Categories
Movies

When Heroes Deserve to Win

This post is not about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except for the fact that it was brought about by something that happens in The Force Awakens and it bothered me (if you’re ultra sensitive to spoilers this is your warning to stop reading). The thing is, what happened actually happens in stories all the time, and it bothers me all the time, but despite my best efforts to articulate the reason why it bothers me everyone I talk to usually just shrugs it off and says something akin to “but it’s just an action movie!” So this is my final attempt to articulate the point.

So what are we even talking about? Without spoiling too much, at the end of The Force Awakens there is a fight between good and evil and good wins. That’s fine. The problem is that the “good guy” in this fight has no reason to win other than it being the end of the movie. There may have been an arc, and some crazy things may have happened along the way, but there’s no reason for this particular good guy to be the person who wins. In fact, this particular fight is two good guys versus one bad guy, and the first good guy proves unsuccessful. Is there something different about the two of them? Why does the second good guy get to win? Why do either of them deserve to win? The Force Awakens makes no clear point, but there should be a reason past “because they are the good guys,” and I have some ideas. Stories have proven that the reasons the good guy should win is because of a transformation in their character or because specifically their character was the only character who could’ve accomplished what was needed.

Let me be clear, when I say “deserves to win,” I don’t mean the endless fan theories of who is technically stronger according to lore. This is not the comments section of a YouTube video for a Game of Thrones fight sequence where they argue that “yes, technically character X was hungry from traveling for two days, that’s why he lost to this character who was described as a less proficient swordsman.” I’m talking about something quantifiable that isn’t left to endless debates. The first example is when a character makes a fundamental change to themselves. When they reach a new understanding, or finally overcome a hardship that has plagued them in the past. There must be a deeper reason our character was unable to defeat their foe, otherwise they would’ve proved victorious in the first battle.

I think the example that best describes this concept is Neo from The Matrix. If for some reason you haven’t seen The Matrix. Throughout the entire film the antagonists known as “Agents” are so omniscient they can’t even be hurt. They dodge fists and bullets alike and any resistance against them is a fool’s errand. Neo’s only protection against the Agents is to run away. That’s not all Neo is running away from. The moment he’s awaken from the Matrix he’s told by Morpheus he is “the one” that can defeat the agents and save mankind, but Neo doesn’t believe this. The entire film is Neo expressing disbelief in Morpheus’ vision, while also testing the extent of his strength just in case he is the savior of them all. This of course means that all of Neo’s encounters with agents ends in devastation, since he never truly trusts he is “the one.” The turning point is when he “begins to believe.” Neo starts with small victories, such as the famous subway station fight, and after getting the support of Trinity he becomes “The One.” The film ends with Neo destroying the agents.

Neo deserved to win because he was not the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning of the film. He went from doubting the Matrix and Morpheus, to truly believing he was The One. The barriers that blocked his success were not physical strength or wits, but a personal journey that he had to complete. There’s no alternative version of The Matrix that you could write that would’ve satisfied viewers that removes Neo realizing he had to be The One and instead has Morpheus and gang using wits and big guns to defeat the machines. I think The Force Awakens has the same problem. There’s no reason why our hero deserved to defeat the villain. There’s hints at a transformation, a problem that plagues them from the past, but it’s dropped in favor of overpowered force sensitivity and suddenly being really good with a lightsaber. Even Luke Skywalker from A New Hope fits into the “deserves” criteria. Luke gained a connection with Obi-Wan and “used the force” to blow up the Death Star! Our Hero in The Force Awakens was force sensitive but had no mentor, and didn’t utilize it to become victorious. Luke had to meet Obi-Wan, learn about the Jedi, believe in the force, and combine it with his skills as a pilot to achieve victory, which brings me to my next point.

"He's beginning to believe."

There’s another way The Force Awakens could’ve satisfied audiences which is by making the characters the only heroes who were fit to complete the task needed. Characters exist outside of the script and come to the story with their own abilities and experiences which can prove useful for the story at hand, in fact it might be why they are in the story at all. Take for example Mal from the lesser-seen Sci-Fi film Serenity. Mal is a reckless smuggler who gets blown up and patched up a lot so he’s prone to surgeries and getting things replaced and biologically moved around. The villain of Serenity has a lot of interesting things going on but most importantly he has a very specific Shakespearian kill move. The kill move consists of the villain paralyzing his opponent by jamming his hand into a bundle of nerves in his opponent’s torso, then laying his sword down in front of them which causes them to “fall on their sword.” Well, Mal has gotten so many injures that when the villain tries to paralyze him at the climax of the film, it doesn’t work, because all those nerves were already blown away ages ago thanks to the numerous injuries Mal has had over the years. This allows Mal to sucker punch the villain and easily defeat him. If anyone else had been facing the villain they would’ve met a Shakespearian demise.

This might sound like a cop-out execution but it’s a more common tactic than you think and I assure you it’s satisfying in almost every story it appears in. It’s kind of like Indy shooting the swordsman but applied to a finale, it’s a scene that captures the character’s existence. No one else would’ve handled it that way but them, which is why it had to be them. Our character has a unique trait, or a unique way of thinking, that gets them out of the situation that would otherwise stump other people in the creative universe if they were placed in the same situation. This is what makes their story special and why we are following their tale, among other things.

Serenity is actually pretty okay.

The Force Awakens had two chances at this because it takes two good guys from very different backgrounds. It’s possible they could’ve used their textured past to their advantage in this situation. They even could’ve combined the two and accentuated what blends them together against a common foe but again that was not the case. Their experiences during the film, and before the film, are never hinted at in contribution to this finale. It’s a plain fight where the good guy wins because that’s what they’re supposed to do, right?

I’ve found that more and more stories have forgotten about the “deserves to win” philosophy, whereas at one point it was assumed. Even movies that are bemoaned by audiences as devoid of any creative thought like Avatar still follow this principal. Whereas John Wick, a film beloved by a cult following, completely ignores this concept. It’s really bizarre because writing it into your film inherently improves the film by giving your character dimension and purpose. The only criticism I’ve heard against this type of thinking is that it’s unnecessary for some films, but I disagree. Even something as brainless as a summer blockbuster film could be minimally improved by a few throwaway lines that adhere to this principal. It doesn’t take much effort to make our stories a little bit better, don’t we deserve that?

Categories
Video Games

Follow Me and This Concept Will Lead You: Until Dawn’s Variety of Personalities and Outcomes

This article contains Spoilers for Until Dawn, however Until Dawn is largely dictated by Player Choice and all of the spoilers mentioned are only the type of spoilers that specifically happened to me.

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There’s a concept in character writing that when you create a solid character you should be able to know what they would do in any situation without thinking about it. Think of a character. They’re in a rush to meet someone very important. They knock on a door where this person is supposed to be and there’s no answer. What next? Do they knock again? Do they crack a joke to themselves? Do they break in? Do they pick the lock? Depending on who you picked there’s probably an obvious answer that’s true to that character. Following what that character would do will continue their story, which might not lead them to the best outcome, but it will at least lead them to a conclusion that’s satisfying for their tale.

For example, maybe a reckless character will bang the door down and find himself arrested for breaking and entering. Their reckless habits have caught up to them. Or a sly thinker will peak through the window and see armed guards on the other side and decide to run away. Their cunning has saved them yet again. Either of these outcomes offer meaningful insight on the character, but you wouldn’t have a brittle-boned character try to break the door down and then die at the doormat. I don’t think anyone would want to tell the story of a brittle-boned character who died to a door.

Unless you were a video game developer, the creators of Until Dawn. While there are no brittle-boned characters in the cast of their survival horror that they’ve dubbed an “interactive drama,” (which I prefer to “it’s like Heavy Rain”) there’s the potential of an unsatisfying end to the various characters who can die within the tale being told. Unlike other interactive dramas, Until Dawn gives the cast defined characteristics, literally. At any moment during the game you can pull up a menu that shows each characters scaling on traits like “Funny,” “Brave,” “Charitable,” and etc. Player actions can affect where the trait scaling will go, but the game has an indicator marking where each character started in case you forget over the course of the game that the character you turned into a brave hero started as a cowardly jokester. This personality matrix being thrown into the mix of player choice adds a method to the madness of decision making.

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Character traits are specifically outlined in the pause screen.

Unlike other games that present a choice, Until Dawn doesn’t offer many situations where the player has to think “what would I do?” Because the choices are varying degrees of bad ideas. After all, this is a game that’s meant to mimic teenagers from slasher films who routinely make bad decisions. There’s also the fact that certain choices do not necessarily reflect the outcome. For example, running to safety over trying to save someone may result in a character making a noise and antagonizing a monster which causes their death. Choosing safety in this instance has caused their death, but how would the player know that? With the personalities in mind, the player can at least make decisions that are true to the character they are playing at the time. For example, a brave character would typically make brave decisions. They would choose to investigate a sound rather than stay safe, or run after their love interest instead of running to safety.

For the majority of the Until Dawn, Supermassive Games guided players by the Dungeons & Dragons motto “play your character.” If you were a brave character, doing brave things was routinely the best thing to do. If you were a self-centered coward, being self-centered and cowardly was the best thing to do. Straying from your character’s true self ended in bad results. For example, one couple in the game consists of the charitable Matt and the self-centered Emily. I played as Emily and found a flare gun. I was prompted with the decision to give it to Matt, or to keep it to myself. I really hated Emily, so I wanted to deprive her of all resources and I really liked Matt so I wanted to give them all to him. So I gave the gun to Matt. This resulted in a string of events that ended with Matt using the gun too soon, and when he needed it later he didn’t have it, so he died. So the character I liked ended up dead, yet Emily persevered on. Maybe if she had acted more true to her character, and kept the gun to herself, both of them would’ve lived?

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Sometimes character deaths are indirectly caused by other actions.

This twist on player choices made Until Dawn immensely satisfying where other interactive dramas were frustrating. Nothing is more frustrating than being presented with a choice with no viewable pros and cons, and then getting the bad option by luck. It appeared that Supermassive had found a way to give the player a bread crumb trail, or at least gave them a satisfying conclusion to all the character arcs, even if they don’t make it. For example, another one of my characters ended up dying due to a failed quick time event, but he was the plucky kid trying to impress the girl, so it made some tragic sense.

However, in the second half of the game Until Dawn loses its consistency. Another character, Ashley, is known for her curiosity. There are various times in the game where Ashley has the decision to investigate or to stay safe and feeding into her curiosity is rewarded every time. She’ll find a clue, or catch the sight of something important, but the last time she’s offered to investigate something it ends it her death. In fact the details of her death open up the possibility that other people can die as well, so in a way her curiosity has effectively screwed the entire group. I felt this was an unfair end to Ashley’s story since there’s no real way to investigate further if what she’s looking into is deadly. Once you press on her curiosity, she’s already dead. It reminds me of those frustrating choices in other interactive dramas where the only way it could’ve been prevented is from already knowing the choice before you make it. Unlike other character deaths, Ashley’s doesn’t come across as a significant character flaw, like a plucky hero failing to save the day, it felt like when you wish you had held your finger on the previous page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

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Player choice remains problematic in Until Dawn.

After Ashley’s death, which was toward the end of the game, I found myself running into a variety of unsatisfying conclusions. One character, who was devoid of personality, failed to find a clue, which caused the death of another character. Another character turned out alive who I hadn’t seen for well over five or six chapters, but made no contribution to the actual story. Then there was a showdown at the lodge itself but seemed like I had missed a lot. Obviously I didn’t get the best ending, and I had clearly missed a lot of the clues, but it seemed like Supermassive was close to providing satisfying conclusions for every character even if you fail, but that quickly fell apart once the second half of the game rolled around. The clumsy conclusion made me wonder if the intelligence of the first and second act were just by accident. Maybe the story was written to have a “right way,” and the other choices were just novelties, like all other choices in games, and I had just gotten lucky with following my characters’ personalities as guidance.

With that in mind, I still immensely enjoyed Until Dawn. The fact that I played it all in two sittings should be proof of its quality. I wrote this as a critique and it should be read like one, not a negative review of the game. Even with this critique in mind, it’s easily one of the more interesting games from 2015. Unfortunately, I wonder if the real genius of the personality + choice design was on purpose or just a happy accident that happens to work but wasn’t intended. I look forward to finding out in Supermassive’s future work.