Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Skyrim Interlude


Like pretty much all Bethesda games, I was late to the party for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Not that I didn't want to play the game when it was brand new, but because I knew that Bethesda is consistent about putting out “game of the year” editions with their expansions bundled in, and at a considerably cheaper price.

So anyway, Skyrim. It's got pretty mountains. Killing dragons has a nice feeling of accomplishment to it. Jeremy Soule's soundtrack is amazing. It's an entire province populated by Not-Vikings. Combat isn't quite as janky as in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. These are all good things.

Like Oblivion before it, the story is fairly bog standard and...not really engaging. Oblivion had the hilarious but kind of odd trait of casting you as the highly competent sidekick of the actual hero and sent around the kingdom to help him get ready to save the world. Here, you turn out to be a pretty big deal, a dragonborn capable of learning magical shouts when you kill dragons by absorbing their souls. And yes, the first shout you learn is how to yell so hard it knocks people over.

But the plot itself of Skyrim is standard fare. There's a civil war between two factions and you get to throw in with one of them. Worse, ancient dragons, not seen for centuries, begin flying around and tearing shit up. You see this firsthand at the beginning of the game as a prisoner caught up in this civil war on your way to execution in a fortified town when BOOM! DRAGON. You escape in the confusion and the town gets destroyed and from there the world opens up for you to explore as you wish. Ancient evil, need to find a way to stop it, need to level up by finding people to give you quests. Not my first rodeo, but one I still enjoy paying the price of admission for.

The main quest might not be amazing overall, but this and the hundreds of side quests propel you into what the series is amazingly good at: exploration. It gives you a big map with undiscovered locations and begs the question “What's over that hill?” “What's in that ruin?” Sometimes it's bandits. Sometimes it's an impressive view. Sometimes its just a mudcrab. But then there's the next hill, and what looks like a fort over to the left, and a dirt road running through a dense forest to the right.... That right there is where the “actual” story of an Elder Scrolls game is: the emergent personal story of you the player deciding to go explore something.

Case in point, this weekend I finally had my first real “whoa” moment. Playing for maybe an hour, I end up wandering back to the town from the prologue just to see what's there. Not much, it turns out. Some bandits, a few chests to open with some minor loot, and the burned out ruins of a small town. Following dirt road outside the town, I get attacked by a wolf. At level 9, a lone wolf is no problem and swiftly dispatched. Around the bend is a smear of blood and what's left of a campsite. There are two corpses labeled “refugee.” The location does not show up on the map as something discovered.

I think “man that sucks,” and proceed to loot their corpses. As sociopathic as it sounds, that's just one of the things that you do in these types of games. Its not like you've got the option to give them a proper burial. Beyond their pittance of gold there's nothing else of interest and I move on down the trail. A quartet of bandits is easily dispatched, then a small hill campsite with two bandits that got hostile as I approached.

On guard, I keep on truckin' and see a canine shape ahead that doesn't run away like a fox. “Probably another wolf” I think and get my axe ready. It does not run. It does not attack, either. I get close and its a stray dog.

Huh. I've been attacked by dogs in the game before, so I'm still on guard, but if he doesn't attack, then I've got no beef.

He doesn't attack. The game gives me the option to “talk” to him. I do, and all that happens is that he sits down and whines a little then wags his tail. I thank the game for a random encounter that doesn't want to kill me, and proceed into a nearby cave with my AI companion because CURIOSITY!

Inside the cave is an ice cavern with a bunch of skeletons (human and mammoth), an ice bridge, and a saber toothed cat.

Before you can say “Fighty Time!” I hear a bark and see a dog run at the cat along with my companion.

“Wait, is that the stray dog from... Shit, better kill that monster.”

The cat goes down and I look at the dog. Yep. Stray Dog. He sits down and wags his tail.

“Well damn. Thanks little buddy. Guess you're following me around. That's cool.”

And then I remembered the campsite, the wolf, and the dead refugees. Putting the pieces together into an entirely assumed conclusion, I decided that this poor mutt was the last survivor of that wolf attack.

At which point I made myself a promise that I'd get this dog to a settlement. Maybe a town. Maybe a farm. Maybe let him follow me around some more.

I exit through the other side of the cave with two companions in tow and see some ruins and one of the shrines that unlocks Dragonborn shouts. “Cool. New stuff!”

Then the music ramps up and a dragon soars overhead. I pause the game and weigh my options, and then I exited out. Not because I was worried I couldn't take it down, but because I was certain that dog was going to turn into literal toast. Plus, I had other stuff I had to do.

Right then and there was where I got onboard with Skyrim. It had just given me a Moment. No dialogue, not even text or any kind of exposition whatsoever, just context cues pulled from possibly unconnected incidents. The campfire ruin was coded for that spot, obviously, and apparently stray dogs appear at various places on the map to be rescued from immediate peril, yet I had no confirmation that these two were related. I made that connection in my head, and I'm not even much of a pet person.

This isn't a review or anything even close to that, nor is it weighing in on the “games are totally art, man” argument. It's just highlighting a brief yet oddly profound storytelling moment in a game that I been enjoying from a more...I guess “academic perspective” is the right phrase. Ironically for a game that prides itself on an epic story and scale, the best moment so far has been the exact opposite on the scale of intimacy.

So yeah. Skyrim's pretty neat. The main storyline is kind of blah, but that's not why I come to Elder Scrolls games. It's for the moments of exploration/discovery, the emergent narrative that the player is encouraged to build up around their blank slate of a character, and for the weird exploits possible that let you break the game. (For instance, by the time I finished Oblivion, I was a sword and board warrior with boots that let me run on water, an amulet that let me breathe underwater, and a unique unbreakable lockpick that essentially meant that I could go pretty much anywhere and take anything.)

Combat's still pretty janky though.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

So this is the big one of the Dollars Trilogy. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly AKA Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo from 1966. The one that a lot of people point to as “the best Western ever.” I don’t exactly agree with that.

During the later stages of the American Civil War, an uneasy duo of bounty hunter and outlaw hustle law enforcement, until the bounty hunter decides to finally sell out the outlaw. The outlaw wants revenge, and his pursuit of the bounty hunter sets them both on a collision course with buried treasure and a sinister Union officer. 

The movie is much longer than that, though.

“Blondie”: Clint Eastwood (as usual) continuing to be mysterious and inscrutable. He’s still kind of a dick, too, teaming up with Tuco to scam and split bounty rewards. Curiously, he doesn’t start out the story with his trademark poncho. He gets that and his other accoutrements over the course of the movie. That, and his increasing number of occasional kind acts (he is “The Good” after all), hints at character development, which is not something our nameless protagonist has had much of over the trilogy. It’s also never outright stated, but the Civil War setting and aforementioned poncho acquiring implies this is a prequel of sorts to the first two movies. Does it matter from a narrative perspective? Not really.

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (known as “The Rat”): Eli Wallach is our viewpoint character, and if Blondie’s kind of a dick, Tuco’s a complete bastard. Robbery, murder, torture, fraud, scamming everyone he meets…Tuco is a survivalist well-suited to the harsh landscape and looks out only for himself. It’s a credit to Wallach’s hammy yet intense performance that he makes such a repulsive character so entertaining to watch. Yet when he gets his occasional comeuppances, its actually pretty deserved, and even in the prison camp interrogation, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Tuco, since he’s been such a backstabbing bastard up to that point. But there are moments where you almost do feel sympathy for him, especially in the monastery where he meets his brother and the viewer gets a glimpse at what makes him tick. He may not be beyond redemption, but he is certainly “The Ugly” and one of the great screen rogues.

Sentenza “Angel Eyes”: Lee Van Cleef returns, this time as the villain of the piece. Angel Eyes is introduced as a sinister assassin who honors his contracts and can’t be negotiated with by his victims, but doesn’t hesitate to kill his employer for another contract. Utterly ruthless, merciless, and pragmatic, he‘s also less disturbing than El Indio. Van Cleef does the role well, but it lacks the nuance and development that Colonel Mortimer had in the previous film. Even his motivation for wanting the gold is vague. Greed, I suppose, but the character is “The Bad” and lacks the layers that make him more than simply cold-blooded.

Alcoholic Union Captain: Aldo Giuffrè plays a side character so minor that he doesn’t even register a name in the credits, yet he is a scene stealer. An officer who knows the back-and-forth fight for an inconsequential bridge is accomplishing nothing but the slaughter of his own men, he copes with nihilistic alcoholism. Until Blondie and Tuco show up and give him an explosive sendoff. 

The Sights
Director Sergio Leone displays a technical confidence in his filmmaking here. Gone are the day-for-night scenes from Fistful. Easily the most polished of the three in editing, composition, and cinematography. Juxtaposition of desolate long shots and extreme close-ups of weathered, craggy faces are also done very well. It’s also the biggest in sense of scale, with large crowds of extras in the towns and even a Civil War bridge skirmish that ends in a sizable explosion. For being about such ugly subject matter, this movie sure is pretty.

The Story
Story by: Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, & Sergio Leone. English version by Mickey Knox. That’s a fair number of names, and the script seems to be the weakest element. Not for the core plot, that’s tightly arranged, and the climactic scene is one of the most amazing showdowns in movie history. Seriously, it is THAT good.

I didn’t warm to the episodic nature of the film. This is a very, very long movie that wanders around in some places.  These scenes aren’t bad by any means, but they lack the narrative tightness of the previous two movies. Things are a little more stretched out. There’s less sense of urgency or of the stakes being as high or immediate to the characters. The bridge battle has nothing to do with the rest of the movie other than “Blondie and Tuco stumble upon it” like it was some random encounter. It’s a well-done scene and hey, I’m not anti-explosions, but it could conceivably be cut and the film wouldn’t lose much. Tuco & Blondie don’t really develop further as a result of it. It just feels like a heavy-handed way of getting across the message that war is full of pointless loss of life over arbitrarily chosen objectives. 

A curious aspect of the film is its sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy. Obviously not for the slavery aspect of the South, but the only Confederates we see in the movie tend to be maltreated prisoners of war: the infantry, the cannon-fodder, the schlubs. The Union has a more even spread of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters (about two and two, regarding speaking roles). Yet this is a movie released in 1966, when racial tensions ran high, and if this were an American production, it is highly unlikely that the Confederacy would have received such a portrayal. Not to imply that there weren’t sympathetic people among the Confederacy. Both sides in a war have good and bad people caught up in them, and a large number of rebel soldiers in the Civil War were not themselves slave owners…

And I’m getting off topic. Suffice it to say, historical reality is a complicated thing, and it is curious that the movie is so well regarded in a country where the shorthand opinion of the Civil War is “Confederacy = Bad.”

The Sounds
Original Music by Ennio Morricone. He really knocked it out of the park on this one. The incredible Main Theme, the Ecstasy of Gold, etc. Like the rest of the trilogy, this is the glue that really holds the movie together and elevates it to another level of quality. It can’t be stressed enough.

The Verdict
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is a good movie, no doubt. Best Western? Nah, that’s a hotel chain. Best Spaghetti Western? Maybe. It’s technical skill is superlative and the climax is amazing. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the overall package is somehow less than the sum of its excellent parts. For me, the best of the trilogy is For A Few Dollars More, which features more consistently good character work, a tighter plot, and fewer digressions about social commentary that lack subtlety. 

Watching this movie is definitely worthwhile, but seeing only this one does a disservice to the rest of the trilogy, which is very, very good overall.

*Note: The trailer lies and switches the Bad with the Ugly.