Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – 2nd playthrough

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Knights of the Old Columbus—uh, Republic, or KOTOR, was the third-to-last game I played before my last playthrough of Shadow of the Colossus, and since I don’t currently have anything to say about the in-between Portal games outside of what I said on that “FAVORITE VIDEO GAMES” list, I’d like to write about KOTOR, mostly by recycling thoughts from that deleted KOTOR post I mentioned here (oh, the irony of that post!), before my next playthrough of it, whenever that would be.

This first of the Knights of the Old Republic duology is currently the most highly reviewed Star Wars game ever made. When I was a kid, it was one of the many RPGs my siblings got into but I just couldn’t. Having now played through it twice in my adult years because I asked Catholic Skywalker to review it for Gaming with Faith, I can safely say it’s more my type of RPG than most.

And somehow, even though I completed as many sidequests as I could this time, I ended up finishing it a few hours shorter than my first playthrough…

In the game’s own 4,000-years-before-the-Prequels place in Star Wars history that may or may not still be canon, the Jedi are the same guardians of peace in the galaxy we know them as, but the Sith are a whole freaking empire, which means more than two Siths worth of red lightsabers! It’s up to us to side either with the Sith or the Republic in the end.

Even when The Force Unleashed and Jedi Academy give us singular choices between the Light and the Dark, they’re still straight-up action games built around us revelling in nonstop slaughter. KOTOR, however, gives us a world—nay, star system—to interact with in various ways and protagonists we can customize not only in appearance and abilities but also in moral character, where the choice between the Light and the Dark is an ongoing process.

Our alignment is represented by a Light Side/Dark Side meter. It starts out in the middle grey as we begin each game. Mercy and self-giving earn us Light Side Points; murder and vengeance earn us Dark Side points. Unfortunately, this system can be lax in some ways, and as a Catholic Light Side guy, that’s a bit disappointing.

While there are plenty of confrontations where we have no choice but to fight and kill in self defense, and while we are given occasional chances to either execute or spare enemies, the times where we have to battle our ways through entire hostile villages—which thankfully don’t include children—without being allowed to spare anyone, even though they attack us first, feel less justified. On the other hand, the game leaves it up to us how to feel about such battles, whether to embrace them or feel bad that we have to go through with them.

Still, there are other times where we have to deceive opponents as means towards ends, and we can also get away with pillaging people’s belongings without either earning Dark Side points or getting scolded at, which is a common mechanic in video games (see also: “What the heck do I see in video games?”).

But what really bothers me about this first KOTOR’s Light Side storyline is how it treats its own running theme of redemption from the Dark. While a couple of these redemptions are honest, the biggest of them is committed through a violation of the subject’s free will on the Jedi Council’s part (though not our part), yet the story wants us to believe it was the right thing to do, and it casts a huge shadow over the game.

Calling it the best Star Wars game that does exist doesn’t deem it the best Star Wars game that could exist. Nonetheless, in terms of fundamental game design, KOTOR is just what I want in a video game.

What really sells it for me is the character interactions, whether it’s regarding a sidequest character or one of our party members, most of whom we obtain on the first couple of planets. We can learn about their varied pasts; former jedi padawan Jolee Bindo especially fascinates as he turns out to have good reasons to cross-examine the Jedi Order more than anyone, and he’s not even as important as Republic pilot Carth or young jedi Bastila. Not to mention, we can customize lightsabers, my lifelong favorite fictional weapons!

Despite the game’s philosophical problems, there’s still enough good in it for me to enjoy it as escapism. It may get that Star Wars has a spiritual component more than it gets the actual good-vs-evil spirit of classic Star Wars, but it’s still a pretty good game in its own right, and it’s worth multiple playthroughs. Or at least these two playthroughs.

Shadow of the Colossus – 3rd playthrough

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I may not have all the answers as to what I want to be as an online personality, but one thing’s for sure: writing about video games makes playing video games more rewarding for me. For that, I’ll treat video game reflections like a journal, writing about them as I get to them, even if that means a post for each playthrough of the same game.

For my first entry, I’ll reflect on my third playthrough of Shadow of the Colossus.

The ironic part is that after my first playthrough around a year ago, while I certainly appreciated this game, I didn’t think I’d ever want to play it again. Now here I am, having just finished it on hard mode where the game was already hard enough; I mean, you don’t want to hear the sounds that come out of my mouth at every playthrough.

What surprised me, however, was how little the difficulty was ramped up. Sure, some colossi had extra weak points, and some seemed to attack more fiercely, but some didn’t seem to be any different at all. There was one colossus, however, that had me half-jokingly saying as I saw its corroding body during an end-credits montage, “You better rot.”

I said in my review on Catholic Wannabe Critic: “…I do have a problem with how the symbolic devil that Wander makes a deal with has powers too godlike…” This time around, my biggest problem with the story is that the unjust sacrifice that sets off the protagonistic Wander’s journey isn’t paid for in the end, or at least not in a way that would dissuade the criminals, who seem to be religious authorities, from committing this injustice again.

I can’t say this makes the story entirely anti-religious as these authorities are proven quite right to warn people not to set foot in the forbidden land Wander sets off to. Not to mention, it’s not clear whether or not such a sacrifice they’ve committed is a usual occurrence. What the story is clear about is that Wander is wrong in the way he combats this crime.

The ultimate message is that there are consequences for doing the wrong things even for the right reasons, and that there’s always a second chance. Even then, I have mixed feelings about how Wander is given this second chance.

The game may be pretty self-important, so much so that my siblings couldn’t help but make fun of it, but its self-importance works due to how visual its storytelling is. It’s fun to play, and its boss battles are awesome in every sense of the word, but there’s a gravity to its violence. Heck, the musical score, whether it’s somber or exciting, gives a mythic gravity to the whole thing. It feels reductive to call Shadow of the Colossus a game, yet as a fable, it wouldn’t work in any other medium without getting repetitive.

There’s a reason why many claim it to be one of gaming’s masterpieces, and it’s so far the biggest reason why I don’t regret buying a PS3 outside of the Blu-ray function.

Identity

Lately, I’ve been asking myself a question:

What the heck do I want to be?

I’m a goofy animator to one audience and a Catholic blogger to another; even then, I don’t know whether I want this blog to be about my movies, other people’s movies, or video games. I don’t even know if I want to be known as a blogger. If I introduce my Youtube fans to this blog, they could be alienated by my faith. But if I completely conform this blog to a secular audience, I could alienate those I’ve connected with through it.

I don’t want to end (not delete) my stop-motion cartoon channel just because the art of stop-motion has been isolating; I want to end it because I don’t want to be associated with Transformers anymore. On the other hand, if I make a live-action project that I’d want to reach a wide audience, my Youtube fans would be my best bet at getting that done. Yet, I don’t know what types of no-budget movies I could make in live-action that aren’t goofy.

Why am I even mentioning this? I mean, the persona I’ve built through this blog, my Twitter, and my Google+ is meant to be my escape from the real world. I sell myself as Catholic just to bring in an audience I’d likely have little conflict with; discussing all the emotional and spiritual crises at the root of my online identity crisis would just violate my safe haven.

If anything can be taken away from this, it’s that my tendency to reinvent myself as a blogger may indicate that I wasn’t meant to be a blogger in the first place.

Favorite video games

When it comes to movies, I can think of at least ten that I love unconditionally—the types of movies I like to write reflections on. When it comes to video games, however, I can’t even come up with five video games I love as much as my favorite movies. So far into my gaming journey, here are the games that come closest to that description:

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The Portal games are so short that you really can’t play Portal 2 without playing the first one, which was a sleeper hit run by a small development team. Portal 2, however, is a full-blown blockbuster, expanding on the original’s puzzle-based gameplay as well as the lore.

On the other hand, none of the characters are role models, and I’m not sure what to think of the antagonistic A.I.’s godlike role in the science facility in which it resides, though certain plot developments prevent this conceit from coming off as anti-theistic. Besides, it’s all wrapped up in a dark, tongue-in-cheek wit that satirizes nature-twisting experimentation, especially when the ever-priceless J.K. Simmons is introduced. Oh, and the ultimate boss takedown is one of the most unexpectedly epic in gaming history. As sheer entertainment, both hilarious and brain-teasing, Portal 2 takes the cake (pun intended).

Shadow of the Colossus

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Four years prior to Shadow‘s release, Shadow‘s developers shook the game industry by introducing an emotionally-driven minimalism with Ico. While Ico is a mechanically barebones platformer, Shadow is a deconstruction of the action/adventure genre. We as the young Wander are given a whole landscape to traverse with practically no side quests; the only levels are the sixteen colossi we’re sent to destroy as part of a deal with a dark entity in order to have our sacrificed lover resurrected.

It’s a complex dilemma. Should Wander have brought justice to those who committed injustice or taken the chance to reverse the injustice? Since he chooses the latter, the tale is ultimately about the consequences of doing the wrong thing even for love’s sake. For the ways it haunts us in both unsettling and invigorating ways, Shadow of the Colossus is plain transcendent.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

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Until Breath of the Wild‘s release, Ocarina of Time had no equal when it came to overall critical success. Ocarina introduced an unprecedented combination of storytelling and exploration at release, forever changing the game industry just as the NES original did.

This game makes me feel like a kid again more than anything else can, and not just because of nostalgia but also because of the innocent, childlike approach to its storytelling…for the most part. Its polytheistic, partly monistic mythology may not agree with Christianity, but the hero we play as does represent the choice to trustfully follow God whereas the villain represents the Nietzschean desire to become God.

While characterization is largely barebones, if with some very funny moments, the moments the game sears into our memories are moments like us solving head-scratching puzzles, defeating childhood-scarring monsters, discovering gold skulltulas, helping out random villagers, unlocking the Door of Time, facing Ganondorf in his castle… It makes us feel like we’re on an epic adventure in the most beautifully simplistic ways.

DreamWorks Animation’s untouchable masterpiece

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Some movies I can hardly find the words to express my sheer appreciation for but really want to write about anyway. For its artistic merit alone, The Prince of Egypt, which happens to be my first experience with the story of Exodus I can recall, is one of these movies.

In an era where Disney was adapting whatever the heck they wanted—fairy tales, novels, historical figures—into animated musicals, the newly founded DreamWorks, before it quickly became the cash-in Pixar, came along and blew everything Disney was producing out of the water with this end-all of animated musicals. Could it be for more than just financial reasons that Disney then stepped away from musicals for a good few years?

Of course, in adapting Exodus for family audiences, there are silly kid appeal moments, most notably as this under-pharaoh’s-care Moses’s troublemaking tendencies are introduced in an early over-the-top set piece; the characters’ movements are animated with such attention to realism that the cartoonier moments feel out-of-place.

There are a couple of other significant liberties, one being Aaron’s role as somewhat of a foil to give Zephora and Miriam larger roles and the other being Moses’s conflicted relationship with his non-scriptural adopted brother-turned-pharaoh Rameses. That last one is part of what makes the film’s emotional impact, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from the scripture’s more harrowing subject matter.

The story—which ends right before Moses carries down the newly established Ten Commandments since everything that happens afterwards would be hard to depict in a family film—is smoothly abridged through the musical format as lengthier sequences are montaged through some of the soundtrack’s many majestic numbers. And opposite that recent Exodus: Gods and Kings, every ounce of awe is poured into God’s wonders as can be, especially the parting of the Red Sea.

Dramatically stirring and visually breathtaking while reverently treating its sacred source material, The Prince of Egypt blows me away like no other animated movie I’ve seen.

“Theatrical Releases” and future video game writings

On the right sidebar, I’ve just added a column titled “Theatrical Releases”, a continually updated column that reviews in capsule form every new theatrical release I see each year; when the year’s over, I’ll archive the reviews into their own page and start the column over for the next year. The downside is that the widget I use for this doesn’t notify followers of its own updating, so I’ll announce new capsule reviews via social media (the links to which are on the left sidebar).

Also, I just took down a post I uploaded earlier this week titled “Bioware’s and Obsidian’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”/”A reflection on Star Wars, especially Knight of the Old Republic” because, well, I find that I’m now much more interested in writing full-fledged reflections on movies than video games since video games conflict me so much. I’d rather the main focus of this blog be movies, so when I write about individual games, I’ll write about them in lists/compilations.

Steven Spielberg’s signature monster movies

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Steven Spielberg’s Jaws—the first summer blockbuster, released in 1975—and Jurassic Park—the 1993 blockbuster that made CGI mainstream—are two of the many revolutionary films that are just as important to the medium as they are to many film lovers. Here’s why they’re important to me:

I actually didn’t see the whole of Jaws until late 2014 where I’d already been writing reviews for a few months. Still, Jaws managed to blow me away. What struck me was the human element, small moments like Chief Brody’s young son mimicking his mannerisms at the dinner table that give the film such a human dimension amid its suspense and scares.

Watching it a couple years on, a lot of it is actually really corny, particularly the caricatures that fill the community of Amity Island. And yet, that’s partly what makes it so dang entertaining forty years on. Sure, the film’s subject matter was a shock to audiences back then; now, it could just confirm to someone why they’re afraid to go in the ocean like it did for me. It’s like the film is saying, “Yeah, I want to scare the crap out of you; just don’t take me too seriously.”

Since I first saw Jaws, I’ve paid more attention to the human element in every movie.

The way Jurassic Park has affected me, however, is a bit sillier.

I’ve known Jurassic Park since I was a kid where I thought it was the film that invented CGI, or computer generated imagery. I didn’t learn until I was older that it merely revolutionized CGI after it was used very subtly and sparingly in previous decades and that its first prominent use was in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Still, given my early impression of Jurassic Park, watching post-1977 (Star Wars)/pre-1993 action movies now always give me a sense that I’m, well, watching an action movie that was made post-1977/pre-1993, even though I now prefer practical effects over CGI. Heck, throughout the two-hour Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are onscreen for fifteen minutes, and for nine of those minutes they’re actually animatronics, though the CGI portions still hold up today.

As for the actual movie, none of its characters are as developed or interesting as Jaws‘s Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Sam Quint, yet Spielberg still manages to make them feel real enough for us to care for. The suspense is directed as masterfully as it is in Jaws, and with less brutality, and the film introduces a line that rings quite relevant, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Jaws is still the better film and would have a higher place on my favorite movies list due to the way it affected how I view movies. Jurassic Park is never a bad choice though, and I hold it along with Jaws as the gold standard for Hollywood monster movies.

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables

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When Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables came out in 2012, it inspired me to sing “Who Am I?” and “I Dreamed a Dream” in a couple of recitals during the remaining months of my singing lessons. My voice teacher even took a group to see the stage show live in 2013. In fact, that show was the last time until now I saw the musical in any form as the last time I watched the film before then, it came off as really contrived and rushed.

That’s why, comparing its flaws to its surpassing merits, I now consider it less masterful than transcendent.

It’s true that it fits in a lot of story, the decades-spanning, 19th-century period epic of the redemption of Jean Valjean, even for a 2½-hour-long runtime. It’s also true that I find its romantic subplot between two young adults so farfetched that it puts the wonkiest love stories in any Disney movie to shame.

Even so, Tom Hooper’s direction keeps me in the story’s grip. Hooper uses wide shots to establish the impressive set design only when necessary; never does he choose dazzling us with production values over immersing us in the emotions of the characters in a way a stage show can’t: through constant use of closeups. The makeup department is never afraid to cover the leads with grime and grit, and the unconventional live onset singing, while not as impressive as the voices I heard onstage, works for the film’s rawness.

Hardly a word of dialogue is spoken. Conversations are almost always sung. However, there are plenty of interior monologues that give us insights not only into the characters’ mindsets but also into their souls, especially those of Valjean and the antagonistic Inspector Javert, two men devout in Catholicism yet with two very different relationships with God.

Javert believes it’s his mission to inflict God’s judgement on those who break the law, those like Valjean whose release from a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew is where the story begins. Valjean, however, through the hospitality of a bishop who takes him in after his release, learns over the years to convey God’s mercy, especially through adopting Cosette, child of fired worker-turned-prostitute Fantine, after her mother passes in the first act. In addition to these men who use different aspects of faith to motivate their lives, the Thenardiers, the innkeepers who ‘care’ for Cosette while her mother’s working, use faith as a coverup for the ways they con their customers.

Valjean and Fantine suffer greatly. We see them at their absolute lowest points. Yet, their stories remind us of the redemptive power of suffering and the saving power of repentance. But not only does the film rivetingly explore the question of justice versus mercy but also the questions of hope versus despair, poverty versus wealth, and citizens versus government.

Aside from the ridiculous romance, the film’s biggest hiccup is the Thenardiers, particularly their “Master of the House” number. While the film delicately recounts Fantine’s desperate fall into prostitution, “Master of the House” humorously indulges in the Thenardiers’ vulgar business practices in ways that couldn’t be pulled off onstage. It’s the one song I don’t mind skipping.

Still, these flaws can’t diminish Les Miserables‘s emotional and spiritual power. It’s like no other musical—nay, film—I’ve seen, less a film and more an experience.

(P.S. I didn’t find out until afterwards that I published this on Victor Hugo’s birthday. God has a sense of humor indeed.)

What the heck do I see in video games?

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After I began writing movie reviews back in 2014 (the beginning in question was, of course, on a site that no longer exists), I decided to add video games to my critical roster. You know what that meant? Catching up on a lot of games I missed throughout the years.

I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid, though the most notable games I played during my adolescent years were The Force Unleashed and Halo: Reach. I hardly played any games at all during my young adult years until late 2015 where I decided to play through and review a bunch of Zelda games. I then moved onto the Half-Life series, and I was so blown away by Half-Life 2 that it didn’t take until the last five paragraphs of Steven Greydanus’s article on The Revenant for me to realize the fundamentally perverse idea behind shooting games: having us revel in constant, merciless violence.

Since then, I’ve become a lot more apprehensive about video games, or rather, video games that are built solely around violence. Before I read that article, however, I’d already bought a PS3 to critique its most famous titles. Unfortunately, some of said titles make me wish I never bought a PS3 at all.

The Uncharted series was fun, if vulgar, during my first playthrough of it; the second playthrough, however, made me realize just how mean spirited that series is. I enjoyed the Metal Gear Solid series, yet its at times pro-death philosophies and consistently misogynistic depictions of women make me apprehensive to revisit it. And then there was The Last of Us, a game I despise more than any other game I’ve played, and not just because of its relentless brutality that broke my disgust tolerance near the end and forced me to watch the rest of the game on Youtube.

The Last of Us was so souring, in fact, that I’ll now only buy video games for as cheap as possible. Even more horrifying than its own nihilistic story is how widely embraced the game is by critics and gamers alike. It’s one of the most highly praised video games of all time; so isn’t Uncharted, Half-Life, and Metal Gear Solid.

It’s quite discouraging that such perverse titles get praised to the heavens. I don’t want to spend more time on this nastiness; I want to spent time on games that I’ll like, but I can’t even trust if the titles I think I’ll like won’t pull the rug out from under me at some point, such as the anti-religious undertones in Deus Ex, a game that would be a lot grimmer if it weren’t so corny. Why do I even stick with the medium of video games if I find so much disappointment in it?

…Because I still see its potential—because titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Shadow of the Colossus exist, and I want to find more games in their league.

I love Ocarina of Time, thankfully the most highly reviewed video game ever made, not just because it’s incredibly nostalgic for me; it sports a childlike innocence—for the most part—that I haven’t seen in any other adventure game. Shadow of the Colossus is basically a deconstruction of the Zelda formula, yet it’s also a deconstruction of video game violence in general, having us go on a violent crusade that we have to pay a hard price for in the end. Although I like Ocarina more, Shadow of the Colossus may be objectively the greatest video game I’ve played so far period.

I’ve also had the pleasure of playing Beyond Eyes, an indie game I found on Steam that tells a touching, deliberate, nonviolent story, as it’s in the ‘walking simulator’ genre, that puts us into the shoes of a blind child through a strikingly artistic interpretation of such an experience. The only complaint I have about Beyond Eyes is that it’s very short; otherwise, all the potential it showed was good.

I even enjoyed the good potential in The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid, and Half-Life 2. The Last of Us had me empathizing with video game characters like no other game had; such empathy I even experienced in Half-Life 2 (I even rationalized Half-Life 2‘s ostensibly pro-life themes as making the game above other brutal shooters until I realized that the way the game values innocent people is a way to make us want to shoot the bad guys more). Metal Gear Solid had brilliantly ludicrous humor and a soundtrack that I still listen to.

Had these games not been able to engage me in some way, I wouldn’t be disappointed in them as much as I am; I don’t know if a redemptive ending could have redeemed The Last of Us‘s reliance on horrific incident, but I wouldn’t be as angry about the ending had the game not been toying with a powerful humanism amid the nihilism it ultimately succumbs to.

Of course, the other question of video games other than their morals is whether or not they’re a waste of time. I always aim to limit my video game consumption per day, but I want to this spend time in agreeable virtual worlds. Of course, there are nasty virtual worlds that the games themselves don’t want us to accept for what they are, yet said games’ missions for us to change said worlds could ask us to revel in bloodshed.

All-in-all, I appreciate the potential of video games more than what they’re commonly used for: violence porn, softcore porn, normalization of theft, etc… Ocarina of Time is perhaps the one video game so far that I love as much as my favorite movies; while it’s not free from moral and spiritual flaws, the world it puts us in is generally that of beauty, inspiration, and truth. It’s far easier to find a movie of such aesthetics than it is to find a video game of such aesthetics. But video games can immerse us in ways that no other artistic medium can; they just haven’t met the potential to immerse us in beauty, inspiration, and truth as commonly as movies have.

…Of course, I’m a console generation behind, and my laptop can’t even play last-gen games at their highest graphical settings, so perhaps this current generation is offering more of what video games should offer and I’m not realizing it.

(Thumbnail source: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQXf8fMOcnc)