Part 2: My Thoughts On The Last Jedi

I have just returned from seeing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

In part one of this lengthy expose, I talked about my feelings on Star Wars as a whole, and about the first six movies. I didn’t get into Episode VII very much and I probably won’t dive too deep into it here, because now I’m going to talk about what I really came here to talk about: The Last Jedi.

In short, I loved it.

I loved it so much that there were moments when I felt utterly captivated and I could understand, for a moment, why so many people have loved Star Wars for so long. I felt like maybe I just never quite found MY Star Wars film, the one that suited me and my generation and what I wanted to see. I suppose that since I’m a child of the nineties, the prequels would be considered my trilogy, but as I watched The Last Jedi I just couldn’t help but be impressed by every aspect of it.

It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, this is certainly not an unbiased review, but I was biased AGAINST Star Wars going in, and expected absolutely nothing of it, not the least among the reasons being that it seems like most fans hate it (but then, as we discussed earlier, STAR WARS FANS ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE and will never be satisfied with anything), and Mark Hammill has made some… interesting comments about what he feels the writers did to Luke’s character.

I’m here to tell you, as a person who generally dislikes Star Wars, that I was well and truly impressed by this movie in every way. It felt like the movie allowed itself the space to tell a full story and utilized every moment they had perfectly, nothing was wasted. I’m not really going to do much of a plot synopsis here, but I’ll talk about the things that I find relevant. Also I guess it goes without saying but I may as well say that there will be SPOILERS for the film, and honestly if you haven’t seen it, I really think you should. And by the way, I went into the movie having had the whole thing pretty much spoiled for me on purpose. I specifically looked for The Last Jedi spoilers because I was vaguely interested in how the plot points and potential from Episode VII would be expounded upon in this movie. On paper, it would appear that the movie took all the potential from Episode VII, ripped it up, shit all over it and threw it out a window into space. None of the fan theories turned out to be right: Rey’s parents are (probably) not Skywalkers or Kenobis, Ben Solo didn’t turn good (well, not entirely anyway), Snoke is not revealed to be the long-lost Darth Plagueis (although I’m still kind of holding out hope that he might be), Poe and Finn are probably going to have a gay romance, and Luke… well, we’ll get to Luke.

It seemed to me like the change of director had been bad for the franchise.

I was wrong. As a matter of fact I think I’m really glad that J.J. Abrams left, because honestly I think his movies have the same run-of-the-mill, seen-it-all-before feel to them that I get from every goddamn superhero movie these days. But it does mean that the development of the film was tumultuous, going through several directors, and then of course there’s the very untimely death of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Leia is front-and-center in this film, and boy am I happy about that.

I’ve always felt Leia never really got the screen time she deserved, and was always a supporting character. In truth she still is a supporting character, but in a really appropriate way that I don’t think undermines her as a character at all. Carrie Fisher’s performance is wonderful, even though there are a few moments where her voice cracks pretty badly, but hey, Carrie Fisher has aged and so has Leia. The resistance members spend just about the entire movie locked in a space battle with the First Order’s flagship, maintaining a distance so that the First Order’s weapons can just reach their shields but not quite penetrate them yet, as the First Order slowly picks off all of their smaller ships and fighters. There is a moment when the bridge is blasted head on and every leader of the Resistance is sucked into space and killed at once, including Leia… but wait a minute!

Leia finally gets to have her Jedi moment and I think it’s executed absolutely perfectly. I call it her Jedi moment but really it’s her Force Power moment. We’ve always known that Leia is force-sensitive, but in the films she’s never really used the Force, apart from sensing the presence of loved ones. It might have felt silly and hammy to have Leia go on a badass rampage and start Force-pushing stormtroopers, or to whip out a lightsaber, so the way her Force ability is used feels completely organic and true to the character. When she’s sucked out into space, she’s seemingly knocked unconscious, but she begins to manipulate the particles around her and telekenetically pushes herself back toward the ship so she can be brought inside and rescued. It’s left vague whether she was consciously doing any of this or whether it was an instinctual act of self-preservation (I tend to think it’s the ladder), although her eyes do open if that counts for anything. Leia being bedridden, along with the loss of all the rebel leaders (including everyone’s favorite “It’s a trap!” trope namer, Admiral Ackbar) means that a hitherto unforseen character, vice-admiral Holdo, becomes the new de facto leader.

People seem to have a lot of opinions about Holdo, with some people feeling she’s the feminist icon Star Wars desperately needs, and others saying she is some kind of strange diversity-hire just put in to please the politically correct crowd. As always, people who think the latter are fucking stupid, because it couldn’t be father from the truth. Insert ANY character who happens to be a minority into a series, and it’s a guarantee that some fans will riot, saying that the producers just did it to appeal to “the PC crowd.” And by the way, what IS the PC crowd? Because it seems to me that if you insert a black character, the most you could be appealing to are black people, or people who don’t mind seeing a black person. So then, the only reason you’d be against seeing a black character is because… it’s because you’re racist, right? I don’t see any other alternative.

And it’s the same thing with Holdo. SOME PEOPLE (probably of the male variety, wearing fedoras and stroking their neckbeards while burping up some Mountain Dew) seem to think that she was shoehorned in so that the movie could say “Look at us, we have a female character in a position of power, HAND OVER YOUR MONEY, FEMINIST DROVES!” And also apparently some people are bothered by the fact that she has purple hair, a complaint so incredibly laughable in the context of fucking STAR WARS that I don’t even know how to go about adressing it. I mean, Yoda is a tiny wrinkly green muppet, there are green-skinned women with wet, mucus-covered tentacles poking out of their heads, one of the central characters is an eight foot tall Bigfoot that moans in a gargling whinny for speech, but yeah, it’s really the ONE LADY WITH PURPLE HAIR that strains credibility too far here.

At any rate, Holdo is the new commander of the fleet. Well, this trilogy’s Han Solo archetype, Poe, does not like that at all, and does like her methods. She wants to retreat and live to fight another day, ensuring the survival of the rebel alliance and sending a spark of hope to light a fire under the ass of the First Order. Poe would much rather be a swashbuckling hero, ride on in there and blow the shit out of their flagship (cause that worked so well when the previous heroes did that to the Death Star), and win the day for the Rebellion. They both have noble goals, and this is where we start to see what I feel is the central theme of this movie, the conflict between difficult decisions and choosing a path. Poe and Holdo both want what’s best for the rebellion, and while Leia agrees with Holdo’s philosophy, she does understand and secretly ALSO agree with Poe’s. But Leia is older now, and she’s not as willing to throw away innocent lives just to win a space battle, if that kind of thing can be avoided.

Meanwhile, back to the real meat of the story, we have Rey, who traveled across the galaxy to the homeworld of the Jedi to find Luke, who has secluded himself in shame after losing his apprentice to the dark side. We pick up right where the last movie left off, with Rey holding out Luke’s lightsaber to him. He takes it from her, and in a move that we probably all see coming, casually tosses it backwards over his shoulder. Don’t worry though, some Porgs find it, and in that moment they are ALMOST useful to the story and not clearly Disney’s attempt to merchandise a new adorable toy. Honestly I get why people hate the Porgs, they’re kind of cute in context but they do feel somewhat out of place and is it me or is their CGI kind of shabby? Oh well. That’s all I have to say about Porgs, really.

So, Luke. Mark Hammill has done several interviews now where he talks about he vehemently disagreed with the filmmakers’ writing of Luke Skywalker. Luke has become an island unto himself by sulking on a literal island in the middle of the ocean, ashamed and without hope at the loss of Ben to the Dark Side. He hates the Jedi, he hates what they became, he understands the turmoil they brought about during the time of the Old Republic, and he understands how meaningless legends can be. He knows that he’s a legend across the galaxy, but he also knows that a legend is not the real story. He’s done a lot of introspection, and in his despair he’s cut himself off from the Force. He’s isolated, scared, and ashamed. He’s in a dark and desperate place. Mark Hammill has said that this is completely out of character for Luke, it’s not something he would do. If Luke Skywalker saw that the galaxy was in trouble, he’d get off his ass and go out there and save it.

But you know, I have to disagree with Mark Hammill, and part of my disagreement is based on what a damn fantastic job he does portraying an angry and bitter Luke. The Luke we know was young, naive, and passionate. He didn’t have time to grow and learn, to be jaded by reality. Young Luke believed there was good in Darth Vader and was brave enough to go and face him to try and turn him to the Light. But old Luke is a veteran of the deadliest war in the galaxy, he’s seen so much despair and turmoil, and he had dreams of rebuilding the Jedi Order into something grand and beautiful. His hopes and dreams were dashed by Ben Solo. He’s lost everything he loves, and the galaxy that he fought so hard to protect is teetering on the brink of totalitarianism again, despite everything he did to try and save it, and he feels that it’s ALL HIS FAULT. He feels that he failed Ben, just as Obi-Wan failed Anakin.

And really, a LOT of what happens in this movie is a direct parallel to what happened in the original films. Obi-Wan and Yoda both went into hiding after losing Anakin to the Dark Side, and they both had to be approached by someone else asking for help (in Obi-Wan’s case, Leia) before they agreed to rejoin the fight. Obi-Wan wasn’t quite so depressed as Luke, but essentially they are in the same position. When Luke finally agrees to teach Rey about the Force, it’s a mirror of his time with Yoda, with him taking on the role of the grizzled old Jedi whose seen what happens when he fails to protect the galaxy from the Dark Side, and even though he has a lot of wisdom to pass on to Rey, they disagree on what should be done next, the same way Yoda and Luke disagreed on Dagobah.

I think that Mark Hammill missed the point of Luke’s sadness and isolation. The REASON that he’s acting so unlike himself is BECAUSE he’s in a rut, and he has to redeem himself. He’s only human, he’s allowed to fail, to make mistakes, to forget who he is, and then be forced to remember by a young idealist like Rey. It’s during Rey’s training with Luke that we also learn that Ben Solo actually had a legitimate reason for betraying Luke. It wasn’t because Snoke found him and seduced him into leaving the Light side, although that is a factor, it’s because Luke tried to murder him. Luke sneaked into Ben’s tent while he was sleeping, ignited his lightsaber, and stood over him, ready to murder him in his sleep. Luke later admits that this was true, although he had already changed his mind as soon as he’d ignited the lightsaber, but by then the damage was done, and Ben turned on him fully.

There’s also the interesting new development of Rey and Ben having a telepathic link that connects them at unforeseen moments and allows them to see and speak with one another. Rey begins to see Ben’s side of things, and Ben’s veneer of purpose and stoicism is breaking fast. He throws one of his usual tantrums in a lift when he breaks his helmet against the side of the wall, and spends a lot of time crying, but it’s clear that he’s on a path he doesn’t want to be on, but he’s confused and hurt, and doesn’t know where to go. He doesn’t WANT to follow Snoke’s path, but he also doesn’t want to return to Luke, who he rightfully feels had betrayed him. To her credit, Rey becomes infuriated when she learns that Luke tried to murder Ben, and the two of them have an impressing fight sequence, which Rey wins by calling Luke’s lightsaber to herself and igniting it.

The thing about Rey and Ben is that they represent balance and chaos. Rey has been our hero up to this point, but as Luke notices she has tendencies that could lead her to the Dark side. She continues to feel alone and abandoned because of her literal abandonment by her parents as a child, and she is particularly drawn to a cavern beneath the island which seems to contain some kind of deep, dark energy, although it’s never specified exactly what it is. It is somewhat reminiscent of Luke’s journey into the cavern on Dagobah when he had to face Darth Vader and found his own face inside Vader’s mask. In Rey’s cavern, she sees several versions of herself in a straight line, with her in the center, one side representing the past and the other being the future, each one moving right after the next. She attempts to learn the identities of her parents but she doesn’t.

And now both Rey and Ben have the potential to turn to the Light side or the Dark. I doubt that Rey will become the villain, but the important thing is that this whole movie emphasizes moral grey areas and the space between two extremes. The prequels were about the Dark Side, the originals were about the Light Side, and this trilogy is about the space between. When Rey and Ben finally meet in person again, each one thinks they can turn the other to their side. The confrontation with Snoke is fantastic, with him showing off his mastery of the Force and easily overpowering Rey, who begins fighting using Ben’s lightsaber when she can’t get to her own, which was formerly Luke’s. Snoke finally Force pushes her in front of Ben and gives him the opportunity to redeem himself in Snoke’s eyes and complete his journey to the Dark Side by snuffing out the only hope of the Light, but Ben finally stands up to Snoke and impales him by telekenitcally igniting Rey’s lightsaber and cutting him in half. There is this fantastic sequence rather afterward where Ben and Rey stand back to back, fighting off Snoke’s guards, finally on the same side. At the end of it, though, Ben does the same thing that Vader did with Luke, and holds out his hand in an offer for Rey to rule the galaxy alongside him. We see that Ben has the potential to overcome the Dark side, but he’s still unsure, still wavering.

It’s also around this point that Ben confronts Rey about her parents, saying that she’s known all along that they were never anyone important, just nobodies who sold their daughter for money and abandoned her, before leaving to go die a meaningless death and be buried in the desert. It’s unclear whether this is actually true, although Rey seems to agree, but there is a possibility it’s Ben attempting to turn her by extinguishing any hope that her parents might have been important or had a good reason for abandoning her.

I want to mention that I think Adam Driver does an amazing job of playing Ben, who’s such an emotionally volatile character. I also really like his fighting stance and movement, whereas previous Jedi’s have fought somewhat like samurai wielding katanas at one another, Ben is a berserker who stands with his feet apart, planeted on the ground, and moves slowly like a tank made of stone, barreling through enemies in his path. Rey is the opposite, swift and graceful, emphasizing once again how these two characters represent opposite extremes, and the grey areas between. There are several visual motifs that show this, and my favorite is when Rey and Ben are both attempting to pull a single lightsaber caught in the air between them, and their power is so evenly matched that the lightsaber breaks in half. Interestingly, this is also Luke’s lightsaber, and it’s one of the many times visual motifs represent the old guard of Star Wars passing the torch to the new characters. A lot of this movie is about Luke, Leia and the others handing over the galaxy and the Force to the newcomers, because it’s their time.

One final note about Adam Driver, I am really impressed and a little disturbed by how deep his voice is. I honestly can’t tell if it’s a vocal effect they used on him, but his incredibly low voice is unsettling. I couldn’t help imagining him saying “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”


But I digress.

The movie has a pretty long run time, which is fine with me, because everything seems to happen exactly as it should. And unlike other Star Wars movies, this one doesn’t have abrupt scene changes where the screen just wipes from one planet to the next, the characters hopping from place to place all over the galaxy, most of the action takes place within a few specific areas. There is a subplot involving Finn and a newcomer called Rose finding a master hacker who can get them into the First Order’s ship to disable their tracking mechanisms. It’s a perfectly good section of the film and the two of them do manage to liberate a herd of domesticated racehorses (or the Star Wars equivalent thereof), although there is a minor antagonist who I don’t think adds much to the story, but I guess we had to do something with Finn. Personally I don’t think this section of the movie is BAD, just that it’s a bit of a detour from the central action.

When Finn and Rose finally get on board the First Order flagship, it turns out that the sketchy rogue they hired turns on them at the last minute and hands them over to the First Order. It’s here that Captain Phasma makes her return, and I’d heard a lot of criticism saying that her fifteen minutes weren’t used very well. While it’s certainly true that she wasn’t on screen for a terribly long time, I thought she was perfectly effective and served as a good antagonist for Finn, who honestly didn’t exactly have the largest role in this movie.

Meanwhile, Holdo decides to evacuate the remnants of the Rebellion to a nearby planet with an old abandoned rebel base, and Poe stages a mutiny, taking over the bridge of the ship. He is stopped before too long by Leia herself, who walks in and blasts him with a stun bolt. Holdo elects to stay behind and pilot the ship while everyone else escapes, and while Leia knows this will involve Holdo sacrificing herself, she accepts her choice and wishes her luck. The two of them have a somewhat tearful parting in which they hold hands, implying that they’ve become very close friends during the time they’ve served together. Leia does seem heartbroken to lose someone else she cares about so soon after Han’s death.

Holdo does what I immediately suspected she would do, but admittedly I only saw it coming because Katherine Janeway did the exact same thing in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. She charges the ship up to lightspeed and then barrels right through the First Order flagship, cutting it in half. This results in Finn and crew being saved just in time by the destruction of the ship, and Finn having a final, but brief, confrontation with Phasma. Also they are at one point rescued by BB8 piloting a walker ship, which felt like a strain on credibility not QUITE equivalent to fish driving a truck in Finding Dory, but not ENTIRELY unlike it either. We do get to see Phasma’s eye through her helmet before she goes, so it was good to get to see her face.

As the ship falls apart, the half that’s still remaining operational fires on the escape pods, dwindling the entire Rebellion down to a handful of people, maybe a couple dozen, as they land on the planet’s surface beneath. This is where we enter the final act, and I have to say that there’s a visual element here that’s so brilliant that it saved the finale of this movie from possibly becoming a bit tedious. There’s a moment when the Rebels are in a trench and one of the captains walks out onto what appears to be a snowy landscape, only to leave what I genuinely thought was a trail of blood. I thought it was weird that this completely unnamed character would be bleeding, but one character puts his finger in it and then licks it and announces “it’s salt,” revealing that this planet is covered in salt that turns red when it’s touched – either that or it’s a red landscape covered in white salt, but either way the effect of this is startling good. During the ensuing battle between the last of the Rebels and the First Order, the Rebel ships skirt across the salt lands leaving a trail of red dust in their wake, making intricate patterns of red on a landscape of white, and blaster shots that hit the ground blow up puffs of red smoke, which gives this whole battle an excellent visual appeal, the kind of thing that was sorely missing from things like the original films’ battle on Hoth, which I find boring because it takes place on a bland snowy landscape.

There is a final moment on the Jedi homeworld where Luke is left alone, and he carries a flame to the tree holding the ancient Jedi texts, ready to burn the whole thing down. It’s now that Yoda appears to him as a Force ghost, looking and speaking like his older version from the originals (good choice on the part of the filmmakers), and when Luke hesitates to set the tree on fire, Yoda does it himself by calling down a bolt of lightning. Luke is flabbergasted at this, and Yoda cleverly quips “The ancient texts, page-turners they were not.” And he agrees with Luke that it’s time for the old Jedi order to die. It’s up to Rey and Ben to decide what happens to the Jedi now, and it’s time for the old masters to move on. Yoda gives Luke his usual dose of wisdom, pointing out that the burden of a master is to watch his pupil replace him and move forward into a new and different world.

Back on the salt-planet, the Rebels try their best but they can’t hold off the First Order who are fast approaching and blow a huge hole in the wall protecting them. Leia and the others wait for the end as the First Order begins approaching, and as the distress call to the remnants of the rebellion scattered across the galaxy goes out, they receive no response. Leia mourns that there is no hope left, and it’s at this moment that Luke appears in the doorway, wearing a black cloak. He kneels in front of Leia and they finally have a moment to reconcile, and he apologizes for failing Ben. Leia admits that she knows now that her son is lost, and there’s a beautiful moment where Luke kisses Leia on the head.

During most of the movie I was so interested in what was happening that I had almost forgotten Carrie Fisher died after filming in this movie and that this was her final film, coming full circle and ending her career playing Leia again. There are some really striking visual setpieces in this movie, one of them being Leia standing and looking out on the white saltlands with a veil covering the lower portion of her face, and another being Luke’s final goodbye to Leia as he kisses her on the head. I couldn’t help but notice that the love theme that played during Han and Leia’s scenes in the original movies makes a return for this moment and a couple of times in the movie during scenes concerning Leia, and it was an excellent touch. It really feels like this moment of Luke saying goodbye to Leia was also a moment of Mark Hammill, and all of us, saying goodbye to Carrie Fisher. She appears after this scene, but it’s a beautiful moment and I’m sure the filmmakers knew the kind of impact it would have on viewers after Carrie’s death.

Luke walks out alone against a fleet of First Order ships, and Ben has them unload all of their firepower into him, trying to ensure that he can’t survive. When Luke emerges completely unscathed, there is a moment where the viewer probably thinks “Oh COME ON, are we really overpowering the hero TO THIS DEGREE?” but it will make sense in a bit. Even I already knew the twist that was coming with Luke and was still startled by his appearing to survive being shot at by tons and tons of ammunition.

Ben emerges alone into the field to battle Luke. As I’ve mentioned before, the white-on-red terrain effect for this planet is brilliant, and provides a gorgeous set piece for the final act, and it really gives the impression of the land bleeding every time it’s touched. The blaster shots into the ground blowing up puffs of red smoke are like geysers of blood from the land itself, and Luke faces Ben in the bloody scar where the First Order just unloaded all their firepower. Within the rebel base, Leia and the others realize that Luke is drawing their attention to stall for time, and they notice that the local ice-foxes (a much better and more interesting creature than the Porgs, and actually relevant to the plot) have disappeared and have found a way out of the maze of tunnels. They follow them only to be blocked by a wall of rocks, and it’s now that Rey appears, obviously about to show off her force powers by lifting them out of the way. It’s a very good final deed for her character in this movie, because it’s something simple yet important, and also references Luke lifting rocks while training with Yoda, something he himself mentions earlier in the film when he says the Force is more than “just lifting rocks.”

Luke and Ben have a dramatic final battle, which ends with Ben dealing a killing blow to Luke, only to find that once again, he’s completely unphased. He presses his lightsaber against Luke’s chest only to find it goes straight through him, and Luke reveals he’s non-corporeal, as he’s been astral projecting himself this entire time. Interestingly, his astral projected form had a haircut and cool black battle robes. Presumably the lightsaber was real, though. A lot of people have been complaining about Luke astral projecting as it’s an ability that’s never before been shown in Star Wars. Well yeah, what’s that got to do with it? I mean, he’s the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy and he’s been living on the Jedi homeworld and reading their secret ancient texts, so it’s not surprising he would show off some new powers.

There is a beautiful moment where Luke shows that his hope is renewed, and that Ben is wrong to think that he’s finished the Jedi, as when Ben tells him that after he kills Luke the last Jedi will be dead, he tells Ben that he’s wrong, and he isn’t the last Jedi. I actually really like this because it implies that there is a last Jedi, but it’s not specificed who it is. We’ve seen the capacity for both Rey and Ben to be led to different sides of the Force, and that there aren’t really heroes and villains. This whole movie has the feel of reality, of bittersweet endings, of grey morality, of things not being so simple as there being a chosen one who fights off the forces of evil. It’s growth, and that’s something that Star Wars desperately needs. There’s also a nice reference to the battle between Obi-Wan and Vader (again, everything in this movie mirrors the previous films, with this fight being the equivalent of the battle between Vader and his older master, grown older and wiser over the years) where Luke tells Ben that “if you strike me down in anger, I’ll be with you forever, like your father,” as a callback to Obi-Wan’s line “strike me down now and I’ll become more powerful than you can ever imagine.”

Luke finally breaks off his astral projection and we see him flushed, exhausted, and completely spent. I don’t know if Mark Hammill really worked himself into exhaustion or if it’s just excellent makeup but he’s beat red and looks awful, it’s a very effective moment. Luke’s finale is a beautiful callback to his iconic sunset scene on Tatooine, with the same main theme playing as he looks out over the two setting suns of the Jedi homeworld, and meditates, floating into the air again, and leaving his physical body behind and dying to become one with the Force, in the same way Obi-Wan did when he died. At the same time, the remnants of the rebel alliance climb inside the Millenium Falcon and escape to safety, with Rey wondering how there can ever be hope for the Rebellion now.

The final scene is of a few slave kids seen earlier in the film, playing with dolls and talking about the adventures of Luke Skywalker. After being admonished by their owner, one of the boys walks outside and picks up a broom (is it me or did he Force-pull that broom to himself, just slightly), and looks up at the stars to see the Millenium Falcon jumping to hyperspace, giving the impression of a shooting star, and it’s revealed that earlier in the film, Rose gave her rebel alliance ring to him, and he stares at the sky with hope in his eyes. It’s a callback to Anakin’s time as a child slave, as well as a reminder about younger generations taking over as the older generation passes on, which is really what this whole film has been about.

So, I ended up expounding on the plot here a LOT more than I thought I would, but I’m glad I did. I was totally blown away by this movie, I daresay it may even have made a Star Wars fan out of me, for now at least. I was even tempted to go back and finish reading some of the earlier Star Wars expanded universe novels. But we’ll see how it all goes, I guess. Honestly I can’t recommend this movie enough, and if you’ve been brave enough to stick with me through both parts of this extremely lengthy essay, I thank you for it! I hope that if you’ve seen the movie you enjoyed it as much as I do.

On a personal note, part of my intentions in this new year are to do a lot more writing and posting to this blog as well as my Patreon where everything is cross-posted and earn my keep over there. If you like what I have to say and would like to hear more of it, feel free to come visit my Patreon page and lend your support.

May the Force be with us all in 2018.


I Tried To Read The 5th Wave And Failed

I just can’t with this book.

I first saw the Fifth Wave in the bookstore a few years ago when it was brand new, and it seemed pretty interesting. It has a very good premise. It’s a dystopian YA novel (strange how that’s not only a genre now, but an oversaturated and cliche genre. What a weird time to be alive) about a girl surviving on her own in the ruins of Earth after aliens show up and destroy the place.

The alien assault comes in the form of “waves.” The first wave is an EMP blast that disabled all electronic devices and cuts off communication. The second wave is a series of bombs dropped into fault lines that trigger tsunamis which wipe out all human life near coastlines. The third wave is a virus, transmitted by birds, that not only causes people to die a painful and bloody death, but also lose their mind to the point that one victim is shown to have been chained to her bed while she ripped her own fingernails out.

The book begins after the fourth wave has begun. It has a pretty strong opening chapter, and I was hooked very quickly. The narrator, Cassie, switches back and forth between recounting the events of her life before and the way humanity dealt with the attack from “the Others,” and her current mission to travel to a nearby airbase where she believes she might find her younger brother, trekking along desolate highway while being followed by a sniper.

At first, Cassie’s tendency to wax philosophical is charming. I mean, if you can’t contemplate the futility of existence in an apocalypse that somehow manages to combine an alien invasion, a superflu, a zombie virus,, a worldwide flood, a super bomb, and the mass murder of all survivors, you really can’t ever find a time to contemplate anything. But as time goes on, it feels like author Rick Yancey was more interested in using the lens of an uber apocalypse to discuss human society than actually telling a compelling story.

And things only get more ham-fisted from here. Every point is driven home without a hint of subtlety, and simple messages that shouldn’t be difficult to grasp are slammed in with a sledgehammer. The most egregious example of this is a moment that made me roll my eyes almost out of my head. I had to put the book down and Google to see other people’s reactions because I was so incredibly annoyed.

At one point, Cassie is reciting her experience in a camp of survivors. They’re all struggling to survive and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, unsure if anyone is ever going to come and help them. Cassie herself makes a brief reference to religion before this scene, simply saying that when it comes to God, she feels like there’s some kind of a broken promise there. But leaving it at that would be subtle and understated, two things that this book is not. We’re briefly introduced to two characters surviving in the refugee camp: a religious fanatic nicknamed Mother Theresa by the others, and “the sole atheist in our camp, some college professor named Dawkins.”

Yeah, that’s a LITTLE on the nose, Rick Yancey. Let me talk about WHY I hate this so much. The point Yancey is trying (read: failing) to make here is that all fundamentalism is bad, both religious fundamentalism and… non-religious fundamentalism? I mean there’s a problem with trying to explain how someone could be a fundamentalist ahtiest when atheism is simply the rejection of a religious claim, but I get what he’s trying to say here. He’s saying that we should be level-headed in our approach to life, and not get lost moving too far to one side or the other to keep a clear view of the situation.

But this is an actual apocalypse story. The other survivors jeer at the atheist, telling him he’s going to hell, to which he reasonably responds, “How would I know the difference?”

What bothers me so much about this is not just that Yancey went with the most obvious and on-the-nose name choice possible for an atheist character by naming him after Richard Dawkins, though that annoys me too. And I won’t dwell on it for much longer, but I have now found two different interviews in which someone asked him about naming his character Dawkins, and in both of those interviews he chuckled and said “You caught that, did you?” Yeah, Rick. We ALL CAUGHT IT. It was not subtle, or clever, it was ham-fisted and graceless. Anyhow, that’s not what bothers me so much. What bothers me is the idea that in a world where all of the conceivable apocalypses have happened one on top of another, that an atheist would STILL be regarded with disgust. I mean, if you need any more proof that there is no God looking out for you, trying looking around at the nightmarish dystopian hellscape you live in. I get that people would probably turn to their faith for comfort, but like Cassie mentioned earlier in the book before this scene, it’s clear that if there was some sort of promise from God to keep people safe, he didn’t live up to it, and may as well not exist anyway. The idea that this ONE character is the SOLE atheist is ridiculous, particularly when Cassie more or less admitted to being an atheist only a few pages ago.

I did manage to get a bit of revenge when, later on when groups of soldiers arrive to take all young children away to safe houses, Mother Theresa demands that she be allowed to leave too, because “women and children should be taken first, that’s just how things are done,” seeming to go out of her way to throw everyone else under the bus. I might have enjoyed this jab at religiosity more if it hadn’t been countered by an incredibly flawed atheist strawman. Not that his Mother Theresa character wasn’t a straw man too, but at the very least, anyone could sympathize with the atheist character.

At any rate, just when I began to feel really interested in what was happening to Cassie, the story switches perspectives rather abruptly to another character called Zombie, previously Cassie’s high school crush, and his experiences becoming infected with the plague virus, and subsequent recovery. He’s hooked into a computer program called Wonderland that “maps” his experiences, basically downloading his entire personality, memories, feelings and thoughts into a computer, and then he’s sent to boot camp to train in becoming a soldier. Calling the computer program Wonderland is one of several cringe-worthy literary references that might have been clever if they weren’t so cliche. It reminds me of the villain in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being named Valentine, or the way the Looking Glass Wars tried to turn the Mad Hatter and Chershire Cat into anime-style martial arts badasses. It just feels so… silly. There’s kind of a trend in this series of giving silly names like Wonderland, Zombie, Nugget, Razor, Poundcake, and Dumbo. Sometimes they feel like they’re supposed to be references to other works, sometimes they just feel like unfortunate nicknames.

The story switches back to Cassie and manages to get very interesting for a few chapters, because the sniper who had been following her is an alien. Up to this point, no one has seen the aliens, but it is known that there are aliens masquerading as humans and killing people, which is called the Fourth Wave. The Fifth Wave, by the way, is never explained or even mentioned in this book, and won’t be addressed until the final book in the trilogy, but I digress. So the aliens have basically attached themselves to people’s brains and possessed their human hosts, but they aren’t a conciousness which replaces the old one (a la Stephanie Meyer’s the Host), they are still the same person they always were, only they’ve been “awakened” to who they truly are. The alien, Evan, is having trouble deciding on what to do because during the time he was hunting and stalking Cassie, he became attracted to her and began to become obsessed with her, unable to bring himself to kill her, instead nursing her back to health.

Evan is a pretty interesting character. He’s conflicted and you can see that his humanity is ultimately overpowering the alien part of himself. It does however worry me that since he is set up as Cassie’s romantic interest, this book continues the disturbing trend in YA fiction of having a female protagonist fall in love with an abusive or obsessive male partner who gives off some distinctly rape-y vibes. Still, because I’m me, I was just happy to finally have a cute boy involved in the story who I could be vicariously attracted to, because what is young adult fiction without sexual tension?

This, unfortunately, is when the book grinds to a complete halt. Evan and Cassie end up sharing a kiss and he climbs in bed with her, at which point the camera fades to black and we switch to Cassie’s younger brother, a terrified seven year old named Sam, who is brought into the safe houses after being separated from a girl he meets on the bus, and the narrative returns to Zombie, who is now in boot camp. And the book goes Full Metal Jacket on us. And you know, I really tried with this part. Firstly, I find military stories entirely boring, particularly when they involve boot camp, because I tend to view boot camp as a very strange form of physical and mental torture that we as a society have sanctioned as perfectly alright, and this book continues to espouse the supposed virtue of emotionally and mentally destroying a person through weeks and months of torture before “molding them” into a soldier, which even in real life seems to have little effect but destroying a person’s natural empathy and replacing their personality with that of a cold and ruthless machine designed to serve it’s masters, sacrificing any humanity.

But again, I digress.

I have difficulty with boot camp stories because of the above mentioned reasons, but also because it’s really not what this book has been about up to this point. And exactly halfway through the book is a very strange time to take on such a drastic change in tone. I mean, yeah, it’s still the same hopeless dystopia as the first half, but at a certain point the utter hopelessness of the story becomes unbearable. I mean, there IS no victory for these characters. At this point, most of humanity is dead. Even if they somehow defeated the aliens, there’s nothing that can be done, humanity will not survive beyond this point, any attempt to survive is pointless. And Yancey has said that the point of this story is not about victory but about endurance, but still, how compelling is a story of endurance? I mean, at the end of Gary Paulson’s book Hatchet, the main character does eventually get to go back to society. His endurance pays off. Where is the pay off here?

The thing that really pushed me over the line is that the book goes into gruesome detail describing the fate of the people who died, particularly through the lens of Casssie’s younger brother. Not only does the narrative go through the horrific details of his mother’s death and the way he lost everything he ever loved, but it does so while retaining his point of view, so that characters are still called “mommy” and “daddy” and we can see his innocence shattering. It all becomes so incredibly depressing that it’s almost too difficult to bear. This whole book is just steeped in hopelessness, and that’s the problem with it. Once you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, things can only get worse. There is never going to be any payoff for these characters.

The little boy is thrown into boot camp, a ludicrous idea even for a dystopian novel, and the drill sergeant taunts him about the death of his mother, which is probably more monstrous and unforgivable than anything that’s happened up to this point. Now granted, this drill sergeant is an antagonist, but the scene is framed in such a way that it suggests boot camp is a GOOD thing, so what is the message being sent here? I don’t know, but honestly this is the point where the book became too much for me and I had to put it down. I skimmed summaries for the rest of the book and then the rest of the series to sate my curiosity about what happened next, and I’m going to talk about it now, so consider yourself spoiler warned.

This boot camp section carries on for a while, and the narrative doesn’t return to Cassie for a long time, which as I said, grinds the story to a halt, because even though Zombie has been introduced, the central story was still mostly about Cassie. Halfway through the book is a bad time to give this novel a deuteragonist. We’d already followed Cassie, Evan and Sam, and Zombie’s section had been brief enough that it didn’t detract from the overall narrative. Frankly, I just don’t have the patience for this kind of storytelling. I know it may be important to switch focus, but I had to keep willing myself to read on beforehand, through all the gloomy atmosphere, because the story was essentially pretty good and was rolling along. I don’t have it in me to put with a boot camp section, not now. The military aspects of the book seem to be glorifying the military and even though that’s another discussion for another time, it was just too harsh of a tonal shift for me.

So, I was genuinely curious about what the hell the Fifth Wave actually was, and apparently it isn’t even explained until the third and final book in the trilogy. The big secret is that the aliens were never on earth, they were always acting remotely, and the mothership doesn’t actually house the aliens so much as it houses their equipment and their weapons. They controlled people by mapping themselves through Wonderland and then uploading themselves into people’s brains. This is meant to pull the rug out from under you, but Yancey actually did a very weird thing in the way he told the story in the first novel. You see, we learn from Cassie that the military are actually alien-controlled humans, but we switch to Zombie and Sam being cared for by the military and being given explanations about what the aliens are, even though we as readers KNOW they are the aliens. But, the information they’re giving the protagonists seem to be true, so it’s kind of a triple-bluff. I wish that the author had picked a better method of explaining the central story than several info-dumps from the point of view of side-characters, given by unreliable characters. Worse, the villains mostly seem to be pretty good people, except for the two military drill instructor types.

The general theme for this book seems to be that we as the reader are shown something, and then the characters are put into a situation where we know what’s happening and they don’t. That’s a good storytelling method in and of itself, but unfortunately, things get wonky from there. Right when I as a reader think I know what’s going on, the “bad guys” are acting good, and we’re left to wonder who exactly is the villain here. And this isn’t done in an interesting, morally ambiguous way, like a political tale in which every player has their own ends and the lines between good and evil become blurred, it’s just clunky and indistinct, leaving me as a reader not sure if the antagonists are lying or telling the truth, and not sure if the narrative itself is lying to me or telling the truth. There are lies hidden within truths hidden within lies, but it’s spun in a very ineffective way, and just left me scratching my head and unwilling to keep slogging on once the focus of the book shifted halfway through.

In case you’re curious, the ultimate ending of the series apparently keeps piling cliche upon cliche, because the sole fault in the Wonderland program is that the aliens didn’t anticipate that LOVE would become involved, and basically, love can break the spell that the program has on people, as it did with Evan and his (creepy?) romantic obsession with Cassie. Yes, that’s right, it’s the old “love trumps everything” trope, but wait, it gets better.

The reason that the aliens sent their ship there was to destroy human civilization, because humans were destroying the environment and wiping out other species, and apparently the Others go from planet to planet, wiping out civilizations that pose too much of a threat to their environments in order to keep life going. But if that’s the case, what about the Others themselves? If they have this kind of sophisticated technology, then surely they must have developed and incredibly advanced civilization that DIDN’T harm the life around themselves, in which case they could use their technology to travel to planets and help other races to take care of their home worlds, share their own technology with them, or hell, even take over the planet and become benevolent dictators. It seems like the Others went through a HELL of a lot of trouble to wipe out the majority of the human race when inevitably another race will eventually evolve to take it’s place and create it’s own civilization. And from what I can tell from plot summaries of the rest of the series, the real origins of the Others are never explained and they’re never even communicated with directly. What a let down.

The Fifth Wave, by the way, is a series of child soldiers trained by the aliens, who go and destroy what’s left of humanity, by tricking them into thinking they’re killing alien-infested people. Even though the people training them to do this are actually alien-infested, but actually not because of the whole Wonderland thing and ugh, my head hurts.

Even worse, the ultimate end for Cassie is that she downloads the memories and personalities of thousands of long-dead humans into her own mind, basically becoming Super Cassie and going on an army-of-one rampage against the antagonists, ultimately beaming herself onto the mothership with a bomb in hand, blowing herself up and destroying the mothership in the process. I don’t know if this actually defeats the Others, because clearly if they’ve done this with other planets before, they must have more ships. Did this really accomplish anything? So we have a combination of the “love conquers all” trope, the “humans will destroy the planet” trope, and the “sacrifice yourself to save Earth” trope. It’s kind of sad to me that a story with such lofty goals ends with such cliche set pieces.

And then finally, the epilogue of the series involves Zombie and Sam wandering through the ruins of the old world, basically just continuing to survive, and having some philosophical discussion about what a realm is. And that’s it. Like I said, there is no victory. No matter how long Zombie, Sam, and the other survivors make it, no matter how many generations of their children survive, humanity is still dead, all of human history is still destroyed, all of the art and music and literature and memories of past generations is gone. And the world isn’t rebooted in an Eden awash with possibilities, it’s on a planet in which much of the life has been destroyed and what land remains is littered with waste. The end.

How incredibly unsatisfying.

And that’s the Fifth Wave. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t. It set out with some lofty ambition, but ultimately feels pretty pointless. The point of a dystopian story is to try and overcome the dystopia, to begin rebuilding, to create a new and better world, but this? This is just sad, and hopeless from the very beginning. Pain stacked upon pain, often in horrifically morose detail. It’s strange to me that in the world of YA fiction, you can’t directly talk about penises or breasts and you can’t do any more than imply that sex happens, but you can spend chapters describing blood leaking from the eyes of children and infants dying in their cradles and bands of marauders murdering (and raping?) children. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in general that we are so much more comfortable describing horrific violence in gory detail than talking frankly about something as natural and harmless as consensual sex. Not that that’s Rick Yancey’s fault, it’s just an observation, and it’s certainly not a new one.

And now, I can finally go read Mercedes Lackey.

Why I Like Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. And when I say black sheep, I mean that the majority of people, both casual fans and hardcore followers of the series alike, really hate it. And I mean they REALLY hate it.

Final Fantasy XIII is a departure in so many ways from the history of the series. There are times when the fact that it’s a Final Fantasy game is indiscernible. It was directed by a series newcomer, Motomu Toriyama, instead of series favorites Hironobu Sakaguchi and character designer Testuya Nomura. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created nearly all of the music for the first eleven Final Fantasy installments, was no longer working with Final Fantasy at the time, and the music was handled by Uematsu collaborator Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously helped with some of the music on Final Fantasy X (his work is usually characterized by stacatto piano and violins, atop lush string arrangements, as opposed to Uematsu whose work feels a bit more like pop rock music in orchestral form). The story took on similar themes as previous installments: a group of ordinary characters fighting extraordinarily powerful forces they shouldn’t by any right be able to handle, characters who harness magic and summon powerful creatures, and as always, the ever present religious allegory and the final battle against god (no really, the final battle in most, if not all Final Fantasy games, is against either the god of that universe, a symbolic god, a literal god, or a character who has become a god or seeks to do so).

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it before release: fans were excited about the new protagonist, Lightning, who was shown off in an E3 concept trailer that showed an early version of the battle system in which battle was entirely active, though still featured menus and magic commands like previous games. Initially, the story was going to be focused on Vanille, but after the positive response to Lightning, the developers switched focus to her. I think that was a good choice because Lightning is a fantastic character. I do often find myself a little aggravated when she is referred to as “the female Cloud Strife.” Despite the opening scenario bearing a lot of similarity to Cloud and Barret’s battle agaisnt the Guard Scorpion, and the fact that she’s an ex-soldier with a moody personality, I don’t actually see much resemblance between the two. Cloud was, in general, a pretty positive character, who actually had a lot of compassion for people’s problems, despite constantly shrugging his shoulders and flipping his hair. Lightning is steely-faced and determined, not at all emotionless but refusing to give in to her fear. Cloud stopped every few minutes to fall to his knees and spazz out with his hands shaking to hold his head still, whereas Lightning almost never loses her drive to push forward.

At any rate, fans liked Lightning and the developers went with it.

The story was written by director Motomu Toriyama, and suppoedly he’s notorious for creating plots that make very little sense. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and bogged down in it’s own terminology that even a dedicated fan who’s played the game several times finds they didn’t really have any clue what was happening on the first play through. Characters communicate with one another, but they seem to always be side-stepping what they’re actually talking about, and no one really gives any clear idea of what’s happening, aside from constantly repeating a few choice phrases (those phrases being, “We’re Pulse l’Cie, enemies of Cocoon,” “If we don’t fulfill our Focus, we’ll become C’ieth,” “Pulse is hell on earth,” “We’re puppets of the fal’Cie,” and “Serah wanted us to save Cocoon”).

Backstory is provided in sporadic chunks that don’t seem to form any clear narrative, and the premise of the final boss fight makes little sense at all. Basically, the villain WANTS the main characters to kill him, because if he dies, Cocoon will be destroyed and he will win. So their response is… to try and kill him. The party shouts about how they refuse to do what he asks, all while doing what he asks. Even weirder is that he fights BACK. His goal is to be killed, yet he attempts to defend himself. It’s a very strange thing. Lightning gives a speech about how they refuse to be bound by their fate, how they refuse to be puppets and do what they’re told, but then she does exactly what they’re told and kills the fal’Cie, with seemingly no idea of how to handle the consequences of what to do when Cocoon falls out of the sky.

The ending also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Throughout the story it’s explained that l’Cie who fulfill their focus become crystal for eternity, unless they’re awakened from crystal stasis by a fal’Cie who gives them a new focus. At the end of the game they fulfill their focus, which was to become Ragnorok and knock Cocoon out of the sky (despite the fact that they did save it), and they turn to crystal because… they did what they were told? Even weirder, it’s never explained how someone can be saved from crystal stasis unless called upon by a fal’Cie, but in the end the entire party turns to crystal and then, with the exception of the characters who held up Cocoon, they’re released fromc crystal with their brands gone, and receive no explanation. This will be half-heartedly explained in the sequels, but Final Fantasy XIII is a self-contained story, and doesn’t mention how this could be possible.

Then there’s Fabula Nova Crystalis.

You see, Final Fantasy XII takes place in a sub-series within the Final Fantasy series called Fabula Nova Crystalis. This is kind of like the Ivalice Alliance from earlier in the series, except that Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t created with the intention of making a sub-series. Basically, Fabula Nova Crystalis games share the same lore about the creation of their universe, but… not much else. They contain similar themes, they contain fal’Cie, but apart from that they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The gods serve different functions in different games within the subseries. For instance, the goddess Etro has a different function in Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (we’ll come back to that in a moment). They don’t all actually happen in the same universe, they happen in different VERSIONS of the same universe. So Final Fantasy XIII and it’s direct sequels are a sub-series (The Lightning Saga) within another sub-series (Fabula Nova Crystalis), within a larger series (Final Fantasy).

Even as a dedicated fan of the series, I’ll admit it’s all very contrived and pretentious.

Then of course, we have Tetsuya Nomura.

Nomura is the character designer for Final Fantasy. He works alongside Yoshitaka Amano who does almost all of the concept illustrations (you might recognize his style from the Final Fantasy logo illustrations, the art of Vampire Hunter D, or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on a Sandman spinoff). Amano’s style is very unique, his characters tend to have angular pale faces with dark-colored lips and flowing garments that look like watercolor even when they’re pencil sketches. Nomura’s style is a bit more reminiscent of anime. His style has actually become something of an RPG trope.

Crisis Core

It’s become pretty common that if there’s an RPG, the main character will have some or all of the following characteristics: a tall, thin but slightly muscular male, with spikey or otherwise outrageous hair, usually blonde. His facial features will be somewhat androgynous, and regardless of his age he’ll look like he’s seventeen. He’ll probably be wearing a constant scowl and gazing longingly into the horizon, or moping in the rain. He’ll be carrying some kind of enormous weapon like a sword that looks like it’s a chunk of metal ripped from the side of a skyscraper, or something eqaully obstuse like a techno-sword or transforming gun. He’ll be wearing outlandish clothes, usually covered in belts that don’t serve much purpose, accesorized so much that you wonder how he can walk around without jangling like a set of house keys, he’ll probably have a pauldron on his left shoulder and the left side of his outfit will be far more decorated than the right side. He’ll also be wearing either combat boots or large sneakers, and if he’s done in the style of animated character, he’ll probably have giant hands and feet and a thin, lanky body.

Oh and also sometimes angel wings. Don’t ask me why.

If you recognize this archetype, you have Tetsuya Nomura to thank. I don’t mean to imply that he created Bishounen or the style of Doujinshi characters, but his influence on the video game world is pretty undeniable. Nomura was involved in the development of Final Fantasy XIII but only as far as character design, after that he stepped away and didn’t want to have anything else to do with it. In fact, he was so opposed to the game, that he started working on his own game, which he titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, because it was created in direct opposition to Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a bad name, but it stuck, and for years, fans had only scraps of information and a few brief concept trailers relating to the game. No one really knew what it was like, who these characters were, what kind of game it would be. Information was so slim that after nearly a decade, fans began to wonder if it hadn’t been cancelled altogether. Then it was announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and fans collectively lost their shit with excitement, especially those who felt put upon by the radical departure of Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just different in it’s scenario design, it played unlike any in the series so far. One of the big complaints fans had for Final Fantasy X was it’s linearity, the fact that players mostly walked a (very pretty) straight line from end of the game to the other, and that any time the world opened up, it was really only the illusion of space. When an ariship was provided for exploration, it only allowed players to warp to previous locations in the game, since there hadn’t been an overworld since Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy XII attempted to remedy this problem by opening the game up so much that traversing the world map meant slogging through several screens of wide open land. Both of these approaches worked in some ways and failed in others. In Final Fantasy X, the focus remained on the story, while traveling the straight path allowed some time for random battles and character customization. The wide open areas of Final Fantasy XII meant a larger opportunity to grind for experience, money and items, but a longer wait for the next story segment.

Final Fantasy XIII decided to adapt the Final Fantasy X strategy and keep things linear. Very linear.

Very, VERY linear.

No really, the number one complaint about this game is that it’s virtually on rails. And the people who made that complaint are absolutely correct. It really is. The areas are breathtakingly beautiful, but most of the time the paths you travel are tight hallways or catwalks, overlooking a gorgeous landscape that you can’t explore. Many of the paths serve only as set pieces to highlight the beautiful surroundings, which you cannot experience up close. Rather than random battles, enemies prowl around in real time, but approaching them moves the game to a battle screen. This method has been used in plenty of RPG’s before and it works, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide whether they prefer slogging through endless random battles or choosing which battles to partake in. I admit that if the developers had chosen to use random battles, the linear pathways would probably have been unbearable for me, and the huge surroundings would be barren and lifeless.


Battles themselves turn the RPG formula on it’s head. You still have the option of choosing commands from a menu, but it’s really only the illusion of choice. Most of the time you’ll be using an “auto-battle” function. Now, I know it seems ridiculous to even include an “auto-battle” option, but there is a reason for it. Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are not actually about choosing which individual abilities to use on which character, they’re actually about choosing which CHARACTERS are performing which KINDS of actions. Characters are given six roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. What these ultimately equate to are: Tank, Offensive Mage, Healer, Debuff Mage, Protective Mage, and Damage Magnet. Different characters have different combinations of access to these roles, so constantly changing your style to fit the situation is a necessity. You then focus all your effort on one enemy at a time, attacking them and building up a Chain Gauge, which when filled entirely, will send the enemy into an incredibly weak “staggered” status, which allows your characters to do double, triple or more damage, launch foes into the air, hit them with debuffs they were previously resistant to, or in the case of some behemoth superbosses, knock them on their side so you can pound away at them or heal yourself.

Different roles have different staggering capabilities. Commandos basically don’t affect that chain gauge at all, and during my first play through of the game I somehow managed to completely miss this, often throwing three tanks at a single enemy and wondering why they just weren’t doing enough damage. Ravagers are the best at building chain gauges, but if you attack with only ravagers, the gauge will rapidly drop down to zero, so you need a Commando or a debuffing Saboteur to stabilize it so that it drops much slower. The entire battle system is built around monitoring your opponents chain gauge, buffing yourself and debuffing them, and keeping yourself healed while you wait for them to hit their stagger point and then go in for the kill.

Healing items basically don’t exist. You are given two healing items the entire game, a simple Potion, and an incredibly rare full-healing Elixir (there are something like five obtainable Elixirs in the entire game). The Potion is obsolete even by the third chapter or so, it only heals a set number of HP, and there are never any upgraded Potions available at any point during the game. It’s like they’re only there to taunt you. You absolutely HAVE to have a Medic in your party, healing you almost constantly, or you will go down quickly. This makes party customization (when it becomes available extremely late in the game) very difficult, because there are only two apt Medics in the entire game, Hope and Vanille, and they happen to be the characters with the lowest HP, particularly Hope, you will have to spend a good amount of your time either healing or bringing back to life with Phoenix Downs (luckily those are still pretty useful, if expensive).

Even though each character has a unique set of three roles available to them (ability to unlock other roles becomes accessible later, but the amount of experience required makes it nearly impossible, and even still, not all characters can excel in every role), there are essentially three presets: tank, mage, and all-rounder, and you are given two of each. In order to succeed, you basically need to have one of each kind in your party if you want to win. For example, the two all-rounders are Lightning and Sazh, the two mages/healers are Hope and Vanille, and the two tanks are Fang and Snow. This means that it’s almost impossible to have a successful party setup WITHOUT Hope or Vanille, and attempting to use both Sazh and Fang at the same time means you have to subtract Lightning, or if you want multiple tanks in your party your other character can’t be an all-rounder, they need to be a healer. This isn’t about Paradigm roles, it’s the way the characters are designed.

I personally like characters to have limited designs (for example: Vivi is the only black mage in Final Fantasy IX, and cannot be turned into a tank no matter how hard you try, whereas Zidane is a physical attacker and can’t learn magic whatsoever), it’s definitely preferable to the blank slates of Final Fantasy VII, where each character is an interchangeable carbon copy of one another and the ability to overpower characters with Materia makes the characters themselves inherently pointless with no noticeable stat differences. However, the battles are set up in such a way that you simply CANNOT survive without having an adept healer, so Lightning isn’t good enough, and if you unlock the Paradigm roles for them, neither are Sazh, Fang or Snow. Only Vanille and Hope can be counted on to reliably heal the party, so this means you HAVE to use one of the two of them at all times. I don’t mind these characters, in fact Vanille is one of my favorites, but you can see how this becomes limiting quickly. This preset character type also means that the only way to viably use Sazh in your party is to replace Lightning, in which case you have an all-rounder that can’t heal, or replace your tank, in which case you have to repurpose your all-rounder in a tank.


Characters level up through “CP,” or Crystogen Points, which you use to increase their stats and abilities in the Crystarium, which is more less a very limited version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. The Crystarium actually caps at a certain point in each of the game’s thirteen chapters, and you don’t actually unlock the entirety of the Crystarium until after the game is completed. Grinding for crystogen points can be incredibly monotonous, particularly if you don’t have the Growth Egg accessory which doubles CP and is very difficult to acquire when it becomes first available. Though each character is eventually granted access to every role in the Crystarium, each Crystarium is different for each character, and no matter how much you grind, certain characters will never be able to excel at certain roles or obtain certain abilities. For instance, the healing ability Curaja is available to only two characters in the game, the dedicated healers Hope and Vanille. So, no matter how hard you try to make Sazh a capable healer, he will never have access to that spell, basically making your efforts to turn him into your parties dedicated healer useless unless your incredibly overpowered. Lightning and Hope both have unique versions of the Sentinel role which allow them to sidestep enemy attacks rather than take them with the damage mitigated, but you don’t really get the chance to use Lightning in this role until after the game’s completed and you’ve already got plenty of other capable Sentinels, and Hope manages to be a damage magnet with the lowest HP in the game even when he isn’t a Sentinel, so making him one would require incredibly careful repurposing of your other party members.

Because of how limited the characters are, it’s incredibly difficult to choose a weapon. The weapon in system in Final Fantasy XIII is probably my favorite aspect of customization, despite how flawed it is. No weapon in the game is truly bad, they’re all just suited to different purposes, and each one has a catch. If the weapon has incredibly high strength growth, it’s probably at the expense of magic growth, and if it excels in both, it will probably come with the Stagger Lock property which prevents that specific character from being able to stagger enemies. Some weapons have great secondary bonus effects like improved healing or extension of buffs/debuffs/stagger time, but this usually comes at a cost of hugely cutting the weapons stats, to the point that you can’t rely on that weapon to increase your stats at all and you have to use accessories, of which you have a limited amount of slots.

Because you can’t really tell what the stat growth for each weapon is like upon receiving them, you’re basically forced to use a guide to tell which weapon will have the stats you need for the role you’re intending to use that character in, and if you make a wrong choice you can waste a LOT of resources leveling up a weapon that doesn’t suit your purposes, with no way to get back all that money you spent on it. And money is an incredibly limited resource in Final Fantasy XIII. LITERALLY the only way to get money is to sell items that you find in the field, usually weapons you aren’t using. This is frustrating if you’re attempting to get the Treasure Hunter achievement/trophy, which requires you to possess every single item in the game, and it’s upgraded form, at one time or another. Either you sell the equipment now and buy it back later to upgrade it for the achievement, or you give up on the achievement altogether. Ultimately it’s an achievement not truly worth breaking your back over, you don’t get any other in-game reward apart from the achievement itself, but for die-hards who want to unlock everything, it’s very frustrating.

So, put all of this together and you can see where the criticism comes from. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with a contrived plot, which takes place over several linear chapters where you travel on rails from point A to point B, fighting battles in which you’re forced to keep everyone in their boxes without much chance for customization, given incredibly little money or resources to upgrade your equipment or buy new items, a character growth system which provides only the illusion of customization (every character will cap out with the exact same stats every time you play the game) and level caps for each chapter, and a system in which truly excelling at battles isn’t permitted until after the game has been completed.

So… why do I like it so much?


It’s hard to tell. I once had a friend who accused me of being in an abusive relationship with Lightning, that I had convinced myself the game was fun and stayed with it even though it was doing absolutely nothing for me. And I’ve actually wondered that a few times too. I see the games flaws, I’m not ignorant of them. I’ve sunk SO many hours into this game, replaying from the beginning many times, that I recognize these problems probably more than casual gamers who gave up on Final Fantasy XIII (and I have met a lot of people who said they gave up and never finished the game).

But there’s something very charming about it. The story is mostly nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense, and there are some worthwhile concepts being explored, even in Final Fantasy XIII’s obtuse way. The characters are fun, Lightning herself is an awesome heroin, Fang and Vanille provide the first example of an LGBT relationship in the Final Fantasy series, even if it’s entirely subtext. Snow annoys the hell out of me, but at least I get to see Lightning punch him and Hope call him out on being such a chummy douchebag. Sazh is one of the most well-rounded characters in Final Fantasy, humorous and emotional at once, with perhaps the most believable motivations in the game. The flashbacks are odious, and the game drags at several points, but there’s something about Final Fantasy XIII that makes me want to put in some headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook while I while away forty hours trying new things that I didn’t before. I’ve replayed the game many times, and I’ve been impressed by the versatility of the characters if you know what you’re doing and put it to good use. It’s possible to make Lightning a better tank than Fang, to have Sazh excel in either damage dealing or magic (he happens to have the best weapon/ability combination for building chain gauges in the game), to use Snow… at all.

No really, I would estimate that I’ve probably put a combined… three hundred to four hundred hours of my life into this game, and I only recently on this very last playthrough ever used Snow at all, for anything. Previously I had only used him as my human shield while Death-spamming the Ochu that gives you the Growth Egg. Fun fact about that, by the way: it usually takes me hours to get Death to work on it, this past attempt it worked on my FIRST try. Sorry, I just needed to share that.

Final Fantasy XIII, for all it’s limiting narrow linearity, actually has a fair amount of versatility. If you go into it wanting it to be Final Fantasy X, you’re going to be disappointing. But if you accept it for what it is: a deeply flawed but still fun game, with stunning visuals, a mostly excellent score (even if it is repetitive), and an immersive world, even a silly immersive world, then you can have fun with it. After my first time conquering the game, I thought maybe I’d be done with it, but found that I had much more fun in the post-game than I did during the story. The world DOES eventually open up, even if it opens up to the Archylte Steppe, a huge (gorgeous) sandbox filled with wolves and Adamantoise, and several hours worth of monster hunts.

Final Fantasy XIII will never be the open-ended, super customization adventure that most RPG’s attempt to be. But it wasn’t actually trying to be. It was trying to create a method of playing so streamlined that it felt like an interactive movie, where battles happen in the illusion of real time, the characters traversing narrow catwalks are actually experiencing this real journey on foot, and the story takes precedence over everything. It is riddled with flaws, and I wish that there could be a re-release of the game that just fixed a few choice issues: lack of customization in the Crystarium, lack of money, and better access to weapon customization materials. It isn’t the linearity that bothers me as a player, it’s the lack of ability to make each playthrough different from the last. It’s possible, but the differences are subtle.

I genuinely don’t know why I learned to love this game, but I did. I see it’s flaws, and I enjoy it anyway. It is not as immediately fun to pick up as past Final Fantasies, but for some reason, when I want to binge on an RPG and mindlessly level up a character for hours while I’m listening to audiobooks, I tend to choose Final Fantasy XII.

This post was initially meant as an overview of why I like the entire Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but it accidentally turned into a review of the game, which is fine because I attempted to review it once and made a huge mess. So, maybe sometime I’ll come back for “Why I Kind of Like Final Fantasy XIII-2” or “Why I Mostly Like Lightning Returns.”



An Examination of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Inclusiveness in Art

I recently rejoined the Facebook group Gay Geeks, and it took little to no time at all to remember why I left it in the first place.

As with most gatherings on social media, people are anxious to get into an argument and test out their debating skills (or lack thereof). The internet is all too full of places like this, and while I think it’s probably ultimately a good thing that such vigorous infighting goes on, I personally hate confrontation, and so I tend to steer away from these things whenever possible.

I am not without my share of controversial opinions, which I am happy to exclaim loudly from the rooftops. I just don’t like argument. I genuinely want to have my opinion and share it, and I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks of it. When people agree with me, I feel supported and glad that I shared, and when they disagree I tend to take it personally, so I’ve learned that it’s best just to share my opinions in a space that is primarily my own (like this blog), or to share my opinions among friends who will still be respectful even if they disagree. I don’t know if this makes me a crybaby, but honestly I don’t care, I will communicate however I want to communicate.


But I did decide to chip in on some interesting topics that I ran into today, and two separate discussions that I feel are directly related. The first has to do with the recent “eighth” Harry Potter story, the script to the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I actually hadn’t bothered reading it until recently, and even then I couldn’t finish it. But more on that in a moment.

I think it’s great that there’s a Harry Potter play, and I also think it’s great that they published the script. I don’t particularly approve of their marketing campaign, which was to literally tout is “the eighth installment” in the Harry Potter series. It wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling, and even though supposedly she came up with the concept for the story, I somehow have a difficult time believing that because of the way it reads. Before I get too deep into what I don’t like about it, I will say these things on behalf of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child:

For one thing, the book we’ve received is a script. It is one component of a larger production, and it is incomplete without the actors reading it on stage. That being said, some of the greatest writers in history have expressed themselves entirely through script-writing (Shakespeare comes to mind), so that doesn’t really give Cursed Child too much of a leg to stand on when it comes to forgiving it’s many, many flaws, from a writing perspective. However, I will concede that maybe this is just the kind of script that doesn’t look good on it’s own, maybe it truly is best represented through actors.

The second thing I want to plug here is that Imogen Heap composed the music for the play, and so there is at least one aspect that I can automatically appreciate. I haven’t heard the music, but Imogen Heap is one of my personal inspirations and favorite musicians, so I’m just going to give her the benefit the doubt and assume her score is brilliant. Because it probably is.

That being said, let’s get into it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play, set in the future of the Harry Potter world, beginning at exactly the same moment when the epilogue from the final book takes place. The story follows several protagonists, but mainly centers around Harry Potter’s son Albus, and his budding romance friendship with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius. This premise alone is a great way to begin.

Then Time Turners get involved and it quickly devolves into badly written fanfiction published with Rowling’s name on the front (though it should be made perfectly clear that Rowling did NOT write this script, she is credited as having created the concept and nothing more, and exactly what that means is vague enough and we can probably exonerate her from any literary wrongdoing).

Time Turners are an element of the Harry Potter series that have frequently been seized upon as a weakness in the story (akin to the classic “why didn’t they just ride the eagles to Mordor?” criticism of Lord of the Rings), and for good reason. The ability to turn back time seems like something far too dangerous to allow into the hands of anyone but the most seasoned time-traveler, and yet their first introduction in the series is when they are used by Hermione in the Prisoner of Azkaban to make it to all of her classes on time, essentially allowing her to be in two places at one time. Even for a brilliant witch like Hermione, this seems like an incredibly extreme measure for the authorities at Hogwarts to take, and how Professor McGonogall managed to clear it with the Ministry of Magic is beyond me.

Rowling attempted to build some fail-safes into the Time Turner system: for one thing, Time Turners can only be used to travel back a few hours in time. I can’t remember if this is explicitly stated in the books, but whatever, Cursed Child throws it out the window anyway. It also throws away another very crucial aspect of time travel within the Harry Potter universe: Prisoner of Azkaban showed that time travel in the Harry Potter universe is of the closed-loop variety (or boot-strap paradox). This means that if someone is going to travel back in time, they’ve actually already done it. This is shown in Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry was saved from a flock (herd? pack? murder? let’s go with murder) of Dementors by a young man conjuring a stag Patronus who looked so eerily similar to Harry that he assumed it to be his father. He later realized, however, that it wasn’t his father, but himself from the future, having come back in time, rescuing himself in the past.

This creates a paradox, as almost all time travel does, but at least it gives the time travel in Harry Potter some kind of interior logic. To further prevent time travel from mucking up the entire story, Rowling wrote a scene in book five in which all of the Time Turners in the possession of the Ministry of Magic are destroyed. That should probably be where it ends, and well enough too. But that is not how it ends.

Cursed Child stacks one fanfiction cliche on top of another (and I should probably mention now that there are major spoilers ahead): the action begins when Amos Diggory, uncle of the late Cedric Diggory, comes to Harry, who is now the head of magical law enforcement (I won’t complain about this too much, it’s entirely possible Harry became a competent wizard as he grew older, despite, as Voldemort often pointed out, having no particularly strong affinity for magic by himself), and asks Harry to use a recently confiscated Time Turner to go back in time and save Cedric. This request is pretty silly entirely in premise, because anyone who has enough time to think about this request, as surely Amos has, would realize that there are two fundamental problems with it: first, going back to save Cedric could have grave implications toward the entire world, and could easily result in Harry never having triumphed over Voldemort, or if he did, it could mean that there was still a Battle of Hogwarts and Cedric could have died there. The second big problem is that it must be KNOWN within the Harry Potter universe that time travel is closed-loop, so if Harry were going to go back and try to save Cedric, then he’s already done it, and clearly failed.

But the writers of Cursed Child gave little thought to that, and decided to run with it anyway. The two main characters, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, along with a mysterious friend Delphi (whose origin is not so much left vague as never even questioned by any other character: why is she looking after Amos Diggory? Why is she on board with the time travel plan? Does anyone ask? No! Who cares?) do in fact get hold of a Time Turner and attempt to rectify the past and save Cedric. They choose to do this in the strangest way possible: they go back in time to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, and the main characters are so daft that despite actively setting out to travel back in time to that moment, they seem completely confused as to where they are how they got there. There’s even a scene when one of the boys runs into Hermione and confuses her for Hermione’s daughter. They KNOW they’re in the past, can they REALLY be this stupid?

They then decide that the most effective way to rescue Cedric from death at the hands of Voldemort is to DISARM him while he’s fighting a dragon. Their logic is that SURELY the school won’t allow a child to be killed during the tournament, something they should know is not the case, because firstly, it’s explicitly stated in Goblet of Fire that the tournament is dangerous and that’s why it hasn’t been held in so long, and secondly because a student DID die during that very tournament!

For some reason, things get all wibbly wobbly timey wimey and their time turner pulls them back to the present, and of course their actions have had far reaching consequences. Presumably Harry still triumphed over Voldemort, and for some reason Scorpius and Albus still exist, however Hermione’s daughter no longer exists because she and Ron never got together in the first place, and Ron has become a pudgy emasculated shell of himself, though he did manage to have another child (I can’t even remember with who, I think it was the girl he asked to the Yule ball?). Hermione is now the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, and boy has she changed, basically becoming a female version of Professor Snape, snapping at the students and treating them like shit.

Albus, the dolt that he is, gets all confused and stammers something to the effect of “But I don’t understand! You’re married to Hermione! Your daughter is Rose! What’s HAPPENING?” Because he apparently has no clue that he just altered history (which I remind you should not be possible due to the closed-loop time travel established in Prisoner of Azkaban). After this comes a scene in which Ron has a conversation with Hermione, where the two awkwardly flirt with one another, acknowledging the fact that yeah, they probably should have gotten together. I have a problem with this two for two reasons: one, because I don’t personally think that the Hermione and Ron relationship made that much sense to begin with it, but mostly it’s because of how TERRIBLY the scene is written. I’m going to show the EXACT moment when I said “fuck this shit” and put the book down.


This isn’t just Ron being a stammering goof. It’s bad writing. And it’s indicative of the writing of this whole play. It reads like it was written by a novice fanfiction writer with the approximate life experience of a thirteen year old. It just feels so inauthentic, and it feels like bad fanfiction that was published with the original author’s name splashed on the front. I’m beginning to understand why Anne Rice forbids anyone to publish Vampire Chronicles fanfiction.

And this is isn’t the only example of bad characterization in the play. There is an entire scene in which Harry and Draco have an elaborately choreographed duel, firing spells at one another, flying through the air, and flipping over furniture. It’s supposed to be an intense scene, the climax of an altercation between the two. But at the end of the scene, Ginny walks into the room, huffs and says “What did I miss?” You can almost hear the sitcom theme music start and the audience applaud as it cuts to commercial break. It’s so out of place and corny and unnecessary. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t even be funny in a parody (see: A Very Potter Musical, incidentally a MUCH better stage production than this, script and all).

The bad writing applies to more than just the characters and the situations, it also really affects the stage direction. As anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of a stage play knows, the words between characters dialogue are stage directions, they’re there to help the cast and crew know what’s going on in the world of the play, and to know what needs to change in the environment around them. The stage directions in this play are absolutely nothing more than the writer being self-indulgent, rhapsodizing about character details that need to be conveyed by the dialogue and the actors’ performances, NOT explained in the stage directions. Here’s an example of one that’s absolutely ludicrous, and the script is FILLED with pointless self-indulgent moments like this:

Stage Directions

I remind you that this is a PROFESSIONAL stage production in the West End, officially endorsed by Harry Potter’s creator. This level of unprofessional self-indulgence would be ridiculous in any script, but in something official and big name like this, it’s unforgivable.

The final straw came when I decided to pick the book back up after a few minutes, thinking I would just flip through and skim on to a good part. I happened to open up to the end of Act One, which I was not far from in my reading progress. Some series of events unfurls and Albus finds himself being pulled out of the lake beside Hogwarts and coming face to face with Hogwarts headmistress Dolores Umbridge, who informs him that today is “Voldemort Day.”

Voldemort Day.

I’m not making this up.

Here, take a look.

Voldemort Day

If the book had been mine and not borrowed from someone else I might have thrown it across the room. Do I even need to go into how ridiculous the entire concept of a “Voldemort Day” is? Even if Voledmort DID successfully take over the world and carry out a Muggle genocide, even if he did become dark lord over everyone on Earth, there is no way in hell he would sanction a holiday called VOLDEMORT DAY. For one, it’s far too on the nose for him (see what I did there?), and for another, he forbids anyone to speak his name! Any time someone DOES speak his name in the books when they’re in his presence, he becomes indignant and enraged.

I’m going to stop there as far as criticism goes, because I didn’t read any further. What I have come to understand through accidentally stumbling onto her article on the Harry Potter wiki is that one of the central characters of the story, Delphi, is in fact the illegitimate child of Voldemort and Bellatrix LeStrange, who is using Albus and Scorpius’ Time Turner plan to ressurect her father for whatever reason. This reeks of fanfiction, and not even the good kind.

Suffice it to say I was not impressed by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Cursed Child.PNG

On to my original point though, there was an argument about the book over on the Gay Geeks page when someone shared an article with the Headline: The Harry Potter universe still can’t translate it’s gay subtext to text. It’s a problem.”

Basically, the issue the writer of the article took was that despite the Harry Potter audience growing up with the Harry Potter universe, it hasn’t really grown up with them. Meaning that it’s still primarily white and heterosexual. J.K. Rowling famously declared Dumbledore to be gay after-the-fact, and even though reading the books again reveals that yeah, the setup between Dumbledore and Grindelwald probably was there, it was only there are subtext, and shoehorning in a homosexual orientation for Dumbledore after the fact doesn’t exactly make Harry Potter the all-inclusive pinnacle of gay acceptance. Still, it’s a step forward.

The problem that many people have with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that Albus and Scorpius seem, from the MOMENT they meet, to be on a romantic course with one another. Their exchanges are filled with flirty moments and clumsy awkwardness, their friendship grows as the two boys bond closer with one another, and when Harry makes the incredibly bad choice to separate the two for Albus’ protection, they respond exactly as two lovers who’ve been ripped apart by their parents might be expected to. Having never finished the script, I can only go on what I’ve heard from here on out, but apparently the script is filled with more romantic moments like these (during the section of the script I read, there’s even a moment when Albus hugs Delphi and the stage directions point out that Scorpius is happy to see him hugging a girl, and yet it makes him uncomfortable at the same time). Apparently Albus needs to summon a Patronus charm during the story and the happy memory he used to create one is to think of Scorpius (echoing Snape’s use of Lilly Potter to conjure his own Patronus), and a handful of other moments. But apparently at the end of the play, their entire character arc as as a couple is thrown away with a “no homo” moment, Scorpius being interested in Hermione’s daughter, and Albus looking for a girlfriend.

I see what people are complaining about.

I thought from the moment the two met they were going to be a couple, although I usually tend to do this and chalk it up to me, as a gay man, wanting to see gay characters in the fiction I take in, doing a lot of wishful thinking. But the characters are written in a way that really makes it seem like a romance. I know this is subjective and no one can know for sure what the author intended (indeed, it’s difficult to know much of what the author intended because their writing reads so terribly in script form), but all I can say is, contrast Albus and Scorpius’ relationship with that of Harry and Ron. With the exception of their lovers’ quarrel in Goblet of Fire, they spent most of the series engaging in a completely heteronormative friendship, and didn’t seem to be interested in one another. There were no moments (again, excluding Goblet of Fire) when you found yourself thinking “…are they about to kiss?” But Albus and Scorpius pine for one another, their worlds are rocked by their separation, and it isn’t just because they’re each lonely outcasts, it’s because of the relationship between the two characters.

This leads to a discussion that I think is important to have. A lot of people, particularly in the Gay Geeks group, were upset that the Harry Potter universe isn’t inclusive to LGBTQ+ people, and it’s a fair complaint to make. However, some people have said that Rowling has a RESPONSIBILITY to her gay fans to include gay characters in her stories, so that they will have representation.

For my money, I don’t agree with the latter statement. It’s great when artists paint characters from a variety of perspectives, and it’s great when there are sexually ambiguous characters whose orientations you’re free to make assumptions about, and it’s even better when there are outright homosexual characters. But an artist is not REQUIRED to include gay characters just because they might have gay readers. You can’t ask every writer to go over their work with a fine tooth comb to be certain that it contains one character from every demographic: one gay, one straight, one transgender, one black, one Asian, one white, one hispanic, one vegetarian, one who likes the Spice Girls, one who has a collection of vintage Madonna 7 inch vinyls, one who wears glasses and one who has multicolored eyes. For one thing it’s impossible to include such diversity in every single scenario, for another it isn’t realistic (think of those classroom posters about respecting diversity where you always see one white boy with a baseball cap, one black boy in a tee shirt, and one Asian girl with glasses. Those are attempting to be inclusive, but just end up being pandering and racist in their own way), and most importantly you just CAN’T police what an artist can and can’t create. An artist is free to create whatever the hell they want, however they want to do it.

During this conversation I saw another, very similar conversation happening, revolving around this image an artist posted on Tumblr and a series of Tumblr comments beneath:

CharacterTumblr Comments

The issue here is that an artist took a Steven Universe character whose skin is not white, and depicted that character as a white person. I can see where some would find this frustrating, particularly because Steven Universe has such a reputation for being inclusive, but the truth is, whether you like it or not, it is an artist’s prerogative to create their characters, their worlds, and their art in ANY way they see fit. If you don’t like it, you can make your own.

This doesn’t shield an artist from criticism (at this point I’m convinced there are people who believe art only exists so they can criticize it), but it also doesn’t mean that you can tell an artist what to create. I’d also like to point out that if this had happened the opposite way around, had this been a white character that an artist drew as any other race, that artist would probably be touted by the same people throwing criticism, as a paragon of inclusiveness and a hero for diversity. There’s probably more than a little hypocrisy here.

Diversity is a difficult thing for me. I’m a white male, but I’m also gay, I’m a non-Christian in America (specifically, I’m from the American south), I’m polyamorous, I have radically different viewpoints from American norms, so in many ways I am a minority too. It’s okay to claim that, without saying that I’m suffering in exactly the same way as other minorities: I don’t know what it’s like to be black, and straight black people don’t know exactly what it’s like to be gay, but I think we can probably extrapolate SOME common elements from both and understand one another’s struggle a little better than if we had absolutely nothing in common.

But the thing is, there are a lot of people who seem to want to preserve diversity of all kinds just for the sake of preserving diversity. In the case of religion, many philosophies of violence, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and genocide are kept around just because people want to “respect diversity,” rather than actively attempting to dismantle those systems of oppression. This, I think, is the problem with being so open to the world around you that just allow anything for the sake of accepting everyone. It’s important to honor the individuality of each person, without allowing your own principles to be destroyed. This argument mainly applies to religion and not to diversity in skin color or sexuality, so I’ll jump off of this soap box for now, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point.

At the end of the day, even though, yes, it would be nice to have gay characters in Harry Potter, they need to be there because the author genuinely wants them to be there. They need to be authentic characters, not just characters who were made gay because the author shoehorned them in to appease their gay fans. Does Rowling have a responsibility to her gay fans? Maybe she does, in some ways. But does she have a responsibility to alter her art, in ANY way, because someone else wants her to? No, she does not. An artists responsibility, when creating, is to be AUTHENTIC. An artist gets to create anything they want, on their own terms, and damn everyone else’s viewpoint. The purpose of creating art is not to honor everyone else’s viewpoint, it’s to showcase your own. If people want to express their own viewpoints, let them do it, but do not tell me, or J.K. Rowling, or an artist on Tumblr, what they’re allowed to create. Arguments about including diverse characters come from a place of good intent, but ultimately it seems to me that people are asking for inclusion for inclusion’s sake. That isn’t art, it’s pandering.

I think that one of the big issues with my generation (that is to say, “millenials”) is that we try so hard to treat everything with fairness and equality, to respect the differences of every individual, that we end up falling into this infinite voice of so-called “political correctness” where we need to edit oursevles from saying or doing something that might offend someone, and also that we need to be all-inclusive in all things that we do so that no one feels left out. The principles behind these are good, but in practice, we haven’t as a culture figured out how to let people have their own individual voices without forcing them to be part of the whole. We’re censoring in the opposite direction that censorship usually happens: instead of telling people they’re not allowed to speak out and speak their minds, we are FORCING people to speak out and to speak on EVERYONE’S behalf. But that just isn’t feasible. If an author wants to write a book whose premise is that there’s a secret society of wizards existing right under the noses of everyone in the real world, and that author chooses, consciously or unconsciously, not to include any gay characters, they have that right, and if you tell them they HAVE to include gay characters in order to embrace their gay fans, you are taking away their freedom of expression by forcing them to say what you want them to say. The desire to hope that artists include gay people in their work comes from a good place: we all want to feel included. But the truth is, demanding that an artist includes gay characters takes away from their freedom to create whatever the hell it is they want to create.

Personally, my reading of Act One of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led me to believe that there was more than a little gay subtext between Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. I too am a little peeved that they go all “no homo” at the end. But, I also can’t force their writer to make them gay just because I feel, no matter how strongly, that their relationship was written as a romantic one. It’s a hard truth, but it’s the truth. If someone wants to create a story between two straight boys with so much gay subtext that even Anne Rice characters are shouting “just kiss already!” it’s their prerogative to do so. Some creators even choose to make their characters gay but not say it outright. They’re allowed to do that too. They’re allowed to do whatever they want.

And besides, we’ll always have Korra.