

There isn’t much money to be had to in polite conversation. It has enormous social value, but translating that into economic value, as Imzy tried, is difficult to do. But we’re going to need to start asking questions about what kind of platforms will produce consistently good discussion, and if our current platforms are doing that.

I believe that better conversation, better dialogue, better thoughts are all possible. I do not think they are possible under our current platforms and the capitalist structures that underpin them. It’s time to start thinking beyond them.

April Fool’s Day is Dead

This year I’ve come to feel a certain emptiness over April Fool’s, something that I find difficult to believe with someone such as myself who has a twisted sense of humor that makes a store like Spencer’s one of my personal favorites. I wrote two satirical articles for my school newspaper, ones that had no issue with skewering the administration.

There’s something to be said about the etiquette of pranks, making sure that one doesn’t cross ethical lines. But those can be tended to, and it’s not out of personal squeamishness that I find myself unmoved by April Fool’s Day. I think it’s something more fundamental than that.

I feel like I’ve lived through April Fool’s Day on a daily basis for the past several years. Absurdism runs on contradiction, dressing up the harshness of critique with the gleeful grin of humor. But in order for this to be effective, it must have a point of contrast. There must be a baseline of consistency that the absurdity runs counter to in order to function.

However, the modern era of late-stage capitalism is absurdity incarnate. The cultural myths of hard work leading to success are being blasted away by the lived experiences of the working class. Donald Trump serves as a conduit of contradiction, the fountain of “alternative facts” that is tweeted to the world on a daily basis.

This is an era in which absurdist humor cannot possibly match the absurd reality in which we live. Putting lard on the doorknob is nowhere near as ridiculous as the charade that we put on every day. Americans can’t afford a home in 70 percent of the country, yet we are told to wait just a little longer for the market to work in our favor.

We are told that the solution to mass shootings is to arm everyone and anyone involved. We are told that our woes as millennials can be solved with “the right attitude”. We are told over and over again that the system is fine, we just have to mold ourselves to work within it.

But, I suppose at a certain point, I must ask: Why? Is it worthwhile to continue being the punchline in something that’s potentially lethal? I must ask, is anyone’s life worth being reduced to that level? Personally, it’s a joke that I’m tired of, and while April Fool’s Day will end, this particular standup routine will not. I’m exhausted at pretending it’s funny.

Midgar Is Still Burning

25 January 2018 at 10:05

Copied from my personal blog at: http://www.memoryofthestar.com

On September 11, 2007, Leigh Alexander wrote an article for the Escapist titled “Midgar is Burning”. In it, Alexander describes the rise and fall of the Final Fantasy VII role-playing community on AOL. She speculates regarding the future of fan involvement in media creation, that moviegoers will shape the future of films and franchises. She also posits that this process has already begun in some nascent fashion.

What Leigh Alexander didn’t know at the time of writing this was that she was describing the blueprint for a cycle of modern fan culture. Since this was in the burgeoning days of the internet, these events unfolded much more slowly than in our social media and mobile-friendly present.

The Fire Stoked

I am very vocal with my criticisms of modern fan culture (I prefer the term over fandom, as it refers to a specific set of ideas, and you can substitute this for geek culture if you desire) and how it behaves in our modern media landscape. This is not a condemnation of every individual fan nor a wholesale rejection of the idea of good things coming from fan culture.

I know it can be good, it’s served as a common language for me and many others. It’s helped form lasting bonds with people, sometimes for life. But I and many others must limit our interactions with fan culture to avoid its worst excesses.

I see critical discussions of fan culture’s seedy underbelly make the rounds every so often, usually after pram-shaking tantrums by fans online. The most recent display was in response to the Last Jedi. I wrote a review on Splice Today that approached it from the point of view that the film had problems with narrative focus, but I wasn’t prepared for the absolute shitstorm that was to come, which I commented on later.

I kept seeing how Rian Johnson somehow single-handedly ruined the entire franchise in the span of a couple of hours. I saw petitions passed around, of course, taken down later but the damage was already done. Fans whined in comments about how the movie was “failing”, which made me wonder by what standard. Certainly wasn’t financially or critically, and the user score is a very flimsy representation. I know the holes in using a voluntary response sample like that. All of this was laughable to me, I certainly wouldn’t say that film was as good as Force Awakens, but it wasn’t something that ruined the franchise.

Did people forget the prequels? Did they forget that there was an abysmal Clone Wars movie? Did people actually look at the Expanded Universe with something other than rose-colored glasses? I was engaging with a degree of collective amnesia and fan fragility that was mind-boggling.

In response to someone raising concerns about fan culture, it will be squashed underneath endless waves of apologia from people more sympathetic to fans. Flimsy justifications and mental gymnastics are employed to excuse awful behavior like harassment of creators. The end result is that the culture and the behaviors it enables are free to be replicated elsewhere and destroy another property.

I’ve seen franchise after franchise cultivate a toxic fanbase and through those toxic fans make the property inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t want their media attached to death threats and online hate. I’ve grown weary of “yeah, the death threats are bad, but at least there’s great fanart!”-style deflection, where I am asked to somehow treat good fanart and other fan works as somehow canceling out making someone else’s life a living hell.

And of course, you can’t talk about this without talking about how it has problems with women. There’s a lot of documentation on Fat, Ugly, or Slutty about the gendered harassment that female gamers receive. Fan culture’s misogyny problem is evident, but taboo to talk about. I am not qualified to talk about the racism present in fan culture, though I definitely do see it.

Beyond the Vocal Minority

I want to address some arguments I’ve heard, though perhaps they’re more appropriately titled “deflections”:

This is done by a vocal minority. Most fans don’t behave this way: I cannot speak to the exact numbers, but the aim of this argument is to avoid the implications that this behavior exists in a fanbase. It may very well be true that this is the case, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. Right now, we live in a world that is connected and anyone with a grudge can easily reach their target.

Because fan culture doesn’t offer much in the way of protection for these targets, nor a negative social consequence to abusive behavior, these people go on to commit more abuses. Most of fan culture is complicit in enabling this behavior and people instead try to work around the perpetrator instead of attempting to directly confront them.

To me, it’s pretty clear that there are enough of these people around to create a toxic atmosphere. It additionally varies from property to property. That being said…

Just find an IP without toxic assholes: There likely exists a piece of media untainted by a poor community. You can probably find something and latch onto it. It may be fine for now.

Can you be sure it’ll stay that way? What’s going to happen three months from then? Six months? A year? Five years?

With the rapid communication that we now have access to, a fandom can swerve very quickly. Rick and Morty’s toxic fanbase cropped up virtually overnight, with longtime viewers such as myself and my friends being completely unaware of what was happening.

It’s also clear that one person can wreck a fandom if they’re toxic enough. Several fandom death narratives do involve a single person wresting inordinate control over entire communities that eventually destroyed them.

Just get off the internet: The toxicity within fan culture has been around for a long time. It’s not something that arrived with the internet. Go to a convention and you’ll run into them. You’ll also run into a lot of cool people, but you’ll notice that one asshole will have the ability to ruin your day just by opening their mouth.

Of course, conventions are kind of a stressful environment in and of themselves. Lots of lines, sweating in costume, big crowds, and a dealer’s room full of stuff you want but probably can’t afford. They’re certainly fun, but I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t take a lot of energy.

Because fan culture has been considered a target for mainstream bullying and shaming, any and all critiques of the problems with it summon those memories. Since there’s no distinction between innocuous fan behavior and harmful fan behavior, fan culture handles bad behavior poorly.

This is echoed in how these behaviors are excused, “They’re passionate fans”, “They just love their franchise”. There’s no consideration for what impact these people are having on others.

And it is having an impact on others. We can no longer afford to pretend that these people exist in some sort of bubble and are keeping their troubling behavior to themselves. Someone is on the receiving end of their death threats, someone is getting driven off of Twitter because of the influx of fan rage, someone is staying out of the conversation because they don’t want to engage in such a hostile environment, someone has to deal with inappropriate touching or sexual harassment at a convention.

A lot of this has the explicit goal of getting other people out of the space, removing the other from the fandom that the harassers feel like they own. This is why “don’t feed the trolls” or “get off the internet” is insufficient in dealing with this.

Putting Out the Fire

What people fail to pick up is that a bad community can ruin a franchise. I have Bloodborne, and while I wasn’t particularly fond of its gameplay style, I can recognize its value. But I want nothing to do with the community at all. That game has been ruined for me.

There’s a reason that, despite me loving games and writing about games, I don’t want to pursue game journalism. It’s because doing so is going to expose me to awful behavior that no human being should ever have to put up with.

I’ve always found the compartmentalization we have done in regards to the internet baffling. I’ve read on things like the online disinhibition effect, but that explains why people do it, not why we have acquiesced all responsibility for dealing with it.

For a while, I didn’t want to address it out of fear, but now I’ve gotten to the point where I think we need to start talking about the previously invisible group of people who opt out of fan culture and all of its nasty excesses.

These people do want to participate. They want to engage with a community of people who share their interest because people have the intrinsic drive to find community. They just don’t want this community.

How do I know this? Because I would love to play online games more often and contribute to fan communities more. I’ve just started contributing to Fate Core’s community and it’s been nothing short of wonderful. I hear this sentiment expressed privately, the sense of “I would go there but the people are awful” pervades them.

I must walk with care. I have to mentally prepare myself when I watch a YouTuber for them to use ableist slurs because it’s so damn common. I have to keep at arm’s length from other players in MMOs or other online games because I don’t want the constant pressure nor to be exposed to their asshole-ish behavior. I also don’t believe I’m alone, and I think of a lot of potentially valuable voices are drowned out.

I explicitly seek out games like Armello, where interaction with other players is tightly controlled. If I need in-depth communication, I’ll do it with players that I know in a private Discord server. I don’t want my gaming experience to be sullied by someone constantly harassing me over anything and everything.

We can’t solve the issues with fan culture on an individualistic level. Removing the bad apples is only part of it. Instead, we have to start critically evaluating fan behaviors that exist beyond the individuals. There are reasons for all of these awful behaviors, ones that are illuminating if we stop making excuses for the behavior enacted on a daily basis.

Until then, Midgar burns all the brighter and no one really wants to put out the fire.

❌