Friday, May 24, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Search, Part II

Continuing the two-part episode that opened Deep Space Nine season three, "The Search, Part II" continues setting the stage for one of the series' most important ongoing story lines.

Odo has found the home planet of his people, yet something doesn't feel right. He's having difficulty connecting with them, can't help but notice their xenophobia toward "solids," and becomes increasingly certain they're hiding a secret from him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Defiant is rescued after their Gamma Quadrant mission and returned to Deep Space Nine. There they meet shocking news: the Dominion has made overtures of peace with the Federation. But this too doesn't feel right. The Federation seems too eager to agree to the Dominion's increasingly difficult demands: to break an accord with the Romulans, give up control of Deep Space Nine, and abandon the Bajorans.

There's a bait-and-switch in this episode that reportedly annoyed many viewers when it first aired: everything that happens on the station is really part of a simulation in the minds of the characters. Or, uncharitably: "it's all a dream." I side with the writers and their intentions here; the episode shows just how powerful the Dominion is to toy with the heroes like this. Cunning too. As writer Robert Hewitt Wolf put it, "the whole thing was a test" for them -- if they can take over the Federation slowly, by diplomacy, why expend military resources?

Even if this part of the story is fake, interesting things still happen. We see Sisko stick up for his team, charging in to yell at a superior officer over Dax's transfer. We see him and his officers take a firm moral stance, choosing insubordination over blindly following bad orders. We can also infer the cleverness of the Dominion in how complete the scenario is... it pushes the test subjects one way with a stonewalling Admiral Nechayev, pulls them another with a supportive Garak, draws out their feelings with a questioning Jake, and mocks them with a self-righteous Quark.

But you don't just have to infer; you learn even more about the Dominion from what the Founders come straight out and say. The Changeling Leader that interacts with Odo tells a story of how her people were once hunted and tormented by "solids," leading to their xenophobia. We never learn the actual historical truth in the series, but it's probably not as white as she paints, nor as black as the changelings being maniacal subjugators without provocation. In any case, their attitudes are so deeply entrenched that Odo's interactions with them changes nothing -- not his memories (shared via "link"), and not seeing firsthand how caring and true a friend Kira is to Odo.

Odo may have finally found "his people," but the episode repeatedly shows how little he has in common with them. He has no instinct to explore other shapes in the arboretum, as the Leader suggests. When he tries it, it means nothing to him. Most profoundly, the Founders have no sense of justice as Odo recognizes it -- the core of his being is absent in theirs. The conflict is well-defined right out of the gate, this episode serving to develop the Founders as clearly as the second season finale set up the Jem'Hadar. (Notably, though, the writers still haven't quite figured out what to do with the Vorta. After this, we wouldn't see them again until nearly the end of season four -- when Jeffrey Combs' performance as Weyoun would blaze the trail.)

Other observations:
  • Jonathan Frakes directs his first episode of Deep Space Nine, with his signature use of high, wide angles to put characters in isolation. He spoke glowingly of this experience, noting that an Odo story "was like having a Next Generation episode assignment to direct a Data story." Besides praising the work of Rene Auberjonois, he also loved the spacious Deep Space Nine sets, saying "it's hard to find a bad angle on that space station."
  • In a nice bit of continuity, the monolith seen in the changeling arboretum matches the one in seen in "The Alternate," that was claimed to be a "relic of Odo's people."
  • The Vorta character of Borath was originally planned to be Eris, the same character from "The Jem'Hadar," but actress Molly Hagan was unavailable to reprise the role. Her loss perhaps was ultimately Jeffrey Combs' gain.
  • "No changeling has ever harmed another" is a huge bell placed in this episode that you know will someday be rung. It also further underscores the Founders' xenophobia, as the idea of killing each other is so unthinkable, while the idea of killing solids is so unworthy of thought.
I give "The Search, Part II" a B+, though in terms of importance to the series, it would rank higher still. It's a huge milestone in establishing Deep Space Nine's unique identity in the Star Trek universe.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Forum Letter

At the risk of repeating myself, I do love board games by designer Stefan Feld. Sparing you a lengthy introduction that belabors that point, I'll get right to it: I had a chance to try one of his more recent releases, Forum Trajanum.

Set at the height of the ancient Rome, players each compete to develop their own piece of the Empire. The story wrapper has a few more nuances to it than that, but the simple truth is that the particulars aren't terribly important. It's a vehicle for delivering another intricate Feld game system.

It's perhaps too much a generalization, but the closest Feld game I'd compare this one to is Notre Dame. That's because actions in Forum Trajanum are drafted -- each turn, you look at two options and pass one to another player. You then choose whether to take the one action you picked or the one you were passed. It's a system that immediately gets you more invested in what your opponents are doing -- or one of them, at least -- just to be sure that you're not passing them a great opportunity.

I'd love to attempt to explain the other systems in the game in more detail, but it feels quite challenging to do it justice without having the board and pieces close at hand to illustrate. It's not necessarily that it's "too" complex. (I've played more convoluted games.) But it is hard to wrap your head around until you've played a few turns of it.

But then, maybe it is a bit more involved than it absolutely has to be. I wonder this because when I played, it seemed like all players (myself included) were having to "take back" actions more often than usual. Certainly more often that would be desirable. Planning ahead in Forum Trajanum is harder than you think it will be. There are lots of ways to convert resources into points, which is great from a "many ways to win" standpoint, but pretty hard when you try to think through all your options and their ramifications.

It does at least all seem balanced -- no surprise there. There's a section of the game devoted to unlocking special rules-cheating powers, along a series of ability tracks. Each track seemed useful for different strategic approaches to the game. It was easy to simultaneously be both proud of an engine you'd developed and envious of someone else's engine.

I did enjoy the game, and would play it again if the opportunity arose. Still, I'm pretty sure this doesn't reach the top tier of Feld games for me. It feels a touch too hard to teach, a touch too much to wrap your mind around. Likely it would smooth out with more regular plays, but my group has found other game options lately that I suspect will be more popular. Forum Trajanum probably sits just outside looking in. I'd grade it a B. It's far from a Stefan Feld "failure," but it doesn't sit along his long list of past triumphs.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Search, Part I

Season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was unique for the series. For the first half of the run, it was the only Star Trek series on the air, carrying the torch after The Next Generation ended and before Voyager began. The premiere made clear that it wasn't content to just keep doing what it had been doing; Deep Space Nine was going to continue evolving.

After time away from the station, Sisko returns to Deep Space Nine with a surprise -- a tough warship named the Defiant, built in response to the Borg threat. With it he brings a mission to enter the Gamma Quadrant and seek the Founders, the mysterious leaders of the Dominion.

Adding the Defiant to the series was reportedly a real battle the writers had to win with Rick Berman and the executives at Paramount. Voyager was right around the corner, and it was supposed to be the "starship show." There were fears of brand dilution if Deep Space Nine were to add its own ship and start "boldly going" every week. The writers had to provide reassurance that the goal here wasn't to take the characters away from the station any more than usual. In truth, they just wanted to be able to take more characters than a runabout could comfortably hold (from both a story and production perspective).

There were still more fights beyond getting the ship itself. Staff writer Ronald Moore had wanted to name it the Valiant, but another "V"-named ship was not going to fly. Rick Berman was reluctant to let the ship have a cloaking device, worried that Gene Roddenberry would not have been happy about the Federation "sneaking around." Then there were budgetary considerations; the series wouldn't be able to show all the expected locations aboard a starship, and would have to make do with just a bridge, hallway, and single crew quarters.

All of these limitations led to some clever creative decisions that made the Defiant the compelling part of Deep Space Nine it would become. Its warship nature made for a really different visual design, more like an armored turtle than any Federation ship we'd seen before. The close crew quarters allowed for intensely personal scenes, like the one here in which Odo doesn't want to show vulnerability by "sleeping" in front of Quark.

Not every aspect of the Defiant was fully realized out of the gate, though. The machine gun-like phaser fire, though cool here, would be retooled. The idea that a Romulan character would be around to supervise the use of the cloaking device would be dropped after the two-parter (though actress Martha Hackett would get to play a recurring character on Star Trek -- Seska, over on Voyager).

The same attitude with the Defiant to "try new things -- some will stick, some won't" permeated other aspects of the episode too. Dax has a new (and wildly big) hairstyle here, never to be seen again after the two-parter. Odo has a new uniform with a belt and collar (a request from Rene Auberjonois, who liked these aspects of his "mirror universe" look); it would last a bit longer, though not permanently. What would last was the new character of Michael Eddington. Like the minor character of Primmin from season one, he was put there so that on screen he could clash with Odo over security issues, and behind the scenes he might fill in for Colm Meaney when he booked movies mid-season (as he'd done the first two years).

In many ways, this episode functions as a second pilot for the show. Explanations of the Dominion, the main characters (especially Odo), and the overall situation are laid on extra thick as if for first time viewers hopefully making the jump from the now-ended Next Generation. It's probably not a coincidence that this was the first episode scripted by Ronald Moore, a writer from The Next Generation who himself was making the jump to Deep Space Nine. Moore fits in right away, nailing a tense submarine-like scene of cat and mouse with the Jem'Hadar ships, delicately weaving in a discussion of racism (Odo thinks Starfleet is anti-shapeshifter; Sisko has to talk him down), and depicting friendships that feel comfortably and realistically lived in (both Kira/Odo and Sisko/Dax).

What Moore nailed on the page, director Kim Friedman nailed in the execution. Returning from the second season finale, Friedman puts great camera work in this episode. A roving, handheld camera stalks Dax and O'Brien while they're on a risky away mission. A "Vertigo zoom" captures Odo's reaction to meeting other shapeshifters for the first time. Friedman is also good with the actors. An early scene between Ben and Jake Sisko really convinces you they think of the station as home now. Odo's animalistic draw toward the Omarion Nebula somehow feels both spooky and natural. Eddington comes on nice; actor Kenneth Marshall said Friedman coached him that just the fact of his being there was threat enough to Odo.

The ending of the episode packs quite a punch, when Odo comes face to face with another changeling for the first time. As fun as parts of the season two finale were, it would have truly been something if this had been the cliffhanger end of that season. Odo has found his people? What?! Writers Behr and Wolfe had been cooking up the twist of the Founders being Odo's people for much of the previous season, but according to Behr, "we never thought they'd go for it in a million years." Similarly, Rene Auberjonois had often joked of his character that "the day we find out where Odo is from is the day that they will be writing me out of the show." But producers Michael Piller and Rick Berman were reportedly on board with the idea right away, and Auberjonois quickly realized that the development would only make his character more complex.

Other observations:
  • One moment that doesn't play well at all is when Sisko produces the Grand Nagus staff and forces Quark to pay homage by kissing it. It's a weirdly petty moment for Sisko. There's also no particular reason why Quark should trust it's the genuine article and not a replica. (I mean, if Sisko can be that petty, why not that deceitful?) As actor Armin Shimerman aptly put it: "it seems to me that this was another example of the Federation making fun of, taking advantage of, and ridiculing the Ferengi way. So kissing the scepter was a bit irksome to both the actor and the character."
  • In a small role as an alien, "I know that guy" actor John Fleck makes an appearance in the episode.
  • When the Jem'Hadar board the Defiant, they barely fire their weapons at all, engaging instead in hand-to-hand combat. Is this saving the special effects budget, expressing the race's bloodthirst, or hinting at the truth (revealed in part two) that the goal of this attack is to take prisoners? All of the above?
  • The Founders' homeworld is described as a rogue planet not orbiting a star, though when we see the planet from space, there's a very prominent and bright star in the visual.
I'd give "The Search, Part I" a B+. I thought it was a rather strong season opener. But of course, it's only half the story...

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Window of Opportunity

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started off its sixth season with an episode in no hurry to dispel audience confusion. The second episode continued very much in this mold.

The team is on the trail of the strange new threat that looks like Agent Coulson. Meanwhile, Fitz is trapped aboard an alien space ship, trying to hide as a member of its engineering team. But when his cover is blown, he scrambles to save his own life without sacrificing his sense of right and wrong.

Ever so slowly, the series is giving us more information about what's going on this season. But it's still finishing the outside border of the jigsaw puzzle. The threat is from a marauding group of alien baddies who leave a trail of destroyed planets in their wake. But are they causing that destruction or staying just a step ahead of it? In their search for precious (to them) resources, are they fighting to survive, or involved in some profit-seeking adventure? I feel like I need to understand who these people even are before I can begin to engage in why their leader looks like Coulson. So far, the show isn't offering many answers.

But at least it isn't stingy with the fun visuals. The "portable hole" technology that connected the aliens' HQ/big rig with the inside of a vault was fun both as the heist began and as it turned into a cross-location fight with May later in the episode. There were other simple thrills too -- visual gags like the rig's cloaking technology, and tantalizing morsels of character development as the personalities of the people on Sarge's team were slowly penciled in.

I feel like I should have felt more engaged in the Fitz plot line this week -- it does, after all, revolve around a character I know, one I'm very happy to see not dead. And yet the underpinnings of the story here make it a little hard to get into. Time travel being what it is, this version of Fitz is almost completely ignorant of the events of season five -- events that advanced and changed his character a great deal. His notion of destiny has been reset, his marriage to Simmons has been undone, and he's regressed in working through his guilt over the Framework and the end of season four. That's a lot to undo, and seeing him "do" it again isn't especially compelling. In short, I feel like he needs to be found by the rest of the team sooner rather than later. The longer he's isolated, the more he's just repeating previous emotional beats.

I suppose I did find this second episode a touch more engaging than the premiere. But I'm still not really on board with this new season of the show just yet. I give the episode a C+. Here's hoping they find their groove again.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Iron Throne

Right now, I'm mostly satisfied. It's the morning after the Game of Thrones finale, and while it's hardly in contention with me for one of television's all-time great series finales, I'm reasonably contented with what we got. Throughout the day, I have no doubt I'm going to read a lot on the internet trying to convince me I'm wrong... but in this moment, I feel like I got an ending, the parts more or less fit, and it ticked most of the boxes.

I imagine you're not here right now if you haven't seen it yourself. But just in case, this is where my thoughts stop being spoiler-free.

I will concede that as with several elements this season, the plot developments were good ones, even if the moves to get there weren't as skillful as some might have hoped. I think the biggest example of this was the rise of Bran to lead the remaining Six Kingdoms. It seems like a reasonable choice at like a reader/viewer level, but Tyrion's speech was hardly the most persuasive argument for it. If it's just about who had the best, most transformative "story," then any one of the surviving Starks would easily compete. (And not coincidentally, nearly all of them ended up ruling somewhere.)

No, I think the most compelling arguments for Bran would be that he's demonstrated himself the least bloodthirsty of the surviving characters. After a catastrophe like the destruction of King's Landing, that would seem to be the most compelling criterion. The fact that he could "research" any crisis throughout all of history to see how it (or anything similar) was handled? Also fairly compelling. Assuming you trust his judgment, anyway.

And that's the area where I wish a little more connective tissue could have been laid in for us. I could see why Tyrion and Samwell might support Bran for King. But there really isn't any established relationship with any of the other characters on that dias with him. I mean, weeks did pass after Dany's murder, so maybe Bran went around after arriving in King's Landing, giving his creeper stare to everyone and making believers of them. But we have to imagine how this all came to pass, adding facts not really in evidence. And that's especially a bummer given the fact that Bran's own sister was unwilling to support him as her ruler. In any plausible political reality, that feels like all the excuse someone ambitious would need to pitch a fit and sow discord.

Still, Bran felt like a decent choice, even if it wasn't perfectly depicted. Certainly, it's good that he served a purpose in the narrative beyond being bait for the Night King. It felt right for Sansa to get her own throne as Queen in the North, and for Jon to become, essentially, King Beyond the Wall. It also felt right for Arya not to end up in charge of anyone or anything -- sure, she recently steered away from vengeance, but it wasn't that long ago she was poisoning a whole room full of people. If Daenerys isn't fit to lead, neither is she. (I was less persuaded that Arya had expressed any past wanderlust that set up her ending, but a friend convinced me that it was more present in the books.)

The element that I think most needed space did get it: the death of Daenerys. The hour led off with Jon and Tyrion's horrified reaction to the destruction, and then we got a solid one-on-one scene between them where Tyrion made argument after argument as Jon still tried to parry them away. But just enough got through Jon's thick head so that in his scene with Dany, he could be pushed that last step. Emilia Clarke made the best of a truly tough monologue, speaking as though everything she was saying was perfectly rational. Perhaps the most subtle and skillful line of the episode was when Jon alluded to all the other people who think they're doing the right thing: an accusation of Dany not quite phrased as one. I think they earned Jon's reaction in their two key scenes. (Grey Worm's comparitive non-reaction to Dany's death? Maybe not so much. But, again narratively speaking, no one really needed another big battle at this point, did they?)

Otherwise, the episode was filled with nice symbolism and some good moments. Samwell naively pitching the idea of democracy and getting laughed down by the nobles was gold, a great acknowledgement of one of the fan theories that had been making the rounds. The destruction of the Iron Throne: on the nose, but necessary. Jon holding Daenerys as he once held Ygritte (and being far more personally culpable in the death): a nice dramatic echo. Drogon riding off with Daenerys' body: a fitting final image for her. Tyrion being chosen as Hand after so many blunders made me shrug at first... until I considered that Bran really doesn't need advisors, he just needs middle managers. Tyrion's fate is arguably more a punishment than anything else, and a cleverly subtle one at that.

Bottom line? We got an ending. And I'll offer this one more Game of Thrones theory: I doubt George R.R. Martin will ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire himself. So I'm extra happy we got this. And yes, far less down on the final season than most corners of the internet seem to be. My grade for the finale: a B. Yes, it could have been better. It could also have been much, much worse.

Like I said at the beginning: right now, I'm mostly satisfied.

Friday, May 17, 2019

It's Harder the Fourth Time Around

I didn't exactly plan on this being a "series" on my blog, but I have been slowly working my way through all the Die Hard movies. Besides the original, I'd never seen any of them before. Some readers advised me I'd probably be fine leaving it that way. And yet somehow, I found myself watching the fourth installment.

Live Free or Die Hard puts John McClane up against Thomas Gabriel, a former Defense Department analyst who is staging a massive cyber attack on the country. As in the third Die Hard movie, McClane is forced into a pairing with an unlikely partner -- this time, a young hacker named Matt Farrell.

While one could debate just how "realistic" the original Die Hard was, the sequels grew increasingly less so. By movie three, when Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson were solving riddles against the clock, it felt more like a classic Batman episode than a serious action adventure. But this fourth movie escalates to new heights of ridiculousness, in an almost "James Bond before the Daniel Craig reboot" sort of way. John McClane has gone from saving an office party to saving multiple commercial airplanes to saving the New York financial district to now, literally, saving the entire country.

If the increasing sense of scale and stakes were the only ridiculous thing about Live Free or Die Hard, you could chalk it up to run-of-the-mill sequel-itis, the urge for an ongoing movie series to constantly one-up itself. But if anything, this movie is even more ridiculous in execution than in concept. Although it's not that old a movie, made in 2007, its handling of computers (the core element of the plot) is fanciful and ignorant. There's lots of hand waving about how anything actually works. Hilariously, the hacker character even says at one point that he doesn't really know how he knows everything he knows. It's cyber stuff, audience... who cares?!

There are some fun set pieces throughout, but they hit "that's cool!" and "that's crazy!" in fairly equal measure. Car vs. helicopter, semi truck vs. fighter jet -- the action sequences are both entertaining and preposterous. Yet it might be that the over-the-top quality of it all is a perfect counterbalance to one of Bruce Willis' core strengths as an actor. He can "take a punch" as few other actors can; when he's beat up and/or beat down, he shows it well. So use John McClane's core humanity to ground the insanity.

But the script also compromises one of the best aspects of the McClane character. In the prior Die Hard films, luck was the character's curse -- bad luck. He was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, with things happening to him in the worst way... but he'd find a way to use his smarts to get out of the situation. The McClane of Live Free or Die Hard is instead incredibly lucky instead of unlucky. He just happens to avoid explosions, just happens to take out bad guys, and just happens to possess new skills he just happens to need for this particular adventure.

Even altered and compromised as John McClane is, none of the movie's new characters are as compelling as he is. Timothy Olyphant's villain is often implausibly stupid, Justin Long's hacker ally is more of a burden than an asset, Maggie Q is a personality-free ass kicker, a young Mary Elizabeth Winstead is inconsistently weak or strong as needed by the plot, and Kevin Smith is... what the hell is he doing here?

If you can switch your brain off and let this movie just wash over you, there is some fun to be had. But that's a tall order at times, a demand that the first Die Hard movie didn't make of its audience so regularly. I give Live Free or Die Hard a C. My readers were right: I probably shouldn't have bothered with it. (And yet, with just one more Die Hard movie left to go, I'm probably "pot committed" to finishing the series at some point.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Left (Coming Soon) to Your Own Devices

For years, the head writer behind Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has been promising a documentary looking back on the series. He crowdfunded the effort, and it hardly seemed likely that he was scamming everyone and making off with the money... yet, year after year, no movie. But finally, this year, it has arrived.

What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the result of this long wait. Ira Steven Behr has gathered up nearly everyone you could think of involved with the show for wide-ranging interviews on the series -- cast, crew, writers, and producers. (Notably, star Avery Brooks participated in no new interviews here, but some previously existing clips of him are incorporated. His co-stars also have plenty to say about him and his positive but unusual creative energy.)

I was perhaps a little disappointed that the film didn't delve more deeply behind the scenes than it did... but I also think I was on some level judging it against unfair competition. The book series on the original Star Trek, These Are the Voyages, remains fresh in my mind. Three hefty tomes, those books have space to delve far more deeply than a two-hour documentary ever could. They also set an unreasonably high standard for unearthing previously unknown information about the show; Star Trek has been around for five decades, with countless books written about it, yet nothing else came close.

All of this is to say that fans really in the know about the behind the scenes of Deep Space Nine shouldn't expect many new revelations from this documentary. But you do get a lot of pleasant nostalgia. Indeed, it's easier to be more nostalgic about the series than its more widely acknowledged predecessors, since you don't hear as many people talk about it.

The documentary gets into how the show was at the forefront of serialized storytelling on mainstream television, as well as racial diversity and representation, prominent use of well-rounded and powerful female characters, unflinching examination of spikier subject matter, and more. Show runner Behr also pointedly acknowledges at one point an area in which the show could have been more daring than it was: LGBT representation.

An interesting element of the film is how it uses the reunion of the Deep Space Nine writers. Five of them spent a full day together in a room brainstorming what they might do with a new, eighth season of the show, were they given the opportunity to produce it today. They wind up sketching out an entire season premiere episode in rough form, which is presented to us in bits and pieces throughout the film via animatics. It drives home the pervading sense of nostalgia as it shows off one of the hallmarks of the show: how it wasn't afraid to indulge increasingly big ideas over the years. (It's now 20 years later, and they don't actually have to make this show; imagine how big the ideas get!)

Seeing all these people reunite to reminisce and stick up for the overlooked installment of Star Trek was a lot of fun. And seeing the film screened in theaters for one night was also fun, to see fans of Deep Space Nine in particular (not just Trek generally) come out to show their love for the show. The documentary will be released on streaming and Blu-ray in just a couple of months, but this early, special screening was worth not waiting.

I give What We Left Behind a B+. If you loved Deep Space Nine, it's well worth checking out. (And if you've never seen the series, you're truly missing out.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

It's a Trap!

It's easy to conflate the idea of being a "serious gamer" with the enjoyment of elaborate games with complex rules. But those two ideas don't necessarily go hand in hand. To some extent, a "serious gamer" is born the day a board game lover realizes that Monopoly, Risk, The Game of Life, and the like simply aren't very good games.

The truth is, there are plenty of great games that are fairly streamlined. Many are in the "party game" space, a genre my group of friends explores regularly. A recent favorite we found is the cooperative clue-giving game Just One. Around the same time, we found a similar but far more complex game called Trapwords. And though it's by no means a bad game, it does serve as example that more complex isn't necessarily better.

Trapwords takes a core of clue-giving gameplay and presents it in a fantasy dungeon crawl wrapper. Players divide into two teams, each representing a party of adventurers trying to progress through a dungeon to beat the boss monster inside. The real challenge is to avoid all the traps along the way -- traps laid by your rival adventurers.

Teams take turns trying to guess a word on a clue card. (Half the words are everyday, while the other half are all fantasy-themed, allowing you to nominally stay inside the metaphor of the game.) Before the one-minute timer starts on one player trying to get their teammates to guess the word, the other team gets to see what the word is. They set a number of "Trapwords" -- taboo words which the clue giver can't say. And the clue giver doesn't get to know ahead of time what the trapwords are. They have to tiptoe through their allotted time, trying to avoid the words they think have been forbidden. Who can outthink whom?

The boss monster at the end of the dungeon (aka, the final round) is randomly selected from a deck at the start of the game. Different monsters have different abilities that put some additional restriction on the team trying to win the game.

The game is fun enough. It's like Taboo, except that instead of some game designers you'll never meet trying to make it hard for you, it's your own friends on the opposing team doing it. The thought process works a lot like Just One, despite that game being cooperative. Ultimately, you're trying to get into the heads of the other players. You want to think of clues no one else will think of -- here, as clue giver, to skirt around the Trapwords likely chosen for you.

But the game hardly needs all the window-dressing. The dungeon crawl flavor doesn't add much. The final round rule given by the boss monster feels like at least one complication too many. Take Decrypto as a contrasting example. The story there is that you're a spy trying to slip secret messages by a rival trying to intercept them. That's as far as the story goes, and as far as it really needs to go.

I would play Trapwords again if it were suggested. But it also feels like that suggestion isn't likely to come in my group, not with other options around (and, in particular, the two I mentioned by name in this very post). I'd give it a B. Perhaps it would be a bigger hit with a group that really wants more complexity, even in their party games? That's not really us.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Missing Pieces

The one year wait for Avengers: Endgame was a long one for many fans. But the slice of the MCU I was more eager to get was the sixth season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- which finally arrived last Friday. Yet while I found Endgame an incredibly welcome surprise after what I thought to be a lackluster film in Infinity War, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stumbled off the starting line.

It's one year after the death of Phil Coulson, and the team has moved on by splitting up. A small group has taken to space in search of Fitz's stasis pod, while the rest continue their mission of protection on Earth. And their latest foe turns out to be quite a surprising one.

One of the things I liked best about Endgame was the way it actually carved out time to take the life and death stakes seriously. I was moved by the sense of loss the characters expressed, and intrigued by how the film acknowledged tales of loss that might exist all throughout the MCU. I came into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. eager to see how they might weave this into the background of their new season. The disappointing answer seems to be: not at all.

Look, I get it. The writers of the show don't really want to have a story forced on them from the outside. They have other things they want to build a season around, and they don't want "dealing with the extermination of half of all life" to overwhelm it. Certainly, they don't want to have to randomly eliminate any of their cast members to satisfy a Thanos story they didn't choose. Yet it sure appears that the next Spider-man movie is going to ask the audience to accept the unlikely math that all of its characters were "snapped" then restored. I'd be willing to accept that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s characters were all improbably spared; just give us brushes of that other world on the periphery.

Instead, the choice suddenly seems to be that it's not "all connected" anymore, as they once proudly proclaimed. With no acknowledgement at all of a post-Thanos world, the series seems to have decidedly they aren't living in one. Not even casual references to it with any of the new characters introduced. Again, I get it; I'm just disappointed that they didn't want to pick up any of the interesting possibilities offered to them.

As for the story they did decide to pursue? Well, I frankly found it rather confusing, teasing and fostering confusion more than legitimately tantalizing us with what this year's story is going to be. I'm usually supportive of the "throw the audience in deep and trust them to figure it out" approach, but they hardly gave us enough to work with before the episode was over.

I mean, I'm glad they had to conviction to stick with Coulson's death. And also glad they've manufactured a way to keep Clark Gregg on the show. But they've also done the "one of our heroes is now a bad guy" twist before with Ward (twice!). So I really want to know, sooner rather than later, how this time is going to be different. Or at least: what the hell is going on?

The Fitz story line hardly gave us anything either. Of course, it should not be easy to just get him back. But this episode made essentially no progress at all in "finding" him. The episode marked time on this plot, just to get us to a final scene... that was still more tease without context.

The only element presented completely enough to wrap your head around was that there's now a love triangle of sorts between Mack, Yo-Yo, and a new character -- and I can't say I immediately found that compelling. (I guess we also got a taste a new, more verbose May. Not exactly a story thread to grab onto, but at least something different and entertaining?)

Now, of course, it's entirely possible that once we get deeper into the season and have better context, this episode is going to look a lot better retroactively. But I really think the episode's job was to pull you back into a show that had fairly effectively concluded the last time we saw it. And I just don't think it did that.

I suppose the most fair grade for this episode would be "incomplete." But to put a more conventional label on it, I'd give it a C. It was not one of my favorites.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Bells

The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones served up an hour of chaos and destruction last night... and judging by my social media this morning, most people were just. Not. Having. It. For my part, I think the show made mostly all the appropriate narrative choices, but some felt more satisfying than others, because some felt more earned than others.

Perhaps working my way up in increasing order of "rightness," we finally got Clegane Bowl, the confrontation so widely anticipated by fans everywhere that they gave it a (goofy) name. It was a conflict every bit as brutal and violent as we all expected. The Hound and The Mountain were so fixated on ending one another that the world was literally crumbling around them and they didn't care. Nothing could get between them -- least of all poor, unmourned Qyburn. Both fighters used their signature moves, but no amount of zombie stabbing was going to take down the Mountain. In the end, it came down to the only logical ending: how badly did Sandor want his revenge? Badly enough to die for it.

Another big death in the hour came to Varys, who went out much like Littlefinger before him. The two biggest schemers on the show each attempted one scheme too many. Here, perhaps, the abbreviated number of episodes of this final season damaged the narrative ever-so-slightly. In, say, a 10 episode season, the writers might have had the chance to show us exactly what Varys was risking and attempting (as opposed to having him learn of Jon Snow toward the end of one episode, then dying to put him on the throne in the beginning of the next). But then, we got to watch Littlefinger plot all throughout season seven and no one really believed any of it. Maybe short and sweet like this was better.

Arya's harrowing escape through the crumbling King's Landing was one of the strongest elements of the episode. You had to set aside the matter that she rode all the way down from Winterfell in the company of the Hound, but that he finally found the right thing to say at the last moment to make her turn away from her quest for vengeance. But get over that bump, and you were really in for a wild ride. Arya gave us a guided tour through the destruction of the city, including a futile attempt to save lives, nearly dying several times herself, and generally getting messed up. I'm not sure "the horrors of war" has ever been presented more effectively on the show, and it was incredible. This material had all the import and scope that the big Walker battle of a couple weeks ago sometimes lacked.

Now we start to get into the more controversial moments. The confrontation between Euron Greyjoy and Jaime Lannister wasn't exactly a moment anyone was clamoring for. You can sort of squint and tilt your head and get there: Euron slept with Cersei, Jaime loves Cersei more than anyone in the world, so.... sure? But why sideline Yara entirely from the season and deny the more logical confrontation?

For me, the more surprising moment for Jaime is that he sided with Cersei to the bitter end. Suffice it to say, I believe this to be a moment of major divergence between the show and the books (should George R.R. Martin ever finish them). The book version of the prophecy given to Cersei includes more details than the show version, and one of them seems to telegraph fairly directly than Jaime will turn on Cersei before the end. But no, that detail was never a part of the television show. And so, on those terms, this frankly was a fair ending for the two characters, dying arm in arm, fully committed to one another. "The things we do for love."

The wildly different level of effectiveness of Qyburn's scorpions are the thing that bothered me personally the most this week. Last week, they took down Rheagal in a shocking few seconds, brutally effective and seemingly insurmountable. This week, they were just bundles of kindling for Drogon, with Daenerys essentially not even needing an army to conquer King's Landing. Surprise counts for a lot in medieval warfare, I guess.

I've saved the best for last: the ultimate transformation of Daenerys into bloodthirsty, crazed villain. This is lighting up every corner of the internet this morning, with most people rushing to declare character development dead, this heel turn wholly unearned. And yes, extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof. But I have to say, this plot development has been telegraphed for a long, long time.

In basically every single season, Dany has at one point or another thrown a temper tantrum at least once, violently lashing out at her enemies. It's been easy not to notice for three reasons. One, she didn't always have much power to wield, so the scope of her wrath has been limited. Two, she has had people near her able to ground her and talk her away from her worst impulses (people who have pointedly been killed off in the last couple of episodes). Three, the people she's lashed out at have generally been positioned to "deserve it" in the eyes of the audience. Daenerys has been a villain-in-training all along, but she's had enough other aspects to her character to round her out.

If the army at King's Landing had surrendered the way it did, and then Dany flew over to the Red Keep and burned it to the ground, killing off Cersei and leaving the rest of the city intact? I think not a single audience member would have complained. So really, the gap comes in explaining just one detail: why burn the whole city? And I do wish the show had done a better job here. In the press for time here, about all we get is that she desperately needs to be loved, and because Jon didn't love her enough, she snapped -- an admittedly unsatisfying answer. But this was always going to be the ending for this character. Maybe if George R.R. Martin ever finishes the tale himself, he'll earn the ending more convincingly. We all may have needed and fervently wished for this to be a "woman ends up in power" story, but that's not what the story has been telegraphing to us all along. (Though for what it's worth, don't count out Sansa yet as, at the very least, the true power behind whatever's left to call a throne.)

Yes, I wish the episode had been able to handle some elements more artfully. But it did present a lot of it very well. Mine seems to be a minority opinion this morning, but I'd give the episode a B+ overall.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Fun Escapism

I've tried quite a few "escape room" games over the years -- boxed products attempting to deliver the experience of an escape room in the comfort of your own home. But just when I might have thought I'd seen everything the genre had to offer, along came Escape Tales: The Awakening.

This game puts the players collectively in the role of one man, Sam. After the death of his wife, he faces a new trauma when his daughter falls into a coma. Desperate for a solution the doctors cannot provide, he performs a strange ritual that begins a sort of vision quest. Passing through various "rooms" representing his life (and his wife's and daughter's), Sam must gather the items that might awaken his little girl.

There's a lot to like about this game, but what I found most novel were the ways in which it didn't try to faithfully recreate the escape room experience. Story is always threadbare in an escape room. There's certainly a theme to each room, but the "story" of why you're there and what escape means is generally (and rightly) a paper-thin lampshade hardly necessary to the experience. The Awakening (ostensibly the first of an "Escape Tales" series) endeavors to present a complete and legitimate narrative. It comes with a book of 100+ numbered story snippets; as you work your way through the game, you read new parts of the story as you would with a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You truly do make decisions that affect the narrative (and not always in immediately obvious ways).

Most intriguing of all, time is not a factor in this game. In every other escape game I've played, you're either put on a strict time limit, or scored at the end based on how long it took you to complete the game. Escape Tales makes the simple (yet not obvious) tweak: why put you on a clock? Actual escape rooms are trying to move through as many customers as they can, resetting the room multiple times a day for each new batch of patrons. But what's a board game's financial incentive in forcing you to complete it in an hour?

This game declares a run time on the box of 3 to 6 hours, which you can do in one sitting or across multiple sessions (by writing down key information to "save your game"). By not making you race against the clock, the game encourages much more involvement from all players throughout the experience. If one player struggles with a particular puzzle, nothing is lost in giving the other players a chance at it. Even if the second player stumbles too and the original player susses out the solution, all that's happened is that more people got to participate. It's nothing but upside. And there's no pressure to solve multiple puzzles at once; each person playing the game can watch every bit of the gameplay.

Those puzzles are quite well-crafted. They're tough, but they're generally not too tough. They rely on all different sorts of skills and intuition: math, observation, pattern recognition, geometry, logic, and more. It's a rather impressive variety generated just by illustrations on cards, and it really gives everyone a chance to shine, no matter their escape room strengths.

My group broke up the experience over more than one evening, and after the first session, I was ready to declare this the best escape room board game I've ever played. But ultimately, I'd come to have a reservation. The game purports to be replayable. It does this in a few ways. One is by including more puzzles than you'll encounter in a single playthrough. We did about 80 to 85% of them when we played, and while that does leave 10-15% untouched, I'm not sure if that's enough to go back and replay for.

Also, there are multiple endings. The one we got to (and, we checked, the other two we could have gotten to) are "bad." Essentially, you lose. While on the one hand, it's a totally reasonable thing for you to be able to lose a cooperative game (that's sort of the point of those), I'm not sure it's reasonable for you to lose such a game when it has no random elements. Playing it the second time won't really be different. You can make a few different choices in the moments that a choice is presented, but the puzzles will all be the same. If you remember them, there's no mountain left to climb. Sounds pretty boring to me, and as much as I enjoyed playing, I really can't see myself playing again for the right ending. Not, at least, in say the next year or two, while there's still a good chance I remember particulars about the puzzles.

Until the unexpected "you lose!" at the end, I was on track to give Escape Tales: The Awakening an A-. That definitely affected my view of it. But the bulk of the experience is still quite fun and satisfying. So I'm going to give the game a B+. If you've enjoyed the Exit: The Game series (or any other escape room games), you should definitely check this one out.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Back for a Second (Season) Look

A while back, I blogged about a book that showed me I didn't know everything about Star Trek like I thought I did -- These Are the Voyages: Season One. Painstakingly researched and carefully written by Marc Cushman, the book chronicled the production of the first season of the original Star Trek. Cushman wrote two more volumes to cover subsequent seasons, and I've now finished his book on season two.

Once again, Cushman impresses with his level of detail. Not only does he dig deeper than any Star Trek book has gone before, he actually corrects misinformation that has been taken for truth over the decades -- from the actual production order of the episodes (which isn't what other sources have listed) to accurate Nielsen ratings for each telecast (showing that Star Trek was hardly a failure, even in a tough Friday night time slot).

Season two was a year of major upheaval for Star Trek, and the book conveys this well. Lucille Ball's studio, Desilu, about to go under, was sold to Paramount. Under new management, budget and schedule overruns were not to be tolerated. Oh, and that budget? Reduced from the first season. Cushman's episode-by-episode account really helps you appreciate why Star Trek was the way it was. Not every show could hit the mark because of the incredible time pressure. And did it seem to you like William Shatner's acting got broader and hammier in season two? Well, that's because there really wasn't time for more than a couple takes on any given scene, and not even the resident directors were willing to crack down too hard on the star.

Getting this full context made me appreciate the successes of the second season more -- and there were many, to be sure. I was particularly shocked to learn that the classic episode "The Doomsday Machine" was somehow filmed not in a modern standard seven or eight days, or even a Star Trek standard six days. It was filmed in just five days, in an attempt to get finances and scheduling back on track. (An attempt that not only worked, but still somehow resulted in a standout hour of the series.)

This book also made me better appreciate the role of producer Gene Coon in the history of Star Trek. It's creator Gene Roddenberry that gets all the praise now, but it turns out that if you're a typical Star Trek fan, most of what you like best was probably Coon's contribution, not Roddenberry's. Gene Coon created the Klingons (one tidbit I did know before this book). He built up the playful rivalry between Spock and McCoy. Most significantly, he shepherded the more comedic episodes of the series; "The Trouble With Tribbles" and "I, Mudd" were both developed while Roddenberry was on a working sabbatical from the series (and he reportedly hated them when he came back), while "A Piece of the Action," written by Coon, was allowed to be finished only out of desperation to get something in front of the camera.

Not that this book is a hit job on Gene Roddenberry as such, but it also provides many examples that take the shine off his legend. One great example of him believing too much in his own hype is the episode "The Omega Glory," a dreadful late season episode that he'd been trying to make since the series' inception. He thought it was so wonderful that he pushed it for Emmy consideration, to the exclusion of other episodes... and as a result, Star Trek missed out on nominations in several categories it had been part of for season one.

Obviously, as with volume one, this book will be of little interest to anyone who isn't a serious Star Trek fan. But if you are one, it's a real delight. As with the book before, I give this These Are the Voyages: Season Two an A-. I recommend it highly, and look forward to finishing the set with the book on Season Three.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

A Scythe of the Times

I've long been curious about the hype that rocketed the board game Scythe to the top 10 on BoardGameGeek. But only recently did I finally get to experience the game for myself.

Scythe remixes many Eurogame elements in its own particular package. There's resource gathering, area control, engine building -- all the staples you'd expect to see in a game so widely loved. Add to that some hefty and detailed miniatures I'm sure many people have had fun painting, and I start to get the acclaim.

But after experiencing the game for myself, I have a few doubts. One is more a matter of personal taste, the role that direct player conflict takes in the game. Resources you gather remain on the board in the space where they were gathered. If you let them accumulate for too long without spending them, you run the risk that an opponent will attack you to take control of an area and the resources stockpiled there. It's an interesting idea, certainly, but it feels more appropriate to a game more expressly about conquering terrain -- a more elaborate war game than this.

Another doubt I had was about the player count. Scythe takes up to 5 players, which is how many were involved in the first game I played. But that felt to me like at least one too many, maybe two. There's a lot of down time between turns as people contemplate their options, and even more wait time when battles break out between two opponents as you sit idly by.

I was also skeptical of the scoring system, a powerful multiplicative system that reminded me a fair amount of Concordia without being as cleverly integrated. Like Concordia, the way the multipliers stack up seems to really blindside some first-time players when counting score at the end. Sure, there's something to be said for obscuring the scores in a way that trailing players don't believe they're out of the race. But it's pretty rough for a player to suddenly realize, only at the end, that they never were prioritizing the right things, and can hand an easy victory to someone who grasped it all much earlier. Like Concordia, it seems to me like Scythe players need to be closely matched in skill for the game to shine.

One system in Scythe that did fascinate me, though, was the way that eight different game actions were arranged in four pairs. (And in different pairings for each player.) You'd essentially choose a "pair" for each of your turns, and do both actions. The core of the game was learning to maximize this, trying to get as many two-for-one deals as you could managing and trying never to do one action without at least getting something out of its pair.

There was also a fascinating way of upgrading the power of certain actions. On each player's personal action board, four actions begin the game partially covered with wooden cubes. Uncovering the cubes, one by one, makes an action more powerful and efficient -- and you get to choose where you'll upgrade first. At the same time, the other four game actions improve as they're progressively covered up. Every time you upgrade one action by uncovering a cube, you place that cube on one of your other actions, upgrading it too. Again, it's your choice, making every improvement a dual-pronged decision moment with fascinating ramifications.

But as intriguing as Scythe was in moments, I really don't see myself ever preferring it over other games that, for me anyway, scratch a similar itch. (Concordia, for example, has only grown in my esteem since I first blogged about it years ago.) I can certainly imagine it would have some fans, and I'd say it's not a bad game. Yet top 10 on BoardGameGeek? That, I'm having trouble seeing.

If someone suggests a game of Scythe to me, I would join in to see if there's more there than I could see at first. But if Scythe fails to come out on game night again, bowled over as we continually try new things, I doubt I'll miss it that much either. I'd grade it a B. Perhaps it was simply overhyped for me.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Search Party

Last year, among the movies that flitted through theaters just on the edge of my radar was Searching. It was a suspense thriller starring John Cho, about a father trying to find his missing daughter. It looked like it might be interesting, but also looked quite gimmicky -- the entire movie was presented in the online world, in a series of computer screens, web cam images, FaceTime phone calls, and viral news clips. I hadn't really heard anyone I knew say the movie was actually good, and so it passed from my mind.

But it's kept bubbling back up since then. I've noticed reviews touting that it was far better than you'd expect. It would show up in the "suggestions" of various web sites and streaming services. And then, finally, someone I know did tell me they'd seen it and liked it a lot. In fact, when I said I was debating between Searching and another option or two, they emphatically told me: "watch Searching."

It turns out my friend was right: Searching is indeed quite good. And yes, as I'd imagined, it is quite gimmicky, but not at all in a bad way. For starters, the story here is actually a fairly clever mystery regardless of the format in which it's presented. David Kim's search for his daughter is full of suspects, breakthroughs, red herrings, and twists. It's a tense story in a taut little 100 minute package.

When you see the "gimmick" in action, it feels like a natural and smart evolution of a very long-standing narrative tradition: the one-act play. When presented on a stage, these stories are often told in a single location, working within that limitation. Here, the "single location" is, essentially, a computer screen. That too brings challenging limitations, but it also opens up some interesting storytelling techniques that wouldn't otherwise be available. It turns out that a computer screen is a great way of conveying a character's inner monologue, as we see a cursor hovering over something David is hesitant to click, or see him type something then reconsider and delete it without hitting "SEND."

If you're a real stickler, there are a couple of cheats within the format. You're not literally just watching a computer screen the entire time. Conventional camera techniques of zooming and panning are used to draw focus to particular moments. There's also a conventional (but well-crafted) suspense movie score, composed by Torin Borrowdale. To me, these seem like necessary concessions to traditional movie-making, to give this story the pacing and impact it needs. In any case, I don't think they detract from the purity of the premise.

And they certainly don't make it any easier for the actors. John Cho gives a very strong performance, and it would be easy not to appreciate how great he is here. He has to give us his character in little bits and pieces of screen time. The camera is never really helping him with his job -- he's often blurry, reversed, distant in frame, pixelated, or relegated to a tiny corner of the screen. But through all of these obstacles, he powers through and makes us care about his character and the situation. High marks too to Debra Messing, who plays against her comedic reputation as the police detective on the case; and Michelle La as David's daughter Margot (whose role in the story is even more fragmented than the main character's).

Indeed, I was quite surprised by just how much I liked Searching. Not only would I give it an A-, but when I compared it to other 2018 movies, I realized it was very high up on this list, in the #2 slot. It was a fun, suspenseful ride.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The Last of the Starks

It's perhaps a little strange to think that more than half of the final season of Game of Thrones will have taken place at Winterfell when all is said and done. But it's less strange when you think about what dividends the setting has yielded for the story so far. After last week's climactic battle, much of this week returned to the format of the season's first two episodes: meaningful, subdued conversations between characters at the northern keep.

The funeral scene was a great place to start, helping to drive home the costs of the battle with the White Walkers. I still maintain that for The Epic Battle the show has been building toward for its entire existence, the price wasn't high enough. But the staging of the funeral scene did help underscore that many survivots felt deeply personal losses in the handful of characters that fell.

Soon, things turned romantic in a variety of satisfying ways. The Jaime and Brienne story line was compelling not just for what happened along the way, but for where it ended up. Any time in the past that Jaime has found a moment of contentment, he's essentially self-sabotaged it, not thinking himself worthy of it. He did so again here. Gwendolyn Christie was heartbreaking in the farewell moment. Brienne has never remotely let her guard down with anyone as much as this, resulting in a wound that may never heal.

Then there was Arya's sweet but firm handling of Gendry. He was already several fantasies deep into planning a life with her; she, of course, has very different goals in mind. She bid him a gentle goodbye, not expecting to see him ever again.

The theme of goodbye continued for many other characters. It seems likely we've seen the last of Tormund (and Ghost!). Have we seen the last of Sam and Gilly, or does Jon only think he has? With only two more episodes left, it's becoming a real thing that even characters who survive the story will nevertheless not be seen again.

Much of the episode was dedicated to Daenerys, looking both smart and foolish in turn. She is advised to wait and rest her forces before marching on King's Landing, but she'll have none of that. Worse, she splits those forces and doesn't even wait for them to reunite before going on an ill-fated attack. And in the final scene, she's clearly, hopelessly outmatched -- yet still demanding surrender and being goaded into another foolhardy attack.

All that is because the story is trying to make clear that Daenerys is not meant to "win" in the end. But the show also hasn't totally abandoned what's been likeable about the character in the past. She's thirsty for power, but not paranoid, and quite astute. She's right that everyone would prefer Jon as ruler over her. The scene where she confers a title on Gendry, only to have everyone turn around and praise Jon for riding one of her dragons, is all about this. She's also right about Sansa -- Jon doesn't know how she'll react to the truth of his parentage; Daenerys gets it exactly right. (As for Sansa's choice there? Littlefinger would never hesitate to break his word after giving it. Why should Sansa, if it will get her what she wants?)

But where I think the episode did falter a bit is in the big battle in the waters outside King's Landing. It's strange to say that such a long episode, that included everything I've mentioned so far, felt rushed. But that's exactly what happened in the battle. Think back to the second season's "Blackwater," where a battle in this exact setting took an entire episode. This one was crammed into about 5 minutes. It felt like a sort of Cliff's Notes version of a larger thing -- like it couldn't have really happened so simply, even if you could imagine the outcome being the one we got. (There was also more of the season seven style "fast travel," as Daenerys' forces were defeated at King's Landing, retreated all the way to Dragonstone so Tyrion and Varys could talk about it, and then returned to King's Landing for the final confrontation. All without waiting for Jon's reinforcements to arrive.)

Much of the episode was handled wonderfully. But the last third was definitely weaker, and is what more people will remember about it. Overall, I'd give the episode a B.

Friday, May 03, 2019

That's Sama-gressive Gameplay

In board gaming, so-called "take that" mechanics generally lead to my least favorite kinds of games. These are games where players have to make their own gains by explicitly attacking an opponent, and specifically choosing that one opponent from the rest.

There are exceptions for me. It's hard to feel too slighted, for example, in a two-player game -- your opponent has no one to pick on but you, and so an attack is in no way arbitrary. Other games manage a brisk pace and simple decisions in a way that makes you feel like you still have a decent degree of control -- Potion Explosion being an example that I found fairly fun.

I mention all this so that when I tell you I did not enjoy Kami-Sama, you can take it with a grain of salt, knowing that some gamers enjoy this style of game a lot more than I do. But I'll also try to point out aspects of the game that I think would make even fans of the "take that" genre look to other games.

In Kami-Sama, each player takes on the role of a "Kami" (or spirit) exerting control over a region of feudal Japan. The tantalizing gimmick of the game is that it takes place on a circular board divided into quarters, and essentially set up like a Lazy Susan: at the end of each round, you rotate the board and wind up with a different section in front of you. An action point system lets you put shrines onto the board each turn, with the cost to act outside your current region much higher than just focusing on the quarter of the board in front of you. You score points in a variety of ways stemming from the positions of your shrines, doing the best you can with the region "passed" to you that round, and then hoping your position holds as that region passes to opponents on future turns.

If the simplicity of this core idea carried throughout Kami-Sama, I feel like it could have been a truly fun game. But there's a great deal of complexity layered on top of this. Each player is assigned a role to play, a Kami with unique and asymmetric powers. In essence, every player gets four actions they can take on their turn. Three of the four are always quite dissimilar to the actions any other Kami has available. It takes you a while to wrap your head around what your Kami can do, and it's essentially impossible for you to ever fully understand what all three of your opponents (in a four-player game) can do with their Kami roles. If you try, you'll be asking constant questions that just slow down the pace of the game.

This confusion in turn amplifies that feeling of victimization that often accompanies a "take that" game. It's one thing to be attacked by an opponent when there's a reasonable chance to have seen it coming. But in Kami-Sama, you'll never really comprehend all the ways you're vulnerable to the powers of your opponents. You all have the same scoring conditions, so you can grasp an opponent's incentive for coming after you -- you just can't easily know how they were able to do it until, too late, it's happening.

This mysterious and constant vulnerability might foster in some a relaxed attitude about being attacked. It's inevitable, and nearly impossible to anticipate, so just roll with the punches. But butting up against that is just how difficult it is to execute a turn in Kami-Sama. There are a lot of ways you can use your four powers, so many that the conscientious thing to do is to plan your turn ahead of time as best you can, to keep the game moving. But so much chaos can happen during your opponents' turns -- and, as I noted, none of it easily anticipated -- that there's simply no chance that the board you're looking at now will in any way resemble the board you face when it's finally your turn. You can't plan ahead; shrines will rise and fall, areas you thought you'd secured get conquered, and places you thought you could commandeer get reinforced. The middle of every turn you take is an "apology phase," where you say sorry to your opponents for how long you know you're taking to execute your turn.

Adding to the sometimes capricious nature of a "take that" game is an explicit "kingmaker" mechanic baked into Kami-Sama. One space in each of the four regions is, essentially, the tiebreaker space. Whenever two players control equal amounts of territory for scoring, the player in the tiebreaker space chooses who wins. Mind you, this is not just for ties involving that player -- it's for all ties in the region. Multiple times in a game, a player in a tiebreaker spot ends up deciding, say, second and third place between two of his opponents. It's a choice that always feel bad when you're on the losing end of it, and can even feel bad for the person making it, no matter what logic you might point to in defense of your choice.

Kami-Sama is a game where opponents must regularly hurt each other, and smile with indifference as they do it. When we tried it out in my group, by the end of the game, we'd taken to joking that Kami-Sama might translate to "go fuck yourself," the playful refrain you offer to your opponents' protests of being wronged. I believe the choices are too difficult, and the overall pace too slow, to satisfy players who truly enjoy "take that" games. Despite a clever idea or two at the core, it's a hybrid game not likely to be embraced by any fans of the constituent parts. I give Kami-Sama a D.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Road Not Taken

It may not have been the communal pop culture milestone of Avengers: Endgame or the Battle for Winterfell, but last week, The Orville aired its second season finale. It was a fun and unexpected conclusion to an enjoyable second year that improved on the first.

In an alternate timeline, the Kaylons are well on their way to wiping out organic life in the universe. Earth has been annihilated, and now only a few scattered survivors remain, struggling to rebel against the unstoppable invaders. Armed with knowledge about how the past might have gone differently, Kelly Grayson has a plan to change their fortunes.

I had expected the ending of the prior episode to be an unresolved, Twilight Zone-like twist just put there to make the audience speculate. Instead, it was the set-up to an action-packed episode. Word is that renewal of The Orville is something only slightly better than a coin flip at this point, but it seems as though if they are going out, they chose to leave it all on the field. They did something wild and different while they had the chance.

This visually striking episode included location shooting to present us with a winter landscape. It gave us great CG visuals, including the creepy floating Kaylon heads of death. It spent big on new sets, giving us Grayson's beat-up rebel ship, and the interior of the rebel base. Costumes, lighting -- money was spent there too to give this episode a unique flavor that stood out from other episodes of the show.

Throughout its run, The Orville has been a love letter to Star Trek (particularly The Next Generation). Yet while the idea of a "dark alternate universe" is certainly one embraced by Star Trek, this episode of The Orville was actually a love letter to a different franchise: Star Wars. It presented a world full of dirty environments, fighting rebels, and desperate flights through asteroid fields. We even got a fairly explicit nod to the door of Jabba's Palace, with Yaphit serving as security.

Composing the musical score for the episode, Joel McNeely was in on the gag, and "yes, and..."-ing it. He included explicitly Star Wars-sounding phrases, but also elements of Alien, Star Trek III, and more. It was referential without being unoriginal, a fun synthesis of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner that was uniquely his own. One of the best scores of the series. (And it's had many good ones, enough that a double-sized soundtrack of Season One has been released.)

On screen, things were just as fun. The characters, still themselves at the core, were thrust into different situations. It was nice to see LaMarr with a larger role again -- one that even had more personal moments in it, as a relationship was implied with the returning Alara! (And what a fun little cameo that was, bringing her back again.) No deep message to any of it, no Trek-style metaphor being presented. But it was okay to shake things up and just have fun.

I certainly do hope that coin flip comes out in The Orville's favor. I think the show really came into its own in year two, developing its own flavor and becoming more than a Star Trek "cover band." I'd love to see a season three. But I suppose if this wound up being the end, this episode could serve reasonably enough as a series finale. I give "The Road Not Taken" a B+.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Endgame -- Once More, With Spoilers

A couple days ago, I posted my spoiler-free thoughts on Avengers: Endgame. But there's more you can say about the movie when you don't have to worry about ruining it for people. A lot more. So this is that post. (That rather long post.)

Last chance. If you're looking to avoid spoilers, back out now.

Let me start with the aspect I praised most in that first review: this movie had meaningful stakes. Characters truly had to reckon with grief and loss. And even though the story was about "fixing" the ending of Infinity War, it didn't "undo" it. The emotion consequences of what happened remained. Some characters who died in Infinity War stayed dead. Sure, the MCU might at some later point use comic book gymnastics to resurrect them. (For example: there's now seemingly a splinter reality in which Loki escaped after the events of the first Avengers.) But it's pretty definitive that we've seen at least some of these actors playing some of these characters for the last time. And this gives Endgame a lot of its heft.

The grief built into Endgame is also about more than just the audience relationship with the characters. The five year time jump was a key piece of this, and a brilliant choice. It really allowed the movie to show how the events of Infinity War changed everything. And, in another brilliant choice, the consequences were far-reaching, beyond just the main characters. The group therapy scene was an important one, underscoring that the world was filled with stories of people dealing with loss. (About 3.5 billion stories, really.)

At the end of it all, the five years were not erased, and that allows room to imagine a lot of heart-breaking stories. What about people who lost a spouse, got remarried in the intervening five years, and then got that spouse back? What about people who couldn't emotionally survive their loss and chose suicide; what would their returning loved ones now endure? What about children whose relationships with siblings and friends are now permanently altered by five years of not aging? That therapy scene opens up the space to imagine these options -- whether the MCU specifically depicts them or not.

Also, importantly, that scene focused on the first openly gay character ever depicted in a Marvel movie. No, not a hero, and no, not a main character -- so this was not the moment for LGBT representation in the way Black Panther or Captain Marvel were for other marginalized groups. And yet, this minor, nameless character served a key role in lending this movie its emotional weight. He made it feel real. Plus, quite strategically I think, the character to interact with this openly gay man? Steve Rogers, Captain America -- unassailable paragon of what is moral and virtuous, and who actually comes from a far less open-minded, less tolerant time. Cap demonstrates by his behavior in this scene that it's completely normal to be gay. Lest you believe that this message has already been widely circulated, look again. Not widely enough.

Beside having stakes and emotional depth, this movie endeared itself to me in another major way. It's a heist movie! I love heist movies! They even called it a heist -- a time heist! Time travel is, of course, a thorny element to include in a story. It can easily drag your plot down with complexity and/or illogic. Endgame handled things deftly by keeping the rules fairly simple, stating them up front, and then sticking with them. The most important of those rules: even with time travel, not every problem was going to be fixable.

Time travel served another important function here: nostalgia. The MCU will go on, but some characters will not. Time travel was a perfect device to trip down memory lane with them one last time. And the device was used thoughtfully. They could have hopped around to tons of earlier films, giving great fan service... while delivering an experience both overly dense and emotionally hollow. Instead, they picked just a few moments -- and used them mostly to give us new scenes that we hadn't witnessed before.

They used time travel for drama; Thor got to have a meaningful interaction with his mother, and Tony Stark with his father. They used time travel for humor; Steve Rogers got to fight himself, and Bruce Banner felt shame over being forced to act like his old self. They used time travel to deliver numerous cameo re-appearances you might never have expected to see in this movie. Some (like Rene Russo, Tony Slattery, Hayley Atwell, and Tilda Swinton) were quite effective. Others weren't as impactful (like the CG homunculus masquerading as Michael Douglas). But overall, the trip down memory lane overall was well-earned and well-executed.

As for the characters of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, the movie could scarcely have been more perfect. The one element that perhaps could have used a little more screen time was their reconciliation with each other after the events of Civil War. But their individual finales were pitch perfect. Tony Stark completed a character journey from being the most selfish character in the MCU to being the most selfless one. Steve Rogers was able to both save the day and live the life he missed out on. A wonderful, bittersweet combination.

All of that is what I loved about Avengers: Endgame. I did, however, give it an A-. So if that's the "A," what's the "minus?"

First, the treatment of Thor wasn't the best. Certainly, Chris Hemsworth gives great comic relief; he's hilarious. But Thor's grief in this story was the greatest among all the characters. Because he didn't "go for the head" the first time, he blamed himself for all the death Thanos caused. In a movie that otherwise treats grief so seriously, Thor's was reduced to a punchline: he got fat and looks like Lebowski now. Endgame even undermined the more personal stakes for Thor; after Infinity War suggested by omission that everyone he knew had died, we discover a whole colony of Asgardians living on Earth. (Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that Thor: Ragnarok wasn't rendered totally irrelevant. I'm just protesting the narrative whiplash of these two Avengers films.)

I was also of two minds about the movie's treatment of Black Widow -- her ending in particular. On the one hand, Natasha has been a character dealing with deep self-loathing throughout the franchise. Self-sacrifice is totally in keeping for that, and a reasonable ending for her. On the other hand, Age of Ultron misstepped in tying her self-loathing to her inability to have children (a reductive narrative decision that was rightfully criticized). This movie steers into that. It's not just that Natasha sacrifices herself here "for a man" (arguably a simplification, but also arguably a valid point). It's that she sacrifices herself so that someone else can have kids. I think the death should have been Hawkeye's... though likely I'm in the minority of audience members who would have felt impacted by that. Perhaps the core problem here is that of the original six Avengers, only one was female. Killing her off, no matter how logical for the character, is tough to square with 2019 MCU, trying to prove its feminist bona fides. (And almost trying to apologize for the Black Widow choice with the stagey lineup of women during the final fight.)

About that final fight. It was, I acknowledge, absolutely necessary. The big action movie had to culminate in a big action sequence. And yes, every last one of the MCU's dozens and dozens of characters needed to have their "moment" within it. And yet, the scope got a little bit away from them at times. It was a really chaotic battle, set in a bombed-out wasteland where all the landscape looked the same. It wasn't always clear which characters were where, or where anything was happening in relation to anything else. Some concepts, like "keep the gauntlet away from Thanos," were simple. Others were quite muddy.

But overall, these various quibbles didn't detract too much for me from the otherwise excellent whole. As I noted in my spoiler-free review, I believe Avengers: Endgame might be the best film of the MCU. (Time will tell.) While there are many movies in the franchise I don't anticipate ever watching again, it's easy to imagine rewatching this one, and maybe loving it even more.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Long Night

So, let's talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode. Judging by the way the online community has protected Avengers: Endgame spoilers (like Fort Knox gold or something) vs. Game of Thrones spoilers (spraying them all over like weed control on a suburban lawn), I'm just going to dive right in and talk about it all.

Most of the complaints I've seen about the episode seem to fall into two camps. One is people who had a bad picture, either because their streaming service couldn't handle the load of everyone wanting to watch all at once or because their televisions were calibrated well for the darkness permeating the episode. There's an interesting question in there, about whether the creators should have thought more about how their creation would be delivered, or whether it's better to totally ignore such matters. But it's not a question I feel much like delving into here.

The other criticisms mostly come from people who note that this is all unfolding in a way that surely will be nothing like the books. Yeah, duh. I mean, there's no Night King in the books, for one. But more to the point, there have been enough adjustments and outright departures from George R.R. Martin's narrative over the seasons that of course, we should all assume we're not watching the ending he would have written. But then... he could write that ending any time he likes. That's on him. I truly in my heart don't believe he ever will. I think back to the day a decade ago when I heard HBO had bought the rights to these books. I thought to myself, "I hope the show catches on, because then we'll actually get an ending." Even back then, I was doubtful Martin would ever finish his series on his own. (And that was even before the eight-years-and-counting wait for The Winds of Winter began.) So basically, I'm setting aside the matter of how this season comports with a book that may never be written. I'm judging whether the show is making the right moves for itself, and presenting things well.

Mostly, I think it did. By and large, I thought it did a great job of delivering an extended and complicated battle sequence -- better, in fact, than Avengers: Endgame did with its big battle. I found Endgame to get confusing and too chaotic in moments of the big showdown. But the action in this episode of Game of Thrones (assuming you got to see it properly, anyway) was always clear and specific.

At the script level, this was accomplished by carefully dividing up the battle just as you would any other more dialogue driven story. There were stages of the battle: outside the wall, the storming of the wall, and inside the keep. Characters were given not just little moments to shine, they were given entire story lines within the whole -- stories which allowed the action to ebb and flow. There were loud and brash stories, like Lyanna's confrontation with the giant and Beric Dondarrion's sacrifice. There were quiet and tense stories, like those with the group hiding in the crypt, and Arya's "stealth video game" sequence against dozens of wights.

At the production level, clarity was achieved through the careful directing, photography, and editing. Cutting was only rapid and frenetic when a sense of confusion was intentional. Otherwise, the camera often lingered on action for a long time, allowing us to understand who things were happening to and where they were. (It helps when you have a cast who can handle this kind of fight choreography, that you don't have to edit around rapidly to make look good.)

And yet, while this episode was certainly stronger than 80 minutes of pure action might have been, there were a few aspects of it that didn't completely work for me. One was the odd use of Bran throughout. What exactly was he doing? Was there no useful application for his warging abilities? He wasn't gathering intelligence, since he never "reported back." Perhaps we were meant to interpret that he was gathering footage for historical documentation, in his role as the Three-Eyed Raven... but we were shown pretty explicitly that once the bad weather rolled in, he couldn't actually see a damn thing. 

A bigger issue for me was the low body count, anonymous fodder notwithstanding. Now, I have been thinking of the season, the ending, as a whole: I'll bet not as many people are going to die as many might think. And I suppose I should heed my own advice there. And yet, the White Walkers have been set up from the very first scene of the very first episode as The Threat to End All Threats. Impossible. Terrifying. I feel like the price extracted to finally defeat them, once and for all, should have been higher than it was.

I cannot quibble, though, with how the Night King was ultimately taken down. Giving the kill to Arya, a kill more important than any on her list, seemed the perfect culmination to her long journey throughout the series. (And having Jon pinned down in that moment, in a desperate situation after a half-baked plan didn't go as imagined? Also very on brand.) Nice moments too for Theon (who completed the big redemptive arc), Jorah (who loved Daenerys unconditionally to the bitter end), and Melisandre (who discharged her final duty, sacrificing her own life as willingly as she'd sacrificed many others before). I suppose if the deaths of this episode were to be surprisingly limited, at least the ones depicted were chosen for good effect.

But I actually preferred the two "build-up" episodes before this to the battle itself. Overall, I'd give "The Long Night" a B+. It shouldn't be possible that 80 minutes of action and "huh, that's it?" both seem like accurate ways of describing the episode... yet, there it is. But of course, the deeper struggles of this story have always been between the characters, and we still have some very important beats left to play.