That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Posts Tagged ‘Video Games’

You were deceived.

Posted by kozemp on June 4, 2009

This week saw the release of the first trailer for The Old Republic. Though Bioware’s propensity for taking a reeeeeeaalllllllyyyyyy loooooooooonnnnnnnng tiiiiiiiiimmmmmme on development means it is unlikely the game will see release in our lifetime, and even if it does you will need a computer that can pass a Turing test to run the game, it’s fun to pretend that someday you might actually get to play this:

As I said to some folks when I first passed on the link: even if you aren’t the video gaming sort, if that doesn’t make you want to pick up a lightsaber and kick some ass then you are seriously soul-deficient.

With the double-whammy of The Force Unleashed and the announcement of The Old Republic, video games have basically become the vanguard of Star Wars storytelling. As someone who rolls with most of the other available Star Wars outlets I can tell you this is true if not necessarily fair. The comics and the novels are good – occasionally very, very good – but despite how well-crafted a character is (Kal Skirata, Zayne Carrick) or how beautifully-drawn a comic can be (Jan Duuresma FTW) when it comes to Star Wars nothing can ever truly match the visceral thrill of watching a huge space battle or a fantastic lightsaber fight. Yes, Legacy and Republic Commando are fantastic. They are OUTSTANDING books in their own right. But they’re not the same as watching Star Wars.

(Yes, I am aware that The Clone Wars is out there, but… good lord, I can’t figure out what the fuck that show is.)

So when it comes to actually watching new Star Wars, until the vaporware that is the HBO series materializes all we’re left with is video games. (You want to go back and watch Episodes I-III, hey, be my guest. I’ll be over here preferring to stick hot knives into my genitals.) This is a classic good-news-bad-news proposition.

Killing stormtroopers is very satisfying.

Killing stormtroopers is very satisfying.

It gives us things like The Force Unleashed, which is a truly amazing Star Wars movie. I’m serious. If you love Star Wars you owe it to yourself to play through, or watch someone else play through, The Force Unleashed. It has a fantastic script, great performances, and killer action sequences. It’s basically the best Star Wars movie since 1983. Unfortunately (this is the “bad news” part of the deal), this great Star Wars movie is trapped inside a terrible, TERRIBLE video game. I’m not going to go into a long thing on why it’s a bad game – just trust me, it is – but you might want to go with the “watching someone else play” option, because playing it yourself is incredibly frustrating.

It gives us things like The Old Republic, where every time even a bare fraction of information comes out about that game it is pored over, analyzed, dissected, deconstructed, reconstructed, and then deemed to be absolutely perfect. Now comes the trailer and it isn’t a bare fraction of information, it’s a massive tome, it’s a fucking Neal Stephenson novel, and once again every letter is completely perfect. This is a game made by people who GET IT. We’ve known that since they made Knights of the Old Republic, which is still probably the single best Star Wars game ever made. They get Star Wars. Most importantly, they get how we REACT to Star Wars. Barring a meteor striking Bioware’s offices and completely wiping out the development staff The Old Republic is almost certainly going to be the definitive Star Wars game experience.  Bioware is one of only two software houses (Blizzard the other) whose success rate is essentially 100%. The Old Republic will blow your mind. It’s a guarantee. The downside? You’re going to have to wait years to play the game, and don’t misunderstand: it’s going to be several years. Perfection doesn’t come quickly. And when it comes out you’re going to have to upgrade your computer to an obscenely expensive, absolute top-of-the-line, Neuromancer level rig to even have a shot at running the game. Perfection doesn’t come cheap either.

These are prices I’m willing to pay, however.

Why Star Wars is important – both to me and in general – and why I and others are so attached to it is another piece entirely, but for now let’s just concede those points. I’m willing to pay these prices for the privilege of watching good Star Wars, and pay other prices for reading it, because these ancillary stories are the only option for Star Wars that doesn’t make me want to hurt things. George Lucas gets a lifetime pass for CREATING Star Wars, though it’s only a lifetime pass from, like, me kicking him in the junk if I ever saw him on the street. Not the kind of lifetime pass where I can look at something like Episode II and say, “well, that was in no way horrible.” The fact that other people have taken Lucas’ creation and made things that are profound and moving from it – Kirshner and Kasdan, Karen Traviss, John Ostrander – proves that a) there is something intrinsic to Star Wars, something as simple and fundamental as a FEELING, that resonates, and b) talent actually counts for something.

Because, let’s be honest with ourselves here. I am perfectly willing to ignore the outside, business impact of Star Wars and say that the man is a brilliant technician who revolutionized moviemaking. But Lucas is a terrible writer. TERRIBLE. Oh my great gods he’s terrible. And I don’t mean in, like, that John Grisham or Tom Clancy way where he has a great story but can’t put sentences together (though I hear Grisham actually got good). I mean in a fundamental, bare bones, concrete foundation sort of way. The man cannot write. Period. He has an eight-year-old’s grasp of storytelling: it starts with “once upon a time” and ends with “they all lived happily ever after” (or, in the prequel trilogy’s case, “unhappily”) and everything in between is just a bunch of shit that happens for no discernible reason. Characters exist solely to advance the plot. In the George Lucas vision of Star Wars EVERYTHING exists solely to advance the plot, and in case you haven’t noticed, Stephen King was right: plot is stupid. Plot is boring. The best stories, the lasting stories, are about character and emotion and if there are two things on this Earth that George Lucas has absolutely zero knowledge of, the first is character and the second is emotion.

Look at it this way: just before Episode III came out me and Stephen were talking beforehand about what Lucas could do at that point to save the movie franchise from being utter dreck. Even in those first two awful movies, and even with Hayden Christiansen’s cringe-worthy performance, there was a character there. Anakin’s story was a quest for power and respect. It wasn’t about his shrew of a girlfriend or his long-lost mommy or his traumatic fucking childhood or any of that stupid shit. Anakin is the classic wimpy little kid who hits a growth spurt in fifth grade and is suddenly bigger than everyone else: he’s a bully. He was a kid who got a taste of power, of REAL power, and he wanted more of it. He wanted more and more of it until he eventually wanted all of it. Now THAT is a character, despite Lucas’ best efforts to the contrary. So eventually Stephen and I came to a conclusion: how do you make Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side interesting? You make it about power. You make it about something he WANTS.

This is basic acting theory: in this scene, what does my character want? For a guy who spent his entire adult life around actors it’s amazing Lucas never heard this philosophy, because what we got in Anakin’s transformation was the most laughable element of the entire trilogy. Why does Anakin turn to the Dark Side? Because some dude in a bathrobe tells him to. THAT’S IT. THAT IS FUCKING WELL IT. It’s one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever seen in a movie. I remember joking about it with my parents after the movie came out:

Palpatine: “Come to the Dark Side, Anakin. We have cookies.”

Anakin: “Okay!”

Fucking. STUPID.

It wasn’t about power. It wasn’t about his desires. It was about turning him into Vader because he had to be Vader by the end and we’re running out of movie. On Mustafar, after a whole fight where he spewed wretched, mind-curdling dialogue about how Anakin has truly crossed the line and has to be stopped permanently, when Anakin has no arms and no legs and is ON FUCKING FIRE, why doesn’t Obi-Wan finish him off, which was the reason the whole fight happened in the first place? Because he has to be Vader by the end and now we’re REALLY running out of movie.

Purple lightsabers hurt more than other colors.

Purple lightsabers hurt more than other colors.

Contrast that with the recent Legacy storyline in the novels where Jacen’s fall to the Dark Side is actually motivated by something: he’s trying to protect his daughter. All he wants is to keep her safe. He just makes the slight overcalculation that the way to do that is to, er, force everyone to play nice together and kill anyone who disagrees. But, killer twist: in the end, even though he gets his ass shanked by his own sister, that’s exactly what he gets. Everyone is united (against him). His daughter is safe (with his parents, who he repeatedly tried to kill). His twin sister gets to fulfill her destiny (by killing him). The dude becomes pure evil, for all the right reason, he’s murdered by his own family, AND HE STILL FUCKING WINS ANYWAY.

That’s the difference between being an actual writer and being a guy with a pencil and paper. The difference between plot and emotion. It’s why The Old Republic is going to be awesome and we still can’t bear to watch the goddamned prequels. It’s the difference between George Lucas and everyone else who makes Star Wars:

Knowing that there has to be more than “we have cookies.”

JLK

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