My Thoughts on Star Wars (Part 1/2)

I have complex feelings about Star Wars. It is impossible to grow up any time past the seventies without knowing about Star Wars. Even if you’ve never watched the films, you do have some basic understanding: Jedi are good guys, they have laser swords called lightsabers, R2D2 and C-3PO are silly robots, Darth Vader is the most evil man in the galaxy, Princess Leia has funny hair, Han Solo is a scoundrel and Chewbacca makes funny noises. Star Wars is so ubiquitous that it’s possibly the most recognizable adventure series in the world.

And I have never really liked it.

As a kid, I had an older cousin who introduced me to most of the things I would fall in love with: video games, adventure series, fantasy worlds, and Final Fantasy in particular. I tended to assume his judgement was good on what media one should consume, so when he borrowed the three-tape box set of the original Star Wars trilogy (yes, I was a child in an era before the prequels even existed, for the first decade of my life anyway) I tried to watch it with him.

It bored me to tears. I fell asleep. He spent maybe an entire day watching all three movies from beginning to end, and I left the room because I wasn’t remotely interested. There’s a certain quality about old movies that’s always repelled me, I think it’s something to do with the sound editing. Everyone sounds like they’re speaking through a grainy filter and there are huge pauses in between dialogue where you can hear the static of the tape. Some people find that really romantic, I’ve always found it dull and detrimental to the experience. I was also never a big fan of the music, it’s always sounded very same-y to me, and it still does, it’s a lot of stacatto horns shouting wildly into the night or slow emotional string crescendos. Those things are good, but there aren’t many discernable melodies, apart from the few big and well-known ones. I was not enchanted by the alien designs, which all have a kind of batrachian  monster-of-the-deep feel to them; every non-human in the galaxy seems to be leaking mucus from every orifice and they all look really wet and shiny. There’s something really gross about the aliens in Star Wars.

I wasn’t impressed with the characters either. I always found Leia somewhat interesting but she’s hardly involved for a lot of the movie, or appears in scenes where everyone talks over her. Han was never charming to me, and Luke has always seemed uninteresting too. The whole original Star Wars trilogy is so old-hat: the forces of evil can be beaten by the power of love and friendship. The Light Side is good and the Dark Side is bad. The Jedi are the good guys and Emperor Palpatine is so cartoonishly evil he’s like a pantomime villain. There was no nuance or greyness, nothing to grab hold of, just a standard “you are the chosen one” narrative.

Now granted, these things have partly become cliche because of Star Wars itself, which is something TV Tropes tells me is called “the Seinfeld effect,” in which a work of fiction creates so many memes and trends that it eventually comes to seem dull and derivative, despite the fact that it pioneered the very things we yawn and wave our hands at. I get that, but on the other hand very little about the essential story of Star Wars was new, it was the spectacle and the imagination that made it different. There weren’t space battles or TIE fighters or lightsabers before Star Wars, and it created a fantasy world that used the terminology of science-fiction, leading some to label it “science fantasy,” a term which I hate because if there is one thing Star Wars is utterly divorced from, it’s science or any semblance of forethought about whether or not something would seem realistic. I mean the galaxy seems so small and trivial; space is treated like a highway between planets which essentially act as towns and only seem to have one feature. You’ve got your desert planets, your ice planets, your planets covered by one giant city, planets that are just one big forest or garden, I mean surely some of these planets might have diverse environments rather than just serving one single purpose?

But I digress. Suffice it to say, I was never enchanted by the original Star Wars films. When the prequel trilogy came along, I was a little more interested, though only a little. I never watched episodes I or II until the third installment came out and I saw it in theaters. I remember liking it and finding it fun and interesting, and it has been my favorite of the series ever since. I went back and watched Episode I, and honestly I’ve never understood the hatred the prequel trilogy gets. I mean yeah, it has a lot of weaknesses, but it’s exactly the same weaknesses the original series had. Peoples central complaint about the prequels seemed to be that it took the established Star Wars universe and ruined the magic by trying to explain too much.

Well if you have a fantasy universe that is so vaguely-defined that the slightest bit of detail ruins the magic, you have a very poorly built world. If the Star Wars universe loses it’s appeal the moment you start to dig deeper than the surface, then it’s just badly written, and yes, I do believe it is badly written. All of them, the originals and the prequels.

The prequels, for me as a viewer, seemed to play up the original trilogies strengths (Jedi, force powers, lightsaber battles) while ditching it’s weaknesses (focuses on slummy cantinas, bland environments, and one-dimensional characters). The prequel trilogy is the story of Anakin becoming Darth Vader, and what drives him to it. What the prequel trilogies show is that the Jedi are not at all what we thought they were: when the Jedi were in power, they were a terrible organization. They paradoxically encouraged detachment from love or relationships, but also expected Jedi to fight USING their feelings. They saw attachment as a path to the dark side, but there is a happy middle between a Bhuddist sense of detachment and an impassioned anger that leads to genocide. It’s possible to be passionate about justice, but how can a Jedi be passionate about justice if passion itself is forbidden? They forbid their members from experiencing natural landmarks of happiness like love or affection, they’re just begging for people to turn away from the Jedi and become Sith because the Jedi and Sith have established a false dichotomy: there is a middle ground between a detached and uncompassionate Jedi and a passionate, murderous Sith.

Darth Vader wasn’t created by Emperor Palpatine, he was created by the Jedi order that ripped him away from his mother and allowed her to be kept in slavery; remember that the Jedi are more than happy to intrude and shove their moral directives down other people’s throats when it suits them, but they didn’t see fit to save Anakin’s mother at any time, specifically because they wanted him to remain detached in order to suit their own ends and use him as a pawn in their prophecy to “bring balance to the force,” a phrase which is so ill-defined that it doesn’t seem to really mean much of anything. And Luke’s saga didn’t bring balance to the force either: the Light side won over the Dark side, that’s hardly balance. The Jedi claim to embrace balance, but they don’t, they embrace the Light side, or rather their perverse interpretation of the Light side, which doesn’t involve love, or passion, or family.

It seemed to me that the only sensible character in the prequel trilogy was Palpatine, but only when he was in his “normal” disguise. He was reasonable, articulate, and convincing. I never understood why he had such a cartoonishly evil alter-ego, because when he was Darth Sidious, he seemed to just want “power,” but even that was vague, all he wanted was to rule the galaxy and then he did, so… what now? His motivations were kind of dropped once the focus became on Anakin finally transforming into Vader.

And now I come to three important points about Star Wars.

So it may seem to you that I had plenty of gripes with the prequels, and I did. But now I’m going to come to three important points about Star Wars. The first this: despite the problems I have with them, I still think, and prepare yourself for this because it’s lost me a few friends, that THE PREQUELS ARE BETTER THAN THE ORIGINALS.

Horrified gasps from the audience, women fainting, the men ruffle their mustaches in anger, “What is that you say? The prequels, better than the originals? THIS IS BLASPHEMY, BURN THE WITCH!”

Yeah yeah, whatever. I do think they’re better, but they’re still weak movies, and that brings me to my second point: I don’t think Star Wars is very good. In fact, I think they’re all pretty terrible films. The originals were all over the place and couldn’t decide on a tone or direction, and the prequels seemed to be mostly about milking nostalgia out of the older viewers, but of course they failed, because as we’ve learned, and this is my third point: STAR WARS FANS CANNOT BE PLEASED.

What do we want? POLYGONS! When do we want ’em? NOW!

No, really. The Star Wars fandom reminds me a lot of the Final Fantasy fandom. The Final Fantasy fandom has spent the better part of two decades just endlessly crying out “More Final Fantasy VII, we want more Final Fantasy VII, give us Cloud, give us Sephiroth!” And then of course, they did. Final Fantasy VII got a sequel, two prequels, a movie, a slightly retooled version of the movie, two short anime films, guest appearances in the Kingdom Hearts series, and now an upcoming remake.

And what did the fans say? “NO! NOT LIKE THAT! Don’t give us Final Fantasy VII like THAT! We want the OLD Final Fantasy VII! We want the EXACT SAME THING we had before, only prettier and dressed up for modern audiences!”

“But, but…” Square Enix stammers, “You already HAVE the original! If we’re going to make more Final Fantasy VII media, shouldn’t it have something new and different that separates it from the original, something that improves on the originals weaknesses while holding up it’s strengths, something that sheds new light and deepens the world?”

And the resounding response from the fans is, “NO! We want THE SAME THING FOREVER!”

Change is hard, I get it. But the thing is, you just aren’t going to please Star Wars fans. Look at the outrage over Jar Jar Binks. I’m not talking about him being a racist caricature because that’s a pretty legitimate complaint, I’m talking about the fact that people seemed to hate him so much because he was annoying and silly and served only as bad comic relief. But the original series did the exact same thing with Chewbacca. I’ve always found Chewbacca annoying, I don’t like his weird sad gargling voice, the fact that the characters can understand him but we as the audience can’t makes him feel totally pointless. I mean, I could see why people were annoyed by Jar Jar, but he’s no better or worse than anything else in the film. It’s not like I particularly missed him in the second two prequels where he had a minor role, but it seemed silly to me that they caved to pressure to lessen his role in the movies.

If anything, I would have complained about the fact that Star Wars seems to turn out bad performances from every actor it touches, even the good ones: Hayden Christenson, Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are all good actors, but their performances were robotic and lifeless, even in scenes where the characters are crying or screaming, they speak with no emotion. Ewan McGregor comes the closest to overcoming this, having some genuinely emotional moments, but for the most part, Star Wars kind of destroys everything it touches. And as Family Guy pointed out in it’s Star Wars parodies, Harrison Ford was the only actor whose career wasn’t completely halted by the original Star Wars films.

Suffice it to say, I have become so exasperated with the series over time, and a lot of this has to do with it’s fans. It’s weird to me that the people who seem to hate Star Wars the most are Star Wars fans. Star Wars fans almost unanimously agree that the prequel films are awful and should be wiped from official canon, while the originals are the paragons of all that is just and good in cinema, and should never be touched, particularly not by George Lucas who apparently likes to go back and re-edit for continuity. I kind of agree with them about George Lucas mucking up the originals by re-editing them, but I strongly disagree with the idea that the prequels are terrible. I mean, if they ARE terrible, then they’re certainly no less terrible than the original films.

I am also aware that a part of why the original films don’t excite me so much is because I’m a child of a later age who is not impressed by their effects, and Star Wars is after all mostly about spectacle. And that is sad, because I’m sure if I’d been born in the seventies, I would have been blown away by the original films too.

To return to my earlier comparison with Final Fantasy VII, time has been just as unkind to Final Fantasy VII as it has to the original Star Wars films. Looking back on Final Fantasy VII now, if I were a brand new player I would probably not find it terribly interesting. I remember a time when the presentation of Final Fantasy VII was unmatched, when it’s story, music, dialogue and scenery were breathtaking, and I’m still able to get a little lump in my throat when controlling Cloud, standing out at the peak of a cliffside and looking over a vista of grasslands and the sparkling ocean in the background, while the main theme swells on the world map. But a newcomer wouldn’t see it that way at all. They would, understandably, see terribly modeled polygonal characters on a world made up of cones and squares covered by a thin varnish of scenery that look like something mocked up in a paint program, with music that, even though it’s brilliantly-composed, comes through on mid-90’s MIDI keyboard synths. A newcomer would not be blown away by Final Fantasy VII, and I as a child of the nineties was not blown away by the original Star Wars, because if Star Wars’ main strength is spectacle, I’ve seen bigger spectacles.

I certainly don’t think that the strength of Star Wars has ever been in it’s story or dialogue. There is a certain timeless feel to the heroes journey, or to the chosen-one narrative that wasn’t quite so overdone and played out back when Star Wars was a new property. It’s also impossible not to go into Star Wars somewhat jaded by it’s commercial aspect having spent your entire life surrounded by lightsaber toys, Darth Vader masks, endless quotations in every television show and movie, people pretending to do Darth Vader’s breathing sound and muttering in a gravelly voice, “Luke, I AM your father.” That does make it a little harder to enjoy those things when seeing them. The twist that Darth Vader is Luke’s father is a very good one, and as a writer it’s unfortunate that it’s now become cliche, because it means I have to rethink a lot of potential twists when writing to avoid an “I am your father” moment and have people roll their eyes and say “Well I could have seen that coming a mile away.” Yeah, but only because Darth Vader already did it.

And that’s really all I have to say about Star Wars episodes I-VI. Come back for part two when I’ll talk about my experience of seeing Episode VIII: The Last Jedi in theaters tonight.

You Bustin’ Up My Rhythm!

Final Fantasy VII: Remake Recommendations

So I’ve been playing Final Fantasy VII for the trillionth time because I bought it on the Playstation Network store and now I have it for PSP, which is literally the realization of a childhood dream for me, having this game on a handheld device, but I’ve already talked about that previously. But as I’ve been playing through this game, I am well aware of it’s faults, and with that long-fabled Final Fantasy VII remake for the Playstation 5 or something drawing ever closer (I’m thinking twentieth anniversary, because the game is already on it’s seventeeth. I know, it’s crazy for me to realize that too), at least in the imaginations of the fan community, I’ve been noticing a few glaring issues that should definitely be adressed if ever a remake does genuinely happen (or the sequel that they’ve set up with the return of Genesis and just kind of left hanging in the air).

"Ain't no gettin' offa dis' train we on!"

“Ain’t no gettin’ offa dis’ train we on!”

Recommendation 1: Ditch Barrett’s Street Persona

Yeah, I know, it was the 90’s, even white people thought that they were black, and we all thought that being thug gangster was cool and rap was actually a decent genre. It’s okay, Squaresoft, I can forgive you because I was there too, even if I was seven years old. But it’s time to grow up. As this game has aged, it’s become considerably more apparent just how racist the game’s depiction of Barrett really was. Just because he’s a burly black man does not mean he has to be “street,” which he very much is, and as the 90’s have passed us by and saying “Yo” at the beginning of every sentence is no longer cool, I think I speak for all of us when I say it’s time for Barret to be depicted better.

Barrett is actually one of the game’s more complex characters. It’s difficult to know just how to feel about Barrett. He is literally en eco terrorist who kills hundreds of innocent civilians in the pursuit of stopping Shinra. At the beginning of the game his brash nature and nonchalance about blowing up entire metropolitan areas really show how far gone he is to listen to reason, but as the game progresses it’s revealed why Barrett hates Shinra so much, his history of losing his entire family when his hometown was burned to the ground by Shinra troops, and how he lost his best friend and his right arm trying to run from Shinra. He comes to accept how wrong his actions were, and to regret killing innocent people, but still, there’s the fact that he did do it, and those people are still dead, and it’s hard to know if it’s okay to forgive a character like that.

Barrett has enough depth of character that he doesn’t need a street thug gimmick to make him interesting, he’s interesting enough already. When he’s been shown in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, he still has his thug appearance, complete with corn rows and a huge puffy sleeveless vest, but his street talk has been toned down considerably. Now he seems like more of a hothead than a racist 90’s depiction of black culture, but still, it sounds like his voice actor was trying to go for that original street voice and failed. There’s really no reason why Barrett can’t just speak like any other character, without some street accent. He’s clearly intelligent enough if he can put together a resistance movement, hijack multiple trains and blow up two reactors, even if he is so hell-bent on getting revenge that he doesn’t think about the lives he destroys. And if it’s possible, can we please never hear any character in any game ever speak the words, “You bustin’ up my rhythm!” again?

Stats Screen

Recommendation 2: Give the Characters Stats!

Final Fantasy has grown up a lot since the days when Speed was called Dexterity and Defense was called Vitality, but at the time of Final Fantasy VII’s release, characters were mostly still blank slates with little variation among them in stats. Because of this, you can literally use any character in Final Fantasy VII and it will most likely have little to no effect on battles, because they pretty much all have the same stats. Now, I understand that Materia is supposed to be the deciding factor on whether or not someone has a high stat, but even so, Materia usually only changes stats by 1% or so at a time. It’s mentioned in the booklet’s mini-guide that Cloud is a physical attacker and not to load him down with magic materia, but honestly you would need to have 16 slots filled with mastered magic materia to really notice a drastic change in anyone’s stats.

By the time of Final Fantasy IX and X, Squaresoft had gotten pretty good as diferrentiating magical attackers from physical attackers, with characters like Garnet and Lulu being completely useless as physical attackers, but having some of the highest magic stats available. Even so there was room for customization, and there’s no reason why Tifa, for instance, can’t begin with a very high strength stat and low HP, both of which grow stronger, or change according to what Materia you have equipped. Basically the threshhold at which stats are differentiated among characters, or at which Materia changes those stats, needs to be a lot higher.

The only character in the game who I’ve seen to have legitimately lower or higher stats than anyone else is Aerith, who remains a weak physical attacker and powerful magical attacker from the time she joins the party, though I’m sure this could easily be changed with Materia since her stats aren’t really all that different from everyone else’s, just slightly more so.

Steal Materia

Recommendation 3: Make Steal Work

Stealing is fun. Zidane taught us this, and it has remained an effective way to get some of the best items and equipment throughout the series. This holds true in Final Fantasy VII as well, with someone weapons being steal-only, and certain armor and weapons becoming available much earlier if you steal from the right enemies. The biggest problem with stealing, though, is that is has a very low chance of working when it’s used. I’ve probably spent hours of my life just waiting for Tifa to steal the Hardedge from the SOLDIER’s in the Shinra building or the Shinra Beta from the troops in the cargo ship. Stealing is a great way to get rare items (like Speed Sources from the thieves in the slums; you’re welcome), but it needs to work! It really takes all the fun out of stealing when you have to wait ten minutes to steal one thing, especially when you don’t know beforehand what you might be stealing, and it only turns out to be a Hi-Potion. Also if I could make a request, could Steal evolve into Mug a little bit sooner? I usually don’t even get the ability to Mug until near the end of the game, or if I’m really concentrating on leveling up my materia, the second disc.

I’m sure as I continue to play through the game I’ll probably come up with some more ideas, and all of these recommendations are things that other players have been saying for years, but I just thought I would state my opinions on the matter. Let’s mosey!