Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rowan's Heirarchy of Narrative Needs

How do people talk about their entertainment? Inspired by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, here's Rowan's Hierarchy of Narrative Needs. Note that I make no case for any kind of authenticity here, there has been no experiment of any kind - I'm doing this mostly to trigger a discussion of, well, discussion. One important thing to note is that in keeping with Maslow as a source of inspiration, the "hierarchy" part is important - theoretically, one has to be comfortable with lower-order things in order to progress to discussing the higher-order concerns.

8. Language
7. Plot
6. Politics
5. Characters
4. Writing
3. Form
2. Historical Context
1. Subtext & Theme

8. Language - I don't mean language as in writing style here, I mean whether it can be understood. Some people can't deal with foreign-language films with subtitles. Others hate dubbing. It's not just foreign language, it's also dialect - many people cite The Wire's dense urban Baltimore language as one of the biggest things stopping them from getting into the series at first.

7. Plot - Plot is the first thing that most people discuss when it comes to storytelling. Does the movie have an exciting story? Is the book confusing? Does this fit my conception of how the story should go? It also includes some degree of discussing quality in terms of plot, like saying that the best television episodes and plots are the ones where the most happens. This is fairly straightforward, although it also includes some less-obvious extensions like "shipping," in my opinion. "Will they or won't they?" is a pure expression of "Do I like this plot?"

6. Politics - This one is almost always negative, in that if people don't like the politics, they'll won't be able to talk about much more. Most commonly, this has to do with the normal Democrat vs Republican, liberal vs. conservative nonsense, although it can take other forms in other subcultures: "THIS BOOK IS FUCKING RACIST!" for example, or the websites that grade video games based on whether they offer Christianity as a viable religious option.

5. Characters -Is he likable? Is she behaving in a consistent fashion? Are you interesting in finding out how they react after their world gets shattered? Do you want to continue hanging out with them even after it's been six seasons and it's kind of a drag now but you just have to know if they stay friends and allies?

4. Writing - Things get a little bit subtler here. If the plot and characters are convincing, then what about the creators' depiction of those things makes them convincing? And, if they're not convincing, was it a structural issue or simply dialogue?

3. Form - Does this book do anything interesting stylistically? Is the TV show putting together its serialized narrative in a fashion likely to collapse, or succeed? This one is probably my personal favorite, for whatever that's worth.

2. Historical Context - Where does this movie fit in with the rest of the director's oeuvre? Was this book representative of a movement? Does it represent its times, or even say more about its times than nonfiction would suggest?

1. Subtext & Theme - But what does it mean? Who does it come from? Are they saying something intentional with it? What are they unintentionally saying? What do we read into it now? Is there patriarchy? Maybe hegemony? Why is this worth talking about?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Twelve Best Angel Episodes

Having now completed Angel, I have put together a list of my favorite twelve episodes. Making a complete list, as I did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn't going to happen, for two reasons. First, Angel is built around 3-6 episode-long chapters, instead of specific episodes. I liked the Pylea episodes, but they all blend together to a certain degree. Separating them based on quality would be difficult. Second, I skipped half of the first season, so it would be impossible for me to rate episodes I haven't seen.

The net effect of this is that fifth-season episodes dominate the list, since that season reverted to an episode-by-episode method of storytelling, and it was also really, really good. I don't think it was as good as every other season combined, as the numbers on this list might indicate, but it was probably the best sustained run of the two shows since Buffy's third season.

Obviously, the list contains spoilers. Now, without any further ado, the twelve best Angel episodes:

12) #413 "Salvage" - Even though she had appeared in just a handful of prior episodes, Faith was always a critical character in Angel's mythology. Faith was to Buffy what Angelus was to Angel. So it makes a poetic kind of sense that, with Angel's dark side on the loose, Wesley would be reminded that Faith could make a valuable ally. "Salvage" may be the fastest-paced of the breakneck fourth season, with Lilah dead and dismembered, Faith busted out, Faith kicking Connor's ass (and wowing him in the process), the confrontation between Faith and the Beast followed by Faith and Angelus, and Cordelia revealing that she's pregnant. It's breathless and exciting, and did I mention that Faith shows Connor who's boss? Yeah.

11) #119 "Sanctuary" - Speaking of Faith, it was her arrival in Los Angeles that started to make Angel look like its own series, capable of standing alongside Buffy as more than a sidenote. This is true in a critical fashion, but it's also true emotionally, as the big B makes her second (and final) appearance on the show, with a classic Buffy/Angel argument delineating their geographic - and televised - territories. Wesley's response to Faith in the first part of the 2-parter, and this one as well, is also a turning point for his character.

10) #317 "Forgiving" - The fallout from Connor's kidnapping drives essentially every character, most notably Angel himself, batshit crazy. The sucker-punch of an ending, with Angel yelling "I'll kill you!" at Wesley, is most notable. The kidnapping plot never made logical sense, but the emotions it engendered made for some of the best stuff on Angel.

9) #516 "Shells" - I love Illyria. I think she's a fantastic creation, and marvelously portrayed by her actress. I may hate how she appeared, and I wish it wasn't an either/or proposition. But the shattered ancient evil goddess? Brilliant. Likewise Angel's speech about humanity and Wesley's response.

8) #508 "Destiny" - Spike's addition to Angel was leading to this. The occasionally pathetic Spike of later Buffy seasons is gone, replaced with the sarcastic badass that made him so likable in the first place. And with him on the show, there had to be a confrontation between him and Angel about Buffy. It was absolutely, 100% necessary. It hadn't happened with Cordelia in the third season, much to my dismay, so I wasn't expecting it here. But here it was, and it happened perfectly. Props also to the later episode, "The Girl In Question," which dealt with much of the same themes comedically compared with the drama and violence of "Destiny."

7) #410 "Awakening" - The whole premise of Angel required that, at some point, we see Angel's evil side re-emerge. We've been teased by it before, with the Ecstasy-like drug from the first season and the "beige Angel" storyline of Season Two. Eventually, the big deal had to happen, but it had to be meaningful. On Buffy, it was emotionally shattering and shocking. On Angel, it couldn't be either of those things, so it had to have its own meaning. And it did, thanks to the twist that Angelus was brought back by his friends.

Better yet, it wasn't a simple spell, but it was a spell that involved an entire episode-length fantasy. Great stuff, and to top it off, Angel doesn't say "Cordelia" when he loses it. He gasps "Buffy," just like in "Innocence."

6) #218 "Dead End" - If "Sanctuary" is the point where Angel came into its own as a show, "Dead End" is the point where it becomes a potentially great show. After almost two seasons of Lindsey as an antagonist, "Dead End" makes it clear just how much he's added to the show. It's also a perfect vehicle for Christian Kane's talents, as he gets to sing, play guitar, and in a brilliant comic setpiece, blames his evil hand for sabotaging a theoretically tense Wolfram & Hart board meeting.

5) #510 "Soul Purpose" - Speaking of Lindsey, his triumphant return turns out to be excellent stuff in "Soul Purpose," as he recruits Spike just like Doyle did Angel at the start of the series. Not only does Lindsey recognize the parallels by calling himself "Doyle," but so does first-time director David Boreanaz, who, along with the script, turns several parts of the episode into deliberate recreations of the pilot episode's most iconic (and kind of silly) moments.

It also starts bringing a wider plot into the so-far great, but disjointed fifth season, while doing something about the ever-present, ever-creepy Eve. "Soul Purpose" was an absolutely perfect episode at its point of the series.

4) #522 "Not Fade Away" - Emotionally speaking, "Not Fade Away" is as good as a finale gets. Each character gets resolution, finds something about themselves, and/or does something hilarious, like Spike at the poetry slam. The only reason it's not #1 on the list is that the larger plot involving the Circle of the Black Thorn wasn't set up terribly effectively.

3) #406 "Spin the Bottle" - "Spin the Bottle" is the most Whedony episode of Angel, in that there is a specific brand of Buffy episode, often written by Joss Whedon or Jane Espenson, involving magical altered reality, comedy, and overall excellence. This fits in with "Band Candy," "Hush," and especially "Tabula Rasa" from the Buffy canon. But in some ways, it's better, because the specific premise of the characters reverting to their 17-year-old selves works much better on Angel, where Cordelia and Wesley went through some of the most dynamic character changes possible. Seeing bitch-queen Cordelia and Head Boy Wesley is a joy, and it makes for, by far, the funniest Angel episode of the series.

2) #309 "Lullaby" - Funny is great, but comedy combined with drama is the heart of the Buffy/Angel aesthetic. "Lullaby" is arguably the most dramatic episode of the entire series, thanks to Darla killing herself to birth Connor and Holtz and Saejahn starting to directly confront Angel Investigations. But that drama is interspersed with fantastically funny moments, like Angel popping up behind the gang asking what they're staring at. Darla's final speech tilts slightly towards melodrama, but that's a tiny criticism for a wildly ambitious episode that manage to hit most everything that it aims at.

1) #512 "You're Welcome" - Wesley's journey for buffoon to badass is well-documented and beloved, but Cordelia's journey through the first three seasons was equally impressive and important for the show. Her character bore the brunt of the insanity of Season Four, which made it fairly easy to forget just how important she had been to the series. Easy to forget until her re-appearance in "You're Welcome," that is. Her easy charm and piercing humor slice right through much of the angst of the season, and it cuts right to the heart of the character dynamics of Angel at its best. It also serves as a stellar conclusion to the introduction-to-Wolfram & Hart theme of the first half of Season Five, and subtly sets up the conclusion of the season (and series) as well. It's the strongest episode from the ridiculously strong stretch of episodes in the middle of Season Five, and well worthy of being called the best episode of Angel.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Video Game History - Chrono Cross

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. Today, Chrono Cross, the divisive sequel to the cult hit Chrono Trigger.

At first glance, Chrono Cross, the 2000 sequel to the classic Chrono Trigger, does not seem to fit the pattern of Square moving away from its strengths as a game like Final Fantasy VIII does. It is brightly colored, with magnificent music -arguably the best soundtrack in video game history – and certainly one of the greatest opening movies in video game history. Its combat system is a bit of a throwback in that it is purely turn-based, but it includes stringing moves together in a manner akin to Xenogears. On the surface level, it is a worthy successor to Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Cross also tries to make one of the biggest changes to the Town-Dungeon-Boss formula of any game since Final Fantasy IV. Instead of gaining experience points from random battles, the party only increases in level when it fights bosses. The random battles are good for practice, and they can allow some character statistics to increase to their potential, but the potential is only improved by boss fights. Results of this innovation are somewhat varied: it does prevent you from grinding and streamlines the game more, but by making random battles even less useful, it makes them more annoying.

The biggest problem with the game, however, is that wants to be deep. Its predecessor Chrono Trigger seemed to understand that it was simple and charming and that's that. Chrono Cross aspires to be more, and ends up being less. In the original game, the time travel mechanism was simply a mechanism to allow the characters and, by extension, the player, to travel to a wide range of different places for maximum entertainment. Chrono Cross, on the other hand, is far more attached to its traveling mechanism. It is interdimensional instead of temporal. In one dimension, the main character, Serge, is alive, in the other, he is dead. He finds a way to travel between the two dimensions, and in the process, discovers an increasingly complex story of scientists trying to harness interdimensional travel as an experiment, and evil beings attempting to take advantage of that. The complexity of the story and its constant references to the letter of the previous game stand it stark contrast to Chrono Trigger's spirit of fun. In essence, like many of the Square games of the PlayStation generation, Chrono Cross takes itself far too seriously.