I have no desire to see Whiplash again, and that’s a testament to how perfect it is

Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. Heck, it might just be one of the best movies I’ve seen in my life. Critics loved it, too; it has a 94% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and picked up three Academy Awards out of five nominations (one of which was for Best Picture).

Look no further for an example that financial success is no indication of the quality of the film: despite its critical acclaim, Whiplash grossed only $13 million domestically and an additional $35 million internationally. With a budget of only $3.3 million, it did make its money back and then some, but it wasn’t as if millions of people were rushing to see the film.

At its core, Whiplash is both a film about one human relationship, that of main character Andrew Neiman and his teacher Terence Fletcher, and about the relationship between Andrew and his drive to become the greatest musician he can be. The film explores the morality of certain types of teaching, how professional drive can affect a person and their relationships, and what it means to try to be truly great.

There are two lines that define the conflicts in the film. Fletcher presents one:

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

Neiman himself presents the other:

I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.

Whiplash is as much a perfect movie as can be. It’s shot beautifully. It is wonderfully acted (with J.K. Simmons rightfully earning that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Fletcher). The music is impeccable from every angle. The plot, pacing, and ending are masterfully done.

Like I said in the first sentence of this post: Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

That I don’t want to see it again–at least, not for a long time–is just another feather in its cap.

The movie’s plot exists because of Fletcher’s abusive teaching style. The film’s most favorite scene is one of its best: it encapsulates the relationship between Nieman and Fletcher perfectly.

It’s also a great example of why I can’t watch this film again.

This scene is such a perfect recreation of what happens in rehearsals every day throughout the country that it is really quite uncanny. Music directors like Fletcher exist everywhere, and every musician who has continued to perform into their college years, like Nieman, has encountered a situation like this.

Well, not quite like this. Fletcher’s explosion of anger is greater than what most people see. But the brilliance of Whiplash is that all the emotions are there, and so believable. Even non-musicians can empathize, as similarly hard-nose teachers and coaches exist outside the music sphere.

Whiplash’s greatest strength is its uncanny ability to channel intensity directly into your soul from the pixels on the screen. You can feel Fletcher’s anger. You can feel Nieman’s cocktail of emotions in response. You can feel the effect of Nieman’s drive to be great on him and his relationships. You know the stakes in lots of movies. But to feel it? All the pretty cinematography in the world can’t substitute for strong emotional communication.

That is, I think, what makes Whiplash truly great. Yes, it’s well-written, well-acted, etc. etc. Those are all parts. The whole is a deeply emotional journey, and its glaring intensity is recognizable and persistent. Watching Whiplash is almost like having somebody yelling at you in your living room.

Not everything is sunshines and rainbows. Whiplash isn’t. It’s why it’s great. That I don’t want to see it again is proof of how great, proof of how well it communicates its emotions.

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Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: A book review

Films have been including ‘how it’s made’ featurettes in DVD releases for years. Books, poem, and comics are self-explanatory, and significantly less interesting to watch being made. And recording sessions are embedded enough in the public consciousness that they, too, are inherently comprehensible, even if you don’t know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys.’

Video games, however, are a different breed. Many gamers–even passionate ones–simply don’t know how games are made, what processes are involved, the time frame needed, or the required building blocks to make a good game. This is true in part because games are a new medium, but also significantly due to the complexity and difficulty of making modern games.

Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a fantastic insight into the niche, secretive, complicated world of how games are crafted. It is the perfect book for those who are interested in how games are made, and because of Schreier’s focus on narrative and excellent ability to distill more obtuse concepts into easy-to-understand chunks of information, it’s perfect for game veterans or n00bs alike.

Though the book isn’t an argument, it has a core thesis that intertwines the composite parts of the book together, and that thesis is this: modern video games are incredibly difficult to make.

I had drinks with a developer who’d just shipped a new game. He looked exhausted…Some of them slept in the office so they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting, because every hour spent in the car was an hour not spent fixing bugs. Up until the day they had to submit a final build, many of them doubted they’d be able to release the game at all.

“Sounds like a miracle that this game was even made,” I said.

“Oh, Jason,” he said. “It’s a miracle that any game is made.”

Rather than sctructure the book around how a game in general is made, Schreier focuses on something more specific (and more accessible): the story of how individual games were made. Each chapter features a different game. The choice of games covers everything from small indie titles like Stardew Valley to some of the largest RPGs ever made (so far) like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. The book features 10 chapters in all.

Again, Schreier’s dedication to a strong narrative is impeccable. Each chapter is an individual story, and Schreier does a great job of outlining who is developing the game, why they are making the game they are making, what problems they encounter along the way, and how they decided to tackle those challenges.

Ciri from the Witcher 3 wild hunt

The book is extremely engaging, and I finished it very quickly. I had played four of the ten games included, and while I was naturally more interested in the stories of games I had completed (and, in my case, really loved), the stories of games I had not played were equally vivid and engrossing.

Schreier highlights a few issues repeatedly throughout the book, as they are natural to a game’s development. First is the dichotomy between funding and freedom. While a game like Pillars of Eternity has no publisher to answer to, self-funding represents its own set of challenges on the creative process. On the other hand, as it the case with Destiny, virtually unlimited funding can be constrained by the demands of the publisher.

The second thing that is highlighted is the prevalence of crunch time. In the gaming industry, crunch time is a period of extended hours that occurs before specific milestones, or in order to complete or add something special to the game. Its status is contested within the industry, as some see it as a necessary evil in order to produce great games, while others see it as a result of poor producing and management. Regardless, each of these games go through some manner of crunch time, and how it is utilized is a part of each chapter.

Third, Schreier highlights the oft-hidden world of conflict between developers about where a game should go or even what game is important to make. Video games are made by real people, and creative differences can arise even under the best, least stressful circumstances, let alone the pressure cooker that is game development. These creative and professional arguments can make or break a game, and their coverage in the case of Uncharted 4, Destiny, and Halo Wars is a core part of their story.

iron bull dragon age inquisition western approach

There are more than these three issues that recur, and it is this pattern that represents the book’s biggest flaw, though it is certainly not a fatal one. In the case of seven of the 10 chapters, the chapters follow the basic beat of A) here’s why and what game developer is making B) here’s the conflicts and problems the developer overcame C) here’s what the game did well and the story of how it succeeded.

That’s because those seven games–Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, and The Witcher 3–were critical and commercial successes. There are obviously different specifics, but the same beat happens because of the types of games they are: successes. Sure, those games exist, and their stories are important.

But the most interesting stories are why games don’t succeed, and the book’s three strongest chapters–on Diablo III, Destiny, and Star Wars 1313–focus on the varying failures that manifested themselves in the game (or in the case of Star Wars 1313, how the game ceased to exist). How Destiny shipped as a shell of what it was intended to be despite being given years and millions of dollars to percolate is fascinating; how Diablo III managed to turn a complete 180 degrees from angering its install base is fascinating; how Star Wars 1313 flopped so hard it didn’t come out is fascinating. These are the types of stories that I wish Schreier could have covered more in the book, and I was glad to see his coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a troubled game where everyone just wondered ‘how did this happen’, on Kotaku.

concept art star wars 1313 scifi city

Concept art for Star Wars 1313

Still, I recognize that this particular criticism might be personal taste speaking, and I realize that it’s probably easier to get developers to talk about successes than failures. The book’s quality is still evident.

If you’re a gamer, a person who finds games fascinating, or just someone in search of a good new nonfiction book to read, I highly recommend Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Not the least of which because the title includes an Oxford comma. Good on you, Jason; fight the good fight. Well, both of them: the Oxford comma one and the video game coverage one.

Revisiting Brisingr

The Inheritance Cycle was only supposed to be a trilogy.

After Eragon and Eldest were released, author Christopher Paolini went to work on the third, unnamed book. The dominant thought on message boards devoted to the series was that the third book would follow the six-letter, starts-with-‘e’ format of the first two and be titled Empire. It was a fitting cap to a trilogy, as Eragon was presumably going to take down the Empire.

But about a year before the book was to be released, Knopf Publishing and Paolini issued an announcement–there would now be two more books.

Here is Paolini’s comment in the press release (emphasis mine):

I plotted out the Inheritance series as a trilogy nine years ago, when I was fifteen. At that time, I never imagined I’d write all three books, much less that they would be published. When I finally delved into Book Three, it soon became obvious that the remainder of the story was far too big to fit in one volume. Having spent so long thinking about the series as a trilogy, it was difficult for me to realize that, in order to be true to my characters and to address all of the plot points and unanswered questions Eragon and Eldest raised, I needed to split the end of the series into two books.

Splitting the series is not something that Paolini wanted, nor was it something that came naturally. He begrudgingly did it because it needed to happen in order to serve the story.

It comes through in the book. Eragon and Eldest had clear plot arcs: Eragon was the story of a young man who started his hero’s journey, grew along the way, and finally triumphed in a battle with the forces of evil; Eldest was the story of the hero’s continuing knowledge and deepening of character while simultaneously detailing the gripping escape of a group of relatable everymen.

I’ve read Brisingr three times and I can’t tell you the overall plot of the thing. It wanders here and there, lingering in odd places and moving along at a glacial pace. Ultimately, it seems as if it doesn’t have much of a purpose.

And there’s good reason for that! Remember, Brisingr, which is a terrible title for a book by the way, was made partway through its writing from the concluding book into a middle book. There wasn’t supposed to be a third book that didn’t end the story.

I think that it was a smart move to extend the trilogy into a cycle. Knowing the events of the fourth book, I think that having another book of development gives weight to the ending.

But unfortunately, the book doesn’t really do its job that well. And its a shame. Of particular note is the lack of development in the relationship between Eragon and Arya. There’s enough history and room for a good romance–even one that doesn’t end well–but Paolini doesn’t go there. There’s also not any movement with the Eragon and Saphira vs. Murtagh and Thorn rivalry, for a series of stalemates does not progress anything.

Brisingr does end with a bang–its climax is a brilliantly-written escalation of stress and action–and that does propel the momentum to the next book. But it’s too little, too late for the book.

It all hinges on Inheritance.

 

 

Revisiting Eragon

Before the national Knopf release of “Eragon” in 2003, Christopher Paolini’s family self-published the book in 2002. Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle, was 19 then, and began writing the novel and plotting the story’s overall arc when he was 15.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the Inheritance Cycle has been fantastically successful. “Eragon” sold one million copies within six months, a stunning achievement for a young adult novel written by a no-name author. Of course, that no-name author was a young adult himself, making it even more impressive.

I don’t know what you were doing at 15 years of age, but the only thing I remember from that time is being infatuated with my first serious crush. I say infatuated because I didn’t do anything about it. What I should have done, once I turned 16 and could drive, was ask her if she would like to go out to eat with me, because I liked her and that would be an easy and safe first date. I did not do that. I did not even think to do that, for some reason. Teenagers are idiots.

At this same age, Paolini was writing his first epic. Maybe Paolini struggled with interacting with girls like me, but he at least produced a New York Times Bestselling novel and began to embark on his dream career in one swoop of a dragon’s wing.

And it’s that dichotomy that explains “Eragon” so well. Paolini is a supremely talented creator, and his brilliance is easy to see. The book still holds up, its primary achievement creating a captivating narrative whilst also invisibly hoisting an excellent framework for the rest of the series.

But it’s pretty clear this is not written by a veteran author. For one, the book is basically Star Wars.

Don’t believe me?

A young orphan man yearning for adventure unintentionally gains possession of an item that is of extreme importance. After servants from the evil empire kill his family, the young man sets off on a quest with a wise old man who was not what he appeared to be. As the old man trained the young, they were captured by the enemy. The mentor died, leaving the trainee alone. The trainee and an odd friend met along the way, a roguish outlaw, brought the important item to the resistance. While there, the enemy attacked the resistance’s headquarters. When everything was almost lost, a distraction let the young adventurer destroy the cornerstone of the opposition, and the resistance rejoiced.

That’s the backbone of Star Wars. It’s also the backbone of “Eragon.” The plot could not possibly be more derivative.

There’s the dialogue, too. Paolini’s dialogue often reads like someone wrote it for the characters to say, with compound sentences and a constant lack of subtlety. Take a portion of what Brom said shortly before his death:

I am old, Eragon…so old. Though my dragon was killed, my life has been longer than most. You don’t know what it is to reach my age, look back, and realize that you don’t remember much of it; then to look forward and know that many years still lie ahead of you…After all this time I still grieve for my Saphira…and hate Galbatorix from what he tore from me.

(Those ellipses are written into the text; that was a full excerpt directly from the book.)

It’s not terrible by any means! But it doesn’t really read like what someone would say on their deathbed, and the driving point of this whole speech–that he still loved his dragon and hates Galbatorix–is just plopped right there.

Consider a similar (though obviously separate) scene from Harry Potter. Severus Snape is dying, instead of going on a speech of why he felt the way that he did or did what he did, he showed Harry with a memory.

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” “For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.”

The doe was Lily Potter’s patronus. Snape never stopped loving her. It’s not only an extraordinarily powerful statement, but it’s presented perfectly, with an exactness that Paolini often lacks.

But, still, after reading “Eragon,” I was reminded why I loved it. Eragon and Saphira’s relationship is real and genuine. The world is well-constructed. The pace is quick and the book flows smoothly. Sure, it was written by a teenager with no prior writing experience, and it shows. However, creativity knows no age, and “Eragon” is as genuine as it comes.

 

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

The wind sweeps past your hair as the sun shines down on you, the subtle crash of the royal blue surf lapping against the sides of your softly creaking ship. The sun shines as you lick some salty water from your lips. The ocean extends to the horizon all around you. Another ship floats lazily in the distance. Nothing is true, and everything is permitted. The world is ripe for your adventure.

There’s a reason why pirates are so popular in pop culture, and why every kid wants to grow up to be one (if they don’t want to be an astronaut, of course). Pirates convey freedom, adventure, and the promise for riches, wonder, and excitement. Assassin’s Creed has always been a franchise of dichotomy—Assassin’s/Templars, Past/Future, Stealth/Combat. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag leans on its existence as a pirate game, it soars to some of the series’ highest heights. Unfortunately, when the game emulates past Assassin’s Creed titles, the recurring errors and frustrations of the series hamper what could have been a truly special title.

Black Flag’s setting is a fantastic choice. Your character, Edward Kenway, is a mere privateer whose main goal is becoming filthy rich to build a better life for him and his estranged wife. As the game is titled ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and not ‘Pirates Creed, Matey!”, Kenway gets caught up in standard-issue Assassin v. Templars shenanigans.

pirate fight

SWASHBUCKLE, MATEYS

Kenway’s approach to the epic conflict is not standard-issue, though, and is a fresh take: he just does not care in the slightest. Pillaging and booty (both kinds) are his goals, and his role in the conflict is mostly accidental. He happens to fight with the Assassins, though more due to ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ circumstances than actual philosophical alignment.

Yet as so often happens in Assassin’s Creed games, this strength is accompanied by a related weakness. Kenway’s plight and character development remain stinted for a long, long time; though developer Ubisoft tries to make Kenway a multi-faceted character, his single-minded search for riches doesn’t make for a very captivating narrative. Piecemeal flashbacks to Kenway and his wife mostly fail to form a grounding for character building or plot development, though it could have and is probably the biggest missed narrative opportunity.

But, lest you forget that Kenway is a pirate, let me repeat: he’s a pirate. And Black Flag nails the Being A Pirate thing so extraordinarily well. In the course of the story, Kenway gets access to his own personal cove that you can upgrade to build structures, shops, and services. Kenway meets pirates along the way, including Edward Thatch—more famously known as Blackbeard.

You can’t be a pirate without your own ship, though, and ship combat and traversal is what truly makes being a pirate fun. Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, very quickly becomes a favorite place in the game (and arguably its own character). Black Flag’s locations are spread out in the Caribbean, and you must traverse to these locations with the Jackdaw before establishing fast travel points. Roaming the high sea is a blast, as your shipmates sing shanties, it’s never far to an interesting location, and enemy ships are plentiful.

blackflag

At sea on the Jackdaw

Ship combat is every bit as exciting, jarring, and terrifying as you might think. The ocean is filled with all kinds of vessels; some are teeny-weeny gunships you can destroy in one or two volleys, and others will eat you alive by themselves. Unlike in hand-to-hand combat, where a quick finger on the counter button can almost lend invincibility, choosing what battles in which to engage is a part of ship combat that is refreshing and challenging. At first, I found myself charging into a small group of ships, valiantly attempting (and failing) to strong-arm a trio of larger frigates into submission before the game forced me to take a more holistic approach: ship combat encourages using your entire arsenal and to heavily prioritize targets.

Importantly, defeating ships gives very real benefits. Defeated ships can either be captured or destroyed, and each ship contains varying supplies that can be sold or used in upgrading your own ship. Upgrades are varied, and each upgrade changes you how play in meaningful ways. In addition to your own ship, you can add captured ships to your fleet, which you can use to send on battles and trade routes of their own. Battles for your captured ships are bare-bones turn based strategy minigames, requiring minimal input but some forethought.

Since this is an Assassin’s Creed game, the majority of it is spent on foot. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; the core parts of traversing, exploring, and assassinating are as fun as ever, and the beautiful setting makes it feel quite different from the sprawling cities of earlier games in the franchise. But frustratingly, the same kinds of mistakes that have been plaguing the series for years are still here. When going quickly, Kenway has a propensity for leaping to random areas, which can be fatal. Tailing missions are still boring and feel like attempts to game-ify plot. The stealth system is spotty and the AI ranges from idiotic to genius. Curiously, Black Flag doesn’t even explain the stealth system at all, assuming you know what a yellow sign over an enemy means as opposed to a red one and how to escape and become incognito. Thankfully, the graphics, music, and sound effect are all very good and help with immersion. You can’t help but be joyful and invested when your crew sings your favorite shanty on the high seas in preparation for an epic battle with a Man O’ War.

Black Flag truly shines when it melds its two main gameplay elements. In order to capture a ship, you need to swing over to the opposing vessel and accomplish a set of objectives on foot. In order to take down a fort, you must destroy its various battlements with your ship and then dock to assassinate the fort’s captain. There’s a brilliant mission halfway through the game that involves tailing an enemy ship through a river, making stops every so often to leave the Jackdaw and take out the watchmen, culminating in an Uncharted-esque setpiece to make an assassination.

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Climbing Away

The 18th century story, unfortunately, is framed by a 21st century story. After Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft could have taken a different path, framing the story better or making the overall story more minimalist. Not so. Though you are given free reign for a significant portion of the early game, you are soon (and often) yanked out to present day, your character a voiceless and nameless protagonist in a world full of voiced and named people. Whereas the Desmond Miles story at its best helped to give your explorations of the past additional weight as well as a reason to enjoy when you’re pulled out of the animus, the modern-day story here doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and I spent my time in present day just wanting to be left alone as a pirate.

Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes meaningful strides in the Assassin’s Creed universe. It fills a grand open sea with places to explore, from a treasure island to underwater excursions to bustling towns like Havana or Kingston. It successfully uses the Assassin’s Creed action as a fantastic base to make a great pirate game. The converse though, is not true: a great pirate game doesn’t fix the Assassin’s Creed series’ problems. Still, it’s a fantastic example of a game taking a core idea, making it a blast, and giving you the freedom to do with it what you will. It’s a pirate’s life for me.

Homeworld Remastered – Review

I purchased Homeworld Remastered, lovingly developed by Gearbox Software from the over-a-decade-old originals by Relic Entertainment, in February. Well, that’s not entirely true, as I gobbled up the special edition almost a year ago last July, but I first played it in February.

So, without further ado, here’s my review. This was an exciting game for me, as I loved the originals. I hope you don’t mind my enthusiasm.

1. GAMEPLAY – 10/10

HOLY CRAP THIS GAME IS AWESOME. YOU CONTROL GIANT SPACESHIPS WITH LASERS, MISSILES, AND OTHER ASSORTED DESTRUCTIVE MECHANISMS THAT EXPLODE AND/OR DEFENESTRATE. SO MUCH FUN. ONE TIME, I CAPTURED 60 OF THE ENEMY’S FRIGATES AND THEN SQUISHED THE REST OF HIS FLEET INTO SALAD MADE OF WORMS. CAN YOU DO THIS IN CALL OF DUTY? I DO NOT BELIEVE SO, NO

2. SOUND/MUSIC – 10/10

HOLY CRAP LISTEN TO THIS

IF THIS DOES NOT PUMP YOU UP YOU NEED SOME HELP

OR HOW ABOUT THIS

I’M REALLY SAD AND MOVED NOW. YOU SHOULD BE TOO. HOT DANG

3. GRAPHICS – 10/10

HOLY CRAP THESE GRAPHICS ARE AMAZEBALLS. GEARBOX MADE THEM UP TO 4K, WHICH IS A LOT I THINK. HERE ARE SOME OF MY VERY OWN SCREENSHOTS. DO NOT TELL ME YOU ARE NOT MOVED BY THEIR BEAUTY. RIGHT CLICK THE PICTURES AND SELECT VIEW IMAGE TO SEE IT IN ALL ITS HIGH RESOLUTION GLORY

4. OVERALL – 10/10

THIS GAME IS LIKE SPACE: LARGE, AWESOME, AND FUN AS BALLS. PLAY IT