Meaninglesness and meaning in Grand Theft Auto IV, and (Failure of) Satire and Theme in the GTA Franchise

When GTA IV came out in 2008, I was in college. I was initially blown away by the huge surge forward in graphics, the densely packed traffic patterns, the highly detailed streets and buildings down to litter and graffiti. The character designs were on another level altogether, and the characters themselves felt different. More mature, I thought. This story was darker and edgier. It wanted to say something, about the failures of the American dream as viewed from an illegal immigrant trying to make something of himself in the land of opportunity.

Niko felt different for a GTA protagonist, as well. He was brooding and moody. He mourned his past; he was scarred by it. His course through the game was the result of his efforts to run from and violently confront that past. The opportunity to spare some enemies on some missions, and occasionally encountering them later to show the effects of that mercy, allowed for a more nuanced protagonist. He wasn’t just a mindless killer. He regrets killing, even as he accepts it as his necessary lot in life.

Then there was the ending. The player is allowed to read into the story a myriad range of motivations for Niko. The opportunity to spare or kill certain key figures led to different dialogue and different interactions, even if on a small scale, that could guide the player to see Niko’s path differently. The level of actual player agency and influence on the plot was minimal, of course, and Niko often fell into old habits as the story dictated, but these small touches gave weight to your final choice at the end. The one big choice: do you choose to seek revenge for a betrayal by an early associate, or do you put the past behind you and opt to work with the snake for one more deal? Revenge could send the man’s entire criminal organization after you. Working with him opened yourself to the potential for more betrayal. (Choosing to select neither option, of course, prevents the story from moving forward, but the game also encourages choice because there is the narrative threat that the failure to act at all could trigger events that would send all parties after you.) Regardless of your choice, one of Niko’s most loved friends would die.

That all sounds interesting on paper. But on my recent playthrough of GTA IV, I noted more than ever the dissonance between plot, ambient narrative, and the player’s playground space.

Yes, the plot tries to be edgy, dark, complicated, and morally gray. In some ways, it succeeds. And the incredible length of the game–it’s a little too long, a little too bloated, with a little too many predictable betrayals and failures–gives the player ample time to observe Niko, to grow familiar with the character in cutscenes and in moment-to-moment gameplay. Niko’s arc is a slow burn, and left to player choice in the end, but the amount of time spent chronicling his journeys makes that arc feel earned, regardless of how it all plays out.

Still, Niko is ultimately as much a blank slate as any other character. While the outings you can go on with his friends over the game provide times where he opens up about his past, he is typically rather tight-lipped about his history and present emotional state. He is stoic, and the player is invited to read into that stoicism whatever they want. Perhaps his protestations over killing are merely a social nicety, something he adopts because he recognizes the badness of his behavior but is unwilling to change. Perhaps he hurts deeply with every killing but feels trapped by his life choices, the debts and obligations he is bound by, such that he can only continue to do what he knows. But that’s all determined by what the player reads into the game. On some level, the ambiguity is a reflection of the game’s writing and the voice acting, but on another level, it’s merely a byproduct of embodying a character whose inner thoughts are concealed. We can similarly read a considerable amount into Link or Master Chief or Mario if we so wanted, attempting to read an inner life based on outer actions.

Furthermore, the brooding antihero was such a fixture of dramatic entertainment in the 2000s. Think shows like The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy. The bad guy who does bad things, the sociopath who is moody in place of a personality, is a cliche now. It was already a comfortable and popular trope by the release of this game. And V suggests that this has become Rockstar’s new favorite character type.

When we look at the game world, though, we don’t see a dark, grim, gritty reflection of Niko’s own proposed journey. These games invite chaos. Walking down the street could lead to a brawl or a gunfight. No one’s going to spend more than 5 minutes attempting to obey the rules of the road when police in-game only care about striking pedestrians or cop cars. You get easy access to weaponry and a delightfully zany, “living” world to cause mayhem in. There’s a gratifying feedback loop to the chaos. Things happen at player direction–colorful explosions and vivid animated acts of violence. Killing the right targets can reward you with money and extra ammunition. Police chases are a delight, with higher levels of police interest broadening the area of red-and-blue-flashing minimap you have to escape from. It’s an interesting series of player-directed challenges, and the open-world nature makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

But even if you were to adhere to all the rules of civil society in the open world, the game’s story has plenty of violence and anarchy on its own. To get through that story, Niko must kill a lot of people. Many might deserve it, including treacherous and psychopathic gangsters. Many others don’t. (Although the depths of depravity the player must participate in to complete the story are easily topped in GTA V with its infamous torture sequence.) The nature of the base gameplay and the story missions undermines whatever Rockstar might be trying to say about its protagonist or about the immigrant experience.

Rockstar can’t seem to separate its gleeful in-your-face impulses from its attempt to cultivate “deeper” themes. One hyper-focused example: Niko can date a variety of women in the game, including one lawyer who has a history of obsessing over her criminal defense clients (she has a propensity for dating them, a serious ethical violation of course played for laughs). She believes that the police in the city are barbarous and corrupt, inclined to unfairly target immigrants. Niko uses this to his advantage, as he can call in her help to lower his wanted level if she likes him enough. Her political beliefs are a joke–yes, the police target Niko the immigrant because he is in fact a very dangerous criminal! Whatever could have been said about the authentic immigrant experience is lost in conflating immigrants with crime and failing to offer any alternative narrative.

Furthermore, despite the attention to detail in architecture, city design, and a sense of lived-in grime, the game is still populated by the over-the-top personalities and products familiar to any player of the earlier titles. The ads are blown-up parodies of real-life commercials. The game’s producers seem to sneer at the hypocrisy of a prudish American culture in which sex nonetheless sells. Billboards for Pisswasser beer (an obvious knock on domestics like Budweiser) lean hard into sexual imagery, with sleazy models in exaggerated sexual positions, pantomiming sex acts with bottles of the beer in question. Radio segments laugh at American obsession with convenience and selfish decadence, parodying online delivery services with products like Babies Overnight (itself an in-joke exaggeration of the Pets Overnight product/service in earlier games). There is a parody of conservative talk radio, hosted by a jingoistic idiot who believes in violating the liberties of others to preserve “freedom,” who speaks of sexual purity while suggesting a closeted homosexual life. For that matter, a major political figure who ties into the game’s main story is a gay-bashing conservative who has a secret homosexual lover (a friend of Niko’s, in fact). And on the other end, the public radio option has snobbish liberals interviewing vapid celebrities alongside preening politicians, the programs descending into virtually unintelligible chaos. In between the political extremes, Lazlow is, as always, Lazlow.

GTA IV pretends to be a serious story, but most of your time in game is defined by the basest sort of satire. And I think that the Grand Theft Auto games fail as satire largely because they never really have anything interesting to say. They create straw men, fill them up with the wildest speculation and cruelest stereotypes, and guide them through a series of orchestrated hijinks. Left, right, and center are all foolish, they say. Corporate America is the enemy, but so too is any activist effort. Everything is bad, and trying to fix the bad things is worse–it’s hypocrisy. The only right answer is to adopt a nihilist perspective; enjoy the chaos, because you can’t ever hope for anything better, and if you do hope for something better, you’re an ineffectual clown.

GTA IV, like the other Grand Theft Auto games, is undeniably satire. It certainly mocks human folly. But its effort to shock and subvert everything ultimately feels inauthentic. It suggests that its creators have no real beliefs. Efforts to burn everyone, to shock the audience, mean that no institution or value is left standing. The worldview of the games is one in which everything is bad, corrupted. Its criticism is often shallow; it’s fine tossing out the worst homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynist vitriol so long as it’s put in the mouth of a character who is implicitly “wrong” for saying it. In standing for nothing and mocking everything, it feels a bit try-hard in its irreverence. Keeping in mind that it’s a massively successful video game in a very popular franchise made by a large game production empire, it’s as if Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” had become a real-world corporate ethos.

Maybe it’s an unfair standard to hold any satire to, but if it’s going to be successful satire, it should endeavor to say something! Grand Theft Auto‘s anti-corporate nihilism reads as increasingly cynical and yet naive, especially given that Rockstar is a tremendously successful company that produces a product very much so in the vein of the unnecessary luxury goods that the GTA games love to lampoon. Its angry fuck-you to the world feels increasingly feigned, especially from the point of GTA IV and onward, once the franchise had become a juggernaut and produced increasingly polished gameplay, elaborate plots, more developed characters, and detailed and expansive worlds. GTA IV refuses to have a true philosophy. It hates the left and the right, the politically detached, the politically ambitious, the philanthropists and the selfish, the rich and the poor. It hates cops and criminals, and it hates those of us just trying to get by within the system too.

But it doesn’t have all that much to say about that system, or about the cops and criminals it concerns itself with. It jokes about police brutality, but it doesn’t critically examine the issue. Police are presented as brutish and corrupt in the game, which only gives greater justification to fleeing from and shooting them. Even if you wanted to be law-abiding, every game in the series eventually turns to missions that involve shooting legions of police officers. (Perhaps its biggest fantasy is that you could kill even a single cop without becoming public enemy number one, your days numbered as you merely tried to stay one step ahead of the law.)

It doesn’t have much to say about what makes people criminals, either. All the games in the series I’ve played–IIIVice CitySan AndreasIV and its two expansions, and V–feature protagonists who are already hardened criminals. Some of them are trying to get out of “the life,” like C.J. in San Andreas, Niko in IV, and Michael in V. Some of them are career criminals who have no doubt about their chosen lifestyle, like Tommy in Vice City, Johnny and Luis in The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, or Franklin in V. Trevor, the third protagonist in V, is just a hedonistic, ruthless, unhinged psychopath, while Claude in III is a voiceless enigma. While some of these characters’ backstories are developed over the game in dialogue, we only get a vague portrait of their lives before the games, and there is the disconnect between the character we know and play as versus the character they once were or view themselves as. Frequently in GTA games, characters express remorse or sympathy, but the hectic and violent lives they lead in missions and while the player simply explores the cityscapes are often at odd with these expressed attitudes. One thing though: these games want us to know that criminals are always criminals. You don’t tend to run into innocent people. If anything, the games message that even seemingly good people are fundamentally bad, twisted, depraved.

And another thing: cops are treated as somewhat universally cruel. Bad people become cops in GTA games. They abuse their authority. That abuse of authority is broadly applied in all contexts. There isn’t really any place for acknowledging actual systems of oppression, abuse, and imbalance, such as systemic racism, within the game systems or plots of GTA games. While the games have introduced more diversity in their protagonists over time (though still always male, cisgendered, and heterosexual), the presence of black and brown leads hasn’t seriously brought the unique challenges to those communities to the forefront of the games. It could be done–consider what the team behind Mafia 3 designed. But the closest we get are the corrupt cops harassing gang members in San Andreas, culminating in the game’s own version of the 1992 LA riots. Even then, the cops are simply corrupt, abusing their authority for profit, while the black protagonist and his black and brown allies are admittedly thugs, murderers and drug pushers, and the pressure from the cops often seems appropriate.

A pet theory of mine is that the GTA games are thematically concerned with natural law as a guiding concept beneath the veneer of nihilism. It’s really outside the scope of this essay, but I do find that if the games say anything, they say that a man of principles is honest with himself and those around him. He does not suppress elements of his personality, no matter how awful they are. He should expect loyalty from others for exhibiting his authentic, toxic self, and he should be loyal to others in turn. A betrayal of loyalty is the biggest sin. For instance, in GTA IV, much of the conflict in the games is guided by a protagonist loyal to a friend, or a friend’s lack of loyalty to the protagonist. Many of the twists and turns in the games are marked by betrayal. Its triad of stories as shown through the perspectives of Niko, Johnny, and Luis could be described as tales of loyalty in the face of addiction. But those often feel less like deliberate themes and more the necessities of attempting to create some sort of virtue within fundamentally unlikable, bad people.

Satire largely fails in these games because they do not attempt to project any deeper narrative or thematic concern. They attack and trivialize everything they touch, and in so doing, they suggest that everything is valueless.

A GTA Series of Posts to Come

All the recent hours in Grand Theft Auto games has the series, particularly its themes and characters and locales, taking up a lot of mental real estate for me. As such, there are a series of topics that I want to explore. For now, that includes:

  1. Why I believe the games fail as satire;
  2. How Grand Theft Auto V let down its female characters;
  3. The ways in which Grand Theft Auto V references, celebrates, and mocks its predecessors; and
  4. How removing the HUD and radar radically improved my San Andreas experience.

I’ve already posted a relatively long essay that could be boiled down to why I prefer San Andreas over the other games. It probably also functions as an introduction to this series of essays and why I feel motivated to write them. I hope to continue to post them over the next week. Why the planned increase in posting frequency? For one thing, the topics are fresh in my mind, and I’d like to get them down on paper (or in a digital file, more likely) as soon as possible. For another thing, I’m most definitely not going to make this blog primarily about Grand Theft Auto. Many people love the series. Many others hate it. I happen to be among the former, but there is a lot that I dislike about each game I’ve played in the franchise. They’re deliberately distasteful, and their edginess often comes from punching down and reliance on broad stereotype. I don’t want to be in a GTA head space forever. And for those who can’t stand the games, I’ll hopefully truncate the time in which you might see me posting excessively about them. Then again, we’ll see how I do with time and motivation over this week.

If you have to tune me out for a while, I’ll understand. But I hope you’ll give one or two of these posts a try, even if you can’t stand the games. Thanks, everyone, for reading!

A couple trips around San Andreas

I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto lately. It’s been something of an obsession, playing these games again. I played GTA IV and went through the ending in which Roman, instead of Kate, dies. This was a first for me, and so I started playing The Lost and Damned to continue exploring old content that I hadn’t given a chance before. I finished that story, so I played The Ballad of Gay Tony, which I’d never touched at all before.

On finishing that, I took a short break from the series before launching into GTA V. I did some things differently and encountered some new content I’d missed before (it’s a very big game), but I certainly didn’t touch everything, and there are still some heist options I’ve never selected. Still, I finished the story. I chose Option C again, working to save all the protagonists and taking out all their enemies, because it’s the only option that feels right to me, after hours playing as all three of the protagonists, and leaving the choice to Franklin, who reads as primarily a loyal follower throughout much of the game and who had just overcome a selfish urge to abandon his old friend in an earlier mission. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to betray a friend after that, especially a mentor. And everyone getting something close to a happy ending feels right.

I took another very brief break before returning to the land of San Andreas in the game with the same name, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s been quite a while since I’ve interacted with this game, and it holds a special place in my heart. It was certainly my favorite of the original 3D era, and even now in the HD era, it’s probably still my favorite title in the whole franchise (with the caveat that I haven’t played any of the 2D games, any of the side Stories titles, or Grand Theft Auto Online, which has certainly become its own thing instead of a multiplayer component to V).

There are many reasons that I’ve always favored San Andreas. For one thing, it’s an incredibly expansive game. There are three major cities and quite a lot of countryside in the game. There’s a whole system within the game of slowly conquering territory in Los Santos to expand the Grove Street Families. It was the first game to allow the protagonist to swim, but it added and refined a variety of other features, like flying planes and riding dirt bikes and parachuting and using jet packs. It also gave the player a lot of choice in what to do, with a range of activities scattered about. And while the entire series’ signature is providing a massive, open world to wreak havoc in, San Andreas leaned heavily into roleplaying territory. You could customize your appearance and work to improve stats. There was even a hunger/energy system that required you to eat to stay alive and healthy but that could also result in your protagonist getting fat if you didn’t stay active enough.

Furthermore, I think the game benefited from being focused on a hyper-specific setting, like Vice City. Whereas all GTA games are dark satires with absurdist elements that often disrupt any emotional depth to the stories, Vice City and San Andreas at least feel like they represent something more than violence and anarchy. Vice City is very much so a parody of Miami in the eighties, and the focus on developing the aesthetic and sense of time/place gives the game what feels like a bit more substance. It helps, too, that Vice City leans hard into particular pop culture elements instead of the usual hodgepodge of crime narratives, benefiting from stories and themes drawn from products like Scarface and Miami Vice. Similarly, San Andreas attempts to emulate Los Angeles in the nineties, and it too draws from specific works, notably hood films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society for its first act.

In addition to all the above, I just really like C.J., the game’s protagonist, and the cast of acquaintances he makes. C.J. is defined by loyalty to his family and friends. He’s a little goofy, has a bad sense of humor, and doesn’t always make smart decisions or think things through. But he is quick to trust those he likes, and his trust is usually rewarded (with two very big exceptions). C.J. wants to better himself, and a lot of the story is about him finding ways to grow beyond the impoverished urban life he came from (it’s a GTA story, so those ways largely involve crime and corruption). And this is the only GTA title I’m aware of to build toward a single, cohesive happy ending. In comparison:

  • In III, silent protagonist Claude is motivated by revenge against a former lover. He makes few friends and seems to have no close relationships. Most of the people around him end up dead–often at Claude’s hand. He betrays and is betrayed repeatedly. And even his triumph at the end feels hollow. The whole game delights in nihilism and dark satire, and that’s reflected in the story. Its misanthropic themes play out to the very end, when it is suggested that he kills a romantic interest he rescues, merely because she annoys him. He is a pure sociopath and develops no true connections with others.
  • In Vice City, Tommy Vercetti is considerably more charming than Claude, but he’s still a thug and a sociopath. He rises to great heights, carving out his own empire in the titular city, but he makes few true friends and mostly succeeds by killing off the competition. In fact, the game culminates in his betrayal by his partner, Lance, who worked in collaboration with his old mob boss. Sure, Tommy ends the game with a small circle of “friends,” most notably the drug-addicted, weaselly mob attorney he connects with at the start of the game, but it’s still a tale that traces its roots to the tragic arc of Scarface, trading out a final death for material triumph.
  • In GTA IV, Niko is repeatedly betrayed throughout. He has at least two friends left at the end of the game–Little Jacob and Brucie. But the game’s endings result in the death of either his cousin, who is also his best friend, or his girlfriend, who is implied to be the love of his life. And Niko never really makes it to the top, no matter how much money he makes. At best, he can scorch enough earth around him to hopefully reach a point where no one is sending hitmen after him anymore. But it is clear that he will remain haunted by his past.
  • In TLAD, Johnny has taken down most of his biker gang. He has only a few close associates left. He’s cut his codependent, drug-addicted girlfriend out of his life. He’s killed some friends and lost some others. And he doesn’t have much going for him. The whole story feels bleak, a narrative of a fall rather than a rise. And given that Johnny and his remaining friends are all killed off by Trevor Phillips early in GTA V, it turns out that there’s no happy ending after the credits after all.
  • In TBOGT, Luis and Tony end up basically where they started. They have the nightclubs and they have each other. But they haven’t really gained anything from their experience.
  • In GTA V, the ending depends on player choice. But only Option C seems like a really happy ending, since a protagonist ends up dead at the hands of Franklin in the other options. I’ll concede that Option C is a happy ending, but it feels more like tying up loose ends in response to plot twists guided by a series of structured heists, the repercussions of Michael’s past actions, and Trevor’s chaotic and unpredictable interventions. Michael and Trevor might be on relatively friendly terms, but there’s still a lot of unresolved hostility between them. And Franklin keeps his mentors and his close friend Lamar, but he still lives alone in a big house. Given that he complains that Michael’s life alone in a big house when his family temporarily leaves him is depressing, it stands to reason that Franklin might be wealthy but still feels as empty as he did at the start of the game.

In contrast, C.J. ends his journey considerably wealthier and surrounded by friends and family. He has found not just material success but happiness. While he had to deal with the consequences of some very close betrayals, his loyalty is largely rewarded, and he ends his adventure having broadened his family to include many new and interesting friends.

That all said, every GTA game is a satire. Every game wants to be loud, shocking, and crass. In attempting to push the limits, the games often veer into shock-value territory populated by shows like South Park or Family Guy. There are way too many “jokes” that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. Even in a game modeled after hood films and following a black protagonist, there is no serious effort to deal with systemic or everyday racism, and to the extent that racist systems are acknowledged, they have no real impact on game systems and often are handled via offhanded comments. (In other words, it’s very clear that these games have been creatively shaped by white, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class male Gen-Xers.) Every game tells a larger-than-life story full of violence, depravity, and mayhem. Even the most mentally balanced of protagonists can be led through wanton destruction between missions under player control, and every game has big set-piece missions involving the killing of dozens of cops and gangsters. These are not games set in a morally just universe, and they are not games about good and true heroes. But San Andreas came closest to telling a story about a hero trying to do the right thing for people he cared about–and actually succeeding.

TCW 7.9: “Old Friends Not Forgotten”

What a rousing start to the Siege of Mandalore arc! From the opening title sequence to the ending cliffhanger, this was another great episode of television–at 30 minutes, still short, compared to the 50-to-60-minute standard of bingeable dramas nowadays, but a little longer than the typical Clone Wars episode or comparable cartoon.

I’m sure every fan delighted in the use of the old Lucasfilm logo and classic film scores. There are also a number of great nods to earlier episodes of The Clone Wars, and to the larger franchise. A particularly great moment for me happens early on, when Anakin uses a faked surrender to secure the capture of a critical bridge–a plot point that echoes Obi-Wan’s delaying deception from the series’ introductory movie.

This episode also lets Ahsoka put Anakin and Obi-Wan to task when she’s reunited with them. She’s clearly learned from her experiences among non-Jedi, and the politicking and cultivated distance from the vulnerable now frustrate her. Obi-Wan continues to act like a model Jedi, but in distancing himself from Mandalore, in trying to respect Satine’s fervent defense of neutrality and pacifism, Obi-Wan presents as weak to his young friend, as worrying more about what the Council will think than what is right. And frankly, I think Obi-Wan’s concerns are justified, but I understand Ahsoka’s perspective, shaped by Anakin’s impulsive, action-oriented persona and further defined by her exposure to the galaxy’s citizens who struggle and suffer because of the Jedi’s neglect of their concerns.

When Obi-Wan and Anakin get called off near the end to rescue Palpatine, Ahsoka gets in a brutal jab at Kenobi. He’s not going to help the people of Coruscant, she says; instead, he’s going because the Chancellor needs help. Obi-Wan says that’s not fair, but Ahsoka retorts that she wasn’t trying to be fair. When this arc is over, I’ll be very interested to rewatch Revenge of the Sith, and I can’t help but think already about how this exchange must color Obi-Wan’s perspective throughout the events of the film. By the end of Revenge, he’s failed his best friend, the Jedi Order, the Republic…and this young self-exile, too. It’s a lot for him to carry.

Ahsoka and Anakin also had a touching farewell, points of which brought me near to tears. Is this truly the last moment they ever had together (until years after he becomes Vader)? While they ended on good terms, will Ahsoka regret choosing to be more distant? It’s very Jedi-like of her to be willing to let go of a friendship, but her attitude toward him, while grateful and respectful, could make him feel that he’s already lost her. It’s not Ahsoka’s problem, but it’s still likely to have had an impact.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the show expects us to understand the Maul situation better than is perhaps warranted. Even having recently finished a rewatch of the earlier seasons, enough weeks have passed with the steady drip of new episodes that I don’t have a crystal-clear recall of what happened at the end of Maul’s reign over Mandalore. And I had read the Dark Horse comic chronicling what happened to Maul after Sidious reclaimed him, but that’s been even farther in the past. While many of the people watching this new season are probably hardcore fans, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are a lot of new viewers, hopping on via access to Disney+. I can’t be the only one straining to recall details, and some might be scratching their heads in pure confusion. Of course, the show has always played rather light with exposition and connective tissue–think of Admiral Trench’s reappearances, or what exactly was going on with Mother Talzin, or even how exactly Maul came back the first time. But just because it’s a feature of the show to avoid clearly explaining developments between episodes or seasons doesn’t make it a good feature. While there was a lot happening, I was surprised that the creators couldn’t take time to provide even a couple of sentences of dialogue to explain just how Maul ended up back in control of Mandalore. Maybe we’ll get that later. Either way, the little bit of confusion this caused me doesn’t take much away from an otherwise great episode.

A mental refresh

I was hoping to use this time of self-isolation to work more on projects. So far, it hasn’t panned out that way. I have the privilege of retaining a paying job through this crisis. And while many people are working from home, and others have to work in fairly close proximity to the public in groceries and hospitals and pharmacies, I can still come into my office, where it’s very easy to socially distance from the few other people coming in. I’m sure it would still be much better for me to stay at home, and that’s an option. I stayed home for a couple weeks while my wife and I were dealing with cold symptoms that could have been something else, just to be safe. We’re both fine, but that time of disruption to my routine was harder on me emotionally than I expected. The days bled together. Rather than being more productive, tackling more writing projects and getting more done around the house, I devolved into my worst habits from my younger years. I’ve been inactive. I’ve eaten a lot of unhealthy foods. I’ve played a lot of video games, mostly nostalgic titles for me instead of anything challenging or fresh. So many hours of video games.

I’m lucky. I could go back into work and restore my routine to some degree. I’m still more inactive than usual. Thankfully, I’ve at least avoided putting on more weight, though my weight loss goals have been derailed for the time being. But it’s amazing how that lack of a routine, even while being able to work from home, disrupted so much of my life and my mental and physical health. It took a couple days of being back at the office to realize I was bouncing back from depression.

Again, I’m so lucky to have a job and to continue to be able to meet my financial obligations. I’m lucky to work in an area in which it’s easy to social distance. I’m lucky that I don’t always have to work from home. It’s still a weird time, and I think the ramifications of this pandemic and our national response to it are affecting us all in weird and sometimes unexpected ways. This too shall pass, and while the eventual reopening of the economy and public life (probably months from now) will surely look different than our pre-coronavirus norms, it’s good to remember that things will reopen, that there will be some sort of return to normalcy. And these disruptions will be worth it in the lives saved.

For now, I’m going to go easy on myself. I hope to post on here close to regularly. I won’t expect more of myself than that. If I take on new projects, that’ll be good too, but I don’t need to demand that of myself. It’s okay.

I certainly don’t mean to downplay the suffering of so many people, from sickness and death and lost jobs and low incomes and exposure to potential harm and exacerbated anxiety in the face of an onslaught of distressing news. But it was nice to write this out and give myself a little space to vent and to reflect.

TCW 7.8: “Together Again”

Ahsoka and the Martez sisters finally escape from prison and resolve the immediate threat of the Pyke Syndicate in this episode, and the Martez arc comes to a satisfying close. After some ups and downs, Ahsoka has earned the fondness and trust of both of the sisters, and she’s realized that she can’t hide from her identity as a former Jedi, nor can she avoid the higher moral calling ingrained in her. As the sisters tell her toward the end, she acts like the model of how they want Jedi to be.

And now we’re off to deal with Mandalorians, Maul, and more. For all I know, this will be the last we see of the Martez sisters, which would be a shame. This episode raced by at a sprint, with major plot and character moments loaded into what felt like near-constant action. It’s an impressive feat. So much is happening this season, but I wish they had maybe a few more episodes in the season to further explore characters like these sisters, or to get into some of the side stories of the war that previous seasons indulged in. No time to think about that, though, it would seem. Onward, to Mandalore!

Review: Onward

Onward‘s trailers didn’t seem very funny or interesting to me. But it came out so quickly on Disney+, and enough people seemed to enjoy it, so my wife and I watched it over Saturday afternoon. I haven’t been so surprised by a film in a while; it was a cathartic, emotionally satisfying, delightful movie that I didn’t expect in the least.

In a very broad sense, Onward is to tabletop roleplaying as Wreck-It Ralph is to video games: an animated family film that takes a pop culture subgenre and builds a mythology around it. Both movies also become stories about sibling relationships (one a found family, one by blood), told over a quest narrative full of zany adventure. I feel that Onward is the more heartfelt film, perhaps because it is a more tailored tale that doesn’t fixate too much on winking references to its pop culture subject matter.

In the world of Onward, the fantasy setting of games like Dungeons & Dragons is the actual history of the realm. Magic was a powerful tool, a gift only present in some and difficult to master. Developing technology made things easier for everyone, however, and magic was gradually phased out. The film’s story picks up in something resembling our modern world, if it was built atop such a rich fantasy setting and populated by elves and cyclopes, goblins and trolls, manticores and minotaurs, pixies and centaurs, unicorns and dragons. The big tabletop RPG of this world, Quests of Yore, is if D&D were a historically accurate wargame.

The protagonists of this alternate-universe story are awkward high-schooler Ian (Tom Holland), his uninhibited (and Quests of Yore-obsessed) older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, in a role that can best be described as early aughts Jack Black), and their supportive mother Laurel (Julia Luis-Dreyfus). The family has done its best to adjust since father Wilden passed away even before Ian was born. However, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel brings down a gift from Wilden that had been stowed away for the day when both of the boys had come of age. That gift, it turns out, is a wizard’s staff, an elemental enhancement known as a Phoenix Gem, and a spell that should allow Wilden to return for one day.

After Barley fails to get the spell to work, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of magic from Quests of Yore, the family dejectedly moves on. But Ian inadvertently discovers that he has the magic gift; since he’s untrained, the spell only works halfway, bringing back the bottom half of their dad and destroying the Phoenix Gem. Barley and Ian team up on a quest using Barley’s old van to track down a new Phoenix Gem and complete the spell so that they have at least a few hours to see their dad. Laurel soon gets involved when she returns home to find her sons missing, and her urgency increases when she learns that the gem they’re hunting carries a lethal curse. The movie deftly juggles between the boys and the pairing of Laurel with The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a former warrior turned frazzled restaurant owner. Added to that mix, Laurel’s new centaur boyfriend, a bland, middle-aged cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) finds himself thrust into the middle of things.

The movie possesses a basic quest frame narrative, and so achieving or failing the quest is of course its central focus. The boys will either succeed or fail; since it’s a family movie, it should be no surprise that they succeed, although how exactly they succeed, and how the movie resolves its various plots, is far more surprising, heartfelt, and interesting than I ever would have expected. The brothers grow a lot and learn more about their own relationship. They both are tested in different ways to prove themselves. Ian becomes a really cool wizard (and learns how to drive!). Barley is a really cool mentor. Laurel is a true warrior at heart.

We had a lot of fun watching the movie, which is genuinely touching and hilarious in equal measures. I laughed a lot. And something about the movie’s emotional heart got me to cry several times throughout. It was a beautiful family movie and just what I needed. I hope you get something special out of it too.