Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Smuggler's Journey

A few days ago I jotted down some notes on heroic pathways in Star Wars.  I did this because I wanted to give myself some context for commenting on the Smuggler's class story in StarWars: The Old Republic.  The Smuggler is one of the last classes I have to level significantly, and unlike my Jedi Knight, I want to pay a little more attention to the story as it goes by.

Taken as a whole, I’m a little bit disappointed with the smuggler story so far.  I keep waiting for it to make the jump into the larger conflict, for my smuggler to go Han Solo on me and come back to face the Death Star.  To this point, the smuggler has been able to visit many worlds where the titanic struggle between freedom and tyranny rages, but without the struggle touching them personally.

Being a Star Wars fan, the mythos has always been dominated by this conflict. That’s what the story is all about, and being in that universe is my opportunity to further the cause of freedom.  

The prologue to the smuggler story, recovering my stolen ship, allowed me to see the inside view of  tyranny first hand.  Liars and thieves abound in the universe and many people less capable than my smuggler are daily victims of it.  Here was my chance to see what it felt like to be disempowered, to have my livelihood and home taken away from me by the whim of some conscienceless, amoral bully, and feel what millions in the galaxy must feel at the hands of Sith and warlords and mindless beasts.  

I guess what I’m saying is that I was beginning to pick up the threads of my heroic path

The second part of the story, however, has been less engaging.  For me, it has been more about discovering the character of Nok Drayen rather than reclaiming his treasure.  But neither of these goals seems particularly noble or heroic.  I hoped that by uncovering the legend of Drayen I could understand what it means to be a smuggler in the Star Wars universe;  what heroic aims can they aspire to, what ennobles them as characters.  But none of what I’ve seen so far really connects me with any larger galactic struggle.  

When I finally learned the big reveal about Nok’s true identity, my feelings of ambivalence continued.  I was initially pleased with the connection to Risha and it helped me understand her character more completely but ultimately the resolution lacked resonance.  I felt more satisfaction at the demise of Skavak, than at the outcome of my “treasure hunt.”

I want, like Han and Lando, to come to the point of realization that there is something larger than myself that is worthy of my commitment, something worth fighting for.  When do I get to take up arms against the enemy and hurl myself with all the force I can muster against the might of the Empire?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Desolation of Smaug I

I went into this second installation of Peter Jackson's re-creation of The Hobbit with boundless optimism.  I am a supporter of Jackson's efforts to flesh out this book with non-cannonical, but yet non-contradictory material.  I think there is great potential there, in the hands of a skilled storyteller, and I think Peter Jackson has earned the right to make the attempt.  In the end however, I left the theater with a strange mixture of emotions.  I was both satisfied at having seen a good movie, and at the same time brimming with indignation at some of the missteps.

My summary is that Jackson made a good movie set in Tolkien's world of Middle Earth, but he didn't make the definitive translation of the Hobbit to the big screen that I was hoping to see.  His team demonstrated an understanding of the workings of Middle Earth, but fell short of conveying the essence of the great themes in the Hobbit, which ultimately left me wanting something else.

I was happy to see Beorn and have us cover a bit of new ground here.  And the idea of a band of orcs tailing them throughout their journey was novel, but not unwelcome.  It seemed a bit unnecessary, though; as if the dangers of the spiders of Mirkwood, or the dungeons of Tharanduil, or the exposed sides of Mount Doom weren't dangerous enough.  I liked the appearance of the female Silvan elf, Tauriel and did not immediately reach for my pitchfork at the thought of an additional character added to Tolkien's original cast.

This was very definitely an action movie.  Gone are Bilbo's introspective moments, and yet I loved the elves fast-paced fight scenes.  This is the stuff that we hinted at with Legolas in the Lord of the Rings, where we constantly marveled at how effective the elf was despite being out of his element.  In this film, he was very in the heart of his element.  This is the kind of realization that Peter Jackson brings to the original source work.

Where I felt the missteps, however, was in the characterizations of Bilbo and Thorin.  In the first film, Bilbo is a bit of a burden to the dwarven company, with his complaining at the lack of comforts, and hiding in the background.  In this second movie, though, Bilbo is supposed to find his feet, and prove what a resourceful and courageous companion he really was.  This is the section of the book where he singlehandedly saves the dwarves from the spiders, frees them from perpetual internment in the elven dungeons and shows more courage than any of them by facing the dragon alone.  This is where he grows in the estimation of the dwarves and they look on him with respect.


In the film, however, the shine of each of these achievements was dulled by something else.  Bilbo began attacking the spiders, but it really was the coming of the elves that drove them away.  Yes, Bilbo filched the keys from the jailer, but his part of events was largely sidelined by Tauriel's flirtation with Kili, and made nearly meaningless next to the dazzling displays of Legolas against the orcs, for which the barrel riding was a mere backdrop - a way to emphasize the impotence of the dwarves in the face of Legolas' warrior prowess.

One of the main themes of The Hobbit was the way that Bilbo developed this relationship of mutual respect with the dwarves.  This relationship is critical because it creates such a contrast later when the friendship is severed.  In the film version, their friendship is mostly marginalized.  Bilbo becomes nearly invisible throughout the strange visit to Laketown and by the time they reach the Lonely Mountain I can't tell if they regard him with admiration or bafflement when he solves the riddle of the keyhole.

To be honest, the part that bothered me most was Laketown.  What was the audience supposed to be feeling here?  Are we rooting for the dwarves, or Bard, or the Master of the town?  We really have no point of identification, because Bilbo is no where to be found.  Yes we see the heavy hand of foreshadowing the eventual rift between Bard and Thorin, but the truth is that the audience knows that Bard is right in everything that he says.  Bard has been helping them for the entire time they are in Laketown, then suddenly decides that their quest will bring ruin on everyone.  This juxtaposition of our allegiances is the single most difficult transition that this story has to make, and in the end the writers don't handle it well.

Into this mix, we toss the orcs - who have somehow gotten hold of a Morgal blade (?!) (because these now litter the countryside like daisies) and poisoned Kili and then Tauriel rides in to heal him prompting some of the most ham-handed lines in the series so far.  It's almost as if a second movie had overtaken the first and was going to play through.  For a bit, the two movies clashed with each other, as if half the cast were playing As You Like It, while the other half was reading lines from Henry V.

The worst part of this was, when the orcs ride off into the night with Legolas in chase, I wanted to follow them and leave the troublesome dwarves to their own devices. The adventure tale of purging evil and understanding love and healing your fallen comrades was, at that moment, a much cleaner tale than the befuddled business with Bard and Thorin.

It's not that I object to any of the alternative interpretations that Jackson imposes on the story, it is simply that none of them is a particular improvement on the originals. 

The Quest is Lost

Part of what's missing from my current gaming experience is the concept of the quest.  Historically, a quest is something more than just a task or errand, though that's part of it.   A quest is a mission that confronts me with the choices and challenges inherent in my personal struggle, and thereby carries me down my heroic pathway.  Often, the fate of a people or an ideal is hanging on the outcome of my effort.  Traditionally, to have a quest is to have a noble purpose.

The modern MMO concept of Quest is quite different.  Here, it's grown to mean a trivial task that your character performs to pass the time while you're chatting with friends, or watching re-runs of Black's Books.  These activities have become so banal that you're asked to do the same ones every day, to the point where any original meaning they might once have held for you or the quest giver has long-since faded into obscurity.  Now you've just become an employee of the NPC, and show up every day to do your job.  The identity of this quest as a mission of noble purpose has been lost.  Now it's a mere semantic convention.

To further demonstrate the decline, we now have games that promise "quest-less" adventuring.  Guild Wars 2 offers questless quest hubs that are supposed to emerge dynamically and organically from your wandering in the world.  No more quests to complete, just hearts to fill.  Except you are fighting the same mosquitoes and gathering the same dewberries that you would in a traditionally structured quest. 

On the other hand, we're moving away from the model of the checklist of tasks (which is a welcome change), but in doing so, we've abandoned the very thing I'm trying to save.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has done something similar with their sub-quest system.  As you are working your way through the vagaries of a a class story mission, you are given target kill counts to fill along the the way that reward xp.  These aren't labeled separate quests, though they function in much the same way.  What's different is that they fit into the story being told.  They are always optional, incidental to the main purpose of your being there.

What's happened, though, is that the emphasis has been returned to the main focus of your endeavor, restoring the Heart location to peace and harmony, returning the farm to order and productivity.  That becomes the quest, the true noble purpose, and all the individual pieces that go into this are acknowledged as something different.

Why is this important?  For the narrative game, the story being told and the character's participation in the story are the most important things happening in this experience.  Returning emphasis to the quest narrative and properly defining it, re-focuses the "game" on the story.  Conversely, corrupting the concept of the quest and trivializing it to include all game activities diminishes the impact that real questing has.  It takes a storytelling experience and transforms it into a series of mini-games you can play on your phone.

The Secret World has a similar concept that stratifies your tasks into main missions and side missions.  Typically the main mission is a storytelling experience that draws you through the zone while the side missions are more traditional assignments.  The story mission returns the player to the classic concept of quest as noble calling. 

When you play the later zones of Mists of Pandaria, a similar thing happens.  Nearly every quest in Townlong Steppes directly participates in the major or minor stories of the zone.  Blizzard has cleaned away all the random filler quests from an anonymous mage who needs us to collect pinecones for some minor spell he's working on.  Even if the tasks haven't changed (we still may be given a collection quest), we're always explained their importance in the narrative.

There's nothing like the experience of traveling to Mount Doom and throwing your ring into the fire and finally saving the world.  When you've completed this quest, you have a satisfaction that's deep and abiding.  Something fare more satisfying than merely logging on to complete dailies.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mythic Heros in Star Wars

Orphaned at birth, the boy of humble origins learns that he is an heir of a mystical order of holy warriors who fight against evil in the galaxy
This would be the mythic heroic description of Luke Skywalker’s character. If he does this, he is a hero. If something distracts him from this, and many things will try, he slips from his mythic heroic position. So in the sense of the narrative, Luke is fighting two battles: the first is the fight against evil and tyranny; the second is the fight against distraction.

A mythic story is one that is so fundamental to the human condition that it is recognized as a universal experience. Everyone understands this story, and in some way identifies with it, or with the longing that it reflects. There is a longing to participate in the hero's story, and there is admiration for a hero who does follow the path.

Not everyone has a life that fits this formula, but the audience finds value in a life that conforms to that heroic ideal, even if it is not directly applicable to them. The audience can see themselves, some part of themselves, in this story. Even though it does not describe them, in some way the listener wants it to describe them.

 The Pathway

 A Mythic Heroic pathway must have an element that is universal, that is independent of time period or genre or setting. Luke's pathway appears equally valid in a story of science fiction, modern fantasy, classic epic fantasy, even gritty realism.

For a mythic hero, it is not enough to find that a mythic story describes your life. You must also make a conscious choice to follow the pathway that the mythic story illuminates. We know that Luke is a mythic hero because his actions are consistent with his mythic story.

Everything that Luke does in the first movie takes him down his mythic heroic pathway. This is true even of those things that he does as a result of other people’s choices. However Luke makes two critical choices that drive the plot of the movie: first he chooses to leave Tatooine – “There’s nothing for me here now. I want to come with you to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, to become a Jedi like my father.” Next, he chooses to rescue Princess Leia – “We can’t just leave her. We’ve got to rescue her. They’re going to execute her. “ – Han: “Better her than me.”

That choice to help Leia is alone what drives the second half of the film and the story of the Rebel Alliance. Everything that Luke does after is an outgrowth of that decision. And that decision is based on his heroic myth to fight evil in the galaxy.

By contrast, and a contrast provided directly in that scene, Han has no such heroic imperative. Not that he is not a hero, but that his herioc myth is different:

A Scoundrel, whose past has taught him that he can only rely on himself, is transformed when he comes to understand and believe in the power of friendship and good to alter his fate and that of the galaxy.

He sees how Luke's "goodness" alters the fate of Leia, and later of the Rebel Alliance.  He comes to understand that concept himself by aiding Luke in the attack on the Death Star.  Implicit in both these myths is the value of development and change. For Luke it is maturing from a boy to a warrior, moving from someone who is passive and ruled the the demands of others (Uncle Owen, Obiwan) to someone who has achieved his own independence and self reliance.  For Han it is the redemptive transformation from scoundrel to reluctant leader.  Han already embodies the lessons of independence that Luke needs to learn, but in turn learns from Luke the value of friendship. Implicit in the myth is the presence of a Myth arc, a pathway that the hero must travel to remain heroic. Others who do not follow a path are merely static observers.

Returning to that scene with Luke and Han, Han is a hero, at that moment, because although he confronts his scoundrel identity, he does not allow himself to be entirely directed by it. Luke persuades him to help through promises of a reward, but he does help. And Han's decision takes him a step further along his mythic arc. The two of them are both heroes but in different ways, and in different stages of development. At this point, Luke has "already taken the first steps into a much larger world," while Han, the more worldly-wise of the two, is barely beginning down that pathway -- a path he will not fully embrace until he returns in the Millennium Falcon to assist Luke's assault on the Death Star.