Perfect Moments: Ellen Ripley’s Message

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 Game

‘Alien Isolation’

The Moment

Why it’s perfect

Earlier this week, I suggested a new way of watching the Alien series in order to give it – and Ellen – a more hopeful ending instead of the bittersweet one in both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’. Part of that new trilogy was the videogame, ‘Alien: Isolation’ because of the strength of its core concept: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, has spent 15 years searching for any clue about her mother’s fate after she disappeared aboard the Nostromo, and after fighting her way through a decaying space station while hiding from the cosmos’ most terrifying alien, she finally finds a message for her that was recorded by her mother.

When I first played through ‘Isolation’, I almost teared up at this moment. Not only does Sigourney Weaver perfectly play Ellen once more, but bringing an emotional, tragic side of her we almost never see, but the meaning behind this moment is so tragic: This is the first time Amanda has heard her mother in 15 years, and can give her both closure and hope; the novelization of the game reveals that she believes her mother is still alive, and the story ends with her vowing to survive at all costs so she will one day reunite with Ellen. For the first time in over a decade, she has a reason to live, to survive against all odds.

Sadly, it’s not to be:

While Amanda did get closure, and presumably died hoping that her mother was still alive, knowing that the two would never see each other again makes Ellen’s message so perfectly bittersweet.

Favorite Moments: A Balrog Talks

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

Why it’s great

One of the biggest advantages licensed video games, books, and comics have is the ability to expand upon a fictional universe, to fill in gaps, holes, or just explore unseen parts of a mythology. Sometimes, though, they can also clarify and add onto that mythology in small, but meaningful ways. With no new books in JRR. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth set to come anytime soon, video games based upon both the films and books have stepped up to allow fans of Tolkien’s universe to continue exploring Arda and uncover its secrets (though how these secrets fit into the established cannon varies considerably).

‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ follows Talion, a Gondorian warrior who, after becoming best buddies with a long-dead Elf king out for revenge against Sauron, becomes an half-dead zombie lich thingy after sharing his… oh, whatever. It’s an excuse to run around in Mordor and troll Sauron by killing as many of his orcs as possible. Because this particular game (and it’s predecessor, ‘Shadow of Mordor’) take a loose interpretation of Middle-earth lore (and that’s putting it lightly!), it lets the player fight a balrog. While such moments happen in other Tolkien-licensed games, what sets this encounter apart  is that, for the first time in any piece of Tolkien media – licensed or original – we hear a balrog talk.

For those who are unaware, balrogs are ancient demons who existed before the creation of the physical world in Tolkien’s mythology. But these aren’t mindless brutes: They’re intelligent spirits who joined with Melkor (Tolkien’s Satan) in an attempt to corrupt and destroy everything for the lulz (presumably). However, while they can make noises, such as roars, screams, and yells, the only intelligent speech they give is described in vague terms, such as them giving commands or mocking enemies. ‘Shadow of War’ is the first time where we actually hear one of these demons talking, and while we get subtitles, they’re not translated, leading us to wonder what on earth it’s saying, as best embodied at 8:42 in the video above:

Balrog: Onguk nakhân

Talion: What did he say?!

Celebrimbor: Does it matter?

It’s moments like these that make me appreciate how much expanded universe material can add to a franchise: Here, we get a moment that humanizes (for lack of a better word) a demonic being; in the books and movies, balrogs are incredibly dangerous demons who excell at killing things. Here, one is given a voice, showing that they’re sentient beings who can think, plan, tell knock-knock jokes (unconfirmed), and, presumably, have personalities. That allows us to see balrogs in Tolkien’s works in a new light by letting us imagine what their personalities might be like, adding more depth and layers to Tolkien’s world, as all great expanded universe material does: It doesn’t replace or supersede what’s come before, but adds to it, and makes it more enjoyable than before.

And all of this from a demonic spirit talking. Not bad!

By the way, if you’re curious as to what the balrog is actually saying, one of the game’s developers posted all of its translated speech here. If you’d like to read some debates about Balrogs and their vocal traits, click here.

Favorite Moments: The Ghetto Matrix

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:

Why it’s great:

No story-related material today, just a guy poking fun at ‘The Matrix: Path of Neo’ and some of its glitches and unintentional comedy. My favorites are the best way to kill someone quietly, and Morpheus’ attempted escape from the skyscraper.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 6

Last week, we took a look at the two duels of ‘The Matrix Revolutions,’ the final film of the fabled sci-fi trilogy. But while it was the last movie (at least, to date, if rumors of a Morpheus-centered prequel ever come to fruition), there were two more Matrix video games released in 2005: ‘The Matrix Online’ (which is no longer playable), and ‘The Matrix: Path of Neo,’ which allows players to replay the events of the movies from Neo’s perspective.

Like all movie tie-in games, ‘Path’ modifies the events of the films to better suit the interactive nature of the medium, featuring far more action, gunplay, and fights, including all the major duels from the series. I was originally planning just to analyze at the Super Burly Brawl, but after taking a look at the game to refresh my memory, I found that there was one other duel that’s so bonkers that it’s easily the wackiest thing the series has ever created:

Neo vs Ant-Men

Emotional Context: In his quest to save humanity, Neo fights anthropomorphic ants in the depths of space.

Analysis: When you saw ‘The Matrix’ for the first time, did you ever imagine that lowly hacker Thomas Anderson – who helps his landlady take out her garbage – would one day fight giant ants in space? No? Well, neither did I, but thanks to ‘Path,’ we can now see that Neo’s true destiny was not to save humanity and the machines from a mutually destructive relationship, but to battle giant ants in the depths of the cosmos.

In all seriousness, what makes this duel stand out is just the sheer absurdity of the fact that Neo is fighting giant ants in space. Instead of a trench-coated program, an agent, or a police officer, he takes on giant insects who squeak and roar as they fight him. It’s like watching James Bond take on a homicidal clown inside a bathroom at the White House, or Harry Potter battling a tyrannosaurus rex at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Depending on what movie they’re watching, what book they’re reading, or what game they’re playing, audiences expect fights to be consistant with the universe of the story they’re watching. To have such an unexpected opponent grabs their attention because it’s new and unique, feeding the novelty of encountering the unexpected and keeping them interested, much like that one time Luke Skywalker fought a clone of Darth Vader who turned into a giant scorpion. (link contains language that is not safe for work)

Fun fact: In addition to the ants, Neo was originally also going to fight leprechauns in ‘Path,’ but they were deleted from the finished version. Shame; the universe is a darker, bleaker place having never seen the savior of humanity fight midgets shrieking about their gold and presumably attacking with rainbows.

The Super Burly Brawl (Path of Neo Edition)

Emotional Context: Neo battles Agent Smith to save humanity and the machines

Analysis: At first glance, the ‘Path’ adaptation of this fight is almost identical to the one seen in ‘Revolutions.’ But without counting the changes made for a more exiting gameplay experience (more fighting, extended arenas, etc.) the game makes one big change:

Neo wins the fight.

While the film version of the Super Burly Brawl was about Neo sacrificing himself to give both humanity and machines a chance at a brighter tomorrow, the game version is about punching Smith to death, culminating with Mega Smith – a Godzilla-sized version of the agent that Neo then punches to death before once again entering Smith and deleting him from the inside out, as he did in the first film, leading to peace between the machines and humanity, and a triumphant playing of Queen’s ‘We are the Champions.

Much like how the various versions of ‘Friday the 13th’ allowed us to see three different versions of the same story, ‘Path of Neo’ allows us to see two versions of the same fight. While the film version is about drama, death, and sacrifice, the game version is about action, good triumphing over evil, and fan service. The only mistake the fight makes is not showing what happened to Neo after deleting Smith for good (in any story, there needs to be some sort of resolution for the characters we’ve followed, even if it’s just a ‘we don’t know what happened to them, but they’re still out there, somewhere’ ending), but as a fan, it’s so satisfying to see Neo have the upper hand throughout, and making it so that he’s the one to ram Smith into the streets, instead of the other way around.

While this version of the Super Burly Brawl may not have the dramatic weight of its movie counterpart, it does satisfy the base urge to see the protagonist resoundingly defeat the antagonist in a fight where both are at the peak of their abilities. There’s always room for self-sacrifice in fiction, but sometimes it’s refreshing to embrace the classic trope of the protagonist defeating evil without dying in the process, and looking awesome while doing it. Or, as Youtube user LovecraftianToenail put it:

‘it takes a lot more maturity to have fun than to be GRIMDARK SERIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME.’

And with that, we conclude our look at all the duels in the Matrix series. Come back next week, when we’re wrap things up and see what lessons we can learn from all these punches, kicks, and bullet-time shenanigans.

Favorite Moments: Futureman’s Bright Idea

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:

Why it’s great:

We’ve all experienced a moment where our best-laid plans fail spectacularly. At the time, there’s nothing funny or amusing about it, as we’re usually too blinded by embarrassment, shame, and grief. But as Futureman’s video shows, there’s great comedy to be found in gearing up for something that will look amazing… only to fail so spectacularly that all you can do is either laugh or sit there in stunned silence.

Favorite moments: ‘Stick to the shadows, Master Frodo’

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:

(Skip to 5:40)

Why it’s great:

In most kids movies, there sometimes comes a moment where the young star of the show has to embark on a dangerous mission to save the day, and sometimes those missions involve sneaking around without being seen. Looking past the obvious question of why it’d be sensible to send a pre-adolescent out on a solo sneaking mission up against dangerous, competent, and trained adults, those missions usually end with the youngster managing to embrace the spirit of the ninja and succeeding in saving the day.

But what if they didn’t?

As seen in the video above, Frodo Baggins bravely attempts to – in the words of reviewer OhhhMarmalade – become one with the shadows and escape from the Shire, complete with the theme music from Metal Gear Solid… only to instantly fail, be caught by the Ringwraiths, and plunge Middle Earth into a never ending age of darkness and hellish suffering.

Whoops.

What amuses me most about the segment above is showing what would really happen if Frodo, or any unqualified person, tried to become a ninja and become one with the shadows as they tried to sneak out of a heavily patrolled area: They would probably be caught almost instantly. It doesn’t matter how pure of heart they are, how noble their quest is, or that they love their family very much: They’re not trained, they’re not qualified, and they’re doomed from the moment they set out.

While there’s far, far too many instances of people failing at trying to do something they can’t in real life, having someone fail immediately at the big, important task/quest they set out to achieve seconds after starting can make for some great comedy, as poor Frodo demonstrates. It gets even funnier if they’re The Chosen One who have to save the world, which can then lead to all sorts of interesting situations: What do the other characters do now that the Chosen One has failed/is dead? Do they try to fulfill the quest? Realize that it was a terrible idea to send a child out to do an adult’s job? And if they do try to pick up the quest, do they have any chance at all at succeeding, since they weren’t chosen by fate/prophecy/God?

Failure can be funny, but it can also open up new avenues and scenarios in storytelling that are otherwise underutilized.

What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.