Monday, 21 November 2016

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 3 - Bits and Pieces

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 3
Bits and Pieces

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

We're back and talking about three great works in one of my favourite genres! Before we conclude, here's some stray thoughts that don't fit anywhere else. Together though, they kind of do.

The supernatural

When I started playing Metro, I was briefly surprised by the prominence of an unexpected supernatural element. It doesn't jar, in fact it's enmeshed in the world extremely well, and in a manner that contributes to the plot and atmosphere. But you wouldn't normally think to go that direction in a post-apocalyptic story. You might think that the seriousness of the subject matter would funnel you towards “realism,” and Fallout, after all, didn't really have anything like th—oh, wait, Fallout had ghouls and Super Mutants.

Oddly, none of the properties is satisfied to bank on interest in the post-Apocalypse alone; all three decide to introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings.

Fragile features robots and woodland creatures as enemies, but also contains plenty of supernatural enemies, such as ethereal jellyfish. More significantly, of course, is the Glass Cage, whose entire premise is on technology unavailable in the real world. The impact of this decision is very large, given what it allows the creators to do with the story, as only a select few humans are spared, and they're located far from one another. Seto also encounters several ghosts, one of whom is his main companion throughout the adventure. Another is the main antagonist, and others impede his path in various ways. There's even an old woman who projects the residual self-image of a small child. Many more appear as weak enemies, including banshee-like foes and little kids playing hide-and-go-seek. It's unclear what causes someone to linger after death, but it wasn't the failed human instrumentality attempt per se, otherwise there would be millions of them stalking the streets of Toukyou, rather than a few dozen.

It's hard to say what's behind this interest in blending the serious and supernatural, but it may be to make technology a little more mysterious. We use it in our everyday lives, our dependence upon it increasing by the second, so we tend to assume we have a pretty good handle on it, and yet in these stories it has nearly destroyed us. By introducing unpredictable effects, the creators point out how little we really understand about our own technology, and, indeed, the world around us.

The place of technology

What's the most important piece of technology you're going to need to survive the post-Apocalypse? Your trusty gun, right? Of course not, don't be daft.

"Millions...perhaps even billions, died because science
 outpaced man's restraint!"
By far the most valuable technology is anything that can help you grow or acquire food or water. Even Fallout knows this. Tons of major characters devote their lives to seeking out powerful relics of the Old World. The Brotherhood of Steel, a neo-knightly order of technophiles, jealously hoards its knowledge, even placing the value of its retrieval over that of human life (“After all, everyone knows how to make another human, but the secrets to making a P94 Plasma Rifle are all but lost”). Despite warnings from some members, the Brotherhood gets so wrapped up in locating bombs and weapons schematics that it neglects more useful technologies like aeration or securing the safety of the populace. This difference of opinion tears apart one chapter and nearly destroys another. Plus, the whole plot of Fallout 1 is kicked off when your Vault's Water Chip fails, threatening to leave its residents without potable drinking water and forcing the Overseer to open the Vault early so that you can go look for one.

Metro takes this to a whole new level. Sure, people value weapons maybe a little more than they should, but they focus on the fundamentals of survival, tracking down or reinventing the most primitive, unsexy technologies available. We're talking water purification. Gardening. Domestication. That kind of stuff. They don't talk about it, but I imagine electric sewing machines fetch an outrageous price. And don't forget medicine! Some medical textbooks have survived in Fallout, but in Metro we only ever see two infirmaries in all of Metro, one at Polis in Last Light, and one in I forget where in 2034. I'm sure I don't have to explain why doctors would be highly valued. The gaudiest stations in the series are described as having medical facilities, hot running water, and adequate lighting.

The antagonist in Fragile believed that technology would solve the world's problems, but instead it nearly ended it. And all the everyday technology that once made life possible now sits unused and decaying. Surely the writers don't mean to suggest that we need to get some global genocide happening pronto, but they may be trying to tell us that we'd do well to get back to nature from time to time. Technology makes our lives possible, but it can also end them. A sickle can sustain life, or it can kill, depending how it is used. In these stories, we used the bounties available to us to destroy ourselves. Hell, you could even argue that we're doing that today, with problems like global warming. Some creators may even have had this is in mind when making the games. Nuclear bombs as a stand-in for global warming – well, the latter is slower and less exciting, but just as deadly. And just as avoidable.

What is the place of technology in our world – and in theirs? What technologies should these people pursue – and what should we? These stories are not necessarily anti-technology, but they do seem to warn against its misuse.

Sex and sexuality

Fahrenheit, an ass-kicking woman from F4
In Fallout, conventional racism has given way to an equally insidious prejudice towards the irradiated, nigh-immortal ghouls. Sexism, however, has all but been obliterated. Oh, you still have the odd old-fashioned gender roles type cropping up here and there, but for the most part, except as it pertains to whether or not you want to sleep with somebody, sex and gender are a bit of a non-issue. When your camp is assaulted by raiders, nobody cares what's between your legs – they only care how well you can fight. (The exception to this is Caesar's Legion, in which women are childbearers and caregivers and literally nothing else, but even this is more part of Caesar's ruthless division of labour than actual sexism – the same as how his veteran soldiers are never the first into battle not as some kind of privilege, but because it's more effective to hold them in relief until the enemy is already fatigued from fighting the grunts.)

On a related topic, homosexuality in the world of Fallout is a-ok. There's only one instance where I can remember it being frowned upon, and only because it was among a group of isolationists who felt that it was their peoples' duty to procreate lest they all die out, so it was more of a practical issue than actual bigotry. Basically you're free to bang whoever you want; I always play a woman and try to be as slutty as possible, and everybody's fine with it, and they give equally few fucks if you're a blushing virgin. Which is partly down to freedom of player choice, but there are plenty of non-hetero relationships between NPCs as well. It makes total sense that people would have more pressing issues on their minds than who's sleeping with whom, but there's also the fact that danger is a powerful aphrodesiac, and Post-Apocalyptia is nothing if not dangerous. Biology drives them to panic procreate, and perhaps they also realise that every chance at a good hard pounding may be their last, so they pretty much just take whatever they can get, whenever they can get it.

Also, Fragile features a totally out of nowhere boy-on-boy kiss, in a game from a country not exactly noted for its social progressivism, so wrap your head around that one.

Ammunition

As described above in the section on economics, both Fallout and Metro feature interesting substitutes for money. Metro uses pre-War AK-47 casings, now impossible to counterfeit. The underground inhabitants still make bullets, but they are vastly inferior to the industrial products manufactured for use by the actual military back when there was one.

Similarly, the people of Fallout use Nuka-Cola bottle caps as currency, as their veracity and scarcity are guaranteed because no one knows how to make them anymore. However, as soon as people started cobbling together a semblance of society once again, one of the first things they relearned how to make was high-quality weapons and ammunition. I think that says a lot.

(And by the way – in Mad Max, people don't ever figure out how to mass-produce ammunition, leading to the emphasis on melee combat.)

Glad you could join me for today's session! I've got one more point to make, so I hope I'll see you again next time.

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Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Star Wars vs Gundam: An unprofessional comparison

You probably haven't noticed since it hasn't really been mentioned in the news or on social media, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently hit theatres. Plenty have been showing Star Wars and only Star Wars for several weeks running. They are going to make a lot of money. Meanwhile, I, a longtime Gundam fan, am currently watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam for the first time. For its age, it's an incredible show; the quality of the animation is astounding, and the story is pretty timeless. Still, I can't help but notice that it came out in 1979. Know what else came out just two years earlier? The original Star Wars.

Creating the “space” genre, or merely repackaging it?

A lot of the Star Wars pre-game analyses I saw in the weeks leading up to the new film's release claim that Star Wars launched the space genre. Before Star Wars, commercially viable, intellectually accessible science fiction simply did not exist.

Bullshit.

I'm not just saying that because of Gundam. Gundam launched after, not before. I just explained that like two paragraphs ago. Jesus, please try to pay attention. No, I'm alluding to something interesting I read in a recent Cracked article:

George Lucas, hot off the enormously successful American Graffititried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon to turn it into a big-budget film franchise. They couldn't come to terms on a deal, so Lucas just decided to just write his own version. That's all it was. ... The rough draft of Star Wars was an incoherent rambling mess, borrowing entire scenes from other movies, mostly Akira Kurosawa samurai films (then again, Kurosawa had borrowed his from American Westerns). ... For the space dogfight that would mark the climactic battle at the end of the film, Lucas literally stitched together footage from war movies and documentaries, then just re-filmed them with spaceship models, shot for shot. In other words, Santa Claus isn't real."

Space Captain Harlock
Flash Gordon, "Buck Rodgers, Kurosawa, Westerns (Tattooine!), old WW2 footage. Sounds like Lucas had a lot of good material to draw on. But don't think that Japan was devoid of material at this point, either! It had its own “swashbuckling space adventure,” the 1970s anime Space Captain Harlock. It was popular enough to merit a revival a couple of years ago. And there's plenty more where that came from. 2001: A Space Odyssey, both book and movie. Or how about The War of the Worlds, an HG Wells story from fucking 1897. The decade preceding Star Wars even saw the rise of another space-themed series of TV shows and movies, an obscure property called “Star Trek.”


Metal Gear REX
Everything new steals from everything old. Harry Potter draws on centuries of mythology. Divergent mashes up Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which in turn probably took ideas from Battle Royale. Metal Gear is a mixture of old movies, whatever is currently on Kojima's mind, and, inevitably, Gundam, because you can't tell me the series that launched the mecha subgenre did not in some way influence the eponymous war machines. Hell, even Gundam itself mercilessly cannibalizes its own plotlines to new purpose. Gundam Seed is just a repackaged Mobile Suit Gundam; 00 is just Wing for a post-9/11 audience.

Neither franchise “created” the space adventure. That door had already been slowly dilating open for decades. What they did was put an interesting spin on established conventions and make their own contributions to the cultural landscape. Which, given the flood of boring, derivative fluff we're inundated with every day of every year, is a huge accomplishment anyway.

Legacy

A steam-powered Oobu machine from Sakura Taisen. This one
in particular is piloted by the character Sakura.
Supposedly, less than 1% of people (English speakers?) have never seen any of the Star Wars movies. I was actually surprised it was that high! That's the power that these movies have. And besides Dragonball Z and Pokemon (in that order), I can't think of any other cultural treasure that has had a stronger or more enduring impact on the modern Japanese popular consciousness than Gundam. Final Fantasy? In Japan, Dragon Quest is bigger. Dragon Quest? Nice try, you sarcastic twit, because Dragon Quest is kind of only for nerds, while the other three are widely known by everyone. Sakura Taisen? You know what, now you're just annoying me.

I've heard that when making Sonic 2, Naka Yuuji wanted to pay tribute to the most popular things in America and Japan at the time, which he determined were Star Wars and Dragonball Z, respectively. Hence why Sonic collects seven Chaos Emeralds to transform into a golden, super-powered state, and why Eggman/Robotnik's latest creation is the planet-like Death Egg. I'm not completely sure if that's a true story, but it sounds credible.

The point is that both series have had such a – what? Oh, you think Gundam's not that important because Dragonball Z beat it out for a reference in Sonic 2? Go plan a day trip to Odaiba, tell me if you see anything interesting.


Close to 40 years later, both Gundam and Star Wars are huge, at least in their own countries. In case you forgot, The Force Awakens has just dropped. 2015 saw the beginning of a new Gundam continuity, the Iron-Blooded Orphans, which I haven't watched yet but is most likely far less silly than the English title makes it sound. Both have been the mother of sprawling franchises encompassing everything from physical toys, books, comic books, video games, all kinds of shit.

Merchandising

 “Lucas,” notes the Cracked article, “knew that he was, in part, making a series of toy commercials.” Once you see it, you can't unsee it. Why are there so many variations of Stormtrooper? Because then you can make a separate action figure for each of them. Ayla Secura gets an action figure. Lando's co-pilot gets an action figure. You can buy a goddamn Lego Death Star. The Expanded Universe is/was so successful because it explores intersting, in-depth stories within a compelling universe, but also because it allows for a nearly limitless number of concurrently developed products, with a huge install base, across every creative medium known to man. They had these novels about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan pre-Phantom Menace, I thought they were just about the pinnacle of literature when I was a little kid. RIP Expanded Universe.

GAT-X131 Calamity Gundam
Now Gundam is an interesting case, it wasn't designed with the possibility of merchandise in mind, rather the プラモデル plastic models were designed first, and then Tomino was called in to create the anime in order to market the toys. When I first found out that Calamity from Seed was originally supposed to be 1.5 times the size of a regular Gundam, but this was changed because it would mean the scale model would have to be bigger and thus more expensive, it absolutely blew my mind that something so seemingly trivial could actually affect, no, constrict the creator's vision. Of course, back then I also didn't know that a lot of the best moments in movies were born from blind chance, that the stories and settings of video games are crafted in response to the gameplay mechanics and not the other way around, etc. Well, I was a child.

Which, while I'm on the topic, is why it always amuses/frustrates me when people complain that in making the prequels, George Lucas took Star Wars and “made it for children.” Uh, have you fucking seen the first three movies? THEY ARE FOR CHILDREN. Look at Luke – he is a hero made for children. His robot buddies are hand-made for children. And I'm sorry for treading well-trodden ground, but come the fuck on:


Star Wars is for children and always has been. And actually, so is Gundam. It's sophisticated enough that you can see it for the first time as an adult and still appreciate it, but let's be realistic, here, we're talking about giant robots fighting each other. It's only that Japan is a little less moralistic about its entertainment and coddles its youth a little less. (Broad strokes. Obviously.)

Themes

Char Aznable, fan favourite and one of the key characters of
Gundam's "Universal Century" continunity
 Psych! The two couldn't be farther apart. Gundam tells a nuanced anti-war tale in which there are no clear good guys and bad guys; the antagonists in the first series, the Principality of Zeon, want nothing more than independence from the oppressive Earth Federation (and I spent much of the series trying to figure out why the Federation didn't just give it to them). Later series continue the story from their perspective. As things develop, Mobile Suit Gundam scratches topics such as ecology (decades before An Inconvenient Truth) and transhumanism. Star Wars, meanwhile, is about how war is awesome, violence solves every problem, the good guys not only always win but always survive, and your enemies are all irredeemably evil.

Hero's Journey?

You could say that both Luke Skywalker and Amuro Rei follow a fairly typical Hero's Journey, one of the recognized plot structures in literature. Luke has humble beginnings (a moisture farm), gradually comes into his abilities, and finally destroys the Death Star in the climactic action sequence. It works even better on a trilogy-wide scale, with blind luck leading the way to victory in A New Hope, Luke screwing up and battling his inner demons in The Empire Strikes Back, and emerging in Return of the Jedi as a confident, skilled combatant.

Source.

Similarly, civilian teenager Amuro Rei is thrust into a combat role by circumstances, and initially depends heavily on the capabilities of his machine to achieve victory. Understandably, he develops (a fairly believable depiction of) PTSD after a few battles, stops eating and sleeping properly, and lashes out at the people trying to help him, including his closest friend. At one point he even deserts his ship, White Base, and absconds with the Gundam, which is military property in the first place. Eventually he comes to terms with his fear, achieves his potential, and becomes a truly skilled pilot bent on protecting White Base and its inhabitants.

Of course, I'm not sure this actually says anything substantial about these two series. It probably just indicates that the Hero's Journey is a good fit for a space opera. Which I guess is interesting in itself, actually.

Accidental retro-futurism

This is a common pitfall of science fiction: By the time the real world has caught up chronologically with the one you've created, it may have actually surpassed the technology you were envisioning, or gone off in a completely different direction. Early cyberpunk had conceived of the Internet before the Internet was the Internet, but it didn't occur to people back in the 80's that we would eventually be able to access it wirelessly.

"These days its design seems completely inadequate." Source.
 Again, even today I find Mobile Suit Gundam relevant and immensely enjoyable, but one does notice the occasioanl hiccough in technological progress. I think this is most noticeable in the viewscreens used by crewmen on White Base and in their mobile suit cockpits, which is to say they look like an old TV your father has stored in his basement because he hasn't bothered to throw it away yet, not like modern monitors and certainly not like anything we'll have by the time we're living on the moon.

Meanwhile, control panels on the shiny, just-finished Death Star look as though they're best suited for operating a Magnavox Intellivision.

Cutting-edge computer technology in the world of Fallout.
This can injure suspension of disbelief, but I actually really dig this. It's kind of like a fingerprint left on a work by the era in which it was created. You can always think of it as an alternate timeline, like in Fallout, where humanity pursued nuclear technology instead of computer technology, so that even computers manufactured circa 2077 intentionally look like they came out of 1950.

Destruction!

The Death Star destroying Alderaan is the cayalyst for sections of plot in A New Hope. Mobile Suit Gundam kicks off with the destruction of the protagonist's home, the space colony Side 7. Huh.

Laser swords

Lightsabre – beam sabre. Even the names are similar.



If there's one thing East and West could agree on in the 1970s, it was that laser swords are just plain cool. Or “totally radical,” I guess.

But all of this pales in comparison to...

Amateur mechanics

As a young boy, Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO...



...and as a budding scientific prodigy, Amuro Rei created the purely decorative robot Haro.

Anakin, of course, becomes Darth Vader. And in some Gundam series, Amuro occupies the role of villain.


Coincidence?

The crossover section of Fanfiction.com thinks not.