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Emotional Investments

We are here to talk about investments. Not the financial kind, but of the emotional sort. Which, come to think of it, you can use to write out really good stories that will pay great dividends in monetary form, BUT, I am no expert on that topic but I DO have a lot to talk about with regard to feelings. And I have a lot of those, and so does your audience. 

So, let’s begin.

When a person says that they’ve invested in someone or something emotionally, what it actually means is that they’ve established a bond with the subject, often attaching a form of memory and sentimental value. And with regard to your book, more often to your characters, having your readers emotionally invested is very important to keep them reading from the beginning to the end. Things like stakes give some agency to the characters, but it is how they act and react to events that could establish some sort of connection between a reader and your characters. For example, readers can relate to the sisterly bond between Katniss and Prim from the Hunger Games when Katniss volunteered as tribute to take her sister’s place. Or you can compare the power-hungry houses from the Song of Ice and Fire to the political scene that we see in our world. 

Or you can empathise with Lovecraft’s characters when they apply tones of racism to rationalise his suspicions towards- Okay, you can ignore that bit. His lore is great but his stories are really uncomfortable to say the least.

Important side note for reference, the date I’m writing this is dated November 26th 2019, which is a week after a certain studio released a certain blockbuster movie with songs that are probably gonna stick in my brain for weeks to come. It was a fun movie, I won’t deny it. It had its funny bits and the scenes where the characters were making ugly crying faces, I ugly-cried with them. But after the credits rolled and I went home, my mind still searched for something.

Something that was missing.

I cried nearing the end of the movie because I was given cues to cry, i.e. the characters crying, emotional music and lyrics, etc. But, were the scenes properly established? Were we given a reason to emotionally invest in those scenes?

Let’s segue into a not-so-new piece of media that I kept praising over and over again in the past. The 2018 video game entitled Gris.

Fair warning to those who haven’t played the game: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t played it yet, bookmark this video and go play it. It’s only 2 hours long. Shorter than that if you have a guide. But if you’ve played it or if you don’t mind spoilers, let’s continue.

Okay, I may be kinda cheating with my choice to compare a film with a video game. After all, a video game is interactive, hence you put yourself into the game instead of just being a spectator. But, let me clear that up for you. Gris is a game that has no dialogue. It tells its story with its simple yet breathtaking visuals and music. Additionally, unlike many other games, you cannot get a game over in Gris. It won’t let you. So if you think about it, Gris is more like a movie than your usual video game.

Since I’ll be talking about how Gris engages with the audience well with its narrative, I’ll start by breaking down the story.

It tells a tale about a girl named Gris who has a magical dress and a magical voice. The game starts as she wakes up in the palm of a large hand, seemingly of a giant statue. Then she started to sing, but when her voice suddenly disappeared, the hand she was in began to crumble and break beneath her feet. Soon, there was nothing to hold onto anymore, and before long, she too fell down along with the broken pieces of a beautiful yet decayed world.

At rock bottom, Gris first tread along the whitewashed terrain slowly. Then after a short scripted animation where she tripped and forced herself up, she began to trot along the path and hop over small obstructions that are in her way.

Over time, the girl will gain more abilities to help her get from one point to the next. She’ll gain the ability to weigh herself down so she won’t get blown away by strong tempests. She will be able to jump higher and hover for a longer time to keep her from falling straight down. Then she’ll get the ability to swim deep into a shadowy chasm. And lastly, she’ll regain her ability to sing her magical song again. And with that, she’s able to put the world back together.

In order to achieve her mission, she needs to bring the colours back to the broken world. And to restore each color, she has to return to the palm that once held her aloft. 

We get to see the progress of the game from this hand. In the beginning, we’ve established that the hand is somewhere high up in the sky, because it took such a long time for Gris to reach the ground. The next time we see it, it’s in the middle of an ashen desert in pieces. After that we see the hand once again, higher up this time and accompanied by a second hand. In a way, the statue is seemingly growing or recovering to its original state each time we re-encounter it. And how frequent we get to see this statue (which is also somewhat predictable because we will encounter it at the end of each level, and also in some other parts within the game), hence it is not only a motif, but it showed us how significant it is to the main character. And the payoff? 

Well, throughout the game, there are these globes of light called mementoes scattered in different spots. Once you’ve collected them all, you’ll unlock a hidden ending scene, where it revealed the identity of the woman of whom the statue resembles.

It’s Gris’ mom.

The cutscene was really short. A minute and a half worth of animatics that showed the statue mom, appearing more human, spending time with Gris as a child. There was no over-the-top musical spectacle. Just the bond that they share in silence. And we’re immediately convinced that this is a common occurrence between the mother and her daughter, because of how often we see the statue as it watches over her like a protective figure, despite being inanimate for most parts of the game. It shows us how her mother means to Gris and how heartbroken she is when she had to face her passing.

Realistically, we share multiple sets of memories with the ones we love and care for. These memories are usually spread across several events in our lives. But in a film or a video game, with their time constraints, we cannot just squeeze every memory into it and expect the audience to just play along. After all, this is a sentiment held by the character, not the audience. So to allow the audience to feel invested or even empathetic, we must know how to convince them to. Showing a series of memories that are loosely tied to what is taking place in a story would not guarantee a cohesive plot. But showing only one or two at a time might just do the trick. Given it is done correctly.

Entry

Persona 3 Portable: From MC to FeMC

To many RPG players, it is common to find ourselves in the situation where we have to decide on the identity of our main character. And it would usually start with the question of which gender would you like to play as? To note, this does not reflect the players of how they identify themselves as, because I’ve seen a lot of my male friends that identify as he/him, who would create their online gaming avatars as female.

Not judging. Just stating my observations. I don’t want to delve into that issue because that’s a whole other behemoth of a topic to discuss about, filled with antagonistic comments just waiting beyond the veil. Instead, I want to look into the game itself. And in this post, I would like to discuss about the Persona 3 Portable game, which provided the players with a choice of being either a male or a female protagonist. Additionally, what we can observe from both playthroughs, is that there are significant differences in the dialogue and choices that you can take as a female or male character.

From the get-go, we start with a confused protagonist (either as a male MC or as a female MC, lovingly and neutrally referred to as FeMC) who was thrown into the world of Persona 3 at the stroke of midnight. After witnessing a series of strange incidents, our protagonist actively took part in what was happening by taking up the SEES gun (SEES: Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) and entering a battle with the monsters of the Shin Megami Tensei universe: the shadows.

After the first battle with the shadows, we’re introduced to the other characters. Most of them are your housemates at the dorm and you’ll spend a lot of your time with them. Over time, you get to interact with more people and you build more relationships with people outside of your dorm and outside of your school. In terms of the game mechanics, the idea of having a variety of other characters helps the player spend their in-game time and also as a method to expand your selection of Personas, which you can unlock when you get closer with these characters. They are referred to as ‘Social Links’ (which were later renamed as ‘Confidants’ in Persona 5). In terms of these Social Links, we can also see that there is some form of variety as to who are assigned to each link. While there are still some Social Links that are shared between the MC and the FeMC, the changed ones can either be your friends, or they can end up as your lover(s). However, you can choose not to pursue these romantic interests. However, be careful not to lead them on, because if you do and you reject their confession(s), you’ll break your Social Link(s) and therefore you had to start over from scratch.

It is later revealed in the game that the backstory of the protagonist (both male and female) are the same. However, from the interactions that both characters are able to take, we can see that they have more differences than similarities. Therefore, we can see that, unlike many other RPGs with the selection between a female or male version of the same protagonist, these two characters are basically two different people with the same history. This proves that you can’t immediately assume how a person would be like just because they share the same background as someone else.

But these characters aren’t exactly playing their gender roles as we’ve come to know, especially when we’re referring to a lot of mainstream anime and JRPGs, where most of the leading ladies have a rather conservative nature, minus the occasional bursts of energy. But it’s pretty common for them to blush at the suggestion of something indecent.

And then there’s FeMC…

I’m not saying that she’s the only female JRPG character who would say something like that, but it’s pretty rare and I appreciate that they are. Overdoing the gag would take away the originality of a character. Emulating them is okay, but I don’t like my characters being carbon copies of something that has already existed in the archive of fictional characters.

Creative Writing

Ephemeral Harbours

There is shelter amidst the squall
Away from the wild seas and tempests blown from the East
A grip strong enough to hold a ship together, that was barely holding herself
How could harbours be as strong as they have?
How do these harbours stand in the days of late?
How would they fare?
Do they carry on with such strength and resilience as they’ve come to be known for?
Or do they tremble in the eye of the storm?

And what glorious storms they must have been
To shake the unshakeable
Thoughts are like winds that carry 
And collected in these sails
May this ship go forth
Be it at another harbour or be it at the open sea
May she find a place of rest and peace

Entry

A Garden of Light

It wasn’t the lights that attracted her to the place of pleasure and exhilaration,
but she was beckoned by the calls of her childhood memories.
Back when everything was different and she had the assurance that today would be just another day and tomorrow was something to look forward to.
It was a truth that she had long sought,
one that she had momentarily forgotten.

The longing was growing into desperation as the time went by and she wanted to see the place again.
The stagnation amidst the bright lights and chaos in children screaming for their parents’ attention: they were usually her weakness as she would admit in defeat at the blaring sights and sounds.
That, however, wasn’t true for her now.

She wanted to find it.
She needed it.
She would wallow in the sameness and the noise.
She would feel at peace.
She would find herself again, and her childhood memories would help her ignite her hopes and dreams that were long buried.
A self-inflicting action that she had come to regret, for time was the looking glass she required, only to find it too late.

She had found it shattered and there was no way of fixing it.

Entry

Takeaways: The Chef Show

takeaway (noun): a key fact, point, or idea to be remembered, typically one emerging from a discussion or meeting

Throughout the show, we can see that both Jon Favreau and Roy Choi are continuously learning from other cooks about techniques that they’ve learnt and practiced, which is nice rather than having a singular Mr (or Ms) Know-It-All throughout the series.

Jon said something similar in the beignet episode, and it feels assuring that even someone who’s accomplished much in his career would admit that a mistake was done, and then shared the experience with others. No room for ego if we want to grow!

“Chef” is a film released in 2014, directed and starring Jon Favreau, accompanied by stars such as John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, and many more. The spin-off cooking show from the film, “The Chef Show”, premiered on June 7th, 2019 on Netflix and it is honestly the nicest, most inspirational show I’ve watched recently, and it had gotten me out of the rut. There’s just something about it that is so “human” and it warms my heart to watch ambitious people pursuing their dreams. But that didn’t stop there. It reminds people that if you want to make something work, you need to collaborate.

From the get-go, we’re introduced to Jon Favreau and Roy Choi, who are the hosts to the entire show. They visited different places and restaurants, they visited friends at their homes, and they shared their experiences about food, their careers, their struggles, and they could either be the greatest actors to fake sincerity, or they are just honest about it all.

I’d like to think that it’s the latter with these guys.

Cooking shows in the 2010s can get pretty weird. I mean, there are the competitive kind, and there are the talk-show style cooking shows where the audience would applaud the celebrity chefs at every possible opportunity (either when someone is slicing tomatoes in half or bringing out a pre-made cake from the oven). Then there are the more conventional types of cooking shows where one person is just moving about in the kitchen and doing all the narration, like shows by Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsey. Travelogue-style cooking/eating shows are still a thing (RIP Anthony Bourdain). And then, when it comes to “real” cooking, they always end up looking like a documentary series or a feature that explains cooking in regard to a different subject, such as a person or an event. Take Sophie Dahl’s “The Marvellous Mrs Beeton”. I loved this one, but unfortunately it was only a one-off show. I guess “The Chef Show” is one of these types of cooking shows, too. But instead of focusing on one person or historical period, it shows the real life and times of the people appearing on the show; People you can still relate to.

Entry

Blade Runner 2049 (2017): A Worthy Sequel

Warning: The following entry contains spoilers for the original Blade Runner (1982) and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017). If you have not watched these films yet and are planning to, I advise you to click away and come back after you’ve done so. However, if you’ve watched both of these films or if spoilers don’t scare you, you plucky reader you, do feel free to stick around.

It was in the middle of Film Theory and Appreciation class. As usual, I was sitting in the front row of our small classroom, eagerly awaiting the film our lecturer Mr Khong was about to play. We were discussing about postmodernism in films, and of course, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was an ideal specimen for us to scrutinise.

It didn’t take long before I realised that I had seen this film before, but growing up in a conservative family, the kids were not allowed to watch films with ‘adult’ themes. So I only remembered fragments of the beginning, namely the establishing shot of the city. I recalled feeling confused by the oversized digital billboards, entranced by the bright neon lights on buildings and umbrellas, and also the craving I get for instant ramen when Rick Deckard was ordering food at the roadside stall. I wasn’t allowed to watch the scenes after that back then, probably because of the violence and nudity that appeared later on. Right now, I’m still unsure of which version we had, so I’m just going to leave it at that. The one that I watched later on as a student in college was the 2007 Final Cut version, if any of you are wondering.

Moving along: I didn’t watch Blade Runner 2049 when it first came out in theatres, mainly because there were a lot of sequels that came out around the time and I have a series of bad memories when it comes to them, generally falling under the umbrella of “Why was this movie even made?” argument. Therefore, I only watched it recently one day when I was having a lunch break by myself and wanted to watch something on Netflix.

The verdict? I thought it was good. Okay, fine. It’s a great sequel! It’s worthy of the title. The characters, the plot, and the twist-ish ending were all done well, in my opinion. I haven’t felt emotionally invested while watching anything in the longest time, because foreshadowing can really be on the nose in some films. As a result of that, whenever I spot a character who’s waving one too many death flags, I just naturally brace myself to not get emotional when they die or when something terrible happens to them. Well, this is a better move than to not give me a pay-off after the foreshadowing, which is a pretty cheap excuse to put in a “twist ending”, or have the writers/director go “Hey, remember this plot device?” right in the audience’s faces.

I have to admit that I was surprised by how strongly I feel about this film. It may have to do with the aforementioned scepticism I have for sequels. Anyway, this film took advantage of an aspect of sequels that not a lot of films did, especially sequels that were not originally part of a series like Harry Potter or Star Wars.

First of all, Blade Runner 2049 saved time in terms of establishing the premise of the cinematic universe, because that was already done in the first film. Yes, it does have some form of exposition, but the most obvious one that we get is the text we see in the opening:

I’m going to segue back to the original Blade Runner film for a bit. The biggest theme of the film is the distinction between human and replicant, which is something that looks very much like a human being, only they were manufactured. So the issue is this: How can something that looks human and thinks like a human being not be human? Rachael, who is a replicant, was revealed to not be aware that she was a replicant in the beginning. She was given memories of a childhood when she had none, and she has shown emotions that were supposed to be naturally human.

Coming back to the sequel, we don’t need to be told about this again. However, we were given a brief refresher of this by Sapper. Amidst the brawl between Sapper and our protagonist K (reference to Kafka’s The Castle? Or am I reading into this too much?), the former remarked on how different the two of them are, despite them both being replicants. Then, he noted that they are different because K has not witnessed a miracle like he had. Sapper’s faith in something unexplainable by logic is, again, very human. And in contrast, the human characters, such as Lt. Joshi and Niander Wallace, were depicted as individuals who lacked empathy by how they treated these non-humans, despite their intended design.

Take Mr. Wallace for instance. For someone who manufactures replicants, he should be aware of how they looked like, despite being visually-impaired. If he wanted these replicants to not appear human and have human-like behaviour, he could have made the changes to make them appear less like a real person. A change in design could explain the lack of empathy shown by the humans to the replicants because, after all, they don’t even look like us. However, that’s not the case. Replicants, even the new ones, looked very much like humans and they expressed human emotions such as fear, anger, and love.

I wish I could say the same for Joi, but despite her appearing genuine in most scenes, the moment after she was ‘decommissioned’, we were shown another massive billboard scene as if to tell us that all the things she said about love and loneliness were most likely choreographed to an algorithm that matched what K wanted. Of course, this wasn’t the first time the audience is shown who, or rather what Joi really was. The film told us this already at the midpoint of the film, and that was before K headed out to Vegas to find Deckard.

Additionally, I would like to point out that this remark on the irony of humanity or non-humanity was not spelt out for the audience. The first film did a more subtle job than the sequel, but this is still good. Because when it was once again time for an exposition, the scene was delivered in a meaningful manner, and truth be told, I felt K’s shock and shame when he realised that he wasn’t so special after all.

Among the many scenes that foreshadow the ending is the Vegas scene when K arrived to find Deckard. Flashing lights from the stage against the darkness of the hall, the sporadic music that blared from the speakers, and also the selection of music in the hall were enough to make us feel uncomfortable and second-guess when the next interval of music is going to play again, and hence reflecting what the duo may be feeling upon this introduction to one another.

Science fiction, much like fantasy, is like a gateway to endless possibilities and themes that could be jarring and/or offensive when they are put in real-life scenarios. Which is why, unfortunately, there are a lot of newer films, books, video games, etc., in the speculative fiction genre that can get rather messy when they want to be inclusive or as the savvy kids call it, edgy and #woke. However, they end up spreading themselves too thin and while some people can appreciate having a lot of themes included within a single film or book, others might find it disorientating. Hence, this is why I find myself enjoying Blade Runner 2049. True, the themes are not as complex as, say Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell (Sorry, the 2017 live-action remake was fine, but the themes discussed weren’t as critical as Oshii’s first Ghost in the Shell film). However, the Blade Runner’s sequel knows where it’s going from the very beginning, and that already deserves a gold star.