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How Stranger Things is just like a table top roleplaying session

So, me and my girlfriend recently finished Stranger Things, a series that we picked based on absolutely everyone’s recommendations, including every twitter account I “follow” and every person I’ve befriended so far on Facebook. Here are my two Swedish Öre.

It’s good. Good direction, good editing, good soundtrack; simply a good production. However, it’s ultimately a children’s movie, where each actor has the same facial expression all the time.

dyerscreenHere’s Natalie Dyer doing hers

And since I’m not a child, Stranger Things can’t be more than a decent experience all in all.

Okay, I’ll just spill it: I’m no sucker for nostalgia. Or maybe I would be if there wasn’t so god damn much of it in the movie industry today. It’s absurd that some 95% of all Hollywood money is used to cater for dudes in their mid thirties who refuse to grow up. And not only do fully functioning adults keep spending time and money to see their favourite childhood comic book heroes/villains fight each other for the umptieth time, they go completely berserk if said hero/villain isn’t portrayed exactly according to their preferences, upon which they’ll claim their childhood is ruined, as if that’s something that can happen retroactively.

Anyhow.

One thing I found pretty hilarious with Stranger Things is that much, if not most, of the plot plays out pretty much exactly like our pen-and-paper RPG adventures did (yes, I was that geeky back in the day (okay, still am)).

Especially the segment where Chief Hopper decides to enter the lab is just as haphazard and poorly planned as our roleplaying sessions used to be. I have structured the similarities into a neat bullet list:

  • Entering the [evil lair/haunted house/governmental lab] without anything even resembling a plan.
    At a certain point in every table top roleplaying session, the players will grow tired of rolling library checks and other information-gathering procedures and decide to go for broke. This happens because a) it’s getting late and damn it if we don’t see some action soon, and b) the dungeon master usually doesn’t kill off characters at this early stage.
    The way Hopper rushed into that base made Leroy Jenkins appear a model of prudence, if you know what I’m saying.
  • Relying on one highly unrealistic attack/trick/spell that works perfectly every time.
    It’s funny in this age of publicly available UFC tournaments and the general de-mystification of martial arts how the knock-out trope can survive in popular media. The best and strongest strikers in the world of professional fighters can’t put someone to sleep more than a couple of percent of all attempts, and at most for a couple of seconds at a time, but on TV it’s such a foolproof and consequence-free method of sedating others it’s strange they don’t use it as anaesthesia in hospitals.
    Hopper has exactly the reckless and optimistic approach to fisticuffs as an RPG character who’s got way too many fortune points (or whatever heroic luck system your game had) left to bother about subtlety or precision.
  • Failing completely but inexplicably avoiding being killed. Phew, the DM was in a generous mood tonight! Or just too afraid of conflicts. Either way, instead of having to tear the character sheet in twain and start rolling stats all over again, we’ll pretend it actually fits the villain’s scheme better if your character is left alive. Even though it makes no god damn sense.
    We already know that the bad guys in Stranger Things won’t hesitate to murder people left and right if they just happen to be in the general vicinity, but Hopper, who’s just infiltrated their entire evil headquarters and moreover knows they put a stuffed doll in the morgue plus lots of other compromising stuff, yeah, let’s keep him alive. Let’s put him back in his couch and hope he’ll think it was all a beer-induced dream.

I guess criticising Strange Things for being hilariously close to a bunch of 15-year-olds’ late night Dungeons & Dragons is kind of pointless. It’s nostalgia, right?

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GoT – analysis of episode 9

Alright, I’m about to jumpstart this blog again from its long hiatus, but before I post the first update on Whispers of a Machine, here’s a little write-up about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, just to get some writing done.

A layman’s thoughts about the Game of Thrones episode “Battle of the bastards”, with emphasis on the battle

I’m not a full fledged Game of Thrones aficionado – I haven’t even read the books, and my recollection of the events and characters in the show typically reach back some season or two – but I’d like to share my opinions anyway, because this is my blog and I can pretend to have interesting things to say if I want to.

Before I turn undeservingly critical, I’d like to point out that I think the action scenes in this episode, and especially the battles, were among the tightest, most intense and also most realistic depictions (dragons excluded) of medieval warfare I’ve ever seen, and I’m geeky enough to have seen a fair amount. BUT… there’s still some aspects of them that I’d like to bring into question.

But before we pick the battle apart, here are some more general conundrums.

  • Where do all men come from? And the follow-up question; surely there must be a huge surplus of women in Westeros?
    I’m asking this because whenever a king or a warlord, no matter how insignificant, decides to go to war, there’s always this enormous train of soldiers seen traversing the landscape. Since the show started (which is a matter of months judging by how some plot lines have unfolded, or many years judging by how some of the younger characters have aged) there’s been a number of huge battles, and they all seem to have ended in universal slaughter.
    When the Lannisters had troubles liberating their own queen mother from a bunch of monks, I assumed it was because their military resources were completely depleted, owing to all the battles they’d been force to fight, but only minutes after Jamie is tasked to retake Riverrun (which ended up being a completely irrelevant plot line), he appears before their gates (mysteriously fast, considering some characters take entire seasons to travel the same distance) with some 6-7 thousand men, as if they were picked up along the way like common groceries.
    Now, the curious circumstance that prompted my initial question is the seeming lack of cities. Apart from King’s Landing, all we see of Westerosi settlements are sporadic – and largely empty – castles and the odd hovel. Where the heck do all men come from? It’s almost like what we see in the show is the brief version of events that take place over hundreds of years, so that new generations of men can grow up and be enlisted by those untiring warmongers.
  • Where was Brienne? For being someone who’s sworn to protect and aid and constantly be in close proximity to Sansa, she was oddly absent during the most pivotal and potentially dangerous time thinkable. Was she still rowing about with Podrick?
  • Was that all we got from the Tully/Riverrun plot line? That was useless. I assumed Edmure was re-introduced so that he could do what his absurdly stubborn uncle couldn’t – take their men to Stark and help reclaim the north. Instead Blackfish died having achieved nothing, and Edmure agreed to be a prisoner forever after and kind of uselessly fade out of existence, and the show (again).

Okay, with those questions still unanswered, let’s move onto the battle of the bastards.

Oh, and I’ll make this a bullet list as well. I like bullet lists.

  • Why did both parties (Jon and Ramsay, i.e.) seek to provoke the other when they had absolutely no strategies to counter the other’s rushing in? Ok, that was complicated, let me explain. When they first meet to trade insults the day before the battle, as is customary, we understand that both attempt to provoke the other into doing something rash and foolhardy, only that Jon suck at talking smack – to the point that Sansa must intervene and deliver something even remotely scathing – whereas Ramsay excels at it.
    This provokation strategy peaks when Ramsay kills Rickon before Jon’s eyes, which prompts the latter to rush solitarily into the battle field, even though everyone, especially Sansa, has said repeatedly that they shouldn’t let themselves be provoked into rushing in foolhardily, lest they’ll surely fall into Ramsay’s traps. This in turn forces his cavalry to engage, even though everyone, especially Sansa, has said repeatedly that they shouldn’t etc etc.
  • While we’re at the subject of archery: This may be a bit too obvious a criticism, but why didn’t Rickon side-step even once, or better yet zigzag the whole way to Jon? Readers of the book will probably tell me that Ramsay is the best archer throughout the seven kingdoms or something, but that doesn’t matter; an arrow spends so long time in the air, skills cease to factor in when the target is moving unpredictably. Did Ramsay mind-control Rickon’s movements? Also, arrows rarely insta-kill like that, especially not over hundreds of yards, but hey, let’s not get too technical.
  • Related to the previous point: Why didn’t Ramsay shoot Jon while he was at it? That was rather strange. Did he suddenly run out of arrows?
    Actually, Ramsay’s reluctance to shoot at Jon is again shown inside the courtyard, when he opts to hit the giant with an umpteeth arrow instead of simply killing Jon. Jesus, Ramsay, Wun Wun was already drawing his last dying breaths, whereas Jon looked ever so fit and hungry for revenge. Set your priorities straight, dude!
  • Okay, back to the battlefield. Now, at this point I assumed that Ramsay had prepared all sorts of traps, maybe even the good ol’ soak-the-ground-in-flammable-liquid-and-ignite-with-firearrows-from-afar, but nope. Not even a pesky trip wire. He just deploys his own cavalry. WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO MAKE JON, OR THE CAVALRY FOR THAT MATTER, RUSH IN?
  • Why didn’t Ramsay use his pikemen instead of his own cavalry? Okay, this was a segue from the first point, but that point was getting wordy.
    Everyone who’s seen Braveheart knows that the best way to counter an oncoming cavalry is to wait and wait and wait and then wham! – pikes. And who happens to own the most disciplined and effective phalanx (I don’t actually know how many that is, so just play along) of pikemen Westeros has ever seen? That’s right, Ramsay does.
    Not only do the mounted warriors completely obliterate each other, which must be a severe economic setback even for a super villain, Ramsay adds to the mutual devastation by launching salvo upon salvo of arrows into the mix. That’s a weird way to waste your most expensive military unit. It’s one thing if Ramsay had treated a bunch of hired axe-weilding hillfolks in this fashion, but knights on horses? Ah well.
  • Where were the 60 warriors from bear island? I had anticipated a nice montage of warriors of various houses, sweeping past the especially bad-ass-looking, albeit few, elite… bear…looking… fighters that the mormont girl agreed to send. I guess they were simply nothing special.
  • Why did the wildlings and whoever of the regular forces that were still alive let themselves be surrounded by the pikemen? They looked so flabbergasted when the shield-bearers came shuffling in I personally thought they’d already surrendered, and were to be captured by the least cool units as a sort of insult.
    Note to wildlings – don’t let yourselves be surrounded. Pikes and shields are only useful together and in that exact fashion – picked apart and in close combat they’ll turn to awkwardly long sticks and lonely guys holding shields and no weapons.

Buuut… over all this was an awesome episode, no question about it.

Okay, this is when you can comment and tell me how I was wrong. Thanks for reading!

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Edge of Tomorrow – my analysis and suggestions for improvements

Note: This text is only for those who have already seen the movie and are interested in an overly thorough dissection of it.

I’m away on vacation and have had plenty of time to write something for my blog, which I guess doesn’t need to be exclusively about game design, now that I’m not really working on a game. So, enjoy.

Edge of Tomorrow – my analysis and suggestions for improvements
There’s plenty to love about Edge of Tomorrow – I wouldn’t write a long text about it if there wasn’t. But this recent sci-fi blockbuster also has some weak points, and a few aspects that could definitely be improved, and I want to discuss those points here, as well as analyze some of the plot elements and especially the ending. 

The basic premise of EoT is very easy to like and become immersed in – it’s basically a computer game made into a movie, and it’s furthermore extremely well paced and comes with stunning visuals. It’s not metaphorical or psychological – although at a few occasions it shows potential to be – but simply fascinating and exciting. 

Let’s start with some general plot weakness before we go through the most glaring plot holes – because they do exist. 

Controlling time
The ability to reset time is of course not easy to provide a credible explanation to, but I think the mechanism provided here (and, I suppose, originally in the novella by Sakurazaka) is overly contrived. I was personally much more enthusiastic about the concept before the infectious-blood explanation was presented – I just assumed that this was the real secret weapon of the human army; that a few individuals were given this unique power, either because the powers that be see some kind of potential in them, or as a chance of redemption (similar to Groundhog day, which is the obvious comparison). 

In hindsight, this seems to me a cleaner model. The humans could bestow on certain select individuals the ability to replay events, but because of some circumstance, maybe a technical glitch or alien sabotage, there’s only a number of replays permitted, and they become prematurely mortal again. 

Not only is the infectious-blood-idea hard to digest – the whole idea of special powers being passed on through blood contact seems more like fantasy or perhaps superhero material rather than hi-tech science fiction – and it leads to many practical questions. How much blood is necessary to transfer the power? We learn that bleeding out and getting new blood will make the ability go away, but again this makes you wonder how much blood you can afford to lose, and let’s not forget that our blood is constantly refreshed through the regeneration of red blood cells. Et cetera,

Not only is the blood-transfer mechanism not a very elegant solution, but it leads to some major logical plot holes, namely:

Why would Omega (the brain of the alien hive mind) let his Alpha Mimics (the blue ones) even be on the battlefield? Remember that Cage killed his Alpha on his very first day, when he wasn’t even trained. All it took was for the creature to spill some blood on him, and Omega and the entire alien race lost its most valuable, strategic asset – time control. We know that this happened once before (that time to Rita Vratinski), but it’s amazing that it hasn’t happened many more times. In the extreme chaos of a battlefield, a Mimic has only marginally better odds of survival than a human, and the chance of nearby human soldiers accidentally getting some blood on themselves is hardly negligible. 

The lack of caution on the aliens’ part is perhaps the most glaring plot hole within the narrative of the movie. 

How smart is Omega really?

It’s also a bit strange that Omega can’t devise a better plan to regain the precious blood from the new alpha individual (now Cage) directly after losing it. For every day that passes, Cage’s – and mankind’s – odds are gradually improving, as they can start communicating and work out a strategy. For many weeks, even months, Cage is rather clueless about Omega’s intentions, or that it even exists. Wouldn’t it have been very easy for Omega to simply have another Alpha – or any other minion – simply abduct Cage, hold him down for a few seconds and extract his blood? 

Vrataski’s somehow knowing she’s mortal again
Perhaps not connected with the major thread of this treatise, but isn’t it very unlikely that Vrataski – not tutored by a full metal bitch of her own – came to the conclusion that she had suddenly lost the power, and stopped sacrificing herself just in time? Consider the extreme time scope of both hers and Cage’s trials, as perfecting their respective ”gameplay” must have taken hundreds of iterations for every second of progress. By the time they lose the power, they must have grown accustomed to killing themselves as effortlessly and routinely as another person brushes their teeth in the morning. We learn from Vrataski that it was the lack of visions that led her to assume she no longer possessed the power, and in turn suspect it was the blood transfusion that caused it. But she can’t really know she’s lost the power – the only way to be certain is to die and not wake up, by which time it’s obviously too late.

Cage manages to avoid being hospitalized
Guess where a considerable portion of war casualties end up instead of straight to a shallow grave? They become a vegetable in some palliative care ward, slowly fading away without any chance to affect their situation. Over the course of thousands of deaths in the battlefield, not even once is Cage injured just enough to simply lose consciousness, much less become paraplegic, braindead or left a drooling cripple in a remote hospice. His only non-lethal injuries conveniently occur in the presence of Vratinski, who can handily euthanize him. 

The ending, recap
Alright. When it comes to the ending, EoT definitely invites the viewers to make their own analysis. Not only is the underlying mechanism unexplained, but several events that we know must have taken place are not depicted.

In case you have forgotten the events that form the conclusion of the movie: Cage learns he’s no longer the alpha individual (having received a blood transfusion) and that he’s no longer immortal. He localizes Omega, manages not to kill the blue Alpha mimic (which would have reset the day again, this time with Omega in control), and kills Omega using grenades. Before Cage dies, he absorbs some of Omega’s blood, and thus becomes the alpha individual again.

Two minor issues here
Why did the blue alpha alien not kill Cage properly? Why not use all of his speed and force to just tear him apart? Also, it’s extremely unlikely that the explosion that destroys Omega, a blast powerful enough to make the entire surface area shake as if by an earthquake, doesn’t instantly kill Cage, who’s just some dozen yards away and in water (which transports shockwaves much more efficiently than air). However, this probably falls in the category of common action movie physics, so let’s move on.

The ending – what happened?
Suddenly, we see Cage wake up again, this time at a point prior to his usual reseting point.  He’s now back to when the movie started; the day he arrives in London to check in with general Brigham. This time, we learn that the aliens have been defeated, and humans forces are regaining control of Europe. 

Obviously, there are some unanswered questions here. What happened between the scene where Cage almost dies, and the scene where he wakes up in the helicopter, and the humans have won? There are two alternatives here.

  1. Killing Omega just once is enough to eliminate it from every time line, no matter how it is reset or who is in control. This means that even if we rewind the events to the day before the human coalition attempts to liberate France, Omega has mysteriously disappeared, leaving the entire alien race incapacitated. Since Cage hasn’t been accused of being a deserter in this timeline, there’s no waking up in the military camp instead of the helicopter bound for London, which is the previous wake-up point.  
  2. Absorbing Omega blood instead of just alpha mimic blood grants Cage extended powers, and he is now free to rewind time to any desired point in the past. Cage goes back to a point much earlier, even before the helicopter scene, and can now start working out a proper plan to fight the invasion. This time he knows the real location of Omega (under the Louvre) and he’s not branded a deserter, and is consequently in a much better position to coordinate an attack. After an unknown number of attempts, he bombs the Louvre, then proceeds to arrive in London in the same manner as in the opening sequence of the movie. 

The first model implies rules of physics that aren’t explicitly presented anywhere, not even in Dr. Carter’s scientific expositions, namely that some events, such as Omega’s existence, lie parallel to the live-die-repeat-cycle. This is something we can only theorize about, although we know for a fact that once the first Alpha Mimic died (back on the beach in France) he didn’t return in subsequent cycles, so maybe Omega suffers the same fate as Alpha Mimics – if they die and their blood is absorbed by someone else, they die ”permanently”. 

The second model requires us to accept that a lot of events weren’t shown in the movie, but in return doesn’t need the rather complex parallel-timeline model. 

Plot holes aside…
All in all, there’s plenty to love about EoT. It sets up many interesting scenarios that especially computer game players can relate to (”I’ve never come this far before!”) and in the sequences where Cage knows he’s no longer immortal, the excitement really peaks (comparable to playing a game with no more extra lives). 

There are instances when the psychological aspects of their relationship could be explored much further. In the cabin scene, e.g, there’s suddenly an interesting tension, as Vratinski starts wondering how far Cage has gone in his attempts to romance her, and how much he knows about her. I thought for a second that the movie would take a new direction here, veering into a psychological thriller where Vratinski needs to ask herself how much she can trust Cage. Who knows all the tricks he’s tried so far to score? 

Time for my suggestions!
Here’s how I would have made this movie.

  1. Skip the blood part. It’s too contrived and not at all elegant. Let the power to rewind time be a groundbreaking human invention. Have an alien agent sabotage the technology so that the human super soldiers suddenly run out of attempts.
  2. Put more emphasis on Cage’s character. How does he develop as a person during this ordeal? This is what makes Groundhog day interesting.
  3. Let the moment where Cage reaches a dead end be the climax. He already reaches a point where he can’t possibly make both him and Vratinski survive (this is also in the cabin scene) – let this be the pivotal moment. He will realize that no matter what he tries, he can’t progress and keep her alive at the same time. The solution is to not contact Vratinski at all, but to go on by himself. I think it would make for an interesting sentimental twist; she will have been his mentor for months, maybe years (again, imagine the amount of iterations necessary to achieve the level of perfection seen in the movie), but ends up not knowing him at all. This will save her life. And we can even insert a romantic ending if needed – remember how she reveals her middle name at one point? Cage can approach her after the war has ended and tell her about their time together, using her middle name as some kind of token.

Thanks for reading.

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