Favorite Moments: You, Me, and Optimus Prime

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video

‘You, Me, and Optimus Prime’

 

Why it’s great

If you could spend a day hanging out with any fictional character, who would it be? What would you do? Would you go on an incredible adventure together? Go to a sporting event? Take a tour of their awesome castle/floating fortress/ intergalactic space station? Or would you act as two ordinary guys and gals just relaxing and having a good time?

One scene I wish we saw more of in fiction is seeing characters just relaxing and hanging out with friends, especially if those characters are non-humans, such as giant robots, aliens, monsters, etc. In fiction, where every scene should move the story along, there’s not much time for that to happen, but when it does, it taps into our childhood, when we were daydreaming about hanging out with our favorite cartoon and movie characters, conjuring up all sorts of adventures and fun things we would be doing together.

The music video for ‘You, Me, and Optimus Prime’ is a perfect example of such a scene: there are no bad guys to fight (except that dastardly business owner), nobody to save, and no worlds to liberate. It’s just a guy and his giant robot buddy having ice cream, canoeing, fishing, and watching the sunset together. Is it pure fan-service? Yes, but it’s silly, heartwarming, and helps rouse our inner child to remember the joys of imagining hanging out with our favorite characters, and reminding us, as creators, that it’s okay to tap into those fantasies every now and then in our own works.

And yes, I would hang out with Optimus Prime if given the chance. And I would be happy to let him ruffle my hair as we watch the sunset.

What we can learn from: ‘Half-Life 2: Breen’s Redemption’

 

 

 

 

Valve’s 2004 game, ‘Half-Life 2’ is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest first person shooters ever released, featuring (for its time) unparalleled physics, a gripping story, and one of the most oppressive atmospheres ever encountered in a video game.  Playing as silent scientist Gordon Freeman, the player fights to free humanity from the Combine, an inter-dimensional alien empire that has conquered Earth (instead of, as you might think, a race of sentient grain harvesters).

Throughout the game, the player often hears from Wallace Breen, a human who has allied himself with the Combine as humanity’s ‘administrator’. Though he presents a friendly, almost grandfatherly face to the public, complete with speeches explaining why humanity should work with the Combine, it eventually becomes clear that Breen is not a nice guy. But is he truly a villain?

In-game, we’re told that, during humanity’s hopeless, seven-hour war against the Combine, Breen intervened and managed to negotiate a surrender, where, in exchange for not being wiped out by the Combine, humanity is allowed to exist, but as a subservient race who has to endure a life of nonstop oppression and helplessness. But did Breen do this to save the human race, or to gain power for himself? We’re never told, leaving it up to the player to come to their own conclusions. I like to think that Breen did want to save humanity, and hates the Combine, but he also wants power, and realized that working with the Combine was the way to get it. But in the end, it was all for naught, and he met his end falling to his death from the top of the Combine tower.

But what if he had lived?

‘Half-Life 2: Breen’s Redemption’, by Youtube user Crunchy Soap, examines what might have happened had Breen survived the events of Half-Life 2. The result is a  hauntingly beautiful look at a man who realizes the misery his actions has caused, and a prime example on how to redemption a villain:

How to redeem a villain

1. Have the villain lose everything they gained from becoming evil:

Breen loses his position of power with the Combine and becomes an ordinary person with nothing to his name.

2. Have the villain reach their lowest point:

Breen is injured and alone, and knows that he’ll probably be shot on sight by the Resistance, or any member of humanity with a gun.

3. Have the villain face the consequences of what he/she has done

Unlike other stories, Breen doesn’t face imprisonment or execution for his actions: instead, he comes face to face with the suffering his alliance with the Combine has caused, regardless of any good intentions he might have had when he made said alliance.

4. Have the villain turn against the organization he/she created

Even though he’s an older man and past his physical prime, Breen takes on the Combine elite with nothing but a pipe to save the lives of two Resistance members, and later, three of them with only a submachine gun. In doing so, he reaches a point of no return: by killing members of his organization, he cements his decision to change sides, for good or ill.

5. Have the villain help his former enemies/work to restore what he/she has destroyed

Breen saves the lives of two Resistance members, then a child, and then becomes a full-fledged member of the Resistance, joining their fight to save Earth from the Combine. By doing so, he now does what he can to undo the damage he caused on behalf of the Combine.

While there are deeper villain redemption stories out there, ‘Breen’s Redemption’ is a short, effective tale that’s told without any dialogue(outside of the opening). While he probably would not be given a chance of redemption based on how much the in-game characters despise him, I like seeing him get a chance to turn back, making this video a personal favorite… but if you’d rather see Breen get his comeuppance in hilarious ways, this should help scratch that itch:

 

 

 

 

Perfect Moments: Fighting with Gabe Logan

 

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Video Game:

‘Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain’ (skip to 8:36 to reach the relevant part)

 

Why it’s perfect:

‘Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain’, while ambitious in design, is, at best, a mediocre game since its release in 2004, due to the lack of an online mode, frustrating trial-and-error gameplay, and a story that has the unenviable task of extending a series that ended perfectly at the end of the previous installment. However, it does have one segment at the end that makes the game worth playing: The player character fighting side by side with series hero Gabe Logan.

When I was growing up, Gabe Logan was my favorite gaming character, beating out the likes of Mario, Sonic, Solid Snake, and so many other video game mascots. I played through all three games of the original Playstation One trilogy, so I was looking forward to seeing how the series had continued in the Playstation Two followup, ‘The Omega Strain.’ Unfortunately, I wasn’t that impressed, due to the limitations mentioned above. Still, I trudged on, creating a digital version of myself to help save the world, trying to find what fun I could in the process.

Then I played the final level.

Near the end of the final mission, I ran into a terrorist base to help stop the nuclear destruction of Russia. It’s a pretty standard mission, with plenty of running, gunning, and dying over and over again, but then something happened that made my inner child scream with glee: my in-game self was face to face with Gabe himself, who needed my help to save the day. And when I had calmed down enough, I unpaused the game and experienced gaming bliss: Gabe and me running through the base, blowing away terrorists in a fight to save millions of innocent lives.

I was fighting side by side with my favorite videogame character, and to this day it remains one of my favorite videogaming moments.

One advantage video games have over all other forms of storytelling is that they give the player to chance to actually interact with their favorite characters, but player-created characters doing so is extremely rare; the only other time I can think of it happening is ‘Sonic Forces,’ but ‘Strain’ remains special for me. I tried playing the ensuing sequels after this one, but didn’t like them, and thus, ‘Strain’ remains the series finale of the Syphon Filter franchise for me, if only for the final level. I began the series as an impressionable teenager guiding Gabe Logan in his quest to defeat the agency, and I finished the series fighting side by side with him, a treat that no movie, book, or tv series has ever come close to duplicating.

What we can learn from: ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’

Wizardsofthelostkingdomcover

Ah, the 80’s. A magical time for fantasy cinema. From that era we got such classics as ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ ‘Krull,’ and ‘Dragonslayer.’ But every golden era has it’s… not-classics, films that end up becoming snark bait on Mystery Science Theater 3000. ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’ is one of those films. Made in 1985, ‘Wizards’ feels very much like a movie made to cash in on the fantasy fad, and while it’s no classic of the fantasy era, writers looking to create their own sword and sorcery epics will find a lot to learn from its mistakes, so let’s dig in and see what this Argentinean epic has to offer.

Consider having a nobody take on the most powerful bad guys in your story

He’s barely in the film, but king Tyler manages to get the most impressive background of anyone we meet: the opening narration tells us that armies of wizards and sorcerers were fighting each other, but it wasn’t a powerful warrior, or a good wizard who defeated them, but a simple peasant who united the common folk and took them out.

It’s common to have underdogs take out much more powerful antagonists in fiction, but it’s all the more impressive when a person with no magical or extraordinary powers manages to do so against characters do have those abilities, and giving such a backstory – or showing it – makes for an interesting character. Indeed, Tyler is the most intriguing character in ‘Wizards’ based off that intro… which makes it a pity that he has less than two minutes of screentime before being killed.

Avoid rushing the first act of your story

There’s something to be said about leaping into a film and getting right to what the audience wants. Heaven only knows how, as a kid, I got bored about how many movies seemed to take forever to get going. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize the value of setting up a story, characters, and necessary background in the first act.

‘Wizards’ has to be credited for getting going right out of the gate. After the opening voiceover that sets up the backstory, we’re off and running with Simon, the young wizard, as he sets out to save his kingdom from Shurka, an evil wizard. The problem? The first act lasts only thirteen minutes, and we have barely any time to settle in before the main quest begins. While that’s impressive from a time perspective, it gives us barely any time to know anyone in the story or understand what the main problem is, and why we need to be invested in it. It’s like heading out on a hiking trip, but you only get thirty seconds to meet everyone before being dumped on the trail with only the faintest idea of where you’re going. It’s disorienting, makes you wonder if taking this trip is a good idea, and ‘Wizards’ feels the same way.

In our own stories, there’s no problem in getting going right away, but be sure to lay the foundations for your work. Audiences will want to know what they’re getting into, and taking the time to give them even the most basic of information about the world, characters, and story will get your story off to a good start. When in doubt, it’s better to take your time and let the audience settle in, than to rush and leave them wondering what on earth is going on.

Give your main character a goal

It’s one of the most basic storytelling rules, but it cannot be understated: one of the keys to an interesting character is giving them a goal, something they want and need to work towards. Simon, by contrast, only wants to get back to the castle and stop the wizard. While wanting to save a kingdom is a noble goal, the problem is that he doesn’t make the choice to do so: he’s told by his wizard father, and, like a loyal dog, sets off on his quest. Compare Simon to Luke Skywalker: Luke was bored living on his moisture farm and wanted to leave and find adventure in his life. He had a motivation for leaving, and after his aunt and uncle were barbecued, he had the new goal of fighting the Empire to stop them from committing any more atrocities. Compared to Luke, Simon is a chess piece being moved across the board without making any decisions on his own.

When it comes to doing your own characters, their own goals don’t have to be big, but just having something they want to achieve makes them feel like a person, instead of a robot just doing what it’s told to do (though to be fair, having a robot set off to save a magical kingdom could make for an interesting story on its own).

For the love of all that is holy, think twice before making your ‘chosen one’ a teenager

If there’s one story trope that’s been done to death, resurrected, beaten, killed again, and brought back to life over and over, it’s the idea of a youngster chosen by fate to save the day. While the trope itself isn’t bad, Simon is the embodiment of its most cliched portrayals: he’s whiny, hardly does anything on his own, and is a brat at multiple points. In his favor though, the film does show why Shurka would want him dead, by demonstrating that Simon can give life to inanimate objects and raise the dead… pretty fearsome powers indeed.

If you’re going to do your own chosen one who’s a teenager, then try flipping some of the cliches Simon has: Have your character be confident, but aware that he has a lot to learn. If he’s going to whine, have him whine at characters who are slacking off or not doing their jobs instead of how hard life is for him. Show him taking the initiative and doing as much as they can on their own, even if they’re afraid or aware that they aren’t going to succeed, and show some of the skills they have that are key to winning the day, even if they aren’t fully developed yet.

Consider having your character summon incredibly powerful allies who want nothing to do with their quest

One of the best parts of the film involves Simon coming up with the clever idea of summoning several dead warriors to help him take out the evil wizard and save his kingdom. And, amazingly enough, he actually pulls it off, awakening the corpses of four dead warriors… who have no interest in fighting whatsoever and almost immediately sink back into the earth.

The genius of this scene comes from the buildup: the idea of summoning legendary dead warriors to fight off an evil wizard makes sense, and there’s a lot of potential for interesting interactions with them as they trudge back to the castle, which makes the audience expect those warriors to stick around. Having them have no interest in fighting at all and wanting to go back to sleep is a nice twist on our expectations, and is… kind of pathetic, really, which makes it amusing.

Save the comic relief for the first half of the story

A little bit of humor in any story is always welcomed. But, like all things in life, there’s a time and place for it. ‘Wizards’ has a sequence near the end of the second act where Simon’s protector, Kor, is captured by a cyclops and threatened with death if he doesn’t marry his sister, who Kor ran away from after apparently getting engaged. While some parts of the scene are amusing (primarily the one soldier who runs away via sped up footage ALA Benny Hill), the problem is that the scene feels out of place. We’re coming up on the climax of the story, and things are supposed to be getting more focused, tighter, and more serious. Pausing the story to have a sequence that doesn’t advance it is not a good idea. If anything, this sequence should have been earlier in the film, shortly after Kor and Simon met: Helping Kor out of his jam would have shown Kor that Simon wasn’t just a whiny, pink shirt-wearing useless kid, and that helping him out would be a worthy cause.

In any case, be very careful where you put comedic scenes in non-comedic movies. While there’s no rule saying you can’t put them later in the film, it’s generally better to have them take place earlier on, and, more importantly, have them advance the story instead of being a side trip that doesn’t add anything to the movie.

Consider how many secondary characters you need, and set them up

No film is complete without a supporting cast, but making sure that cast contributes to the plot is vital: ‘Wizards’ features two characters, Gulfax the… shag carpet monster thing, and Hurla the gnome, neither of whom contributes anything to the story. Gulfax is a clear Chewbacca stand-in who’s only contribution is to whack someone in the head, and Hurla guides Simon and Kor to the fearsome Suicide Cavern the promise of helping him again… which he doesn’t. Both could have been easily cut from the story without any ill effect.

Granted, not all side characters have to do big, mighty things: Chewbacca, in ‘A New Hope,’ mainly helps fly the Millennium Falcon and assists in freeing Leia from the Death Star, but his contributions feel important. If Gulfax, for example, had acted as a guide to Simon on their journey back to the castle, and the gnome been mentioned earlier as someone who can give Simon vital help in stopping the sorcerer, their roles would have been more substantial and meaningful.

In our own stories, don’t pad your story with characters just because you can. Each of them needs to play a role, and the more you have who don’t do anything is less time you can spend on the characters that do matter.

Avoid a random-events plot, and have all your scenes and locations contribute to the story

For all of ‘Wizards’ flaws, perhaps the most glaring is that it the story feels unpolished. All the events are in place, but don’t have the narrative glue binding them together, making the story feel like a bunch of random events taking place between the beginning and the end. Very few of these scenes add anything of value to the story, and those that could have don’t live up to their potential: The Suicide Cavern, for example, could have let us see what Kor and Simon are afraid of, and then have them work to overcome them, and strengthening their bond in the process. Instead, they just sing songs and pass through easily. After several more of these scenes, we finally reach the climax, and then the movie’s over, leaving us with the feeling that we don’t know anything about anyone, or why it all happened in the first place.

How can you avoid this mistake? When doing your own story, take the time in the first act to set up everything that’s coming afterwords. If your characters have to go on a quest, tell them where they’re going and why they’re going there. Warn them of the dangers they might face, and allies who might be able to help them, so that we, the audience, has an idea of what’s coming. While we want to be surprised by something unexpected, there’s still great value in anticipating something exciting or frightening coming our way.

The Takeaway

When doing a story, it cannot be overstated how important it is to give your characters (one of whom is hopefully not a teenager ‘chosen one’ who whines all the time) goals and motivations, to have every scene and character contribute to the story, and to set everything up in the first act so the audience has a good idea where they’re going and what to expect. Once you get going, limit comedic scenes to the first half of the story so the second can focus on the climax.

Favorite Moments: ‘Then we must do without hope!’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘The Lord of the Rings’ (1978 Bakshi film)

The Moment

Why it’s great

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to bring Tolkien’s world to life on the big screen. While there is undeniably much to the film that didn’t turn out well, there are equally many things to do work, chief among them being the portrayal of Aragorn. While Viggo Mortensen is unquestionably more well known to the public, the late (and great) John Hurt’s performance of the ranger-turned-king is one of the film’s highlights.

Hurt’s interpretation of Aragorn embodies the spirit of what a perfect, Arthur-like king should be: Focused and knowing what’s at stake, but not using that that as an excuse to treat others unfairly. He may raise his voice, but only to get someone’s attention or get them back on track, but he also shows care to those under his guidance.

While there are other great examples of those traits throughout the film (including a fun moment where he gets into a play fight with Frodo), I like this clip the most because it portrays all three of those traits in only twenty seconds. It even has Aragorn turning grief into a motivator to keep Frodo and the others going, showing how determined he is to continue, even when all seems lost. Though he may be ridiculed for being a pantless Native American, this version of Aragon embodies what I’d like to see in a king, and I’d be happy to fight alongside him… and maybe offer some trousers.

What we can learn from ‘Jimmy Kimmel Hires Dr Strange’

 

Of all the comedy tropes out there, which one is your favorite? Slapstick? Ironic? Dead Baby? Mine is Fish out of water: a character is placed in a situation they have no experience in dealing with, and have to try and make the most of it.

While there are countless examples of this trope happening in fiction, one of my favorite happened two years ago for the release of ‘Doctor Strange,’ where talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel has the Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange, come to perform tricks for a birthday party. Predictably, shenanigans ensue. Let’s see what we can learn from this amusing tale of an infinity stone wielding sorcerer taking on the terror of hyperactive children:

For instant comedy, have your larger than life character go to a child’s birthday party

There are a handful of situations all-but guaranteed to generate instant comedy, and having your character go to a child’s birthday party is one of them. Think about it: Any character who goes to a birthday party in an attempt to entertain children will look ridiculous . Don’t believe me? Imagine the following people and characters making balloon animals for kids:

•Darth Vader

•Master Chief

•Joseph Stalin

•Sauron

•Barack Obama

•Batman

•Dracula

•An Imperial stormtrooper

•Jesus

If you want instant comedy, putting your character at a child’s birthday party is a great way to make it happen, especially if they’re larger than life, out-of-the-ordinary characters.

Consider having your character not be above being bought for a service

Heroes are supposed to be above such pitiful human failings as greed, selflessly devoting themselves to helping others free of charge… which makes for a nice subversion whenever they decide to do something just for the money, especially if it’s an embarrassing task. Here, it’s amusing to see that Dr. Strange, master of the mythical arts, isn’t above doing something just for the money. Sometimes, a little touch of greed can show that, underneath all the superpowers, abilities, and willpower, even the most powerful humans are still… well, only human.

Consider having your character be terrible at their attempted task

We all admire someone who, when faced with something they’re not prepared for, still tries to do it anyway. Of course, not everything goes as we’d hoped, and sometimes they fail, as Strange does here. For all his skill at fending off inter-dimensional demons and creating time loops, Strange has zero skill in making balloon animals, and he looks hilarious just trying. Better still, he knows it and doesn’t care; he just wants that $150 dollars. While we may admire someone who tries and fails, we can laugh at seeing someone not giving a… well, you know, as they barely try at all, and carry that same attitude over to their interactions with people who don’t like that ‘I could care less’ attitude.

The Takeaway

For instant comedy, consider having your character try to entertain children at a birthday party, which, in addition to making them look utterly silly, gives a chance to show a little more of their human side by having them do it just for money and not really caring how it turns out.

Favorite Moments: ‘Let’s do this!’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

‘Super Best Sisters Play – Shadow the Hedgehog’ (skip to 6:57)

Why it’s Great

Ah, the good old fashioned showdown: the protagonist/s and antagonist/s all gather together for one, last, decisive fight to see which side will be victorious. It’s a no-holds-barred beatdown, where no quarter is given, and none is expected. It will be bloody. It will be vicious. It will be cruel.

Unless it isn’t.

In this animated playthrough of ‘Shadow the Hedgehog’, we get a showdown between cute cartoon characters in prison, with their respective tough guy leaders readying for a fight, finally ending with two sides readying to unleash the pain… and then Shadow and his arch-nemesis just stand around for a few seconds before bouncing off each other in the most anti-climactic way possible, followed by almost everyone bouncing around as bright, colorful balls instead of stabbing each other as we expected.

What’s so effective about this scene is how the buildup is used for comedic effect: it makes the viewer  think they’re going to get an awesome fight, only to have it dissolve into a wimp battle that couldn’t be sillier if it tried. Comedy gold.