Let’s talk about science fiction, shall we?
I love sci-fi. I’ve tried to invest in fantasy settings the same way I do in sci-fi, and I’m afraid it’s just not possible. I prefer martians to orcs. I prefer robots to elves. I prefer technology to magic. Tell me a film or a comic or a computer game is science fiction and I’m sold.
I think this is primarily because of the forward-looking nature of science fiction. The whole notion behind the genre is “I wonder what would happen if…” – this is perhaps why I’m not as much into post-apocalypse settings. I like to think of the potential the future has for solving the challenges of daily life as we know it. I suppose that’s a somewhat technologically determinist (ie “this new iPhone will CHANGE our LIVES forever!”) attitude, but I’m willing to accept that I’m a bit of a dreamer. An optimist. Or, if you will, an idiot.
Just as exciting as potential visions of utopian future are the opportunity science fiction has for social commentary, and that’s where I’ll allow a bleak world to grab me. Not just an apocalpse, where the assumption is that if humanity ever runs out of fossil fuels or creates a zombie plague, we’ll all just lie down and die. No, I genuinely enjoy those settings where a futuristic world is broken, but the human race refuses to give up and struggles through regardless. Adapts. Evolves. This I think is reflective of my understanding of the human spirit: we as a species are a lot smarter than we give ourselves credit for. I love the sci-fi webcomic Spacetrawler, especially because it shows a collection of humans thrown into intergalactic politics and, very quickly, learning the rules and understanding that this big wide universe is basically little different from Earth. They spot patterns, become familiar with the major differences, and in no time at all are completely fluent in galactic politics.
When I make a comic, no matter how ostensibly silly it might be (well, apart from my stupid tumblr comics), I like to have a message or a theme behind it. I’ve made comics about social displacement, about growing to accept responsibility, about sacrificing for family. Maybe at some later date I’ll explain where those themes can be seen in my current body of work. Magipunk is a comic idea I came up with six years ago (although it’s morphed a lot since then), and in all that time it’s always been about one question: what makes us human?
Sci-fi is a perfect setting for this kind of discourse because you’re dealing with aliens and robots and brains-in-jars and all sorts of semi-human entitities. But the problem with making an incredibly racist and misogynist government body is that an awful lot of your characters end up being white males. While from a storytelling perspective that makes sense, it limits the number of roles that can be performed by women or characters of non-caucasian ethnicity, and that can be detrimental to the progression of these oft-marginalised groups and their representation in the media.
It’s difficult to discuss race and gender in science fiction without mentioning Star Wars, so here we go. In the classic saga, there are two warring factions that are shown to be in complete antithesis: the homogenous evil empire which is entirely constructed of white men is shown in direct contrast to a rebel alliance that features women in leadership positions, a black man and bug-eyed aliens. Oh, and teddy bears. While there is some truth in the criticism that argues that Star Wars just does not have enough female or minority characters (in the entire original trilogy there’s what, one black guy? and two women have speaking roles longer than a single line), it’s also important to note that however limited the diversity among the ranks of the rebel alliance, the bad guys are worse. Perhaps it’s not much of a compliment to say that one faction is more diverse than the guys who are essentially space nazis rules by an evil cyborg samurai and a hooded emperor who spends his days cackling and torturing puppies, but still, the message is clear: one side is a haven for social outcasts who may or may not have fins, the other side prides itself on purity.
And that’s great for Star Wars, a film series that can afford to be subtle with ideological message. But what I’m learning is that in three panels that are ostensibly intended to be humourous, it’s difficult to be subtle. My earliest Runt and Candy comics featured incredibly ideologically sophisticated dialogue such as “Mwahaha! Evil and Stuff!” and “Stab!” and excited internet teenagers loved it! Perhaps you were among them, perhaps you’ve found my comics a little more recently. Perhaps I’m getting a little wordy here, but basically my argument: I’ve learned that heavy dialogue isn’t funny.
When I was originally envisioning this comic, I did a lot of worldbuilding. So, for example, I know the major races in the galaxy, which planets are important and who controls them, local controversies and scandals, technological limitations, and racial and social prejudices. This would be fabulous if I were writing a novel, but in a three-panel comedy comic I’ve basically got lost in the setting to the detriment of the storytelling and the humour. So I’m scaling back on my established canon in order to create more interesting comics.
Originally, the big organisations in the Magipunk galaxy were all a bit xenophobic. Not in a purely evil way, just in an incredibly common ‘I’m not used to seeing so many people who are different to me, it’s a bit scary’ way. Magipunk was intended to show the galactic riffraff – the weird, the different, the socially unpopular all banding together to challenge the ruling elite. But as I’ve been developing the comic, I’ve realised that making ALL the characters who aren’t the core ship’s crew white men is…well, boring. I drew one throwaway white male character after another before getting frustrated and instead deciding to make one a pig alien instead. That’s way more fun.
So perhaps as I scale back on the worldbuilding and the key racial laws that I intended Magipunk to challenge, some of the nuance will be lost. But hopefully it should mean more interesting characters, and I feel that this is more important than cardboard cutouts filling roles that could have some life to them.
My wife and I don’t have curtains in our bedroom. We have blinds – the kinds you’d usually see in an office, the kinds that don’t actually stop any light from entering the room, thus making your computer screen unseeable, or, in our case, waking me up at 5am every day.
This summer has been a bit miserable in the UK, but by this point our entire society is used to it. So when finally last Wednesday we had some beautiful sunshine, and, at my wife’s insistence, I found myself in a windowless darkened room watching a black and white Shakespeare film, having been woken so early, I’m sure nobody, not even The Bard himself, would chastise me were I to drift off to sleep.
But sleep I did not.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, my review of Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of the famous Shakespearean play Much Ado About Nothing may be summarised in a single, five word phrase: I did not fall asleep.
Truly such a powerful compliment has never before been paid to any creative work in the history of humanity.
When I first heard about this film – how Avengers director Joss Whedon took a two week holiday from working on the Marvel blockbuster in order to gather together an assortment of his favourite actors in order to adapt a Shakespeare play – I was actually quite excited. In addition to directing CGI green monsters, Whedon has made some fantastic television in his career, and some of my favourites have been those with the smallest budget, such as the straight-to-internet Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which was filmed with absolutely no budget at all during a writer’s strike, just for kicks and giggles. Much Ado is of exactly the same ilk – a tiny budget, filmed within Whedon’s own house, this time because apparently when one is buried in the stress of making a feature-length film, the best way to overcome this stress is to make another film at the same time. What this meant to me was that I would get another small-budget Whedon film, and while I wasn’t crazy at the thought of all that iambic pentameter (Shakespeare and I have deep-seated issues, a product of the British education system that I think is all too common), I was excited to see the film.
My wife, on the other hand, could not contain her excitement. She’s a very strange woman in many ways, one of them being that she has a favourite Shakespearean play. Can you guess which one it is? Yes, that’s right – my wife adores Much Ado About Nothing.
So you can guess who found the tiny arthouse cinema that was screening the film. You can guess who looked up times and decided when we were going. My only contribution was to suggest a picnic first as, you’ll remember, it was a very sunny day.
Why is any of this relevant? I think it’s extremely pertinent to note the circumstances that led to me watching the movie. This film was shot as a holiday project by a busy man, who got all of his best friends together to do it. The context that the film was made in is central to the tone of the film. Throughout watching you are constantly aware that while scenes were not being filmed, these actors were enjoying an enormous two-week party, hosted by the director in his own home. That context cannot be ignored and, similarly, it’s important to know that, just as with my review of Knights of the Old Republic, my wife and I did not come to this film with a blank slate. I came to it a seasoned fan of the director and the actors in it, my wife came into it a seasoned fan of that, and a Shakespeare enthusiast.
So, let’s talk first about the film itself, and the different ways that my wife and I responded to it.
For fans of Joss Whedon’s work; Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly; this is a treat. Fans of these programmes spend the first ten minutes of the film constantly thinking to themselves “Hey! It’s him!” (more so than “Hey it’s her!”, but that’s Shakespeare’s fault, not Whedon’s). There are several Avengers actors in here too, which is genuinely exciting. My wife squeed with fangirlish excitement at Fran Kranz, who played Topher in Dollhouse, and takes the prominent role of Claudio here. Personally I was most excited by Clark Gregg, famous among comic book geeks for playing S.H.I.E.L.D agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel films. Basically, this film is fun for Whedon fans simply because you will recognise everyone.
At one point my wife leaned over to me and pointed out just how much alcohol the cast are drinking. She needn’t have worried – yes. They are drinking constantly. And why shouldn’t they? They’re on holiday! It’s actually quite fun, I suspect that more than a few of the actors were at least a bit tipsy in most scenes of the film. It’s enormous fun as a viewer because knowing the background of the film adds that wonderful depth to the piece – you’re fully aware that what you’re really watching is a well shot, well edited holiday video. Whedon got all of his friends together on a flimsy premise in order to have a party and enjoy themselves.
I won’t lie – the Shakespearean language grates a bit – that might just be because I’m an uncultured swine. But the film’s plot is entirely followable, and if I struggled and focused I could catch some of the classic Shakespearean wit – although it’s worth noting that the biggest laughs from the audience came in response to some silly slapstick. My wife next to me had no issues with the archaic language at all, and would titter to herself and poke me whenever one of her favourite jokes appeared (they sailed right over my head).
This film is fun. It’s more fun when one appreciates the context that it was filmed in, and wonderfully, when one is watching the film in excellent company. Enjoy this film with friends or intelligent loved ones, and you will have a great time.
Warning: Nostalgia abounds ahead.
For those of you who are as old and ancient as I am, what do you remember of your teenage years? What stands out to you the most? Do you remember long summers spent with friends, stolen kisses after dark, and the relationship drama that inevitably followed?
No, of course not. You remember the video games.
I mean, let’s be honest here. My teenage years were mostly spent in a darkened room lit only by the glare of the television. And what a glorious adolescence it was! Seriously, who needs friends when you can essentially chrysalis your way through puberty and emerge one day around your nineteenth birthday as a beautiful if clumsy butterfly with mad awesome texting skills?
So I don’t know about you, but my teenage years were defined by the films (mostly the Star Wars trilogy) my friends and I watched, and the games (mostly made by Lucasarts) that we played together. If I spent time with my friends at all. If not…
Kotor. It was important to me. It inspired me. A lot. Magipunk is a direct result of the epic story told in Knights of the Old Republic.
So you can imagine my excitement when this game is suddenly, unexpectedly released on the iPad. But can it really live up to my rose-tinted nostalgia goggles? Games don’t exactly tend to stand the test of time, what with the speed that technology leaps forward and all. Plus, I’ve grown up. I’ve all but put aside my Star Wars fandom, saving it until I can share it with my kids. Heck, I barely even play computer games at all these days – my time is far better spent drawing. Is this game really going to grip me the same way it did when it came out ten years ago?
Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic is as good today, ported to the iPad, as it was a decade ago (has it been that long?!) on the XBox or the PC.
In fact, it’s better. Now I can relax in a chair or in bed, and enjoy it like a book. My wife reads her Dan Brown thing, I play Kotor with headphones in. It’s the perfect arrangement.
The story is fantastic. Obviously, I’d known that all along. But I’d forgotten just how fantastic – as big a fan of Bioware as I am, I’m well aware that my Commander Shepard of Mass Effect fame never really saw eye-to-eye with me. He was a big, bronzed soldier, and I could choose whether he was a nice one or a grumpy one. In Kotor, as I’ve rediscovered, I have the ability to play roles that more recent Bioware games ignore, such as a Han Solo-esque scoundrel who gambles away all his money playing cards, moonlights as bounty hunter to pay the bills but proves that he has a heart of gold by saving some poor girl from being killed when she doesn’t deserve it. I can put more of myself into the character I play as, and that makes me care so much more about what happens to those around me.
I read an article once on narrative in gameplay which essentially argued that less is more – oldschool games without cutscenes or talking protagonists succeeded because in the absence of dialogue, we filled the holes ourselves to create a more personal experience. Modern games such as Mass Effect play out like a movie, but in doing so sacrifice our ability to pour ourselves into previously empty avatars.
So yes, Kotor stands the test of time. But does it suffer for its translation to touch-screen as opposed to the controller/mouse controls?
No, actually. Not at all. I mean, I’ll concede that navigation is a bit tricky, but I’ve started using my stylus to play and that’s cleared up all my issues. Most gameplay elements work just as well if not even better on a touch screen.
There are other benefits to the iPad port – for one, as I’ve touched on, you are no longer stuck staring at a computer screen. You know how some games are designed to be watched by others? Kotor’s really more of a personal experience. On a personal screen, it works just fine.
One thing I love about the iPad version of this game? No more disc reading means far shorter loading screens. And boy, was that a problem with the XBox version! In fact, my friends and I used to have all-nighter gaming marathons, and at the point where the weaker few of us used to fall asleep, I’d stay up playing Kotor, napping during the loading screens.
This wouldn’t be possible now, which is bad for teenage sleepovers but good for my ability to explore this digital world. I never feel inhibited in traveling from one side of a planet map to another and back again in order to fulfill a quest.
One thing that has really excited me, though, is that I only ever played the first Kotor game once. Kotor II for some reason had far more scope for replay, probable because the first game did such a good job, as I’ve noted above, of letting me put myself in the character’s shoes. In my original Kotor game, I WAS the protagonist (I named character some stupid teenage StarWarsy version of my own name just for funsies), and so replaying didn’t seem worthwhile. That meant I missed a lot of content. This time around, I’m playing a nostalgia tribute, using the same dumb name, making the same dumb choices, but exploring every area fully, completing every side-quest entirely. So a lot of this game is actually completely new to me, which is fantastic.
So, iPad users among my audience, should you cough up $9.99 or £6.99 to play a ten year old Star Wars game all over again? Yes! Definitely! It’s entirely worth it. My friend InverseReality from the old Totally Kotor forums raised the argument that eventually the price will drop, and if you’re going to wait for that purpose, so be it. But definitely buy it.
What’s more, buying it at full price now does give Disney more incentive to allow a port of the second game, perhaps even with all the cut content restored. It’s entirely possible, because look they just released it on Steam. I’m not holding out hope for this, but boy would it make my day because, as I already pointed out, Kotor II is an even bigger lump of teenage nostalgia for me than the game they’ve already released.
Whelp, this review is now longer than some of my university essays. Let me leave you with this important fact:
Kotor = good.
PS Remember when I made fun of the iPad in a Totally Kotor comic? Why am I mentioning this? Oh, no reason…