Thursday, March 24, 2016

Analysis: The Birth Of A Nation

The Birth Of A Nation is a work famous as "the Klan movie". While most people haven't seen it, many know of its reputation and legacy. It was one of the very first "narrative movies" as we conceive of them today (hours long, with a specific story structure). It was blatantly and obviously racist. It contributed to the re-popularization and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. In modern discussions, film buffs awkwardly and delicately try to separate their praise for the movie's techniques from its hateful message; as a result, it currently has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whatever else is going on with the movie, there is one unmistakable aspect of its legacy: people agree that it was a "product of its times" (although it wasn't - it was considered racist even back then), and thus, that it could never happen again. When it is brought up as an example of the harmful propagandist effects of a work of fiction, it is usually dismissed. The American public would never accept such an overtly hateful movie, and they would never be persuaded by a work of fiction to engage in violent action against a racial minority.

The reality of the matter is, as much as modern Americans try to separate themselves from their more overt forebears, the legacy of that era, and the underpinnings of its racist morality, have not even remotely gone away. And thus arises the core of this project: it actually wouldn't take that many changes to make the movie palatable to modern audiences. At its core, The Birth Of A Nation shares many story beats and concepts with movies being released even today, and its morals are in line with the politics of many modern politicians.

Maybe you're more optimistic about this than I am. Maybe you think society's evolved too far to fall prey to such blatant propaganda. Maybe you think modern audiences wouldn't accept overt, sweeping historical revisionism that plays into an obvious racial agenda. But if that's what you're thinking, then unfortunately I'm forced to remind you about 300. And I'm also forced to remind you how well it did.

Are you ready?

Plot & Premise: Family, Revenge and Dishonor

The Birth Of A Nation centers around two families: the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons. The story begins just prior to the civil war; the Stoneman family visits the Cameron family's estate, and there is some positive feeling between the two families. Shortly thereafter, the war breaks out. During the war, the Cameron estate is ransacked by malicious black soldiers (operating under a white leader); the Cameron women are only rescued by the timely intervention of  the Confederate soldiery. The war ends soon after, with several members of both clans dead or wounded.

After Lincoln's death, the Stoneman patriarch (an abolitionist congressman) is able to push through legislation intended to punish the south. He travels to the area with a psychopathic Mulatto, Silas Lynch. Swaggering black soldiers march through the streets, abusing white civilians and preventing them from voting (while committing vote fraud themselves). The new state legislature, mostly black, engages in disgraceful and vulgar behavior (including the messy consumption of fried chicken), whites are required to salute black people, and mixed-race marriage is legalized.

During this time, Ben Cameron notices that white children are dressing as ghosts in order to scare black children. In a Batman-like leap of logic, Cameron formulates that dressing white adults like ghosts will scare black adults as well. Ben's sister Flora is followed into the woods by a black soldier, who says he wants to marry her. Fleeing the implied rape, Flora throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. Ben Cameron's new vigilante organization - the Ku Klux Klan - hunts down and lynches the soldier, and delivers his corpse to Silas Lynch.

In response, Lynch fights back against the Klan. The Cameron family patriarch is arrested because of Ben Cameron's Klan costume, but he is busted out of jail with the help of loyal black servants, as well as one of the Stoneman family's sons and sympathetic Union soldiers. In the meantime, one of the Stoneman daughters pleads for mercy for the Camerons; in response, Lynch attempts to rape her. In a bit of "it could happen to you" irony, Congressman Stoneman is happy when Lynch says he wants to marry a white woman, but furious when he realizes the white woman is his own daughter. The Klan mounts a rescue of the Stoneman daughter, capturing Lynch. Afterwards, the earlier scene of voter intimidation is reversed - the Klan protects the rights of white voters while keeping away the brutish black soldiers. The white citizens of both North and South are united against "the real enemy", and the film ends on an optimistic note of peace and harmony among white Americans.

Implications & Themes

When you get down to it, what does this movie do? And then, by contrast, what do other movies do?

First and foremost, this movie plays on the emotional fears of its audience in order to convince them that those fears are real. It does not present evidence or claim to educate; its appeal is entirely rooted in visceral reaction. Yet, despite this, it is "convincing" to them. It portrays a situation so horrible that people cannot help but treat it as inevitable. Is it alone in this? Of course not. How many people cite 1984 or Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 or even Idiocracy as the inevitable, real result of political policies? All of those works are fictional, yet people push those images into their mind and live in fear of them coming to pass. Even though they will acknowledge that those works are fictional, and not backed up with actual research or statistics, they will still cite them when discussing their real fears and concerns.

Secondly, the movie brings a "positive" message - not only that black people should be controlled and suppressed, but that white people (and blacks who know their place) should come together in order to prevent swaggering bullies from running their lives. This is a key element. People are not willing to commit to evil, but evil can be easily phrased in a way that makes it seem logical, even moral. It's not "racist" because there are good blacks (who know their place). It's not about hating blacks, it's about loving whites. It's not about discrimination, it's about protecting your own rights. The movie presents itself not as an extreme, but as a moderate, neutral opinion - slavery was bad, but "anti-slavery" (and "reverse racism") is just as bad. Does that one sound familiar?

Thirdly, the movie crafts its situation so that it is unambiguous and unmistakable. The black villains in this movie are "thugs", and I use that word for a very specific reason. The "thug" is an omnipresent figure in movies, past, present, and future. The "thug" is a hostile individual who is overtly, even spitefully evil and cruel. He hurts, he kills, he rapes. Any attempt to negotiate with a "thug" will meet in failure. The only proper response to a "thug" is violence, or torture if you need information out of one. There is no need for remorse or moral questioning; if you feel bad about it, it is made obvious that the "thug" forced you to do these things by his unthinkingly hateful actions, and of course he deserved it in any case. Within the fictional scenario presented, the actions of an organization like the Klan are absolutely justified. The problem, of course, is that the scenario in question is far from realistic, but when people are bombarded with this stereotype in every outlet of media, they start to believe it's true despite a lack of real evidence.

In short, The Birth Of A Nation is a movie that uses effective, manipulative techniques in order to blur the line between reality and fiction. It plays off of people's fears and desires, and crafts a particular, unrealistic situation in order to convince its audience that the solution it presents is the only effective one.

Comparisons To More Contemporary Works

Death Wish. A liberal architect's family is attacked by thugs, and the liberal architect is forced to understand that his lefty peacenik ideas are false and that violence is the only true answer. Both Death Wish and The Birth Of A Nation revel in the idea of a progressive-minded northern liberal being forced to realize that his high-minded naivete is empowering the brutish criminal class, and eventually coming to the understanding that violence is the only answer for these unthinking thugs. This phenomenon has a trope of its own, and it plays off of the idea that conservatives see progressives as "naive" individuals whose values don't work in real life.

The Punisher. Come on, do I even have to explain this one? The Punisher is an ex-soldier whose family was killed by thugs. As a result, he becomes a vigilante and kills thugs forever. Ben Cameron is an ex-soldier whose sister died because of a thuggish rapist black man. As a result, he leads a team of vigilantes and kills black thugs forever. The core motivation ("they hurt my family, now I'm morally obligated to hurt them forever") is a well-established trope that exists throughout fiction.

American Sniper. Chris Kyle refers to his Iraqi enemies as "savages" and states that he is glad to have killed them. He supports the "good Iraqis" (i.e. those cooperating with the government) but views his enemies, unequivocally, as unthinking monsters. His position has been criticized, yes - but also defended pretty widely. The Federalist, in particular, says that Kyle "called evil what it was", and assures its readers that his view of the world was totally 100% correct. In the same way, The Birth Of A Nation builds itself on atrocities committed by vengeful blacks, and assures its audience that those actions are incredibly common and statistically significant. "It's not racist", the movie assures you, "they really are all like that! Stereotypes exist for a reason!"

All of this is why it's ridiculous to argue that you can have a violent narrative without it being "political". As soon as you assign an enemy, it's political. As soon as you're pushing a view of the world, it's political. As soon as you make an emotional appeal, it's political. The idea that politics is this sanitized, academic concept comes entirely from privilege. Politics is life. Politics is every facet of life. You cannot live your life without it being political. You cannot talk about life without it being political.

But politics isn't just "what you do". It's also how you see the world. And in fiction, the way a writer sees the world affects what he or she thinks is "realistic" in their work. And this is the scary part: D.W. Griffith did not necessarily think he was being "unrealistic". He may well have thought he was being true to reality, albeit presenting a narratively clear-cut story. This is what "politics" means. When people talk about politics in media, they usually identify certain ideological strains as being political. When other ideologies seep into politics, they're identified as being "normal" - i.e. "that's just how things are, that's not 'political'". You can have a movie where a heroic American guns down cruel, thuggish foreigners who do not exhibit a single human characteristic, and people will still say that the movie "doesn't mean anything" or is "just a regular action movie". If you criticize it as unrealistic then the conversation will change from "it's just fiction" to "well, thugs like that exist in real life! Look at ISIS!" Recently, I was engaged in an argument where my opponent used the Spartans as a justification for enemies who do not surrender in games, specifically in Tom Clancy's The Division. Which is to say, this person was using an extremist culture of people raised as warriors from birth in order to justify the AI behavior of opportunistic looters in a simulacrum of modern New York City. And he wasn't even right about the Spartans never surrendering.

This lack of self-reflection, coupled with the emotionally influencing effects of propaganda-like material, is what scares me about "fiction". You don't need something to be "true". What you need is to convince people, subconsciously, that it is. And you need to also convince them that belief in that particular effect or phenomenon is normal, and disbelief in it is extremist. This is an invocation of the Bandwagon Effect - in short, popularity legitimizes, and the more popular a belief is, the more popular it becomes. So when you've got movie after movie presenting a particular image, you start to see that image as "normal". And once something is normal, you stop thinking about it - and when someone says "hey, maybe you should think about it", you get mad. Why do they have to drag politics into this? Why do they have to make a fuss?

So what would happen in The Birth Of A Nation was released today? Some people would say "that's racist as hell" and other people would tell them "it's just a movie, keep your politics out of it", or "thugs exist in real life, reverse racism is real, someone called me mayonnaise boy", or both at the same time. If you made it about Muslims instead of black people, there'd be no question of the vocal support this movie would receive. They'd talk about how brave the filmmaker is for presenting the "unvarnished truth", regardless of the Politically Correct SJW Cucks trying to tear him down. And even people who disagreed with the film's morals would go "yeah, but it's a fun action movie. It's possible to acknowledge that a work is problematic without dismissing it entirely." It would make so much money, you guys.

Nothing has changed. In a hundred years, nothing has changed.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Survivalism

With the recent release of Tom Clancy's The Division, I think now's as good a time as any to do a brief examination of the post-apocalyptic concept in fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction is defined by a few major traits:

1) Regular people turn into unstoppable thugs, as if they were waiting their entire lives for an opportunity to become irredeemably evil and aggressive.

2) Everything is scarce except for guns and prepackaged food, both of which are commonly found for centuries afterwards.

3) People become incapable of building anything more complex than "a pile of corrugated sheet metal in the shape of a house".

4) Some people actually participate in communities and work together to make the most of their situation, but those people are boring. The interesting people are the ones who go around living off the land and murdering the aforementioned thugs from point 1.

"Post-apoc", is, in short, a fantasy for the masculine "self-sufficient" survivalist. It allows for the unrestricted use of violence and the machismo of the struggle for survival. It allows one to condemn the "coddled" modern world and see oneself as a lean predator who'd be manly as hell if only he had the opportunity. And while that makes sense in works like Mad Max and Fallout 3 - intentionally braindead, and designed to plug into that instinctual desire - the problem comes when it actually spills over into what people think is "realistic".

Take 2014's "This War of Mine", for example. Ostensibly patterned after the Sarajevo Siege of '92-'96, TWoM has less in common with the reality of that situation, and more in common with the average zombie survival game. Another writer covered the issues with the game pretty thoroughly, so I don't feel the need to go point-by-point about it, but in short: the game was patterned after the assumption of a scarcity scenario, not the reality of it.

TWoM is not a game about cooperation or negotiation. It is not a game about communities working together. It's not even a game about invaders versus inhabitants. It's a game built on a fictional model, because people at this point have seen that fictional model so often that they think it's real.

And then you get into games like "I Am Alive" or "The Last Of Us" or even "Alien: Isolation", where "hostile survivors" throw themselves at the protagonist until one party is utterly destroyed. Like, do you guys know what "survivor" means? Anyone who throws themselves into mortal combat with the first human they encounter is not actually going to survive very long. Do you get opportunists in scarcity scenarios? Yes, absolutely. But the thing about an opportunist is, they're concerned with self-preservation. They're going to run or surrender if the opportunity presents itself. That is how they survive.

The core idea that permeates our media of the "perpetually hostile, never surrendering antagonist" exists for one purpose: because proportional violence is boring, and disproportional violence is BADASS. So we craft scenarios where disproportional violence is wholly justified, and then, inevitably, we repeat that fantasy so often that we start to think it's what would really happen.

And then, in 2016, our society produces a game where heroic soldiers shoot evil looters, then heroically loot things themselves. Although really, "Dead Rising 2" had them beat on that account, but who's splitting hairs on that one?

Monday, February 29, 2016

Analysis: Mobile Suit Gundam


Mobile Suit Gundam is, to put it bluntly, the Japanese Star Wars. It's an absurdly popular franchise built on the core premise of "World War 2 in space", starring young men with mystical psychic powers defeating Nazi-themed empires using cool vehicles and laser swords. Eventually the quasi-realistic aesthetic is replaced by unrealistic CGI and over-the-top ridiculousness and everything goes off the rails.

The biggest difference between Gundam and Star Wars is that Star Wars was designed around optimistic good-vs-evil works like Flash Gordon, while Gundam was designed by depressive nihilist Yoshiyuki Tomino. Tomino essentially kickstarted the "Real Robot" genre (which I mentioned in the last article) so it only makes sense to talk about him. It's also something I can tie into my overarching views on morality and realism.

Premise

The basic premise of original, "Universal Century" Gundam is simple. Humans have left Earth and pushed out into space, building massive cylindrical colonies in the orbital Lagrangian points. Tension arises between terrestrial humans and "spacenoids" due to the proselytizing of Zeon Zum Deikun. Zeon's philosophy was that the Earth was sacred, and humans would have to move into space in order to avoid polluting it. His ideology led to an independence movement, creating the Republic of Zeon. Zeon himself died shortly thereafter and the mantle of leadership was taken up by the Zabi family, who declared war on the Earth Federation in the name of colonial liberation.

Three major concepts define the Gundam universe. Firstly, the "Minovsky Particle", which jams long-range sensors, and is necessary to justify short-range combat in a space environment. Secondly, the "Mobile Suit", an agile weapon that can be used in space or on land. Compared to spaceships, Mobile Suits are ostensibly more maneuverable and versatile, especially in the short range battles created by the Minovsky Particles. Thirdly, the "Newtype", a key component of Zeon's vision. Newtypes are psychic individuals predicted to be the evolution of humankind in space. Their ability most commonly manifests as a vastly superior piloting level.

Conceptually, these concepts justify the idea of short-range mech combat where "unusual" characters (primarily "untrained teenage boys") are able to triumph over experienced adult veterans. In short, the Gundam series is designed to facilitate that dynamic first and foremost. For this reason, the later series abandon the pretense of realism or consistency and become far more about teenage boys with psychic powers destroying entire armies. The idea that "bigger is better" is pushed heavily, and Gundam goes from a series where the main character must fight seriously to defeat even basic opponents to a series where thousands of enemies are killed with barely any effort.

Morality, Or, "War Is Bad"

The biggest problem I find with people who write fiction about war is that so few of them are really interested in understanding it. The best you usually get is a contrarian "You think combat is good? Well, actually, it's BAD" sort of take, without any real effort to examine why. You could say that the reasons war is bad are obvious, but it's pretty remarkable how few people manage to get the idea. This is my problem with Spec Ops The Line, for example, and it's also applicable to Tomino's handling of the Gundam series.

In Gundam, war is bad because it's scary, and people get hurt. That's about it. The fact is, Gundam is a series where "bad guys" exist who will destroy the world and kill millions if they aren't stopped. Gundam purports to be a morally grey setting where war is not about good vs evil, yet at the same time even the low-level spinoff 08th MS Team ends with a boss battle against an omnicidal lunatic. In the original Gundam, the Republic of Zeon commits massive war crimes against civilian targets and their soldiers dress and act like Nazis. In the followup Zeta Gundam, the new enemy faction takes up that same behavior - unstoppably hostile cruelty that must be resolved with violence. It goes on like this.

Here's the thing about characterizing war as "scary" or "bad": that's not the problem. People talk a lot about how hard it is to create a truly "anti-war" film, because depicting war inevitably leads to a Death of the Author situation. Depictions of the "horrors of war" are often positively received by audiences because they think that stuff is cool and awesome, and conversely, many people excuse glorification of violence because "that would happen anyways". Here is what it's important to understand: heroic suffering is a major component of Ur-Fascism. That might sound like it came out of nowhere so let's work our way back to it.

In Umberto Eco's "Ur-Fascism", the author describes the traits that create fascism as a concept - hatred for dissent, hatred for weakness, love of militarism, love of masculinity. Look at #11: "the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die." The components that are used to say "war is bad" do not work, and this is the cause of the aforementioned difficulties. If you have a masculine society that praises stoicism and enduring suffering, and you tell people "war is suffering", then people are going to respond "good, war gives me a chance to show that I can endure suffering".

This is the problem with Gundam. Gundam says "war is scary". Gundam says "war is hard". Gundam says "war is hateful". But it also says that war is necessary, and that's what people are listening to. The conflicts in Gundam are not presented as pointless, they are presented as aggressor and victim. The protagonist doesn't like piloting the Gundam, but he has to, and when he whines he's slapped until he gets in line. The villain starts it, but the protagonist has to finish it, and if he doesn't innocent people are going to get hurt. It's the same with every other form of "heroic violence". This is true of Death Wish. It is true of Mad Max. It even true of Spec Ops The Line, because if you stop shooting, the enemies are just going to kill you. War is "bad", but it's necessary, and if you don't do it you're a failure who's condemning millions of innocents to death and suffering. That is the lesson.

If you want to dismantle the cult of "glorious war", if you want to defang toxic masculinity, you have to address the actual problems. People propagate the myth of inhuman superpredator thugs because it's something they can think of as "realistic" that justifies their worldview. Are there bad people in the world? Of course there are. ISIS is real. But even ISIS is made up of human beings, not psychopathic robots. As hateful as they were, even Nazis surrendered - in pretty substantial numbers, too. Most "anti-war" media shows suffering, but not humanization. Without empathy, "anti-war" is a meaningless concept. Without negotiation, "anti-war" is an ineffectual idea. I hate to keep bringing up Rorschach and The Punisher, but there's a reason comic fans were drawn to their methods, and it's because the "non-violent" methods don't work. If violence is constantly pushed as the only real solution to a problem then it doesn't really matter how unpleasant it's depicted as being, because it works. People complain about the Gundam fandom only caring about robot fights and not actually getting that "war is bad", but the fact is, Gundam is a series in which cool robot fights are the thing that solves all the problems. Violence achieves goals, negotiation fails. Period.

Yoshiyuki Tomino

I'd like to take some time to talk about Tomino himself, since he's a pretty important component of the moral aspect of the series. Rather than doing an overarching analysis of him, though, I'm just going to post some snippets about things that he's done.

Yoshiyuki Tomino's original novelization of Gundam ended with the main character dying randomly in the middle of a battle.

Yoshiyuki Tomino thinks video games are "evil" and contribute nothing to society because of a lack of creative vision.

Yoshiyuki Tomino, despite being famous for the "real robot" concept, mocks the very idea that Gundam is realistic or worth taking seriously.

This entire interview deserves its own sub-heading. In it, Yoshiyuki Tomino:
- Reveals that he doesn't think space elevators are possible, and used his most recent Gundam series to express contempt for the idea.
- Discusses how he intended to depict war from two viewpoints, to show both sides of the conflict.
- Admits "since anime is something people usually watch at a younger age, if you only tell about the principles and the position of one side, you will inevitably end up influencing their thoughts in a sense".
- Says that the whole "adults slapping children to convince them to fight" thing was something he viewed as positive ("children need you to show them a clear example")
- Says to his fans: "If there are those among you who started thinking about something because of Gundam, it’s time you broke out of it."

The reality of anti-war (or pro-war) media is that it's often the blind leading the blind. People with no experience of war commenting on war in order to teach other people with no experience about war what war is like. When an auteur like Kojima or Tomino shows up and says "this is what war is like" in a decisive voice, it's easy for ignorant people to look at them and go "yeah, I guess it is". And now even Tomino himself has admitted it - that Gundam is a limited model, and people need to worry about real information.

Anyways, apropos of nothing, here's a list of nonfiction books I assembled a while back.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Analysis: Battletech


Battletech is a franchise that began as a hilariously complex tabletop wargame, expanded into novels and technical manuals, and eventually found more mainstream purpose in videogames like "Mechwarrior" and "Mechcommander". Despite years of financial difficulties, bankruptcy, and legal troubles, Battletech continues to exist today in the form of Mechwarrior Online and the recently funded Battletech video game (EDIT: the tabletop game and novel series are also still in active publication).

I grew up with Battletech, and it's one of the few nostalgic properties that I'm still genuinely fond of. However, I discovered over time that there were some strange aspects of the series that would vary wildly depending on the author or developer of the work in question, and that's what I intend to write about now.


Setting

Battletech takes place in the 31st century. Humanity has spread across the stars, originally as the unified "Star League", but now as the divided "Inner Sphere". The many planets of the Inner Sphere are controlled by neo-feudal aristocracy. Unifying these disparate states is ComStar, an entity responsible for operating the technology that allows communication and transport between worlds. The Inner Sphere is rife with combat between noble houses, but its combat is of a very controlled and deliberate form. The rules of war are set by the Ares Conventions, which prohibits combat in civilian areas and defines codes of conduct for combat, but also establishes armed combat as a reasonable and justified method of settling political issues. In short, it is not "war" as it exists in our modern era, but closer to the wars of 18th century Europe - the "Kabinettskriege" fought by small numbers of professional soldiers as part of an endemic system of territory control.

On the edge of the Inner Sphere are the Clans - the remnants of the old Star League, now a genetically modified and strictly organized fighting force. Like the Inner Sphere, they operate within a very strict code of honor called zellbrigen. While the Ares Conventions were designed around minimizing collateral damage, zellbrigen is more about honorable combat and martial decorum, but they functionally serve the same purpose: war is a controlled event subject to many rules and regulations. It is not "total war", but a political struggle waged by professionals in set arenas.

I mention this because, while it makes sense and is essentially the only justification for "big stompy mech fighting", it's a thing that's almost buried in most of the games and books.

"Fighting" vs "War"

Most Battletech material presents itself as a fairly traditional sci-fi war. The invasion of the Clans, especially, was treated as this big alien threat instead of a relatively benign regime change. The reason for this is that it's hard to get invested in what is essentially a minor political struggle, and much easier to get invested in a hard-fought war for survival. Yet this approach drastically changes the nature of the setting and the way things are within it.

In "proper" Battletech, nobody needs to give a shit about combat except for the government and the soldiers it employs. Sure, some people might be loyal to a given government, but in reality, it's a feudal system that's entirely out of their hands. We're not talking about representative democracies and ideological battles, here, we're talking about two groups of nobles squabbling over land.

Part of this is an issue of scale. In Battletech, each successor state has a population in the hundreds of trillions, spread over hundreds of worlds. However, the number of combat regiments is far smaller - only a few thousand for that entire area. This works perfectly fine in the "political fighting" system, but not at all in the "war for survival" system.

The concept of "mechs" also makes more sense in the former category. Mechs are a great way for noble pilots to distinguish themselves from the masses, in a very showy, theatrical form of combat. However, as instruments of war, they're honestly pretty silly. In a setting that includes nuclear weapons and orbital bombardments, it's kind of ridiculous to drop a skyscraper-sized robot onto a battlefield and expect it to accomplish anything. As a fighting machine they're fine - as a war machine, they're goofy as hell.

(I will note here, though, that the mechs in Battletech were one of the first significant advances for "real robots" in the West - that is to say, robots that essentially functioned as combat vehicles, with believable limitations and technical specifications. Take that for what it's worth.)

The Moral Angle

I'll interrupt here with a history lesson. I've already mentioned the "Cabinet Wars" of the European Early Modern Era. However, this tradition of professional soldiers extends even earlier. In the Battle of Crecy, 1346, the English king's army of roughly 10,000 fought the French king's army of roughly 30,000. At the time, the population of England was roughly 3 million, and the population of France was roughly 17 million. In short, the two royal armies battling at Crecy were barely a fraction of the total population - they were groups of professionals engaging for political purposes.

In 1793, the French Republic instituted the concept of Levee en Masse. This was due to their desperate political and tactical situation; for the sake of their new government, it became every citizen's duty to defend France. This decision changed the face of warfare; in response to the increased size of France's armies, its enemies began instituting similar policies. By the time the First World War rolled around, wars involved millions of combatants on both sides, taking up a massive chunk of each country's total population. As such, wars caused massive amounts of damage to their participants, win or lose. Civilian populations were inevitably dragged in by conscription or occupation, and the scope of war was irrevocably changed.

This, in essence, is the difference between the two ways Battletech depicts combat. As a controlled political exercise, the setting makes sense. As a "total war", which is more dramatic, it falls apart. Yet because of the need for that drama, many works within the setting - from action games to tactical games to cartoons - set themselves up as good-vs-evil battles for survival. And, as a result, that's the attitude that ends up defining the setting. So why does that matter?

The thing is, as it's written, Battletech is essentially a controlled, ritualized form of combat. There are rules for surrender. There are rules for wounded enemies. There are rules for peaceful retreat. There is a level of respect for one's enemies, even if it's tempered with animosity or contempt. There's rules. And those rules exist because, ultimately, the wars aren't that important. Like the Cabinet Wars, wars in Battletech exist for the benefit of, and concern of, the ruling class, and the honor of the warrior caste.

As mentioned, the "total war" angle sets up the concept of good vs evil. The problem is that "good" in this setting is a despotic, aristocratic society engaged in constant intrigue and violence, and "evil" is an outsider society that's morally on the same level. The entire point of Battletech is that every major faction is equally petty and shallow, and they spend billions of dollars on giant war machines for the sake of their own politics. It totally changes everything about the setting to present it as a traditional "war narrative". And it changes Battletech from a dignified bout between combatants to a brutal fight for survival.

Diversity

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up with Battletech, and it was a big influence on me growing up. One aspect of it that doesn't often get mentioned is that it's pretty egalitarian in a period where that's not always guaranteed. A broad array of races and creeds are spread across the stars, and "old world" religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism still thrive in the cosmos. Pretty much any ethnic group can fit into the setting reasonably well, and non-white characters were common in the lore.

While there is the occasional cheesecake, female mechwarriors are usually depicted as tough, muscular, and capable, and the setting's most famous and skilled pilot is a woman, as well. Women from the Clans are depicted as being just as massive as their male counterparts (being genetically bred entirely for that purpose). Alongside works like Aliens, it was always baffling to me how well 80s sci-fi had established a relatively broad spectrum of characters, and how that seemed to get dialed back in the following years.

It's one of those things where it's just baffling to me that the core concept of "taking women seriously as combatants" is such a divisive concept even today. Fantasy has always been fraught with "sexy armor" and "Europe only" designs, but it seemed like, in most cases, sci-fi stuff had that shit figured out pretty well. Between Aliens, Battletech, and classic Metroid, sci-fi was doing all right for itself. So the idea that including women and minorities in games would be considered "controversial" in 2015 would have blown my mind as a kid.

Anyways, here's the takeaway: Battletech is at its best when it's an egalitarian-but-feudal universe characterized by honorable, ritualistic combat between tactically ridiculous walking robots. And really, that's distinct enough to call it a niche, isn't it?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Analysis: Undertale


A few people asked me what I thought of Undertale, and Undertale is definitely a game that is relevant to my area of expertise, so, here's some comments about Undertale.

SPOILERS PROBABLY

1. Undertale Is At Least Giving You A Choice

The core concept of Undertale is that it's a regular JRPG, except for the fact that killing enemies is taken into account by the game's story. Unlike, say, Spec Ops The Line, there is a non-lethal solution to every encounter - and unlike Metal Gear Solid, that solution is slightly more involved than "use a different gun". It's also not tricking you with its premise - from the very first encounter, you're told that it's better to be nice and to SPARE enemies. It's unambiguous about the cause-and-effect at play.

So the core concept of Undertale is that it's a story where your actions matter, which is great. That's what games should be - interactive. That's what makes games different from movies. With regards to its core concept, I think Undertale is great.

2. Undertale Is Kind Of A Mess, Tonally

So the thing about Undertale, right, is that it's Earthbound, but not. It's a wacky world that occasionally lapses into legitimate danger for its child protagonist, just like Earthbound. And the problem with that here is that we're told some very specific things about the underground that make sense for the gameplay, theoretically, but don't work out in practice.

The underground is supposed to be dangerous. And it is. But its danger doesn't usually come from enemies who actively want to murder you. Rather, the enemies seem to be going about their regular lives, and it's purely incidental that you are hurt by their attacks. There is at least one enemy (Vulkin) who is explicitly described as not even knowing it's hurting people. By contrast, there are only a few characters (mostly in the late game) who are explicitly described as combatants, and who clearly want to kill the player.

The "Spare" actions are funny, sure, but do they really match up with the idea that you're in a hostile world? Obviously they're based on the negotiation in Shin Megami Tensei games (particularly Persona 2), but those games didn't really try to humanize the demons at all. In SMT games, the demons are capricious and random, and don't really care whether they live or die. As such, the "non-lethal" options are based on appealing to their strange nature.

In Undertale, however, the monsters are depicted in a much more "human" way. They have families, they have lives, they get upset when they lose loved ones. They have motivations and fears. Yes, there's reasons for the monsters to want to kill the human, but they don't really express those reasons at all. This undercuts the message that Undertale is ostensibly trying to convey: "Don't kill and be killed." Undertale isn't about turning the other cheek, or about using an appropriate amount of force. Undertale is about building empathy, but in a weird, "abstract comedy" sort of way.

I'll compare Undertale to SWAT 4, which seems weird, but bear with me. Both games are about dangerous situations where killing is an OPTION, but it's heavily discouraged. Both games, naturally, feature "enemies" who will surrender in the proper circumstances. Both games allow for killing, but ultimately want the player to take the moral high ground and deal with situations non-lethally.

The difference is that SWAT 4 is dealing with actual combatants - robbers, gang members, terrorists - who happen to display human psychology. It's humanizing a group of people who are usually displayed as unthinking, unyielding killing machines, and showing that the right way to deal with these people is to take the moral high ground, instead of being needlessly brutal. If you kill an enemy, it has to be in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons - and even then, it's inferior to taking them down non-lethally. There's rules. There's a sense of moral value at play.

Undertale, on the other hand, is too comedic to really get that lesson across. Sure, it's nice to spare people, but you don't get that same feeling of intensity to it. You're not convincing your enemies that you're nice and not a threat, you're just doing sort of random things and making them not want to kill you anymore. There's no real rules underpinning it. There's a few aversions (Undyne being one of the biggest) but for the most part it just seems random. And being nice isn't much harder than killing people, which undermines the moral calculus involved.

3. Undertale's Best Commentary Is Hidden In Its Worst Run

So this is the part where the real spoilers come in. There's one part about Undertale that I really like, and that's Flowey.

Flowey is a monster transplanted into a soulless plant body. "Soulless" in Undertale means that the individual is unable to truly connect, empathically, to other people. Flowey also used to possess the ability to "save" and "load", but the presence of the player took that away, and the player uses it instead.

In the "Genocide" run (i.e. "kill literally everything"), Flowey describes how he initially tried to be nice, and he originally affected time to make people happy and fix people's problems. But over time, people became too predictable - he was replaying the same time period over and over, and people's actions weren't differing enough to stay interesting. He didn't feel any real empathy towards the people around him, so he started messing with them, and then he started hurting them. Now he just wants to destroy everything, because he's tired of being here.

So, to put it bluntly: Flowey is a player. He doesn't treat the monsters as being "real people". He's nice when it suits him, but it's only for his own indulgence. He's stuck in the same loop of time and he messes with people to produce results that entertain him. He's not even sadistic - he's bored, and he views people as playthings. What makes him cruel and evil in-universe is a perfect descriptor of how most people play open world games.

People who cried over Toy Story 3 or Up or Wall-E are the same kind of people who talk about how killing is okay because "they're not real". A random pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto is just as "real" as the dog from that one episode of Futurama, which is to say, neither of them is real. They are both completely not real. The point of fiction is to make you forget that it isn't real, and to harvest visceral emotions from the made-up scenario that you're witnessing.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Batman, The Bad Man

Sometimes you find an argument so dumb that you really just have to respond to it.

This is one of those times.

Listen, let's just get this out of the way: superheroes are bad. At best they're objectivist fantasies of the "empowered individual" who keeps society in line by the power of their own moral values; at worst they're fascist celebrations of systemic violence against real-life marginalized groups. People claim that superheroes don't affect them and then say that Rorschach and the Punisher have the right idea. We've been over this.

So, point by point, here is a refutation of all the stupid shit Dean Trippe said.

First off, Batman fights those would would endanger others.

So why doesn't he fight himself? Anyways, he's spent a bunch of time chasing after bank robbers, so even within the fictional confines of crime-ridden Gotham City, Batman (like all superheroes) has intentionally worsened tense situations. Bank robbery is a crime that does not involve the average person. It's entirely between the police, the banks, and the robbers. Escalating those situations into violence is the only way that regular people will ever be in danger in a bank robbery unless the robbers are also total psychopaths. Even the famous North Hollywood shootout (directly inspired by the fictional bank robbery in "Heat") only hurt civilians once the police got involved (also like the movie "Heat").

On top of that, dude is all the time giving criminals second chances.

And yet it never seems to work. What's the lesson we're supposed to draw from that? Weird that a good-intentioned but non-functional incarceration system would convince so many comic book fans that murdering criminals is a good idea.

Yeah, he’s such a Republican. Dude helps fund the police crime lab, manages outreach programs and scholarships, donates to every freaking charity in the city, and STILL spends all his time and money saving your hatin’ ass, because THAT’S WHO HE IS.

"Fictional man with infinite money capable of doing everything still chooses to run around in bat suit getting in fights". That's the argument you're going with, and that's supposed to make him look noble. Like, you never even stopped to consider an alternative form of law enforcement beyond "Bruce Wayne puts on a bat suit and punches people". Hey, here's an idea: if crime is so bad that the police can't handle it even with a billionaire genius helping them out, THERE'S SOMETHING ELSE GOING WRONG IN THIS SITUATION.

Please tell me Bruce Wayne isn’t for higher taxes for after school programs, public housing, and healthcare, all of which reduce crime

Okay, I will: Bruce Wayne isn't for that shit because there has never been "reduced crime" in Gotham. If there was, the regular police would be able to handle crime, and Bruce Wayne wouldn't need to be dealing with it personally. This seems super obvious, guy.

Batman poured his bleeding heart out on the floor before congress to get federal assistance when Gotham needed it.

Ah, nothing says "bleeding heart" like a rich man asking congress for taxpayer funds.

Batman FREQUENTLY adopts orphans whose parents he couldn’t save or who generally just need his help. (Robinhood is like the Big Brother program, but replace Big with Bat.)

This is the one that made me write this article. This dude earnestly believes that putting children in harm's way is good and noble because "Robinhood is like the Big Brother program". You know, I've worked in a mentorship program with children, and I can assure you that if I'd ever encouraged a child to go out and fight criminals, I would probably have ended up in jail. Most cultures frown on child soldiers.

Batman is hardcore BFFs with the biggest liberal softy in the DCU, Superman, whom he respects, both for his work as a superhero AND a member of the fourth estate.

Cartoon man with infinite power respects different cartoon man with different infinite power. Wow, so noble. Certainly Superman can't possibly have any flaws, right? I mean, it's not like there have been multiple stories dealing with the possibility of a man with infinite power being even slightly corrupted or dogmatic. No, obviously Batman's association with Superman means he's a leftist. This is obvious.

Batman fights rich criminals all the damn time, son. And you know what? If you hench for a homicidal maniac, sometimes you get batarang’d and them’s the breaks. You don’t get to hurt people and get away with it in Gotham City. Not anymore.

Okay, you don't even know what you're saying anymore.

Batman doesn’t kill. Batman doesn’t use guns. Batman wants the mentally ill to get help, not be sent to prison. Is it working out great? NOT REALLY, BECAUSE WE ALL WANT MORE ROGUES GALLERY STORIES. Blame the fans for the failure of Arkham, not Batman. Dude’s doing his level best, and it’s a damn sight better than any of you are doing.

And this is the other reason I wrote this article: because this dude seamlessly shifts from "justifying Batman's decisions in-universe" to "blaming the fans for making the universe like that in the first place". This is an admission of defeat. Batman doesn't make sense, so you blame the fans and creators for making him not make sense - as though Batman is a real person who's been trapped in a ridiculous fictional world. I mean, look at that. It's a fundamental failure to understand the way fiction works.

Gotham is bad. Gotham is relentlessly bad. Why is it bad? Because it needs to be that way to justify Batman. This dude is happy to use that fact to defend Batman's existence, but then when he can't justify it anymore, he criticizes Gotham's existence for his own failures. Hey buddy, spoiler alert: if Gotham wasn't like that, Batman would have zero reasons to exist. He'd be so stupid and pointless that there'd be no way to justify him. By attacking Gotham's fictional situation you're essentially saying "yes he's bad, but it's bad because we like watching a man in a bat suit punch people", which would be a true statement.

Fiction is shaped the way it's shaped for a reason. You want a story about a strong individual rich man fighting the lower classes, and Gotham gave it to you. You can't bite the hand that feeds you, dude. Gotham is your fantasy. Gotham is what you wanted. You want to be the rich, powerful man who everyone looks up to and everyone needs. And the only way you can get that is through perpetual conflict.

This is the problem with people who think "fiction doesn't affect reality". Escapism isn't some abstract soup, where you're just randomly given things. You, the reader, are pursuing an ideal. Batman exists because its readers want to vicariously be powerful and strong and capable, and Gotham is a city where that can happen. It's fundamentally the same as a middle schooler hoping terrorists attack his school so that he can show off his sweet karate moves. Trying to pretend there's no real values involved is so obviously ridiculous that the only way you could do it is if you've been told all your life that fiction doesn't count. And guess what? Nerds have been told that. Over and over and over and over and over.

Batman is a story for children. These children are taught that crime exists in a certain way, and should be dealt with in a certain way. These children grow up to be adults who believe rape culture isn't real ("because we all know thugs in alleys are bad") and that crime-fighting is simple and easy.

You know, there's superheroes in real life. And generally, they don't work out. There's a bunch of reasons for it, but the core one is that an INDIVIDUAL COMBATANT, with NO ACCOUNTABILITY, is not the best way to fight crime. The idea of criminals being super-obvious and easily spotted is a myth that was necessary for this mindset. In reality, people like that are going to make mistakes just as often as they get it right - and unless they're held accountable for those mistakes, they're just going to make things worse.

Superheroes are a story that our society propagates because the idea of a strong, violent individual is at the core of masculine fantasies. It has never been about "results". It has always been about celebrating "individual badassness". And it's really hard for people to argue that fiction doesn't affect them when they're making genuine arguments about how vigilantes are a good idea.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Analysis: Mad Max

"Immortan", Or, The Nature Of Toxicity

"Mad Max" is a series set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Without resources or civilization, the surviving population devolves into a crude, tribal state. New religions and cultures arise as the children of the survivors forget more and more of the world that came before them. The vacuum of power means that the strong overpower the weak and etch their own will upon the barren remnants of the world.

Which is to say, despite the common presence of "masculine" enemies, Mad Max is a series built on masculinity. Allow me to explain using examples from the series: in Mad Max: Fury Road, the warlord "Immortan Joe" has revitalized the ancient concept of "Valhalla". He promises that any of his followers ("War Boys") who die in glorious combat will ascend to the afterlife and be rewarded for eternity. Which is to say, Immortan Joe's entire religion is built on the core concept that fighting is awesome. By contrast, his enemies (such as Max and Furiosa) are trying to escape his hellish world by any means necessary.

But here's the weird thing about Mad Max, right? Max is a "survivor". But he doesn't ever take refuge, yeah? He keeps wandering. During the course of the movies themselves he's on the run, doing whatever it takes to survive. He usually starts the movie with some level of moral ambiguity, willling to do bad things in order to stay alive and to escape the current situation. Inevitably he then finds himself personally invested in the struggle, and he works with his new allies to overthrow the big bad warlord and allow a new, peaceful world to arise.

And then he leaves.

Mad Max is a survivor first and foremost. Which is why he keeps leaving his safe refuge and his grateful comrades. Because he has to end up in another situation where he's desperate to survive but then becomes morally invested. Because there has to be violence.

As a series, Mad Max condemns patriarchal warlords like Humungus or Immortan Joe. Yet the series is built on those same values - you root for Max because he's strong and capable. He's alpha. Yes, he's eventually more moral than his opponents, but he's not smart or charismatic or capable. He's a snarling, mangy dog backed into a corner. He's a killer.

Max is a War Boy. You, the audience, are War Boys. You're just here for the fight.


"Furiosa", Or, The Nature Of Virtue

Once we've defined evil, how do we define good? Well, we can't look at Max, because he's a lunatic ("Mad", if you will). So we look at Max's allies. Most of Max's allies are trying to make their way in a world gone crazy ("Mad", if you will). They're trying to eke out an existence in a hostile wasteland in a way that Max will absolutely never do. Unlike Max, they have an end goal: peaceful existence.

It's telling, then, that as soon as peaceful existence happens, the story ends. Max leaves. Max doesn't give a shit about peaceful existence, buddy. This is a common trope in movies and games, of course - most plots are centered around conflict, and so when the conflict is over, the audience stops caring. See my earlier point re: "you are War Boys".

A lot of people watched Fury Road and sympathized a lot more with Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini than with Max himself. Max's reasons for being there are loose and weird, whereas everyone else has a clear goal to strive for. They feel capable of winning or losing. But there we run into the irony of the post-apocalyptic world: we want to be there, and they want to be here. None of those characters want to be involved in a highly lethal car chase with explosions and shit. None of them want that. They want to be somewhere safe, with lots of food and water and leisure time. They want your life.

Mad Max is an action movie, though. It's not survival horror. It's a movie about how badass explosions are, even if the characters you sympathize with don't like them. You want them to suffer so you can get a visceral thrill from it. Once again, you are the War Boy. You are here for adrenaline and blood and death. You are here because it is fun to kill and die. WITNESS YOURSELVES.



"Nux", Or, The Nature Of Mercy

Let's get this out there: Fury Road is an unapologetic death movie. It is a movie about cars exploding, people dying in gouts of flame and shrapnel-laden vehicle wrecks. Despite certain parts of its story beats it is first and foremost a movie designed to make the audience feel good about people dying - specifically, raiders dying. It's the traditional trope of "perma-hostiles" who cannot be reasoned with, intimidated, or forced to flee. There's more attempt at explaining it than usual (the War Boys are religious, as opposed to the usual bandit motivation) but it still boils down to the same motivation as an orc in D&D or a thug in Batman. They exist to charge at the hero until the hero kills them.

Except for Nux.

Nux is a luckless War Boy whose failures eventually leave him despondent and hopeless, at which point he joins the "good guys". He is a classic example of a mook-face turn - an individual enemy displaying humanity and joining the "right side", usually because the good guys show kindness and the bad guys do not. However, Nux's "setup" is relatively forced.

There is a scene where Nux sneaks aboard the war rig attempting to capture Furiosa and the five wives. During this scene, Furiosa is ready to kill Nux, but the wives intervene, stating that they "agreed upon" not shedding any blood unnecessarily. There is a justified reason for this: the wives give birth to children who will be raised as War Boys, and in a way, the existing War Boys are spiritual children of the wives. The wives are trying to keep themselves and their children away from bloodshed, and thus it makes sense for them to not want to kill people they see as misguided children.

But only Nux receives that treatment. Only Nux is given that chance. And, of course, he repays them for their mercy by eventually becoming useful and vital to their plans. But he's the only one who receives any mercy. Why is this? Well, to start, Nux's redemption is a "morality moment". It makes the audience feel like they're good guys because this one guy turned his life around. But obviously we can't slow the movie down with that shit every time so the rest of the War Boys get exploded and impaled and shot and stabbed. Hell yeah. Hell yeah. There's so many pale, tumor-ridden cancer victims in Valhalla tonight. It's amazing.

Here's the thing: there's a lot of misogynists who were upset about Fury Road's female characters, and about Max's reduced role. But why would they like the series in the first place, you may ask. "Patriarchal masculinity" has always been a bad thing in Mad Max. There's always been strong female characters. None of this was new in Fury Road. So why did people who were okay with Mad Max this whole time suddenly object to this slightly more overt stuff?

Man, it's almost like Mad Max appeals to masculinity, isn't it? Like its focus on glorifying death and carnage and strong, decisive characters would plug directly into an alpha-bro's brain stem and give him the adrenaline rush he craves? Weird.

Oh, right, and they also drive around in a billion cars despite the world suffering from a gas shortage. That's dumb, guys. You're not thinking that one through.