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Off the Clock: Space Opera Millennials and Their Grand Narratives

Over the holiday break, I got to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens a couple of times. I have some thoughts.

Welcome to Off the Clock, my weekly column about the stuff I've been doing while out of the office. Among other things I did over my holiday break, I spent some of my free time watching and thinking about…

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

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(Heads up, I’m going to talk frankly and openly about elements of The Force Awakens.)

After my first viewing of The Force Awakens, on my way out of the theater, I rushed to tweet a joke I’d been holding back throughout nearly the whole film: “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Millennials Will Be Okay.” I say “joke,” but like a lot of jokes based in observation, I kind of meant exactly what I said. It seemed like an obvious reading. The major members of the new “generation” of Star Wars characters--Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren--all stood in the shadow of a past in different ways. Or said differently, each is a sort of “fan” of the same Star Wars stories that we know and love, and they all find themselves struggling with the canon.

Towards the start of the movie, Rey’s fandom is on full display in the form of a vintage X-Wing helmet and a doll of a rebel pilot--probably Luke, whose sandy footsteps Rey seems to be following in. Finn, a First Order stormtrooper gone AWOL, struggles to distance himself from the group he was born into--a group that (despite a fairly complex history) likely conjures for the viewer only the image of faceless totalitarianism. Kylo Ren dwells on the good ol’ days of Darth Vader, frustrated like a 20-something who thinks that Baby Boomers are right about the rest of his lazy generation.

Like most of us in our own lives, each of these characters has a limited understanding of the universe, and especially of the past. What do other worlds look like? What was “the Galactic Empire” really? Is the Force real, and if so how does it work? Nowhere is this difference in understanding illustrated better than in how these characters view Han Solo: For Ren, he’s an uncaring father, for Finn, he’s a brilliant war hero, and for Rey he’s a legendary smuggler. Each finds their understanding challenged by a more complicated truth: Han was an absent dad because he cared so much; the great Rebellion war hero is a scoundrel without a plan; even seemingly invincible legends die.

In confronting the fact that the world might not quite be what they thought it was, these characters are unmoored from their senses of self. In some moments, Finn can’t seem to tell if he’s really just trying to escape the First Order or if he has nobler motives. Rey and Ren both struggle with their connection to the Force--the former wanting nothing to do with it despite aptitude, the latter wanting the control he thinks is his birthright. These dilemmas are pretty classic space opera, but look past the laser swords and they're not so different than the struggles of real people (millennial or otherwise). "Who am I and what the hell is my place in this world?" is the sort of question people have been asking themselves for as long as there have been people.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Beyond "The Hero's Journey"

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While (depending on your feelings on metaphysics) the real world leaves us to try to find some subjective meaning for our lives, the world of Star Wars defines the roles of its inhabitants actively--or at least, it's supposed to. It's a universe that seems to present fundamental, inescapable truths. There is a Force that ties us all together. There is a moral Light side and a selfish, immoral Dark side.

The world of Star Wars is (or at least has been) filled with capital T "Truths." This is what made me turn on the series back in my late teens/early 20s. Despite growing up with the franchise, I stopped calling myself “a Star Wars fan” during the prequels. That was partly due to the quality of the those films, yeah, but also because the moralism of the series had begun to grate on me. I was moving into a period of my life where I became more interested in complex understandings of ethics and politics, and I was bored of reading again and again about how the Hero’s Journey was the One Way to Tell Stories, and I was especially frustrated by stories that wielded Good and Evil like hammers.

I stand by those developments in my thinking, but what I don’t stand by is the brash, Dawkins-esque elitism that they were accompanied by. That elitism led me to dismiss things I didn’t like instead of thinking about them. What a huge mistake. It was facile to dismiss that Star Wars morality as being “too black and white.” Yeah, of course it is--that's what they're going for. That shouldn't have been a stopping point for thought, it should've been a first step. Not only should I have asked “Why don’t I like this as much as I used to?” but also “What is it doing with this sense of morality and how does it do it?” Not just "Ugh, stop talking about the hero's journey," but "What is the academic heritage of Campbell's famous "monomyth," how does Star Wars utilize those things in a cinematic context? And to what end?"

That heritage is (among other things) a school of 20th century thought called Structuralism. Building on the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, structuralists identify and analyze what they see as common, foundational elements inside of any given set of human activity. While others in the field of linguistics were studying how a given language changed over time, Saussure was trying to figure out what was core to the way all languages must work. Levi-Strauss expanded on Saussure’s work, looking not only at human language but also at the structure of human stories and mythology. For both Saussure and Levi-Strauss, answering these questions about human activity was key to figuring out universal and intrinsic truths about humans.

Over the decades that followed, structuralist work expanded into analysis of economic, cultural, and political realms. It was often incredibly productive, since it gave people the tools to look not only at individual instances but also broader trends and practices. But structuralism eventually found pushback from folks who doubted that so much was truly "universal." Structuralist thought sometimes minimized real differences between different phenomena, and it often led to grand claims that prioritized the world views of the powerful and established. Some "post-structuralists" kept the toolset of structuralist analysis, but emphasized that the "structures" they were studying were ever-changing, not eternal: "Yes, we can analyze the structure of myths, but that changes as economic, social, technological, and emotional contexts do."

When I finally brought all of this to bear on Star Wars, I realized that it didn't only lean heavily on supposedly "universal" elements of myth-making, but also featured a fictional setting that itself presumes structuralism to be accurate. There is a fundamental organization and underlying structure to all sapient activity in Star Wars: The Force. And as Han says, "It's real, all of it." It's a claim that ancient alien bar-owner Maz Kanata supports, too: In a long enough timeline, "the same eyes appear in different people"--and whether she means that Star Wars characters are literally reincarnated or just that we're looking at a world of endless, thematic recurrence, the point is clear: There will always be a Luke and a Leia and a Darth Vader, even when they're a Rey and a Finn and a Kylo Ren.

Star Wars communicates its structuralism not only narratively, but also with a fierce cinematic cudgel. It hits you with black masks, with bright blue and red lasers, with orchestral swells, and with the sort of panoramic wide shots that seem to reach out and say “Yes, there is a transcendent, capital T Truth out there.” The lonely, desert sunsets of Tatooine and Jakku; the surge of heroism as an X-Wing squadron drifts in-formation over the waters and forests of Takodana; the Evil of General Hux's gathered mass of potential violence, his stormtroopers, his red banners, his technological supremacy, his eagerness to destroy populations we've barely met. At its highest points, Star Wars is crafted with such mastery that it is easy to convince oneself that it touches something fundamental to all humans, something eternal and real.

"A Man, Nothing More"

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The Force Awakens does something surprising, though: It pairs all of this with techniques that destabilize and historicize. The film features endless panoramas, but also a jittery camera inside of a stormtrooper transport. Supreme Leader Snoke is a massive, growling personification of cruelty and ambition, but as his hologram diffuses so does our confidence that he is actually so threatening: Is he just another Wizard of Oz, someone who pulls all the right levers to convince us of his stature? And when General Hux delivers his speech, he isn't channeling some platonic form of Evil. He's channeling what we, the viewers, know and recognize from 20th Century fascism. His face carries the same combination of self-delusion and self-doubt that many ideologues wear--and Kylo Ren's does the same.

It was a surprise to see Ren's human face, and the reveal has been divisive. For many, it transformed a hateful, masked figure into an angsty little boy. Given the rest of the film's focus on destabilizing the mythic, I suspect that was the point. There is a similar scene towards the end of Knights of the Old Republic II: In the right circumstances, Darth Nihilius--a wordless being who devours the lifeforce of whole planets--can be unmasked to reveal what one of your companions describes as "a man, nothing more." The same could be said for Kylo Ren, or, in a way, even the mega-weapon that the First Order wields to devastating ends. Starkiller Base is not the mechanical, pseudo-moon monstrosity that the Death Star was. It is a planet converted into a weapon in the same way that Kylo Ren is a man converted into a killer The Force Awakens reminds us that evil doesn't need to look like any of the strange alien beings of the Star Wars galaxy. Sometimes it looks just like us.

This is a key thing to remember when considering the anxious response some have had about The Force Awakens' diversity and the heroic competence of Rey, the protagonist who some call a "Mary Sue" (and sometimes do such with the same temper-tantrum tones of an unmasked Kylo Ren). The film recognizes that the heroes of Hollywood--and thus the heroes of modern western mythology--have had wide appeal, but offer shallow representation. To twist Orwell: The stories of Luke, Leia, and Han are universal, but they're more universal for some than others. As much as Star Wars has spoken to a wide audience, it hasn't always spoken for that audience. To address this, the heroes of The Force Awakens are just as adept as the protagonists of the past, but now they're played by a much more diverse crew.

Between Hux's fascism and Ren's anger at Rey's natural prowess, The Force Awakens anticipated some of its most ardent critics well enough to personify them in the film. Ren's frustration is particularly ironic. He believes in a twisted meritocracy: Those who practice drawing upon anger and hate will one day learn utilize the force's full potential. When he is met with a person who--with no training--is able to outperform him, his worldview is so threatened that he takes drastic steps to try to reinforce it. But there are those in the world of Star Wars who are seemingly born with advantages others don't have, and this is as infuriating to Ren as it is to Rey's real life critics. Of course, this has been an uncomfortable fact about the world of Star Wars for as long as there have been Jedi, but before Rey, it went unchallenged. Suddenly, given the form of Daisy Ridley, old fans find an old truth undesirable.

Hux and Ren--and, I think, those angry fans--look backwards towards an elusive (and fictional) past where things were simpler, but The Force Awakens wants us to look forward instead, even though that might be challenging. The world is unfair, it says, and unstable. The things we thought were structural and eternal are in fact man-made and mutable. They're just very, very convincing. Addressing the challenges of the future will require not only people who are preternaturally skilled, like Rey, but also people like Finn, who will do what is needed when others refuse. I am thrilled that The Force Awakens is embracing this unsure future.

It is telling that the despite the heroic successes of its protagonists, the final moments of the film are not rendered in one of the series' bold, enveloping wide shots. Instead, we see Rey and Luke--his face intimating a well of history and thought and just a little confusion.

They stand on a hill on an island on a planet of oceans, the camera spinning around them in a wide, almost dizzy crane shot. The camera shakes, just slightly, hit by wind and a whispered doubt about what's to come.

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I also spent some time over the break...

And A Question For You

Above, I wrote that Star Wars is able to use certain cinematic techniques to convey common feelings in a really evocative way. Can you think of any games that do this, whether with gameplay mechanics, controls, aesthetic design, or something else? If so, how do they do it? My favorite example of this is probably the way that Cart Life requires the player to purchase a watch in order to learn to make accurate predictions about travel times--without one, everything is unpredictable and incredibly stressful.

If I have time to, I'm also going to continue to collect and highlight my favorite comments at the end of the week. If you'd prefer your comment not be included in that post, let me know and I'll respect that.

242 Comments

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hassun

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Edited By hassun

Hux and the competitive, fraternal relationship between him and Kylo Ren vis-à-vis 'father figure' Snoke was definitely the highlight of the Force Awakens for me, especially in light of future (and hopefully better) films.

As for the question, the first thing which comes to mind is when a character is grievously injured and then becomes very slow and hard to control. Maybe ME3 did that? CoD at one point? I think some other games might have done it as well.

@austin_walker #correction

"notto"

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mintyice

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Star Wars: A Thousand Plateaus

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HomieGSB

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Edited By HomieGSB

reading this makes me feel bad that all i took away from the movie was "that was a pretty cool laser sword movie"

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deactivated-5f9398c1300c7

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Austin really likes to think deeply on everything, especially to advertisements for Star Wars Episode 8.

Boom.

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spacebutler

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This is pretty interesting, keep it up.

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VickyKillz

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The big goofy camera spins and framing in the Alan Wake franchise are great. That franchise does a very good job of being a parody of Stephen King novels. The first game is set up like a television show, which also adds to the satirical feelings within the "hey look at this right now" moments that game has, as if the shows Director of Photography really really wanted you to see his beautiful shot. In Alan Wake's American Nightmare it feels a little more stale because it lacks the goofy framing and is more blatantly a "pay attention" mechanic. It still works, though, and the end result is like you really are living this bizarre TV soap opera style retelling of a Stephen King novel.

Also, have to say, these articles are great. Keep up the good work Austin :D

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LavenderGooms

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Thanks as always Austin

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TournamentOfHate

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"That heritage is (among other things) a school of 20th century thought called Structuralism. Building on the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologist Claude Levi-Straus..."

Austin I would love to read your articles but I'm a fucking idiot who can't keep up with this. I always feel like a fucking moron.

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BamSaidTheLady

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@homiegsb: The laser swords are hella cool though

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MooseyMcMan

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I'm not really sure what you mean by "cinematic techniques," but that Cart Life example, for whatever reason, reminds me of the language stuff in MGSV. Specifically that you actually have to find interpreters in order to understand what the different factions are saying. Sure, the speed at which the interpreting happens in game once you get one isn't realistic, and they don't actually speak when you interrogate them (which bothered me a tad) but I really liked that you don't just understand what they're saying. They aren't just all speaking English, and the game isn't auto-translating it all.

I dunno, just seemed like a neat thing that most other games overlook completely.

And fantastic article, as always.

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bpriller

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Thanks Austin, I really look forward to your pieces.

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Romination

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I'm not super sure about the question since I think it's always important for games to find ways to show things like this outside of cinematic techniques, and that in a lot of ways games chasing cinema sort of holds them back. Then again maybe I'm being too hung up on the word "cinematic" there.

Your example of Cart Life needing a watch to tell time is a pretty good one that emphasizes the way games can really put you inside a character's mind and point of view. I think one of the best examples is definitely from Brothers, when, after the older brother dies, you find out the younger has been learning from him, as evidenced by the way that now he can swim, using the OLDER brother's side of the controller. That's amazing as an emotional experience that only a game could do. And it's such an evocative idea, the passing of knowledge from an older generation to a younger, expressed so simply. It's an "aha" moment as you solve the puzzle, and a somber moment as you look back at what it means.

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Error52

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Kylo Ren is a great villain, and he's a great villain because he sucks. He's a whining, moody teenager, prone to temper tantrums and constantly trying to be cool and follow in the footsteps of Darth Vader. Even the Stormtroopers have seen him act like a manchild, evidenced when two of them just walk away when he's having a tantrum instead of facing him. While I am on the camp who thinks that the film was a bit too derivative for it's own good, that was a really cool twist on the concept of Darth Vader.

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TheLandoStander

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The mention of shaky cams and wideshots in Star Wars makes me think of Halo: Reach. Often the cinematics are split between the perspective of Noble 6 and the ever present surveillance cameras and satellites. Perhaps the best example is George's sacrifice. His quest to save Reach seems mostly to be so he can save Dr Halsey. He's reminded in a satellite shot of Reach that he can do nothing for those on the surface as he floats in space readying to assault a covenant super carrier. His final scene shows his determination to save his comrades and the woman he considers a mother, we see his resolution as he carries Nobel 6 to the hangar exit and tosses him or her to the relative safety of orbital re-entry. Then cut to a satellite feed, only to watch a brilliant explosion. From up close and personal to just a floating camera in space passively observing whatever takes place. In this case a single Spartan's ultimately useless sacrifice as the super carrier is replaced by an armada.

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deactivated-6050ef4074a17

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I found the L. Rhodes essay a bit disappointing because it's the sort of thing that's written for people who already agree with the author's conclusions on the larger issue and pre-supposes that, well, of course we all agree this is ridiculous, so let's talk back about where it started, replete with various Self-Made Terms With Capital Letters on those involved. It was well written of course, but I suppose my frustration with seeing people who prefer to talk around issues than talk on issues is just what separates a person interested in the minutiae of a debate and a person interested in the meat and potatoes.

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Jericu

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I don't have a good answer to your question this week, but I just want to thank you for writing this because it touches on a lot of my issues with people claiming that The Force Awakens is just a ripoff of A New Hope.

So many people are quick to say that, since this movie also involves a big explosion, then it's the same. But as a guy in his twenties trying to figure out what the hell I'm gonna do for the rest of my life, a story about a bunch of people trying to live up to (or reject) expectations placed on them by themselves or outside people made this the most enjoyable star wars movie I've seen. Seeing how all the characters felt about the myths and stories that make up the star wars canon, and how they base their actions on them... I dunno. I had a blast watching it, I wanna see it again, and I'm so sick of hearing it get written off.

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CountDog

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Edited By CountDog

I agree Austin all the way, you really went into depth about the movie, I won't lie, I think there was no risk taking in the movie overall, reminds me of a soap opera, or some TV show. The Theatrics I found in the movie were great, as well the camera work. The music is okay, a lot of flashbacks from Indiana Jones or some previous John Williams composition. I'm sorry to hear you don't like the prequels very much, I think there alright, good fights and great music! How I've described this movie in particular is that when I watched the other films, it felt to me a grown person trying to tell a story to a child. While this film, feels like a child trying to tell a story to the mass, if that's appropriate to say. A lot of it feel's immature, but I can't hate, but I've lost some interest in the series sadly, but i'll stick with it regardless.

Video game wise. hmm, that's a good question, A little out of context here I think, Zombie U, because you absolutely have to look down at your game pad to see you inventory, no? Maybe Alien Isolation with radar tracker? Half Life 2 when inquiring your suit, giving you your HUD? I might be misunderstanding you! Shenmue series? Oh maybe the first Bioshock with the little sisters, leading to the different ending depending how choose? Screw it I can guess all day? ocarina of time with the playing music to make things happen, like time travel? haha

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stratofarius

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Edited By stratofarius

I think The Sims does what you're talking about in a slightly subtle way.

Every time you start a new family, or even boot up a pre-existing family in some cases, you always start out with the camera panning down to the outside of the house, and the family members are just standing there. In some cases (I think with The Sims 2) you had a moving truck or a taxi, but most of the time, they're just standing there, waiting for you.

I believe that there's a reason why your Sims always start out outside the house, outside of the obvious 'well they just got there where else would they be' reason. I think it's supposed to convey not just that new house feeling, but also that kind of emotion you got when a new chapter of your life starts.

It's also why all the main themes for the games feel so similar to me... they all sound like stuff you'd hear in a movie when the main character moves into a new city or makes a complete life change. This, to me, becomes a thousand times more obvious when you hear the main theme to Sims 4. You can practically see the establishing shots and the images of the main character looking out the car window hopefully at the sights and sounds of the new city.

Might be wrong on this one, though.

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i have not cared for star wars since as a teenager i saw the phantom menace.i vowed to nevdr satch the serids again. on new years i went and enjoyed myself the movie was fun true to the original a d despite the fact there are now only 4 star wars movies jm excited for whats next

i really enjoyed the dreamfall series and early on zoe lies in a coma while her dream self watches over her looking for answers. during this scene which is staged in a dream zoes dsrker personality comes out and berates zoe for all her failures. its been done before but ghat game has powerful writing and her own words stung as you try to reason with how and why you are in the dreamworld and you are being so vicious to yourself.

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ZmillA

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Never thought I'd read about Sakamoto and Alva Noto on GB. Well done Austin

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Slippery

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I found that really interesting. I sort of walked away from Star Wars thinking 'gee that was cool', but reading this clicked in a lot of ways.

Revealing Ren's face was, I think at least, a very deliberate choice. When you combine it with the temper tantrums he throws and the discussions between Leia and Han - he's their child. He's a person. Darth Vader's lack of reveal until the very end of 6 was great, but this can be different, that's ok.

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mrfluke

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Im not sure if im giving the proper examples for "cinematic techniques" , but some of the ways certain story elements are framed in Witcher 3 and its expansion do convey the feeling in the moment in the story

and i would also say the Microwave Hallway in MGS4, that moment works because of the cinematic presentation of whats going down during that scene in the game.

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psychpunk

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Great piece, Austin!

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RhymesMcFist

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This writing is just on another level, man. It articulates things I've been struggling to find the words to say while also showing me more beyond what I thought I knew about the subject.

As for the question - I believe what I'm about to describe from Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was awarded moment of the year on this site, but I avoided reading/listening since I hadn't played the game yet. I'll throw this all in a spoiler block in case someone takes as long as I do to get around to games! Also, some small part of me feels like this isn't even what happened in the game, and I did it/remember it wrong. If so...I mean, I guess tell me? I probably should know.

That whole ending sequence is heart-wrenching - you've been in control of the brothers the whole game, using the two halves of your controller to move them around separately but at the same time. The fact that you have to physically drag your brother's body and bury him is hard enough - I remember just standing still and running around, trying to avoid what I had to do - but the part in the water is what really stands out. The brother you're controlling has been afraid of swimming (I think because of their mother's death?) and he resists moving forward - until you use the older brother's side of the controller as well to guide him. Pushing forward on a stick, pulling down the trigger on my clunky controller had never had so much meaning. Hell, it had never really had any meaning - the controller was just a tool to put myself into the game world until then. I don't think anything else has matched that feeling, but I'm be excited to see if something can.

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frytup

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I don't usually find myself attempting to defend any aspect of the prequels, but it's interesting they finally sent Austin over the "this is morally childish" edge since they're the most morally complex of the Star Wars movies. Anakin's conflict - between the requirements of the Jedi order and his personal desires - is real and actually fairly interesting. Unfortunately, it's buried under terrible acting and wince-inducing dialog.

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Edited By RealLionheart

Austin, I love you for slipping a Max Landis dig into your analysis. I work at a production company and the guy came in to pitch for my boss once. It was a lot of high-pitched screeching and howling from behind a closed door - sounded like a dying animal. Say what you want about his writing talents, but the dude is fucking batshit.

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Colonel_Pockets

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This was really well written, Austin. Keep it up!

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Edited By retrovirus

Great piece, Austin. My moment has spoilers for Mass Effect 3:

Despite being a game that failed its landing spectacularly, the journey of the main story in ME 3 for the most part conveys the tone of having to fight a seemingly one-sided, impossible war well. There's a large combat memorial wall newly installed in the Normandy that you see every time you go down to the lower deck, listing all the names of your dead crew members, and it's impossible to ignore while exiting the elevator to the lower decks with the camera angle they give you, and you walk by it all the time throughout the game.

After the Rannoch mission ending in peace between Geth and Quarian, Legion sacrificed itself to provide the Geth with upgrades against the Reapers, and I was sad to see it go. But coming back to the Normandy and seeing "Legion" on the wall; this literal collective of programs that had become so much more be recognized as an individual who fought and died to defeat the Reapers, I cried my eyes out. That memorial was never going to change and the name will remain there for all time, and whenever I had to walk past it to perform other gameplay functions I felt a pang of sadness. The natural framing of the camera forcing you to contend with this constant reminder of loss did a great job of achieving the tone they wanted.

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Relkin

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I hope that Finn doesn't turn out to be force sensitive. It was one thing for Rey to take up the lightsaber and her newfound abilities to beat Ren, but it's far more impressive for a regular person to take up arms against a psychokinetic murderer.

Also, Snoke needs to be a normal size. I already have a hard time taking CG characters seriously; don't make them cartoonishly large.

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baka_shinji17

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This was great Austin! I never thought I'd be reading about Structuralism on Giant Bomb of all places, but here we are. It's funny, I've actually been feeling rather disillusioned with all the hype surrounding The Force Awakens and wrote it off as "childish" and "simple" but now, you've given me something interesting to consider. Thanks!

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Langly

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One thing I do want to point out is that Rey really does seem to know way more than she should at the time that she does. I think it's a realistic question to put to the movie that doesn't really have a good answer.

In the first Star Wars movie, Luke is preternaturally good with the force, but he also does essentially nothing with it other than hear voices and shoot a missile well. He's also shown several force techniques before Ben dies. He doesn't pull a lightsaber until the next movie (and I think a year passes?) and he doesn't use the mind trick until the third movie and yoda. So, it's not like Luke was doing the things that Rey was doing in a new hope but since she's a girl people are flipping out. That might be why some are, but the difference in ability is stark.

Personally, I was thinking about this, and I think that decision was purposeful, and I think her vision she received when she touched the lightsaber kind of osmosis force trained her, like a holocron in the Expanded Universe might do. Because like, how would she even know what a mind trick *is*. She's never seen one. Or maybe she literally learned from Ren while he was interrogating her. I think the movie could have done a better job of relaying this sort of thing if that was what it was going for.

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threeOCT

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(Potential spoilers for early-mid and mid-late points of XCom: Enemy Unknown and The Last of Us)

I'm not sure this is precisely what you're looking for, but the last couple generations of games have been able to take advantage of close shots of characters due to ability to show better facial expressions. My particular favorite expressions from recent-ish games came from X-Com: Enemy Unknown and The Last of Us. In both games, The Volunteer (X-Com) and Tess (Last of Us) make roughly the same expression in what are major points of their specific situations: a sigh in which they blow out of their mouths and the cheeks puff up briefly. The Volunteer takes hold of the alien artifact to connect psychically with the 'hive', while Tess has sent Joel and Ellie off to find Joel's brother Tommy while she buys them time against an incoming group of soldiers.

In both situations, they've come across a point where they're facing potential life-ending circumstances. Even with their psionic abilities bringing the Volunteer to that very moment, there's no way to know what comes next for them. Tess is already found herself sentenced to death with a bite from an infected, but she instead opts to take a stand against soldier looking for her, Joel and Ellie. These are both potentially last stands or final moments for both characters. We know that the Volunteer sets forth the last confrontation between XCom and the alien threat and Tess affords Joel and Ellie just enough time to escape before she is eventually gunned down. But before those crucial points for both the Volunteer and Tess, they stand and look forward at what is ahead of them, breathe deeply, sigh, and blow a puff of air. I see both of these as 'well, here goes nothin...' sorts of reactions. A moment important to their characters is at hand and they're staring it right in the eye.

In video games before properly emoting faces, Tess & The Volunteer would have animated their entire bodies to show this or they may have straight up said, 'Well, here goes nothin...' or 'Here we go...'. We're now at a place where you can perceive exactly how they feel before that point in their lives and all they need to do is puff their cheeks ever so slightly and take a deep breath. Those particular beats in XCom: Enemy Unknown and The Last of Us are among my favorite moments in the games from the last 5 or so years, and all it took was being able to show faces that react like actual human faces.

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Centurypunk

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Metal Gear Solid 2 repeats the story of Metal Gear Solid 1 on purpose because characters fabricated events to happen that way. Then when things start going off the rails and changing, its incredibly unnerving for the player. I especially like how they portray Raiden as a poor imitation of Snake how has only done VR training, then begin to develop him into Jack, a person with a past and troubles of his own.

Kojimas writing about "memes" and how information can be passed on is really strong in MGS 2.

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triumvir

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Unlike films, which as you say, use cinematic techniques, colour palattes, and framing to do much of their emotional story-telling, games are often at their most evocative when they use game mechanics or controls to present an approximation of a given emotion or to illustrate important themes.

Fair warning, there are some spoilers for Journey and Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons below.


In some cases, it happens when the game is resisting against your input as a player or removing it entirely. The ending of Journey is one such game. In Journey, the vast majority of player interaction comes in the form of movement. There's a real fluidity and joy that comes with the way Journey's nameless, faceless pilgrim controls as he or she leaps, surfs, and floats forward along their pilgrim's path. Near the end of the game, however, the freedom of movement is wrested from the player during the pilgrim's trek up a deathly cold mountainside. As the player loses control of their character's momentum, the game conveys the oppressive stiffness of the onset of hypothermia and death, only to thrust the player, finally, into one last, transcendent burst of movement, which is heavily implied to be an out-of-body and possibly post-mortem experience.

Another good example of this from recent years is Brothers. The player spends the entire game learning how to control each brother independently, one with each side of the gamepad. The process is awkward, but, as the game progresses, the player becomes more and more deft at manipulating the unique control scheme --- meaning the brothers become a more effective duo as the game progresses. The learning process of the player mirrors the development of the two brother's relationship with each other as they come to rely increasingly on one another in their quest to save their ailing parent. When the older brother dies, the sense of emotional loss is felt in the complete loss of imput control on the half of the gamepad dedicated to that character. It's a simple mechanical shift but an effective one --- indeed, it's one of the most effective illustrations of grief I've experienced in any medium.

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HerrHeimlich

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Don't do it, Mr. Walker. Mechwarrior Online is a sand pit of nostalgia and painted diarrhea. You won't feel the need to spend real money until you either try to get a full set of one Mech series like any of the clan mechs or buying module upgrades for your mech. It gets difficult produce money without getting a hero mech, buying days of premium, or playing a great number of games. I basically bought the Direwolf and Timberwolf series, which are basically the best mechs in the game. At that point I was pretty much done there and got tired of missile boat mechs and the tug of war balance issue between being weak to game breaking. And lets not forget Alpine Peak map and the developers refusal to get rid of that hideous map...

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Edited By Rohay

@relkin: he heard the screams when SK destroyed the new Republic. So he most likely force sensitive though it be cool if it turned out he wasn't and was just good with a light saber.

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RhymesMcFist

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WrathOfGod

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I bookmarked this to read after I watch TFA. Preemptive "thanks Austin!" though!

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Redhotchilimist

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Edited By Redhotchilimist

@error52: I disliked him for those reasons. Because Kylo Ren is so pathetic, I had a hard time taking him seriously or feel at all treathened by him, and he's not entertaining to watch(except when the stormtroopers turn the other way and he freezes that laser, those moments were hilarious and cool respectively). I don't really mind if there are uncool villains among their ranks, but this was the guy who got all of the screentime, and he's such a loser. I like it when villains are cool! I have seen Austin and some other critics go "He symbolizes this or that", but that's a different way of enjoying entertainment than I do. When you look at the reused elements from earlier Star Wars films and say:

Star Wars communicates its structuralism not only narratively, but also with a fierce cinematic cudgel. It hits you with black masks, with bright blue and red lasers, with orchestral swells, and with the sort of panoramic wide shots that seem to reach out and say “Yes, there is a transcendent, capital T Truth out there.” The lonely, desert sunsets of Tatooine and Jakku; the surge of heroism as an X-Wing squadron drifts in-formation over the waters and forests of Takodana; the Evil of General Hux's gathered mass of potential violence, his stormtroopers, his red banners, his technological supremacy, his eagerness to destroy populations we've barely met. At its highest points, Star Wars is crafted with such mastery that it is easy to convince oneself that it touches something fundamental to all humans, something eternal and real.

That's a way different interpretation than "They sure played it safe and reused a lot more plot and locations than I would have preferred". It's not an unreasonable way to look at things, but this feels so far removed from how I watch and play things that I don't have much to say about it besides that it feels far removed from my experience.

I don't really know much about cinematic techniques either, so this week I guess it's just a Force Awakens/analytical interpretation complaint from me. Sorry.

I did like the storytelling in the finale of Brothers that @triumvir, @rhymesmcfist and @romination talked about, anyway. That's the standout section from that entire game, and it's right at the end.

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Deathpooky

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Really interesting view of the generational angle of the Star Wars in comparison to our own generational conflicts. I think the movie does that very well on multiple levels - not just in terms of the story, but also outside the movie in the relatively diverse set of actors, which has brought out a similarly predictable response among some.

As to your question, the best example that comes to mind is the relationship between Wander and his horse Argo in Shadow of the Colossus. The little touches in their interactions, traveling across the vast landscape with just Argo, the way Argo works perfectly with Wander and cooperates to take several of the colossi - it all works together to perfectly build a loyal steed/pet and loving owner relationship over the course of the game.

And much of that only could be done through gameplay. For example falling off the flying colossus, calling Argo to your side, and then racing off to pepper him with arrows while Argo keeps speed. It allows you to personally build a relationship and appreciation for Argo as he helps you in your journey. The game then exploits that built relationship to the utmost in the end as Argo throws you over a collapsing bridge, sacrificing himself to save you and further your misguided journey.

That moment is really the culmination of SotC for me - your loyal friend selflessly acting to help you finish your quest, after having traveled and assisted you throughout your journey so far, and after being your sole companion in the game. And this is at the same time you've likely been rethinking the journey on the whole and whether you should continue to believe the voice in the sky commanding you to kill these colossi. At least for me that sacrifice paradoxically provided the determination to see things through.

Love, loss, and sacrifice through pets is a common emotional touchpoint in media, just as it is in life for many, but SotC brings it out perfectly in gameplay. Unfortunately it then undermines all that by having Argo mysteriously survive his fall. But that moment and its expression of the love and loss we often feel in our relationships with our loyal animal friends still stand out as one of the best moments I've experienced in gaming.

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Relkin

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OnionKnight14

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In his interview with Charlie Rose, George Lucas spends a lot of time talking about the commonalities of myth around the world and how that was an inspiration for the story of Star Wars.

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sven_kroosl

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Good job Austin, I've really been enjoying this column so far.

In answer to your question, I think the way The Banner Saga used permadeath and scarcity of resources to make me care about the characters is a good example. Or rather, how that made me not care at all. I usually try to be heroic in games that have moral choices but in my playthrough of The Banner Saga I was positively ruthless.

"You gonna open that gate for me? Or do you, me and my giant friend over there with the horns growing out of his head gotta tussle?"

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TheDarkOn3

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To quote Gita Jackson, Austin is such a good boy.

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louis0nfire

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This is fantastic stuff. Thank you, Austin.