If You See Something, Say Something

Another thing I like about Firewatch


While I’m thinking of it, one more thing I like about Firewatch is the walkie-talkie. Specifically, how they took one of the most mundane elements of adventure games and turned it into the emotional core of a narrative game.

I’ve worked as a writer on around 13 adventure games, and while I do sometimes miss writing for games, I definitely don’t miss writing examine lines. They’re the lines of dialogue for when the player click on an object in the environment, like a rock, and the character walks over to it and says, “It’s a rock.” Maybe I’m revealing too much about my lack of imagination.

Ideally, you can use these lines as opportunities to make jokes, give clues to the solution of a puzzle, or both. But there are only so many jokes you can make about rocks and other mundane objects — at least, only so many that I could make — before you start to suspect that maybe games aren’t an effective medium for storytelling after all, and maybe they’re just meant for shooting bad guys.

Even worse is when you get some pretty good jokes in there, but there are so many that it all just turns into noise. Like having a guy following you around saying “Eh? Eh? Get it?!” repeatedly while you’re just trying to find your keys, or the combination to the safe you saw two screens ago.

One of the neat things about Sam & Max games was having the opportunity for these examine lines to be more conversational; Sam could observe something and Max could make a joke about it. It made it a little harder for them to fall into a rut, but the core problem still remains that the lines are purely mechanical. They exist to tell a joke, or to drive a puzzle forward. It’s extremely difficult to do story development or character development with them. (For several reasons, such as the fact that they’re usually optional).

So the method that Firewatch used — the player presses a button on their walkie-talkie to have Henry “report” something back to Delilah — lines up in tons of clever ways that made me happy to see:

  • Henry’s a newcomer to the job, so the stuff he doesn’t recognize is likely to be the same stuff that a player wouldn’t recognize.
  • Delilah’s role as your supervisor lines up with her role as semi-omniscient narrator, but she’s also a little bit unreliable, which is much more interesting.
  • Banter isn’t used just to describe an object or to solve a puzzle, but to establish character or advance the plot.
  • Henry starts to rely on Delilah as his one point of human contact, and the player relies on that connection as a guide through the game.
  • When the game starts to mess with your walkie-talkie, Henry’s panic resonates as your panic.
  • Because he’s having to describe stuff to someone remotely, it actually makes sense for the player character to be walking around describing what he sees out loud.

Of course, there are some aspects of Firewatch that make the walkie-talkie mechanic work better than it would in a traditional adventure game. It’s more linear, so most of the lines are critical path, and the player’s unlikely to miss a crucial character beat because she didn’t try to examine a specific picture on a desk somewhere. It’s not puzzle-driven, so there’s little need to be giving obtuse clues to puzzles; in fact, it’s more realistic to tell the player outright what she should be focused on. And it’s more evenly paced, which is to say there are fewer interactive objects in the environment, so there’s no attempt to create a constant firehose of jokes, red herrings, or insightful observations.

Instead, it uses one of the oldest tropes of adventure games to tell a mature, thoughtful, and character-driven story about connection and isolation. Kind of like an adult contemporary short story about Link and Navi.

One Thing I Like About Firewatch

Being an independent developer means you can take uneventful hikes through the woods.

Playing What Remains of Edith Finch? reminded me how much I love video games that do interesting things with interactive storytelling, and writing about it renewed my interest in writing about things I love on this blog. The idea behind this series is to counter-act my usual tendency to over-think, over-write, and reduce an entire work of art to the one thing I think it “means.” So this is the start of what I hope becomes a series in which I write about one aspect of a piece of art or entertainment that I really like, and I try to explain why I like it.

One thing I like about Firewatch is its opening walk from Henry’s truck to the watch tower.

The introduction to a game has to do a ton of stuff, introducing the game mechanics, setting up the narrative, setting the tone, and even just grabbing the player’s interest. There’s a lot going on in Firewatch’s opening, and it’s all pulled off with subtlety and confidence. Emotional and tough-to-write scenes are all front-loaded, distilled into vignettes with the most impact, and presented in a surprising choose-your-own-adventure format. (And they serve as a good example of why the argument “your choices don’t matter!” is a mostly vacuous one when it comes to narrative-driven games).

The mechanical controls are introduced along with the narrative premise: Want to run away from your troubles? Press the W key. The relationship that defines the core of the game is established purely through banter during the opening. As you walk, you’re gradually exposed to more and more of the stunning environments that would be the hallmark of the game. You can even tell that someone agonized over the editing down to the microsecond — the last line of dialogue welcoming you into the game slams you into a black title card almost too abruptly, a final bit of punctuation on the conversation. Even the selection of typography impressed me. The entire thing was so slick and mature that I was completely on board.

But my favorite aspect of it is that the whole sequence is the very first thing that would be cut in “normal” game development.

By my count, there are six distinct environments in that opening. If I remember correctly, only the very last one — the watch tower itself — is ever revisited in the game. Maybe that doesn’t seem that remarkable, but the thing about environments in Firewatch is:

  1. They’re beautiful,
  2. They’re meticulously planned out, and
  3. They’re reused a lot.

The reuse would be perfectly justifiable for a small, independent studio making its debut game, but I don’t even consider it a negative. The game compresses three months and a huge expanse of open space into an experience you can navigate over four or five hours, and the reuse helps turn a foreign landscape into a familiar home. It even created a weird sense of nostalgia as I was playing and realizing that the story was drawing to a conclusion. I’d gotten used to the place and was starting to regret having to leave.

But whether that was intentional or not, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a finite amount of work a small team of developers can do in a limited amount of time. It would’ve been a lot more efficient and practical to scope it down. Put all that time and money into the watch tower, which you know has to be the most developed and detailed, and start the game there. Sure, keep the flashbacks, but have them play out while you’re on day 1 of the story, exploring the space around the tower and learning the controls.

That’s how it would’ve gone in all the production-driven studios I’ve worked at. In fact, I’ve heard similar so many times that I wouldn’t have even proposed it. I’d have scoped it out from the start, convincing myself that the time and money would be better spent elsewhere, and asking for extra environments is pretentious indulgence. And instead, I’d have saved that energy for the inevitable argument that the beginning is too slow, and we gotta grab ’em from the start with a big action set-piece.

Which would be a huge loss, because the opening of Firewatch is absolutely crucial to the rest of the game. It’s establishing mood as much as plot and backstory. It has to make you feel as if you’ve withdrawn and escaped, isolated yourself miles away from any human contact. Your character mentions that he’s been hiking for two days, but without taking parts of that hike yourself, it’s just an abstract idea.

The changes in daylight show that passage of time, but what really drives it home is that you’re walking in a straight line through nondescript (but beautiful!) woods, in that period of time dilation at the beginning of a game when you have control of a story and are eager to drive it forward. There are interesting things to look at, but you’re not really exploring. You’re just traveling, and it’s taking a long time. In other words, you’re actually hiking.

For Firewatch to work, it’s got to nail that mood of isolation. It can’t just be a bunch of beautifully rendered environments, because without the context, it’d all be hollow. The game does a fantastic job of establishing a place — at first breathtaking, then familiar, then dangerous. But what makes it resonate as more than just world-building is that feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world except for two threadbare connections, one to a stranger in the present and one to a difficult past. And it would’ve lost something invaluable if they’d started with Henry in the middle of the woods without showing you how he got there.

What Remains of Edith Finch

It turns out that the game from last year that has gotten near-universal praise and made it onto multiple best-of lists is actually pretty good.

What Remains of Edith Finch
What Remains of Edith Finch came out about a year ago, and I bought it at the time to show my support for small game development studios and immersive storytelling. But I never got around to playing it until last night. Even though it’s gotten near-universal praise, I’d assumed that I got the gist of it and didn’t need to dive in right away. I rarely play games anymore as it is, and I haven’t been in the mood for what I figured was going to be another artistically-minded and well-crafted but predictable and passive walking simulator.

Turns out I was mistaken. This game is a masterpiece. Everybody at Giant Sparrow should be immensely proud of it, for everything it gets exactly right artistically, technically, and tonally. It seems effortlessly beautiful, unabashedly earnest without being maudlin, intriguing without being obtuse, and profound without being pretentious.

I reckon I’m still only about halfway through, but I had to stop playing because I was sitting in the living room straight-up heaving-sobs ugly-crying over one of the stories. I can’t remember the last time a video game has made me cry — well, the last time playing a video game has made me cry, anyway — and I know that none have hit me that dramatically.

What’s remarkable to me is how much the game earned it. To be honest, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make me cry; movies have been able to do it with increasing regularity, and it usually resonates only as much as a jump scare. But the scene in Edith Finch (at the risk of spoilers, it’s Gregory’s story) wouldn’t have worked outside of a game. Or, more accurately, outside of a game as thoughtfully and skillfully made as this one. The story itself is real, and it’s tragic, but it’s also been made maudlin by its overuse in shallower stories. It’s been reduced to a background sketch in adult contemporary fiction, or made trite like Hemingway’s saddest short story. In Edith Finch, though, the audience’s perspective and interactivity are used to flip the focus; the story isn’t about a tragic death but a joyous life.

You already know what’s going to happen; that’s not only something that’s been foreshadowed several times over, but has by this point revealed itself as one of the game’s main themes. But the genius of Edith Finch is that it forces you to confront, accept, and even embrace the sinister premise behind each story, so that you can see for yourself the joy, or beauty, or humor, or exhilaration of it. It takes the “don’t go into that room!” moments from horror movies and games, then makes that idea literal as the game’s recurring theme and core “mechanic.” And then it uses that tension and suspense not for horror (or rather, not just for horror), but for empathy.

The reason I put “mechanic” in scare quotes there was because What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t a game, and it’s also the best possible illustration of why the argument of what constitutes a “game” is irrelevant. At first, even while I was marveling at the beauty of the art direction — it’s a marvelous example of being simultaneously painterly, realistic, intriguing, mundane, sinister, and familiar — I was bristling at the lack of interactivity. I was getting so annoyed at passively listening to descriptions of objects, needlessly fiddling with the controls for what should have been simple interactions, and illusory choices that had no real consequences, that you’d think I’d never worked at Telltale.

But then the game started changing the way I interacted with things, and it started to make me realize the implications of those changes. (As long as I’m gushing, I’ve got to mention that the pacing of the stories and the order in which they’re presented is masterful, although it’d be easy to take for granted). A gameplay loop develops inside each story: what am I trying to do?, how do I do it?, and then why am I doing it?, and you realize how the process of answering those questions either reveals or emphasizes the theme of each story. The loop is a bit like Wario Ware, except instead of picking someone’s nose, you’re getting insight into the joy and sadness inherent in the nature of human existence.

As a result, even the relatively simple moments can become profound and poignant. Calvin’s story, for instance, takes place entirely on a swing. You know what’s going to happen, but the game doesn’t let you continue until you actually do it. By the end, you understand why the game made you do it — you have to do it to see what it feels like.

At which point everything seemed to click in place and the metaphors made sense to me: a house full of sealed-off rooms that you can only peek into. An anthology in which you know from the beginning what’s ultimately going to happen to each character. A mystery that reveals its killer at the beginning, but forces you to see for yourself what happened. An interactive experience in which your actions aren’t defining the shape of your narrative, but making you better able to understand and empathize with someone else’s.

It’s constantly surprising, both in how frequently it shifts between different tones and different game mechanics, and in how masterful it is in doing it. Over the course of my half-playthrough, it’s already changed my perspective on the potential of “walking simulators” and whether or not they were a storytelling dead-end. It’s also seemingly transformed from sinister haunted house story to a funeral memorializing a bunch of dead characters and then into a wake celebrating their lives. I feel like I already know how it’s going to end, but I still can’t wait to go through it and see for myself.

No Place in Her Story

The Last Jedi is really just a rehash of many of the ideas from the first Star Wars movie.


This post has lots of spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Please don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie.

My brief review of The Last Jedi: I liked it much better the second time I saw it.

No doubt that was partly because the second time was with an audience filled with nine-year-olds and their parents, who cheered and applauded at the best moments (of which there are several). But it’s also because I think the movie’s kind of an overstuffed mess in terms of plot and pacing. Once I could stop trying to make sense of where the story was going and instead tried to figure out what the movie was trying to say I though it held together a lot better.

You can sense the conflict within this movie. It’s a story that’s about rejecting all-powerful heroes, but it still needs to sell action figures. Its main dramatic tension is about desperation and being low on fuel, in a movie series that previously cared so little for practical details that it had a spaceship traveling from solar system to solar system without a working hyperdrive. The main story of The Last Jedi is essentially — almost literally — a Battlestar Galactica premise instead of a Star Wars story.

More than that, it doesn’t quite get the scale right. Star Wars stories tend to work best when they’re very personal, melodramatic stories set against a grand, enormous backdrop. The Last Jedi doesn’t seem comfortable dealing with more than two characters at the same time. It’s a bit like a tribe with no concept of numbers greater than a dozen or so; any group of more than around four people just ceases to exist. These movies are stories about gigantic armies, but The Last Jedi has to whittle the Rebellion down to a group small enough to fit on board one ship.

There are characters who’ve been reduced to one-dimensional shadows of themselves and seem to be in the movie only for the sake of their toys. There’s an entire subplot that is poorly motivated, poorly paced, and doesn’t accomplish much of anything. There’s an ethnically diverse trio of adorable orphans right out of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. There’s a soldier who stops before a tense battle to taste the ground and declare “It’s salt,” clearly because an executive in a screening somewhere was briefly confused.

But there’s also plenty of terrific moments, both big and small. (Nothing as breathtaking as in The Force Awakens, but they still work on the “that was bad-ass!” level if not the “I feel like I’m nine years old again” level). And all the stuff that has no place in terms of advancing the plot does find a way to reiterate and re-emphasize the central themes of unity, humility, and self-determination.

One of my favorite of those smaller moments happens right before a cross-the-Galaxy conversation between Rey and Kylo Ren. She’s standing underneath the Millennium Falcon during a miserable rain storm, and she’s just delighted. In a movie series where characters always have to explicitly state how they’re feeling, it could seem out of place. Until you remember that she grew up on a desert planet, and it’s entirely possible she’s never seen rain before. Something that’s at best taken for granted by everyone else, and which is more likely a nuisance to everyone else, is to her something magical.

It’s a reminder of how inherently charismatic Daisy Ridley is. Rey’s already become my favorite character in the entire series, because of Ridley’s performance and a few perfectly-delivered lines of dialogue. (Like “I’ve seen your schedule; you’re not busy.”) She became a character who’s inherently good but neither sanctimonious or boring.

And not at all like Luke Skywalker, which is crucial. It’s unfortunate (but not surprising) that so many “fans” called out Rey as being an “unrealistic” wish-fulfillment character. I have to wonder if the movie was equating that with Supreme Leader Snoke, who scolds Kylo Ren for losing to a girl who’s “never held a light saber before.” And then calls him a beta cuck. In any case, though, Luke is the wish-fulfullingest George Lucas stand-in imaginable: the kid from a backwater town (by his own estimation) who loved working on cars and cruising around with his friends but turned out to be the lone savior of the Rebellion and the heir to the greatest power in the Galaxy.

But in the beginning at least, with that first Star Wars movie, we had a story of a whiny kid who looked off to the horizon and wanted adventure, and then found himself becoming a part of something much greater.

Which is something that Lucas gradually chipped away over the course of the next five movies. Star Wars was a story about a kid from nowhere becoming a hero; The Empire Strikes Back needed a twist that made him part of a lineage. Yoda said “wars do not make one great,” but was then given a moment to show his true power during the Clone Wars, which was to flip out and slice up bad guys. Obi-Wan defined the Force as a power that surrounded all living things and bound us together, and then Midochlorians happened.

Over time — or maybe just as I grew older, perhaps — the movies seemed more and more to say one thing but then show another. It’s entirely possible that I’m unfairly projecting, but they seemed less like a Hero’s Journey and more like a stream of consciousness from an anti-union billionaire with a special effects company.

Even if that is an unfair assessment on my part, I think it’s clear that they became less democratic and more elitist, more interested in queens and lords and senators than farmers and smugglers, and inexplicably making its central figure not only the most powerful person in the galaxy but the result of a virgin birth. It became less interested in the heroes of the republic or the rebellion, and instead obsessed with the redemption of its iconic villain.

That’s why I liked The Last Jedi’s callback to that first moment, when Luke was just a kid looking off to the horizon. At that point, Star Wars was still a series about self-determination, and The Last Jedi wanted desperately to bring that back to a series that had increasingly echoed the Emperor’s whispers of “your destiny.”

We already knew that there’d be no satisfying answer to Rey’s question of her parents’ identity, because abandoning a child to that life would’ve been unforgivable for any recognized character. But I hadn’t expected it to tie in so well to what this story has become: a return to fantastic, operatic, and melodramatic stories about heroes who choose adventure and choose to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Kylo Ren’s story becomes interesting again, because he’s presented as the opposite of Rey in every way: not just dark side vs. light side, but someone who’s always lived in the shadow of his parents and uncle and was never allowed to define his own path. Finn becomes the good guy whose first inclination is to give up, and Poe becomes the hot-shot who wants to solve everything himself instead of being part of something larger. But really, they both could’ve been worked in more effectively or even left out of the story entirely.

As part of the initial buzz in response to this movie, there were a lot of people focusing on how JJ Abrams had set up all kinds of things to be resolved later, which Rian Johnson just steamrolled away. It seems absurd since for one thing Abrams was an executive producer on this movie, and for another these are installments in one of the largest franchises in all of entertainment, not indie productions.

But more than that, it seems absurd because The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi work well as a matched set, with the shared theme of “People Who Grew Up With Star Wars share what Star Wars Means to Them.”

The Force Awakens was all about how Star Wars feels, setting up moments that feel more like sense memories than actual plot developments, to remind you of how it felt to see spaceships swooping around to an orchestral soundtrack, and underdogs coming through to save the day at the darkest moment. And if that’s the case, then The Last Jedi is a reiteration of what Star Wars means. Or at least, what it was supposed to mean. The Force than surrounds and connects every living thing, instead of the Force that was a power that Jedi had to make things float.

So ultimately I can’t say I love The Last Jedi, but I do love what it tried to do. And I love being set up for the conclusion of a story that started for me when I was six years old, and not having any idea what’s going to happen next.

If You Was a Pedant You’d Understand

Enjoying pointless endeavors like encouraging the correct use of language and finding fault with years-old internet video essays


For various reasons — including, no doubt, sins I committed in previous lifetimes — I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube lately. I wonder if it’s fundamentally changed my temperament: a year or so ago I would’ve thought it was ridiculous to spend time watching other people go to theme parks or play video games. Now, I still think it’s completely ridiculous, but it’s also quite pleasant.

It also means that I end up watching a lot of video essays and end up forming really strong opinions about inconsequential topics. (The whole world of “video responses” used to be bafflingly alien to me, but now I kind of get why you’d want to set up a camera and lighting to explain exactly how someone else was wrong).

Other times, though, they hit closer to home. They violate everything that we civilized people hold to be good and true, such as Tom Scott’s outrageous claim that the difference between “less” and “fewer” is purely pedantic.

For the record: I do get the irony in writing an essay to explain how I’m not actually pedantic. But this one especially bugs me because:

  1. I’m constantly hearing it called “pedantic”
  2. Without fail, everyone who calls it “pedantic” goes on to hypocritically complain about something even more pedantic
  3. Technically, a list should always contain at least three items

I’ve heard the complaint from no fewer than a dozen people over the years, and from no less than Stephen Fry himself. Scott claims that it’s a prescriptive distinction; it’s an assertion of how people should speak instead of an observation of how they actually speak. The idea is supposedly that for those of us who think it sounds wrong enough to be jarring, we’re making the distinction just so that we can feel superior, even though the meaning is perfectly clear either way.

But there is an actual distinction between the two, even though Scott’s video calls the distinction “dodgy” and relegates it to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it footnote. “Fewer” is used for things you can count; “less” is used for more generalized or indistinct things or concepts. Or in other words, “fewer” relates to “number,” while “less” relates to “amount.” (And yeah, it’s jarring to me when people say stuff like “a smaller amount of people,” too).

Everyone can decide for herself whether it’s a big enough distinction to care about, but it’d be disingenuous to say that there’s no distinction. I’m definitely not an authority in linguistics, but I do know that the Japanese language has different counting words for cylindrical objects, flat objects, abstract concepts, and so on. The video that made me discover Tom Scott’s channel in the first place was this one about “language features” such as that, and the importance of preserving endangered languages, since they sometimes have concepts and ways of thinking of and expressing concepts that don’t exist in other languages.

I agree with that part. It’s why, for one example, I started writing “everyone can decide for herself” after years of dismissing it as arbitrary political correctness. Since the “feature” that English lacks is a truly gender-neutral singular pronoun, using “she” is no more or less correct than using “he.” (It is more correct than “they,” because if we’re going to stop caring about subject-verb agreement then we might as well just go back to banging rocks together and grunting). But the whole argument is that language is about more than just being “correct;” it’s about expressiveness, and choosing “he” as the arbitrary default expresses assumptions about what’s normal and what’s an exception. It’s rarely intentional expression, but it’s still there, whether or not you choose to spell it “womyn.”

Obviously, “can I count it?” is a much less charged and much less important question than “can I systematically oppress it?” but it’s still a concept that we can express in English. It seems hypocritical to spend an entire video defending all the nuances and connotations that languages can express, and then spend another video insisting that two words in English are interchangeable and anyone who says otherwise is a pompous know-it-all.

One of my favorite podcasters is Helen Zaltzman, of The Allusionist and Answer Me This. She’s made the assertion that the difference between “less” and “fewer” is purely pedantic. But she’s also said several times that her pet peeve is when people say “and I” instead of “and me,” and vice-versa; as in, “The rings of power were given to Galadriel and I.” It sounds jarring to me, too, but ultimately that is a purely prescriptive distinction. Whether a word’s the subject or object of a sentence or clause is purely a grammatical rule, and it doesn’t change the meaning or make it any more difficult to understand.

Above anything else, though, I think the key thing to realize is that I need to watch less YouTube. Or if you prefer, I need to watch fewer video essays. If nothing else, it’d save me the cognitive dissonance of watching this video of the Nerdwriter bitching about how selfies and pictures of food are ruining Instagram by turning it into a gross platform for personal branding (an allegation I take personally!), and then seeing his Instagram feed filled with photos of himself eating food in Venice with his girlfriend. Maybe the key thing to realize is that people writing blog posts and making videos online need to be a hell of a lot less judgmental.

The Right People

About the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the creepy complexities of nerd ownership


There’s a new season of a new version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 running on Netflix and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it. Cry Wilderness is my favorite episode so far; I love the band playing “classic” MST3k songs like “Wild Rebels” and “Creepy Girl;” and even as much as I hate change, all the new cast quickly won me over.

My only complaints: I have a hard time telling the guys’ voices apart, and the pacing is rushed. It feels like they’re trying to cram too much into a show that was originally designed specifically to kill as much screen time as possible. The recurring gimmick that Jonah gets sucked out of the satellite to re-enact the opening credits seems weird and unnecessary. And the mad scientist segments are no longer shot with a Batman ’66-style dutch angle, which was one of my favorite subtle gags from the original.

Well, those are my only legitimate complaints. My main complaint is that all of a sudden out of nowhere, there are thousands of other MST3k fans who claim to enjoy the series as much as I do.

The series was formative for me. It didn’t just play into my sense of humor; it helped define it. I still find myself using phrases I picked up from the show without realizing it. I can distinctly remember the first time I watched it, and the joke that got me instantly hooked. (From Robot Holocaust, “Is that Wendy, or Lisa?”) My .plan file had an animated version of the “Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)” opening. (Yeah, I just used USENET as evidence of nerd cred).

But that’s not particularly unique, as it turns out. I had to get my animated ASCII art from somewhere, after all. There were thousands of MSTies in the info club, and I’d see photos and video from conventions and such. I went to a screening of Zombie Nightmare at UGA during a college tour, and the theater was filled with hundreds of obsessive fans. Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax live shows in San Francisco would have lines around the block. Obviously, a lot of the cast of the new MST3k are there specifically because they were huge fans of the original.

It should create a kind of camaraderie, which is why it’s odd to see the long list of Kickstarter backers at the end of each episode and feel a bit deflated. In this review of the new series on “What the Flick?”, Alonso Duralde points out that nerds have taken over pop culture, for better or worse, and “I long for outsiderdom.” Of course, it’s completely irrational — even counter-productive — to begrudge something you love becoming successful. But it does inevitably change the dynamic to go from feeling like the creators of the show are talking directly to me, and then to find out it’s more like they’re talking to thousands of people, and I’m listening in.

“Missing Richard Simmons” didn’t do a lot for me overall, but one of the few “larger themes” of it was the asymmetric relationship between a creator or a celebrity and their fans. It’s not accusatory or anything; even artists who knock themselves out being accessible and personable will inevitably run into the fact that it’s a one-to-many relationship. And while the internet does bring fans of weird niche stuff together, it’s perversely isolating, because it reminds you that you’re not all that special.

It’s not entirely my weird nerd neuroses at play, either; I think Joel Hodgson is at least partly to blame. There’s an old quote from Joel that MST3k fans tend to love: “We never say, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.'” In 2017, it can seem a tiny bit insufferable, but for those of us who were fans of a weird puppet show in the early 90s, it was like being inducted into a special private club. I’m one of the right people!

Even though it’s a bit disappointing to find out that my super-special private club wasn’t all that exclusive after all, the show’s still a heck of a lot of fun. Coming from a skeptical and overly-possessive fan, that’s high praise. Even though it feels “bigger,” more polished, and it forgoes the original’s awkward charm for more confident gags, it’s still resolutely its own thing. I found that I enjoyed it a lot more when I stopped trying to compare it to the original and just watched it on its own merits. After all, it’s just a show.

Cyber-Hot Take Strike Force 2017: The Reckoning

Reports from an alternate timeline where the sky’s the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.


Like everybody else in the US, I saw the story about a man being beaten and dragged off a United Airlines flight for refusing to “volunteer” the seat he’d paid for. Seeing friends’ reactions to it on Facebook beat and dragged me just far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to realize that yes, it’s almost definitely the case that the man’s ethnicity played a factor in how far it was allowed to escalate. Fortunately for you, the reader, it didn’t drag me far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to convince me that the internet wasn’t interested in hearing my opinion about it.

When I saw the video that had been recorded and broadcast by a passenger on the plane, I was sitting in San Francisco at my job writing social media software for mobile supercomputers. I watched the video on my touchscreen-enabled internet-connected tablet computer, playing in a window on the screen around the comments coming in live from viewers around the country, next to a sidebar describing how the reality TV celebrity who was now the President of the United States had authorized military theater missile strikes on another country without Congress’s permission.

And in response to one of the most viscerally blatant abuses of power against a person in an objectively, grossly unfair situation, reaction was mixed. Outrage against United Airlines was running neck and neck with assertions that the real problem is the guy didn’t do what he was told.

It was at that point when I realized son of a bitch, I’m living in a shitty 1990s corporate-run future dystopia.

I spent years making fun of those things as being hackneyed and adolescent. I rejected anti-corporate paranoia as sophomoric, literally — the kind of thing that college students choose as My First Liberal Outrage Experience on their way to becoming truly Woke. Now here I am just one cybernetic implant away from living it.

What’s especially magical about the United Airlines incident is how it combines so many 21st Century United States attitudes into one thoroughly unproductive and distressing conversation. There’s absolutely a streak of the “Conform! Embrace the police state!” types, but it’s at least tempered with — if not actually overwhelmed by — the kind of lazy, cynical, apathy that pervades everything in 2017. Even cheering the Chicago PD for beating up a guy would be taking too strong a stand. Instead, you get more of the “Well, actually, FAA regulations state that…” contingent.

They’re not defending United, oh no. They just want to make it clear that it’s not as simple as you’re making it sound. There are just so many shades of gray to the issue of a corporation requesting the physical assault of a civilian for not peacefully complying with the fact that they’re denying him the service that he paid for.

(And yeah, I will go to the easy comparison: it’s the same thing you heard a lot of before and after the election. People kept insisting that they’re not necessarily a supporter of Trump, but then would go on to defend one of the hundreds of completely reprehensible and un-American policies he proposed during his campaign. “Look, I’m no fan of the man who openly mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign speech, I just believe in common sense immigration reform, like a multi-billion dollar wall between two peaceful trading partners.”)

So now I’m in the biofuel-powered hoverboat of someone who knows enough about crappy 90s dystopian sci-fi to be able to make fun of it, but not enough to actually live in it. And on the bright side, if we had to pick one thing from the late 80s and early 90s and agree that we were going to make that our future, we could’ve done worse. At least we’re not all living in a global version of that 4 Non Blondes video.

Harambe of Darkness

Kong: Skull Island is a focus-grouped action movie franchise launch, but it’s clever and artistic enough to avoid being disposable and forgettable.


There’s a lot that Kong: Skull Island gets right. Making it a post-Vietnam War period piece is the first, most obvious good idea. Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a period piece, too, but it felt like a tedious, overlong homage to the original. Skull Island doesn’t feel like it’s paying homage to the 1976 version so much as agreeing with that movie that the 1970s were a pretty rad time for giant ape cinema. (Not a great time for Jeff Bridges, though).

The setting is about 95% visual and only 5% thematic. The whole thing is infused with a sense of the futility of war, paranoia about conspiracies and shadow governments, pessimism about man’s ability to solve problems, and a burgeoning sense of respect for the environment. I honestly couldn’t tell you if all of that is actually in the movie, or if it’s just subliminal holdover from a childhood in the 70s.

Regardless of whether they wanted the post-war attitude, though, they absolutely wanted the post-war aesthetic. The Apocalypse Now homages are visible throughout all of the marketing, but the designers of Kong: Skull Island were clearly going for the Deep Cuts. Costumes, cameras, ordinance, and electronics are all chosen as if they were being used by the Dharma Initiative. In the beginning of the movie, there are several shots of rotary phones that seem to fetishize them as even more fascinating and exotic than giant spiders.

For me, the end result is that the entire movie feels like an animated Mondo poster. (Ironically, this is the one time I actually prefer the movie’s actual marketing to the Mondo versions). There’s an aggressive sense of aesthetics all throughout the movie: every shot is lit or framed or color graded to look like graphic design as much as cinematography. Most of the fight sequences feel like transitions from one storyboard to the next; Kong will smack a giant skullcrawler into the frame and the pose looks almost like something from the opening of Batman.

The reason I mention Mondo is because the design seems as conceptual as it is graphic. The aesthetics are chosen for their connotations; it cleverly plays on nostalgia, familiarity, and audience expectations. Skull Island isn’t as full of direct reference to Apocalypse Now (or Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket) as the trailers suggested, but it feels like it’s making constant references to it because the imagery is so potent.

Ultimately, though, it feels about as deep as an animated Mondo poster, too. The movie’s entertaining and never feels dull, but there’s almost nothing surprising about it, either. (“Almost” because I wasn’t expecting the moment that introduced the giant spiders). It’s clever, but it doesn’t say anything apart from the standard “respect the majesty of nature” you’d expect from any respectable King Kong story.

The characters exist only to have a dramatic entrance and, where possible, a dramatic death scene, with no arc or change in between. And really, that’s fine for an action movie. The downside is that it made it feel more like a slasher movie than a monster movie, where impactful death scenes had to be shoehorned in even when pacing hadn’t allowed for any genuine characterization or sense of attachment. Plus, I’d been hoping they’d be modern and clever enough to sidestep any romance, but the leads do end up falling in love for no reason.

I’m assuming that the lack of anything surprising or challenging is largely due to aggressive focus-group testing and franchise building. I didn’t follow any of the pre-release marketing or gossip around Kong: Skull Island, but I’ve heard that Kong grew dramatically between the first teasers and the finished movie. Even without knowing the backstory, it’s clear in some parts that any sharp edges had been thoroughly sanded down over the course of production, and it’s clear that other scenes were stitched together as best they could despite continuity-breaking changes.

(For instance: somehow Kong manages to reach inside a monster and pull out its guts while simultaneously holding a human unharmed wrapped up inside his fist. This bothers my suspension of disbelief even more than the notion of an ape that can hold a human unharmed inside its fist).

And I’m not sure why we’re supposed to be coy and secretive about the post-credits sequence; it couldn’t be more obvious what franchise they’re trying to build. They put “from the producers of Godzilla” all over the marketing, and I’m skeptical that they’re banking on the tremendous success of the most recent Godzilla movie.

Kong: Skull Island is much, much better than the 2014 Godzilla, and it’s actually much better than a monster movie needs to be. (I enjoyed it a lot more than Peter Jackson’s Kong, too). That’s almost entirely due to casting — John C Reilly is the only one given anything to work with, but every actor makes the absolute best of his or her part — and set direction, which is where all the creativity lies.

I still say that the secret to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success is that they were brave enough to allow for auteur-driven franchise installments. So Joe Johnston could remake The Rocketeer with a bigger budget, and Jon Favreau could turn Iron Man into an indie romantic comedy, and Joss Whedon could continue to kill off beloved side characters at the beginning of Act 3. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t have any sense of being an artist’s personal work; it feels like an artist came up with a high concept and an aesthetic but wasn’t allowed to follow through completely. It leaves me wondering what could’ve happened if they’d tried to be weirder and more original.

P.S. The “related links” at the end of this post took me to my earlier review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which I hadn’t read in 12 years. Apparently I loved it at the time, which is not how I remember it at all. Maybe I was a lot easier to please at the time, because now I just remember its being three hours of Jack Black and Adrian Brody-filled tedium and maudlin scenes in Central Park. I guess I’m due for a re-watch, but to be honest I’d rather just ride the Universal Studios Hollywood tour again.

The Road Not Taken

Playdead’s “Inside” is a beautiful and horrible masterpiece, but it also feels like it reveals a hard limit on what video games are capable of. Spoilers throughout, so please don’t read this until you’ve finished the game.

Inside screenshot
Inside is easily one of the best games of 2016, and it deserves a place in any list of the best games of the decade. It’s relentlessly intriguing, almost always preferring subtle, disturbing imagery to spectacle, but still finding a way to top itself over and over again with an even more surprising or evocative scene.

Like Limbo, it’s unapologetically brutal, but unlike Limbo, it seems dispassionately so. That game had the tone of a dark, corrupted fairy tale, and so there was still a trace of sentimentality about the young boy protagonist even as it showed him getting gored by a giant spider or crushed in a bear trap. There’s no sign of sympathy for the young boy the player controls in Inside. He’ll be pursued by faceless men in suits, shot, strangled, have his throat torn out by wild dogs, stabbed by strange cables that drop from the sky and kill him instantly, disintegrated by a concussion blast, crushed, drowned, or pulverized, dozens upon dozens of times. The game simply observes all of this silently, showing the death with hardly a shrug before starting you back at the last checkpoint.

After a couple of hours playing Inside, I started to find the dispassionate silence after the boy’s death to be even more unsettling than the death animation. There’s no one freaking out, screaming “Snaaaake!” over this kid’s body. Part of the game’s oppressive tone is the idea that your protagonist isn’t just alone, but is completely disposable.

It’s part of how Inside manages to be simultaneously beautiful and horrible. Or maybe, like The Road, it mires the audience in a world that’s so relentlessly gray and cruel and bleak that it makes us able to appreciate the profound beauty in simpler things. Or maybe it’s just got really fantastic lighting. In any case, it’s a platformer that rejects — almost violently rejects — the reward structure typical of platformers. For instance, here’s a game that has you repeatedly watch your avatar drown because a section is just a little too far to swim without solving some puzzle first. And then: it grants you a cool submersible that lets you explore freely with no time pressure, and which even lets you start smashing through walls!

Except of course Inside can’t just give you something to make your life easier. Instead, it has to raise the “what in the hell is that thing?!” factor with horrible sea-children who want nothing more than to smash your submersible, drown you, and drag your corpse to the bottom of the ocean. And yet: the sight of their freakishly long hair flowing in the water as you cast your light on them is undeniably, almost hypnotically beautiful.

And it can’t be emphasized enough: Inside does everything it does elegantly and wordlessly. There’s no dialogue conveying the mood of your character or his pursuers. There are no signs telling you where to go. There are no hint systems pointing you to the solutions to puzzles. It just takes your innate desire to keep moving your character to the right to find out what happens next, and then relies on brilliant level design, animation, sound design, and the subtle use of color and lighting, to guide you through to the end. That means that you process everything in the game on a more visual and visceral level than on a verbal one. You find the solutions to puzzles by experimentation. You pick up on the mood and tone of the game by feeling it instead of by having it described or explained. There’s so much in the game that’s still unexplained, open for the player’s own interpretation and projection.

That impresses me so much, after having worked in places where there’s been so much pressure to compromise, over-simplify, and over-explain. Studio heads shitting themselves over the prospect of a player feeling even a moment’s frustration or confusion, and trying to justify it as some kind of artistic accessibility instead of just fear of a lost sale. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a game that simply refuses to explain itself, trusting that players worth pursuing aren’t the drooling simpletons that marketing departments make them out to be. And even better: a game that rejects the notion of the player as center of the universe.

Spoilers

All that would be true even if the game ended about 20-30 minutes earlier, and it had been “about” nothing more than a young boy trying to escape a horrible and beautiful nightmare world. But of course, it doesn’t. It has a young boy escaping into an observation tank in the center of that nightmare world, at which point the game goes absolutely apeshit bonkers.

Even though I started Inside around the time it was released in June of 2016, I didn’t finish it until a couple of days ago. It does such a good job of driving home its bleak mood that playing it made me anxious, and I kept procrastinating getting back into it until it started being mentioned again in terms of game-of-the-year lists. So I’m genuinely impressed that I went so long without having the internet spoil the ending of the game for me.

Usually, even the best-intentioned reviews manage to spoil an experience a little: simply knowing that something is “spoil-able” is enough to make me spend the whole time watching for the twist. Inside manages to sidestep that as well, by virtue of its own stubborn, uncompromising integrity. I’d heard that the end of the game was weird, so after playing through multiple scenes involving mind control helmets, I’d been expecting yet another tedious reveal that broke the fourth wall and confronted the player with the question: who’s really in control here? I’m sorry, did I just blow your mind?!

As it turns out, the ending can be interpreted as a commentary on control and free will. But it’s so, so much better, grosser, and more disturbing than anything I ever would’ve imagined. Any respect that I had for the developers for being uncompromising on the base game is multiplied by 100 after seeing the ending. I can’t even imagine trying to pitch that concept to some of the chicken-shit marketing teams — sorry, “risk averse” marketing teams — at studios I’ve worked at.

I’d be fine with giving a Danish game studio infinite high-fives for having the integrity to make an uncompromising game with an uncompromisingly bizarre and gross finale. But the finale isn’t just bold; it’s really smart as well.

At least, if you buy my interpretation of the ending: the player’s avatar throughout the entire game has been the monstrosity in the tank at the end. The little boy was actually just another of the zombies/golems you encounter throughout the world, being controlled by the monstrosity in an effort to free itself and escape the facility.

It’s not a particularly out-there interpretation. I’ve heard that there’s a “secret cutscene” in the game (that I’ll never see, since it depends on collectibles) that reinforces it, and it’s the same interpretation (more or less) than JJ Sutherland explained on the Shall We Play a Game? podcast. I’m confident that it’s reasonable and makes sense, but I don’t want to be so reductive as to say this is what the game means.

But while I was playing Inside, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the game seemed to be running into the wall of what’s possible for a platformer to express — if not in fact for any video game to express. The game was trying all kinds of new bold, mature, and tonally perfect stuff, but there was a dissonance between that immersive and disturbing experience, and all the gamey-ness of a platformer. The limitations of what the player can interact with in the environment. The puzzles that would’ve been almost impossible to solve without having my character die at least once. The repetitive format of entering a new environment and solving a puzzle in order to progress to the next environment. When the game is working so well artistically, the cracks in suspension of disbelief become more and more jarring and grating.

If that interpretation is correct, and the entire game is spent controlling a creature in a tank attached to remote-mind-control devices, then that at least gives my annoyances with Inside a purpose in the fiction, even if they don’t exonerate the genre completely:

Trial and error by dying and repeating

I can’t recall any instance where Inside mechanically requires your character to die before you can solve a puzzle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see speed-runners able to make it through the entire game without dying once. But realistically and practically, there’s no way a player would be able to make it through the game without dying. For the majority of puzzles, seeing the character’s death is what defines the obstacle you’re trying to get past in the first place.

As the puzzles get more difficult, that aspect of the game gets more annoying. It robs the game of any sense of accomplishment, or the player of any sense of real cleverness, when you’re reduced to clumsily trying the same thing over and over until you stumble onto the solution that doesn’t have a small child violently murdered. And of course, each death chips away at the suspension of disbelief, since you’re starting again with information you couldn’t possibly have had otherwise.

Which makes sense if “you” aren’t a little boy, but in fact a gross blob of body parts that is running an endless parade of disposable little boys through a gauntlet of death traps all so you can sit in sunlight for once. That would add a disturbing layer to everything else disturbing about the game: knowing that each new “life” was actually a cut in time. The blob had had to start over with a new little boy golem and re-run through the entire course of the game up to that exact moment.

No motivation except moving to the right

The setup of Inside is incredibly intriguing, and there are still so many richly detailed set pieces left unexplained — for instance, what’s the deal with the concussion blasts that will disintegrate your body instantly if you’re not protected by a metal object? But the game’s refusal to tell you what’s going on — which would be respectable on its own — creates an ever-widening gap between the character’s motivation and the player’s motivation. There were several moments where my forward momentum stopped, and I no longer had any clue what I was even trying to do apart from “reach the end.”

You keep seeing interesting environments, but you’ve got no idea of what you’re trying to accomplish in those environments apart from no longer being in them. So you just keep moving to the right. And as a result, the richness of the game world starts to fade as the game itself becomes more and more abstract. It becomes something like the gap between the art on an Atari 2600 game box and the art in the game itself: it’s no longer evocative or intriguing, but purely mechanical.

Which again, makes sense if the character you’re controlling directly has no motivation, but is simply being pulled through a series environments by some force off screen. You realize there is actually no dissonance there, because the boy has no identity, no sense of purpose of his own, and no interest in anything other than the specific objects that will help him get to the observation tank.

Everything has a solution

This one’s bugged me ever since I played Half-Life 2. In that game, you’re playing as Gordon Freeman, lone savior of humanity against an impossibly huge and powerful alien force. You’re out alone in the wilderness, riding a sweet sweet motorboat that’s jumping over ramps and blowing up tanker trucks and helicopters and plowing through Combine soldiers like extras in a Michael Bay movie. Then you land in a secluded area in which you have to build a makeshift ramp for your boat in order to proceed.

There’s a kind of mode switch here, where you go from purely mechanical or visceral to more intellectual. And if you get stuck on the puzzle, there’s a pacing switch as well. With that switch comes an opportunity to get knocked out of your suspension of disbelief and reminded that you’re no longer a post-apocalyptic action scientist, but you’re a guy at a computer solving a puzzle.

Half-Life 2 has an in-world fictional explanation for a lot of this; in puzzle sequences, you’ll usually find a lambda symbol graffitied onto the wall somewhere. It’s to indicate that the whole scene was set up for you by the Resistance, and not set up for you by somebody at Valve Software. It helps somewhat, spackling over the cracks in the suspension of disbelief.

Inside has a similar strange dissonance, where the game world is bleak and oppressive but the player’s experience is, ultimately, somewhat optimistic. You always know that there’s a solution to every puzzle. Considering the elegance of the game design, the solution’s likely as simple as finding a single object, or simply moving to the left or right at the correct time.

The game has its own narrative justification for that, but it’s retroactive only: you can look back through the story and reason that the blob had a similar sense of detachment as you did while playing, and the same confidence that trial and error would eventually give the right answers. You never had to be in the exact mindset of the boy because like you the player, the blob was never in the same risk of physical danger as the boy.

Which is all fine and clever, but doesn’t change the fact that as the puzzles got more complicated, I felt more disconnected from the atmosphere and mood that the game had done such a spectacular job of building. I was no longer exploring an intriguing world, but pushing a joystick around looking for clues of what the puzzle even was, not mention how to solve it. In adventure games, this was the point players complained that you had to “read the designer’s mind.”

So how much of that is a limitation inherent to interactive entertainment? How do you make an experience that’s driven by the player but relies on an unreliable narrator, or a powerless and desperate protagonist, without its feeling like a trick or a gimmicky twist? How much can the mindset of a player’s avatar differ from the mindset of the player before it breaks the fiction and draws attention to itself?

Shadow of the Colossus took advantage of the weird dissonance created when the player is willingly making his avatar do things that he knows are morally or ethically questionable. Thirty Flights of Loving experimented with the idea of a first-person game that doesn’t play out entirely in real-time, but instead uses cuts and flashbacks — maybe not 100% successfully, but still more successfully than I would’ve expected.

So how much of that disparity or dramatic irony between the protagonist’s experience and the player’s experience is an inescapable limitation of the medium, and how much is an opportunity that game developers just haven’t fully taken advantage of yet?

It’s not a make-or-break distinction; it’d be more like the difference between an outstanding game and a genre-defining one. I love how much time and talent Playdead devoted to making Inside a unique experience, and I hate the thought that it’s brilliantly creepy mood was interrupted even for a minute by the knowledge that it’s just some video game.

City of Infuriatingly Charismatic Stars

Reporting back from a movie-filled weekend. Some spoilers for the relentlessly charming La La Land, and a review of Rogue One inspired by Thumper the rabbit

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in 'La La Land'
This weekend I saw two movies. One has space battles in a universe that painstakingly recreates the look of 1977’s Star Wars. The other is a love letter to Los Angeles made by a bunch of people born in the 1980s. The fact that I ended up loving the latter one is proof I don’t understand how the world works anymore.

I loved La La Land, and I loved it for exactly what it was trying to do. Much like The Force Awakens transported me back to the feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time, watching La La Land often took me back to the first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. Obviously it’s not the first attempt to recapture the magic of classic musicals, but it’s the most successful I’ve seen.

The trick, I believe, is that its sense of self-confidence completely obliterates any sense of self-awareness. It feels not like someone wanted to make an homage to classic musicals, but that somebody wanted to make a movie about the magic of Los Angeles and decided that of course a classic musical would be the best format for that. Once that decision was made, everyone went all in and made a musical with all the earnest enthusiasm that seems to have skipped my generation. Any hint of a wink at the audience would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal.

Or, I guess, its success could just be on account of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s preternaturally appealing chemistry. I will say that Gosling’s always seemed fine but unremarkable to me, but his performance here is outstanding. Partly because his character is really kind of annoying and insufferable, but he manages to make arrogant stubborn passion seem sympathetic if not exactly likable. He plays a guy who loves jazz and evangelizes it, and yet I wasn’t immediately turned off, which is a monumental achievement on its own. (And I’ve got to say if you’re in the portion of the audience that’s into dudes: much like Gene Kelly, Gosling is an actor that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me until I see him dancing in a well-fitted shirt).

Emma Stone can do pretty much whatever she wants and remain effortlessly likable, since that’s her thing.

The movie starts with a bunch of 20-year-olds all dressed in primary-colored T-shirts or sun dresses all dancing and skateboarding (!) on and around cars stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway off-ramp. It’s odd to see that not being used to sell me Coca-Cola or a Prius. Even though my cynicism threw up a shield, the enthusiasm of that opening number wore it down. It bugged me initially that the movie seems to favor “naturalistic” vocals, so they seem quiet, breathy, and out of balance against big orchestrated music, but it didn’t take me long for me to stop caring. (Unlike, for example, Les Miserables, which demands over-the-top vocals from almost every character, and which wasn’t as kind to actors-who-also-sing). By the time Stone and Gosling are dancing on a bench in Griffith Park, I’d been completely won over.

One of the only complaints I’ve heard about La La Land is that the pacing drags in the middle. I was on the lookout for that, and while the scenes with John Legend didn’t interest me, I inferred that that was kind of the point. His character represents success without passion. I don’t believe that the story dragged so much as I stopped thinking of the movie as a musical for an act or so. I don’t believe that’s a flaw; I think it’s structurally perfect: when it “turns back into” a musical again during an audition sequence, I was genuinely surprised, and it made that song more powerful.

I’ll try to be deliberately vague and not completely spoil anything, but: the end of La La Land pays homage to the extended ballet sequences at the end of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, in which the movie’s narrative stopped in favor of a bunch of fantastic imagery and dancing. I say it’s here that La La Land shows its intentions and its double identity: it’s more indie film romantic drama/comedy using the structure of classic musicals than just an homage or recreation of those musicals.

It delivers two versions of its finale, which I first thought was an attempt to give everyone what they wanted. But after thinking on it some more, I realize it’s the crucial coda that has to be appended to any story about the magic of Los Angeles and the beauty of following your passion: it reminds us how much of our lives are controlled by fate and timing. You can (and should) follow your dream, but you’re not guaranteed stardom and fame like, say, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, since it’s often talent and hard work combined with meeting the right person in the right conditions at the right time. And it’s that mentality that lets the movie be earnest and joyful and optimistic without feeling too trite, treacly, and over-simplified.

I don’t think it’s perfect, and I still don’t like jazz, but any flaws that it has don’t just fade away but go into making it a unique and seemingly sincere creation. It’s just delightful.

This weekend I also saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I was genuinely surprised by the movie, since when I heard it was about getting the plans for the first Death Star, I never imagined that about half the movie would actually be about getting the actual physical plans for the first Death Star. But its production design was absolutely perfect, from the costumes to hairstyles to spaceships to “incidental” technology. It took everything from 1977’s Star Wars not as a necessary limitation of available technology, but as an assertion of style for a certain time in the Galaxy’s history, and that’s brilliant. I also really liked Alan Tudyk’s performance as K-2SO, and I thought the CG on his character was seamlessly integrated with the live actors.

Looking forward to Episode VIII!