Saturday, June 20, 2015

This Week in Geek # 1

The world of geekdom is ever busy, and the last week has been no exception. With E3, a record-breaking movie release, and a healthy dose of real-life sci-fi headed by NASA, anyone can find something to love. Here's what rocked my particular geeky socks over the last seven days:

Jurassic World

Jurassic World broke a new film industry record, raking in $524.4 million globally in its opening weekend. While I do think there are some things the movie could have done better, its appeal is undeniable. Few things are as satisfying as roving raptors and giant T-Rex monster mashes. With this financial success and the movie's many hints at dinosaurs beyond the walls of the park, I (excitedly) suspect we'll be seeing news of a sequel soon.

Kingdom Hearts III

Kingdom Hearts has long since become one of my favorite series, combining the lovable, romanticized worlds of Disney with the badassery of Square Enix's Final Fantasy. Square showed off a new gameplay trailer of KHIII at E3 (displayed above), and it looks awesome. So awesome, that aforementioned trailer features a literal hype train. Go watch!

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Second on my dreams-do-come-true E3 wishlist, Square Enix showed off a new trailer for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided at the expo. It featured new abilities for Jensen, detailed weapon customization, and insight into the themes and story of this highly anticipated sequel. Deus Ex: Human Revolution remains one of my all-time favorite games (and go-tos for examples of great worldbuilding), and I cannot wait to see what Divided brings to the table. At bare minimum, it's another entry into the wonderful world of cyberpunk.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

If Mass Effect were a movie, it and Star Wars would have to duke it out for my favorite space opera flick. Luckily for my horrid character flaw of indecision, Mass Effect is mainly a series of video games. Incredible, emotionally moving video games. I nearly flew out of my cubicle at work when I saw E3's announcement for the Andromeda trailer. With its promise of a whole new galaxy, exploration, an improved Mako, and a brand new cast of lovable Bioware characters, its likely shot to the top of more than one geek's to-buy lists.

NASA Announces Mission to Europa

Speaking of space (minus the opera, although Chris Hadfield did sing on the ISS once), NASA has rolled out the real-life sci-fi this week by announcing their mission to survey Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Tidal shifts under the moon' surface suggest the likelihood of water, and water means potential for life or human colonization. As a proud member of the get the @$#% to space party, I'm excited to see what the mission says about Europa's habitability.

This concludes my shortlist of personal favorite geekiness this week, but rest assured, there is more to come. In fact, next week I'm starting a new series of blog posts featuring the galaxy's best space opera flick, Star Wars, in an effort to countdown to episode VII coming out at the end of the year. Each month until the movie's release, I'll be tearing in to what makes each of the Star Wars films tick, beginning of course with the one that started it all: A New Hope.

So tune in next time for some lightsaber and space battle geekiness!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jurassic World and Character Agency

This post contains spoilers for: Jurassic World, Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park: Lost World

I like dinosaurs. 

I like their teeth, their scales, how cool their bones look on display, and I especially like when they start eating things - mainly humans and other dinosaurs. But for as much as I like (alright, love) our prehistoric friends, I love a well-told story even more, and well told stories almost always have character agency.

Character agency is the story's ability to make its characters the star of the show. A plot with strong agency isn't happening in a void, it's happening as a direct result of character decisions and actions. Stories without this much needed asset can suffer from plot holes, contrivances, and seemingly unrelated instances because the people through which the story is being told don't have enough force in their own tale. 

Chuck Wendig provides an awesome, full-length exploration of character agency on his blog.

For the most part, Jurassic World featured decently well-developed characters with quite a bit of agency. Sure you had a blatant damsel out of distress scene and a couple contradictions between the foreshadowing of the big mean brother and said big mean brother's actual actions, but again, for the most part, the movie did a great job with its cast. Protagonists solved problems using their unique skill sets, and each of them had their own personal stake in the tale, which boosted the importance of their decision making (and therefore their agency).

Jurassic World's Claire and Owen, flirting awkwardly.
But for me, the biggest lapse of character agency happened at the worst possible time: at the climax - the very end. I have nothing against giant dinosaur vs. other giant dinosaur (plus little dinosaur) action, but the main cast did little in those final moments.

Let's think back to the original Jurassic Park, where up until the very end, Dr. Grant and co. had clearly established character goals which drove their decisions. Get out of the tree, get over the fence, turn on the power, lock the door, etc., etc. Each completed goal led to the next, developing in complexity until finally, the cast met their match in the face of a pack of raptors. Sure, the T-Rex coming in and eating said raptors was a bit of a deus ex machina, but it was an exciting deus ex machina - one that felt earned after everything the characters had accomplished. 

Even take Jurassic Park's sequel, Lost World, and look at its ending. Ian races through San Diego to rescue the infant T-Rex from InGen, using it to lure its mother back onto the ship where Ian's co-lead, Sarah, tranquilizes it before it can escape. Still the same glorious, action-filled ending reminiscent of Jurassic's latest, but driven by the protagonists' decisions and actions. That's character agency.

My poor hometown...(or maybe lucky hometown?)

So what's the difference between those two movies and Jurassic World?

In World, Owen joins Claire and the boys with little explanation as to how he found them, making the reunion a bit of a contrivance. Add to this that when they arrive at the park's main compound, the Indominus Rex finds them (that's right, their story goal comes to them), and we're working with enough divine coincidence that suspension of disbelief starts to fail.

The boys hide, Owen shoots, and Claire, fed up with hiding and ready to demonstrate more problem solving via her skills of management and park knowledge (a great storytelling decision on the script writer's part), frees the iconic T-Rex from its pen. Owen runs out of bullets, and now the whole cast is hiding. Yep. Just hiding.

No attempts to hide, no attempts to run for cover, no attempts to signal any surviving military forces. If the T-Rex had failed to take down Indominus, I'm not sure what would have happened next. I honestly believe the protagonists would have rolled over and raised the white flag, because that's how they were acting. The climactic monster mash was cool, but it robbed the characters of choice, goals, decision-making, and in the end, agency. Shortly put: they weren't doing anything.

This problem can partly be attributed to the story's lack of depth as a whole. We get glimpses into surface level issues, but there's so much going on that we don't get to explore much complexity. Events lead into the next loosely, are rarely the result of action-consequence trails, and the character goals are merely survive and kill the big thing. While those are good overarching goals, the lack of meaningful mini-goals along the way demonstrates the lack of complexity and problem depth present in the film's predecessors. As a result, the ending was fun (again, big thing vs. big thing is cool), but for me, not as satisfying as I would have hoped.

Don't get me wrong. For a movie about dinosaurs, it hit many of the right notes: great action, awesome visuals, and a fair attempt at meaningful character development. But in the end, every story is about its characters, and not enough agency was present throughout to make this movie the storytelling homerun it could have been.

At the very least, there was Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle next to a pack of raptors, and honestly, that's all anyone really needs anyway. 

Zoom zoom.