David Gaider Is Made of Cheese -- A Review of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne

I’d like to share with you the following statement by youtube user hyrulehistorian, posted on Bioware’s youtube page for their new game, Dragon Age: Origins.

“this is legit, im reading the prequel novel right now, and im getting the feeling in my gut that we are seeing the birth of what will become one of the all time great fantasy universes.”

Do I seem hung up on what other people like? If I am, it’s because of statements like that.

As a preface to my review of David Gaider’s Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, I must say something of my stance on franchise novels. Franchise novels allow the terminally uncreative the pleasure of saying that they read without actually requiring much beyond functional literacy. Rather than asking the reader to stick with the author as he or she tells a story, the tie-in novel asks for the player to read up on a familiar setting, characters, or events out of brand loyalty, or to satisfy the inherently nerdy obsession with (entirely made up) minutia and trivia. The plots cannot interfere with each other, or an excuse must be made for why person x is still around when person x previously left/died/inter-dimensionally relocated in one of the previous novels/games/comic books. These products exist solely to market the video games on which they’re based, with the hope that the video games will hook people into buying the novels to learn more about the setting, and the made up lore, or the political/religious/historical conflicts that might be only obliquely mentioned in the game.

Here’s a quote from Game Informer’s (Issue 175, pg 151) review of Mass Effect, which I think illustrates the mindset of somebody who reads tie-in novels, and likely nothing but tie-in novels:

“[Mass Effect] is an amazing work of fiction, a visual work of art, and a property that is so fully realized and so rich in its backstory that its content could fill countless games, books, and movies. This is the next big franchise for science fiction junkies to latch onto, and a huge step forward for video games.”

What does this tell us, besides that editor Andrew Reiner is a giant rube? Think about the idea that the “backstory” could “fill countless games, books, and movies.” That’s pretty much the greatest virtue that anything could have for the sort of audience that reads Game Informer. Despite all of the breathless superlatives Reiner ascribes to Mass Effect as fiction, the one element that he actually delineates is the milieu and the world-building that accompanies it, because that’s all that matters to him. It’s something for the people he thinks are “science fiction junkies” to escape in and over which they can argue, until the next novel or game comes out and provides a conclusive answer. Essentially, it’s there to answer all the questions, raise just enough new ones to keep its audience interested in the next product, and prevent them from thinking too hard.

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne fits well in this line of thinking.
It opens with Maric being chased down by the underlings of traitorous banns (apparently, the word bann substitutes for the word baron in David Gaider’s D&D campaign) who just killed his mother, the rightful queen of Ferelden. Maric escapes capture only to find himself in the company of Loghain, whose father leads a large band of outlaws. The outlaws were once good citizens, until the unfair taxes of the newly appointed King Meghren of Orlais forced them to willingly break the law. Maric doesn’t tell them that he is the prince and that his mother, the rebel queen, has died, or that Meghren’s troops will be looking for him. Consequently, the camp of outlaws is raided, and Loghain’s father demands his son help restore Maric to the rebel army. Of course, Loghain’s father dies, giving Loghain a reason to be emo for a while, and Maric a chance to win him over as a friend who will do all of Maric’s dirty work.

Eventually, Loghain manages to put Maric back into contact with the army. Loghain falls in love with Rowan, Maric’s betrothed, while Maric falls in love with an elf named Katriel as they campaign against the Orlaisian usurper. Then the army suffers a major loss, and Maric, Loghain, Katriel and Rowan have to travel through the Deep Roads (i.e. Mines of Moira) where they encounter giant spiders, darkspawn (orcs), and Dwarves who agree to help Maric regain the thrown. But even after making it safely back to the surface, Maric must face treachery and the difficult reality of a king’s duty.

Does it all sound like generic fantasy plot #5? It is generic fantasy plot #5, and Gaider doesn’t do much to make it worth reading. The pacing in the first half janks about due to it being primarily about Maric’s military campaign, and settles into a rote dungeon crawling sequence for much of the final act. But one might forgive the plotting were it not for the characterization, which reeks of cliché. Maric is blonde, handsome, and noble; he loves his subjects and cares for people to a fault. He’s naïve. He’s unsure of himself and incompetent as a strategist. Yet all the women love him, and he inspires hope among every warrior he meets with what Gaider calls “infectious charm,” and I call grating attempts at sophomoric wit, always ready with some flaccid quip when the tone gets too serious. He’s the self-portrait a lot of nerds paint when they’re being dishonest. He’s destined to not suck.

Loghain is an equally lazy stock character, an angsty, brooding fellow with “piercing blue eyes.” Rowan is too. She’s an Amazonian lady-warrior who wants Marric to see her as a woman, not just a warrior. Meghran is a debauched, violent pussy who has no redeeming qualities or even a personality. Severan, his right hand man and sorcerer, is an equally violent, though much more effective pussy, and has no redeeming qualities or even a personality. Dwarves build tunnels and hit things with warhammers. Elves shoot bows, and… uh, are pretty, I guess. Ugh.
Even Gaider’s writing is leaden and expository, frequently juvenile in the worst places and in the worst ways. Among the more embarrassing aspects of the prose is Gaider’s commitment to adverbs, particularly in certain paragraphs where every sentence contains at least one. For example:

“Maric dug into his stew ravenously. Katriel picked at hers gingerly, sipping on some of the broth. The dwarf all but gulped his down greedily, finishing it long before the others were even half done, and then belching loudly. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand.

‘Not as Hungry as you thought?’ he asked, watching their progress.

‘No it’s fine,’ Maric quickly commented…”

That whole passage is just infuriating. It’s like filling out a list: this person does this, this way. This person does this, this way. This person does this, this way, then does this, this way. That’s not to even mention the context of this scene, in which Maric and Katriel have just walked for miles, injured and without much food or water, and Katriel is picking at her food rather than just eating it. It’s terribly lazy writing, acceptable in a first draft but damning in published work from somebody who claims writing as his profession.

Another gem:

“Maric stared at her in disbelief. He wasn’t quite sure she could have said anything else that would have been less surprising. Well perhaps a confession that she was actually made of cheese.”

Frankly, I’d be less than surprised were the admission Mr. Gaider’s.

In defense of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, there are moments when it isn’t horrible to read. I liked when Maric confronted the banns who killed his mother. I liked that David Gaider at least tried to develop a theme of the unpleasant, even morally reprehensible things that must be done in order to effectively govern, and the guilt that accompanies them. The battle descriptions plod, but Gaider, in his mercy, spares his readers a similar treatment of sex (and rape). I appreciate that the obligatory dragon scene doesn’t involve telepathic communication.

But these moments are few, and they don’t mitigate flawed nature of the narrative, the writing, and the prose, even the setting. The world feels Tolkeinesque -- Dwarves, elves, etc. -- with some French and some fabricated titles. Knights are called chevaliers, for reasons I don’t really care to ponder, although I suppose that Orlais could be some sort of caricatured French empire. Various characters of high rank have titles like arl (earl), bann (baron?), and Teyrn (I’m flummoxed). Worse, Gaider doesn’t seem familiar enough with Medieval custom and manner to know that “your highness,” “your grace,” “your majesty,” and “my lord” all relate specifically to people of different ranks. The portrayal of magic is right out of a video game. All that’s missing is “Magic Missile!” or maybe “Blizzara!” Is all this nit-picky? I don’t care. It annoyed me.

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne also speaks the veracity of that old truism, “write what you know.” Let me amend that: If you don’t know anything, don’t write. Or, if you don’t know anything, write for a video game. Or a video game franchise novel.

David Gaider is the lead writer for Bioware’s video game, Dragon Age: Origins, of which I’ve heard good things. I disliked, immensely, the marketing for that game, and I dislike this novel, which is part of said marketing. There are those who excuse this kind of writing as being purely escapist, not worthy of any praise, but also not deserving of a thorough critique. To this, I say that there is a great deal of escapist fantasy that’s actually engaging, intelligent, and well written. Franchise novels, by and large, aren’t. They’re books designed for people who don’t read, to ensure that they won’t read as much as they watch movies, play video games, and buy enormous card collections and rule books.

It isn’t actually that much fun to rip something like Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne on the internet. But such novels developed a huge market, allowing kids and tasteless adults like hyrulehistorian the undue (mostly imagined) honor of being a “reader” -- the fun of feigning literacy on their youtube and facebook profiles. Consider this a referendum on all video game, card game, board game, and Star Wars/Star Trek/whatever novels. When I go to my local book store and there’s no longer a full three rows devoted to this crap, I’ll take this review down, and replace it with my assurances that David Gaider’s probably a swell Canadian fellow IRL.

Be sure to read my review of David Gaider's follow up to The Stolen Throne, Dragon Age: The Calling. It sucks too.


The 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Award...

Just fucking give it to Nick Cave already.

The prize hasn't had such great material to work with since... well, Norman Mailer's last novel. Ok, that wasn't that long ago. So let's just say it hasn't had such great material since ever. I haven't read most of the books on the list. Now I want to.


Game Review -- Orcs and Elves

I don’t have a cell phone that can run cell phone games of any complexity, because I use my cell phone as a phone, not a low-end Gameboy. But games on cell phones are kind of a big deal now, as I was informed by a co-worker who showed off the various games he had on his iPhone -- Mega Man 2, NetHack, and a bunch of other piddly time wasters. It’s funny that yesteryear’s phone/game system, the Nokia N-Gage, failed as badly as it did, only to see cell gaming become massively popular on iPhones and Blackberries. It’s also sad, because the N-Gage was the only way to play Falcom’s Xanadu Next in English, legally.

But what surprises me is the idea that anybody would port a cell phone game to one a commercially viable console. There are a few examples, like Deep Labyrinth on the DS and Final Fantasy 4: The After Years for the Wii’s virtual console, but the concept still baffles me to the point that when I read a review and it simply states that game x is adapted from cell phone game franchise y (and it isn't a puzzle/popcap game) it's surprising.

Orcs and Elves is another cell phone game ported to the DS, and like Deep Labyrinth, it’s a first person dungeon crawler. The DS is already a popular system for RPGs, with both Japanese and western style games (and Japanese riffs on western style dungeon crawlers) readily available, so to stand out, a game either has to utilize the DS’ unique features (touch pad, dual screens) in an unusual way, or just be really, really good.

Orcs and Elves doesn’t stand out. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. It simply means that the stylus/touch pad control doesn’t add anything and that it’s a merely decent game rather than an excellent one. Considering its origins, that’s as good as anybody should hope for. It looks much like a mid-nineties era PC game, and plays similarly with a simple, turn-based system (your enemies don’t move until you do). But it was developed by John Carmack, the man behind Doom, and the cell phone game, Doom RPG. It’s fitting.

In fact, the game can be compulsively playable. The level designs contain a few secrets each, although they don’t really feel like mazes -- they’re cake compared to the more obtuse dungeon crawlers released for DOS PCs. The game limits what you can do with your character, but it never loses its identity as a role playing game. Stats provide the basis for what your character can do, and there’s plenty of potions that will boost stats (for a limited number of turns), and upgrades for the sword, and other stuff that can be bought. The magic system comes from your talking wand, itself a character with more personality than the player’s never-seen avatar. The Wand shoots projectiles which deplete magic points, as do various items and spells activated by tracing a pattern on the touch screen, but not until after they’ve already been selected, making the stylus tracing little more than an interruptive formality.

So what other reason might one play Orcs and Elves? Nostalgia comes to mind most readily, and humor too. The graphics -- pixelized sprites against low resolution 3D environments -- remind me of Bethesda’s old PC games, as well as old fantasy themed PC shooters like Hexen. It seems like the limitations of its original platform dictated that the graphics look as they do, but it also seems that the developers intententionally evoke memories of those older fantasy-themed games. After all, they could have easily added more animation when porting to the DS. It’s nice to see some retro-PC style outside of an indie game, if only on the DS.

Also, the story is preposterous enough to be funny. Particularly as it is relayed through notes scattered about the labyrinth, which are written in first person but frequently include (cough)s and ***Wheeze*** as if the author actually took pains to write out his bodily failings while he died. It’s an old gag (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among others) but the developers seem to think it’s so funny that it’s easy to laugh at in spite of itself.

I beat Orcs and Elves in just under eleven hours, because I was being thorough. Rushing through without bothering with secrets or monster hunting, it’s probably a nine hour game. I don’t know what it was at full price, but I bought mine used and was fairly satisfied with it. The problem: it’s a cell phone game, and that’s probably the best platform for it. The game is playable and fun in short spurts, but tedious when you’ve played it for a few hours, because it’s only meant to be played for as long as you sit on the bus. It’s both unexpected and strange to think that a game might actually work better on a cell phone, but that is absolutely the case with this one.


Arhats in Fury (Wang Singlui, 1985)

In Sung dynasty Sichuan, the monks of a Buddhist temple debate whether they should help repel the invading Jin armies or withdraw entirely from earthly politics, preserving their monastery and their centuries old regulations. When Zhi Xing and his senior return from a journey of punishment for breaking the temple rules, they come across the Jin’s raping and pillaging a small local town. Zhi Xing finally uses his kung fu to defeat the Jins after they kill a small child. While Zhi Xing successfully expels the invaders with the help of the local militia, he also brings their attention to the monastery, where the monks must confront the Jins. The reaction of the abbot and senior monks is stoicism, while the Jins begin to kill them, attempting to provoke a reaction, until Zhi Xing finally responds. Repelling them again, the monks wish to further punish Zhi Xing for repeatedly breaking their rules regarding martial arts, but he is saved by a beautiful woman, one of the leaders of the local militia whom he met during the battle in the town.

The townspeople nurse Zhi Xing back to health, while the Jin armies besiege the Buddhist temple. Of course, this finally causes the monks to reconsider their position on self-defense.

Roughly the first fifteen minutes expound the inner workings of the monastery. The punishments, like the long journey from which Zhi Xing and his master return, are harsh, and potentially life-threatening. The senior monks manipulate the abbot and are more bound to the antiquated rules than he is. The abbot is impressed with the insight of a monk he sent into exile decades ago, but comes back unafraid to criticize the way the temple operates. All this happens before Zhi Xing appears on screen, and while the location shooting looks pretty nice and the temple’s drama interesting in itself, the viewer will probably want to know when the kung fu will start.

Arhats in Fury isn’t an odd movie by the standards of the brief spurt of mainland Chinese kung fu films designed to showcase Wushu made in the wake of Shaolin Temple (Zhang Xinyan, 1982). It has the requisite animosity towards Buddhism -- one of Mao’s many grinds was religion, for reasons that ought to be obvious from the plot description of any of these movies -- the authentic location shooting and the 1980’s mainland aesthetic. It is strange for a director like Wong Singlui, usually associated with Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries. The influence of Hong Kong’s new wave directors occasionally comes out in his direction, but the major influence clearly comes from the propaganda war/action films of China’s film industry. The location shooting is immaculate. The images of monkeys and birds, especially, are striking. It moves from being a straight kung fu picture of the Hong Kong/Taiwan tradition, to typical PRC propaganda, to a wildly aesthetic pictorial of Sichuan.

The aforementioned animals too, make for one of the stranger parts of the movie, as well as the most unpleasant. There is real footage of animal death. The actors kill birds graphically, in one scene. Zhi Xing, apparently, has king-of-the-Sichuan-province powers over the animals, and during one skirmish, calls them in to help fight the Jins. It's a sign of Chinese language cinema's growing pains that the film makers behind a kung fu movie lifted ideas wholesale from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds just because they could. And the images of monkeys communing with the monks, looking as though they’re praying monks or Buddha idols are far more unusual than what would one would typically associate with the genre during the late seventies.

Probably the nicest thing to be said about Lau Jan-Ling in his role as Zhi Xing is that he’s a perfectly capable martial artist. As an actor, he either over-emotes or stares into the distance like he doesn’t know what else to do. The actress who plays his romantic interest, the leader of the people’s militia (another Maoist propaganda element) has a similar on/off style of acting. The actors playing the Jins are camp. The actors playing the corrupt monks have little to do besides look angry.

But all of that stuff doesn’t really matter once people start hitting each other in the face. Arhats in Fury is among the best of this strain of Chinese films. The athleticism of the performers provides enough gloriously choreographed mayhem, but the sheer number of people in certain scenes further adds to the spectacle. The weapon choreography also, is among the best that the mainland offered, exceeded only by The South Shaolin Master (Siu Lung, 1984). If any movie were ever buoyed by its action scenes, it’s this one. Casting most of the roles with wushu experts assures that the fight scenes will impress, and its unsurprising that the only times that the action scenes don’t work is either due to rough editing or unnecessary wire work.

Animal lovers and those sensitive about propaganda will probably not like Arhats in Fury. There is much to be said about its portrayal of Buddhist pacifism, whether it intentionally misrepresents or obfuscates the intentions of that religion’s tenants. The very concept is heavier than the film itself. Whenever you watch one of these films, you have to wonder how much of the screenplay was intended as a way to get past the very active censors, as opposed to what the film makers actually cared about producing. Given the director, I’d think that the real concern was with beautiful location shots and brutal, impeccably choreographed action. But with as much time as is spent with the monastery, I can’t say that for certain.


Nerdy; not a nerd: An Extemporaneous Guide Telling You Things You Already Knew

In the past, I’ve been given more than what I think should be my share of insulting compliments, usually starting with “you remind me of…” and ending with something like “…my brother” or something worse. Usually, this comes from women, thus I cannot tell if they actually mean it or are trying to turn me down in such an obnoxious way that I’m glad to be rid of them. That sounds paranoid, but I’ve as many reasons to believe as to not.

I thought I heard a new insulting compliment the other day, coming from a classmate who told me that for all my nerdy obsessions, my demeanor was distinctly non-nerd. I write a blog dedicated to my enjoyment of kung fu movies, fantasy novels, and RPGs/video games; I thought that she just was dicking with me, until I realized the company that I keep at my university. For your reference: the first day of class, another guy sat next to me, and immediately started talking about his home made arcade unit (a PC in an arcade cabinet running MAME) without any sort of introduction or anything to indicate that he had any reason to start talking to me about his own unique brand of nerd shit.

I don’t claim to have come up with the idea of being nerdy without being a nerd, or post-nerd, or post-geek (ugh) or nerd-cool. But I do know that to some degree, I have attained enough of whatever that is for somebody of the opposite sex to comment on it in what I don’t think was an intentionally insulting way.

Now would be the fortuitous time to proffer a guide to being a nerd or a geek or what have you, not just because somebody acknowledged that I am one without seeming like it, but because the pursuit of what was once considered nerdy has become a part of the mainstream. Frat boys who never heard of Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament play Halo; the academy recognized Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations; everybody blogs and twitters and brags about their gadgety, gimmicky cell phones. The trick to being a nerd in such an environment is to constantly appear to know more than everyone else, both what came before and what is on the horizon. The trick to not appearing like a nerd and a tool is to know what to talk about (and when to stop talking) with people who have only a cursory knowledge of stuff like video games and fantasy literature.

Unfortunately, I have no ability in the writing such things. I can offer basic advice: keep the video-game/franchised t-shirts to a minimum. Shower. Don’t talk about anime. (No, not even Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii) There is never a good reason to vociferously defend the AD&D 2.5 rule set. Ever.

If you have to be seen reading science fiction or fantasy, do us all a favor and spare us the ugly-ass cover art from your licensed, video-game franchise novels. If you’re too illiterate to read literate SF/Fantasy, at least read an old paperback and pretend you’re doing so out of irony. Don’t read Gor, no irony exists there.

I don’t know if it was a regional misconception, but by-and-large, people I knew in high school thought that the appreciation of video games and Japanese cartoons and other nerdy crap denoted a person of minimal athletic and social ability who (assuming he or she wasn’t a devil worshiper or a lesbian) was quite smart. That wasn’t true then, and it still isn’t now. In my experience, it’s the least intelligent people of like interests that tend to be the most insular, if not the most socially retarded. The “cool geeks” and the more acceptable nerds generally included people who displayed actual intelligence as opposed to worthless knowledge of arcane trivia.

But don’t these things go without saying? I recall joking a few weeks ago among friends that although we included female friends and girlfriends and fiancés in our nerdy conversations, we could easily expel them by bringing up something of uber-nerdiness. I offered Nihon Falcom RPGs as an example, and immediately lost the attention of the lone female member of our conversation. Call it Pigsy’s Law: Falcom repels women IRL. That went without saying as well, but I had fun saying it.

That might be the real secret. It’s really all about not being a pedantic asshole.


Seven Swords (Tsui Hark, 2005)

I remember waiting impatiently for Seven Swords to finally come out. Amidst all the hype and expectations -- Tsui Hark returns! Lau Kar-Leung’s final performance! -- and wild predictions of media saturation, the actual product seemed overdue. A television serial with a different cast debuted around the same time as the film, comic books, online RPGs, a sextet of sequels, and other media projects rumored to already be in production. Unfortunately, Tsui Hark’s return to Chinese language film making faced a rather frigid public reception.

The critical response was largely indifferent. Asian audiences didn’t rush out to see the film as the investors and Tsui had publicly predicted; Western audiences generally didn’t see it until the DVD releases, and compared it unfavorably to Zhang Yimou’s films, which were still fresh, or at least seemed so to some.

This was supposed to be Tsui Hark’s return to prestigious, quality film making after a disastrous turn in Hollywood, and a string of hit-and-miss films. It was supposed to be a nearly four hour epic that would finally return the uniquely Hong Kong flavor to the wuxia genre, which, whether you like the older HK films or not, had become redundant under the auspices of “respectable” mainland directors like Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogeng. It had an awesome cast, including old-school actors like Lau Kar-Leung, Chi Kuan-Chun, Jason Pai Piao, as well as brand new talent like Tai Li-Wu, a Peking Opera acrobat Tsui recruited specifically for this film. Lau Kar-Leung (!) choreographed the action scenes. Kenji Kawaii provided the score. Investors from three different countries poured money into it.

What happened? An overabundance of confidence. Nobody wanted to distribute a four hour film, to probably nobody’s surprise but Tsui’s. A truncated version eventually made it to theaters, and eventually to DVD. Whatever Tsui Hark intended, we saw only half of it. Indifference and disappointment ensued. The many rumored projects dissipated into the ether. The internet declared that Tsui Hark had lost “it.” Whatever “it” is.

I watched Seven Swords again today. It starts with natural, heroic beauty, valiant swordsmen racing across the frozen plateaus of Mt. Heaven, fanfare swelling as it transitions to the opening credits. What follows is not a story based on Liang Yusheng’s Seven Swordsmen from Mount Heaven, but the highlights of such an adaptation.

A basic synopsis might go something like, “besieged village recruits seven swordsmen in possession of magical weapons to defend themselves from bounty hunters, after an imperial edict makes them criminals for the practice of martial arts.” And the storyline certainly follows that all too familiar framework. But it is in the nature of wuxia films to be as convoluted as the novels they adapt, and Seven Swords, as loose an adaptation as it is, does exactly that. Love triangles, former political and familial alliances and treasonous intentions -- it’s all a bit complicated. With seven major characters, a two hour running time doesn’t provide much opportunity for plot and characterization and visual splendor and visceral action to serve each of the main characters and all the side characters.

Case in point: the “Joy-Luck” scene. In this scene, Han Zhibang and Mulong release the village’s horses, and run off so that the old and stubborn horse named “Joy-Luck” won’t follow them. It’s an odd sequence, as the music gets real sappy and the camera lingers on the old horse searching for masters that abandoned him. It seemingly pops out of nowhere, as the horse never figures into any previous scene. But an observant viewer will note that Han is always in the stable when he’s in the village. One assumes that in the full movie, Han’s role as the operator of the stable, and the caretaker of Joy-Luck figured into his characterization in some meaningful way. What the audience actually gets is an emotional climax without any buildup. No foreplay; it’s over. I feel cheated.

It is true that many wuxia films, including the ones that earned critical praise, are much too expository. Their characters stand around and talk about what’s happening, and what happened, and what will happen. It’s the barrier between me and Chinese television serials. Seven Swords is opaque, which is no better. All of the guts have been taken out, and what we see of the finer points is infuriating because it looks potentially interesting. Fu Qinzu was once a violent executioner, now trying to atone for his sins. That’s cool, but we never see how Fu has changed, much less what affected him so much that he went from ruthless executioner to avenging holy-warrior. The irrepressibly horny Han and Yufeng, daughter of the village chief, have a romance interrupted by the arrival of Chu Zhaonon who draws Yufeng’s attention with his martial ability and emo brooding. Just what or who is Master Shadow Glow, the crafter of the seven swords?

The audience doesn’t need everything stated outright, but we shouldn’t have to come up with out own explanations to make up for the deficiencies of the plot.

Making a four hour movie, intended to be seen in one part, is mad folly. But I think, maybe, the full version works. Bey Logan claimed it did on his commentary track for the Dragon Dynasty DVD. And what is good about Seven Swords is really good. The production design, unlikely and comic-bookish as it is, looks great. The cinematography captures the rough beauty of northwestern China. Fight scenes utilize too much wire-work, I think, given the attempt at realism set up in other parts of the film, but there are some great moments, particularly during the finale. Speaking of which, the swordplay during the finale is among the best action this decade, reminsicent of the finale to Lau Kar-Leung's Martial Club, if you can believe it.

And mention must be made of Sun Honglei, who, as the villainous Fire-Wind, devoured the scenery and walked away with the film. That guy is clearly having a great time, and really makes the most of his character. Also, many of the actors (Pai Piao, Chi Kuan Chun, Charlie Yeung) can be seen in the background of various scenes set in the village, performing menial tasks. Jason Pai Piao gives a great performance in one scene, and fulfills the role of an extra in the next. The lack of ego is humbling. It makes Leon Lai's consistent non-presence especially glaring. Why does anybody cast that guy in anything? He was equally awful in An Empress and the Warriors. Donnie Yen might not be great, but he's at least trying his damndest to act.

Tsui Hark has always divided people. I’m probably in the minority simply by having no especially strong feelings about him. If a director’s cut of Seven Swords shipped into stores I would buy it. It’s not a good movie, but it’s an interesting failure. In fact, I kind of like it. Don’t forget, I like Green Snake far more than Hero, and I’m looking forward to Tsui’s upcoming Di Renjie with Andy Lau, because I never learn. Your taste probably differs.



IGN.com never provided worthwhile original content, but the site’s visitors never really demanded it. Or at least I don’t think they did, because they have a huge number of visitors and staff for each console, yet so little that’s actually worth reading.

So I knew that Michael Thomsen’s “Citizen Prime: Is Metroid Prime Our Citizen Kane?” would probably leave me in a fit of giggles and self-loathing snobbery. Upon finishing it, the latter was unexpectedly the dominant emotion. I don’t like looking down on people for what they enjoy, or their reasons for enjoying it. What Thomsen writes, however, is so lacking in self-awareness and humility, yet so discordantly earnest, that I want to pretend that he didn’t really annoy me as much as he did. But the more I think about it, the more it irritates me.

If I understand correctly, his argument is that Metroid Prime holds a position in the canon of video games similar to that of Citizen Kane in canon of film, because Metroid Prime utilizes the elements of gameplay to create narrative and thematic cohesion. I’ll let Mr. Thomsen speak for himself:

"In the same way that Citizen Kane harnessed every technical component in film to express its post-mortem reassembly of an irrepressible and heartbroken man, Metroid Prime uses all of its technology to recreate the experience of a woman abandoned on an alien world inhabited by the ghosts of its prelapsarian inhabitants."

Destructoid.com already declared this “one of the single silliest statements you’ll ever read.” (Questionable grammar, but understandable sentiment) I don’t know that it’s in any way arguable that Metroid Prime doesn’t utilize all available methods to immerse its players. But that isn’t really the issue. The real issue is whether or not the mastery of cinematic technique is really the reason why Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane. Apparently realizing this, Thomsen is quick to add:

“The great achievements in any creative medium have always been rooted in empathy, often where it's least expected (e.g. King Lear, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Lolita, The Godfather).”

But Citizen Kane isn’t great because the viewer might feel empathy for Charles Foster Kane. Neither does empathy define the greatness of “King Lear,” and certainly not Lolita (at least, not Nabokov’s Lolita). The directorial and cinematographic methods of Citizen Kane develop the narrative's themes; they weren't designed solely to evoke empathy. And any empathy for Humbert Humbert is of the reader’s own creation; I remain fairly certain that Nabokov, by the end of his novel, did not want for his readers to feel sorry for, much less like a man who sexually preyed upon a twelve-year-old girl. (I fear to read what Thomsen might have interpreted Lolita to be, if his ludicrous conflation of Nabokov’s fiction with the rape-simulator RapeLay is anything to go by.) Martin Amis described Lolita as a novel about tyranny, from the tyrant’s perspective. He’s right: Lolita is not a romance classic, and wasn’t intended as such.

So what is it about Citizen Kane and Lolita and “King Lear” that makes them so important? What doesn’t? Each engages not just hearts and minds, but the soul. Each possesses that ineffable quality that makes us aware that such qualities exist in us. Such works that exist in the canon of worthy human endeavors not only remind us of the mysteries of what it is to exist, but hopefully, cause us to ponder them. They are technically proficient, as any logical critic can see. But other films are technically proficient, as are other novels and plays. Knowing when something is truly great is not a matter of logic, but intuition.

A few decades of hindsight helps too.

Does Metroid Prime really do for the soul what Citizen Kane does? Not for me. The few things that Thomsen claims about the game’s intrinsic worth as a work of art are that it evokes empathy through masterful command of the medium’s formal elements; that the story is told through various visual touches (which aren’t a unique formal element of video games); that the game constantly reminds the player of the role he or she is playing. These, along with some similarities between their respective production processes, are what make Metroid Prime the gamer’s Citizen Kane, according to Thomsen. A generous person could describe such a connection as tenuous, but a person who takes money for his thoughts ought to know better than to so forthrightly state something tenuous not only on a game website, but to ABC News.

Thomsen is serious, though. He takes pains to defend himself from his critics. He’s written follow-up posts on his blog. The reactions from the online peanut-gallery range derisive ad-hominem and incredulous, occasionally profane rebuttals. The consensus is that Mr. Thomsen is either a faux-intellectual or a hipster-douche.

He is one, but not the other. To be a hipster, Thomsen would have to be part of an in-crowd, and he is not. He desperately wishes he were which is why he is trying so hard to defend his segment/editorial. In fact, the question, “what is the Citizen Kane of video games?” is founded in this insecurity of so many video game journalists and fans. Not content to enjoy games for what they are, these people wish for others to acknowledge games as a legitimate form of entertainment, as if that would somehow make it so. Thomsen and his ilk don’t seem to realize that such comparisons only work by minimizing the accomplishments of auteurs like Orson Welles (in this case, by saying that it’s greatness lies in editing and cinematography that create empathy for its central character). In actuality, it only makes video games appear worse for comparison.

Thomsen states the following at the start of his essay:
“Writing about videogames is a strange vocation and not one I had imagined for myself five years ago. There's a well-established tradition of writing for game fans, but I always struggle to justify why everyone else should care. Why does my friend the high school teacher need to worry about Space Pirates? Does my mother, a retired oncology nurse, really need to know the differences between an Ice Beam and a Plasma Beam?”

Basically, Michael Thomsen is insecure; his entire article testifies to this. The florid prose -- “eerie parallels” and “vibrant arrays” abound, and he ascribes Metroid Prime the title of “Odyssey of traversal” which is just redundantly repetitious -- and the vehemently (sophomoric) academic tone of his essay not only remind his readers of his insecurities, they make him look pompous (hence the hipster accusation). That approach won’t make anybody care about video games. In fact, it seems that competitive multiplayer is what attracts people to games, or intuitive, fun control schemes, if the success of the Xbox 360 and Wii are anything to go by.

If it could actually do any good, I’d tell him that his mother doesn’t need to know that the Ice Beam freezes enemies, but the Plasma Beam does more damage. So he shouldn’t worry about it. Chances are, his mom doesn’t need to know about forced perspective, deep focus, or the influence of German Expressionism in Citizen Kane either. But deeply rooted fears over the legitimacy of one’s favored past time are not easily abated.

Games are just games. Acceptance. Let it set ye free.

And don’t forget: you can’t spell ignorance without IGN.