Entropy

I find it painful to look at a flower broken by wind, but even more so to watch one slowly wither, knowing I can do nothing about it.

For as long as I remember, I’ve never been particularly scared by apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic plots. Whatever disaster sweeps through the world in those stories, I find solace in the thought that the worst is over when it’s done with its destruction, that afterwards it’s time to roll up your sleeves and rebuild. I always try to extrapolate these ruined worlds into the future, imagine them restored, healed, and life and civilization going on.

What really scares me to the marrow of my bone is plots that describe not apocalyptic mayhem that runs for a short time and then stops, but things slowly, steadily getting worse. Gradual disintegration, loss of any structure, erosion, decay. And knowing that it will only get worse from that point on.

Or, in other words, entropy. The only true, ever-present enemy of life itself. And the only one that cannot be defeated, its victory merely delayed — ideally, to a time mind-bogglingly far into the future.

The Problem with Elves

I like roleplaying. I always did, as far as I can remember, ever since childhood make-believe games. At the very least, it’s pleasant and relaxing entertainment that’s not only interactive, engaging of imagination, and also has variety to it, as no RP experience is exactly like others. At its best, it’s also an opportunity to connect to people and seek to understand them, and in doing so, learn something about the real world through analogies in the imaginary one. In fact, this seemed so natural to me that when I first touched World of Warcraft, I found it surprising that “RP” was a separate server category worth special mentioning, that in fact most players were not roleplayers and approached the game from a purely game-mechanical perspective, without immersing themselves in the lore-rich, lovingly crafted fantasy world around them!

Specifically in WoW, I have a long history with the roleplaying community, having played multiple RP characters of different races over time1. And recently, I had one of those “what can roleplaying tell me about people” moments that I always appreciate.

It was a weekly event, a sermon in the Temple of the Moon led by a surprisingly open-minded priestess (surprisingly by the average standards of night elf RPers) who was basically Leliana, belief-wise. She was arguing from an “Elune loves you all” perspective towards greater acceptance of arcanists and foreigners, extending a hand towards people of other races who worship Elune, against the common accusations that such lines of thinking erode traditional night elf values, and echoing the reasonable statement that the culture needs to change with the times.

And then, one of the listeners raised her hand and asked something along the lines of:

“But then how am I supposed to feel superior to outsiders?”

And then something clicked in my head. This was perhaps the first time I heard someone express that unspoken motivation this bluntly and explicitly, but it was evidence in favor of some of my suspicions.

I hold it self-evident that players gravitate towards RPing fictional cultures that appeal to them personally, which results in players actually reinforcing stereotypes of cultures they portray. Compared to the real world, where they may not necessarily fit into their native culture, through the arcane and mysterious power of Character Creation, players can make the retroactive choice of where to have been born and raised, and they tend to select something that echoes with them. It’s why you don’t see many pacifist orcs: players who aren’t sold on “WAAAAGH BLOOD AND THUNDER!” are less likely to choose orcs in the first place.

And that there is the problem with night elf roleplayers that, upon reflection, is not unique to night elves in WoW (and I expect the situation to be the same with blood elves on the Horde side), but with pretty much any post-Tolkienian fantasy race that fits the broad elf archetype — that being, ancient, long-lived, aesthetically pleasing, and in possession of ancient wisdom. Pointed ears and living in woods are, in fact, entirely optional here.

Heck, in WoW RP, even draenei don’t get the same amount of scorn and resentment towards them from other races as night elves do, despite lore-wise being even more ancient, more long-lived, and generally virtuous and having the moral high ground. Players may still be sour about Blizzard’s heavy-handed retcon of the draenei backstory, but they’re generally not resentful towards draenei players themselves. I suspect that part of it is the “funny foreigner” associations that the draenei evoke, with their accents and decidedly alien appearances, and part of it is their status as refugees and underdogs, someone we can sympathize with. Their entire history, ever since their schism with the eredar, is one of suffering. Yes, the night elves have also suffered from two Legion invasions, but they haven’t had to constantly flee one world after another with the Legion in hot pursuit for 25,000 years…

Based on my observations, it seems a lot of people play elves — any elves — to feel superior. Acting out a desire to feel superior by virtue of merely existing. To be awed and respected without actually doing anything to earn that awe and respect.

It’s especially ironic in Warcraft, which is generally careful not to portray any race as inherently more capable than others, unlike other fantasy works that portray elves as basically “better humans” and establish that anything humans can do, elves can do better.2 In Warcraft, there is no indication that any race can reach heights that literally no other race cannot; at most, we can say that longer-lived races have more time to practice their craft, which is often offset by them having narrow and culturally prescribed interests. In fact, every single society in Warcraft has obvious, glaring flaws and blind spots, and neither kind of elves are an exception.

That, too, is nothing new, but what really made me think deeper about it was how… unironic that sentence seemed. How the player, like the character, seemed to really be sold on the idea of elven superiority. Before, I thought that most RPers who acted out racial stereotypes did so consciously. That they analyzed and noted the blind spots in the fictional culture being portrayed, and chose to consciously replicate them from their impartial position in the real world. (It’s what I do, at least, when my characters do match their racial stereotype in some ways and don’t in others.) Now, though, I wonder… what if they not only don’t notice the flaws that were explicitly put there by the original writers, but think of these flaws as virtues, something desirable, something that drew them to playing that race in the first place?

A worrying thought.


1 All Alliance, though. Never had much interest in Horde RP.

2 Tolkien, in my opinion, committed the grave mistake of trying to have his cake and eat it too. The race that he by his own admission “called mistakenly Elves” were an idealized metaphor of certain aspects of human nature that he respected, free of some limitations that humans have in the expression of their creativity. Unfortunately, in the actual text it often translates to “elves are just better, whatever you do”. It would be fine if they stayed on the sidelines as a sort of “NPC race”, mysterious and ineffable, though I don’t think portraying a fictional culture as inherently alien promotes understanding of real cultures in real life. But even that flies out of the window considering how many elven characters in Middle-earth are protagonists whom we’re supposed to identify with — as opposed to walking mysteries like Gandalf, whose real nature is only revealed in supplemental materials. Cue the predictable resentment from the all-human readers: they hang out with us, they’re a lot like us, we can find common ground with them, but they’re just unfairly gifted in virtually every way!

Insightful

Translation of a post in the “Check your privilege” VK community.

“LGBT people don’t have to defend themselves and prove their right to exist. If a person could change their gender and orientation just by waking up in the morning and deciding to do it, even for one day or hour, it wouldn’t change the fact that LGBT people are as precious and have the same right to live as straight cissexuals. To give heterosexuals proof and justification for our sexual and gender identity is to confirm their opinion that our life is their business and we must earn our right to exist in their eyes. It allows straight cissexuals to believe that they have some kind of superiority in their sexuality type, and that being queer means being a deviation from the “norm”, from the “default sexuality”.

We don’t have to defend ourselves and prove we’re “normal”. We don’t need biological research proving that everything is fine with us. Furthermore, we don’t want scientists to one day find the “genetic key” to our sexuality, for if such a key was found, the opponents of LGBT would immediately try to “correct” us by finding a “cure for homosexuality”.

Maybe we’re born this way; maybe we’re not. Maybe the sexual nature is mutable for some people and constant for others. It makes no difference. We need to distance ourselves from the heterosexual rhetoric that we were “born this way” and “had no choice”. Instead we need to say this: our sexuality has its own value and is in no way your business; we’re not going to prove anything to you, and we’re not going to give up.”

Frozen

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE…

most… adequately satisfying…

ANIMATED MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!

Beautiful, powerful, dangerous, SPOILERS!

There’s this girl born with the power to control ice.

She’s called Katara… no, wait, Elsa.

Oh, and she’s a princess, the heir to the throne in fact.

(How groundbreaking for Disney!)

And her life is all well and good until she accidentally injures her little sister Anna with an icicle.

So Elsa becomes afraid and ashamed of her powers.

So the king and queen contact Professor Xavier to help her embrace her nature and use it for the greater good.

…Nah, actually they don’t.

They just wipe Anna’s memory and lock Elsa from the rest of the world.

Because that always ends well!

What, they have no psychotherapists? And no group of people like Elsa who could band together and share stories about how the society shuns and misunderstands them?

Well, that doesn’t matter because the parents soon die in a boat crash.

And the moral of this story is: don’t be a dick to your children and don’t isolate them from each other, because… wait, that’s only the prologue?

So the real story begins on Elsa’s coronation day.

She is still hiding her powers and wearing gloves to avoid freezing everything she touches.

Meanwhile, Anna falls in love at first sight with Prince Charming.

And over the course of like two hours, they go from the castle to a waterfall to a balcony to the top of a mountain and back before everyone notices.

That’s some really powerful love montage!

Or maybe they just changed the backdrop a few times. Like Julio Scoundrél.

And Prince Charming also wears gloves. They’re in like every single shot.

GEE, I WONDER IF HE’S HIDING SOMETHING TOO!

(Maybe he has fire powers?)

So Anna and the prince want to marry right away, but Elsa thinks it’s not a good idea to propose to someone you just met.

…Wait, WHAT?

Not that I don’t completely and utterly agree, but let me get this straight. A Disney princess has just said that marrying a complete stranger over love at first sight is not a good idea.

[dials the phone]

Hello Mr. Beelzebub, how’s weather in Hell?

Sorry, can’t hear you over the sound of the snowstorm!

[hangs up]

Guess Elsa got them too.

So the townsfolk find out about Elsa’s powers, call her a freak and a monster, and she runs away and builds herself a fortress of solitude in the frozen wasteland.

(Ask me what it means, ask me what it means!)

But by accident it also summons an eternal winter over the whole country.

Because… MAGIC!

But Anna wants her sister back, so she chases her.

In a thin evening dress. In a snowstorm.

But it’s okay because she’s saved by a rowdy peasant guy. And despite him being sarcastic, dismissive of her and her love for the prince, and smelly, she grows to kind of like him too.

That sneaky two-timer!

And they’re also joined by Jar Jar Binks!

Except he’s now a snowman.

Hmm, I kind of wish the original Jar Jar Binks was a snowman too.

He’d melt as soon as he first stepped into that lake, reducing his total screen time to about five minutes!

So Anna meets Elsa, who, despite just learning the hard way that keeping secrets from your best friend is bad, decides once again to hide the real reason she’s hiding from Anna, and banishes her.

And accidentally wounds her with an icicle again. In the heart. Making her slowly turn to ice.

But it’s okay, because the living rolling stones [rimshot] say a display of true love would heal her.

So what’s the matter? The peasant guy is right there! Kiss him already!

But no, he carries her back to the town so she can kiss the prince instead.

And walks away.

Oh, he definitely won’t have a change of heart and return. Definitely! Just like Han Solo!

But then the prince refuses to kiss her… because he was evil all along! And he only faked his feelings!

WHAT A TWEEEEEEEST!

Wait, what? Prince Charming — in a Disney movie — is actually the bad guy?

So the prince wants to kill Elsa and inherit the kingdom from Anna — with or without her.

Wait, if he wanted to kill Elsa, why didn’t he just deliberately fail at saving her from that crossbow shot in her ice palace?

Instead, he tries to kill her directly when she’s back in town.

And meanwhile, the peasant guy comes back to save Anna with his kiss of true love.

But before he reaches her, Anna gets in the way between the prince and Elsa and completely freezes over.

So Elsa hugs her and starts crying.

And it heals her!

Hooray for a sisterly display of true love!

(You know, I always shipped Hawke/Bethany…)

And then she realizes that love can help her control her powers.

Because… MAGIC!

So she suddenly unfreezes the kingdom and they all live happily ever after.

HOORAY!

So I found this movie good, if not as good as BioShock Infinite: The Disney Movie.

It was a really faithful adaptation of The Snow Queen!

Even though there was no shattered mirror, or Kay, or Gerda, or gratuitous Biblical passages, or anything else whatsoever from the book, really…

But there’s snow! And there’s a queen! So they at least got the title right!

Even though they renamed it, too…

On second thought, why did they market it as an adaptation anyway?


Okay, here comes the Serious Part™. Unlike apparently most viewers, I actually don’t mind the part where Prince Hans reveals his plan in a Bond villain fashion. That’s right, I actually have no problem with the most controversial part of the movie. I can understand why they really needed to hammer this point home: this is a Disney cartoon, after all, and anything more subtle could have failed to capture the author intent. Even with that scene as is, viewers are already acting in denial and insisting that the prince “really” has the best of intentions, despite the clues being obvious in hindsight.

So yes, Frozen continues the trend started by Tangled — the trend of Disney looking back and critically rethinking their much-maligned stock characters and plots. Even Tangled played love at first sight mostly straight, while Frozen deconstructs it. Sorry kids — you know those movies of ours your parents watched when they were themselves children? Well, they sent the wrong message! We apologize for the inconvenience!

What’s interesting here is how, perhaps for the first time in its history, Disney has executed a genuinely surprising twist. Prince Hans was not Anna’s true love — we were supposed to catch that. But his revelation as a manipulative sociopath? So perfect, and yet so obvious only in hindsight.

And they introduce a second twist! Kristoff’s return was inevitable the moment we saw him go, sure. We all know how these stories end — the good guy has his doubts and leaves, only to have a change of heart and steal the girl from the bad guy right in the end. But it’s not his true love’s kiss that cures Anna, not his romantic love, but rather Elsa’s sisterly love.

Which brings me to another point: people who insist on seeing subtext and metaphors in everything.

No, there is no incest subtext. You can throw “death of the author” arguments at me or whatever, but there is no way that was actually the author intent, even as Parental Bonus. Just to be clear: I see no problem with a consensual romance between siblings, I’d cheer at a work that portrayed one openly, but come on, it’s Disney. A somewhat-reformed Disney, sure. A Disney that is learning from criticism and actually improving its reputation compared to the usual stereotype… But Disney nonetheless. Safe, unquestioning, and rebellious in a conformist sort of way. Heck, they’ve yet to introduce an openly LGBT character.

Which brings me to the second point. Even if Elsa’s powers actually are a metaphor, it’s most likely not a metaphor for what you think. The idea that people with special powers must either keep them secret or be locked away from society is not exactly new, and common in recent works too. And societies hostile towards people alleged to have special powers go back at least to medieval witch hunts, to which the hunt for Elsa is compared in the actual story. There’s no need for subtext here when you have the text-text.

So, as an LGBT person, I don’t think it’s a metaphor for LGBT issues, or rather, not a metaphor only for LGBT issues. And considering I once posted a reading of The Little Mermaid as a gender transition tale (heck, you can interpret even James Cameron’s Avatar as one if you squint just right), you know how I like to overanalyze these things. But no, the much broader, more timeless archetype of “being shunned for being different” applies equally well to many other situations, and limiting the interpretation to issues floating in the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, in my opinion, trivializes the work.

Maybe if, instead of running away to live as a hermit in the mountains, Elsa ran away to a society of perceived “freaks” like herself, or at least a society where they lived openly alongside petty mortals, and they — not a sudden deus ex machina epiphany about family love — taught her self-control, and not hating herself, and helped her adapt and socialize, and then she returned to her kingdom with a renewed sense of self-worth and told her haters to suck it up… maybe then I could admit the writers were making a metaphorical statement. But as presented? Nah.

My one real complaint about Frozen is that despite its success of subverting the crap out of the Disney formula, and avoiding stock aesops that invariably make the audience groan, it offers nothing in their stead. The pacing is problematic and the story is lacking a distinct character. It’s well-made, in the sense that a generic mass-produced toy is well-made, but it’s empty and detached, like Elsa in exile. Though perhaps this feeling can be blamed on Tangled setting the bar too high; a work that I would otherwise endlessly praise instead fails to properly impress me because I’ve already seen Disney do better than that.

Tangled, Redux

So I wrote a long post about a Disney movie, at the expense of staying up late and not sleeping enough. So what do I start this morning with? Another post about the same Disney movie, because I’m probably out of my mind and giving children’s escapist entertainment more attention than it deserves. Or something.

In the previous post, I insisted on calling Rapunzel “Elizabeth”, and while that was a joke © EDI, I just can’t get the similarities out of my head — as while Elizabeth is clearly visually based on Belle, her personality and backstory are strikingly similar to Disney’s Rapunzel, specifically Disney’s rather the original fairy tale version. There are even some visual similarities, like the big eyes and the small, almost childlike torso unfitting for her age. And beyond that, I can’t stop thinking where the similarities could have come from.

So Gothel/Comstock steals baby Rapunzel/Elizabeth from her birth parents for selfish purposes, causing some minor body damage in the process, and raises her locked away for life, valuing her for her unique abilities, but otherwise not interfering with her independent thought and pastimes, letting her grow up as a person in her own right rather than a brainwashed minion. So naturally, the captive jumps at the first opportunity for Faustian Rebellion and, once given a taste of freedom, can only be dragged back by force (or an unfounded feeling of betrayal by the male lead). Oh, and the antagonist rapidly ages from continuous exposure to the same kind of power that our heroine wields.

But here’s a kicker: BioShock Infinite was announced before Tangled was even released, with a developer interview speaking of Elizabeth’s characterization, and was secretly in development for two and a half years by that point. So what is this — some kind of weird convergent thinking, or did Irrational substantially rework their story mid-development in the wake of the success of Tangled?

I’m probably reading too much into it. When I see similarities between recent, overhyped mainstream works, I usually assume that they didn’t borrow from each other, but from an earlier common ancestor I’m unaware of. It may well be the case here that Disney didn’t invent this specific character type for Irrational to borrow. But I can hope that it is convergent thinking. That both Disney and Irrational, when they needed a “princess locked in a tower” archetype, looked at the pitfalls and Unfortunate Implications of both the passive-saccharine Princess Classic and the green-skinned farting ass-kicking anti-princess, and decided to go in a different direction this time. Perhaps they were both doing their original spin on the Rapunzel tale and just happened to be going in the same, zeitgeist-tastic direction.

Great minds think alike, after all.

Tangled

WHAT A COPOUT!!!!

Seriously, what a lame deus ex machina. The movie was perfect until the last five minutes ruined everything. And there were so many other ways to keep him alive yet have a happy en–

Wait a moment, that’s spoilers!

Ahem…

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE GREATEST ANIMATED MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!!!

It has, like, everything!

The action, the visuals, the humor, the characterization, the continuous lampshading or outright avoidance of common genre tropes that came under heavy fire in the recent years…

I cried when Booker took Elizabeth out of the tower and she first saw the outside world.

And I cheered when she rescued Booker from the Handyman and they escaped by that skyline!

And I also cheered at the dance scene on the streets of Columbia…

…Oh, and there was something or other about an evil stepmother and magical hair. It was in, like, one scene.

So there. I liked it. Sue me.


No, seriously. Surprising as it is, Tangled is the first Disney production not to leave me scratching my head with a heap of Unfortunate Implications. The first one that avoided the sickeningly saccharine sweetness and the feelings of, “Wait, what just happened? And that’s supposed to be a good thing?”

This, by the way, is how you do self-awareness well. Self-awareness today is generally tricky because it has itself become a repetitive trope, especially the cheap, shallow kind of self-awareness. Constant lampshadings and subversions and anachronistic references are old hat by now. But to actually heed to the criticism of your earlier works, to show that you’ve learned, that you’re sincere in applying the lessons, and to avoid all the unintended emotional responses the work could generate if not done just right… that, my friends, takes far more skill.

To quote Rich Burlew of The Order of the Stick fame…

Fantasy literature is ONLY worthwhile for what it can tell us about the real world; everything else is petty escapism.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the best kind of fantasy is the kind that speaks to your gut, by evoking feelings embodied in our collective consciousness. And by that, I don’t mean dreams of secretly being a princess, or of a handsome boy on a literal white horse, perfect wedding and a “happily ever after”. Or how Rapunzel — oh, to heck with it, I’ll just call her Elizabeth, because that’s who she really is1 — is everything that the classic Disney princess isn’t.2

Ignoring the obligatory male swashbuckling action hero, I’ll focus on some chords that Tangled struck with the audience. Many viewers have noted how Elizabeth’s upbringing and parental issues reminded them of their own, and it’s honestly not surprising. It is taken from real life. Our comfy-ish post-industrial real life that would feel alien to the authors of the original fairy tale, but real life nonetheless.

I won’t point out how Elizabeth’s passive-aggressive parent figure subverts the traits of traditional Disney villains by giving us an anti-villain (well, until That Scene) with a believable motivation. Of course, Disney wouldn’t actually put in the family-unfriendly message that sometimes birth parents cam be like that, and that finding her birth parents may not be for the best, so instead of an actual mother, we have a kidnapper who raised the kid as her own. Fine, it’s Disney, I can live with that. The true horror is that from Gothel’s perspective, everything she does probably is for the greater good. After all, the outside world is a scary and cruel place, and anyone who would claim her daughter’s precious hair would use it for the same selfish reasons as she would, right? (Projecting, by the way, is also a common trait of abusive parents. They think everyone else is like them.)

Keeping the fragile child on a tight leash may have made more sense back when the original Rapunzel was written. Parents like Gothel may have actually come off as sympathetic and caring back in the day, damned if I know. But to a modern audience it comes off as barbaric. Or at least, I hope so. The abusive parent-child relationship reproduces itself for a reason: children who grew up under bullying control-freak parents believe this is the only viable way of parenting, and later in life, lash out on their own children in return. It takes a reflection and a wider context to understand the hidden horror of one’s own upbringing, and most people hate to think.

Even at the start of the story, Elizabeth is already smart, skilled, self-sufficient, and implausibly competent. (Gee Disney, overcompensating much?) Her only crippling flaw is emotional immaturity, making her a literal ivory-tower intellectual. The actual tower, by the way, is an Epiphanic Prison. She could leave at any moment — heck, when she does leave, she does it entirely on her own — if she just had the mental strength to cut off the ties with her mother, and she just can’t bring herself to that step. And the mother is good at keeping her an emotional wreck by playing up her insecurities, deflating her self-esteem, and guilt-tripping her into staying with the supposedly-sensitive parent who clearly loves her so much — just look all those things mommy dearest has done for you! Wouldn’t leaving her be selfish?

It’s why this story strikes a chord, because it’s every bad parenting story ever written. The closest Disney can get away with such a family-unfriendly message, anyway.

In observing Gothel, I see — in exaggerated form, obviously — ways my own parents asserted control of me in the past. A form of emotional abuse that I only recognized after looking at it from a detached perspective, and from comparing my story to those of people who actually had happy childhoods.

It’s only in hindsight that I realize that my parents didn’t and still don’t care about me as a person — but rather as a possession, decoration, piece of work if you will. I know it’s unfair to say, considering they did care a lot for me, and still support me in a way that suggests some linger of genuine care. (So, I guess, they deserve the “not as much of a jerk you could have been” award?)

Yes, they cared about me — but only as long as I conformed to their idea of what their child should be. As long as I was “like everyone” and didn’t “dishonor” their good name in the eyes of their peers. (Back in primary school, whenever I started crying, mom later whipped me at home for “bringing shame to her”. They got better.) As long as they could feed me tall tales about how life is pain, how might makes right, and how my life would be ruined if I didn’t follow all their advice to the letter. My intellect, my educational achievements were only something to brag about in front of their friends. (Elizabeth was only valuable to Gothel because of her magical ability, and not as a person.) They kept it subtle, often at the level of the same kind of “lighthearted” demeaning jokes that Gothel did.

And the true horror comes from the realization that they actually thought it was for the best. That a controlled child afraid to make even a single step without their overprotective parents would actually be the ideal scenario. That they actually, sincerely, entertained the idea that they could “buy” my approval with gifts, as if I was an NPC follower in a BioWare game, instead of really trying to understand what I wanted all along. That no money could replace the emotional connection I longed for. And that even now they probably convinced even themselves that they’re selflessly spending their money to buy me a separate apartment — while in reality they’re likely driven by the selfish desire to cut their losses. They want me to change my surname so that I wouldn’t “stain” their family business, and their emotional treatment of my decision reeks of a GLaDOS “want you gone” scenario.

I’ll finish with a single observation. Some people considered it unrealistic how quickly Elizabeth adjusted to the outside world once she was off the leash and the initial sense of wonder wore off. That she didn’t end up a broken sociophobic wreck after an entire life in isolation. But that’s actually a case of Reality Is Unrealistic. I certainly know people who longed so life for a more active social life that when the restraining factor — financial dependency on their parents — was taken away, they adjusted relatively well to living alone and making their own decisions, more than even their parents expected.

I like to think that I’m one of them.


1 Yes, I’m aware that Infinite came later. My point stands.
2 The “classic Disney princess” being somewhat of a Dead Unicorn Trope, really. Even Ariel was fairly progressive for her time, especially compared to the original, and only the big three — Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — came close to that stereotype. But given the time period and usual social context of works back in the day, can you really blame them?

Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE GREATEST DLC I’VE EVER PLAYED IN MY LIFE!

Shepard. Wrex. Grunt. Shepard. SPOILERS!

There’s this big fancy apartment on the Citadel that Anderson gives to Shepard.

Because he’ll never need it himself anymore.

No, really, he won’t. Most players have already played through that (air quotes) “ending” and know Anderson dies.

And for some reason he has datapads with bits and pieces of his biography thrown around his apartment.

He must be really rich to afford all those datapads! Shame he can’t keep it tidy and put them all in one place.

The audio logs are really touching, though!

Like that really vague one about Shepard, which may or may not match how you actually feel about your own character.

So Shepard and Joker go to a dinner and are immediately attacked.

Boy, they just can’t catch a break!

And they decide to find out who hired those party-crashing goons.

And they’re assisted by a clumsy, neurotic and easily distracted Alliance officer named Maya.

…Gosh, that sounds familiar!

Only I’m not an Alliance officer. And I spell my name with an I. But it’s not originally written in English anyway.

Still, I now have the dubious honor of hearing Jennifer Hale say my name, which is totally sweet.

So they investigate undercover in an upper-class bar.

And in Shepard’s view, “undercover” means repeatedly pestering the same guards over and over with silly queries, because all guards on the Citadel have the memory of a goldfish.

But when they get to their contact, it turns out he’s dead! And someone has already formatted all the drives on his computer!

But EDI recovers the data anyway.

(Note to self: when I want something deleted, use secure wipe software. And hope the government doesn’t have EDISoft Data Recovery Pro.)

So Shepard takes her entire crew on the chase. Plus Wrex.

…Wait, they can do that?

That could have come handy earlier. Like, maybe in the middle of enemy territory, rather than on the most secure space station in the galaxy.

And Maya keeps cowering and freaking out as they advance, wondering if Shepard’s companions even take the danger seriously.

Wow, this is some really thoughtful, insightful and genuinely touching commentary of how an ordinary person from behind a desk would react if presented with Shepard’s tough wisecracking squad and their crazy antics. It’d be a shame if this message was undermined by her, like, faking it all along or something.

So the mastermind behind the mercs turns out to be… a clone of Shepard.

Adult and identical and having exactly the same haircut and voice.

…What?

Turns out this clone was grown by Cerberus in case Shepard needed spare organs or something.

…Wait, they can do that?

Why bother artificially aging a whole person anyway? Can’t they just grow individual organs?

Oh right, Cerberus.

And the clone doesn’t have any of Shepard’s memories, but somehow knows how to walk, speak English, shoot, use biotics, stay undercover on the Citadel, and where to procure armor, weapons, and a crapload of mercs despite having no friends or shady organization with funding.

…O…kay.

So they catch up with the clone, but it turns out Maya was a traitor all along.

WHAT A TWEEEEEEST!

And she was actually competent all along.

WHAT A TWEEEEEEST!

And the clone leaves Shepard in a slow deathtrap instead of killing her right away… because…

…she studied villainy from Dr. Evil? Maybe?

But they’re all saved by Liara’s holographic drone.

WHAT A TWEEEE– wait, what?

So the shell of that capsule somehow blocks radio transmissions to C-Sec and Shepard’s squad, but not to the drone?

That’s one selective radio jam.

So they escape and board the Normandy just in time before the clone takes off on it.

And EDI doesn’t stop the clone from hijacking the ship because… they turned EDI off.

…Wait, they can do that?

I wonder if the Collectors knew that.

And if Shepard has the EDI sexbot in the squad when boarding, it doesn’t shut down… because…

…uh… something about quantum mechanics, probably? They always buy that kind of technobabble…

So Shepard, the clone, Maya, the two squadmates and like a dozen mercs fight in the shuttle bay, somehow avoiding totally wrecking the entire ship with all the shooting, explosions and biotic powers thrown around.

Meanwhile Cortez is trying to stop the Normandy from jumping into FTL because…

…Shepard will fail to recover the ship if they leave the Citadel?

Those are some really location-dependent fighting skills!

So Shepard and the clone end up dangling from the exit ramp, but Shepard is saved by companions, while the clone refuses to be pulled up… because…

…she lost the will to live?

Like Padme Amidala!

Well, that’s convenient.

So Maya goes to prison, they recover the Normandy and celebrate by throwing a party.

And Mom Shepard gives a sweet phone call, too.

HOORAY!

And they live happily ever after!

OR DO THEY?

…Actually, since the Extended Cut they pretty much do, yes. But tell that to someone who remembers the original endings!

This is me saying… EGGS! You’ve got to try eggs! Kaidan, Liara, want some eggs? Glyph? EDI? Come on, everyone! Eggs!


On a serious note, I almost don’t hate this one. I know, I know, damned by faint praise, but some of my gripes with ME3 are still fresh in my memory, and a second playthrough only made those moments sting more. I admit I don’t hate Citadel as much as I thought I would after hearing that it was essentially lighthearted fanservice. I didn’t really get that impression, and I thought the lightheartedness was not in-your-face and a lot of it was actually damn funny. It was also nice to have the characters and the setting fleshed out more, especially from Anderson’s audio logs and the holograms in the Citadel archives.

Really, if I were to sum up my complaints, I think it would boil down to only three major ones.

  1. The clone. A cheap, stupid and overused plot device, playing every outdated SF cliche in the book and completely out of touch with the tone of the setting. (Well, how I see the tone of the setting, anyway. I know others disagree.) I hoped BioWare would at least make it make sense — they usually know how to do that for the more questionable elements of the setting. I was wrong.

  2. Brooks. Potential for character development and outsider commentary wasted by the cheap, predictable twist.

  3. Autodialogue. Lots and lots of autodialogue. This issue is not unique to Citadel and plagues all of ME3, the only game in the trilogy to regularly give me moments of “wait, my Shepard would never do that” because I don’t even get the option to refuse an action. ([cough] Traynor shower kiss [cough]) This time, I played through the main plot of Citadel and the party and thought, “Well, this is better than I thought it would be, I almost don’t hate it”… and then I went to the bar. Sorry, what? Shepard hooks Garrus up with a completely random turian woman, feeding him cheesy dating advice, and I don’t even get the option to stop her? Is this Mass Effect or a 1990s teen comedy? Where were those women on BioWare staff who reportedly make sure the male writers don’t embarass themselves?

Vala and Modern OpenGL

I’m really enthusiastic about Vala, and has been since its inception. I think it’s just about the “sexiest” language Linux has to offer right now, supporting writing native applications with no VM overhead and almost all the expressive power of C#.

I’d still prefer Qt to GTK as a GUI toolkit, and in my opinion, it’s a shame that there is currently no clear way to integrate Qt with Vala, other than through a C API bridge. I understand that GObject and QObject are two different OO systems and maintaining a bridge between them is a difficult and costly problem. However, while I absolutely adore the quality of Qt’s tools and documentation, and the effort put in its design, I’d rather claw my eyeballs out than write in C++ again. (C is fine, but only for small, performance-critical code fragments.)

I’ve been particularly interested in non-GNOME Vala projects. Indeed, there seems to be a preconception that because of Vala’s tight integration with the GNOME platform, it’s of little interest to non-GNOME project. In fact, I think Vala could well become the native-compiled language of choice for Linux developers, given time. I’m interested in those little projects that pop up from time to time, like the Ambition web framework, or autovala for a CMake-based build system. (Autotools? No, thanks.)

And of course, once again I ended up reinventing the wheel and only realizing it in hindsight.

Recently I’ve been playing around with modern OpenGL, namely the 3.x shader-based pipeline. I previously only knew legacy OpenGL 1.x, and was enthusiastic about forgetting the fixed pipeline and doing things the new way. (Especially considering that it is the only way in GLES2 and WebGL.) I also wanted to write my toy applications in Vala, rather than C++ like most tutorials were advocating.

However, I found that my chosen path (Vala, SDL and GLEW) was surprisingly fraught with problems:

  1. For one, I found no decent OpenGL VAPI binding. The file gl.vapi in External Bindings on live.gnome.org turned out not to match the C source and gave me internal Vala compiler errors. (glGenBuffers wanted an out array — ew!) I ended up forking the binding generator, fixing build problems that accumulated with time (it seems unmaintained), and patching it to output more sane and vapigen-friendly GIR bindings (for example, passing GLchar arrays as strings, and correctly handling array return values and arrays of arrays).
  2. By dropping the fixed pipeline, OpenGL 3.x also drops all default matrix handling and glRotatef/glTranslatef and friends. Since the only libraries I could find to replace this functionality were written in C++ (GSL is not quite what I needed), I ended up reimplementing matrix algebra and transformations in pure Vala.
  3. SDL 1.2 fullscreen windows are problematic and have been so for years. This problem, as it turns out, affects even some commercial games published on Steam (Aquaria, for example). SDL grabs all keyboard input, including standard system shortcuts like Alt-Tab and Alt-F4. I ended up reimplementing these specific two, but obviously the application won’t pick up different key combinations from system settings if they are customized in the DE.

The net result:

  1. A fixed OpenGL GIR/VAPI binding generator, based on original work by Blaž Tomažič. The bindings are generated from the latest OpenGL specification wget’d from opengl.org at build time. My version actually pulls GLEW, because that’s what I use in my sample application for GL 3.x API calls, but the resulting VAPI file can be simply edited by doing search-and-replace of GL/glew.h with GL/gl.h everywhere.
  2. Here is the OpenGL VAPI itself.
  3. A simple skeletal application using SDL, displaying a rotating cube. It is surprisingly big for a Hello World-level application, because it also includes…
  4. Reimplementation of GL-style matrix and vector algebra for 3 and 4 components, projections and model matrix transformations.

(For the matrix library, I was concerned about some warts of Vala code generation that cannot be disabled, such as automatic zero-initialization of everything in the generated C code, even when the entire contents of the vector or matrix are about to be overwritten in the constructor. Turned out GCC with -O2 is clever enough to optimize that away — even memsets! — but Clang isn’t. Yet.)

And then, just as I was about to publish it… I learned of Cogl, which can do all that and more, is object-oriented, well-tested and supported in the GNOME ecosystem, and has nice Vala bindings of its own. (Though I wonder how Cogl plays with raw OpenGL calls; can they be mixed in the same context?)

Typical me reinventing the wheel.

I would recommend Vala and possibly even C developers to use Cogl for new projects. My little sample application is of little value, but at least it has Valadoc. And hey, maybe at least the OpenGL binding will be useful to someone. (By the way, can someone explain to me why Valadoc, a tool made by Linux developers for Linux developers, uses Microsoft fonts in its generated HTML? It looks horrible.)

I’ll port it to SDL 2.0 whenever it gets an Ubuntu package. I also encourage game developers to do the same. SDL 2.0 is the future and has better integration with desktop systems — including support for native system cursors and system keyboard shortcuts for fullscreen windows.

Heart of the Swarm

OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE GREATEST GAME I’VE EVER PLAYED IN MY LIFE!!!

We must evolve, absorb and collect the SPOILERS!

There’s this chick called Sarah Kerrigan.

And she has, like, real anger issues.

Seriously, she spends the whole game getting pissed at someone. I guess they fired all counselors in the future. Well, good riddance, I say!

And when she’s angry, her eyes flash weird colors, like green or purple or red.

I had red eyes once!

(In hindsight, I shouldn’t have stayed up all night playing WoW.)

Anyway, Kerrigan is madly in love with the cool hip rebel guy Jim Raynor.

And he’s madly in love with her. So madly that between the last game and this one, he stripped her of all her powers and turned her over to Prince Varian Wrynn to experiment on her.

That must have been awkward.

“Oh, Jim, I love you so much! Even though I used to crush planets with an iron fist and now I’m stuck as a lab rat summoning a couple drones for that smug blonde guy. I feel so angry I could TRASH THE ENTIRE LAB WITH MY LOYAL ZERG MINIONS! KILL! KILL THE PUNY FILTHY HUMANS!!”

But it’s okay, because that level of the lab was all automated and no humans got hurt.

So the Prince lets Kerrigan go, even though she just destroyed half the lab to make a point.

And Raynor is leaving with her, because he really digs emotionally crippled omnicidal maniacs with tendril hair.

Except the Dominion attacks and they get separated by a broken bridge! In space!

And Raynor is like, “Sarah, leave without me!”

“Hey, you realize I have a ship and I could just fly over the gap and pick you up?”

“The plot says we have to get separated! So that Emperor Meng the Merciless can pretend to kill me but I’ll actually be still alive, in a totally obvious twist everyone is expecting!”

“Uh, okay.”

So Kerrigan gets really mad at Prince Varian for not losing her preeecious Jim, even though it was none of his fault.

And instead of staying with the rebellion and the only people in the whole galaxy who wouldn’t kill her on sight, she goes all Darth Vader on the Prince and leaves to build up a zerg army instead.

And she’s met by a snake girl who likes to hang from the ceiling.

“Oh cool, I get a ship! And a whole crew of one-dimensional lackeys, once again!”

And she’s also met by Mordin Solus! Genetics expert. Short sentences. Articles redundant. Prepositions inefficient.

Only this Mordin Solus is a big worm thingy who likes to fiddle with pools of green bile and is named Abaddon or something.

Ew! What does Kerrigan even eat among these icky zerg folks? And how does she avoid throwing up?

And the snake girl is like, “My queen! You must go kill some random protoss for three missions without advancing the plot at all!”

“HOORAY!”

So they spend three missions on some random ice planet not advancing the plot at all.

But at least it has bears and snowstorms.

I saw a bear in a snowstorm once!

(Well, actually I see that every week here in Siberia.)

Except by the second mission the snowstorms disappear, I guess global warming is catching up.

“My queen, we must go to Char, your former seat of power, to pick up a crew member who’s even more one-dimensional than me!”

“Is that all?”

“Well, also to kill General Warfield.”

“Who?”

“That guy from like one mission and two cutscenes in the last game.”

“Prince Varian?”

“No, that other guy, the stereotypical cool old general.”

“…Oh, HIM. I forgot about him, to be honest. Aren’t we supposed to be avenging Jim?”

So they’re done with this loose end and then Kerrigan runs into that guy they call when they nudge the plot into the right direction, or Zeratul as he’s sometimes known.

“Kerrigan! Listen to me! There is a prophecy!”

“…So you aren’t mad that I’ve just badly beaten you up without even letting you say a word?”

“Well, maybe that will help you with your anger issues for a while?”

“…And that I also beat you up back in Wings of Liberty?”

“Uh…”

“And that way back in Brood War, I corrupted your Matriarch and duped you into killing the second Overmind for me?”

“Look, just listen to the prophecy already, so I can get my Mr. Exposition paycheck!”

“If you mean I’m the Chosen One, I know that already.”

“Kerrigan! I foresee that Chris Metzen will lose whatever shreds of respect he has left among the fandom. Also they will announce a Warcraft TCG game, and patch 5.4 will contain a raid. Also, you must go to Zerus, the zerg homeworld.”

“Wait, I thought Char was the zerg homeworld? And… really… I was expecting more ash and less jungle.”

So Kerrigan’s crew is joined by a Dungeons and Dragons lizardman who only knows the words “collect” and “essence”.

Also she awakens Cthulhu.

“FHTAGN! What would you sacrifice to avenge your poor pwecious Jim Waynow?”

“Everything!”

“Then go bathe in that pool.”

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

So she bathes in the pool and is back in zerg form, claws and wings and everything.

Wow, what an unexpected twist!

I mean, it’s not like it’s the cover art or anything.

But it’s all right, because she’s now a good Queen of Blades, not a bad Queen of Blades like in the last game. We know that because her skin is now purple.

I had purple skin once!

(Turned out it was a bad idea to go skinny-dipping in a snowstorm.)

So because her power is now over nine thousand, Cthulhu reveals he planned to betray her all along.

“FHTAGN! I must collect your essence!”

“Look, I already have a guy on my ship who does nothing but talk about collecting essences, and besides, you won’t fit on my ship. Die!”

So Emperor Meng contacts Kerrigan and tells her Raynor is still alive. What a totally unexpected twist!

Turns out that Kerrigan turning zerg was all part of his plan.

…It was part of his plan to make her a royally pissed off demigoddess who can tear down his capital planet with a literal zerg rush?

Wow, and there I thought Dr. Evil’s plans were foolproof, but he just can’t compete with this guy.

So Kerrigan contacts Prince Varian and asks him to find out where Raynor is.

“Why should I work with you, considering you almost Force-choked me earlier and now look like you fell into a vat of chemicals?”

“I’m on the cover art, this means I’m the protagonist and everyone does my bidding!”

So Prince Varian and that other guy from the last game plan to hack Dominion records to find Raynor.

And it turns out it can only be done by that guy from that one mission whom they turned over to that purple-haired girl from that same one mission.

I remembered that by reading the wiki. They sure make their characters deep and memorable!

But the purple-haired girl doesn’t want to give him away, so they challenge her to a game of Zero Wing.

“Now all your base are belong to us! Turn him over!”

“Fine, fine. I’d have done it right away if we didn’t need padding in the already thin plot.”

So Kerrigan storms the Dominion prison ship and frees her precious Jim.

And it turns out that he has a gun in his prison cell!

“Yuck, look what you’ve turned into! I won’t kill you, but I only fell in love with your looks, so bye!”

Wow, that’s awkward.

Was this what Lelouch felt when it turned out his sister was alive and working against him?

Except Sunrise, unlike Blizzard, actually shows us what characters feel.

So even though Emperor Meng didn’t really kill Raynor, Kerrigan is still focused on her revenge.

So focused that she goes on a totally unrelated mission to investigate some research on hybrids.

And she meets Marshal Zhukov!

I met Marshal Zhukov once!

Well, actually I didn’t, but my great-grandfather did. Just before Stalin exiled him to Siberia.

But he already lived in Siberia, so he didn’t care.

So the guy we all thought died back in Brood War is somehow alive and speaks with the accent that Americans think is Russian. Silly Americans!

“Kierrigan, you mahst break intu zis facility ahnd kill Doktar Narud!”

“Why? Because Narud is an anagram of Duran? I KNEW IT!”

“Nou, ahktooally zere is nou mention off Duran in zis game aht oll! Not even khow khe killed me! Baht I know khe is ahn ahncient shapeshiftehr kho plahns tu resurrect ze dead god Amon!”

“And how do you know this?”

“Uh…”

So Kerrigan meets Narud and they have an epic fight with Force powers, like Yoda against Count Dooku!

In a cutscene.

So unfair! Why does all the interesting stuff happen in cutscenes? I wanted to punch him in that smug face myself!

More importantly, why can’t I use all those awesome powers Kerrigan has in cutscenes?

So Narud is like, “Kiss me, and I’ll turn into your true love!”

“What? Jim?”

“No, yourself! In my last incarnation, I was known as Shang Tsung!”

“So I get to pass out with a dying copy of human me lying next to me. Awkward!”

“AAAARGH! You may have killed me, but my master Amon has returned! And he will get you, my pretty, and your little zergling too!”

So she passes out because he stabbed her in the stomach.

I got stabbed in the stomach once!

I then spent a month in bed in a decrepit hospital with cracked walls and a leaky ceiling.

But Kerrigan just needs to lie in a pool for a minute and she’s good as new. So unfair!

Then she goes to assault Emperor Meng’s capital.

And suddenly in the middle of the battle, Raynor comes to assist her!

Wow, what a totally unexpected twist!

And Emperor Meng is like, “wtf hax”

And Kerrigan is like, “gg zerg rush kekeke”

So she walks into the palace, alone, to kill the Emperor herself.

I guess she didn’t just want some random mutalisk to fly up and shoot him through the window.

I mean, that’d be anticlimactic!

But Meng reveals that he has that phallic thing that made her human at the end of the last game!

And she’s like, “What’s the worst you can do, turn me human a third time?”

“No, I’ll slowly torture you with lightning instead of just shooting you, because that’s what Emperors do, until someone saves you!”

So Raynor does just that.

Kind of anticlimactic.

I mean, Emperor Meng spent the whole game gloating about his secret trump card, and THAT’S the best he got?

So Kerrigan kills him with a witty one-liner, and then the two of them look at the ruins of the planet they wrecked to kill this one man out of petty revenge.

And they live happily ever after.

HOORAY!

So yes, “Heart of the Swarm” really touched my heart!

Even though Ariel Hanson wasn’t in it and Nova was there for like ten seconds to kidnap Raynor offscreen.

This game needs more sights to look at than just Kerrigan’s nude purple butt.

…For the lesbians, I mean!

I mean, we have just the same tastes as straight men, right? RIGHT?!


Seriously though… This is Wings of Liberty: More of the Same. With exactly the same narrative faults.

Except more icky. Back in SC1, when zerg were just low-resolution sprites, this wasn’t a problem, but here, I definitely wouldn’t recommend looking at things like Abathur and his Evolution Pit on a full stomach.

But that’s a fundamental problem with a game centering on zerg as protagonists.

The main reason why, in my opinion, SC1 works and SC2 doesn’t, is the question of narrative focus. SC1 – like WC3 after it – was about an epic galaxy-spanning conflict, fast-paced, with the pieces flung all across the chessboard every couple of missions. It relied more on a sense of scope and grandeur – something Blizzard has traditionally been good at – than on believable characterization. If anything, deep characterization could have been detrimental to the enjoyment of a game where all the characters were talking heads, plot devices to toss the nameless player from one mission to the next.

And SC2 kind of tries this, but it’s the same it’s more torn about what kind of story it wants to be. It doesn’t give us the same feeling of a great war that SC1 did – instead it tries to be character-driven. And you can see that at least the CGI animators are trying – the new Kerrigan, despite her ghastly looks, feels surprisingly human, with vivid eyes and convincing facial expressions.

But all this effort is wasted because Metzen sucks at character-driven stories. Every time he tries to write one, be it Warcraft or Starcraft, the characters still end up being nothing more than one-dimensional plot devices, and spin-off writers invariably do better jobs at characterization than the games themselves do. Recycled cliche dialogues where every single character is Captain Obvious, which fit well into a fast-paced broad strokes plot like SC1, look out of place in a decompressed story where about the same amount of stuff happening is spread over three games.

A good writer would use the extra space to flesh out the characters, but Metzen, it seems, is too afraid to let the characters live their own lives and do anything at all other than deliver their bunch of pre-scripted lines in his lifeless bare-bones construct of a plot, hollow on the inside.

SC1, like the original Star Wars movie, succeeds because it relies on time-tested symbols and archetypes – while at the same time throwing in enough references to a larger setting to give the impression that there is more to the story and characters than meets the eye, and every player can fill this “more” with something that appeals to them. In contrast, SC2 draws too much attention to the wires holding the scenery together – and thus reveals that is is indeed just scenery, pretty but flat, with an emotionless void behind it.