Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the Dynamics of Awesome

How much "awesome" is too much?  This is a question that's been bothering me for a while.

When I say "awesome," I am referring to moments in a narrative that blow the audience's mind in one way or another through the sheer audacity of what is being accomplished.  Essentially, the Holy Sh*t Quotient concept from Tvtropes.

(Thank you, TG, for this ludicrously awesome image, courtesy 1d4chan)

The obvious, slightly cheeky answer is that "there's no such thing as too much aweome."  And, since we're dealing with matters purely subjective, I have no doubt that for some people, that's totally true.  But I also know that isn't true for me.  I have seen and read works where my impression was that, honestly, the narratives would have been drastically improved by toning down the ridiculousness of the feats that the characters pulled off.  There's a reason that I find the Super Robot genre rather... unengaging.  I think this is also why there is a distinct limit on how often I can read Neal Stephenson books.  Stephenson's manic, over-the-top worlds filled with nanotech matter recombiners and katana-wielding pizza delivery boys in rocket-cars are fascinating, but also overwhelming and somewhat exhausting.  Such works are simply overflowing with "awesome," to the point that it ceases to be "awesome" simply because it is no longer surprising.  Even if the specifics of the plot or people's actions aren't predictable, the end result is that it no longer blows my mind within that work.

The ultimate example of this is probably Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, which I found fairly entertaining but would probably not have finished without the momentum of my group.  I certainly don't regret watching it - its memetic status alone warrants at least one viewing, and the music is fantastic.  But my mind often wanders to 'what could have been...' to parallel universes where the combat craziness and fanservice were replaced with a greater focus on character development and dramatic action scenes.  (It really doesn't help that Parallel Works 8 was basically what I just described, and is also set to the most badass tune in an outstanding soundtrack).

 (Screencap courtesy Google Images and an anime blog I have never read before with an... interesting... banner)

Of all the action scenes in the series, the only one that I felt was really successful was the fight against Lordgenome, half way through the series.  The rest were too obviously going to be solved with 'do something silly and then pull a bigger drill out of your ass' to have much tension.

On the other hand, Warhammer 40k is probably at least as ridiculous as many Super Robot series or Stephenson's works, if you consider it purely from a 'similarity to our own world' sense.  In the Warhammer 40,000 mythos, however, the better part of the "awesome" is directed at (aka trying to kill/eat) the closest thing to 'good guys' in the setting, who are really just 'mildly less bad guys.'  I have to wonder if the pervasiveness of 'grimdark' in Warhammer 40,000 (Fact: Many Imperial warships can glass continents, if not destroy entire planets.  Corollary: This power is most often used on Imperial planets, comprised largely of law-abiding citizens) doesn't shield it, to an extent, from the sort of "awesome overload" other works suffer.  Most gratuitous displays of power are depressing, so when someone does something that is both over the top AND uplifting, it's particularly impressive.  (I think it also helps that the Warhammer 40k universe is extremely wide.  As such, feats of badassery aren't centered on a few characters, but are extremely spread out.  As such, predictability is also reduced.)

But it's not just the fact that Warhammer 40k's universe is a gigantic sack of (awesome) crap that makes the ridiculousness okay.  I think that, for me, aesthetics are also a pretty critical ingredient in 'awesome.'  Perhaps the best case study here would be to compare my moderate enjoyment of Gurren Lagann itself to my significant enjoyment of Parallel Works 8.  It's worth noting that I think Parallel Works 8's art style is gorgeous, if somewhat impressionistic, whereas I find the standard art style of Gurren Lagann to be very much in line with the rest of the series - a bit too silly for my taste, and more often than not, overly elastic.  The silliness of the art style, while not necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself, often dampens the effect of the drama for me, especially in the fight scenes.  Parallel Works Eight is no closer to how I perceive reality than the series proper, and yet, the darker atmosphere of the animation contributes to the mood instead of disrupting it.

I will say that, almost necessarily, the series finale of anything is exempt from this rule, in no small part because, as the series finale, the series definitionally cannot disappoint me thereafter.  And I am generally of the opinion that the finale of anything action-oriented should be balls-to-the-wall action.

Ultimately, I suppose 'awesome,' for me to appreciate it, must either be used sparingly or delivered with sufficiently fitting style that I'm willing to look past its ludicrousness and simply say "Awesome."

(Now, I leave you with a picture of a Sniper Bear from the manga Biomega, which I have not read, found on another blog I have never read.  Awesome.)


Monday, June 28, 2010

On Passive Characters (with Giant Robots)

I've recently watched a fair bit of mecha anime, mostly 'Real' Robot (which should, let's be honest, called 'slightly less willing suspension of disbelief required robot') stuff. Upon reflection, I think I've figured out my number one peeve with the genre.

I hate passive characters.

I don't mind them in theory, but every time I see one these days, it bugs me. It doesn't annoy me enough to stop watching the show, but it does reduce my enjoyment of the series. Perhaps it's because they're just so overdone in the Mecha genre. Amuro Rei, for all he is a one-man turning point in the One Year War, is basically a passive protagonist for all of the original Mobile Suit Gundam (interestingly, he is much more empowered in Char's Counterattack, largely because he's no longer just an elite grunt, but is now a veteran officer with the authority to give orders and even provide advice to his commanding officer, Bright). He's probably also the root of this whole problem, though he is FAR from the worst example. He gets orders, he carries them out, he angsts when things go poorly and people (that he cares about) die. He never really does anything that he wants to do, except in rare circumstances - all decisions are made for him. And he's a soldier, so it makes sense, as his only real choice is "follow orders or don't, and accept THE CONSEQUENCES (read: getting Brightslapped)."

(Tim Flanagan of Deviantart shows us THE CONSEQUENCES. With Domo!)

For Mobile Suit Gundam, it works. It's a war story, and however talented he may be, Amuro is a grunt, fundamentally. If, as a relatively low-ranking member of the military, he did have too much agency, my willing suspension of disbelief would probably be destroyed. Not that this has ever been a problem in the Gundam franchise (ZZ Gundam Spoilers).

I don't think the 'realistic' use of a passive protagonist in Mobile Suit Gundam (a kid swept up into a war, essentially drafted into service) would bother me at all if not for the fact that so many 'real robot' (and those that blur the line) mecha series thereafter copy the pattern AND that the pattern allows writers to be eminently lazy.

Writer 1: What should our passive protagonist do this week?

Writer 2: You're kidding, right?

Writer 1: Yeah, I am. Shit writes itself!

Here's my complaint: what does a passive character do? Nothing, definitionally. Hence, if you've see one passive character, you've seen every passive character. The the dramatic tension shifts from "what will he/she do" to"when will he/she do something?"

The reason some archetypes can be functionally overused but still entertaining to watch, I think, is that they DO different things. The Trickster archetype is perhaps the best example of this. Yes, people who screw with other people are an ancient and time-honored tradition. A good trickster, however, will still do unpredictable things, and hence keep the audience guessing, even though the audience is intimately familiar with the archetype. A passive character can't be anything but passive without violating its nature, however. To paraphrase a great line from Avatar: The Last Airbender: "You see [somebody do] nothing once, you've seen it a million times."

Now, most passive characters eventually become more active, but you can tell when that's going to happen by simply watching their romantic arc. As soon as a single love interest is determined and in danger, GOGO CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. But main characters who are passive for 3/4ths of their own series still piss me off, even if they do eventually get better.

The series that stand out as the strongest to me tend to avoid quagmire of inactivity. The characters are empowered to act on their own, and in doing so, develop meaningful and relatable personalities and relationships. This extends beyond giant robot series, of course, but since passive protagonists are so hard to avoid in dealing with the genre, those series that DO give their protagonists more agency tend to stand out. Such agency doesn't necessarily mean winning the war singlehandedly, isn't precluded by standing orders. Vision of Escaflowne is still one of my favorite series, and although it has problems to be sure, lack of action on the part of the protagonists wasn't one of them. Macross Frontier was the same in many ways. Alto does what he does because he wants to or because he feels obligated, but ultimately, most of the decisions that he makes are his own. Through his decisions we learn who he is as a person. Interestingly, Alto is in a position where he too is a grunt in the scheme of the war, but even though he generally obeys orders, it is always clear that he has a will or his own, and that is what motivates him to act. We see it to some degree on the battlefield, but perhaps even more in his daily life. The type of passive protagonist that bothers me is just as detatched from the daily things as from their orders. Some of the Gundam OVAs capture this, too, particularly 0080: War in the Pocket, which centers on a Zeon infiltration team interacting largely with neutral forces, where their decisions have great weight not just regarding themselves and their enemies, but also the (relatively) uninvolved civilians. Bernie isn't so different from Amuro - a kid, essentially swept up in a war he has little personal investment in, acting under orders. The odds are even more stacked against him, too. But Bernie does things - he reaches out to other people, he makes his own decisions, he takes the initiative. He struggles with the standard passive protagonist question ('should I fight?'), but he also goes on to deal with a more interesting question ('how should I fight [these ridiculously insurmountable odds]?').

Code Geass features ludicrously empowered protagonists, and I think it was a breath of fresh air for me (particularly at the time - I hadn't seen Macross Frontier yet), and in the first season, it does it without sacrificing action (Escaflowne occasionally falls into this trap, particularly in the second half). By placing important characters in positions of command or independence within their respective military structures, it let them make meaningful choices on the battlefield.

I think I'd like to see another series that focuses on the battlefield commanders, someday. Special Operations and R&D Teams are a decent way to get around the military command structure's dampening effect on a character's options when faced with difficult choices, but so is simply embracing said structure and then heading for the top.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

On "Exactly According to Keikaku" (Keikaku Means "Plan")

So, I admit that I've been out of the Magic: The Gathering loop for a while now, largely due to a focus on other hobbies (Warhammer 40k, D&D) and a desire not to learn all of the new 'Stupid Human Tricks,' as one friend of mine terms them, associated with the 2M10 rules changes.

However, as I looked through Gatherer recently for cards by a certain comic book artist, I stumbled upon 'Schemes.' Intrigued by cards that provided titanically powerful effects at no apparent cost, I found this article on the subject.

So, apparently, Magic: The Gathering has adopted 2+ vs 1 as a valid playstyle, giving the 'Villain' access to powerful 'Schemes' to counteract the extra resources the other side has. That's cool, actually - I've heard that the WoW TCG did a number of interesting things with "Raid Boss" decks, designed to be played against multiple opponents (hopefully not 25, though - think how long that game would take!)

I wonder how these might figure into a sort of cooperative Elder Dragon Highlander. It seems like that would probably take care of the game-length problem. Probably.

Plus 'Schemes' are an excuse to say 'Exactly According to Keikaku*' when they come to fruition.


*(Keikaku means plan)


... the number of posts before I lose interest, forget my password, or otherwise let this blog fall by the wayside.

Now taking bets.

That said, it wouldn't be a proper kickoff post without an image of some kind.

There we go.