Friday, March 11, 2016

Let's live like the most accepting generation, maybe?

Yes, I'm very aware how long it's been since I posted a videogame review.  Sorry :(

There's a lot to appreciate about my generation and its willingness to accept all sorts of different people from different walks of life. But there's certainly a dark side to all that. That acceptance doesn't come from a place of genuine care and compassion, as much as it comes from a place of philosophical confusion and social adherence.

While internet culture tends to lean more towards pragmatism/materialism/utilitarianism and its veneer of intellectual credibility, non-internet “youths” (We're not really youths anymore, are we? Darn) are all about dat moral subjectivity. Basically, “the truth is, there is no truth.” It's a philosophy that professes profundity because if its inanity. The claim that there are no moral absolutes is, obviously, a moral absolute. It's the sort of thing that can survive in the ivory towers of academia, but quickly withers and dies the moment it comes into contact with real life, and real situations. It's practically impossible to really live like all truths are equally true. Even more impossible to live like all truths are equally false.

“The truth is, there is no truth” is an anti-intellectual philosophy born of the desire to avoid actually engaging difficult moral issues. In one ethics class I took, the teacher presented a series of increasingly horrific moral atrocities, and eventually managed to get a portion of the class to claim The Holocaust was not morally wrong, but simply a difference in cultural/situational values. I thing I remember one person saying “it must have been right for them at the time.” The rest of the class, who had started enthusiastically proclaiming the subjectivity of all morality, had gradually lapsed into confused silence by that point. That is to say that some people, when pressed, will cling to the literal philosophy with a death grip, but most feel it rather than think it. That feeling being: “we should all get along.”

Don't get me wrong, this is a worthy sentiment. The problem is that it's based on feeling, not on adherence to a defined moral code and/or or logical reasoning. I will gladly condemn utilitarianism and pragmatism for stripping the conscience of its power and simultaneously providing a justification for all manner of horrors, but at least they are making an attempt at intellectual honesty. And at least they provide concrete principles to fall back on when emotions fail. The haziness of contemporary moral subjectivity does at least leave room for the conscience, and so it isn't as open to grandiose perversity as the aforementioned philosophies. You could argue that makes it less dangerous. Indeed, if given the choice I'd rather have a culture of hippies-by-another-name than a culture of steely Social Darwinists. However, that hazy moral subjectivity is much more vulnerable to manipulation, for the simple reason that emotions are vulnerable to manipulation. And that can be just as dangerous.

So where am I going with all this? Well, the point is that we have a culture of people who derive the security found in objectivity from their own assumed radical subjectivity, while also leaving the practical manifestation of that nebulous philosophy at the whim of whoever or whatever can best sway their emotions. Put more simply, their beliefs are infinitely malleable, and their assurance in them is unshakable.

And that's when Social Marxism steps in.

The problem with Social Marxism is not that it favors the weak over the strong. The problem is that it favors the weak over the strong exclusively. It's rooted in Marx's view of history as a struggle between the haves and the have nots (I can't spell the fancy French words, and to be honest I have a hard time remembering which is which :P), and his claim that morality itself is simply a tool of oppression. Social Marxism enjoys a healthy popularity in the halls of academia, especially in anything having to do with race or gender studies (which is why arguments about both things often end up at the common sticking point of historic oppression vs contemporary equality). But it's definitely touched popular belief as well. Everyone loves an underdog, after all.

I'd never claim to be an expert on Marxism. In fact, I have very little to say about it from an economic standpoint, because I know very little about it from an economic standpoint (this ignorance extends to socialism as well, but I'm sure I'm in good company with many people on both sides of the current political debate in that regard). My interest in it (and most philosophies) is primarily moral. And on the surface it's very appealing, especially to someone already inclined to support the downtrodden of society (which as I said, is definitely where my generation has its heart in the right place). Yay, the oppressed! Boo, the oppressors! Who wouldn't get behind that?

But there's a dark side to Social Marxism, and it's the same dark side I talked about in the first paragraph: rather than leading to equality and tolerance, it often just reverses the direction of oppression. Be that on a grand social scale, or on a per-issue per-person scale. It's not a philosophy of peace, it's a philosophy of fighting back. Of turning the tables, and of that table-turning being the greatest good to the exclusion of all other goods. Of course, the result is never peace and acceptance.

Ok, enough babble. What does this really mean practically? It means that the transvestite will rightly be shown love and compassion, but the racist will be wholeheartedly scorned. It means that compassion, patience, acceptance, and love are reserved for the right “team,” and all animosity, vitriol, and aggression are dealt out on anyone who isn't part of that team. They are simply an outlet for fury.

Don't get me wrong, racism should not be accepted. But the racIST should be. And their racism should be cured with that love and acceptance everyone professes to have. Or an attempt should at least be made. More likely than not, a given person's bigotry comes from a place of hurt or fear. That's a person that needs healing, not scorn. Oppression and hate lead to more oppression and hate. You don't need to assume that, it's something that can be observed throughout history. A shocking number of atrocities were committed by people who thought themselves the righteous victim, throwing down the oppressor. In fact, I'd argue, the majority.

(Protip: if you ever want to become a dictator, all you have to do is convince everyone you're fighting against an even greater evil on their behalf. Protip #2: be wary of anyone claiming to need power to fight a great evil on your behalf)

Worse still, it's easy for someone with a different religion, philosophy, political view, or lifestyle to become an enemy simply for believing or living differently than the supposed norm. Sometimes the aggression towards them has a basis in genuine moral outrage. Sometimes it's just unfocused fury against a group that believes different things than your average 20-something, spurred by special interest groups and/or whoever has control of entertainment media. Sometimes, you see individuals caught in the crossfire of ideologies, with the very people who supposedly were born and raised on the high road refusing to take the freaking high road.

I am so very much in favor of the sentiment to love everyone. I try as hard as I can to live that way, even if I often fail.  I have to bite my tongue and both hands, hard, to keep from posting snarky, mean-spirited, potentially hurtful things on social media whenever I'm outraged by a social or political issue.

But in practice, this is not what my generation believes. Their love of others is still conditional. Just as conditional as peoples' love ever was. It still leaves itself wide open to what we criticize previous generations and their religious/political groups for: using morality as an excuse for bigotry. We've tried to solve the problem by eliminating morality, but morality of a different sort crept in to do the same job.

The path to radical acceptance is not moral subjectivity. Rather, it's simply the old adage of “love the sinner hate the sin.” Or if you prefer a less religiously-charged version, “love the bigot, hate the bigotry.” What matters isn't what you believe is right. What matters is how you treat people you think are wrong. That's what radical acceptance is. Loving someone in spite of your feelings.  Loving someone unconditionally. Not fighting those who oppose you, as countless generations have done before, with the same effect.

I don't claim to be some great moral leader or visionary, but I do know this: calmness and kindness have defused every single disagreement or confrontation I've ever used them in. Lashing out angrily or snarkily never has. It felt good for a bit. Sometimes I could justify it because “they deserved it.” But it certainly never changed anything for the better. Let me repeat that again: I have never seen snarkiness, anger, vitriol, or general negativity change anyone or anything for the better. No matter how compellingly I could justify it to myself and others.  I have no reason to believe things would be any different on a grander scale.

Whether you're a pragmatic, a utilitarian, a materialist, a proponant of moral subjectivity, or whathaveyou... I think we can agree that genuine results are more important than self-righteous satisfaction.

The tl;dr version is simply to practice what you preach, without asterisks. Love everyone, accept everyone where they are. If someone is angry, scared, ignorant, what have you... heal them instead of hurting them. Love the bigot, hate the bigotry. Live like the accepting generation that we supposedly are. Yeah, it's hard. I certainly haven't figured out how to do it. In my humble opinion, that's how you change things.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Movie Review: The Witch

Minor spoilers.  If you care, see the movie first.  If you don't care, read on.

The Witch left me feeling both deeply unsettled and deeply confused.  Not because it was a particularly convoluted movie.  On the contrary, The Witch is confusing because at its core it's so very straightforward.  When I go to a 2016 horror film about Puritans and witchcraft, I expect it to have certain views of those things.  But there's a strange out-of-time quality to The Witch.  It's not just a horror story about Puritans.  It's a horror story that seems born directly from the Puritan worldview.  It doesn't seem to have been made for modern audiences at all.  This is a testement to the writer/director's integrity (and use of historical source material), but it's also a little jarring.

You expect there to be some "twist" to the old folktale to give it modern relevance, or some editorializing of the Puritan's zealotry and superstitions.  Indeed, a lot of reviewers seem eager to find themes of feminism or religious criticism or what have you.  But the most compelling analysis I found was on the IMDB forums (which is rather shocking): that The Witch is a parable about corruption and death caused by sin.  It's a Puritan morality tale brought to life on the big screen, with the whole "Puritan morality tale" thing firmly intact.

I think that's one of the most admirable things about the movie: how it feels entirely like the product of a different time and a different way of thinking.  And how it takes concepts that sound corny or ridiculously old-fashioned on paper, and makes them genuinely horrifying.  It doesn't need many tools to do that either.  There's very little gore in The Witch, and only a few moments that are outright violent.  It's all about the atmosphere and the sense of dread.  This is horror done right.

Well, mostly right.  I'm of two minds about the decision to show the witch herself barely 5 minutes in.  On the one hand, it's a disturbing scene that does a great job of establishing the tone of what's to come, and making the threat at hand genuinely threatening.  On the other hand, the paranoia and mistrust that follow could have been so much more effective if we didn't know there was a threat, and didn't know exactly what that threat was.  Don't get me wrong, the film still works.  It works really well actually.  But since you have insight the other characters don't have, you're not really experiencing the paranoia and terror along with them so much as you're just watching it unfold.

The Witch seems more concerned with the effect its woods-dwelling spellcaster has on the characters and their relationships.  And that's... generally a good idea.  But maybe not a great idea, in this case.  Thing is, oldschool Puritans just aren't very compelling.  They're all "thee" and "tho" and they pray a lot and teach their kids about damnation and stuff.  To it's credit, The Witch does an admirable job of humanizing people who would generally end up as grotesque stereotypes in lesser films.  They're good characters, but they're hard to relate to (and often hard to understand).  And the film spends a lot more time on them and their interpersonal conflicts than it does building suspense or reveling in supernatural depravity.

So in other words, you should be aware that The Witch is more of a Puritan morality tale that focuses on family drama, with the whole supernatural horror part as a looming backdrop.  That isn't to say it's a bad horror movie.  On the contrary, it's a phenomenal horror movie.  It boasts a chillingly bleak atmosphere and an uncomfortable sense of dread that will stick with you long after the credits roll. And it does so without blunt force shock tactics or gallons of blood.  Still, if you're looking for a rollercoaster ride of thrills and chills, you should look elsewhere.  The Witch is something else.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

First Person Shooter Eras

So I was thinking... I think you can kind of divide First Person Shooters into 5 eras, based on 5 hugely influential games.

Wolfenstein 3d - There were FPSs before Wolfenstein 3d, but it's what jump started the genre and provided the framework that early FPSs followed.  Put simply, it's the prototypical maze shooter.

Doom - Wolfenstein 3d started things, but Doom gave FPSs thje rocket-fueled punch they needed to become an industry behemouth.  It also defined what "first person shooter" would mean for years to come.

Half-life - Level-based arcadey FPS gameplay was already going out of fashion by the time 1998 rolled around, but Half-life carved it up with a chainsaw and buried it.  It brought a lot of things to the table, but most important were the two S's.  Shooters now had to have a story, and they had to have spectacle.

Halo - It's not that FPSs didn't change between Half-life and Halo, but for better or for worse Halo was the next big title that everyone paid attention to.  Not only did it introduce controls and gameplay features that have now become common place, but it also cemented the viability of FPSs on consoles.  Something which (again, for better or for worse) has had a big effect on the genre since.

Call of Duty 4 - It's hard to come up with a modern FPS design trend that wasn't established by Call of Duty 4.  The control conventions, the style/flow of combat, the focus on setpieces, the perk-focused multiplayer... it didn't necessarily invent everything it popularized, but it did popularize it.

So what do you guys think?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Some Half-life stuff



I decided to play a bit of Half-life: Blue Shift today, and I'd forgotten how cool the first part is. It's basically just the same "going to work" thing as the base game, but it puts a lot more emphasis on the vast emptiness of the facility.  Having to walk through old abandoned storage areas because the tram is out is a nice touch, too.  I'd forgotten how atmospheric Half-life and its expansions could be, albeit in a rather barren, clinical way.

 I've also been playing the base game off and on while working on textures for Dusk.  Half-life kind of fell out of favor with me over the years for various reasons, but I think I'm actually growing to love it again.  I know it's a bit of a divisive game in this day and age, but I think it's actually still quite enjoyable.  If you're up for an experience that's a little slower-paced than Doom.  

I remember Blue Shift being my favorite of the two expansions.  I might try finishing it and Opposing Force again to see how I feel about them now.  I'd also really like to get to Xen again in the base game, so I can use it as a reference.  I know the platforming is annoying, but I remember the environmental design being really unique and interesting.

Also, I may or may not also be making my way through Daikatana, so expect a review of that some time in the near future.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

It's DAVID OSCAR VOTES TIME

On a related note... IT'S DAVID OSCAR VOTE TIME! No, I don't care that you don't care.

Note that any opinionated snarkiness is purely for humor's sake. Really, people, you shouldn't take me so seriously.

BEST PICTURE: The Revenant

Bridge of Spies is a close second, but The Revenant wins out. For reasons I already covered in my review. I also would dearly like to support Fury Road since it's all kinds of awesome, but in my heart I know that it's really not Oscar material and it probably only got nominated because of feminist street cred. Pity they don't have a "movie we're all going to get on DVD/BluRay and rewatch until our eyes bleed" catagory.

The Martian is ok, I guess, I just didn't really like the part where Matt Damon had a dream about a unicorn, then dissolved into alien DNA and floated downstream.

(Serious talk, I need to see The Martian)

BEST LEADING ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio

First, because there are about fifty gagillion other times he should have won Best Leading Actor, and second because he's the only one of the nominees I've seen. I'll just assume Matt Damon was merely ok in The Martian because he's merely ok in every movie he's ever been in.

BEST LEADING ACTRESS: I have no idea

Geez, I haven't seen any of those movies. Erm... I'll just pick Cate Blanchett since she's generally great. She was even good in Hanna, and that movie was a freaking disaster. And don't give me that bullcrap about the score being "European." It was garbage. If that's what it means for music to be "European," then European music is garbage. Take that, Europe.

Also, Luna Lovegood really should have stayed at Hogwarts.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Rylance

Good lord, if successfully out-acting Tom Hanks in his own movie doesn't earn you this award, I don't know what does. Oh, good place to award Tom Hanks the "should have been nominated for Best Actor but wasn't" award. Again. Did you Academy people even see Captain Phillips??

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anne Hathaway

She isn't nominted this year, but I haven't seen any of the nominated movies and she was great in Les Miserables, so...

BEST ANIMATED FILM: Anything but Inside Out

Actual answer is The Shaun the Sheep movie, because it's fantastic and because I didn't see any of the other nominees, including Inside Out. But I would be remiss if I didn't do my job of being the only person in the world who thinks Pixar gets more credit than they deserve. Ooh, I'm SO sorry The Good Dinosaur had rubbish characters, an inconsistent tone, and a trope-laden plot you could predict before the beginning credits were over. Because Pixar NEVER does that. Eye roll cough cough sarcasm.

Toy Story sucks. Deal with it, everyone's childhood.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Revenant

Because Emmanuel Lubezki was the cinematographer. That's why. No, his whole "long take" schtick has NOT gotten old yet. Nor will it ever. Because it's awesome.

BEST DIRECTING: The Revenant

It's really hard to pick between this and Fury Road. Like, really hard. In fact, let's just say both. Not only did George Miller bring his franchise back from the dead, he delivered one of the best action films in years, with an attention to detail that rivals many "art" movies. And... well, just watch The Revenant. If nothing else, it's a masterpiece of direction and cinematography.

BEST MUSIC: Fury Road

How did you not nominate Fury Road for this, Academy? How? Didn't you HEAR those electric guitars fading in and out during panning shots?

What, are we going to reward John Williams for writing "daaaaa daaaaaaaa da da da daaaaaaaa daaaaaaa" again? Bridge of Spies? Seriously, it had music? Oh, wait, that was Thomas Newmann, wasn't it? I guess it was ok. The Hateful Eight? Oh, did Tarantino license more outdated pop music for a period western? What's Carol, some sort of chick flick? Let me guess, does it have Avro Part-esque solo piano tracks? Maybe some string chords? Sicario? More like, "try not to be sick-ario when you listen to this score," ha ha ha ha... I should really see Sicario at some point, it actually sounds pretty good.

But no. Fury Road. Screw you all.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: The Force Awakens

Everything in me wants to say Fury Road, for its jaw-dropping practical effects. But let's be honest, TFA is a near-perfect visual fusion of practical and CG. Fury Road looks great when real stuff is really exploding for reals, but those few CG shots really don't blend in well. In fact, they put me more in mind of George Lucas than anything in TFA.

BEST ORIGINAL WRITING: Bridge of Spies

Apparently all you need to (mostly) cure Spielberg's Spielberginess is a Coen brother helping with the script. And apparently all you need to cure the Coen brothers... whatever it is that causes them to make films like Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski (no, I didn't like The Big Lebowski. You can all grab a pitchfork and torch from the pile and form an orderly mob) is Spielberg directing. Maybe splitting them up helped too.

Bridge of Spies has a few of those Speilberg moments that I hate, but they're minor. For the most part its a gripping drama that's never too dark or too lighthearted. Just the perfect mix of both.

BEST OTHER THINGS I DON'T KNOW OR CARE ABOUT: Norm of the North

Fin