Sanjuro (1962) Review

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Sanjuro stars Toshiro Mifune in this samurai film from the early 1960’s, directed by Japanese film auteur Akira Kurosawa. It follows Sanjuro, a wandering samurai who is astonishingly unkempt and unconventional, in stark contrast to the young samurai that follow him are are very tight and formal.

While it is said to be a comedy, I only found it occassionally funny, although this might just be a thing with me not getting all the subtleties. But otherwise, if you’re familiar with Westerns, such as the Man With No Name trilogy, you will likely be able to orient yourself quite quickly, considering the cross cultural nature of the conventions of jidaigeki films and westerns. Mifune displays himself an incredible talent offering an immense amount of realism and character into Sanjuro, with an incredible amount of depth coming through pure expression.

A black and white film, it holds up very well visually with brilliant lighting and sets that for the most part I can only assume were shot on location. If it wasn’t on location, then they’re very impressive sets, because the film just looks great, especially with Kurosawa’s camerawork. However, it might just be a technical problem with the print the digital master was created from, but there are occassional oddities in the editing that don’t seem intention and are more like slight technical mistakes, which for a very brief moment take you out of the experience. In regards to the violence, there are fights but the sounds aren’t as bombastic with the clanging of metal on flesh like newer films might be and there’s very little blood which is fine, because when there is blood, it is more impactful. Fight choreography is also excellent, especially in the final fight of the film.

Should you watch Sanjuro? Yes, especially if you haven’t seen any films in the jidaigeki genre and like westerns. It’s an enjoyable adventure of a film with an excellent performance, beautiful visuals and a lot of heart. Check it out.

7.5/10

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Overwatch (2016) Open Beta: Impressions

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Over the weekend, Blizzard opened up access to their latest shooter for PC, Overwatch. I played it for a bit over the weekend, at least enough to get a feel for the game, so I thought I would share my thoughts with you on it.

If you have been living under a rock and you don’t know what this game is, the most succinct frame of reference I can give you is that it is Blizzard’s answer to Team Fortress 2. It has a similar rendering style, although more high fidelity and is aesthetically pleasing in it’s cartoonishness and it’s diverse range of characters, from Pharah, the Egyptian woman that looks like she’s in the Samus suit and can rocket jump, to Bastion, a portable to turret, Genji who is basically Grey Fox and Torbjorn, a dwarf who is essentially the engineer from TF2, to Reaper who is the obligatory edgelord. Each character has their own weapons and abilities that make them feel markedly different, such as having differing default movement speeds, amounts of weapons and special abilities. For example, one of Genji’s abilities is to block bullets, McCree can empty his revolver as if in a spaghetti western, Mercy heal, Mei can summon a block of the Wall from Game of Thrones. There are about 21 heroes and each fit broadly into one of four classes: Offense, Defense, Tank and Support, which gives you some indication of what characters you might want to pick in particular match types or match circumstances, such as whether you are attacking or defending. It is a dynamic that works well most of the time, however, there are some balance problems. One notable problem is stacking of a particular class on defense, that being having four or more Torbs in one team. When a team I was on did this, it was a cakewalk and we slaughtered them. The same occurred the next round when the entire team went as Torb and we were resigned to the fact that we were going to get smashed, but we tried hard anyways.

In terms of maps, I didn’t play many, but the themes were varied: from the sunny Greek coast, to a Hollywood set for a western film, to Russia, to Egyptian themed maps, all blending nicely with character personalities. I didn’t play enough to be able to give you any sort of detailed breakdown of map layouts, but from what I did play, they were all enjoyable to play on and there was nothing that immediately

In each match, it is 6v6 and there are King of the Hill type modes, to modes that are identical to payload. Unfortunately, there is no server browser, so this all operates off of matchmaking. On the plus side, the matchmaking works quite well and consistently, unlike Rainbow Six: SiegeAnother positive is that the game performs well, as I am getting about 90 fps on average at around max settings at 1440p on a GTX 970. There is also a party system which works consistently well and the in game chat is comprehensive and allows you to talk to specific people, your team, party, or the server.

One thing that will inevitably come up in discussion of this game on message boards: who is the best waifu? Who is best girl? I am not going to get into that discussion here, but I will say that most players will find out who is their very own best girl, in addition to who is their favourite to play. My favourite to play is Pharah because of rocket jumping and being able to deal loads of damage.

To wrap up, is the game good? I would say yes, it played mostly quite well and is perfect for those who want to scratch that TF2 itch whilst avoiding the baggage that plagues TF2 as it stands today. If you have an itch for this type of arcadey shooter, I would definitely recommend looking into it.

Carrie (1976) Review

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Carrie is an American horror classic from Brian de Palma, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. It is an emotional rollercoaster of a film and I would say not a horror in the conventional sense that one might be used to, such as slashers or cabin horror. It is the story of a shy young girl bullied by her peers and psychologically abused by her insane Christian mother and throughout the course of the film, discovers that she has supernatural powers.

Watching this film 40 years after it’s original original release is like stepping into both a filmic and cultural time machine. The opening sequence in a high school girls locker room-a casual and non sexual nudity, the segregation of physical education classes by sex, the teacher being able to physically strike a student. It’s a world that feels removed from current times, yet still retaining it’s familiarity.

Sissy Spacek plays the titular Carrie White and delivers an astounding and believable performance. This is one of those performances that hit you emotionally- you see her shyness, her fear, embarrassment, but also her fleeting moments of happiness. Carrie’s eventual blossoming confidence and happiness is something truly lovely to witness-yet at the same time terrifying, for us the audience already anticipate the impending humiliation and tragedy. We see from the opening shower sequence, in which Carrie experiences her first period and is absolutely frightened, for she does not yet understand what is happening to her and when she cries for help, she is laughed at and humiliated. This is something I cannot exactly empathise with, but for young girls, especially around the time of the film’s release, this would be terrifying to them. But the point from it is we see the meanness of her peers and even with the supernatural element of the film and it’s climactic prom sequence, it is not some metaphysical being like a Freddy Krueger or a psycho like Norman Bates. Rather, it is from the excess of an every day kind of meanness and abuse that we see throughout the film-something more akin to a banality of evil. Yet, not everyone is nasty to poor Carrie, there are those, very few who are genuinely nice to her, making the climax of the film all the more tragic.

The soundtrack of the film is also something to note, combining elements of classic melodramatic style without being too overbearing, quotations of hymnic rhythms, diegetic rock and roll and gloomy atmosphere, with all these in play during the prom sequence in the final act to devastating effect, especially with the transition from triumphant melodrama to the sounds of impending doom. Not to mention that there were some sounds which sounded almost ripped from Psycho with their screech and brief rhythms when they are heard. Other performances in the film are believable enough, perhaps seeming a little odd, but not enough to take one out of the experience, but Spacek steals the show. Visual effects as well seem to mostly hold up and the visuals of the film are absolutely fantastic, again in that prom sequence which we inevitably circle back to when talking about this film.

Carrie is a film that I really liked in a way I didn’t expect it to, it was greatly moving engaged something of a protective instinct from myself. Of course, others will feel differently, but the fact that this film can achieve that without feeling manipulative or doing it in the cheapest way possible, but instead feels genuine and uncomplicated. And despite it having the clear stamp of being from a different time, I would insist that it still has a timeless quality to it. It’s brilliant and if you haven’t seen this American classic, you should.

9/10

 

Walt Before Mickey (2015) Review

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Walt Before Mickey is a biopic, directed by Khoa Le, someone who I had never heard before. The narrative is exactly as the title suggests: it is about the life about Walt Disney, up until the time he made Mickey Mouse.

I’ll just say it essentially out the gate: I did not like this movie very much. While it is interesting to see some of the struggles of Walt with studio executives, his period of homelessness and a representation of the creative process, as a whole, I don’t think this movie did Walt a whole lot of justice. Perhaps it was because it seemed to be framed as a children’s film, with pseudo Disney style music that might work in classic fantastical animations or outright comedies, don’t fit here. While I don’t think every movie needs to be dark and gritty, the total opposite style doesn’t work.

Among those problems are the occasionally cringeworthy “inspirational” dialogue that isn’t well delivered and comes across as tacky. Performances also are nice attempts, but don’t seem to elevate it beyond it’s cheesiness into a proper biopic, but many of them do seem enthusiastic and genuine rather than always just phoning it in, so that’s something it’s favour. The film is also marred by inconsistent set quality that at times looks perfectly fine and off in others, such as a scene where Walt is waiting outside a studio to meet with an exec.

There’s not really much else to say about it otherwise other than it’s bland. The technical side seemed more or less competent. Overall, it just feels like an overly saccharine and disappointing biopic about an animation legend and the team he worked with to create one of the most successful film studios to date.

3/10

Dark Souls 3 (2016) PC review

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Dark Souls 3 is the end of an era, both in game and for the series itself. Now, to answer what is probably your first question of “how hard is it?” Well, since I’ve been with the series since Demon’s Souls, I’d say I’m well equipped to discuss this. In terms of the moment to moment combat, it is just as challenging as it has ever been. The latest addition to the combat is the weapon arts, which use FP (mana) for special moves, with each weapon type having their own move and unique weapons having their own individual moves. It adds a nice extra flavour to the combat and enables more playstyles, however I used it sparingly, probably due to the reflexes I have built up through the traditional combat dynamics of the series. These moves are useful though, especially for faster playstyles, such as uchigatana, dagger or rapier users. Interestly, certain types of enemies, such as knights, incorporate these weapon arts into their move sets, making for some interesting duels. Some of the boss fights are also incredibly fast,almost as much as Bloodborne, which can be very exhilarating, especially against the Dancer of the Boreal Valley and the Prince Lothric, just to name a few.
The pace has changed to be more like Bloodborne: instead of holding your shield up and being cautious, the game pushes you to dodge or parry more, so it is a faster dynamic. The enemies are also faster as well. But structurally, the game is easier than Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls since you automatically have warp access and the game is much more linear overall. The bonfires are also somewhat more generous and weapon durability is a joke. In the entirety of my first playthrough, none of my weapons or armour broke, so the feature seems totally superfluous to me in this entry. In my playthrough, I was also unable to upgrade my armour like in previous games, which I found odd. Playing on the PC version enabled me to play the game at 60fps compared to playing the series on 30fps, which I am used to, creating a smoother and more responsive experience. Playing at settings close to maximum at 1440p, using a GTX970 kept up around 60fps almost all the time.

Some might get the feeling that this latest entry feels like a greatest hits entry. To some extent, this may feel like the case with familiar motifs at play: the dragon runs, the medieval gothic or almost victorian architecture, poisonous swamps, tombs, etc. But this feeling of familiarity fades and resurfaces as you try and consider where you are in relation to the locations of Dark Souls, as well as the level design being different. The level design works similarly to how the series has always worked, with the levels being very interconnected and having their own sets of shortcuts or connections to each other, although the latter is less so in relation to Dark Souls, since you have access to warping. The sound design is also incredible, with weapons sounding weighty and impactful, as well as the shrieks, howls and other sounds create a chilling and at times frightening effect. Visually, whilst the game isn’t the most technically impressive game out, it still looks incredible with it’s texture resolution and strong gothic horror fantasy aesthetic and lighting creating some beautiful and haunting locales, like the one pictured in this piece.
As far as the story is concerned, it is as it has always been: told primarily visually and through flavour texts and the occassional quick cutscene. It’s as cryptic and unobtrusive as ever, and I won’t burden you with my interpretation of the storyline because I don’t have one. I never really found it that important while playing this series for I found the purity of the mechanics and overall structure and challenge of them being enjoyable for their own sake. That said, if you are so inclined to engaging with the lore, there is plenty there.

Dark Souls 3 is great. While it has some issues insofar as some superfluous mechanics and a little too much linearity, it is still an addictive and enjoyable experience. It did feel a little easier than previous entries, but that is possibly because I have finally gotten good and with such familiarity with the mechanics, was able to manage resources more carefully and use summons more often when I needed to. My first playthrough, going to almost all areas of the game, took me about 24 hours of play time to do, so series veterans should expect their playthroughs to take between 20-30 hours on average, but newcomers will probably take longer to complete it. While not perfect, it is a great game in it’s own right and as what is probably the final entry in the series.

8/10

 

Examining the Approaches to Morality in Popular Video Games

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The representation of morality in video games  is a strange beast. Many games, particularly role playing games and even some open world action games, such as inFamous, use these moral systems as a core feature, even advertising it on the box for narrative driven games. In this piece, I’m going to examine the two main approaches to morality in popular video games. The first we will called the ‘systematic approaches’ and the second type, it should go without saying will be referred to as ‘non-systematic approaches.’

“But wait!” you might be thinking to yourself, “aren’t all video games defined by systems, so won’t all moral systems in games be systematic approaches by design?” This may be technically true, but the reasons for using the particularly terminology I’m using for different approaches to morality in games will become clear as you read this, so do not worry!

First, let us look at the systematised approaches in which morality is on some sort of scale and is represented visually to the player, usually in a stats or pause screen. In titles like Knights of the Old Republic and InFamous, for example, both games allow players to make decisions that effect narrative outcomes and somewhat more complexly in KOTOR, companion attitudes towards the player character, which is dependent on their own particular alignment. In both games, however, each side of the moral equation, with good being blue and bad being red represented on a scale, have specific powers restricted to particular moral alignments. And it’s here that the illusion is revealed for what it is! The moral systems here become nothing more, in practical terms, than another type of statistic or talent/upgrade tree, a way to min/max a particular mechanical play style under the guise of morality. This morality meter approach ultimately undermines the idea of moral decision making in games, because instead of the player using any particular ethical decision process through an axiom, or some kind of categorical imperative, or some consequentialist basis, the player is instead ultimately just making the same sort of decision as “what sort or weapons or spells should I equip?” This ultimately undermines the abilities for the player to get truly engrossed in the narrative and feel disconnected from their decisions.

The Mass Effect series uses a similar system to this, although as far as I remember, do not dish out or restrict gameplay abilities based on the moral decisions of the player. Instead, it seperates ‘moral decisions’ into Paragon and Renegade, which basically just mean ‘Saint’ and ‘Asshole’ respectively. It has it’s own issues, however in that the dialogue, instead of being done as a list, is done through a simplistic dialogue wheel that make you have to choose a set of options based on sometimes vague language, so the player sometimes has difficulty on knowing what their character will actually say, restricting agency. Normally this lack of clarity might bring a problem to knowing which is the ‘right’ decision to make but never fear, the developers are their to patronize the intelligence of the players by making the asshole decisions in red and good guy decisions in blue. In a game with list based dialogue with fully formed sentences as options, which I will say right now are in almost all cases, better, this colour coding of decision making players actually able to assess the meaning of the options presented and make decisions accordingly instead of a vague guess on what the character might say. Worse still for Mass Effect, depending on you morality meter alignment, some dialogue options will open to you from that particular alignment and close off that from the other alignment. This means an arbitrary restriction even within the systems of the game, reducing player agency and their ability to shape Shepard in their own  nuanced image. What if players want to have him start off as a goody two shoes and as the game progresses, make him become an anti hero of sorts? Not possible within this system! While all computer RPGs will have limitations on what choices the player can have simply by the limitations of the medium, this problem is compounded by the practical issues involved in having a voiced player character in this genre.

Fallout 3 isn’t much better in this regard. Except it has a couple systemic quirks about how morality (or ‘karma’ as it is in game) is calculated and displayed. Most notoriously is how the player can nuke an entire town for the entertainment of others and become the embodiment of malevolence and then give thirsty beggars lorryloads of purified water and then suddenly you are redeemed and holy, the embodiment of the good. It’s all very strange, which gives the game a very inconsistent representation of what constitutes right action within the game’s logic. Despite these oddities, it still has some more nuance and thus greater accommodation of player agency than the titles discussed prior.

This set of games makes all the same errors fundamentally in that they treat morality as good and evil, that is to say, as categorically different rather than a difference of degree. I’m of the opinion that if possible, if games are going to systematise moral decision making in such a way, they should consider having more alignments based on differences of degree to facilitate more player agency in the shaping of player characters. A better system to start with might be the Dungeons and Dragons alignment charts, but this simply could also be achieved by not doing things like colour coding which options are good/bad as they appear. Another thing to be aware of is that the moral valuations on player action present in these games are based upon the values of the developers, ethical, political or otherwise which in turn are likely to represent the values of the period and society in which the game was made. This might be particularly troublesome for modern western games of this sort that deal with issues of racial discrimination and other contemporary social issues, which are likely to be valuated anachronistically or with some other bias to contemporary western society, which might leave some games feel as though it’s wagging it’s finger at you or preaching to you, rather than encouraging player expression or meaningful self reflection to determine whether you acted rightly.

However, not all systematic approaches to morality in games have these troubles. Fallout: New Vegas is one such title. It avoids this due to it’s amoral approach to morality. Sure, the karma meter is present, but when playing the game, it doesn’t matter. Because the core narrative focuses around geopolitical clashes of various factions, based on different political ideals and circumstances, this makes the narrative decision making in New Vegas more of a political one than an ethical one most of the time. Reputation with factions is what matters, not morality, which will find players who do a self insert playthrough will wind up justifying their actions either consequentially, opportunistically or through whichever political and moral values they have going into the game. Internet discussions to this day related to this game will often involve discussion on which faction or narrative path  was  ‘the right one’. This kind of amoral, multifaceted approach to moral systems allows for greater player expression and for the player to ultimately decide at the end of the day whether they acted rightly instead of being preached to or having weird systemic quirks a la Fallout 3.  It is also in my opinion far more interesting to play through than games with conventional moral systematisations..

Now, onto non systematic approaches! The prime example for this is The Witcher series. Underpinned with well written plotlines, these games have a far more intelligent approach to ethical decision making. The games have no meter represented to the player on how good or evil they are and no special powers or abilities for the ethical decisions presented throughout the narrative and various sub-narratives throughout the series. Outcomes in this game aren’t even a moral scale that add or subtract good boy points under the hood, but is instead done through branching narratives, which is a much more organic and immersive. Additionally, because the writing of the game allows the player to become invested, emotionally or otherwise, into it’s characters and game world there can be some real dilemmas presented to the player, whose outcomes may not necessarily be immediately obvious. This forces the player to seriously weigh up their options and think through one or more modes of ethical reasoning to assess which action to take is the right action. Due the dark fantasy nature of the game, some outcomes that players may have reasoned to be good don’t manifest and instead their actions might not result in intended outcomes which may strike the player on an emotional level and cause them to reflect on the decision they made and think if it really was the right action and if they should have acted differently. Through this organic approach to ethical decision making (that may technically count as thought experiments in philosophical discussion since it applies worlds that are not ours), games can be more intellectually stimulating for players and test their principles and convictions in a general way without undermining itself by just being another glorified talent tree, which is why in my opinion, why these non systematic approaches are superior to the conventional systematic approaches.

Speaking of moral systems in games more broadly speaking, players who are inclined to testing out different ethical theories (ie; those interested in philosophy of this sort) and decision processes in a variety of ways can do so in games that allow such levels of agency, although again, these are likely better done in titles like The Witcher as opposed to InFamous.

The Lobster (2015) Review

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A week or maybe two a go, a friend of mine marathoned The Lobster and told me to check it out. And now I have. This movie, set in a dystopian European setting that looks very much like contemporary society, has the premise that single people, whether they be forever alones or widows, get sent to a hotel in which they have 45 days to fall in love with someone with somebody or get turned into an animal and let out into the wild.

It’s an absurd premise, but it is played totally straight, with deadpan line delivery. Everyone is 100% serious all the time in this, with some bizarre and awkward dialogue, as well as character interactions generally being incredibly awkward. This is intentional, of course and really adds a greater layer of depth to this dystopian society: is this how people always are in this world? Has everyone gotten some form of aspergers syndrome? We don’t know, but it makes for some hilarious moments, especially during the sexual moments. There are also some great visual gags, such as our protagonist David having his right hand cuffed behind his back and we have a scene where he is trying to take off said trousers while having to deal with this. Simple and absolutely hilarious. The first half of the movie is filled with such sequences.

Unfortunately, the second half of the movie drags on just a tad and whilst maintaining the awkward character interactions and deadpan line delivery. However, we do get to meet the people the Hotel hunt, a faction called the Loners. They are basically a filmic interpretation of /r9k/. It is during this second half of the movie that the actual romance part of this romantic comedy comes into play. Here he meets the short sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) and develops a relationship with her that grows as organically and realistically as is possible within the context of the film. However, it is here that the straight faced,awkward line delivery and character interaction become a detriment to the film because for us as an audience, nobody seems like an actual person that we can get too emotionally invested in. Maybe that’s part of the point. I don’t know. But because almost everyone in this film is so awkward, it can make it difficult to differentiate between characters personalities. But maybe that is also part of the point, because every ‘couple’ that is seen in the film, aside from the main romance, is based on the most superficial of characteristics such as having regular nosebleeds.

Should you watch The Lobster? If you want a different approach,an approach that is most easily classified as absolutely absurd, then give it a shot. It’s hilarious and does have some heart to it, it seems self aware but not in a self referential or wink wink nudge nudge way. I felt it ran out of steam a bit in the second half, but as an overall piece, it’s worth watching.

7.5/10