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Monday 24 February 2020

Games Day: Star Wars, West End Games, & What If

West End Games are know for two things. Going bankrupt during what was meant to be the Golden Age of Role-Playing Games* and for the Star Wars Role-Playing Game, which they alone had a LucasArts approved license** for.

*I mean, that's debatable, you'd probably say that the late 1990s (and West End Games went bankrupt in 1998) marked the end of the 'Golden Age' as computer games had gone from niche interest to mainstream (although not totally acceptable yet). And more than a few companies proved that they had not an idea how to change their approach in the wake of such a major shift in gamer's interests.

**Now this might seem massive, but I can't really remember any 'fandom menace,' such as there is nowadays for the various different IP franchises, at the time for anything Star Wars or not. Trekkies notwithstanding, but their devotion was at the time seen as risible and ridiculous, whereas similar behaviour today is seemingly encouraged.

I'm thinking about this old game from my youth because I'm having another burst of enthusiasm about running a game. As mentioned before, I've been thinking 'What If' about the sequel trilogy of Star Wars films. I'd love to be able to make something as great as the following three videos by the excellent Belated Media (Michael Barryte), but I'm not going to be able to knock-up three quality videos any time soon, if ever (videos at the end and highly recommended).

So, why the West Games version of Star Wars? After all there have been several licensed versions of the game, Fantasy Flight Games' current table-top version, and a Wizards of the Coast version that resembles the D&D d20 system that came out after West End Games. However, as I've said before there was a certain punk DIY spirit that I like about these older games, in that you are given a basic set of rules that you can reapply to whatever else you create in your game. Whereas, even without looking at the FF version of the game, I know that their setup will be a totally modular product. You want the new rebel trooper? You have to buy the miniature and the character card, RRP $20.99. The benefit of the older West End Games version is that most of these old books now exist only as PDFs online, as the copyright has lapsed, and even if you don't want all of these (I'll maybe get one or two but don't need much more than the full rules) the game is developed in a way that creating your own worlds, aliens and stories is positively encouraged with only the basic rules. Further to this (possibly, most importantly) is the simplicity of the basic rules such that most ideas could be accommodated in straight-forward fashion. As opposed to overly complex rules and a reliance on 'special kit' (i.e. dice with fancy colours and icons) rather than simple six sided dice and easy to follow rules.

My 'What If' and the impetus for (potentially) running a game is [STAR WARS SPOILERS] because at a point in Rian Johnson's otherwise crushingly mediocre 'Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi' there is setup the possibility that the status quo will be destroyed and the rather closed world of Star Wars will be torn open and irrevocably changed. This possibility was in itself thrilling and by far my favourite scene in any of the SW films, however, the capitulation of this and the subsequent total failure to really follow through and achieve anything of note in terms of character development or world building (albeit this might be a bit harsh) ended up making me dislike this film more than any of the others in the 'Sequel Trilogy' (and I'm really not a fan of Jar Jar Abrams either, so this is quite an achievement by Rian Johnson).

In the original scene having tricked his former master Snoke and subsequently bisected him with Rey's lightsaber, Kylo Ren and Rey then fight Snoke's praetorian guard in an excellent action scene. At the end of the scene Kylo Ren offers Rey his hand in a parallel to Darth Vader offering Luke Skywalker his hand in ESB, both are offers to "rule the galaxy together." However, as the throne room scene in Last Jedi was instead setup similarly to the throne room scene in ROTJ in which Darth Vader betrays and kills Emperor Palpatine to save his son Luke, so I had hoped that this was Ben Solo overthrowing the Dark side influence of Snoke to save the woman he loved, Rey, but instead it becomes some point about not believing in the survival of an ideology (or something).

In the Last Jedi both Luke and Kylo Ren talk about "killing the past" but ultimately it is the past that kills The Last Jedi, in that the attempt to free the plot from the choke hold narrative of Jedi v. Sith, or Light v. Dark, or indeed the childishly simple Good v. Evil, is shown to be inescapable. The film ends with the status quo totally restored and the attempted 'rebellions' of Kylo/Ben and Luke have been shown to fail. In the end Luke realises that the Jedi were great goodies after all and Kylo thinks that being super evil is instead a brilliant idea (until the next film when something lesser makes him finally kick the 'evil habit' for good).

The film could have been The Last War, which rather than resulting in the actual end of war would have resulted in something more realistic with the fracturing of various parties along differing ideological perspectives. Then the black and white division of the galaxy would be replaced with a much more messy and believable situation, were someone cannot be said to be 'good' or 'evil' simply by their uniform. In my 'What If' then when Kylo Ren makes his offer to Rey, rather than losing her voice and power that she has held up until that point, then mutely resisting, causing the lightsaber to explode and allowing her to escape from the First Order's capital ship somehow. Instead, Rey makes Ben a counter offer, she states that she would take his hand if offered by Ben and not Kylo. She then goes on to explain that Kylo Ren is already dead, he died when he rightly betrayed Snoke knowing that he was evil and that his way was foolish. Indeed, that perpetuating this endless cycle of Jedi/Sith conflict will do nothing but damage the galaxy and that they can instead show the potential of another way.

With Kylo, now Ben Solo, joining Rey we could imagine some on both sides (both the First Order and the Resistance) wanting to join these new figureheads and others wanting to oppose them. For example, some would see Kylo Ren's murder of his father as unforgivable, whether he was being influenced by Snoke or not. Those enslaved by the First Order would see this as an opportunity for freedom and might not all agree on how they will exercise this freedom. The fallen New Republic might attempt to reform, with some opposed to retrying a twice failed system of government and etc. Mostly I see General Armitage Hux futilely attempting to hold control of the crumbling First Order, much like the squabbling of Alexander's generals in the aftermath of his death.

We'll see...

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Words on Wednesday: Ways of seeing science fiction, Aldiss and Le Guin

I read Brian Aldiss' Greybeard (1964) and Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven (1971) soon after each other towards the beginning of last year (2019) and their similarities and differences have been something that has continued to play on my mind long after I finished the two novels.

Ostensibly both novels have very little in common apart from both being part of the excellent SF Masterworks series, however, although plot, characters and style may differ there is a background theme as setting that places and inhabits both novels, it is the formation of their world's as 'gone astray'. I won't say dystopian quite yet, although one certainly could start as strong as this, but in both novels the world that the characters inhabit have fallen apart in some way and it is how the author's have their characters relate to this world and how the character's actions effect (or not) the world that is of interest to me. It's interest is in how the author's own perspective and belief's about human nature and social order soak into their fictional worlds. As always, I suppose, art is merely a reflection of the artist and a good artist tries their best to hide this, if they are even aware of this bleeding of their 'real world' opinions into the fictional creations.

You might think you're telling a story, but really you are telling us how you see the world.

Thus, what we have here are two different attempts at an abstraction from present concerns aka a speculative fiction, to call them sci-fi is to try and lessen or 'genre-place' the work into insignificance. To side-step into personal complaint again, I find that the comment "I like fiction, I just don't like fantasy/sci-fi, I like my stories real," is actually a case of mistaken identity. People are welcome to have certain likes and dislikes of 'style' in writing, but to call one fiction realer than the other is simply foolish. It is a category error, both fictions are fictional after all, but one is clothed in the veneer of realism and the other demands a certain use of imagination. Perhaps it is this demand that people dislike.

Anyway, returning to the point. It seems to me that the two different story-worlds (of Aldiss and Le Guin) are defined by their personal politics (as we all often are). These perspectives shape their reaction to their worlds and their intuitive understanding of how (they believe) human beings function and act (and why). To categorise Aldiss as 'right-wing' and Le Guin as 'left-wing' is simplistic, but still manages to shine a light of these differing approaches even if, personally, this distinction would be more difficult. Indeed, individual statements (or artistic endeavours) can be called left or right (politically) in that they can be isolated from context to give a definite answer, but taken within an individual's own personal history and belief system this basic categorising is dangerously simplistic and typically only used to label and distance.

Aldiss: In Greybeard the world and the character's are all literally in decline. No children have been born for years and the world's inhabitants are all creeping towards senility and decrepitude. The focus is on the violent and insular world that has risen up now that the world is 'without purpose'. The exacting reasons for society collapsing (worldwide one assumes, although the focus is purely on England) is not really detailed, it is instead taken as a given that these very male power structures would immediately come to pass. That culture is forever walking along this tightrope of potential aggression and that it's only the distraction of raising children and having a 'purpose' that keeps most men (except the level-headed protagonist) from starting militias and trying to take over small towns in the Midlands to rule as a tin-pot Caesar.

The protaganist represents (in some respect) the reader, he is an intelligent assured man whose plans have nonetheless always seemingly failed due to the idiocy of the masses. Whether meant or not, there is a significant description of people along the lines of class, with our lead characters (Greybeard and wife) being middle-class and having had relatively cosmopolitan lives, whereas their counterparts in the story are working-class and therefore seemingly more likely to give in to their aminalistic impulses. Despite that there is also a negative portrayal of academia as weak and easily overthrown by the aggression of thugs.

Throughout the story all the efforts of Greybeard are shown to essentially come to nothing, the characters end up simply floating along and when the story seems to be just petering out they happen to meet the reality behind the 'folk myth' and discover that there are indeed children in the world and that they've been living wild in the woods.

Le Guin: The setting of The Lathe of Heaven starts in a dehumanised future. However, although this novel is also about the self-destructive capacities of humanity it's focus is more internal and psychological. Our main character, George Orr, has the power to alter reality based upon his dreams. His court-assigned psychiatrist Dr Haber, discovers this and attempts to harness George by way of his 'Augmentor'. The road to hell is clearly paved with good intentions.

Rather than wallow in the misery of our failings, as it could, Le Guin's novel instead sets us many difficult and ultimately unanswered (and potentially unanswerable) questions about agency and control. Although I apparently have less to say directly about this novel it think that this is because the story's message is more ambiguous.

Although ultimately there is also a sudden reversal at the end, albeit one that is optimistic is a true sense rather than the straightforward reversal at play in Greybeard.

To conclude, I probably shouldn't have left this so long before writing as I might have managed something more detailed and nuanced this time last year, but as both stories have still stayed with me it seemed worthwhile. Science Fiction really is just another fiction, it is a style, one wherein the author can engage in thought experiments more freely. A story of ideas rather than just about (imagined) human interactions and how that particular writer believes people will act (although it's that too).

Thursday 13 February 2020

Thoughts on Thursday: The UK election fallout

So, I had planned to respond immediately after the election result last year. However, I only really had fury for the majority that had been either convinced by misinformation (and therefore failed at self-knowledge) or were otherwise complicit in a Tory majority (and therefore failed at self-analysis). News outlets were keen to portray this as a 'Brexit election' and this sentiment seemed to rule the day, whether it was true or not. I had been fairly convinced of a hung parliament being the result, with the possibility of a left-leaning coalition, but that was not to be. A single majority was the most surprising result that one could have envisaged really, as elsewhere across the globe (albeit, only where voting for more than one or two parties is possible) there seems to be a movement towards a centralising or collective type approach in politics with countries being run by an awkward 'federation' of competing parties. Indeed, I was starting to be convinced that this wasn't such a bad thing, as it stops one party with one leader making whatever they want law and directing the entire country towards whatever they wish. Sadly that is exactly the way we are going again in the UK.

Link to the Wiki election result page here

I suppose that instead of strengthening support for parties outside of the 'Big Two' and marking a move towards this collation government approach, that instead we found ourselves being focused on a presidential leadership race again. Something positively heralded by the Tories, awkwardly mismanaged by Labour, and destructively embraced by the Lib Dems. This thought and approach comes, I suggest, from the American handlers of the Tory party and their wish for a state-run propaganda channel like Fox News.

Also helping the Tories were the "other racist parties," namely Farage's Brexit party, UKIP, and smaller factions. Farage did not stand, proving once again that despite all his talk his ultimate goal is political destabilisation and thus he is a 'useful idiot'. Farage also ruled that the Brexit party would not stand against the Tories in key seats in an effort to help "get Brexit done." If by that, he meant, get the Tories a majority then they were indeed successful. Another help was the final and hilarious destruction of UKIP from within. The interim leader Pat Mountain giving once of the worst political interviews recorded in history, which if you watch the video you will see is no exaggeration. This fundamentally undermined; her own leadership, her party, and the value of the continuing existence of said party. So, something that many others have been trying to do for some time, but in only 8 minutes. The key line was Pat Mountain describing UKIP and the Brexit party as "other racist parties." Comedy gold.

Catherine Tate's 'Nan' character       UKIP interim leader Pat Mountain
Final helper for the Tories was probably the most vital. I said "being focused" a moment ago and this work was done by the media. It's slightly odd that public opinion is still so swayed by that of billionaire press barons, but evidently this is still the case. Possibly because public engagement with politics is flat lining, this means that simply adopting the opinion of 'everyone else' (as you are told) is easier than investigating and coming up with your own political opinion? But how can this be? Because surely we were told of the 'rising up' of the youth, that because of the internet that young people were being re-engaged into politics and talking more of an interest?

Well, although I might now start sounding like a broken record. I do not think that social media does anything positive to increase political awareness. Indeed, quite the opposite, it makes people 'gamify' this otherwise important part of their life into an 'App'. As if sending a few likes or comments is the same as engaging directly with another of the opposite opinion. I hear political conversations much less now in public as, I suggest, people are made overly concerned with the possibility of stoking division (as the press call it) and the last thing most people want is an active conflict. Certainly not one that they have to actually deal with. Now making a fuss online where there are no repercussions for what anyone might say is another matter. Consequence-free name calling is the bread and butter of online 'discourse' and puts a stop to any real debate from happening.

Thus in the build up to the general election you might have wondered, as I did, why is it so quiet online? That instead of passionate but respectful discussion happening online between friends, colleagues and family there was less of any sort of dialogue than at any time before.

Why is that?

Apologies for what follows, but it was mostly written in the previously mentioned fury and therefore the language is rather 'beyond'.

Section 1: People are cunts online.

You may not know this, but you're a cunt online. Really, you are. You may not mean to be, but that only makes it worse. It's your lack of introspection that makes it worse, your lack of nuance, your lack of physicality. What do you mean it's not your fault? You're online aren't you?

Let's try this out, think of something you care deeply about, a core principle if you'll allow the phrase. Now let's picture this idea getting shat all over by some prick that you thought were a friend. The very indignity of it all! Better get that shitebag telt.

Wait, I got ahead of myself there and this isn't a fair depiction. After all you've thought this through haven't you? And, indeed, you welcome the friendly cut-and-thrust of debate especially as you feel confidant in your knowledge of your subject area, as it's an opinion that you've researched thoroughly.

One small problem though.

Section 2.1: Your opinion is wrong.

Think you've been over all the oppositional arguments and considered every angle? No you fucking haven't you liar. You've briefly entertained the idea that you might be wrong and have then filled your craw with endless 'well done' arguments. If you really challenged your own point of view you'd be in such a dizzying state of indecision that you wouldn't know if you were coming or going.

Section 2.2: Your opinion isn't an argument.

Arguments are a detailed deconstruction of a particular point of view intended to prove the validity or otherwise of a particular position, whether that be contrary or partisan in nature. Your meme or your 'aphorism' is not that. If anything is being referenced it's normally a 'dog-whistle' to some objectionable political perspective, whether you know that or not. Retweets might not be endorsements, but they help mainstream an idea that would not otherwise get oxygen.

Section 2.3: Your opinion isn't yours.

Have you thought about were the latest viral meme has come from? Who created it and for what reason? Just so you know, "only joking" probably isn't the real reason and is normally the answer given by fucking liars anyway. Further to that, being a joke does not free one from being criticised for untruthful or hurtful allegations whether clouded by ignorance or stupidity or not.

Section 3: The end is the beginning.

So, apologies for the swearing, but there's not much to be hopeful about politically in my opinion. At least not until the culture shifts to a less awful place, most likely this will require us becoming less addicted to social media and believing obvious lies rather than willing to engage in the potentially painful process of self-examination. However, this activity takes work and time, something that could be an 'allowance' of sorts by a government that wishes their populace to engage rather be willing servants, which is instead what we've had mostly throughout history it seems.

Monday 3 February 2020

Melancholy Mondays: What If?

I often wonder of a film, "what if the writer or director had decided to go this way instead?" It's something that has been most prompted by the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, a collection of films so disjointed and mismanaged that you can't help but think 'What if?' However, I'm not going to talk any more about Star Wars today (maybe another time), but instead the similar sort of thoughts that one directs toward their own life.

There's a sort of constant longing for the life one could be living and this anxiety is preyed upon by Capitalism, or at least those that want to keep power in the current Capitalistic system. Perhaps it would not be any better under another system, but again what we are doing here is speculating in an abstract and unchallengeable manner.

Perhaps it is an aspect of an anxious personality, combined with an over active imagination, and tied together with a (narcissistic) narritivising of one's own 'life story' that leads to this worry.

What do I mean that this is "preyed upon"? Well, it makes one more amenable to sustaining an unsustainable situation in the hope/belief that you are due a positive change of circumstances based on; hard work, what you are due, good fortune, or any other of the countless things we tell ourselves are 'coming our way'.

But this is just a general 'What if' my life was better than it was. Something that is based more in what might be, looking to the future with (unrealistic or naive) hope.

What I am thinking of is more of a 'what if I had decided to go this way instead?' That is, rewriting the past and imagining what could have been.

What if... I had had the piano lessons that I asked for when I was 10? Would I be a musician?

What if... I didn't go to University at the age of 27 to study philosophy? Where would I be now?

What if... instead of engineering, I tried to get into art school right after secondary? Would I be an artist?

Many thoughts like that.

Recently, I passed the anniversary of a dear friend's death, which meant that I have now lived eight years since he died having only known him for seven years (2005-2012). Now you might think this an unnecessary obsession with statistics that are otherwise meaningless and I would agree that you are probably right, except for the meaningless part because this passage of time-with and time-without is [I think] an important descriptor. I am not making this point in order to lessen or distance my relationship, but instead it shows to me the depth that can grow in a short time and that can last, outlast, even the passing of that relationship. As I've said before it is now a 'frozen moment' that I hold, one that I in my changing state (developing, be that evolving or devolving) also changes with me, but it is entirely one-sided and unfalsifiable. Memories without other witnesses cannot be checked for correctness after all.

What if... I had never met him, or we met differently? How different would I be? Would I now be in a long-term loving relationship and a father?

What if... My story were otherwise 'written' differently? Would I still be 'me'? If I met this other 'me' would they be recognisable to me as me?

However, we cannot live in the past or the future, but nor can we live totally in the moment. We have to be able to take the lessons of our past and apply them pragmatically and truthfully to our present in a way that will positively effect our future.

This said, there is still the desire to be free of pain. The pain of grief. So, we think about never being in the situation that gave us the grief in the first place. All of these are an attempt to run away from something that is hurting us. Pain cannot be imagined away, but it can be ignored. However, some injuries will not fade unless they are dealt with. This is not like distracting yourself from a paper cut.

What if... the pain is greater than one can bear? Is emptiness an acceptable alternative?

"Cessation of suffering is possible by relinquishing attachment, not to deny but to be liberated from." Says the Buddhist.
"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something." Says Westley...