Smash Bros’ Deceiving Simplicity

When I am not working, writing, reading, politicking, or sleeping; my preferred activity to pass the time is gaming. It’s always been a passion of mine, and for the over a month that passion has been directed towards one game in particular. Super Smash Bros Ultimate, the crossover fighter of Nintendo legacy characters, is that obsession; and out of all the addictions for me and others to have, the high the games give is, what I would argue, the best. The series is not starved for success by any means, being financially lucrative and repeatedly praised for it’s ability to deliver engaging gameplay via simple inputs and mechanics. While as a fan of the series I certainly appreciate any praise thrown it’s way, I believe the perception that Smash is simple is false to a large extent, born out of a focus on technical inputs rather than the miniutia of gameplay.

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It’s fair to say that grasping the basics of Smash isn’t too hard of a task. Repeatedly pressing A performs the character’s jab combos, tilting the control stick in any cardinal direction followed by a press by the A preforms a tilt attack, the same principle for ground attacks hold true for aerials and special moves, and simply flicking the right stick will preform a smash attack. Grabs can be preformed by pressing one of the top triggers, shielding is done by pressing one of the lower triggers, etc. Comparing Smash to other fighting games with the same surface level glance, it’s understandable to conclude that Smash was simple. For instance, a game like Street fighter has special moves being preformed with more demanding quarter-circle, half-circle, full-circle, z-motion, or holding inputs followed by one of the 6 attack buttons. Combos are rarely preformed by simply mashing one button, but often require a more technical series of inputs such as Ryu’s standing medium punch-crouching medium kick-hadoken combo. The basics are harder to execute in a game like Street fighter than a game like Smash, and that lends the latter to being perceived as simple.

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But as I said before, such an analysis is deceptive and lacks the context of the mechanical details of Smash that separates it from other fighting games. Ryu’s standing medium punch-crouching medium kick-hadoken combo might have a greater difficulty in it’s execution, but at least he has the benefit of it always working through-out a match. Smash operates under a unique knock-back health system. As a fighter accumulates blows, their knock back percentage increases along with the ease to knock them to blast zone resulting in a stock loss. This unique take on a health system affects the gameplay in multiple aspects, one of them being combos. For example, assuming low percentage, the character Link can follow his down-throw with consecutive up-tilts for a combo. However as percentage accumulates on the opponent the effectiveness of the combo diminishes and after a certain threshold the combo doesn’t work at all. But the percentage does open up new combo possibilities for the fighter, such as down-tilt-full hop-forward aerial only working at higher percents.

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The opponent being damaged isn’t entirely powerless in that moment either. When being knocked back by a move, the player can input a direction that will affect the trajectory of their ascent. This mechanic changes a great deal in the reliability of certain combos. To give a personal anecdote, when I was exploring the fighter Zelda I was excited to discover a kill combo that worked when the opponent was between 70%-85% where I preformed an up-throw followed by an up-special. However this combo didn’t work if the opponent D.I., making it less reliable than my initial impression; requiring me to use other follow-ups in order to train my opponent not to D.I. in order to use my discovery.

I could go on, but given the mechanical complexity of Smash I feel that to discuss it in full would require a dissertation, not a simple blog post. So in summary I would say what makes Smash unique isn’t it’s simplicity but it’s continuous design space. The player has a lot more leeway in how they preform combos, play neutral, respond to edge-guarding, etc. For instance, when a player is in the air, they can alter their ascent and descent with simple taps of the control stick rather than being committed to any sort of trajectory. When juggling an opponent, the player has multiple vectors of attack to choose between, none of them necessarily being the clear superior option in all circumstances. What this does is lower the skill floor, as the player is given much more freedom to respond to circumstances that pop up during a match, but raises the skill ceiling due to an increased amount of nuances and complexities the player needs to be aware of at all times in order to be successful when playing at a high-level. Smash is a more analog type of fighting game, not a simpler one.

 

 

 

With Love, From: Skyward Sword To: Breath of the Wild

In November 2011, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released as a swan-song to the Nintendo Wii; fully embracing a motion-based control scheme in a way no title this decade has truly done before or since. While the title got a positive critical reception upon launch, the following years of discourse have been unkind to the game. Releasing the same year as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a title the popularized the ‘open world’ genre for the decade, Skyward Sword‘s more laid out, restrictive, set of areas connected loosely by an open sky quickly grew to be regarded as antiquated and overly strict on the player. It’s use of motion controls, unpopular amongst swaths of dedicated players, certainly didn’t help matters.

Fast-forward to the late 2010s, another 3D Zelda game has released, this time with a much warmer reception. 2017’s Breath of the Wild was lauded for the openness of it’s environmental design and it’s ability of facilitate emergent gameplay possibilities for the player to take advantage of. While much has been made, from both individual observations and interviews with the development team, of Breath‘s influences, from the original Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System to more contemporary open world titles, there is an influence that is unsung. Despite their differences, Breath of the Wild owes much of it’s environmental design to Skyward Sword.

In a Iwata Asks interview, key members of Skyward‘s development team placed emphasis on the density on display with the environments. When referring to past 3D Zelda games, Yutaka Hiramuki from Nintendo EAD talked about how “the fields were the scene of more easygoing play, but once you went into a dungeon, you would get a new item and act strategically and solve puzzles”. Other development staff noticed a lack of verticality to these fields as well as a lack of utility to these areas once their associated dungeons were completed.

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Looking at Skyward Sword‘s predecessor, Twilight Princess, confirms the development team’s observations. The image above shows a segment of the larger Hyrule field that connects the various other areas of the game to one another. While the vista is certainly beautiful, it doesn’t communicate any intriguing secrets the field might be hiding. The field certainly isn’t lacking in secrets, in fact there exist several collectible bugs, poes, secret holes, heart pieces, and even a hidden cave that acts as an optional dungeon. But it isn’t the quantity of content, or even the quality that’s the problem. The issue is that the player would lack the information to glean where this content is.

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Contrast that image to this, admittedly shoddy, first person view of a section of Skyward Sword’s Faron woods.  The increased verticality of the area is immediately apparent, with the grounds circling the large tree at the center. From that tree stems several wrinkles and branches that contain clearly visible goddess cubes, ancient monuments that the player can strike in order to unlock loot that can be collected in the sky. The terrain itself is also notably elevated in several places, communicating to the player unique subsets of areas they might want to check out. The area isn’t completely open, there do exist hard gates such as preventing the player from say entering the tree itself without the ability to swim, but it does cleanly communicate to players areas of interest that they are free explore if they are so inclined.

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A more clear example of this design principle is Eldin Volcano. From the base of the volcano, the summit remains clearly visible as well as the paths along the slope. The base itself is also marked by vertical structures that connote areas of interest, such as center island in the lava lake that marks the home of the native Mogmas. This design clearly highlights areas of interests and potential secrets for the player to investigate. This guides players, as if by an invisible hand, to the unique gameplay challenges the developers wants them to experience, such as the loose sand slopes that force the player to manage their stamina as enemies attack them from their elevated perch or the interesting scenarios to be found in the Mogmas dwellings.

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Breath of the Wild, despite it openness serving as a contrast to Skyward Sword‘s more arranged approach, adopts the same design principles to create a similarly dense world that guides the players to it’s secrets in a discrete manner. Looking towards the horizon in the image above, several mountains can be seen. A volcano to the left, a pair of twin peaks slightly towards the right, and a whole host of smaller pillars, hills, brightly lit structures, and other small oddities dotted across a rugged terrain. This isn’t just for aesthetics though, for example the volcano hides the perpetually autumn Akkala region and the research scientist that has the ability to craft the ancient arrows for the player. On it’s summit lies the heart of the Goron civilization and all of the mining operations that are central to both their economic prosperity, and the player’s own personal pursuit of wealth. Beyond just simply orienting the player, these oddities connote potential places of interest that encourage the player to investigate them, much like how the tree at the center of Faron Woods encouraged the player to circle around it or how the volcano encouraged the player to hike it slopes.

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As the player continues to explore these oddities and mountaintops, they are consistently rewarded with either useful loot, seeds from the lovable koroks, or best of all interesting gameplay challenges. Once while exploring a cliffside to the east along the shoreline, I came across a trial that called upon me to collect an orb from a set of three hinoxs, each more deadly than the last. While I conquered the trial in a uniquely emergent fashion, defeating only one of the hinoxs while using the terrain to jump on the bellies of the sleeping beasts to steal their orbs, it was only because the game adopts the environmental design principles of Skyward Sword that I was able to encounter this challenge at all.

Ironically, it’s this adoption of a design principle from a fairly arranged, ‘linear’ game that makes Breath of the Wild such a masterpiece in open world game design. Often games of this type are reliant on abstract means to communicate to the player their location and points of interest in the environment, whether that be through a compass, pre-made map markers, or other means. Breath of the Wild forgoes this and is able to pull off a more natural, landmark-based approach to exploration; an approach possible only through the letters it received from it’s older brother, a seemingly more strict individual that nevertheless had valuable insights on how to have a good time.

Who Wears the Yellow Vest?

Romantic images have always seemed to circulate in the imaginations of Americans when they think towards Paris. Not just for the promise of a good meal, or a getaway with a lover, but on noble political struggle. An assurance that the mistreated underclasses can rise up to rid themselves of an aloof king and craft a better world. But looking at the recent ‘Gilets Jaunes’ or ‘Yellow Vest’ protests to the Macron Administration disrupts the fantasy. Not just in terms of violence, such as the 100 people injured in the desecration of the Arc de Triomphe as reported by the New York Times, though that is of some note. What is devastating however is the absence of a coherent idealogical through-line, a clear and consistent set of demands that the romance necessitates. In it’s place is simply a collective rage.

Looking towards the beginnings of these protests reveals the lack of organization. The New York Times reports that the movement can be traced back to a petition calling for a reduction started by cosmetic business owner Priscilla Ludosky that was later given attention by truck driver Eric Drouet who went on to garner a car rally cum protest on Nov. 17. But that just the Times. Meanwhile, CNN reports that the protests originated from motor mechanic Ghislain Coutard, who’s viral video encouraged people to wear the yellow vests mandated by the state for drivers to wear in the event of an accident in protest to the hike in gas taxes, along with identifying other instigators. This isn’t a case of one report being right while the other wrong, rather it highlights the contemporary nature of the yellow vest movement. Rather than emerging from a labor union or political party, the protests have emerged spontaneously across France; emblematic of the role social media played in fueling this zeitgeist of backlash.

The people shrouded by this zeitgeist are cut from a similar cloth. Men and women, mostly from rural areas, who are rich enough to escape the poverty line and subsequently welfare protections yet poor enough to feel the impact the raised fuel taxes have on their bottom line. Without a reliable public transport, these people are reliant on automobiles everyday. “We are really struggling” says Thomas, a gamekeeper, to France 24 “the people on 1,000-1,200 euros; once we pay the bills there is nothing left.”

So in the face of this predicament, the yellow vest movement has taken to streets and with it the movement’s lack of focus, in both tactics and demands, has come into view. Most protestors have been peaceful, with one anonymous women handing out flowers to the police as a sign of her pacifism. “I’m not here to fight” she said to The New York Times “I’m here for justice”. Others have been more violent: torching cars, assaulting officers, vandalizing shops and monuments. Speaking to French 24, Virginia, a nurse, called the violence an unfortunate necessity. “If it had just been us” Virginia said “than we’ve just been tear gassed and gone in twenty minutes and everybody would have forgotten about us.” “It’s hard to say, but the fact that there were vandals meant that we were noticed.”

The demands to lack a coherent through-line beyond an end to the fuel tax and the resignation of President Macron. Some desire the ISF, a solidarity tax on assets in excess of 1,300,000 euros that targeted the wealthy, to be reinstated following its repeal in 2017. Others, such as Clement, a contractor, spoke to France 24 about anxieties regarding a loss of social connections as small businesses are pushed out of the market by larger chains. Elements of fascism have cropped up, with Maxime Nicolle spreading falsehoods such as that Macron is preparing to sign a United Nations agreement to allow 480 million more immigrants into Europe along with other conspiracies regarding globalism and the deep state.

48367625_10156233747875000_2308530773977726976_n.jpgAn infographic (shown above) that was uploaded by the France Bleu radio conglomerate, shows an abbreviated list of demands by members of the yellow vest movement. What this reveals is a mixture of genuine concerns coupled with contradictions and conspiratorial thinking. There is a call to respect international treaties and agreements, yet a demand to withdraw from NATO and the EU. A call for a greater state investment in low-income housing and re-nationalization, yet a demand to restrain the income tax burden to only a maximum of 25 percent. All coming packaged with references to right-wing conspiracies such as globalism, a culling of immigration, and a call for a chokehold to be placed on news media and the courts. It’s no wonder that pundits on both sides of the political aisle have used the yellow vest movement as a prop to embellish their rhetoric with comfort. And given how popular the far right has been in France and the rest of Europe this decade, Macron himself faced a challenge in the nationalistic Marine Le Pen the last presidential election, the movement would likely be pushed further to the right if Macron’s administration were to rupture.

Who are the yellow vests? Individually they are men and women, but collectively they embody a rage, an anxious ghost hovering over liberal capitalist democracies. That the forces of capital have excessive dominion over society as communities are disrupted, austerity is implemented, and the divide in wealth grows greater and more concentrated. But rage is just a feeling, it can be channeled in multiple directions. An insistence that there is an elite that are undoing French civilization can easily be contorted to ominously rhyme with the classic forms of French right-wing nationalism, including indigenous anti-semitism. Protest and popular passions are inevitable and important in any society, but they are not always the best place to govern from, especially when the collective rage isn’t channeled in a clear direction. The romance of righteous revolution is alluring, but it hides the fragility of liberal institutions and the hungry right-wing ghouls lying in wait to take power. The governed need to recall this, the governing even more so.

 

 

After Trauma: How Halloween (2018) Relays the Experience of Victims

As a whole, I am a bit ambivalent about the recent Halloween sequel. The film certainly has an interesting first and third acts; facts that I feel mask an underwhelming middle that bridges the two. Yet what exists in those two exhilarating endpoints is what causes my thoughts to linger on the film; this rumination focused on how the film communicates Laurie’s (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) trauma and the setting’s reactions to it.

When the film first introduces it’s new rendition of Jamie Lee Curtis’s debut role, any naivety that existed in her original incarnation had been extinguished in the 40 years since her assault by Michael Myers. Isolating herself from the suburban Haddonfield, Laurie has constructed a literal fortress as her dwelling. Fencing surrounds the perimeter of the property, windows are barred, doors have several layers of locks, and the kitchen is furnished with a safe room holding enough firearms to supply a militia. If Fort Knox is the most secure place in the States, this might be a close second!

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Hyperbole aside, the way Laurie’s introduction visually demonstrates her emotional state very poignantly communicates her paranoia and desire for retribution. Having become painfully aware of the suburban terror embodied by Michael Myers, Laurie has deliberately isolated from Haddonfield to secure herself from repeating said experience. Yet her possession and training with firearms indicates a desire for retribution against her assaulter, as if retribution for that initial incident never came to pass. She even confesses to such a desire to officer Hawkins, saying that she wished that one day Michael would break out so that she would get to kill him.

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While these feelings are presented as warranted to the audience, they nevertheless engender negative reactions from the people in Laurie’s life. Raised by a traumatized Laurie, Karen was raised harshly by an emotionally distant mother figure who was eventually deemed unfit for parenting by child services. Now an adult, Karen actively to keep her mother away from herself and her daughter in attempt to not engender the same anxieties her mother attempted to pass on to her. Allyson (Karen’s Daughter), though she tries to bring her Grandmother into the fold by inviting her to her honors enrollment dinner and comforting her during panic attacks, lacks the ability to nurse Laurie that stems from a deficit in similar experience of trauma.

Though Karen and Allyson’s naivety is inevitably broken when Michael Myers returns to his hometown of Haddonfield. Much has been said on the anxieties that Michael Myers embodies, but for the purposes of this analysis he primarily represents two:

  1. The fear of evil forming from within suburbia itself, given he was raised in Haddonfield and assumed to have been brought up in a normal suburban life for a white boy.
  2. The fear of violence towards women by men given that the victims of Michael the film places the most significance on are women (Judith Myers, Laurie and her family, etc.)

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With this in mind, the state that Michael is seen in when the film introduces him is rather interesting. Captured that harrowing Halloween night in 1978, the authorities, prompted by Dr. Loomis, chose to not kill Michael and instead simply return him to the asylum for further psychological evaluation. Despite Dr. Loomis’s pleas to kill Michael later in his life, the state’s study continues under Dr. Sartain. In short, Michael is confined to his previous arrangement, his latest crimes against Laurie and others not inspiring any new conviction or sentence. Instead the state and other powers seem more interested in empathizing with Michael rather than his victims, as seen through the actions several representatives of these institutions.

Dr. Sartain is obsessed with understanding what type of satisfaction Michael gets when killing. He reminds the police and Laurie that Michael is an asset to the state that must not be harmed. The severity of this decree is made clear after the doctor stabs officer Hawkins in the neck for trying to kill Michael. The aftermath of the murder of Hawkins illuminates the Doctor’s intent to empathize with Michael. Adorning the iconic mask, the doctor drags Michael into the squad car to see him confront Laurie for the purposes of seeing “the metaphysical divide between killer and victim blur”. Sartain’s priorities are evident; he rather empathize with Michael and preserve the anxieties he represents than prevent further harm by his hands.

This desire to empathize with the shape is shared, albeit to a lesser degree, by the journalists Dana and Aaron. Concerned with uncovering any hidden truths of the 1978 killing spree, the pair interviews the mute Michael and the annoyed Laurie. With Michael, their approach is to coax him to tell his version of events via kind words and showing the stain William Shatner mask he used during the murders. Despite Michael’s silence, the interviewers are eager to simply listen to his perspective. When interviewing Laurie however, their approach becomes more confrontational. Aaron is dismissive of Laurie’s comparisons to the bogeyman and Dana brings up Laurie’s failures as a parent in an attempt to make her question the validity of her perspective. They gaslight her in other words; for the purpose of presenting a story more sympathetic to Michael.

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It’s this response, trivialization, that also representative of the perspectives of minor characters in the story. Officer Hawkins partner Barker is dismissive of the threat posed by Michael Myers, saying they “can’t cancel Halloween” with a naive smile, and Allyson’s friend Dave questions the significance of a few murders given all the problems in the world.

What all these responses and reactions of  state and media actors indicate is a societal complicity towards the actions of Michael Myers which serve to trivialize Laurie’s experiences. Characters of societal power tend to treat Michael as a man to empathize with, up to the point of their ultimate rejection via brutal murders at the hands of the killer, over a woman like Laurie; or act to trivialize Laurie’s experiences. This in turn fuels Laurie’s desire to seek retribution on her own accord, which isolates her from a society that is complicit in Michael’s actions and trivializes her experiences.

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Towards the end of the movie, Laurie gets her chance at retribution in a confrontation with Michael, and we get Sartain’s promised blurring of the line between victim and killer. In Laurie’s fortress, the killer Michael is disempowered. Laurie is privy to his tricks and make sure to check closets and lock the rooms she visits. Meanwhile, Laurie becomes the hunter, tracking the hidden Michael to enact her revenge. In doing so she becomes akin to him in some respects. After being thrown of the balcony of her house, she disappears much like Michael did in 1978 and even appears from the shadows much like Michael. Even the rest of Laurie’s family gets in on the appropriation, with Karen feigning helplessness in order to lure Michael to face the barrel of her rifle and Allyson using Michaels iconic butcher knife to stab the killer. This blurring of the lines, this usage of Michael’s tactics by the family serves a crucial expression; for Laurie and the rest to communicate to whatever shred of actual character exists in the shape of Michael the trauma they experienced before sending him to his death. A death by pyre as Laurie and her family burn Michael along with her house, a monument of her isolation and trauma that she hopes to put behind her.

Yet, despite the cathartic finale, the film concludes with uncertainty much like the original Halloween. In the fire, Michael cannot be seen and the film cuts to credits on a sweep of the family ending on a shot of a solemn Allyson still clutching the titular killer’s knife. As the trio return to normalcy in Haddonfield, they are still returning to a society that produced a killer like Michael and was complicit in his actions. For Michael was merely a shape, a vessel for that society’s underlying violent tendencies aimed at woman. The anxieties still exist, ready to be embodied by a new shape.

It this theme, of communicating the trauma of a victim and see her confront her assaulter for retribution, that makes Halloween very poignant in the present. With ascendence of figures like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh into positions of power despite their respective records of accusations of sexual assault, many survivors, particularly women, reasonably feel that their traumas are being trivialized and ignored by a society complicit enough to give these people favor. For such audiences, I can imagine Halloween would be a very cathartic experience, for it will provide them with chance to experience a justice they are deprived of. A chance to look their tormentor in the eye and, in the words of Laurie, wish them “Happy Halloween”.

 

The Death of John McCain: How We Talk about Legacy

John McCain is dead. A war hero, a bastion of decency, a maverick. A war monger, a rude old man, a toe-the-line conservative. McCain has been attributed these epitaphs many times, by groups with varying political persuasions. And to be frank, I suspect that the last three descriptors I ascribed to the recently departed might have offended a great many of you. And understandably so. With the public mourning and his body lying in state for the purposes of national ritual, there is no denying McCain as an icon. An icon whose’s legacy is, shall we say, being cemented rather uncritically. And is that craft, the making of legacy, that makes this present moment very interesting for us as a people. How do we shape a legacy in the making?

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I won’t spend too many words on the life and times of John McCain, as others have done so to great length. Suffice to say, it’s complicated. Yes, McCain has been known to cross the political divide to support bipartisan efforts such as his co-authorship of the 2005  Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act with the late Ted Kennedy, which would have established a guest worker program and path to citizenship to migrants that conservatives loathed. Yet this effort, like many of his others, failed and what is left are positions that fall in line with conservative dogma, such as his support for Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 “Papers Please” legislation, which gave Arizona police the power to detain anyone they suspected of dubious immigration status, which corresponded closely with his senatorial primary race. It’s this confusing dichotomy that runs through McCain’s life. He may have supported the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988 which helped indigenous people’s, including Arizona’s Navajo tribe, establish what would become the main economic driver for these societies, yet nevertheless would force them to relocate from Oak Flats and Big Mountain to satisfy industrial mining interests. And while he had reservations about torture, as evidenced by him speaking out against the U.S. partaking in it at Abu Ghraib, he stilled remained a staunch advocate of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and beyond. If I can summarize my feelings towards the recently departed, as limited by the para-social relationship I have to the man, McCain was an exemplar of the tendencies of liberal conservatism, for better and for worst. He was rhetorically committed to liberal values, but would often make exceptions and compromises in an seemingly pragmatic effort to remain on the good graces of corporate interests, his neoconservative allies in Congress, and his personal ambitions. Exceptions that would often hurt others, both here and afar.

Yet with the flood of obituaries and eulogies from journalists, politicians of both parties, and personal friends, that more honest assessment is being masked. His largely conservative voting record being obscured in favor of a focus on his bipartisan efforts; his consistent militarism and the accompanying fallout of said actions veiled by a focus on his civility. That is the image, the legacy that is being shaped. A legacy not just for a passive remembrance, but to actively shape the public imagination.

Who is legacy for? Is it purely for the dead, a mere record of their past deeds? If that was entirely the case, I would doubt these ghosts would still be popping up in our present conversations as often. Take Martin Luther King. To anyone who has studied him, his writings, his actions, and the culture’s reaction to him and the rest of the civil rights movement, knows of his radicalism, his stances against white centrism, and the negative reactions he received for his acts of civil disobedience and the overall gains of the civil rights movement. Yet these truths about the man are often ignored whenever a Black Lives Matter or National Anthem protest rolls around. When Martin Luther King is evoked in these moments, it’s often to cast the contemporary protests as uncivil, as spitting in the face of his memory; whether it be a protest on the street or kneeling on the field. In these scenarios, MLK’s legacy of civil disobedience is twisted to help shape the moving goalposts protestors of racial disparities have to aim for if they desire majority support.

My point in this brief aside is to introduce you to the idea that legacy is less a record of the dead, and more a tool for the living. A tool that helps shape the public zeitgeist to the interests of the sociological majority and the institutions that largely represent them. From my observations of John McCain’s funeral and the statements made in this moment of public mourning, the beginnings of crafting legacy as a tool seems to be happening once again.

Various media outlets have focused on the subtle digs at Trump that have appeared through-out the funeral proceedings by Meghan McCain, Barack Obama, and more. Indeed, with the focus on McCain’s public feud with Trump as of late and the president unsurprising tone-deaf actions in response to the famed politician’s death, such an emphasis is expected. Though such rebukes might indicate what direction McCain’s legacy will take in the immediate future. Trump and the gang of ghouls that ascended with him are emblematic of the rise of the illiberal elements of the Republican Party, figures who have little regard for liberal values, save for when they can be used to push forward their agenda, and openly align themselves with white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, and other strict interpretations of the social hierarchies of our liberal society. The alt-right in other words.  By focusing on how McCain’s legacy symbolically counters this rising storm, men and women from both parties hope to restore the liberal conservatism that McCain exemplified. A tendency that, while reliant on the after mentioned illiberal elements as a method to drum up support, was never completely consumed by them in rhetoric or values.

Some might say that this is a good thing, a way to counter Trump and his base. I disagree! Trump certainly is unique specimen of cockroach, and the alt-right is a blight I rather see snuffed out. But I feel the position I described ignores the failings of liberal conservatism.  Ever since it’s rise in the 1980s, liberal conservatism has saw the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the erosion of many of the gains for women and people of color in the 1960s and 70s; developments that I consider largely responsible for many of the present disparities in the world today. Reviving such an ideology is counter-productive in finding the solutions to the problems we face in the present.

Rather than using legacy as a tool of idealogical warfare, I propose equating legacy to lesson. What we, the living, owe the dead is not to view them as either angels or demons, but rather to craft their legacy to be as close to the truth as we can. This way we can learn from them, their successes, their failures, to craft a better present for ourselves and a even greater future for our posterity. Some might say that such efforts are best left to a more convenient season, to let the dead be buried and the wounds of loss to heal. I am sympathetic to this, particularly for those who were close to the man, but given the crucial moment this represents in terms of legacy formation, I chose to stand firm. We owe the dead the truth so the living may avoid the sins of the past and enjoy the hope of the future.

Short Story: The Horrible Life of Jordan S.M.B.L. Thorchann

My Grandfather always told me that there would be no rest for the weary, and boy was that fossil right as rain. Here I was about to retire for the evening, get out of this tacky uniform, and go spend a lovely evening at the new Picasso exhibit with my beloved only to receive a call to haul ass to the slums of Jackson St. It’s a rough life I tell you. At least I could peer out of the squad car window as the city passed us by, it’s bright lights appearing as strings of lights in front of a black background as we whizzed through the streets at top speed. At least, in the face of all this, I could enjoy the temporary view.

“We’re here, quit the day-dreaming Jordan” my partner, Alicia, said to get my attention.

Never mind!

Man, they weren’t kidding when they called this place a slum. Half of the houses looked depilated, the rest appearing like they were on there way. Crossing the police tape into the house beyond revealed that the inside was just as putrid. Peeling lead pain, stained worn carpets, such a disgrace. I bet they don’t even clean their bedrooms.

“Man these people should be ashamed, living in this squalor.” I said to Alicia. Her little black nose twitching in frustration. 

“Well the legacy of red-lining on top of all the other historical bullshit makes that kind of thing difficult to transcend on an individual basis.”

“Stop blaming the past. You and your people need to take responsibilities for yourselves.”

Her face was angry now; boy, women are so easily triggered.

“What would you know about it, dick?”

Dick!? Wow, misandry much. Kept that thought silent though. What can I say, I’m a nice guy. Besides, more important things were afoot as Detective Michael Keeler was calling us over. Probably wants to see my mad skills in action.

“Ah Alicia, just the person wanted to see. So sorry for holding you up, I know your shift ends soon.” Michael said.

What!? I’m here you know, can’t get an acknowledgement. Why that piece of… got to stay calm. It’s not me, probably just some affirmative action bull-crap. Gotta give the obviously less skilled a leg up in accordance to cultural marxist doctrine. I understand.

“It’s not a problem, Michael. Duty first and all that. Any changes from last we spoke.” Alicia said.

“Nothing much” Michael sighed “Mrs. Smith’s son Malcolm is still missing and she still isn’t talking. Not that I blame her. Son was arrested a few years back and garner two black eyes and broken nose while in our custody. Only called us because no one in her network knows where he is. People are willing do anything under desperation I guess.”

“We need to make sure we get her son back into her arms, safe and sound.” Alicia said.

“Agreed, that’s why I called you here. I need you to talk to her…”

I’m sorry, I can’t take this anymore. It’s my story, I’m the protagonist, I’m suppose to be the one shining here.

“Don’t worry Mike” I butted in “I’ll speak with her.”

“No!” Alicia said in a vain attempt to steal my thunder. Michael tried stop my approach via the old hand on shoulder approach, but to no avail as my mighty shoulder is not so easily grabbed by soy boys. These people need to stop underestimating me. I’m a nice guy, I’m rational. I just need to say the exact right thing to have her spill the beans.

“Eh, Mrs. Smith, why ain’t you talking, you hiding your son’s coke problem.”

She said nothing, merely giving me the kind of scornful look only a woman can give. Clearly a sign of my eminent victory; women’s rational faculties are so easily overwhelmed by emotion that a superior mind like mine can easily outmaneuver them.

“You dick!” a familiar voice said, followed quickly by a slap right. I turned to face my assaulter only to find it to be Alicia herself. My word, how dare she attack me! What did I do to deserve this? Well, I can’t let this stand without reply. Raising my hand I prepared to trade an eye for eye with Alicia, only to be interrupted yet again.

“Thats enough, Jordan.” Michael said, his scrawny arm attempting to hold back my big testosterone enforced guns. Alicia, obviously trying to escape the fight she picked, ran up to Mrs. Smith for consul while I was dragged to the side.

“Why the hell you did that for?” I demanded “Equal rights means equal lefts.”

“All you’ll be getting is a foot up your ass if you don’t shut up Jordan.”

He let go of my guns, so I leaned on the wall to see Alicia and Mrs. Smith conversing. Look at them all wide-eyed and understanding; what a ruse. She is only talking because of my intro; once again Alicia simply piggybacking off of my achievement. Typical professional wom. They wear their make-up and lipstick to entice you, then steal all your opportunities. What a load!

“Jordan, let me tell you something I picked up on after all these years.” Michael said to me. Oh great a long ass speech. 

“White people, even the best intentioned and most empathetic, can never truly get at the black experience. At best, it’s merely inklings of the fear, of the resentment, of the double consciousness these people have to deal with everyday. Sometimes I wish it could be different, would certainly reduce the number of awkward moments in my life, but it’s just a limitation you have to be aware of.”

“What the hell you getting at Michael?”

“That Alicia there can do some things that you can’t, know some things you can never know. Acknowledging those things doesn’t make you a bad cop, far from it. Knowing that you can’t be the hero of every tale is a mark of wisdom.”

Limitations?! Things I cannot know?! That’s some lefty, cultural marxist, postmodernist bullshit. I’m a man; I’m rational. Hell, the other day on my youtube channel some called me the next Plato. To think Michael would be so infected with SJW propaganda. So sad. Couldn’t muster a response in time though, as Alicia came back to us, still giving me the stink eye.

“She said his last stop before coming home would have been to the clinic a few blocks down. Apparently he gets some medicine there to take the edge off his cravings.”

“A good enough lead as any.” Michael said “Given that you two nearly came to blows, I’ll go with Alicia to the clinic. Jordan, just take your squad car back to the station and gets some rest and please think about what I said.”

And just like that, I was on the road again on again taking in the stream of city lights. Can’t get what Michael said out of my head. Suppose if you cut out the post modernist language it makes some sense. I mean black people are on the lower end of the bell curve. Obviously a person with a higher I.Q. would have difficulties understanding the lower I.Q. simpletons. Thats obviously the reason. Though I must say, why do I have to work with one of those simpletons rather than above. Why upset the natural hierarchy. I mean Michael, so infected by cultural marxism, would claim that’s it all social. Bullshit! I mean if you look at humanity’s closest living relative, the lobster, you would see that hierarchies are natural. Guess I’ll just have to be the only rational person in this whole damn city. What a shame. Next right and I am at the station, but its 7:05. Dammit I’m going to be late at this rate. I can’t disappoint my beloved. 

Past my initial right two blocks down lied the gallery. It’s quite the wonderful building, held together by a lovely wooden finish. And the river just beyond it looks beautiful. Entering the building like I have done many times before, I was greeted by my beloved, Asuna. She looks so lovely, so busty, and not a peep from her mouth. That’s what I love about 2D woman, they never insult me unlike those 3D femoids. My beloved was eager, so I toured the gallery. So many Picasso works and re-creations on display, hell I could see a few of mine own submissions to the gallery. The textures of the paints are so lovely, how they wrap around the curves of the canvas, all wrapped up in the wonderful scent of formaldehyde. Man I love that Spaniard, so much better than the modern art of today. Trash as art? Please! So deep is society’s infection with cultural marxism that everything is melting away. Art, literature, Video games. Hell, I even heard they made a woman the lead in this new star wars trilogy. Culture used to make us feel good, but now, now I’m lonely, I’m lonely and ITS EVERYONE ELSE’S FAULT BUT MINE!

Jesus, I can’t get angry like that. I’m supposed to be the nice guy, the hero. Don’t want to upset Asuna now do I. But as I composed myself, I heard another set of foot steps. I turned the corner to find, of all people, Alicia staring at my submission. How the hell did she get here, tickets are sold out. Oh, I know how, must have snuck in. People like her only want free stuff after all. Guess I’ll have to be the one to escort her out. Luckily for me, my gun was still on my belt. Pulling it out, I lined up my sights directly at her. Just in time to as she just managed to detach one of the pieces from the wall. MY OWN PIECE!!!

“YOU THIEF!” I yelled pulling the trigger to release two rounds. Both missed and she fled behind the gallery wall holding the paintings. Nice reflexes, I’ll give her that. Her kind always had great physicality. No wonder they made such great models for my imitations of Picasso. But how long can she keep this up? After all, she coming face to face with a patriarch, a hero of culture, an ALPHA LOBSTE…

And just like that, everything went dark. The only sense I had was the feeling of blood dripping down my forehead. The bitch! She must have gotten me when I was internally monologuing. I just wanted to get her for trespassing, I was being a nice guy. While I was pondering that though, the darkness began to part, replaced by a bright light of all things. God!? No it can’t be, I’m a rational skeptic; I don’t believe in such silly things. But I must say it was an impressive illusion of my oxygen deprived mind as a hand materialized to reach towards me. Purely out of a sense of curiosity I raised my hand to meet it. But just as our hands were about to meet, the illusion rudely flicked me. Falling through the void, I looked up to see this force giving the bird of all things. Falling and falling through the darkness only to be halted suddenly. Finding myself tied to a desk and stuck in a classroom of all things. Just then a woman materialized and began to speak.

“Hello class and welcome to Social Studies 101.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” 

The Pitfalls of Abstraction: An Analysis of the Battle System of Octopath Traveler

The gaming industry can at times be heavily reliant on nostalgia. Legacy games from the 90s and 80s experience revivals at a regular rate and sometimes even genres that have fallen from popularity can return to the forefront of the public’s attention. Enter Octopath Traveller, the recent RPG hit from the developers Square Enix and Aquire. From first glance, it’s obvious that the game harkens back to 16-bit RPG classics such as FF6 with a sprite based art style and a non-spatial turn-based battle system. While the former is certainly quite the sight to behold, with it’s pop-up book approach and the way the aesthetic informs exploring the areas the players finds themselves in, it’s the latter that makes me wonder if some design choices are better left in the past. 

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What RPGs, whether played on the table-top or LED screen, share in common is that their all abstractions. They don’t capture the concrete realities of living in their chosen settings for players to interact with but instead communicate the general ideas of these actions apart from concrete reality. Perhaps that was a bit to abstract as well, so allow me to give an example. Say I was learning to play the piano in real life. Such a task would involve improving my execution of playing notes and scales (i.e. learning how to press down on the key, how hard to press it for the desired dynamics, when to move my thumb so I can play notes further down the scale, etc.) and as I continually practiced these aspects correctly my skills with instrument would improve, as noted by the audio feedback generated from my playing. Contrast this with a hypothetical, non-spatial Piano RPG. Here the player encounters scales and compositions at random, with each note assigned as one option in a menu. Execution of each note requires little skill, needing only a simple selection, and as the player continues to encounter and conquer pieces of music they will “level-up” and increase stats such as precision or dynamics which are represented by one-dimensional numerical values which endeavor to note an increase in ability.

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Thats RPG’s in a nutshell, abstractions on the actions they wish to convey. But as my detailing of the hypothetical piano RPG implied, this translation can result in a loss of depth and complexity, a problem I believe Octopath Traveler suffers from. 

How do you defeat enemies in Octopath Traveler? You obviously have to get their HP down to zero, but at the start the damage players can do to their opponents is minuscule and since they share the same turn as the players they can’t necessarily heal in response to enemy attacks as effectively as in other RPGs. Enter the break system, where by attacking enemies with their given weakness the player whittles at enemy defenses until they erode completely. Once this happens, for the rest of the turn and the next the enemy that is broken is unable to preform actions, making him a sitting duck for the player to do massive damage upon. While skills exist in the game that serve to attract enemy attention, increase party member stats temporarily, or inflict status ailments onto opponents, all of these mechanical aspects conform around the break system rather than represent alternatives to it. 

With such a dominant plan of attack and the bottlenecking of alternatives, this leads Octopath Traveler to have the following repetitive gameplay loop:

  1. Discover enemy weaknesses which will be automatically revealed in successive encounters of that particular enemy upon discovery.
  2. Exploit enemy weaknesses to break the opponents, using healing and status affecting skills to manage the party and mitigate the damage received by enemies.
  3. Once broken, tap into your bp reserves liberally to do massive damage to your opponent while also healing the party to prepare for the next turn.

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An oversimplification? Perhaps, but one I still feel is on point. As I played through the game up to 110 hours, this is the strategy that the game kept pushing me to adopt in my play. A march towards a break, accomplished by a simple attack-attack-heal loop with a few status skills thrown in. While the game occasionally complicated this loop with it’s bosses, which would often change their weaknesses or cover a certain number of them given certain conditions, it was too little and repeated itself for nearly every boss fight once it was introduced, making it lose it’s luster. This accompanied by a nonexistent range in skillful execution made the combat flat. And at risk of repeating myself, this stems from the developers choice to abstract the combat rather than represent it concretely.  

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Ironically, most of the game’s complexity and depth that I experienced was in the menus, equipping my party with weapons, armor, and classes to alter their stats. Although all the complexity offered here is that of a math problem, though one of the player choice. As typical in RPG’s the choices on offer with such manipulations is largely whether you want to maximize a characters strengths, minimize their weaknesses, or something in between. For my play through I chose the former, I will admit to enjoying the discrete choices on offer. However since stats are one dimensional, it’s not immediately clear to the player how such changes impact a characters effectiveness in combat. What’s the visible difference between a 131 and a 150 Evasion stat? Seems like my character is being hit just as often as before. Such a disconnect can make these efforts in mathematics seem rather fruitless in the end. 

Now everyone who has been following this game even casually is aware of Octopath‘s success, both critically and financially. And that’s fine. I’m not here to diminish anyone’s feelings towards a work they like. But when I talk to others about this game, or observe conversations regarding it on the internet, the praises seems to center on either particular narrative moments or the freedom it grants player in choosing the order in which to experience said stories. Quite frankly these seem to be very shallow praises that ignore how the game as a whole works and the feelings it imbues to it’s players. Regardless of the quality of the narrative-focused bits, when the majority of players time is spent engaging in the story of one-note gameplay, that represents a bit of a failure.

Moreover, it makes me question the value such abstractions bring to a game. While the 8-bit and 16-bit eras were limited in the scale of worlds, enemies, and conflicts they could convey, making the abstraction of a non-spatial, turn-based, RPG make a degree of sense, that isn’t really true now. Games and the machines that run them have proven their ability to craft concrete fictional realities at a massive scale, actualizing the potential of gaming as a half-real medium. This makes the experiences that Octopath and others like it offer appear rather antiquated, and while I won’t say such pursuits are never worthwhile as franchises like Pokemon have proven such a format can provide deep strategic gameplay, it makes me wish at the very least for developers to be considerate in decisions on whether to abstract or not abstract.