Politics is like a box of chocolates: broken

Today a box of chocolates I ordered for a friend as a Christmas gift arrived via the United States Postal Service.  The box has a huge sticker on it that says “Fragile–Handle With Care”.  But it’s hard to read, on account of the box being smashed.

I’m a pretty easy-going guy, but this really annoyed me.  I realize the mere existence of “Fragile-Handle With Care” stickers is an admission that they can’t manage to not destroy some of the mail they process, but they should at least have the ability to not destroy the ones that actually tell anyone looking at it “don’t destroy me”. Could they at least put those on the conveyor belt that doesn’t have giant crushing hammers like the one Natalie Portman had to dodge in Attack of the Clones?

This is the sort of story that my conservative readers–if I have any–will probably laugh at and say “ha ha, silly liberal; government is the problem!” This is the sort of story that makes people get mad at the government, and thus inclined to listen to anti-government politicians. As somebody (maybe Dave Barry?) once observed–I’m paraphrasing–it’s easy to become pretty much of a John Bircher when your main encounters with the governemnt consist of the Post Office, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the IRS, which is the case for most people.

It’s a vicious cycle, of course; government agencies screw up, people become angry at them, so they elect people who will defund the agencies, so they screw up even more, and so on.

Categories: Uncategorized

“And It Casts Its Echoes Still”: The 10th Anniversary of “Knights of The Old Republic II”

10 years after its release, Obsidian Entertainment’s first game still fuels discussion. (Image via Wikipedia-Fair Use)

This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush.  Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood.  Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.

10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released.  And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations.  Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.

This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned.  The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent.  Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.

And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.

Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas.  Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.

So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?

In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family.  The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books.  (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)

The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches.  Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”

Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games.  A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.

Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good.  In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked.  But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.

In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-‘em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.

But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour.  While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched.  There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content.  While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.

But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.

It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues.  Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be to quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual.  And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.

In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers.  In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”.  But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.

Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places.  As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”.  Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.

And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s my least favorite holiday; but hey, at least there’s football on.  And then people start gearing up for the ridiculousness that is “Black Friday’. Speaking of which, here is a good article by Shamus Young about how all that frenzied shopping came about.

The Mother of all Conspiracy Theories

You’ve all heard various conspiracy theories about “the Illuminati”, right? When you love reading conspiracies as much as I do, you see the Illuminati crop up all the time.  But for all the times I’ve heard about them, I never bothered to visit their Wikipedia page and ask: “just who are these guys?”

Well, turns out there was a historical group called ‘the Illuminati“.  They were an offshoot of the Freemasons founded in Bavaria in the 1700s by this guy Adam Weishaupt. But they came into conflict with the Church and were disbanded in 1785.

And just wait till you hear what diabolical schemes these scumbags had in mind! Are you ready to hear what the legendary, mystery-shrouded, secret society wanted? Wikipedia gives the grisly details of their nefarious doctrine:

The society’s goals were to oppose superstition, prejudice, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power, and to support women’s education and gender equality.

So… the famed secret society… the group whose name has formed the basis of all kinds of conspiracy theories… were a bunch of liberaltarians?

It’s a bit underwhelming to go looking for a sinister cabal of super-powerful malevolent cultists, and instead find the blog section at The Daily Beast.

Now, I do want to point out that in the 229 years since the society dissolved, considerable progress has been made towards almost all of the Illuminati’s goals throughout the world, and especially in the United States and Europe.  And, truth be told, I think that’s a good thing.

To a conspiracy theorist, this makes it look as if the Illuminati were secretly controlling events behind the scenes.  After all, how could their goals enjoy such success without the hidden hand that holds the world manipulating things? Pr-etty conve-e-enient, eh?

On the other hand, it could just be that Weishaupt and his friends foresaw that societal trends were going in that direction anyway, and were just ahead of their time.

But I haven’t gotten to the best part yet.  The best part is that in 1799, a guy named Augustin Barruel wrote a book called  Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism that claimed the Illuminati were behind the French Revolution. And you probably thought the John Birch society was who came up with blaming them for everything. Quoth the Wikipedia synopsis:

Barruel defines the three forms of conspiracy as the “conspiracy of impiety” against God and Christianity, the “conspiracy of rebellion” against kings and monarchs, and “the conspiracy of anarchy” against society in general. He sees the end of the 18th century as “one continuous chain of cunning, art, and seduction” intended to bring about the “overthrow of the altar, the ruin of the throne, and the dissolution of all civil society”

More than anything else, Barruel’s writing reminds me of Peter Hitchens whenever he gets on the subject of what he calls the “cultural revolution” in the 1960s. He too sees cultural change and social upheaval as a conscious effort secretly advanced by important people in society.  And who can say for sure if that’s wrong? Heck, Edmund Burke attested to the existence of a conspiracy as described by Barruel.

Conspiracies or coincidence? They report, you decide. But I’ll leave you with this: maybe the pattern is real, but there are no century-spanning conspiracies–it’s just that the same things keep happening over and over. “Condemned to repeat it”, like the fella said.

My review of the movie “Alien”

I watched the movie Prometheus before I saw this, which was a huge mistake; since Prometheus spoils the best things in the movie Alien. The mystery of the ‘space jockey’ was ruined; the surprise twist where one of the characters turns out to be an evil android was semi-spoiled,  and the method by which the aliens attack their victims was spoiled.  (I already knew about what happens to John Hurt’s character even before seeing Prometheus.)

Even so, Alien was still a far better movie.  At least there were plot points to be spoiled, as opposed to an incoherent mess of nonsense that was the plot of Prometheus.  Alien is a good, solid, workman-like horror picture.  The one thing that surprised me was how badly the special effects had aged. Compared with Star Wars of two years earlier, some of the spaceship exteriors and the “space” backgrounds looked quite fake, and the alien itself was, in some scenes, pretty clearly a guy in a costume.  (The lack of light in a lot of these scenes worked very much in the movie’s favor; not only being scarier, but also masking the fake costume.)

There was an extended scene with flashing blue and yellow lights at the end that nearly made me sick–I had to look away from the screen for a few moments.  As a rule, you don’t want your movie to be too hard for your audience to watch.  Moreover, I don’t really know what purpose these flashing lights served in the movie. It seemed like a steady, red light would have done as well.

Also, there was one scene that made no sense to me. At one point, while crew is hunting for the alien, Tom Skerritt’s character goes into some sort of maze of tunnels looking for it, armed with a flamethrower.  The rest of the crew is monitoring him on a display that shows his position and the aliens as dots on the screen.  When they see the dot representing the alien moving towards him, they tell him to get out of there.  Spoiler: he doesn’t. It ends badly for him. My question was, why didn’t the crew instead just tell him “the alien is coming from your left–turn that way and fire”?  Since the whole point of him being there was to kill the alien, why did they give up at what was really their best opportunity?

While some things haven’t aged well–the hilarious green-on-black text interface of the ship’s onboard computer being a good example–it’s still a very effective horror movie. And it must have been quite novel at the time to have a strong female lead, instead of her just being a helpless victim. Sigourney Weaver’s performance is terrific, although for as tough as Ellen Ripley is, I wondered why she let Ash keep giving everyone bad advice for so long before forcing a showdown with him.

So, given what a solid picture Alien was, how could Director Ridley Scott have subsequently thought “Ah, this Prometheus is a worthy prequel”? I know he didn’t write the script, but he must have had some creative control over it.  Enough to say “rewrite this so it makes some sort of sense”.

Ah, well.  Back to Alien. It wasn’t a great horror movie; if only because its remote setting makes the feeling of danger hard to personalize.  As long as I don’t go on any deep space mining expeditions, I’m safe from the aliens. But it was a good movie nonetheless, with its foreboding atmosphere and slowly building tension.  Although there are definitely some “gross-out” scenes, what I liked was the extent to which it relied on atmosphere; and quiet, dark scenes to convey the mood.

My thoughts on the election results.

A lot of my liberal friends are despairing now; what with the election results.  Personally, I’m actually not too worried. These things go in cycles.  I remember back in 2002 the Republicans thought they had a “permanent majority”.  Four years later they were all voted out in disgrace. (I exaggerate, but only a bit).

To an extent, this was a referendum on people’s dissatisfaction with the Obama administration, but more than anything else, I think people have a tendency to think “things are not great right now; let’s vote some other guys in.”  In two or four years, when things are still not perfect, people will get sick of Republicans and vote the Democrats in.

Liberal ballot initiatives, like raising the minimum wage, actually passed even as Republicans won.  That tells me people are more generally discontented with the status quo than they are mad at one party or excited about the other.

Of course, I suppose the fact that people are relying on either of the parties to fix the nation’s problems, when the past strongly suggests they can’t, is cause for despair.  So, ok; carry on despairing.  Forget I said anything.

A Halloween Poem

The trees are blue beneath the autumn moon;
The witches and the devils all cavort–
The creatures of the dark awake, and soon,
The King of Night shall hold his Court.

Whether in the gloom of lonely countryside,
Or on the garish neon city streets;
The Spell is felt by people far and wide,
And finds expression in saying “tricks or treats”.

‘Tis not merely some carnival of lights,
Nor yet a complicated costume ball;
‘Tis the exaltation of those magic nights
When all the world is held in Other Forces’ thrall.

The changing of the seasons brings along
A touch of the mysterious and weird.
As we acknowledge, in story and in song,
The spirit world that men have glimpsed and feared.

Be thou not afraid, my pious friend;
To hearken back to old beliefs of yore.
It would be utter folly to pretend
Such things were not here long before.

 

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