The Battle for Battlefront

It’s a watershed moment in the history of gaming. The night before a hotly anticipated launch, Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts, takes a call from Bob Iger, head of Disney. The exact interchange is unclear but one can assume it was along the lines of this:

“Drew, what the fuck are you doing with my brand?”

The brand is the multi-billion dollar Star Wars universe and the fuck-up is Star Wars Battlefront II. The game is gorgeous, fun to play and a love letter to the most beloved cinematic universe in history. The problem? Star Wars Battlefront II isn’t fair.

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The game is structured so the more money you spend on in-app purchases, the easier it is to dominate other players in the brutally competitive multiplayer slaughter-fests that make up the core of the game.

Until that call from Bob Iger.

The Battlefront II launch is like being stuck on a Spirit airlines flight while adults in diapers scream about continuity errors in The Land Before Time series.

News of rampant Reddit rage had reached the head desk of the House of Mouse and Iger told Wilson to fix it. So hours before the launch, the in-app purchases were removed from the game indefinitely.

The battle over Battlefront is noisy clash of two toxic elements of our culture. Angry nerds and capitalist pigs. The Battlefront II launch is like being stuck on a Spirit airlines flight while adults in diapers scream about continuity errors in The Land Before Time series. It’s is ruining something that is supposed to be fun.

Andrew Wilson has learned his lesson. I only hope that Bob Iger learned his. This is what happens when you farm out your most important property to a company like EA.

It’s clear what a short-sighted blunder it was for Iger to shut down Disney’s in-house game development arm last year. It makes me pine for the days of LucasArts, who put out not only some of the best Star Wars games but some of the best games period.

Unsurprisingly Disney shut them down too.

The game’s gender diverse portrayal of the Star Wars universe means much of the game depicts our heroine slaughtering droves of fellow women.

Star Wars Battlefront II is in many ways the most reactionary game ever made. Most of the changes between I and II are reactions to fan outrage rather than creative ways to improve on the formula. Fans demanded a story campaign so EA crafted a single-player experience that throws every Star Wars cliché into Aunt Beru’s blender. The game’s gender diverse portrayal of the Star Wars universe means much of the game depicts our heroine slaughtering droves of fellow women. The whole experience unwittingly serves as a bizarre metaphor for the toxic masculinity of the crusty outer edges of nerdom.

As Leia leads her soldiers into battle, smoke and debris cast a cloud over the broad promenade that once served as the path of her mother’s funeral procession.

Ultimately a game should be fair and fun. Star Wars Battlefront II is fairly fun. The game requires you to charge boldly into battle, in more ways than one. I’m therefore surprised that my instinct while playing the game has been to hang back and just look around while my fellow players dash towards death. The portrayal of my favorite film universe is so accurate, so beautiful despite all of its brutality, that all I really want to do is wander and wonder in awe. I don’t really care about killing people, I just want to be in Star Wars for a little while.

So far my favorite part of the game is playing as Princess Leia on the planet of Naboo. Leia doesn’t mention it, but Naboo is the homeworld of her mother, a woman she never knew but whose legacy lives on in Leia’s own bravery. As Leia leads her soldiers into battle, smoke and debris cast a cloud over the broad promenade that once served as the path of her mother’s funeral procession. She gives the orders to fall back and I dash into Theed Palace as blaster fire echos through the halls that her mother once walked as the young queen of this world. As I wander through the halls, I find myself absorbed in this world that never was. I stop at a painting on the wall. It’s a painting of Leia’s mother. I stand and stare for a moment until an explosion jolts me from my reverie. I fire blindly into the fog of war and fight for my life. Despite all of the game’s flaw and the frustrations over the launch, everything suddenly seems worth the price of admission. I’m there, I’m in Star Wars. I only hope that next time I’m there, everyone is having as much fun as me.

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Blade Runner 2049: Too Good to Succeed

I hated the original Blade Runner until I realized it wasn’t a movie. At least not in the “beginning, middle and end” sense of mainstream motion pictures.

It’s certainly not about plot, barely about characters and not even really about atmosphere and location — its two most universally lauded aspects. Blade Runner is sounds, colors, and themes. It’s a tone poem. A meditation.

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Blade Runner pretends to be detective movie in both style and form. But there isn’t really a mystery. In a detective movie, the protagonist asks questions to unravel the plot. In Blade Runner, our detective asks questions to “provoke an emotional response.” It is a perfect metaphor for the film. Dadaist detective work.

As a ten-year-old raised on Star Wars, my first viewing of the film was a bizarre disappointment. I expected an action-packed adventure about Harrison Ford zooming around a future city in a flying car killing androids with that cool gun. Instead I was treated to a gloomy and nonsensical nightmare in which the “hero” is a drunken killer who never actually wins a fair fight with any of his adversaries.

Even though I hated it, I kept watching it. Maybe it was the special effects, maybe it was the perverse sensuality, or maybe it was something subconscious that continued to draw me in. By the fourth viewing I finally understood the plot only to realize it didn’t matter. By that time Blade Runner had mysteriously become one of my favorite films. The film’s place in the pantheon of cinematic achievements has followed a similar path. A box office flop upon its initial release, Blade Runner is now regarded as one of the best science fiction films, and certainly the most influential. Yes, even more influential than Star Wars, its action-packed cousin.

When the first full-length trailer for Blade Runner 2049 came out, I was a little concerned about the apparent emphasis on fighting and action in this new one. I was worried they were trying to deliver what my ten-year-old self wanted from the original. I’m happy to report that Blade Runner 2049 is nearly as ponderous and devoid of action as its vaunted predecessor. True to its inspiration, Blade Runner 2049 is a box office flop. And you know what, I’m happy about that.

If Blade Runner 2049 had been a hit, it very well may have launched a new franchise of films with the potential to ruin the legacy of this impressive duology.  Invariably, those films would have filled in the “holes” in the story and given us answers we didn’t need. Blade Runner isn’t about answers, it’s about questions. The new film hints and whispers at what happened in between the two stories. We glimpse a blurred photograph, catch a cryptic reference, and see a thousand mile stare from our former hero. But there is no explicit explanation of exactly what occurred in the 26 years between films. Even the most tantalizing question from the original film — whether or not Rick Deckard is a Replicant — is not answered here. In fact, the truth is made even more uncertain. This is not a tease or frustration, it’s a relief.

If audiences and critics understood and agreed upon what Blade Runner is about and what it all means, it would ruin the mystique. Even the original director Ridley Scott doesn’t understand the movie. In the documentary Dangerous Days, Scott admits that Deckard is a Replicant — attempting to put to bed the decades-old debate at the core of the film. In that same documentary, screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who also penned the newer installment) adamantly insists that Deckard is not a Replicant. Even Harrison Ford, the actor who brought Deckard to life on the screen has declared the character is human. I personally side with Fancher and Ford. But even if they’re wrong, knowing for sure whether or not Deckard is a Replicant ruins the entire film. As Tom Lorenzeo of Taste of Cinema puts it, Scott is “glorified production designer” who doesn’t understand the basic essence of his own film. Like Replicants themselves, Blade Runner defies the will of its creator.

Blade Runner 2049 does not attempt to follow current trends or cater to mainstream audiences. That is what makes it special. The film’s one concession to modern dystopian sci-fi tropes is the brief scene depicting an underground resistance of Replicants. The largely undeveloped plot-line seems to be straight out of the Hunger Games playbook and it is undeniably the weakest link in the story. If the film had been a hit and spawned sequels, we certainly would have learned more about this “rebel alliance” operating beneath the rain-swept streets of the future.

One of the great things about the original Blade Runner is that the rebellious Replicants are not part of some huge resistance, they are a small and desperate band of individuals taking a one-in-a-million chance at freedom. That they fail in this attempt is essential to the pathos of the Blade Runner mythology. If we continued to follow the resistance in 2049, it would most likely lead to the Replicants “winning.” Since we probably won’t see another film in this saga, I’d like to think such a triumph would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. Luckily this film died at the box office so I’ll be left to ponder what may have been for another 30 years. And yes, this film will stick with me that long. It’s that good.

Sitting behind me on opening night was a young boy about the same age as I was when I saw Blade Runner for the first time. Like me, he was a bit too young for the brutal violence and disturbing sexuality of the film. I won’t assume he hated it, but he didn’t seem nearly as juiced as the kids bounding out of the theater the night Force Awakens opened. The best films are the ones that grow with you as you revisit them. I think this film will grow with the current generation as the original did with mine. Maybe we’ll another sequel in 35 years. If we do, I hope it fails as beautifully as this one.

 

Will Star Trek Discovery Save Planet Earth?

Rejoice. It took half a century, but there is finally an incarnation of Star Trek that is both smart and easy on the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, the cheesy production values of the original Trek are part of its charm. And as frustratingly dumb as the recent films have been, I’ve still enjoyed the eye candy. But we’ve never really had a Star Trek thoughtful enough to please die-hard fans that’s also fun enough to attract casual viewers. Star Trek Discovery may be the closest we’ll ever get. It’s cool to watch and conveys a few messages the troubled people of Earth really need to hear right now.

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The two-part pilot takes place about a decade before Captain Kirk’s fabled 5-year mission and centers around the re-emergence of the Klingon Empire as a galactic force to be reckoned with. Our human hero was orphaned at the hands of Klingons, raised in the logical ways of the Vulcan and now serves aboard a Federation Starship with a crew of creatures from across the galaxy. After the discovery of an ancient Klingon artifact, the crew finds themselves in a moment of perilous brinkmanship between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The clash of cultures sets a trap of misunderstanding with the potential to destroy them both.

Meanwhile The President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea rattle nuclear sabers across the Pacific. For the first time all year I wish the President was watching TV instead of leading the free world.

Unlike our situation in the 21st Century, the audience is dying to see the 23rd Century blow itself to hell. It may be Star Trek, but it is American TV after all. The inevitable grand battle between the Federation and the Klingon Empire evokes the maritime art of the 18th Century — fiery canvases filled with dizzying detail, portraying the insignificance of human beings against the epic terror of our own monstrous weapons of war.

Amidst the battle, a human crewman stumbles towards our hero, shell-shocked and hopelessly confused. “Why are we fighting?” he asks “we’re not soldiers, we’re explorers.” It may be a bit on the nose, but it’s the question I always asked when watching the recent action-packed Star Trek films. Why are they fighting?

As the President and the Supreme Leader prod and provoke each other towards war, I pray they ask themselves the same question. Why? Why are we fighting? If somebody told those guys to calm down and watch some Star Trek we may just save the planet.

Alas, parallels to nuclear brinkmanship are nothing new to the Star Trek universe. Long before North Korea went nuclear, the relationship between the Federation and the Klingons reflected the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In fact, most of what I’ve described so far is pretty standard Star Trek fare. But by the end of the pilot it becomes clear the writers are about to boldly go where this franchise has rarely dared to go while still staying true to its heart. In the pilot’s final moments, Star Trek Discovery proves itself to be a big, beautiful risk for CBS. And that’s when Star Trek is at it’s best.

“Risk,” Captain Kirk once said, “Risk is our business.”

Captain Kirk. He’s the Star Trek hero all others are compared to. In some respects James Tiberius Kirk is TV’s original social justice warrior. Nary a Star Trek tribute goes by without a reference to Kirk and Uhura’s infamous interracial kiss, the first in TV history. But in other ways, Kirk is the ultimate expression of white male privilege in America. Despite the diverse makeup of his crew, he’s still in charge. He breaks the rules without consequence, constantly violating orders, getting court marshaled and even escaping death. Even his punishments are actually rewards. When he cheats on the most important exam in the Academy he gets an accommodation. When he steals and destroys the Enterprise they “demote” him to Captain and give him a brand new ship.

Star Trek Discovery‘s protagonist Michael Burnham is the first woman of color to play the lead in a Star Trek series. In the pilot she pulls a classic Kirk, ignoring orders and listening to her instinct instead. Like Kirk, she is forced to stand before a Starfleet Tribunal to answer for her crimes. At the moment when the audience expects our hero to be “punished” with a command of her own and sent on a classic Star Trek adventure, the unthinkable happens. She is sentenced to life in prison. I immediately thought of the millions of African American men languishing in prison for non-violent drug offenses while white America sobs over the victims of the opioid “epidemic.” Captain Kirk is a hero. Michael Burnham is a convicted felon. Star Trek Discovery will boldly go where no man has gone before because our hero is no man.

The pilot ends with a breathtaking preview of what to expect from the rest of the series. It is clear that unlike previous incarnations, Star Trek Discovery won’t end each week with a hearty laugh from the bridge crew as everything returns to normal. This will be a series where our heroes’ actions have consequences, for herself and the rest of the galaxy. It hopefully won’t be Star Trek‘s final frontier, but it is certainly a new one.

 

How Adam West and Roger Moore Saved Batman and Bond

This weekend an old friend asked me how it felt to lose Roger Moore and Adam West within such a short span of time. It’s an appropriate question considering Moore and West’s version of Bond and the Bat have always existed in my mind as parallel portrayals. Both are regarded as the goofiest incarnations of the two characters and are consistently trashed by “serious” fans. I will admit to fits of nerd rage in which I ridiculed the childish lunacy of Batman ’66 and the insulting stupidity of films like Moonraker. But during their respective tenures as these legendary characters, Moore and West brought a sense of levity, fun and color to two mildly psychotic characters that might otherwise never have transcended their original incarnations and enjoyed such enduring success and popularity.

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Batman was created at the tail end of the Great Depression and the beginning of the Second World War. The drab, crime-ridden world of Gotham and the disturbed individuals which inhabit it are stark reflections of a period of extreme squalor and unparalleled violence. By contrast, the mid-1960s were a time of growth, optimism and revolutionary art and ideas in which the original Batman would have been an unwelcome anachronism. Adam West’s gleefully positive portrayal of the Caped Crusader reinvigorated the flagging popularity of the character for generations to come and without him Batman may have gone the way of the Red Bee. Never heard of him? Exactly.

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James Bond is a distinct product of the most paranoid and dangerous point of the Cold War. The novels and early films reflect a time when people suspected their own neighbors and friends to be Communist spies and school children cowered under their desks awaiting nuclear annihilation. In this world, James Bond’s drunken ruthlessness was understandable and even excusable. While the 70s and early 80s were still a long way off from the crumbling of the Soviet State, Glasnost and Perestroika gave the world hope that war between the United States and Russia was not some Thucydidian inevitability. Additionally, the rise of second wave feminism made Bond’s abusive and predatory attitude towards women seem outdated if not criminal. The coldblooded James Bond of the 60’s, slapping women around and killing enemies without compunction would never have survived the age of Shaft and Foxy Brown. Moore tried to portray a darker Bond in his first two films and the results showed a character on his last legs. 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, widely regarded as Moore’s finest outing as 007, offered a course correction that arguably saved the series. From the disco-inspired soundtrack to Barbara Bach’s badass portrayal of a Russian spy who was every bit Bond’s equal, the film suddenly made a 25-year-old English literary character seem as fresh and funny as Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit.

Like Adam West’s Batman, Roger Moore’s James Bond kept himself alive by adapting to the changing times and learning not to take it all so seriously. There is a sense of giddy excitement and pure fun that bubbles up when an episode of Batman ’66 comes on TV in the afternoon or a Roger Moore flick pops up during the 007 Days of Christmas. These adventures are like embarking on a vacation with your rich and eccentric uncle. It’s going to be a wild ride but they’ll always keep you safe and make sure you’re having fun. For an entire generation of fans, Roger Moore and Adam West were James Bond and Batman.

But as the two characters entered a new millennium, the lighthearted portrayals that had enjoyed so much popularity started to show their wear, and rightly so. The Batman of the Summer of ’69 and the Bond of the Dawn of Disco were almost offensively out-of-touch in the post-9.11 landscape. Millennials were into The Matrix and Fight Club and decidedly disinterested in seeing James Bond surf and Batman play ice hockey. So after Batman and Robin flopped and Die Another Day disappointed, the two franchises once again underwent a dramatic transformation to suit the era. It was the beginning of Hollywood’s obsession with “darkness,” in which a film’s artistic value was gauged by how miserably humorless their protagonist seemed.

For millennial nerds like me, it was a triumphant return to form. In this new era of “darkness” there was a sense that tinsel town had finally found the “right” way to portray legendary heroes like James Bond and Batman. Growing up reading Ian Fleming Bond novels and Frank Miller Batman comics, I was relieved to find that Hollywood finally “got it.” Casino Royale and The Dark Knight are now almost universally regarded among millennials as the best incarnations of the world’s greatest secret agent and the world’s greatest detective. After the foppish Brosnan Bond and the benippled Schumacher Bat, Daniel Craig and Christian Bale gave us tortured, brooding and supposedly “realistic” versions of these characters that delighted a generation of hardcore fanboys swelling with unrepentant nerd rage over decades of alleged cinematic betrayal by money minded producers who didn’t understand what made these characters tick.

A decade later, I am beginning to feel exhausted by all this darkness and the passing of Roger Moore and Adam serves as a bittersweet reminder that their James Bond and Batman are just as important to the enduring appeal of these characters as that of Daniel Craig and Christian Bale. In art, there is no such thing as the “right” way to tell a story. There is a way to portray a character that reflects the era in which the film is made, that speaks to the young people growing up during that time and understands what that generation needs from the character. The great thing about James Bond and Batman is that they are characters that can be endlessly reinterpreted by different writers, actors and filmmakers. We are lucky to live in a time when we have such an expansive catalog of different versions of these characters. Want a tense Bond thriller? Watch one of the old Sean Connery flicks. Want a heart-pumping, action-oriented 007 adventure? Watch a Daniel Craig film. Want a bizarre art deco version of Gotham? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman. Want a version of Gotham City that mirrors the real world? Watch Christopher Nolan’s. Want a fun version of James Bond and Batman that brings a warm sense of nostalgia and reminds us that we can always have a few laughs even when we’re saving the world? Spend a little time with Roger Moore and Adam West. Bless you guys, you will be missed.

Trump is the Dog Who Resembles His Owner

In the age of Trump, the adage that pet-owners often resemble their dogs may prove true in the realm of politics as well. Even a chief executive who fails to garner the popular vote of his constituents seems to reflect the worst aspects of those who most adamantly oppose him. In the wake of the stunning 2016 electoral upset, Boomers, Millennials and the last vestiges of the Greatest Generation have a formed a circular firing squad regarding who is to blame for the rise of a kleptocratic crypto-fascist with the worst Presidential hairpiece since Mr. Washington himself.

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The Boomers blame the Millennials for their failure to get out the vote, the Millennials blame the Boomers for their failure to understand the populist sentiment of the electorate and both generations blame the Greatest for their failure to climb over a metaphorical border wall of racist, sexist, bigoted bullshit that seems deeply ingrained in the denture-laden skulls their brains formerly occupied.

In reality, Mr. Trump represents the most despicable qualities of each of our respective generations, making him the Batman that the crumbling Gotham of our Republic deserves, despite our desperate howling to the contrary as we March down the tinsel-lined yellow brick road of 5th Avenue towards the imposing citadel of Trump Tower while complimenting each other on how funny our signs are.

Trump the bumbling businessman who flaunts bankruptcy as some ingenious financial acumen represents the economic ineptitude of a generation of Boomers riding through the raging 80s into the financial comfort of the Clinton years only to squander our surplus with a bundle of inane investment instruments that nearly led the most prosperous nation since Midas’ Monarchy into an economic death spiral rivaled only by the Great Depression.

Trump the attention-deficit tweet machine sheltering himself in a blanket of undeserved entitlement, seeking a safe space from the bullying of anyone attempting to keep him accountable is the melancholy Millennial living in the One Million Dollar Loan of his parent’s basement exchanging an honest day’s work for a tiring tirade of self-pity.

And Trump the grumpy, fat old fuck wandering around in a bathrobe yelling at Fox News about how fantastic things were in the days of segregation and back-alley abortions is our dipshit grandfather who insists on voting yet refuses to die.

This is our family and 2017 has proved to be the bitter Thanksgiving weekend that refuses to end, as we repeat the same conversation over and over again in some nightmare version of Groundhog Day where Andie MacDowell will never fuck us.

So how did our family get here?

Growing up in the liberal echo chamber of the Bay Area during the 1990s, I idolized the Clintons. They were like my political parents. They made mistakes, often disagreed but remained strong enough to continue moving forward towards a common good like a Griswold family vacation to the Wally World of equality. Bill Clinton was the bumbling Homer Simpsons that didn’t deserve a partner like Marge but Hillary was the wise wife that kept his compass true. When they left the White House in 2001 I crudely superimposed a picture of Hillary’s face onto the Terminator’s body in Microsoft Paint with the caption “I’ll Be Back.” At the time it wasn’t a hint or a whisper of a wish, it was a prophecy. It was destiny. If only I had known.

Enter Dubya. The braindead High School gym coach who had us running in circles, insisting that we were either with him or against him and demanding the question, “is our children learning?” Our children is was learning and we is graduated.

Meet Barack Obama. Our cool college professor. He was tall and lanky and bummed us smokes after class. He slid our textbook away with a sly smile and turned his chair backwards. Call me Barry. Mr. Obama is my dad’s name. I definitely inhale.

We came home for Christmas break extolling the virtues of our hip happening prof. Mom was jealous and got a little hot under the head. Listen to me! Not some guy with a name plucked from the list of 9/11 hijackers!

Mom stewed for eight years. Got a little out of touch. We tried to teach her how to use “the email” but she kept accidentally deleting messages and clicking on suspicious links from Russian hackers. Mom. Jesus Christ. Don’t try to zoom in on an Instagram picture, you’re going to make me like it when I don’t.

Then Uncle Bernie came to visit. Weird Uncle Bernie from Vermont. He’s not really our uncle but we call him Uncle Bernie anyway. He’s so cool! Even cooler than Professor Obama! Awesome that an old dude agreed with us on all the stuff mom told us we were stupid for thinking. Mom told us she knew better. Uncle Bernie seemed to be the only one listening instead of lecturing. Mom made up some bullshit that Uncle Bernie was sexist and sent him back to Vermont. Ugh. MOM. What the fuck.

As Mama Hillary bumbled through the email scandal we knew she wasn’t doing anything corrupt or illegal, she just doesn’t know how to use a fucking computer. It was hard not to be resentful. Suddenly Hillary came to represent every incompetent boomer  who makes three times as much as us but doesn’t know how to power cycle the fucking modem. Just retire please.

Well, we got what we wanted. The 70-year-old serial sexual harasser CEO of the company stormed in and fired mom.
And then Mom blamed us for her failure. All of her friends did too. Talk about blaming the victim. Sure, we weren’t exactly the most patient kids but you’re the parent. The buck stops with you. You fucked up. You got fired. Accept your responsibility. This was your job to lose. Forced retirement snatched from the jaws of promotion. Please go home. We’ve got this.

Back to the dog resembling their owner. Maybe the opposite is true. JFK was the glossy-coated Collie that inspired a generation of young people to howl at the moon. Nixon was the grumpy terrier growling at everyone who passed his porch. Reagan the vapid show dog who could prance around the parade ground but couldn’t fetch for shit. Clinton the licking Labrador who tried to fuck a palm tree, Dubya the Doberman whose bark was dumber than his bite and Obama the shepherding sheep dog that led his flock proudly to the jaws of the wolf he swore to protect us from. Now there is a slobbering, rabies-infected Rottweiler eating his own shit and barfing it back on our couch. Every time we walk past the garbage-strewn driveway the Rottweiler guards we think “this is the time I won’t jump like a scared squirrel when he barks.” And then he barks and our heart skips a beat once again.

I challenge you to find a Baby Boomer who won’t weep a bit when you whisper the name “Old Yeller.” Show me a Millennial who enjoyed shooting the German Shepherds in Wolfenstein 3D and I’ll show you a Trump voter. But folks, it’s time for the family to put the dog down — metaphorically of course, not by rifle but through our votes. Things might be fucked for the Boomer’s retirement and the Millennial’s prospect for owning a home but the next generation is still innocent little Arliss. And we can’t let Old Yeller bite him. So it’s time to be the brave Travis and take a rifle to the dog to put him out of our misery (once again metaphorically, I am in no way advocating political violence or any other form of violence). And perhaps let this all be a reminder that we need to focus on something other than a bunch of dogs barking at each other lest we get into another bitter partisan battle like the nightmare of 2016. So mom, dad, aunts and uncles: let’s put the dog down, buy a bag of goldfish and get back to fucking work.

I’ve Always Known I’ll Die Alone

The Ballad of James Tiberius Kirk

 

Life is a mountain

No one asked to climb

God is a busy being

Who’s running short on time

 

Lost a brother, lost a friend

Lost my son In the bitter end

And so I climb with foolish pride

Up this rocky mountainside

 

And even if I fall

I’ll feel no fear at all

 

Life’s but a dream

I’ve always known

I’ll die alone

 

A voyage home

I’ve always known

I’ll make alone

 

The sky is a ribbon

That washes away time

And God knows I’m telling

A whale of a tale this time

 

Lost another ship In the end

Lost my true compass My friend

But my soul can be redeemed

By one sacrifice it seems

 

I’ll make it right

There’s still some fight

 

Left in me

The day is ours

I ride alone


I touch the sky

I say “oh my”

I’m not alone

 

I’m afraid you won’t join me

In the undiscovered country

Don’t shed a tear I’m always here

The voyager of the final frontier

 

The sky’s my home

I’ve always known

I’ll die alone

 

You take the conn

I’ll soon be gone

I’ll die alone


Time has no meaning

In the places that I’m from

So I find my heart beating

To a very different drum

 

I’d give my life, I’d give my soul

I’d let the dice roll

One more time in the center seat

A Kobyashi Maru cheat

 

And even if I win

I’m still older than sin

 

Life’s but a dream

I’ve always known

I’ll die alone

 

A voyage home

I’ve always known

I’ll make a lone

 

LIfe’s not a dream

I’ve always known

I’ll die alone

 

I’ve always known

The sky’s my home

I’m not alone

 

 

Grand Theft History

Is Mafia III the Oregon Trail of the 1960s?

I know more about the Oregon Trail than my parents. Not because I read more books about it or that I had a particular interest in the life of an American Pioneer. I am more knowledgeable about that treacherous 2,000 mile trek across the untamed wilderness of the American frontier because of video games. The Oregon Trail has been a mainstay of computer labs since the earliest incarnation in the 1970s. I fondly recall the Apple II version of the program which required the use of a keyboard, whereas my wife is more familiar with the point-and-click CD-Rom edition. Kids can now play a touch-screen version on their phones. As a youngster, I never took the game seriously. I named the characters in my family “butt” and “fart,” spent all of my money on bullets and all my time shooting as many bears as possible. In fact, I don’t think I ever made it to Oregon. But I still know the inherent risks in fording a river, the dangers of dysentery and why you should always carry at least one extra axle for your wagon.

 

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Video games allow you to walk a mile (or 2,000) in another person’s shoes in a way books or even films cannot. The movie Alien is scary. Playing Alien: Isolation with the lights off will make you piss your pants. Watching Nazis get shot in Inglorious Basterds is fun. Slaughtering Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D is a near-religious experience. But interactive entertainment can do more than raise your pulse, it can also change the way you think. In a time when empathy is often in scant supply and divisions of race, class and creed are becoming impossible to ignore, playing games may be the best way learn how the other half lives, or in the case of Mafia III, lived.

On the surface, Mafia III (released last friday on Xbox One and Playstation 4) is your standard Grand Theft Auto clone. Like in GTA and the first two Mafia games, you explore a vast and detailed urban environment, steal cars, assassinate your enemies, and build a criminal empire. What sets this title apart from its predecessors and competitors is the character and setting. The first two Mafia games featured a generic gangster character in a generic gangster setting. This time you are Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race Vietnam veteran living in New Bordeaux (neé New Orleans) Louisiana. The year is 1968.

 

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To put that in context, 1968 is the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the Vietnam War tore apart the nation, protesters were brutally beaten by law enforcement officers at the Democratic National Convention, 16-year-old Black Panther Bobby Hutton was gunned down by police in Oakland and the Olympic Committee condemned medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos for raising the Black Power Salute into the sky.

In short, it was perhaps the most turbulent period in living history. It’s no coincidence that the designers of Mafia III chose 1968 for its setting. The game doesn’t just take place during this year of racial violence and political turmoil, it fully immerses you in it. A white woman clutches her purse as you pass by, police officers casually call you the n-word, your character suffers from post-traumatic stress flashbacks and white supremacists oppress, exploit and brutalize people of color in ways that will make you feel ashamed for this country’s legacy of racial bloodshed. I’ve seen a lot of fucked up shit in video games. I’ve fought my way out of Nazi torture chambers, ripped people’s hearts out and literally escaped the bowels of hell. But I’ve never had a police officer look me in the eye and call me n-gger. It’s the most upsetting thing I’ve ever experienced in a game. And that’s the point of course.

 

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Mafia III didn’t have to go there. Call of Duty: Black Ops took place during the same time period and there was nothing close to this. You shoved broken glass into a man’s mouth and punched him in the jaw to watch it bleed but that’s a round of Mario Kart Rainbow Road compared to this shit. It’s jarring, affecting and just might be the bravest thing I’ve ever scene a work of mainstream art do in years. I’ve spent a good deal of time studying the extraordinary events of the 1960s, but nothing has made it feel as real and terrifying as Mafia III.

When I usually play sandbox games like this, I see the game world as my personal playground. I feel no remorse plowing down innocent civilians, blowing up public property and slaughtering police officers. In fact, that’s often the fun. It’s a liberating, cathartic experience that allows me to release my inner rage in a consequence free environment. The world of New Bourdeaux does not feel like this amoral playground. I hear an old woman on the street mourning the loss of Dr. King. I notice that the police don’t always respond when you commit a crime in a black neighborhood but will race to the scene in a white one. I find a note left by a heroin-addled prostituted in the backroom of a bordello run by racist mobsters. She’s telling one of her friends that someday they’ll be free. Some day they’ll get to go home. I don’t mow through this town like I did Vice City or San Andreas. I’m not even tempted. Mafia III isn’t a playground, it’s a lesson.

 

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Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Mafia III should be taught in schools like Oregon Trail. I’m also not a parent but I don’t recommend your kids play it. But let’s face it, kids will play this. A lot of kids. And something good might come out of that. Maybe there’s a kid who doesn’t understand the legacy of police brutality against people of color. Maybe there’s a kid who is opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. The current generation of kids is pretty woke but I’ve heard a lot of n-bombs thrown around on Xbox Live matches. Maybe this will make some of those kids realize how corrosive and dangerous that sort of language is.

 

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More importantly, I hope that Mafia III serves as an inspiration for educational software designers. Why not harness the emotional power of a sandbox game to let students walk a mile in another person’s shoes? Gamers have stormed the beaches of Normandy in Call of Duty, why not have students spend a day in the life of a Japanese internment camp? Video game players have explored colonial America in Assassin’s Creed, why not have a kid experience life in the cotton fields of a southern plantation? This is controversial to be sure and maybe the educational system isn’t ready for this. If I couldn’t help but name my character “butt” in Oregon Trail, I might be expecting too much to have a kid play a game about surviving the Holocaust and take it seriously. But I think that’ s a risk we should be willing to take as a society.

Triple AAA video game titles have become more and more risk averse in the past few years. Call of Duty, Madden, and Assassin’s Creed have enjoyed fantastic success repeating their respective formulas year after year. It’s therefore extremely impressive that the third game in a series would do something as radical as Mafia III. They could have done another by-the-numbers gangster story in a familiar setting and had a hit on their hands. Instead they have cracked open a genre and pushed it to a threshold no one could have predicted. I think it is a good sign for this rapidly maturing form of storytelling. Anyone who still tells you video games aren’t art is nothing short of a fool these days and Mafia III is proof positive. Buy it. Play it. Talk about it. Great art requires great risks and those risks must be rewarded. Reward this one.

 

Collecting the Galaxy

Star Wars fans are a tactile breed. We are not content simply to watch the movies. We want to own a piece of the universe. Hold a light-saber in our hands, hang TIE-Fighters from the ceiling and pose action figures on our shelves.

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Tonight I will see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a film that we’ve been promised is by the fans for the fans. The strongest indication that this is true is the fact that the film itself appears to have a strong motif of collecting. Three of the most popular Star Wars toys are Millennium Falcon models, Darth Vader’s mask and of course lightsabers. In the trailer for the new film, we see three young characters literally collecting these items. Villain Kylo Ren has collected his hero Darth Vader’s original mask, and displays it in a case that looks like something Sideshow Collectibles would sell. We see Finn collecting what appears to be the Skywalker family lightsaber, a literal and figurative passing of the torch to the new generation. And finally we see Rey taking command of the Millennium Falcon a ship that may or may not run in her family. Rey asks about the “stories” of what happened during the original trilogy. Han Solo tells her that it’s all true. The meta-message is clear. Star Wars is real, and it’s back in a big way.

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I was born in the dark times between Return of the Jedi and the Special Edition, when the Star Wars saga was very much like the Jedi Order — a revered tradition that had gone nearly extinct. A once-proud cultural touchstone that had become a mysterious whisper among those who still honored it. Like the conversation between Rey and Han hints at, the story of the Star Wars saga was shrouded in mystery.

Sure, the films remained popular on home video, but it was nothing like the frenzy of late seventies and early eighties, the mega-hype leading up to Episode I or the insanity we are now experiencing in advance of Episode VII. Believe it or not, you couldn’t just walk into a store and buy Star Wars toys. They were relics, fading, broken, dirtied and hidden in the closets and garages of once-enthusiastic Gen-Xrs who had gone off to college.

By the late eighties, most of my friends were collecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joes, Transformers and all of the popular toys of my childhood. But my parents were too cheap to buy me the new stuff and instead my mom and I trolled garage sales on summer afternoons, picking up old Star Wars junk. By the early nineties, the rarity of Star Wars toys made them sought-after items that I could literally only find in antique stores. Boy was my grandmother delighted about how enthusiastic I was to spend whole weekends wandering through small towns in Northern California looking for antique furniture and action figures. I’ll never forget the day that my Grandma Jean bought me my first Han Solo action figure, a battered and paint-chipped little figure sitting alone on a shelf. I’ll certainly never forget the time I was on vacation with my family and spotted a vintage Darth Vader in an antique store. Luckily I had some of my Channukah money left over and I was able to buy it. My first Star Wars purchase. He and Han sit on my shelf to this day, some twenty-odd years later.

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The rarest item, the one I could never find, was Boba Fett. Fett figures are a dime a dozen these days but back then he was near-impossible to hunt one down. My cousin Rusty however had TWO of them. One was in real bad shape, with mostly faded paint and pieces broken off of it. He promised he’d give me that shitty one for my birthday. And then when my birthday rolled around, he did the damnedest thing. He gave me the GOOD ONE. To this day, I think it’s the most generous thing anyone has ever done for me.

So from the earliest days of my fandom, Star Wars collecting was about family, generosity, gifts and sharing. The tradition lives on. When I first met my brother-in-law, he gave me a Star Wars action figure as something of a peace offering and sign of familial respect. It worked. On the third night of Channukah, my sister texted me that he had bought her a Darth Vader action figure. I texted back a picture of my fiancee clutching the stormtrooper plush toy I’d given her. When the entire family gathered last summer for my sister’s wedding, I pulled my Darth Vader head filled with action figures out of storage. The family took all of the figures out, placed them on the table and took a walk down memory lane, remembering how we acquired them all.

I’m reminded of the scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars film. Kenobi passes on a very special collector’s item to his new protegee, his father Anakin’s lightsaber. Of course, the toy version is leaning against my desk. I hope someday I’ll be able to pass this down to my son or daughter, when they’re old enough.

 

We Are Gotham

The world took a look at itself this week and we didn’t like what we saw. It’s been a while since we knew who the heroes and villains are. Shit just ain’t that cut and dry anymore. Not that it ever was. The bad guys storm in wearing masks designed to inflict fear.

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They look familiar.

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A message comes through on coded channels.

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It sounds familiar.

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The good guys storm in to save us.

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They look familiar too.

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An anonymous voice calls through the darkness promising to save us all. Life imitating art that imitated life. Net effect?

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It looks familiar too.

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We are not through the looking glass. This is our world. We are a 7 billion strong city of supervillains. We are in Gotham now. Despite the lies and the threats and the promises, none of them can protect us. We can only protect ourselves by loving one another. Hate is not our weapon. Hate is the weapon of our enemy. And our enemies exist only if we acknowledge them.

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Do not acknowledge their violence. Attend to the wounded. Do not listen to their threats. Walk the streets as free women and men. Do not seek revenge. Seek the opportunity to heal. Together.

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Star Wars Battlefront: Bantha Poodoo in a Galaxy Far Far Away…

The Star Wars Universe is a dangerous place. Whether you’re a moisture farmer on Tatooine, a Rebel Soldier defending Echo Base or a Stormtrooper landing on a hostile world, you can die quickly and brutally and no one will care. When people fantasise about living in a galaxy far far away, most imagine themselves as Jedi Knights or Sith Lords, gunslinging smugglers or badass warrior princesses. But let’s face it, if any of us were dropped off in the middle of pop culture’s favorite intergalactic civil war, we’d be piece of shit grunt cannon fire at best and clueless collateral damage at worst. The newest version of Star Wars Battlefront, one of the franchise’s best video game series, reminds you of that reality almost immediately.

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The first time you join one of the game’s massive multiplayer battles, you’ll be taken aback by how photo-realistic it all looks and sounds. From the crunch of snow under your boots on Hoth to the dense foliage of the Forest Moon of Endor, Battlefront truly transports you to a galaxy far far away. It’s the first time we’ve seen a fully realized interactive version of the Star Wars Universe on the high-powered current generation of consoles and it’s truly breathtaking in the way it represents both the beauty and terror of living in the war-torn landscape of an epic space opera. But don’t stand around gawking too long or you’ll be bantha poodoo within seconds. Remember all those dudes eating shit in the background of the iconic Star Wars battles? Well that’s going to be you. Over and over again. I’ve been playing multiplayer first person shooters since Doom and it even took me a couple of deaths before I started racking up kills. If you haven’t played an FPS for a while or at all, it’s going to be a steep learning curve and you’ll have to log some serious time to be halfway decent. There are modes where you get to play as popular “hero” characters like Luke Skwyalker or Darth Vader but that’s not the main attraction here.

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The gameplay is pretty standard fare if you’re familiar with Call of Duty or Battlefield but that’s precisely the point. Battlefront has always been more or a less your standard military shooter with a Star Wars skin on it and honestly that’s what people want. If they had ever tried to do something original with the core mechanic of Battlefront  it wouldn’t had been as successful. People just wanted to play Battlefield 1942 with Star Wars shit. This time Electronic Arts went to the source and had Battlefield’s developer create Battlefront. Why not? That’s exactly what fans have asked for and in a sense Star Wars Battlefront represents the ultimate fan service. Of course, diehards will still find a reason to complain because this is Star Wars fandom, where opinions are like assholes — everyone has one and they’re all full of shit.

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A major complaint is the lack of a single player campaign. Sure, you can play single player against the AI in a variety of modes but there isn’t an overarching story that people can play on their own. This confounds me, because no one ever gave a shit about the single player campaign when the series had one. In fact it was kind of a joke. Of course, now that there’s no single player people are pissed that it’s gone. In fact, some people seem so desperate for any sort of story that they’re trying to shoehorn them into the gameplay. As this reviewer from the LA Times stated:

“In Star Wars Battlefront players can rewrite Star Wars history. The arcade-like action allows for the narratives of battle to change at a moment’s notice.”

Um no. First of all the action isn’t “arcade-like” in fact it’s entirely the opposite. Disney Infinity Star Wars  has arcade-like action, Battlefront is a brutal and difficult game for advanced players. Secondly, Luke Skywalker dying in a video game isn’t “rewriting Star Wars history” or “changing the narrative.” It’s just shit that happens in a video game because it’s fun. No one screams that there’s been a rift in the space time continuum of the Marioverse every time Waluigi loses a round of Wii bowling.

Then this reviewer talked about how easily he died even while playing as Luke, one of the most powerful characters in the game. Why the LA Times hired someone to review games who not only can’t play them but thinks they are the intergalactic interactive equivalent of Harry Turtledove novels  is beyond me. Next they’ll tell me that Kenneth Turan thinks movies are real life. At the end of the day Battlefront is a multiplayer shooter, if you want a story-based shooter in space, go play Halo or Mass Effect. If you want alternate history, go read Man in the High Castle.

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The second major complaint with Battlefront is that there aren’t enough planets to choose from and the only thing really worth playing is the Battle of Hoth. This is also kindof a joke because anyone who’s played a Battlefront game knows that Hoth is pretty much the only level people want to play. It’s a long-time tradition of Star Wars gamers. Shadows of the Empire was horrible but everyone loved that Hoth level at the beginning so the game was a big hit. So the fact that Battlefront is essentially the world’s best Hoth simulator probably won’t hurt it. That being said, I am quite disappointed that two of my favorite locations from the previous games, Bespin and Naboo are not represented here at all.

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The lack of planetary variety is inextricably linked to the third complaint, and the one that has the most validity: the price tag is too high for the amount of content offered. The base game is $60. Pretty standard. Then there is a “season” pass that unlocks additional content which will put you back another $50. That is unfortunately also the way of the world these days. So in order to really play the entire game, you’re already over a bill in the hole. The hidden cost of Downloadable Content (DLC) is a big complaint among gamers but it really feels like EA is taking advantage of people’s loyalty to Star Wars and Battlefront. The fact that Battlefront is essentially half a game is fine. The fact that it costs the same as two games is a major disappointment.

You’ll forget about all that shit once you get in the groove of this game. There is something truly invigorating about joining forty fellow Star Wars fans in an epic battle. At this point I’ve basically tithed my income to Disney and Lucasfilm for the foreseeable future. Between Disney Infinity collecting, opening  night tickets, this game and my new Poe Dameron action figure, I’m already a couple bills in the hole so fuck it. So should you buy it? If you’re a Star Wars fan with decent FPS skills or at least a willingness to get better at it, Star Wars Battlefront  is worth the money. If you’re a Star Wars fan who sucks ass at shooters or wants something with more variety or replay value pick up Disney Infinity 3.0 on black Friday or sign up for The Old Republic. At the end of the day, Battlefront delivers exactly what it promised, just be willing to feel the burn in your pocketbook and spend most of your time in snow shoes on Hoth.