Camp Grizzly

CampGrizzly_Otis
At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.

CampGrizzly_Lunchbox

Ameritrash

The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.

CampGrizzly_SplitUp

“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.

CampGrizzly_SkinnyDipping

“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.

CampGrizzly_Dont

“Don’t”

If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.

CampGrizzly_Desensitized

“Desensitized”

That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Everyone Has Their Shows

Mad Max Blood Bag
One of the many great things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it defies attempts to explain it. So this is less of my usual “here’s a report to tell the internet how well I understood that thing I just saw,” and more just, “Did you guys just see that?!”

I happened to see it on the same night the series finale of Mad Men aired, and the juxtaposition is kind of interesting. A few years ago, I watched the pilot of Mad Men and dismissed it as an overly simplistic, almost Disney-fied codification of a period piece. Now, I realize that was unfair. (And if it’s any consolation to fans of the series: I’ve spent the last 5 years consistently seeing the search terms for this blog come up as “Mad Men sucks” or “Mad Men is overrated,” and every time I want to reply with a, “No wait I didn’t mean that I just meant…” that will forever fall on deaf ears). I’m still not that interested in it, but I’m no longer arrogant enough to dismiss it. I’ll just acknowledge it was a social phenomenon that completely passed me by, and that’s fine.

But seeing all the analyses of and thinkpieces about Mad Men, like this one from The A.V. Club, is downright jarring the morning after seeing Fury Road. While watching the movie, I felt like it had been beamed in fully-formed from another planet, one that was colonized by Cirque du Soleil, Smash-Up Derby promoters, and Burning Man organizers, who were left to interbreed and develop their own culture over thousands of years. It may be more accurate to say that it’s like a product from another time, bounced off a satellite from a time long ago, back before all the people had their own shows, and all the shows had their own recap blogs.

Turning Your Brain Off

Fury Road is completely, unapologetically, visual. Every time my brain tried to take over and ask: What does that mean? Who is that child? Is she from the first movie? Did I even see the first movie? What does this represent?, the movie would respond with, Shut up and look at this tractor trailer with a wall of amplifiers and a union suit-wearing bandit on bungee cords with an electric guitar that shoots flames. Also, there are drummers on the back. Also, the truck will explode.

(Like just about everything on Badass Digest/Birth.Movies.Death., I agree 100% with the premise of that post, then frustratingly disagree with where it goes from there. It’s not just that an origin story for this guy is unnecessary; explaining why it’s unnecessary with belabored analogies to Boba Fett is unnecessary. I shouldn’t even be writing this post).

I’ve already seen complaints about the movie that say it’s nothing more than an extended car chase sequence. Which is accurate, but I believe it also completely misses the point. It takes two hours of footage packed impossibly dense with unforgettable images, and then dismisses it because those images aren’t a vehicle (no pun intended) for something else.

I feel like we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to believe that the opposite of cerebral is stupid. It’s the Transformers mentality: the people who enjoy those movies tend to justify it by saying that “you turn your brain off.” My response has always been that you shouldn’t need to turn your brain off; a well-made action sequence can still deliver symbolism and meaning and convey all sorts of “higher” concepts.

Fury Road felt like George Miller scoffing at me and saying, “Screw that, poindexter.” That whole attitude of “thinking man’s action movies” feels like a relic of the era of The Matrix: where you can’t just have tentacle ships and bullet time effects and thousands of suit-wearing agents engaged in kung fu battles and a badass slicing a semi truck with a samurai sword. It’s got to have a layer of simple-minded “philosophy” and Alice in Wonderland allusions slathered all over it for it to be worthwhile. So that a bunch of guys on the internet can say that they understood the deeper meaning and then make references to red pills and blue pills.

After ravaging the cinematic environment with that, an ecological disaster like Sucker Punch seems depressingly inevitable. I can’t really fault the basic intention: it recognizes that there’s some visual language of What 12 Year Old Boys Think is Rad that we all need to see. But it tries to stretch shallow ideas into epic spectacle that just shows how derivative all the imagery is, and worse, it tries to couch it in a completely bullshit travesty of gender commentary that’s so clumsily handled it’s offensive.

Not All War Boys

Fury Road appreciates the inherent value of a moving image. And it appreciates that because it invented so many of them. If anyone says the phrase “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” the image that pops into your head is, undoubtedly, from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.

I mentioned wasting time at the beginning of the movie trying to figure everything out. Because the “story” begins in media res, I was wondering whether I needed to have seen the other movies for context. I honestly can’t say whether I’ve seen the other three movies in their entirety; I know I’ve seen parts of them, but couldn’t tell you more than the basics.

Lone guy in a leather jacket driving through the desert in a modified sports car. Bandits killed his wife and child. Hot-rod and motorcycle-driving bandits chasing a tanker truck. Skulls. Communities of outlaws and warlords built with rusted metal and old car parts. Explosions. A guy totally getting his fingers cut off by a spinning boomerang blade thing.

A few minutes in, Fury Road reassured me: yeah, you got it. That’s all you need to know, because those unforgettable images are the whole point. Now watch, as we add dozens more, like an impossibly apocalyptic sandstorm. A “blood bag” strapped to the front of a car, chained to its driver. Four beautiful women appearing like a mirage in the desert, washing themselves with a hose. A white-haired warlord with a death mask, staring intently from behind the wheel of a car in pursuit.

The movie refuses to explain or give context for much of anything, not just because it’s unnecessary, but because it’d undermine their power as raw images. In fact, some of the most unforgettable images are only given a glimpse, a few seconds of screen time and a reaction shot from Max.

With all of that going on, this article in Vice describing the movie as “the feminist action flick we’ve been waiting for” seems misguided. Not that any of it is wrong. Just that pointing it out seems as facile as, for example, being able to identify what a tree is.

Early reports made me expect an action movie with an undercurrent of feminism. Fury Road doesn’t have undercurrents. It’s explicitly written on the wall: “Who killed the world?” and it’s not at all ambiguous. All these men did, and it’s only the women who have any chance of rebuilding it. And actually, by treating it as so explicit, the message is a lot more powerful than it would’ve been as a coded manifesto. There’s nothing to decipher, no nuance, no gray area that leaves room for differences in opinion: this is what happens when you treat people as commodities. Stop acting like it’s at all complicated.

THIS. All the things.

My favorite character in the movie — and with so much vivid imagery it’s kind of tough to choose — is The People Eater: an old white guy standing out of the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps. This is not a movie that aspires to subtlety.

So I ended up not analyzing it, but experiencing it. Cringing, covering my eyes, getting excited, staring in wonder, or laughing out loud. It’s a throwback to a time when I just enjoyed movies, instead of feeling like I had to understand them, because there was going to be a quiz later.

When everybody’s social media first exploded with reactions to the movie, most of them were of the format “Max Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists.” I’d thought it was just the standard internet cliche, like “Well, that happened.” After seeing it, I think it’s really just the best response. The novelty of a movie that’s not a mashup or reboot or reimagining, just 100% its own thing that exists in a pure and almost entirely unadulterated state, free of context and inspiration from anything other than itself. A platonic state of Mad Maxism.

From the right-out-of-the-early-80s title screen forward, it asserts itself as a product of another time. A time when someone could ask me what I thought of a movie, and I could just respond with, “It’s got a grotesque old white man in the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps.”

One Month With the Apple Watch (Order Status Page Edition)

Apple order status page
As a well-known “early adopter,” I feel I’ve got an obligation to share my experiences with bleeding-edge advancements in SoaC-powered wealth redistribution with users who are more on the fence, baffled by the increasing number of options in wearable technology.

A lot of you have lots of money but no time to wade through all the industry jargon; you just have simple questions that you need answered: “What is the Apple Watch?” “Why haven’t I read or heard anything about it?” And most importantly: “Does Chuck have one yet?”

I can go ahead and conclusively answer the last question: No.

If you were hoping that the Apple Watch would finally be the game-changer that makes me satisfied with the number of gadgets I own, you’re probably better off waiting a month or two. Version 1.0 of Apple products are known for being a hint of the advancements and refinements yet to come, more than complete, functional, devices. It’s as if with the Apple Watch, Jony Ive and his team of designers at Apple are giving us a roadmap for the future, announcing to the world: This is what the smart watch will be like, some time in early July when Chuck is actually able to have one.

So the question remains: is it really that insufferable to be waiting for the delivery of an expensive, inessential device, while surrounded by other people who already have theirs? Let’s find out.

How The Other Half Lives

Marketing Apple’s Most Personal Device Ever

Apple had to take a different approach with their first foray into the world of wearable technology. That meant making sure that before the product even hit stores, watch models were made available to the leading tastemakers: the technology and gadget bloggers who’d complain that Pharell and wil.i.am were posting Instagram pictures of their watches before any of the reviewers could get one.

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the “Big Guys” offer up their opinions about the Apple Watch (48mm Steel with the Milanese Loop band, universally), and their experiences with glances, taptic feedback, the Activity tracker, re-charging it every day, and the importance of selectively disabling notifications. By virtue of the mathematical study of combinatorics and the number of words in the English language, each reviewer’s take is, strictly speaking, unique.

You’ve seen a quirky first person attempt to free the device from Jony Ive’s perfectly-controlled environment and present it in a more realistic day-to-day setting: a tech blogger in New York City with a head-mounted camera. You’ve doubtless savored the definitive review from a suave globetrotting secret agent tech blog editor figuring out how this new innovation fits into a busy day packed with meetings and treadmill-running, including an up-close look at how hard it is to execute cross-site web content scheduling in a New York City bar with the double distractions of a watch constantly tapping your wrist, and a full camera and lighting crew having to run multiple takes of video while in a New York City bar. You’ve seen a stop-motion animated version with paper cutouts, for some reason. By now, you’ve even seen the Tech Reviewer Old Guard offer another look back at the watch after using it for a month.

What none of those so-called “professional” reviews will tell you is what life is like for real people who don’t have the product being reviewed. Sure, you occasionally get somebody like Apple insider and sarcasm enthusiast Neven Mrgan making a feeble attempt to relate to The Rest of Us outside Apple’s walled garden clique, but how much can you really say about an experience after only a week or two? How does that experience change after an entire month? [Full disclosure: Mr. Mrgan graciously offered a royalty-free license for me to completely rip off the premise of this blog post, presumably by effortlessly dictating said license into the always-on AI assistant of his futurewatch].

It’s Finally Here

Just Not For You

One thing that none of the reviews mention is how much of the Apple Watch experience is dependent on having not just an iPhone, but an actual physical Apple Watch. The site iMore.com, for example, offers a list of what the Apple Watch can do without an iPhone, but makes no mention of what can be done without the watch itself.

Granted, one site can’t possibly cover every single aspect of the watch (although not for lack of trying), but this seems like an oversight. How do I keep time without an Apple Watch? How is not having the watch changing my health for the better? When will I get one? They’re all questions strangely left unanswered by the “All [sic] your questions answered!” Apple Watch FAQ.

That’s a perfect example of how blog developers are adjusting to the new paradigms introduced by the Apple Watch: They’re not as content-focused as more traditional devices like the iPhone’s reviews. Instead, they’re best consumed as “glances,” not meant to be “read” so much as absorbed in quick seconds-long bursts throughout the day, every day, for months.

The truth is that there’s no amount of parallax scrolling and full-screen looping background video that will provide a truly definitive review of life without Apple’s latest must-have. For that, you need to go to Apple itself.

Apple Watch Ballerina
That trademark Apple design is evident from first glance: the photographs of other people with their watches bleed right up to the bezel of the laptop screen, putting a subtle but unmistakable emphasis on the object that you don’t have. It’s a perfect example of how Apple makes cold hardware more personal, by telling a personal story: This woman has a watch and you don’t. She is a ballerina. What does she need a smartwatch for? She can’t possibly have her iPhone in range; her pockets are too small. Also the screen is likely to come on frequently as she moves her arms, causing a distraction to the other dancers. Did she not think this through? I wonder if she ordered her watch at midnight instead of waiting. A good night’s rest is very important for dancers, so it seems foolish to forsake that just to get a new watch that can’t even give incoming message notifications. Not to mention that dancers aren’t usually paid well enough to be spending hundreds of dollars on a watch. I bet she didn’t even wait in line for a new iPhone every other year since the first model, like I did. Who does she think she is, anyway?

This is also likely to be your first bit of frustration when dealing with the lack of an Apple Watch: because the title photograph has to do a full round-trip circuit from designer to marketing team to photographer and model to graphic designer to web publisher, it can get hopelessly out of sync with reality. I still find myself reading the notification “The Watch is Here,” and then glancing down at my wrist only to confirm that it’s most assuredly not here. I hope this is fixed in a future update.

The Best Part of Waking Up

Getting Into the Groove of a Daily Routine Without Your Apple Watch

Apple’s attention to detail and design carry through the rest of the experience. There’s no garish “Order Status” menu, for example, instead offering a simple “Store” menu that reveals more beautifully photographed images of the product you don’t have.

It’s only there that you find a friendly drop-down menu takes you to “Order Status.” That will ask you for your password every time you open or refresh the page throughout the day — you’ll be doing this a lot, so I recommend using a password manager like 1Password.

In the month since I ordered an Apple Watch, I’ve really started to notice how I use technology differently throughout the day and in different locations. On the laptop, for instance, I hardly ever use the Delivery Status widget to track the status of my shipment, both because of the decreasing relevance of the OS X Dashboard, and because after 5 weeks the order is still in “Processing” status without a tracking number. Instead, I prefer to go to the Apple Store page, bring up the order status, enter my password, refresh the page, wait a few seconds, and refresh the page again, sigh, then refresh it one more time. I would’ve thought that this would feel like an intrusion, but it’s become such an integral part of my morning routine that I hardly even notice it anymore.

While out around town, not going to bars or important meetings, it’d be a lot more convenient to bring up the Apple Store app on my phone. In practice, though, the app requires me to type my password again every time I want to check the order status, so I end up not bothering. Maybe they’ll fix this sometime within the next 5-6 weeks. In a perfect world, I could have some type of device on my wrist that could give me order updates with just a “glance.”

On the Order Status page, you’ll see the time period in an elegant but still-readable font. Apple still knows how to make the most of the user experience, giving a moment of delight as you see the estimate change from “June” to “5-6 weeks.” These displays are made possible by “complications,” a term Apple is borrowing from the hardware industry to describe things like doing a huge marketing push for a product release that depends on faulty haptic feedback engines from overseas manufacturers.

Apple makes it really easy to go back to the main store page from the Order Status page, so you can get a beautiful, detailed look at all the various models and colors of watches you don’t have. It’s fun for running “what if?” type experiments, such as “Could I cancel my order and instead get one of the dainty models with a pink band? Would that ship any faster?”

There’s also support for Apple’s new “Force Touch” technology, in which you give a long, exasperated sigh followed by a sharp slamming gesture on all of the keyboard’s keys simultaneously, or pressing a closed fist firmly and repeatedly on the laptop’s trackpad. This gives helpful feedback in the form of Safari crashing. It definitely takes some practice, but in my experience, it became second nature the more often I saw my colleagues unwrapping their just-delivered Apple Watches near my desk.

I Regret Reading a Gadget Blog Post (and I knew I would)

The Cold, Hard Sting That Can Only Happen When You Physically Open Your Wallet

Even though the watch is only available online and who the hell writes for a technology blog but still has to physically open his wallet when he buys stuff online?

He Should Try Apple Pay
Unless Maybe He Also Bought a Really Expensive Wallet, And He Just Likes the Way It Feels

As a mobile software developer in San Francisco, I’ve already seen how the release of the Apple Watch has changed my routine. During my morning workout (two reps climbing up BART station stairs, followed by an intensive 1.5 block walk), I enjoy listening to podcasts that keep me on the bleeding edge of the most disruptive of apps and innovators. (ICYMI: My essential travel gear). (I recommend Overcast for podcast-listening, even if you’re going truly old-school and changing podcast tracks on your Bluetooth headphones by manipulating actual buttons on your touchscreen-enabled wireless mobile computer).

The gang at SixColors.com has been active on various podcasts, letting me know about their experiences after initial unboxing, two days, four days, a week, and several weeks later, while traveling, writing, and recording podcasts. In addition to the roundtable discussions where groups of people discuss how the watch I don’t have yet has changed their lives, I’ve gotten answers to the questions you don’t usually think about with some cursory product review. For instance: what if you have two watches, and you can’t decide which of them you want to keep? And: now that we’ve all had the opportunity to get used to our new watches, what would we most like to see in the new version?

Another highlight: an account of the podcaster whose significant other isn’t much of a technology devotee and wasn’t that interested in the watch, became interested after seeing the podcaster use his for a few days, ordered one, received it, and is giving her first impressions. It’s a magical time, as if entire generations of wearable technology are happening all around me as I watch the Order Status page. Whole waves of Gawker Media-led backlashes are whooshing by with the lasting permanence of burrito farts, the only constants being me, a web site, and a refresh button.

After five weeks, I find I have a lot in common with Mat Smith, who wrote for Engadget a confessional thinkpiece entitled “I regret buying an Apple Watch (and I knew I would).”

Like Smith, I was initially unmoved by the announcement of a new device from Apple. I, too, had bought a Pebble watch but quickly got out of the habit of wearing it. I’ve gotten the first versions of other Apple products and often been surprised by how dramatically and how quickly they’re made obsolete by the next release. I, too, write rambling stuff on the internet that frequently makes me come across as an insufferable asshole. And I also find myself reluctantly falling back into the role of “early adopter” for the sake of completely irrational impulses — in my case, an animated Mickey Mouse watch face that taps his foot every second; in his case, enjoying buying unnecessarily expensive stuff that makes him look cool.

It was important to him to have the sapphire face and stainless steel body, whereas I have large wrists, so it really stands out when I roll my eyes and make a wanking gesture while reading the rest of his post.

We ordered different models of the watch, because we have different needs. He tried on the gold version and was invited to look at himself in a mirror, while I managed to get 10 minutes bending over a bench in an Apple store by scheduling an appointment a couple of days in advance. He fell in love with the Milanese band, while I could only justify getting the cheapest model by telling myself it was a birthday present for myself. He doodles tiny pictures of cocks to colleagues and concludes it’s not a life-changing device; I see colleagues with watches and go back to reading blog posts written by, apparently, sentient, literate cocks.

One More Thing

Adding a Semi-Pithy Coda About Consumerism to What Should Have Been a Short and Silly Blog Post to Make it Unclear How Much of Any of This Is Intended to be Sarcastic

This Is Why People Don’t Read Your Blog

For decades there’s been a tendency to be dismissive of Apple devotees as being cultish and image-obsessed, with more money than common sense. As Macs and iPhones got more ubiquitous (and cheaper), enough people caught on to the fact that good design actually has real value. There are, no doubt, plenty of people who put “shiny” and “has visible glowing Apple logo” high on their list of priorities, but I think they’re finally outnumbered by those of us who just want something that’s really well made. (And who’ve bought enough cheap computers for the sake of saving a few bucks to realize that it ends up costing more in the long run when it needs to be replaced). Now it’s only the cranks in forums and blog comments that insist on complaining about the “Apple Tax.”

When Apple announced a gold edition of its new watch, that was rumored to cost over ten thousand bucks, there were fears that it’d bring all the old class warfare back to consumer technology: the company was now explicitly targeting status-obsessed rich people.

As I look at photos of models tying up their toe shoes, or draping their watch-bedecked arms over other models to make out with them, or stopping mid-jog-through-the-Hollywood Hills, and I see the three clearly-delineated castes of watch available, and I commit a few hundred bucks to the “lowest” caste of thing that I didn’t even want a few months ago, and I get increasingly resentful of the people who already have their inessential thing, and even more annoyed when they have the more expensive version of the thing I don’t yet have (even though I wouldn’t even want the more expensive version), I’m just glad those fears turned out to be completely unfounded.

Dogpile on that thing you like

Andrew Dice Clay
Considering that Grand Theft Auto, Family Guy, and The Big Bang Theory have all received their public nerd backlashes, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen one against the game Cards Against Humanity yet. It’s super popular, it sells itself on being transgressive and breaking barriers of good taste; what’s the hold up?

In fact, the only indication of whether it was safe for me to say publicly how much I hate Cards Against Humanity came at the end of a Shut Up & Sit Down video review of something else a while back (which is impossible for me to find a link to at the moment, so just take my word for it). They were talking about gateway games and introducing people to the hobby, and in regards to CAH, just gave the diplomatic and tactful “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

That’s the healthiest and most mature response. Usually, whenever something I hate becomes popular, my natural tendency is to combine the endings of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies, running through the streets screaming about a world gone mad, pointing in accusatory horror at anyone who would dare enjoy something that I don’t. But that simple acknowledgement in a review video was enough to calm me down and pull me back into the land of the well-adjusted. It’s a filler game that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. What’s the problem?

The problem is that it does affect me, because I keep finding myself in situations where I’m in a group that wants to play Cards Against Humanity, and I end up having to grit my teeth and play along, or decline and end up looking like an over-sensitive wet blanket, or even worse, looking like I’m casting judgment on the people who want to play. I can’t think of any other game — at least one that doesn’t involve drinking or stripping — that has so much defensive social awkwardness baked in.

So I was relieved when Shut Up and Sit Down posted a three-part review of Cards Against Humanity, finally lifting the embargo and giving me permission to announce how much I hate the game and never want to play it.

For the record, I agree 99% with Matt Lees’s take, especially this:

I despise the implication that those who complain about the tone of Cards Against Humanity are approaching the topic with the mindset of a prude… I don’t need a card game to grant me permission, but I also don’t need one to absolve me from guilt.

It’s a system designed to reliably dose players with an intoxicating sense of naughtiness. Breaking social rules gives people a buzz, but frankly there are better rules to be breaking. One of the great pleasures of games is allowing yourself to briefly play a role that’s different to your own, but I can’t help but cringe when faced with the glee of people using a deck of cards to pretend they’re the square root of Jeremy Clarkson.

But there’s more to it than that, as there always is whenever something that’s frankly lazy tries to pass itself off as transgressive satire. It pulls in all these layers of defensiveness and offensiveness which isn’t actual depth, but just the typical Hipster Spiral of Irony. So here’s my attempt to unpack everything wrong with it, in convenient list form:

The makers of the game actually seem kind of cool.
For as long as I’ve been aware, the game was released in the Creative Commons, which includes an option to print your own copy. And they still have managed to make millions and millions of dollars from it. On top of that, they seem to be genuinely interested in supporting and promoting board and card games as a hobby and a “community,” instead of just swooping in for a sudden cash grab.

There shouldn’t be any resentment over how much money the game has made.
Although I’ve never watched an actual episode, I’m especially impressed with the premise of Tabletop Deathmatch, which borrows the reality show format for a series that supports and promotes aspiring game designers. Of course, it promotes Cards Against Humanity as well, which is a perfect example of the combination of marketing and “giving back” that is understood by the kind of people who make lots and lots of money.

A ton of the backlash against Penny Arcade, for instance, was obviously motivated not just by anything they were actually saying, but because they’d become wealthy enough that they became a safe target. It’s a stupid and self-destructive tendency that we (meaning nerd fans) have to try and tear down anyone who becomes successful doing something they love. We should cut it out.

That said, the game still sucks.
When they released Cards Against Humanity, they chose the tagline “A Party Game for Horrible People” as opposed to the more accurate “We Took Apples to Apples and Added AIDS Jokes.” But really, by adding cards about the Holocaust and sharts, they removed the only element of Apples to Apples that’s at all interesting. Opportunities to make any kind of interesting connection or observation in CAH is an accident at best; 99% of the game is just picking whichever card is going to result in the biggest shock value. It’s pretty much entirely passive.

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to play, we included my friend’s toddler as one of the players. Each round, she’d randomly pick a card to get added into the mix. She “scored” as well as anyone else did. That’s a clear sign of a terrible non-game.

I think the game sucks, not the people who play it.
A surprising number of my friends still like using it as a filler game or a time-waster, and in fact a couple of them are some of the funniest and most clever people I’ve ever met. But because of the tagline and the premise, there’s an element of defensiveness baked in: you’re saying I should feel bad for enjoying this. Or even worse: I’m playing this with a level of ironic detachment that you clearly don’t understand because you have a simplistic sense of humor.

Believe me: we get it. There are certainly people who play Cards Against Humanity the same way my friends and I tittered over a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes when we were in middle school. You don’t sell millions of dollars worth of something without catering to everyone. But I’m fortunate enough never to have to play with those people. The groups I’ve ever had to play with are all approaching it as SF Bay Area Liberals: it’s a kind of meta-commentary on the type of asshole who thinks jokes about AIDS, child abuse, and Michael Jackson are genuinely funny.

It’s not a subtle game; the premise is right there on the box. It presents a kind of “safe space” where you can say stuff you’d never say otherwise.

I might still be silently judging you, but that’s okay.
Again, though, if you can charitably describe it as a role-playing game, the role you’re choosing to play is Jeremy Clarkson or Andrew Dice Clay. I’m the guy who’s saying things that other people can’t. It’s all juvenile stuff that just depends on trying to shock the easily offended and then passing it off as transgressive humor.

What annoys me the most when playing it isn’t when someone picks a card that hits one of my hot-button topics. It’s when somebody, before revealing their cards, gives that half-groan and says something like, “Oh, this is sooo bad,” or “Sorry about this!” with a nervous giggle. It takes all of my willpower not to just shout out Yes that’s the entire point of the game we all get that you score points by being offensive you don’t need to qualify it every single turn!

Which ends up making me feel bad, and it’s the kind of hassle I’d rather not have to deal with. I don’t have to feel bad whenever I say I don’t want to play Notre Dame or Smash Up or various other games that I don’t enjoy, so why’s there all this extra baggage around a stupid card game?

I’ve got a juvenile, “there’s no such thing as too lowbrow” sense of humor, and I still giggle when I hear the word “duty.” There have been billions of times I’ve made a joke and gotten a reaction from friends as if I’d just farted directly onto their face. I don’t take it personally, so nobody should take it personally when I announce that their game is stupid and I hate it.

It’s not about genuine offense, or political correctness.
Part of the reason I think my objection to a simple filler card game warrants a blog post is because there are so many different interpretations of why it sucks. There are three in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, all of which I agree (and disagree) with to some degree. There’s also this brief write-up on Offworld, which I don’t agree with.

I’m not particularly concerned with the type of player who’d start talking about political correctness or free speech or being “edgy” with this game, because as I said, I’m lucky enough never to have to play with that type of person. The problem isn’t that it’s offensive, the problem is that it’s lazy. There’s nothing there.

It’s not about “punching down.”
I’ve already seen plenty of condemnations of the game and apologia for the game that both talk about “punching up” and “punching down.” I’ve got zero patience for this; I think it’s some of the worst fallout from the modern trend towards pop-progressivism on the Internet. Simply because if you’re talking about treating people well and fairly, it shouldn’t involve any talk of “punching.” If you’re truly interested in equality, diversity, and all the other things that progressives are supposed to concern about, then acceptable treatment of people should have nothing to do with their race, gender, sexuality, or wealth.

Removing cards is kind of gross.
The only thing that I do find genuinely offensive about Cards Against Humanity is when I hear about people who remove certain cards before they play. To each his own, of course, but I think this is just downright horrible.

It introduces a kind of ghoulish Calculus of Appropriate Speech. It defies the whole premise of the game (flimsy as it is), which insists that everything is fair game because none of this is real. As soon as you start removing cards because they hit on taboo subjects, then you’re saying that some of it is real. That you are actually making jokes at someone’s expense, instead of mocking the horribleness of the whole concept. Which raises the question of where these players are drawing the line. How can it be unacceptable to make light of child abuse and sexual assault, but acceptable to keep cracks about AIDS or the Holocaust?

I do understand the concept of triggers and post-traumatic stress, and how something that seems perfectly innocuous to me can cause an actual physiological reaction in people who’ve had to go through with it. And believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to that. But I insist that it’s not at all crass or insensitive to suggest that if someone is harmed by the content of a card game that’s designed to be offensive, you’d be better off playing Dixit. Otherwise, you’re suggesting that some of the content is to be taken seriously, and you really are engaged in the activity of making fun of other people’s horror or misfortune for fun.

Stop trying to define what’s acceptable in stuff that’s intended to be offensive.
It goes back, yet again, to one of the worst things I’ve read on the internet, the Jezebel article that tried to delineate exactly how and when it’s acceptable to make light of sexual assault, using discussions of positions of power, CDC statistics, and a counter-example of being horribly mangled by an industrial thresher. It’s a clumsy (no matter how well-intentioned) attempt to codify something for which there’s a simple, straightforward answer: it’s never okay to make light of sexual assault. The reason comedians like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman seem to get away with it isn’t complicated; it’s simply because they’re not making light of it.

And the reason it’s worth pointing out over and over again is because I honestly believe it’s lowering the level of discourse. We keep having cyclical flare-ups when people just fail to get how not to be awful, and the response doesn’t help, but instead perpetuates it. Simple-minded people already talk as if there’s some rulebook somewhere of Arbitrary Rules That The Liberals Have Imposed On Our Society, and they’re not sharing it with the conservatives. Whenever someone suggests that it’s okay for somebody to make offensive jokes because of some arbitrary social status, you’re just perpetuating the idea that it really is arbitrary.

If you think it’s arbitrary, you don’t get it. There’s no simple rulebook or actuarial table of how age or economic background factor into what you’re allowed to say. You’ve got to think about what’s actually being said, not just the words that are being used, or who’s talking. And if you don’t get that, then please, for the love of Pete, stop trying to explain it.

Cards Against Humanity isn’t representative of board and card games.
If I’m being honest: of all the objections raised in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, I think Paul’s are the weakest. CAH has been embraced by the “post-Catan wave” of board and card game enthusiasts, but it remains its own thing. Even the aforementioned Dixit or Apples to Apples are more likely to be “gateway” games for new players, simply because they’re actually games. (However simple they might be). I don’t believe Cards Against Humanity has any real aspirations to “game-ness,” because of all its built-in ironic disclaimers and presenting itself as more of a social activity than an actual game.

Frankly, I think that claiming to be concerned about the impression it gives to new gamers is just a crutch to make it “okay” to say how much you hate it. (And I mention it because I’ve been tempted to do exactly that). I can justify hating on Grand Theft Auto because each release of the series is such a huge event that it becomes shorthand for “This Is What Video Games Are.” Even the people who love Cards Against Humanity would acknowledge that it’s a filler, and that it doesn’t represent the game industry any more than Family Guy represents animation.

And I really do think it’s worth repeating that the makers of Cards Against Humanity are frequently sponsoring gaming events and evangelizing the hobby. I do wish they were doing it with an actual game, but that just brings us back full circle to the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy.

For my part, I’m just happy that now that I’ll never again have to explain to anyone why I don’t want to play it.

Avengers: Age of Um, Not So Much

avengerswhedonruffalodowney
I’ve been avoiding reading reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, to avoid spoilers. I recommend you do the same, since I’m not going to make any effort to avoid spoiling everything here.

My short review: it’s very good, and I liked it a lot. It’s also 100% a Joss Whedon movie, for better and for worse.

While I didn’t read the reviews themselves, I was reading the headlines and summations. There seemed to be one bit of consensus in particular: it was supposedly more franchise than fun, a case of all the joyous excess of The Avengers finally starting to collapse under the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”

In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.

It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.

But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.

Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.

But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”

Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.

Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.

One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.

Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:

  • It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
  • Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
  • Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
  • And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
  • That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
  • And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
  • There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
  • “Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
  • Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”

In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.

In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.

(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)

Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.

But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.

Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.

I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.