Jul 16 2016

Actually, Yeah, I’m a Little Afraid of These Ghosts (and It’s Awesome)

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So I discover from my Twitter feed, much to my own surprise, that I had people specifically wanting me to weigh in on Ghostbusters before they decided whether or not to go see it.[1] Well, the answer to that is an unequivocal: Yes! Go see! Preferably opening weekend because that’s all Hollywood cares about, they consider anything not a blockbuster to be a flop, and we don’t want to give the assholes any excuse to say “See? Women in the lead, killed it!” Or, as I put it on Twitter:

GUYS GUYS GUYS GHOSTBUSTERS IS SO DAMN GOOD OMG

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it a bit, shall we?

Gneech the GhostbusterAs should be obvious to anyone, I am a Ghostbusters fan. As such, my experience of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (or simply “Ghostbusters 2016″ as I suspect it will generally be known) is going to be colored by that. All those fanservicey inserts? Those were put there for me. And reader? I squee’d.

I can’t address whether the mainstream viewer will enjoy it as much as I did, because mainstream audiences and I are from different planets. I mean, I think so? The ghosts are scary regardless of whether you get the connection between the subway ghost in this movie and the Scoleri brothers from Ghostbusters II, and the jokes are funny regardless of whether you notice the “Big Twinkie” ad in the background.

However, if you are a fan already, this movie is steeped in Ghostbusters history. The cameos are obvious and awesome, even if some of them were a bit shoved in. Bill Murray’s especially stands out as not only an important moment in the current story, but also as a sly commentary on Peter Venkman. But there are references to and elements brought in from just about every previous incarnation of the Ghostbusters, from the Extreme Ghostbusters-ish array of busting gear that Holtzmann dreams up, to the animated logo ghost from Real Ghostbusters, to a stinger at the end that references… [spoiler!].

However, of special mention and dear to my own nerdy heart, is that the entire thing is almost a movie version of Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which I was totally not expecting. And by that, I mean, the core plot of the story is the same core plot of GBtVG: “Evil genius using ghosts to power up ley lines and ascend to kaiju-hood.” In the Video Game, it was the ghost of Ivo Shandor using rivers of slime, deftly tying the original two movies and the game into a cohesive trilogy. In the new movie, it’s an internet comments section personified in the form of Rowan.

Between Rowan and Kylo Ren? Watch out, internet manbabies. Hollywood is coming for you.

But the biggest GBtVG moment, and one that is way too specific to be an accident, is the Macy’s Parade. The Video Game takes place on Thanksgiving, 1991, and originally had a giant parade sequence which had to be dropped in production. And while yes, it’s a perfect way to give [SPOILER] a cameo, it’s also a shout-out to a lost moment in the game. Given that Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis wrote the game, and that Ackroyd was a big consultant behind the new movie, I can’t help but think this might have been something he specifically brought to the table.

So yeah, as a Ghosthead, this movie definitely reached into my brain and pushed the Happy Button. It wasn’t absolutely flawless, but my quibbles with it are matters of emphasis rather than any serious objection. I would have liked Erin and Abby to be differentiated a little more. I would have liked a little more backstory on who Rowan is and how he ended up that way, as well as a little more definition of his personality in general beyond “creepy dude,” and honestly his big transformation at the end is a bit clunky and inconsistent– but that moment is short and it actually is kind of a footnote to the “real” ending, so you get carried past it quickly.

But these things are all minor clunkers in the overall result. I spent 99% of the movie either grinning or laughing, and came out of the theater already planning my trip back to see it again… later today.

-The Gneech

[1] The power! The raw social POWER! I AM GNEECH, MOLDER OF OPINIONS! *cough* Erm. Pardon me, got a little carried away. ^.^’

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Apr 11 2016

Zootopia and 7-Point Structure

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So sometime last week Matt Trepal (creator of Fight Cast or Evade) pointed me at a writing technique called “7-Point Structure.” It’s not that far removed from the Snowflake Method/Five Act Structure I’ve already been using, but it is different enough that it can give you new insights on a story.

The best breakdown of it I’ve found comes from the person who first popularized it, Dan Wells, and you can see that here:

In order to sort of teach myself the ins and outs of it, I decided to make a 7-point breakdown of Zootopia, as that’s fresh in my mind and a remarkably-tight story considering the “toss everything out and start again” way it came together. I mentioned it on Twitter and had several folks express interest, so I’ve decided to post it here, because I love you.

WARNING! ZOOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD! BECAUSE DUH.

This discussion assumes you already have the gist of 7-point structure. If not, go watch those videos and come back. 😉 Also, Zootopia (in italics) refers to the story/movie, while Zootopia (not in italics) refers to the city itself.

As John Lasseter so aptly put it, Zootopia‘s real subject is bias, both how it effects people and how they deal with it. As I started dissecting Zootopia I rapidly came to the conclusion that it has three major arcs, to wit Judy Hopps’ arc, Nick Wilde’s arc, and an overall Zootopia’s Promise arc. They are all connected by bias: Judy’s having to cope with bias against the idea of a bunny cop as well as her own bias on the subject of foxes, Nick having internalized the bias against foxes as well as his own bias on the subject of Zootopia’s failure to live up to its own ideals, and all of Zootopia’s struggle with the messy intersection of its stated ideals and the reality of life.

In light of that, the true plot points of Zootopia aren’t necessarily a simple list of “A happened, then B happened, then C happened” but of the characters’ progression. Zootopia is a character-based story, not an event-based one. And here’s how it falls out:

Starting Point Hopps: Hopps is discounted as a police officer (by Bogo and Nick)
Nick: Nick is convinced there’s no point to being anything but “a shifty fox”
Zootopia: Zootopia claims to be “where anybody can be anything” but is far from that in reality

 

Plot Turn 1 Hopps and Nick: Hopps recruits Nick to help her search for Emmet
Zootopia: 14 animals are missing

 

Pinch 1 Hopps and Nick: Captured by Mr. Big
Zootopia: Manches goes savage

 

Midpoint Hopps: Nick stands up to Bogo for Hopps
Nick: Hopps saves Nick’s life during the Manches chase and shows him respect and compassion
Zootopia: Lionheart is arrested, revealing that all the missing animals are predators turned savage

 

Pinch 2 Hopps: Hopps resigns from ZPD in despair
Nick: Nick feels betrayed and breaks off his friendship w/ Hopps
Zootopia: Zootopia is violent and full of prejudice

 

Plot Turn 2 Hopps: Hopps figures out the mystery
Nick: Nick realizes Hopps truly values his friendship and forgives her
Zootopia: Bellweather’s plot is revealed

 

Resolution Hopps and Nick: They become respected police and equal partners
Zootopia: Zootopia lives up to its promise, even though “life is messy”

 
The way the 7-point structure works is that you start with your desired end state and from there you make the start the opposite of that. Thus, if the end state is “Judy and Nick are partners and Zootopia is making progress on its ideals” then the beginning has to be “Judy and Nick are enemies and Zootopia is failing or actively working against its ideals.” In this particular case, it’s Bellweather who’s actively working against Zootopia’s ideals, but she wouldn’t be able to succeed if the rest of the city didn’t already have the underlying tensions that she exploits.

Each plot turn or pinch, therefore, is a stepping stone from the starting point to the resolution. An interesting thing to note is that a lot of scenes or moments that stand out about Zootopia do not actually register in terms of plot: the character of Flash for instance, while an awesome piece of set dressing, doesn’t really impact the story at all except as a plot device to burn up some of Judy’s timer and add dramatic tension to the “Nick stands up to Bogo” moment. The character of Gazelle, despite her incredibly catchy song, is not important to the plot at all except as a sort of mouthpiece for the ideals that Zootopia is failing to live up to.

This kind of analysis can show you hidden things about your story, such as empowerment issues. For instance, if you have a story full of “strong women,” but all of the plot points are driven by male characters, guess what? You still have a patriarchal story. (Not a problem in the case of Zootopia, but one I did find in another piece I applied this method to.) It can also help you boil down your story to the most essential elements, and show you where things need to be stronger.

For instance, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a mostly-trained Jedi,” this is gonna be a pretty weaksauce arc. On the other hand, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a powerless nobody in the middle of nowhere,” you’ve got a lot more to work with!

In the case of Zootopia, they did a really good job intertwining the characters’ arcs with the thematic (“Zootopia’s Promise”) arc. Judy and Nick have to be friends and equals at the end: therefore they have to be enemies and socially-disparate at the beginning. But the reason they are enemies is because Zootopia isn’t living up to its ideals.

Dude. That’s some tight plotting.

This, more than any adorable furry critters or catchy songs, is why Zootopia works. It’s just damn well written!

-The Gneech

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Mar 06 2016

Zootopia is Legit Furry Literature

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Not gonna lie: I felt kinda gut-punched by the initial appearance and marketing of Zootopia. When I first came onto the furry scene, I had friends working at Disney who lived in constant fear they would be “outed” as furries and get fired. So now, 15 years later, to have Disney release a movie that is clearly aimed at furries but still didn’t want to name them as such (remember the “What Is Anthropomorphic” trailer), about a fox and a rabbit teaming up? Tell me that doesn’t sound like The Lion King : Kimba :: Zootopia : Kevin and Kell.

And then to see a promo poster with a big ol’ pair of furry faces and the caption “WELCOME TO THE URBAN JUNGLE”? It was real hard not to take that personal. It felt like Disney saw furry conventions bringing piles of money in to convention hosting cities and charity auctions and thought, “Hey, why isn’t that money coming to us instead?” It also felt like people like Bill Holbrook, Uncle Kage, and me had spent years working to de-stigmatize the furry genre, only to have Disney swoop in and reap the rewards.

But the movie received out of this world reviews, even for the usual softball of a Disney movie, and everyone I knew who saw it loved it. I knew that I was going to end up seeing it eventually anyway, so I went ahead and did on Saturday.

Well, I’m pleased to announce that I was wrong. This is not “furry being co-opted.” This is, “furry has arrived.”

Zootopia, from the train with separated compartments based on passenger size, to the themes of speciesism, to the surprisingly biting social commentary, is legit furry literature of the best kind. The filmmakers didn’t just take someone else’s work and throw a billion dollars at making it pretty, they took the furry premise and made something new, original, and beautifully realized.

So, all objections withdrawn. Go see it! In the meantime, I’ll just leave this here for you to consider (beware spoilers).

-The Gneech

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Feb 17 2015

Kingsman: You Are a Bad Movie and You Should Feel Bad

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“Jeeves is a secret agent, starring Colin Firth.” I should love that, right? I mean, I have one or two other buttons you could push, but this should be a slam-dunk “instant favorite” for me.

Nope.

I loathe this terrible, awful, no-good movie. Besides not actually being very good at what I would have considered its selling points, it is also deceptively marketed and prurient in its intent and tone. All of the “charm” is not charming. All of the “humor” is not funny. And instead of being escapist superspy fare, it’s just idiotic, hateful, sophomoric violence-porn with no aesthetic or story value.

In short, it sucks.

NOTE: There will be spoilers ahead, if it is indeed possible to “spoil” a movie that is already rotten. But you’ve been warned, in any case.

So we start things with a clear “George Lazenby couldn’t make it” James Bond stand-in being sheared in half by Gimmick Henchman, with one half flopping to the left and one half flopping to the right, Wile E. Coyote style. It’s dumb, but they’re trying to establish an OTT aesthetic, I get it. Amazing how there’s not even a drop of blood in this room full of rubber body parts, but yeah, okay, I get it. CGI dismemberment is fine as long as it’s not bloody, sayeth the ratings board. That enough would have knocked the movie off my faves list, but it isn’t the real problem.

So then we move into the main meat of the story, where Forgettable Protagonist Boy gets inducted into the Kingsmen, hitting all the same beats MiB did better, while Colin Firth investigates the mystery of Samuel Jackson as Lisping Steve Jobs Wants to Destroy the World. It’s serviceable if a bit dull, but leads to where the real problem is.

Samuel Jackson as Lisping Steve Jobs has stolen the macguffin from Secret Agent Super Dragon: he has a hate plague app implanted in cellphones all over the world, which makes people go berserk and kill everyone within plot device radius. He decides to run a test of this at the !Westboro Baptist Church; Colin Firth attends to investigate, gets hit by the mind control ray, and then spends the next ten minutes slaughtering everyone in the church, because he’s a badass superspy in a bulletproof suit and they’re all just degenerate hicks.

And then I walked out.

I’m told it gets worse from there. I don’t even want to imagine. But let’s dissect this moment of cinematic poo-throwing, shall we?

First and foremost, it’s clear that the movie thinks that filling the church full of annoying bigots makes it totally okay to spend ten minutes showing them all slaughtered one by one, in close up from almost Colin-Firth-cam view. It’s all super-quick cuts and choreography, and again without a drop of blood. You’re not supposed to be thinking about the horrors being inflicted on these people, you’re supposed to be impressed by what a badass Colin Firth is. (Luckily for us, we were reminded by a PSA at the beginning of the film that if a kid puts on harris tweeds and shoots up a school after seeing this, it’s totally not the movie’s fault.)

Well guess what, movie? It’s not okay. Do you maybe not understand what makes bigotry bad? The reason these hate group people are awful is because they would think it was funny to have a single person walk into a room full of [group they don’t like] and wipe them all out in gruesome ways. Ha, ha, darn those wacky bigots! …Wait.

Presumably the movie will then follow up with Colin Firth being all horrified at what he’s done and whinge about not having any choice, etc., etc. (I don’t know, because as I say, I walked out); and while that may theoretically be an out for the character, the filmmakers had a choice. You were the ones who chose to revel in this crap; you were the ones who said, “Hey, who wouldn’t want to vicariously slaughter a church full of crackers?”

I was shaking with rage when I walked out of the theater. Not just at what the movie had done, but that none of the previews or reviews had objected to this, or even fucking mentioned it. I went in expecting classic superspy escapist fare; instead I got loathsome violence porn. If I’d wanted to watch a goddamn Tarantino movie I would have had my head examined watched a goddamn Tarantino movie. One of my standing policies is to never willingly watch movies in which “murdering people and laughing about it is totally okay, as long as they’re the wrong sort of people” is a core value.

To hell with you, movie, and to hell with your poisonous mindset. You are absolute garbage, and you’ve brought shame to everyone involved in the production.

-The Gneech

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Oct 02 2014

Monsters! RAR!

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I received my 5E Monster Manual yesterday and spent the evening and part of this morning devouring it. (Mmm, wood pulp! :d) It’s a seriously impressive book, giving almost every monster a page which includes lovingly-rendered art, several flavorful bits of monster lore which the DM can use or ignore freely, and a stat block. This book, like the Players Handbook before it, has just that touch of whimsy (from the “delicious squishy brains” disclaimer buried on the facia page to the outhouse mimic sketch in the index) that both 3E and 4E lacked and I have missed. (Go back and look at the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and you’ll notice that at least half the illustrations were single panel cartoons nicked from Dragon magazine!)

It’s not without its quirks, of course. Many of the creatures I find the most interesting have been shunted off into “Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures,” by which they basically mean “beasts.” But since the category includes such staples as blink dogs, giant spiders, worgs, and all of the swarms, you’d think they’d merit a little more respect.

Also, much has been made of the lack of an index by CR. Personally, I find this a non-issue, since the DMG is probably going to have all kinds of encounter tables and the like, but WotC has since published said index on their website, and Blog of Holding has done one that’s probably more useful if you’d like such a thing.

But on the topic of CR, wow did CRs trend down in 5E! Creatures that have traditionally been unholy terrors at the “heroic” tier [1] such as manticores or wights, tend to top out around CR 3. [2] CR 5 is home of the “big league” monsters such as trolls or gorgons, and then the eldritch nasties such as mind flayers or hags start appearing in the CR 7-8 range. This is clearly a deliberate design decision, which I have a few theories about.

First of all, the encounter budget models that WotC have released so far all indicate that the number of monsters shoot the difficulty up quickly, which means that while a single CR 2 ogre would be a “hard” encounter for a 2nd level party, a pair of them would be considered a “ludicrous” encounter. [3] Since many DMs love to throw groups of monsters at the party, keeping individual monster CR down keeps the difficulty from going through the roof too fast.

Second, D&D has always had a certain “When do we get to the good stuff?” problem. The game’s iconic monsters, things like adult dragons and beholders and mind flayers, don’t tend to appear until 5th level or higher, while many campaigns struggle to get past 3rd due to player attrition, DM burnout, or whatever. Skewing the CRs down makes it more likely that the average group will advance to a level where the bigger, badder, “cooler” things can start showing up, hopefully sustaining interest in the game and opening the campaign to more varied scenarios than another March of the Goblins. [4]

Finally, bounded accuracy rears its head again: low level baddies can still hurt higher level PCs. One on one, a lower level critter will certainly run out of hit points long before a higher level PC will, but when you get a room full of them, that’s another story. Lower CR monsters fill the niche that minions were intended to in 4E, without the “meta” aspects (“Why does this goblin have 33 hp, and that one only have 1? They look exactly the same…”) So a creature’s CR is not really as important a factor in encounter building as it was in previous editions, it’s just a general indicator of a creature’s toughness.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in play. And after this weekend, there’ll be a two week break in my gaming schedule, so I’m also looking forward to retooling my Silver Coast game with a full range of monsters, rather than just what was available in the Starter Set. Now then, where on this map could I put the Tarrasque…?

-The Gneech

[1] I’ll rant about tiers some other time. When codified as they were in 4E, I find them horrible metagamey constructs; fortunately, 5E just uses them as handy labels for the DM, which is fine.

[2] This means that my Summoner Conversion will need a serious retooling, probably topping out the eidolon’s form at CR 4 or so.

[3] I’m not sure I agree with their assessment of encounter difficulty: my players have so far waltzed through multiple “hard” encounters without breaking a sweat. But then again, my players all have years of gaming experience, so it might just be a testament to their playing skill.

[4] Mind you, I love me some goblin invasions. But you can’t do that every time. Nor can you make every campaign about Tiamat trying to break out of her extra-dimensional prison. Tyranny of Dragons, I’m looking at you. Didn’t Red Hand of Doom kinda sew up that idea for a while?

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Feb 02 2013

EXPLOSIONS????

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I finished Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage add-on for Borderlands 2 last night. It was a lot of wild, over-the-top fun, up to (but not including) the big fight at the end against the Badassasaurus Rex and your ultimate foe. This is because, for all the things the Borderlands team does right, they really suck at making interesting solo boss fights.

It’s a thing that can one-punch you. With area effect attacks. Which you can’t effectively dodge. In the middle of a large, open, completely empty and featureless arena. The strategy for soloing any boss in Borderlands is “Get killed so you respawn just outside the fighting zone, find the one corner the boss can’t hit you but you can just snipe at them, stand in it and plink away until they die ten minutes later.” It’s not fun, it’s not exciting, it’s just grindy.

It was particularly disappointing in the case of the Badassasaurus because it was such a visually nifty boss– I wanted to be able to see it while I fought it! But no. Because if I could see it, that meant I didn’t have enough cover, and got one-punched. Sigh.

But I don’t want to harp too much on that, because the rest of Mr. Torgue was all the best stuff Borderlands has to offer: action, a lot of loot-and-level fun, and wry satire/spoof that goes from being smirkingly humorous to break-your-furniture funny.

On finishing that, I started the third add-on, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt, but so far I can’t say I’m impressed. As charming as Hammerlock himself is (“That’s just a bit of ribald humor for you. Ha, ha! Quite ribald.”), the whole “white guys vs. savages with some Heart of Darkness riffs” thing is way too creepy for me to enjoy. Also, there’s a really huge and annoying difficulty spike, in the form of the “witch doctor” enemies that buff their allies, insta-heal upgrade them to tougher versions just as they’re about to die, and do piles of damage to you, all simultaneously. Even the random encounter wandering-monster types have huge hit points and do tons of damage; I’m guessing the developers were like “Oh, you think the game was too easy, eh? TAKE THIS! Heheheheheh!”

Ugh. If Torgue has all the good stuff from Borderlands, Big Game Hunt seems to have all the worst. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to sustain my interest in it long enough to finish; what I might do is go back to the regular story and finish getting up to the level cap, then come back and power through BGH at +5 levels over, just to get through it.

-The Gneech

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