Friday, June 3, 2016

Basic Income (Or "Why Don't We Just Give Everyone Money?")

This Sunday, Switzerland will be voting on a concept called "basic income".

If passed, this new law would guarantee that all citizens of Switzerland would receive about 2500 Swiss francs every month, no questions asked. FiveThirtyEight estimates this as being about the equivalent of $2000 in the US if adjusted for cost of living, and while Nikki Sixx apparently disagrees with this assessment (check the comments of the article), $2000 a month seems like a workable income in the U.S., so I'm rolling with it. Anyway, this payout would be given regardless of income, regardless of employment, regardless of family status, regardless of anything except age and citizenship. Every adult citizen gets enough money to live a reasonably comfortable life.

Now before you go all, "Switzerland must be CRAZY!" you should know that this measure won't pass. When it goes up to vote this Sunday, polls are showing that about 70% of voters will say "no", and the reasons are fairly obvious. Higher taxes, less incentive to work, it's a largely untested idea in the first place... Yeah, the world probably isn't ready for this idea.

But ready or not, is basic income an inherently bad idea, or could it work?

For starters, this idea probably sounds a lot like communism, but that's not quite the case. This would only be communism if this was the only income anyone would ever receive or if it could only be spent on government-approved necessities or something. But all the government would do here is collect taxes and write checks. A person holding a job would still take home their paycheck (minus whatever new taxes were put in place), but then they'd receive another $2000 on top of that each month. So capitalism would still be the name of the game. People who put in the extra work would still be better off than those who don't and the government isn't controlling who gets what income and what they can spend it on. It's just money being funneled through the federal government and going to every citizen (and only citizens, not immigrants who have yet to earn full citizenship).

But communism aside, there are the more obvious problems that we touched on. Higher taxes is the first issue, but let's really figure out what that would mean. I'm not even going to attempt to understand the Switzerland tax system, so I'll apply this based on U.S. tax and revenue. In the U.S., we would need about $7 trillion more each year in tax revenue to pay each adult American citizen $2000 every month. So in other words, it would literally double our current annual federal budget. How much would we need to tax to make that happen? I'm not a tax expert, but just for the sake of argument, let's see what would probably have to happen. Well, let's start by saying that this new system would replace most other need-based social welfare programs like food stamps or what have you, but not programs like Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. We could roll health care into one single payer system (maybe that's pie-in-the-sky, but we're already talking about basic income, so I doubt single payer would be a stretch) and that would eliminate the burden on employers and individuals to pay health care premiums. The main reason I'm keeping Social Security is because people paid into it and they should probably get what they paid in. We could probably phase it out, but it would take a generation, so I won't account for it to help pay for basic income. Anyway, eliminating the other welfare programs would save us about $400 billion annually, which still leaves us with $6.6 trillion that we need to raise. Let's also say that we revert tax breaks for investment income to bring that down to a rounder $6 trillion. Then let's say we find ways to close loopholes and such to make sure corporations and the wealthiest Americans are actually paying the taxes they should be paying (easier said than done, I know, but this is just a thought experiment, so let's go with it). It's hard to know how much that would actually save us, but let's say we get the one-percenters and their corporations to cough up another $2 trillion tax revenue annually, bringing us down to $4 trillion.

To make this slightly less awful for corporations, we could also probably lower or abolish the federal minimum wage. After all, we wouldn't really need it anymore. That combined with no longer having to provide health care to employees would make it a lot cheaper to hire people for smaller, part-time positions.

Anyway, the remaining $4 trillion would be roughly half of our current taxable income each year. Yikes. Well, let's just say that income tax brackets across the board increase by 50% for everyone. Not a flat tax of 50%, but increase all the tax bracket rates by 50%. For example, income taxed in the 35% bracket would instead have 85% deducted. It's extreme, but $4 trillion is a lot of money and this is pretty much the only way we could realistically generate enough revenue to pay for it.

So what would this increase in taxes mean for most working Americans? Speaking for myself, I'd be paying about something like another $30,000 each year in federal income tax.

That sounds terrible, but considering that I'd be making $24,000 a year from basic income, that means I'd be losing about $500 a month. That would suck, but I could manage it. I was able to manage having that level of income a few years ago, so I could probably do it again. I'd just have to buy fewer video games and less snack food, mostly. That said, I do have a bonus, which is that I have a girlfriend. She's unemployed, so she would pay no additional taxes, but she'd get the $2000/month basic income as well, so we'd actually be way better off in this system.

You could say that this unfairly targets the wealthy, but everyone gets the basic income and everyone's tax rates would be increased equally across the board. I'd say that's the very definition of fairness.

It would also mean that lower income individuals would make even less from their jobs than they do now, particularly if we got rid of the minimum wage, but the basic income would more than make up for it. If you make $14,000 a year as a barista, you'd suddenly be making closer to $30,000 a year without needing to negotiate a pay raise or go full time.

And that brings us to the next big obvious problem with basic income, and that's whether or not this would disincentivize work. And yeah, it probably would. I mean, if you can live off $24000 a year and you don't feel like you need more than that, you probably won't want to work.

Well, what's wrong with that? I'm serious. Other than some arbitrary measure of "fairness", I can't really think of a good reason why everyone in this nation should have to do paid work to earn a living, especially when millions of Americans are trying to find jobs and can't.

Hear me out.

We have way more people than jobs, and as we improve technology and operating efficiency year after year, we'll probably continue to have fewer jobs and more and more people as our population keeps increasing.

A common attitude (particularly in America) is that a person shouldn't get something for nothing. They should have to work in order to receive an income. Otherwise they're a burden on society.

Maybe I'm crazy for asking this question, but... why? Why should a person have to work to have a basic existence? I mean, it's not like it's fun to live on a $24,000 salary, but at least it's possible. It allows a person enough security that they can pursue specialized training or an education. More people could start businesses. More people could move to a part of the country that they like, even if it doesn't have a terrific job market. Why should a person have to work at a job they hate to survive and have a chance to pursue their real dreams?

This idea of "everyone should work for a living" made sense when we had more jobs than people, but we've gotten to a point where most Americans don't need to work in order for our economy to stay strong. Heck, having all of these Americans without jobs and without a livable income makes them more a burden on society because they can't buy anything. The problem is that we don't have enough jobs for people to earn enough money to afford that living, even if they want to. The solution seems to be to try and create incentives to create more jobs, but if our economy doesn't need more jobs in order to function optimally, maybe more jobs isn't the best solution. We'd just be having corporations hire extra people that they don't need so that they can work jobs they probably don't want so they can earn a currency that is inherently worth only what we collectively agree it should be worth.

Fiat currency was created to be representative of some kind of arbitrary value for goods and services. It's kind of an abstraction of a trading system. It essentially exists so that a person doesn't take more goods and services from the economy than they contribute. If the work you do produces enough value into the economy to offset what you take, then you provide a net benefit to the economy. The problem is that the amount we're paid often has no direct relation to the value of our work, and this has only become more pronounced as our economy has become more based in services than in goods. People who play professional sports get paid millions of dollars for providing entertainment. How much is that entertainment worth? It's worth whatever people are willing to pay. Meanwhile, a person making minimum wage at a coffee shop is probably generating way more wealth than they're taking home because that person is easily replaceable and has to take whatever pay they can get.

This notion of a worker getting paid less than they are worth is the source of most income inequality and it's what has inspired a lot of communist revolutions in the world over the past century or so, but they often attack the problem in the wrong way. The state would often just control too much of the economy to stifle greedy capitalism. Eventually the workers started to get tired of the government having too much control and not being able to take advantage of their new wealth. To quote from "A Complete History of the Soviet Union As Told By A Humble Worker, Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris":
The winter is cold, I’ve got plenty of gold
And I’m standing in line for a loaf of bread
So while communism fails because it lacks capitalism's ability to grant successful and hard-working people a better standard of living and puts too much power in the hands of the government, this was also happening in an era where powerful nations still needed a lot of low-skilled workers. These days, low-skilled American workers are becoming an endangered species, partially because of foreign labor, and partially because of inevitable obsolescence. We just don't need as many as we used to, and the ones we need are often being filled by foreign workers.

We could try and bring back jobs for these workers, but if those jobs were really needed, they would still exist. Without the minimum wage, perhaps a number of outsourced and downsized jobs would return to America, but probably not enough to single-handedly fix poverty. We just have way too many people.

Having jobs that we don't need--like Wal-Mart greeters for example--would make us feel like these people are earning their keep, but why can't we just be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that a Wal-Mart greeter doesn't contribute any real value to the economy? We're just wasting their time. Why not just give that person $2000 a month and let them spend their time however they want?

And more than that, having millions of Americans suddenly all have a lot more money and time would be great for our economy.

Part of the problem with hoarding wealth is that there are some things that a person usually only buys once or twice. Houses, cars, phones, insurance, movie tickets, you get the idea. Even billionaires generally only buy a handful of these things if they want to collect. But if millions of Americans suddenly got a massive boost to their income, imagine the possibilities. For example, imagine a whole bunch of people moving to Detroit or Cleveland to take advantage of the dirt cheap housing markets. It wouldn't matter that there are no jobs in Detroit or Cleveland. They could just move there and live off of basic income. With more people living there (and with most of them having a lot of free time on their hands), more companies would have incentives to create more businesses in that region, which would improve the economy further.

People without jobs surviving on basic income would probably contribute to society in other ways. Perhaps through art and literature, perhaps through dedicated study of esoteric academic subjects, or perhaps through innovation. Time is a precious resource, and we'd essentially be giving millions of Americans tons of it to do with as they see fit.

There's this cynical notion that if we give a whole bunch of people a ton of free money with no strings attached, they'll just sit around and watch TV all day everyday. And yeah, a fair amount of people probably would. But look at retirement age people. A lot of them try to stay active for the sake of staying active. A lot of them want to maintain a standard of living that costs more than their fixed income can provide on its own. And these are people that have largely earned their rest and could get away with sitting at home and watching TV all day without anyone calling them lazy. If those people are still willing to stay active in our society and economy despite having enough money to survive and no social pressure to contribute, why should we expect younger people to behave any differently?

And really, if a person's instinct is to spend their whole day sitting around and watching TV... why would we want that person to work? If they did, they would probably be lazy workers. Why not just let them stay home if we as a society can afford it? Wouldn't it be nice to go to McDonald's and only interact with employees that actually want to be working there? And besides, those lazy people would probably pump all of their basic income back into the economy since lazy people aren't usually very good at saving money. If that's the case, they wouldn't be much of a burden on society. The people who wouldn't be using the basic income would be the people more likely to lose more money in taxes than they'd make from the basic income, so that would actually hypothetically improve the economy.

We have about 150 million jobs in America and about 300 million adults. If about half of Americans just didn't work, we'd still have enough people to fill all of those jobs. More importantly, a lot of the open job positions in the U.S. simply don't have enough qualified people to fill them, and there aren't a lot of paths that allow lower income people to pursue the necessary training to qualify for those kinds of jobs. Perhaps basic income would give them enough financial freedom to change that.

So laziness probably wouldn't be much of a factor.

The only way this basic income structure wouldn't work (at least as far as I can tell) would be if we as a nation simply didn't generate enough GDP to give everyone a basic income without negatively impacting business. Since my rough calculations required taking about $3 trillion from the wealthy, that means we'd be risking dropping our GDP down to where it was during the Great Recession. The hope, however, is that since that money would be put back into the economy through a sudden dramatic increase in disposable income for about half of Americans, we wouldn't actually see our GDP dip down. The businesses that suffer from higher corporate and investment taxes would likely benefit from being able to get rid of the minimum wage. If we also implemented single payer health care, that would also make it easier for businesses to hire cheap labor since they wouldn't have to worry about expensive benefits. They might have a harder time filling those positions, but that would just create an incentive to either innovate ways to eliminate those positions, or just treat their employees better. Beyond that, business would probably be booming thanks to all of this money being pushed back into the economy. The only difference would just be that people making money in the highest tax brackets would have a lot less of it than they used to, and that would mean less investment and philanthropy. However, regular people could still invest and create new businesses through crowd-sourcing (see Kickstarter) and philanthropy would be less essential in the U.S. as we essentially eliminate poverty.

Obviously, I'm not an economist, so I'm probably not accounting for certain factors. In addition, a lot of this was conditional on the assumption that we'd actually be able to get the wealthy to pay their fair share and that they wouldn't "go Galt" or find other loopholes to exploit. I essentially paid for this by removing most existing welfare programs and then taking $2.6 trillion from corporate income (mostly targeting corporations that make over $1 billion a year in profit), and $4 trillion from the individual income of all Americans. The goal would be to make it so that corporations still had enough money to maintain profitability, and to make it so that people making less than $75,000 a year would see little to no impact on their overall income once you account for the basic income in addition to their increased tax burden. It is said that people making $50,000 a year reach peak happiness. Making more than that doesn't apparently improve happiness by very much. A person making $50,000 a year is about as happy as someone making $1 million a year. As someone who makes more than $50,000 a year, I'd agree that I could probably be perfectly happy with this level of income and making more probably wouldn't make a significant difference in that regard. I mean, I'd be able to travel more and go out to eat more, but right now I have a job I like, a decent place to live, a good car, more than enough food, a cat, good health care, high-speed internet, a great computer, a 50" HDTV, a bunch of video game consoles, and a manageable amount of debt. I'm living the dream and I don't think my lifestyle would change all that dramatically if I made more. I mean, I'm still going to try and make more money because I'd like to pay down debt faster and budgeting is hard, but if I was making $100,000 a year and new tax laws made it so I was instead making $80,000 a year in order to end poverty in the U.S. practically overnight, I think I could learn to adjust. So, in my opinion, so long as someone making more than $50,000 a year doesn't suddenly start making less than $50,000 a year, I don't think we'd severely impact anyone's individual happiness in any significant way.

On of the few complications I can think of is how the economy might respond to the higher demand, particularly as corporations are losing money in tax revenue. They could respond by jacking up prices, but not to the extent that would prevent people from being able to buy things, otherwise they'd be passing up on an opportunity to break sales records. We typically think inflation only happens when the treasury creates more money, but since a lot of this money is kind of already out of the economy, reintroducing it like that might have the same general effect. That's what it's important that a good portion of the money comes from income tax and not just from corporations and investments.

In addition, we'd probably need to produce a lot more goods to satisfy the increased demand. We'd easily have enough labor, particularly if we got rid of the minimum wage, but resources are already a problem and this would likely just make it worse. Still, I think that's the sort of problem Americans are pretty good at solving, and the alternative is basically just throwing up our hands and saying, "I guess America can only support a certain number of people and everyone else has to leave or slowly die."

There's probably a lot that would need to happen to make a system like this viable, but think of all of the problems it would solve if we could make it work:

People over 18 wouldn't have to live with their parents as much.

College would be more affordable.

A person could take their time to find a good job without worrying about whether or not they can pay rent.

Landlords wouldn't have to worry about their tenant's ability to pay rent.

No more food stamps.

Fewer people would have to declare bankruptcy.

Way less crime (at least crimes generally committed out of desperate poverty).

People looking for work will have an easier time finding it.

Employees will work harder because they will be more likely to have a job they actually want.

People will choose professions based on their desires and skills more than what professions are more financially stable.

More people would be able to risk quitting their job to start a different career path or start a new business.

Fewer people would need to work multiple jobs.

More parents would be able to stay at home and raise their children.

Employees would have more leverage in negotiating with their employers without having to unionize.

Populations would be less likely to concentrate in big cities.

Businesses would suddenly have way more customers than before, which could in turn mean needing to hire more employees.

Retail would be more profitable on weekdays as people surviving on basic income wouldn't be busy at work.

We wouldn't have to burden employers with mandated benefits or the minimum wage.

Will the idea as presented in Switzerland work? Probably not. But the general idea itself seems plausible. It seems like it could be the optimal hybrid of both socialism and capitalism where both sides feed one another and keep them balanced. Socialism keeps capitalism from hoarding wealth and capitalism keeps socialism from stagnating the quality of living and crippling small business.

Proponents of basic income say that it will drastically reduce the administrative overhead we have with current welfare programs, that it takes government decision-making out of the equation when it comes to socialism (so government incompetence wouldn't be a potential factor), and that it applies to everyone equally so it seems generally pretty fair.

The biggest obstacle is just figuring out how to make the necessary tax revenue to afford it and to make sure that revenue largely comes from places where the money is just sort of sitting around and not doing anything. Once that wealth goes back into the economy, the system will largely sustain itself through increased consumerism and less administrative burden on the private sector.

I think the main reason I'm currently liking the idea of basic income is because it's more forward-thinking. Our current system isn't sustainable. A distressingly large number of Americans simply have no way to escape poverty, and as our population increases and our work force becomes more and more automated and dependent on foreign workers, this problem will only keep getting larger. It's probably too difficult to try and get corporations to behave in a way that would actually benefit Americans, so why not just let them do what they do and just take half of their money and give it to everyone equally?

Basic income eliminates this inevitable problem and creates a system that is less vulnerable to the ups and downs of capitalism. Yes, it means higher taxes, but it also means smaller government, and unlike taxes that go towards programs that only some citizens benefit from, everyone will receive basic income. Granted, it would only benefit about half of Americans, but the other half would still be doing fine. The wealthy would still be wealthy, just less so, and the poor would have about twice as much money as they currently get from welfare without having to go through the bureaucracy. More importantly, they wouldn't have to deliberately avoid work or luxury in order to continue to qualify, which is one of the current problems with welfare as it can sometimes incentivize a person to not try and improve their standard of living.

In a more practical sense, the biggest obstacle this idea has is just people. Even if a lot of people all agree that it's a good idea, the people who have the strongest influence in our government are the people who would probably be inconvenienced the most by basic income. They like having their exorbitant wealth. But that's one reason why I think it's important to tie this in with eliminating welfare programs and the minimum wage. These are things that the wealthy have been trying to eliminate for years, and the biggest obstacle they have is that eliminating those things would destroy millions of American lives. But this is a system that could work for everyone.

I don't know if I'm 100% sold on the idea. There are probably downsides I'm not considering or anticipating. It needs a lot more debate. And I suppose that's why I'm writing this.

This is an idea that needs to be debated more. Economists should crunch the numbers and see if we could make it work. A smaller nation like Switzerland has to try it out and see if it can work. It's crazy, but not crazy enough to be completely dismissed outright.

Is this is the economy of the future? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Overdue Thoughts on "Deadpool" (the Movie)

I finally saw "Deadpool" last week, and as someone who once wrote a very long (and surprisingly popular) blog post about why Rob Liefeld should stop taking credit for Deadpool, as well as a post about my thoughts on the leaked trailer for the movie, I guess I should probably post a review.

It's fantastic.

Most of my impressions from when I saw the leaked trailer last year were fairly accurate. This is very much the screenplay that got leaked several years ago, but kicked up a notch. I was worried they would water down the script, but they actually did the opposite. Rather than take out fan-service-y stuff and the salty language, they added more in. They even included Bob of HYDRA some random group of henchmen completely unaffiliated with intellectual property owned by Marvel Studios, which I totally didn't expect (I even said as much in my earlier post). They gave Vanessa (who may one day become the character Copycat) a lot more agency than she had in the screenplay, which I was happy to see. Weasel got a lot more to do, Blind Al was included for no good reason (but I'm still glad they did it), and the inclusion of Negasonic Teenage Warhead was great. I don't even mind that her power set is completely different from her comic book counterpart because honestly, the movie's power set for her is way cooler.

The movie has its share of problems. I do think the original screenplay was tighter. The new stuff with Blind Al did kill the pacing a little bit. It's hard to get away with introducing a brand new character towards the end of the second act. They also then spend a few minutes collecting a bunch of weapons only to accidentally leave them in the taxi before the third act, rendering it entirely pointless. Also, I thought many of the action sequences lacked a certain flair. Perhaps I've been spoiled by movies like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", but I rarely felt like the action kept me invested. Even so, they weren't BADLY shot or choreographed, I just wish they tried to push the envelope a bit more. Deadpool allows for some really creative stuff and his most interesting action sequence was at the very beginning of the film. I'd say this is probably just because of the director's relative inexperience. I don't want to rag on him too much, though. He did just fine.

But let's step away from the technical and get a little more nerdy.

I am glad they were pretty faithful to the character's origins, particularly after the travesty that was "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". It was a very pleasant surprise that they stuck so close to at least the main story beats of the character and that they didn't change too much for the sake of making the character more "palatable".


I still prefer his comic book version, and the reason is probably the closest thing I have to a philosophical problem with the film's interpretation of the character.

I like my Deadpool to be miserable.

I won't spoil too much of the movie (not that there's a lot to spoil), but suffice it to say that this is not a sad movie.

You might be scratching your head at that. "Of course it's not a sad movie! Deadpool is a funny character!" you might say. And you're right, but as Carol Burnett said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." In addition, I also find that (at least in Deadpool's case) tragedy is often comedy plus time.

I've written extensively about this already, but Deadpool's character struggle is never really about the struggle between good and evil, but more a struggle between apathy and sympathy. He often knows what the right thing to do is, he just struggles with whether or not he should even bother doing it. His evil isn't a desire to cause harm to innocents, but the kind of evil caused when good people choose to do nothing.

In the comics, his origin pushes him to a point where he little choice but to disconnect himself from reality in order to function. In the Workshop, he's brought to the brink of death so many times that he actually starts to see Death herself. At a certain point, Death becomes one of the few things that brings him comfort. They literally fall in love, and towards the end, he decides to pull a stunt that will both stick it to the people who tortured him while also going out with a bang. He makes a conscious decision to end his own life, but at the last minute, his compassion gets the better of him, activates his healing factor for the first time, and permanently robs him of his ability to die just as he was about to welcome Death with open arms. In the end, he can't even die when he wants to.

His life is such a cruel joke that the only way he can cope is to act like his hallucinations of speech bubbles and comic frames and such are real. He has to believe that there's someone with a typewriter putting him through all of this for someone's sick idea of entertainment, because otherwise, reality is just too much for him to bear. Humor for him (and for most of us) is a defense mechanism.

And since he's so disconnected from his world (out of necessity) it makes it difficult for him to care. He's tried to be a hero on several occasions, but the problem is always that he just doesn't care enough to hold himself to the same code of ethics as the other heroes. He doesn't see the problem with killing a bunch of henchmen because if this is a comic book world, they probably don't have names or faces anyway. And it's hard for him to put in the effort to make a difference when he knows that something will probably come along and ruin it a while later. Even when he gets small victories, in the end, he's never allowed to win and be happy. Comedy plus time equals tragedy.

But the thing that keeps Deadpool (in the comics) tethered is that he can't completely convince himself that he's really just in a comic book. Sure, he SEES all of the comic book trappings and observes how contrived everything always seems to be, but he also knows he's crazy and hallucinates quite a bit, so a part of him isn't entirely sure. There's a part of him that still stays invested, still believes that there's a point to all this, and in the end, that's always what keeps him from going completely dark side. It's the same reason we keep watching "Game of Thrones". We have to hold onto the hope that eventually the bad guys will get what's coming to them and the good guys will be vindicated for doing the right thing. But at the same time, we know that there's a good chance the writer will just slap us in the face and make us sad again.

Alright, so now that I've gone into what I find deep and interesting about Deadpool in the comics, let's talk about his character in the movie.

Everything I've just described has basically nothing to do with the Deadpool in the movie.

While Deadpool in the movie does go to the Workshop and does have to deal with a lot of crap, his torture isn't quite as bad as in the comics. In the movie, they're torturing him to try and activate his latent mutant powers. In the comics, they tried to give him powers, but they assumed they failed, so they just started using him as a live specimen and trying to keep him alive as long as possible so they can perform as many experiments on him as possible. His scars weren't caused by just one incident like in the movie, they were the product of months (possibly years) of experiments, all undergone while cancer ravaged his body and riddled him with tumors. He is a character defined by being perpetually on the brink. He sits on the wall between life and death, he sits on the wall between good and evil, he sits on the wall between comedy and tragedy, and similarly, he sits on the fourth wall between reality and fiction.

In the movie, Deadpool's fourth-wall breaking has no clear reason for existing other than "he's Deadpool". Sure, he feels disconnected in the same way as his comic book counterpart, but we never really see what brings him there. We never see him reach the point where he gives up, and to me, that's an important part of Deadpool's character. Almost every other comic book superhero reaches a point where they either choose to give up or stand up and fight, and Deadpool in the comics uniquely tried and failed to do both. He couldn't save his friend and he couldn't get the release of death that he craved. He didn't want to exist, but he was left with no other option. When you have to live a life you don't want, and you have incredible (almost unimaginable) power, what do you do with it? To me, that's the central question of Deadpool as a character.

In the movie, Deadpool does have the moment where he tries to be a hero and fails, which I'm glad they included, but he never gives up. Vanessa always drives him through the plot. She's his tether.

In the comics, Deadpool and Vanessa did have a similar relationship, and it is important. I also vastly prefer Vanessa in the movie, for the record. However, once Deadpool in the comics leaves Vanessa to go to the Workshop, he has no intention of returning to her. He wants her to move on without him. She stops being his motivation at that point in the comics, though that's probably out of necessity since Vanessa has her own thing going on in the comics and if she continued to pine for him, it would be weird that she never mentioned him before they retroactively decided that they were a thing.

My point is that Deadpool in the movie is perhaps too conventional. I never felt like there was something deeper going on behind his hijinks. At his best, Deadpool can be like the Shakespearean "fool" character, who serves both as comic relief, but also as scathing satire of the world he inhabits. He never really reaches that level in the movie, and I think that's my biggest problem with it.

All that said...

I think that this Deadpool still works on his own merits. Yes, he's substantially different in many subtle ways from the comic book version, but I recognize that I'm probably in the minority when it comes to wanting to see a more depressed and scarred Deadpool. I'm a privileged middle-class white American, so I can identify with someone struggling with existential nihilism and having a hard time giving a shit. The movie Deadpool appeals more to people who recognize that we're all in a shitty place, but that doesn't mean we have to let it get us down. Perhaps we need more comic book movies about that and fewer movies in general about depressed white guys who are sad about having incredible power and not knowing what to do with it.

This is a more optimistic Deadpool, and while it's not the Deadpool I fell in love with, I still think it works and he's probably a better fit for a movie than my Deadpool would be.

Still, the fact that I have to cut this deep in order to find a serious criticism is something I never thought I'd ever get to do. I was afraid the movie would turn out like the terrible video game that came out a few years ago. I was afraid it would completely misunderstand the character and be oppressively unfunny for the entire duration.

After "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", I never thought we'd get a Deadpool movie good enough to warrant deep criticism. I'm a big fan of Deadpool, and even I thought that an R-rated faithful adaptation of Deadpool would tank at the box office. I never thought Fox would let it happen, and if they did, I assumed it would then serve as a financial justification for why they would never let something like it happen again.

I'm so happy I was wrong.

Not only did they actually make almost exactly the sort of Deadpool movie I hoped they would make, it kicked ass in the box office, proving once again that conventional wisdom is changing.

Oh, and my last big concern going into the movie was that it wouldn't be very funny. While the trailer made me laugh a few times, the "red shirt, brown pants" gag fell really flat.

Much to my delight, this movie is hilarious.

Honestly, the "red shirt, brown pants" gag was the only joke that made me cringe in the entire movie. Just about everything else lands perfectly. Even seeing it with a small audience didn't diminish the laughs I had all the way through.

Part of what makes the comedy work is the chemistry between the actors. The cast here is phenomenal, and even the weakest performance (Ajax) wasn't really all that bad.

The decision to make Colossus purely CG was weird, but I understand why they did it (they don't want to worry about having to recast him in a future X-Men movie).

While the movie's pacing is a bit clunky, I don't really care that it is. The stuff with Blind Al is fantastic and really brought me back to the Joe Kelly comics that I loved.

I'm so glad this movie actually happened and I can't wait for the sequel. I hope we get more stuff with Blind Al and Weasel, I hope Bob makes a return appearance, I hope they give Vanessa her mutant powers, and I really can't wait to see how they deal with Cable.

Maximum effort!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Guilt Trip: Why I Hate the Genocide Path of "Undertale"

A little over a week ago, I was shocked to discover that my brother had not heard of "Undertale". I could understand that he hadn't played it yet; I had only just finally gotten around to playing it myself. But given how universally praised the game has been, particularly with all the "Game of the Year" accolades it has been receiving by the fistful, it was surprising that I got to be the first person to tell him about it.

It's a somewhat difficult game to sell, which is probably why so many critics have put it on their "Best of 2015" lists as a short way of saying, "This game is really good," and getting people to play it without having to spoil any of it.

And... well, yeah. This game is really good. Particularly the first time you play it.

This post isn't a review (at least not per se), but if that's what you're looking for, suffice it to say that I highly recommend playing it.

A friend of mine has been obsessed with this game for months. She hasn't been playing it that entire time, mind you. She hasn't played it since she reached the ending a second time and she swears she never intends to play it ever again. But she can't stop thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it, watching Let's Plays of it...

And it's not that she has seen all there is to see and done all there is to do. In fact, there's a LOT of game content she hasn't experienced for herself. My brother (who picked it up after I made him aware of it) also intends to leave the game (for lack of a better term) "unfinished".

If you know nothing about "Undertale" (as I did before a week or so ago), this might seem confusing. Why leave a game unfinished? And while fans of the series like to be coy about it because "you have to experience it for yourself", I personally disagree. The reason is not that shocking and doesn't really give away anything about the story. It perhaps gives away what kind of story "Undertale" is, but I don't necessarily think that ignorance of that aspect makes the experience any better. It's not like there's a big twist or anything that hinges on this. That said, SOME "Undertale" fans would likely tell you to go in and play it knowing absolutely nothing. I personally find that irresponsible, but I'm probably in the minority on this, so if you'd rather trust the majority over me, you should probably stop reading this post and go play it a couple times. Or rather, play it once, reload your save, do some extra stuff, and then beat it again to get the "True" Ending (assuming you qualify).

Alright, time to dig in.

So if you took the advice of the multitudes and played this game knowing absolutely nothing about it, you probably experienced one of two possible situations:
1) You accidentally killed a couple monsters early on in the game, got one of the "Neutral" Endings, and then had to play it again because how were you supposed to know that you couldn't kill ANYTHING!
2) You played with a walkthrough because as soon as you heard there was a "True Ending", you wanted to make sure you did everything you needed to do to unlock it.

However, if you ignored the advice of the majority of fans and are reading this before having played "Undertale", allow me to pull back the curtain slightly: There are TECHNICALLY several different "Endings" to the game, but none of these are actually endings because at the end, the antagonist of the game shows up and asks you to do it again without killing anything. Even if you did go through without killing anything on your first try, you'll still have to go back and complete a few more errands before you get the "True Ending". And if you go through the game killing everything... well, we'll get to that more later, but suffice it to say that you won't have a good time.

See, "Undertale" has a minor narrative conceit (one of many) where your character's ability to use save points is actually canonical in the game. Your character is literally time traveling every time they return to their SAVE (as the game calls it). And when you "finish" the game and choose to start over from the beginning, your character is technically time traveling back to the beginning of the game. This means that if you play another game, the ending you just experienced wasn't actually an ending because your character's story is continuing in a fifth-dimensional sense.

As interesting as that is, it's my first gripe with "Undertale". I don't like the "True Ending" or as it's more commonly known, the "True Pacifist Ending". Not just because you pretty much can't achieve it without a walkthrough, but because if you follow a particular path, you'll never be able to see it at all without cheating.

I don't know why they feel the need to include the "Pacifist" qualifier, because honestly, not only is this the "True" ending, it is pretty much the ONLY ending. The other endings don't have satisfying conclusions. Unlike a game like "Mass Effect 2" where the "less than perfect" endings are all still legitimate endings for the game, if you don't play "Undertale" in exactly the way Toby Fox (the creator) intends, he doesn't want you to enjoy the conclusion.

That might seem harsh, but while I do love "Undertale" and still recommend it, I was pretty annoyed by the "True Ending" and how it is presented in contrast with the other "endings".

I went in knowing that you weren't supposed to kill anything. This game was originally pitched as "a traditional role-playing game where no one has to get hurt." This was a big selling point for me because I've always wanted more games that treated this option with seriousness. Some games LET you play a game without killing anyone, but few games actually acknowledge it, let alone reward it. Sure, you can play through "Fallout 3" without killing (almost) anything, but the game doesn't care if you do. No one is impressed by your moral fiber. No achievement is unlocked.

The "Metal Gear" games have always encouraged pacifism without necessarily requiring it, which is one thing I've always loved about those games. So knowing that "Undertale" carried on that tradition was exciting to me.

However, in "Undertale", doing a pacifist run isn't just an option, it's the only valid option.

Like I said earlier, if you do any ending other than the "True Pacifist Ending", the game asks you to try again until you do. If you do get the "True Pacifist Ending", the game literally asks you to put the game down and never ever play it again because everyone has a happy ending. Why would you want to spoil that by sending your character back in time?

For starters, the thing that makes games like "Metal Gear" and "Mass Effect 2" great is that the different paths you can take are all equally valid. When you finish, it doesn't tell you that you played the game wrong and tell you to do it over again. And when you play the "ideal" way, the game doesn't end by asking you to never play it again.

And you know what? I VASTLY prefer the so-called "Neutral" endings of "Undertale" over the "True Ending". In the "Neutral" endings, the third act confrontation is far more interesting, the boss battles are more exciting and harrowing, and it changes based on whatever choices you made along the game. The "True Ending" on the other hand skips over my favorite boss fight of the game, changes the varied and interesting final boss with a far less interesting boss, and gives you an ending that is 100% exactly like everyone else's. And then it tells you that you chose correctly and guilts you into never playing it again.

Now here's the kicker. As I mentioned, there's another path you can take where you decide to kill everything instead. The problem is that if you complete it, the game will remember it forever and you'll never EVER be able to get the "True Ending' again (unless you monkey around with the game data in your computer). The game will never forgive you for it.

This is why my friend will never play along the third route. Because she likes her happy ending and knows that if she goes down that dark path, she'll never be able to get that happy ending back without cheating.

So when I got the "True Ending", I did a reset. Like I said, I didn't even really care much for the "True Ending", so I didn't really care about losing it. I wanted to experience the entire game. So I started again, this time killing everything.

Hoo boy.

So this run is known by the fans as the "Genocide Run". Toby Fox apparently prefers to call it the "No Mercy Run", but I have my own name for it...

"The Guilt Trip"

Now I'm going to avoid explicit spoilers for the actual content of the game, but seeing as most people probably aren't going to experience "The Guilt Trip' for themselves, I feel justified in talking about what it's all about in the vaguest of terms. Nothing I say will spoil the "Neutral" or "True" runs of the game, and I won't even spoil the specifics of anything in "The Guilt Trip", just the broad strokes. Now, without further ado, let's talk about "The Guilt Trip".

I hate it.

I genuinely think that the way it exists and the way it is presented not only hurts the game as a whole, it's also incredibly judgmental, sadistic, and infuriatingly smug.

It's entirely not worth it, and before fans jump down my throat... I KNOW, OK? I get that it's SUPPOSED to not be worth it. That you're SUPPOSED to regret doing it and that you SHOULD feel bad for pursuing it.

And you know what? The game explores that stuff really well. There was a lot of really interesting potential in this ending. But certain choices Toby Fox made for "The Guilt Trip", particularly the very end, make it go from a fascinating exploration of the gamer psyche to what is essentially a never-ending punishment. Toby Fox isn't Hideo Kojima. He's Ramsay Snow. Oh, and if you decide not to play it and just watch someone else play it, he's punishing you too. He actually apparently hates you even more because you don't even have the guts to do it yourself.

So if no one was supposed to play it or even watch it, what the fuck were we SUPPOSED to do? It's not like it's completely optional, either. There's important story information that you ONLY get if you play through "The Guilt Trip". Without it, the fandom's understanding of the game series would be incomplete.

And yet Toby Fox punishes us for trying to experience it.

It's one thing to punish somebody with the intent that they learn and grow from it as a result. But that's not what Toby Fox wants. Remember, if you complete "The Guilt Trip", you will NEVER get to have the "True Ending" unless you cheat, meaning that no matter what, you'll always be guilty.

Toby Fox doesn't want people who complete "The Guilt Trip" to learn and grow. He wants to hurt them.

And I'm not just talking about people who do "The Guilt Trip" because they're actually sadists and want to watch everyone die. No, trust me, "The Guilt Trip" is directed SQUARELY at people who do it entirely because they're reluctantly curious. Even if you feel bad every step of the way, in Toby Fox's mind, that makes you even worse.

That's what Toby Fox is punishing. Not malice, not sadism. Heck, I think a sadist would enjoy this path a lot more than I did. No, Toby Fox is punishing curiosity.




This path is Toby Fox saying, "What, you thought my 'True Ending' wasn't good enough? Well screw you! Here's an even WORSE ending! And you are going to have to fight REALLY hard to get it. And I won't even let you play the game again afterwards until you sit in front of a blank screen for 10 minutes. Go fuck yourself."

Now, I understand what he's going for. He's saying that the greatest evil in the world is perpetrated by people who commit evil without actually admitting that they're evil. They do it out of curiosity or ignorance or a sense of the greater good. That part I'm totally OK with and I actually think it's really interesting and well-executed. And if he stopped there, I probably would be applauding it right now.

But that wasn't good enough for Toby Fox. He needed to be a sanctimonious prick about it. He had to punish the player as if they were ACTUALLY a sociopath. He had to impose ACTUAL consequences. And then he presents an ending that's abrupt, unsatisfying, and lazy. Rather than accept that the motivations for why a player goes through "The Guilt Trip" are complex and treat the player with respect (especially after everything they've been through), "The Guilt Trip" is the forbidden fruit, and Toby Fox cackles with self-satisfaction while playing both God and serpent.

What this SHOULD have been was a recommended starting point. Your character starts out behaving like a character in a typical RPG where you're expected to fight and kill everything. Then the game makes you feel bad about it. Then you go back and do it again with mercy. Your character learns that not everything is as it seems and to give peace a chance. Then you complete the game with the "True Ending" and can put it down with satisfaction because you've seen everything there is to see and you've grown as a person.

Nope. Can't do it that way. And if you could, I would vastly prefer that overall path. Too bad. Like I said, if you complete "The Guilt Trip", you can't get the 'True Ending", so the game is essentially forcing you to get the "True Ending" first.

This is not an oversight. This is 100% intentional. Toby Fox WANTS you to never see that part of the game. Well, that's not exactly true. He does want you to see that part of the game, but only so he can make you feel bad for wanting to see it. That's why he set it up this way. Rather than accept that people are capable of learning and growing, he prefers to make it so there's no way you can ever feel 100% OK with ever doing "The Guilt Trip".

I would be OK with "The Guilt Trip" if there was a way to get a slightly different version of it that doesn't permanently fuck up your game so long as you don't do it after you get the "True Ending". I think that if somebody chooses to do "The Guilt Trip" after experiencing the "True Ending" when there is an alternative, then the way it's presented makes sense. Then there's evidence that the player truly doesn't care about the characters and is just doing all of the endings for the sake of completion.

But no. Toby Fox wanted to make a point, and that point required restricting the player so that the only way they could experience the whole game was if they did the "True Ending" before "The Guilt Trip".

And just to reiterate, the point that he wanted to make that was SO DAMN IMPORTANT was... that you are a terrible person for wanting to see the whole game he created.

It has no justification other than sadism, smugness, or perhaps both.

And the biggest problem with this is that it flies in the face of what this game demonstrates through one of its characters.

So now I'm finally going to get into SPOILERS in order to explain what I mean in greater detail.

The character of Asriel is essentially the main antagonist of the game, and like the player's character (Frisk), he can use SAVE points. And something you find out during "The Guilt Trip" is that Asriel did the same thing as you. First he went through and made everyone happy, but that wasn't good enough, so he went through and killed everyone just to see what would happen.

And yet, in order to achieve the "True Ending", you have to forgive him. He is the one that pleads with you to never play the game again because he's finally found happiness.

Asriel gets to have the arc that the player SHOULD have, but cannot have.

When you complete "The Guilt Trip", you destroy the world. Then, if you start up the game again, after waiting 10 minutes at a blank screen, you are given the opportunity to recreate the world by giving up your SOUL. This returns the game to more or less what it was like before, but now, if you try to get the "True Ending", it will be implied that your character will turn evil and murder everyone again. Your character is now soulless and beyond redemption.

So Asriel is forgivable, but Frisk isn't? Why?

And inconsistency aside, when you play through "The Guilt Trip", the game is so passive-aggressive in so many ways that it feels like it tries to make itself less enjoyable just to hammer the point home even harder..

Puzzles? Meh, we solved most of them for you. That's not what you REALLY came for anyway, is it?

Fun characters and antics? Nope. Too happy or interesting. You just want everything dead, right?

Final boss fight? HAH! The real final boss is also done for you and the last boss you DO fight... Well...

OK, I have to talk about this before I keep going.

The battle with Sans is INFURIATING.

He's the last boss that you actually fight, and he is INSANELY difficult. But not for any fair reason. No, Sans cheats.

He invents new mechanics that are not used at any other point in the game (poison and dodging), he hits hard with moves that require dozens of attempts to figure out, he starts attacking you IN THE MENU, and you have to attack him two dozen times before he actually fucking dies (and he dies off-screen to deny you the satisfaction). Oh, but before you get the last hit off, he tries to cheat AGAIN by refusing to end his turn. You have to beat him by sitting still and waiting for him to fall asleep, and then you have to budge your SOUL icon over to move the rectangle to the FIGHT button in order to win.

I spent something like 6 hours fighting Sans.

With every other boss fight, even the ones that were actually difficult, I always felt bad about winning. I love most of these characters and it hurt to kill them.

But Sans? I wanted him dead. And I'm glad I killed him. I never really thought he was that interesting in the first place.

And how does the game reward you for suffering through this?

You walk into a room, lose all control or ability to change the events, and watch as characters say a few creepy lines and then kill the game. No end credits, no request to try again without as much murder. Just done. And then you're either irredeemably evil or a cheater.

It's a huge slap in the face.

"The Guilt Trip" isn't fun. It's grueling and punishing in every sense of the word.

And the most frustrating part is that it COULD have been great. The stuff that Asriel/Flowey says towards the end about how he went around killing all of his friends just out of curiosity because his ability to SAVE meant that he wouldn't have to suffer consequences is GREAT metanarrative stuff. It's deep, it really hits you in the gut, and it makes you think about just how sociopathic it is to go through every possible path in a game just to see what it's like.

But by forcing the player to suffer unavoidable consequences as a result of doing it means that unlike Asriel, Toby Fox doesn't think we deserve redemption.

Why not? Why go through all of that stuff and make the player suffer if not to help them learn and play games more thoughtfully?

Well, it's because he's not trying to teach the player anything. He's not trying to give them the arc he gave Asriel. He's making a point about what he dislikes about games and gamers. He's soapboxing.

In other words, "The Guilt Trip" is not a real ending.

It's a trap.

Not unlike the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit, there's no right answer. If you obey God's command, you'll forever remain ignorant of the nature of good and evil and everything the world has to offer. If you deny it, you'll gain new knowledge, but you'll forever be exiled from the Garden of Eden.

So fuck you, Toby Fox. I don't want your "True Ending" again anyway. It's preachy hippy dippy garbage where everyone's problems can be solved with the power of friendship.

The battle with Asgore in the "Neutral" path is AMAZING. It's one of my favorite things about the game. Having it replaced with a corny scene where the entire cast shows up to tell Asgore to stop being a meany is eye-rolling and lacks the depth that it has otherwise. The Asriel fight is OK, but it's too similar to every other fight in the game. The Photoshop Flowey fight is WAY more visually interesting and memorable.

So no, I'm not going to change my game data to undo my "Guilt Trip". I will wear it like a badge of honor. Toby Fox can make me feel like a bad person, but I'm fine being exiled from the Garden of Eden if he's the God who rules it.

I just finished playing through another "Neutral" run, which thankfully isn't changed by my "Guilt Trip". In the end, Flowey asked me to play again without killing anyone (I killed one or two minor monsters at the beginning of this run).

Sorry, asshole, but if I'm not going to be forgiven, neither are you.

"Undertale" is a great game and even after all this, I still recommend it, but because of Toby Fox's preachy self-indulgence, it falls short of being one of my personal favorite games. My favorite games are games that I can pick up and play again and again to relive the experience. Toby Fox went out of his way to make sure I wouldn't want to do that.

Fine, Toby.

You win.

I hope your "victory" is as hollow as you decided to make mine.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Unanswered Questions - A Review of "The Force Awakens"

J.J. Abrams has finally figured out the solution to his Mystery Box problem.

If you're unaware, J.J. Abrams is somewhat infamous for a TED talk he gave a long time ago where he explains his philosophy when it comes to creating an air of mystery around his work.

Anyway, so one of the things that I bought at the magic store was this: Tannen's Mystery Magic Box. The premise behind the mystery magic box was the following: 15 dollars buys you 50 dollars worth of magic. Which is a savings. Now, I bought this decades ago and I'm not kidding. If you look at this, you'll see it's never been opened. But I've had this forever. Now, I was looking at this, it was in my office, as it always is, on the shelf, and I was thinking, why have I not opened this? ... But the thing is, that it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. And what I love about this box, and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential. And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.

The Mystery Box has been present in everything J.J. has created. It's why his trailers tell you next to nothing about the movie, why so many questions are always tantalizingly left unanswered, and why "LOST" was so popular.

However, the Mystery Box has always had a major flaw that J.J. Abrams never found a way out of. While he could set up questions and mysteries better than many, unlike in real life, he could never quite leave the box unopened. Infinite possibility space is exciting, but it's exciting because eventually the box is going to be opened and since it's a big secret, we imagine that it will be something incredible.

J.J. Abrams has never ever paid off a mystery in a way that was worthy of the setup, and that's largely because he doesn't have a very good imagination. This was the biggest reason I was worried about him taking on "Star Wars". While I knew he was a fan, I could see that he was setting up a number of mysteries that he was ill-equipped to pay off.

But, thankfully, he finally cracked the formula. He figured out how to pull off his Mystery Box, and the solution is actually fairly simple.

He just decided not to answer the questions he raised.

This obviously wouldn't have worked in many other contexts. A self-contained movie can't set up things and then refuse to pay them off. But this is "Star Wars".

J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan set up great questions and mysteries and then decided to pass them off to the next team that's handling Episode VIII.

"The Force Awakens" is the beginning of a relay race. Like "The Empire Strikes Back", it's an exciting and wonderful entry in the series, but it only succeeds because it doesn't have to carry the burden of story alone.

It reminds me a lot of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek", which similarly was a good setup for a new franchise, but this time around, Abrams won't have to follow it up. This will be left to a filmmaker with a greater wealth of imagination and narrative talent.

And that is what makes "The Force Awakens" work as well as it does. J.J. Abrams gave us his gift of setting things up while sparing us his inability to do anything interesting with it.

I know I sound backhanded in my praise, but let me make it clear: I love "The Force Awakens". As of this writing, I have seen the movie twice, so it passes my "Attack of the Clones" test (the first time I saw "Attack of the Clones", I had such a good time that I was convinced that the movie was amazing, upon a second viewing I realized how much a midnight showing can influence your feelings of a "Star Wars" movie). It easily has the best acting and dialogue of any "Star Wars" movie, the new characters are, with rare exception, incredible and fascinating.

But for all this movie does well, its successes are afforded entirely by deciding to leave Chekhov's Guns laying about all over the place. Who is that? How did they get that? Why did that happen? Even the titular "awakening" is left completely unexplained or even remarked upon beyond that one line that you probably already heard in the trailer.

It's all done so that the movie's pace sprints along for the entire duration. There's no time to explain! Just take this! Go here! Do the thing! FIGHT! FIGHT SOME MORE! RUN!!!

Let me make something perfectly clear... this should not have worked. The plot of "The Force Awakens" is basically just "A New Hope" with names changed around, which was one of the things I was dreading. And the movie moves along so quickly that most casual audiences won't notices or care. But I did. And in spite of myself, I loved it anyway because these characters are just that good.

I love them all and I want to know more about them.

I wish this movie gave me more than it did, but I'm also glad it didn't, because Abrams and Kasdan were probably unqualified to do more than they did.

So what we end up with is a movie that leaves me wanting more, and since I know that we'll be getting more, that can really only be a good thing, so long as the movie itself isn't skippable.

I think "The Force Awakens" could have done a number of things better, that they could have put more effort into thinking things through as far as the world-building was concerned, but I love it for what it does right and what it wisely chose NOT to do.

That's about all I want to say without going into specific details. I loved it. It's not perfect, or even close, but it does enough to justify its existence and it serves as a spectacular new foundation for the Disney era of "Star Wars". Go see it if you haven't yet, because everything else from hereon out is SPOILER territory.

Now that we're all in the know here, let me get the big obvious stuff out of the way first.

Yes, I'm a little disappointed that Finn isn't a clone, but it's just as well because he's not Force-sensitive either. And Finn is still a spectacular character. After having so many great trooper characters in the "Clone Wars" cartoons, it's great to finally have a prominent central character that embodies that kind of role, right down to the "nickname". Also, having an ex-trooper around creates a great way to bring up things about the troopers that we never knew before. We learn all kinds of things about troopers that we never had a chance to learn before because there was no way to organically bring it up in the story. Finn does that job, and on top of that, manages to be a wonderful character in his own right. He's clearly in over his head, but when he's in the thick of it and things go his way, his excitement is downright infectious.

I'm glad that Rey isn't just another Skywalker, but this is one of those mysteries that will probably never have a satisfying conclusion, which is why I hope Rian Johnson doesn't lean too heavily on this. Still, Rey is easily the most intriguing mystery the movie leaves for us. She's clearly very gifted with the Force. And not just because she's able to resist Kylo Ren's mind-probing or because she masters the art of Force Persuasion without even understanding how she did it. When she touches Luke's lightsaber, she demonstrates a very rare ability in the universe known as psychometry, a gift that canonically has only been demonstrated by the character Quinlan Vos. It is what (probably) allowed her to see glimpses of the lightsaber's history. As I've only seen the movie twice, I haven't been able to recognize everything, but we definitely saw a hallway in Bespin where Luke Skywalker fought Darth Vader and we definitely heard the line, "You've taken your first step..." which is probably from Obi-Wan telling Luke that he'd taken his first step into a larger world on the Millennium Falcon (where the lightsaber had also been present).

Put simply, Rey is a prodigy, perhaps eclipsing even Anakin Skywalker's gift, and he was the bloody Chosen One.

But Rey has no prophecy. No known family name to live up to. No training or understanding of what she's capable of. She is likely tied to the "awakening" Snoke referred to, but we don't really know what that means. All we know is that she's absurdly powerful and a very very fast learner.

Rey is the infinite possibility space that J.J. Abrams always aspired to create, and she is his greatest triumph. She's without question my favorite character in the movie and the one I want to know the most about.

Poe Dameron is a great character, but he doesn't get a ton to do. For some reason, Abrams decided that the movie would be more interesting if we thought that Poe was dead for about half of it, and I don't really know why. I mean, yeah, it gives us a great scene where BB-8 is sad and it pays off when BB-8 finds out he's alive again, but there was no reason we couldn't have had a side-plot showing Poe waking up and getting back to the Resistance, giving him a chance to have more screen time and to show a little bit more of the New Republic.

And that's one of my biggest beefs with this movie. We don't even get to see the New Republic in any meaningful way before the First Order destroys it with Starkiller Base.

Now, I know they basically did the same thing in "A New Hope" where the senate was dissolved only a short while after we found out it existed, but the destruction of the Old Republic took three whole movies to accomplish, and the Empire that took its place also took three movies to destroy. I know the New Republic isn't exactly completely destroyed, but without the senate or their fleet, they might as well be.

I can't help but wonder how the First Order was able to build a planet-sized super-weapon that literally eats stars without the New Republic or the Resistance knowing. The far less powerful Rebellion was able to find out all about the Death Star, which was much smaller and stealthier. And we know that the Resistance didn't know about Starkiller Base, because otherwise, they probably wouldn't have been wasting their time trying to find Luke.

I did like the symbolism of the destruction of Starkiller Base. Rather than just exploding and leaving a blast of particles, it crumbles away and gives birth to a new star. It's not just destruction, it's creation. It's pretty cool.

Sorry, got sidetracked. Poe is a great character and I hope we get more time with him in the next movie.

Kylo Ren is a captivating villain, but he's really hard to pin down. Sometimes he's flippant, other times he's disarmingly straightforward. He's unpredictable, but I think it's largely because of how inconsistent he is. One thing that really confuses me is when the unfortunate officer tells him about "a girl" and he completely loses his shit, Force-grabbing him instantly. It suggested that he knew something about this girl, but it turns out he knew absolutely nothing about her. I thought maybe he knew that she had something to do with the "awakening" that he and Snoke felt, but he seemed shocked when he discovered she was Force-sensitive, so that couldn't be it. The only conclusion I can draw, therefore, is that he just irrationally overreacted to finding out that there was a girl involved in the droid's escape.

Don't get me wrong, I love Kylo Ren. I agree with a lot of people who say that he's kind of what George Lucas was trying to accomplish with Anakin, but well-acted and compelling. I think he benefits from the fact that he's not a Sith. There aren't a lot of good reasons for someone conflicted with the light side to be loyal to the Sith without being put under severe mind control, but Kylo Ren seems to be trying to blaze his own path in the dark side. Obviously, he's being manipulated to some extent by Snoke, but Snoke also gave him a certain degree of trust. There's still a lot more we have to learn about him and what drives him, but his relationship with Snoke feels less like Anakin's relationship with Sidious, and more like Luke's relationship with Yoda. Snoke reluctantly sent him off to confront his father, and now that he has proven himself, he must return to him and complete his training.

Actually, I've noticed that the biggest difference this movie has with the Original Trilogy is that the bad guys are sort of the rebellion this time around. Starkiller Base wiping out the New Republic's military and senate was akin to the Rebel's destruction of the Death Star in "A New Hope", and the destruction of Starkiller Base is kind of like the destruction of the Rebel base on Hoth in "Empire" (it's even on an ice planet). The First Order is back on the ropes, and while they'll likely have time to lick their wounds and rebuild their strength while the New Republic fills the power vacuum and starts building a new fleet, they didn't quite overthrow the government in control of the galaxy, just like how the Rebellion didn't quite finish off the Empire just by destroying the first Death Star.

I like this not just because it forces the good guys into a slightly different position, but because it means that the nest movie can't just be another "Empire Strikes Back". If anything, it'll be more like "The Republic Strikes Back".

What I find most interesting is that while General Hux is fixated on destroying the New Republic, Snoke and Kylo Ren seem vastly more interested in finishing off the Jedi. They prepare to attack the Resistance not because they want to finish it off, but because they want to do it now before they have a chance to find Luke. The rest is just politics.

Speaking of Luke... While I'm glad they explained that Luke tried to recreate the Jedi Order but Kylo Ren killed them all, they didn't really explain why Luke reacted by going into hiding. The best guess I can come up with is that Luke went to the first Jedi temple in order to try and rethink his approach to rebuilding the Order, so that his next attempt wouldn't result in failure, but it seems kind of weird to decide to do that before dealing with Kylo Ren and Snoke. That seems like it should be Priority One. Then again, Luke has always been pretty bad at prioritizing.

Maz is a really interesting character, and what I find even more interesting is that she's the only character we've met who was alive when Yoda was born (I suspect this is intentional). Not unlike Yoda, she acts as a very wise character, but I like that she's not a hermit. In fact, she's the exact opposite, running a cantina. While the cantina scene is probably the most shameless homage in the film, it serves as a great way to introduce Maz and to give Finn and Rey their "refusal of the call to action" they're supposed to have in order to satisfy the Campbell formula that was a great inspiration for the original film.

Still, there are a lot of weird choices where the movie is blatantly repeating stuff from the old movies, but decides to arbitrarily change the names and practically nothing else. Jakku is a desert planet that looks almost exactly like Tatooine, but with only one sun. Aside from that difference, it's practically identical, from the architecture design to the moisture condensers. Yes, I know that a desert planet would always need moisture condensers, but do they have to be the same ones? This is a completely new planet and since they made the conscious decision to make it not be Tatooine, they should have gone the extra mile and made it different in ways that weren't so pointlessly superficial. If they wanted it to be Tatooine, it should have just been Tatooine.

I think that's probably part of why I have a hard time saying that I like this movie better than the prequels. Yes, the dialogue and acting is far superior, and the mixture of practical and CG effects is blended in a way that is far more believable, but the prequels were inventive and bursting with actual creativity, not just the infinite possibility space given to us by Abrams, which is basically just a creativity IOU. Naboo, Coruscant, Kamino, Mustafar... these locations were memorable, iconic, and felt far bigger than what we got in "The Force Awakens". The closest we get is Maz's planet, Takodana, which I couldn't even remember the name of without looking it up, and even that basically just looked like Yavin IV with a cool cantina in it.

I really wish that George Lucas had acted as a Producer for this film, because his obsession with world-building was sorely needed for this film. Without the characters, the worlds Abrams presented to us would have felt far more lifeless than anything in the prequels. Thankfully, the characters make the world feel genuine, making up for this rather significant shortcoming.

If I was being honest, I'd say that I like this movie about as much as "Phantom Menace". I like it way more than "Attack of the Clones" and a bit more than "Return of the Jedi", but I think I like "Revenge of the Sith" just a little bit more.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but having seen "The Force Awakens" twice, I don't really feel like there's a lot of meat on the bones here. "The Force Awakens" is perhaps a less frustrating film than any of the prequels, but it's also significantly less ambitious. I'd probably be less reluctant to show this film to a random person, but I'd be less likely to watch it on my own. It feels like exactly the sort of movie George Lucas was deliberately trying not to make when he made the prequels. He clearly didn't want to just retread his earlier work.

I feel like the perfect "Star Wars" movie is something in between "The Force Awakens" and "The Phantom Menace". Relying heavily on great characters and great acting, but taking place in a world that is fully fleshed out and visually breathtaking and trying to do new things. Perhaps that is why "A New Hope" is so remarkable, even when compared to the other entries in the series.

I'm hoping that Rian Johnson will restore balance to the franchise. I think that Abrams has given him an incredible new place to work from, and I'm excited to see just where this whole thing is going, but I have a feeling that in a few years, "The Force Awakens" will be seen as the weakest movie of the sequel trilogy.

I've pretty much said everything I wanted to say, but I'm going to finish with a few stray thoughts and observations:

- So is Finn going to have a cyborg spine now? That could be pretty awesome.
- Is Chewbacca just going to chill out and wait for Rey to train with Luke? We didn't see him leave with the Falcon after dropping Rey off.
- I think that when Kylo Ren is saying that he'll finish what Vader started, he's not talking about ruling the galaxy or whatever, but bringing balance to the Force. I think that Kylo Ren believe that in order for the Force to be truly balanced, the Jedi must also be destroyed, just like the Sith. Hence why he created his own schism with the whole Knights of Ren thing, obsessed with Darth Vader, who betrayed both the Jedi and the Sith, ultimately serving neither. Perhaps his devotion to the dark side is out of necessity in order to destroy the Jedi.
- Is the New Republic going to rebuild the senate? Who's in charge now while they go about rebuilding everything? Leia?
- Did Leia ever train with Luke? Why didn't she become a Jedi? Was she afraid that she'd turn to the dark side? She does internalize a lot of tragedy, what with her home planet getting blown up in front of her and all.
- Seems like Chewbacca's family is officially non-canon now. The way Maz referred to him as her boyfriend (even if it was just a joke) suggests that he's single. Plus it looked like he was flirting with that doctor. Lumpy will not be missed.
- The fact that Kylo Ren recognized Anakin's lightsaber suggests that he's seen it before.
- I wonder if Kylo Ren was actually named Ben or if he was named Obi-Wan and Ben was just his nickname, much like how it was for the original Obi-Wan. Either way, when Han cried out, "Ben!" that was probably the closest I came to tearing up.
- Kylo Ren holding that blaster shot in mid-air was probably the single coolest thing in the entire movie.
- The music was lovely, but John Williams didn't really seem to stretch himself creatively this time around.
- The instant bread thing was pretty damn cool.
- The wreckage from the Battle of Jakku was probably the only thing about Jakku that was unique and interesting, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Jakku's culture or history. Still, the wreckage was very visually interesting.
- I think C-3PO's red arm is cool. I hope he keeps it.
- BB-8 is a marvel of practical effects. I love him.
- I like that when Finn reveals that he lied about being with the Resistance, Rey didn't really get upset with him. I hate that whole "liar revealed" trope and it was nice to see them side-step the whole thing.
- Maz is lovely and i hope she shows up in the eventual Yoda anthology film.
- General Hux is interesting, but he's no Tarkin.
- Did Kylo Ren lose his helmet? He left it on the catwalk, so I doubt he had time to get it before the planet became a sun.
- If Starkiller Base absorbed its sun, where did the light come from in the later scenes? I think it was a possible missed opportunity for some cool light design during the final battle.
- Why were there only X-Wings during the Battle of Starkiller Base? Where were the Y-Wings or B-Wings? I mean, especially considering how the main objective was to blow up a very specific part of the base, you'd think Y-Wings would be ideal, what with their bombing capabilities. Heck, why didn't the Resistance attempt to fight a land battle on the base? The First Order didn't seem to have AT-AT walkers and the like. This wasn't like the Death Star where landing on the surface wasn't possible because it didn't have an atmosphere. Starkiller Base was a planet. It was weird that they didn't fight on it like a planet.
- I really liked the riot trooper with the stun baton, but why was he there? It didn't look like they had qualms about killing innocent civilians or whatever. Why bring the nonlethal guy? And more than that, why didn't he try shooting at Finn? He recognized that he was a trooper, apparently, so he probably could have assumed that Finn wouldn't have been able to reliably deflect blaster shots like a Jedi would. Maybe he wanted to take Finn alive so he could be court-marshaled or something?
- I realized the second time around that the trooper that died in Finn's arms at the beginning was shot by Poe. I wonder if Finn was aware of this. Did he know the guy?
- I always find it funny when spies and scoundrels just randomly talk into their comms saying things like "Tell the First Order something something." Shouldn't they start by saying something like, "This is such-and-such. Do you copy?" Otherwise, their important message might be missed while the other guy is on the crapper.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Star Wars" and Cynicism

I've been trying to write a post about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" for a few months now, but I've never really been able to write something that I was OK with posting, and ultimately, I think it's because I always end up sounding cynical.

I truthfully have mixed feelings about the new movie. On the one hand, I can't wait to see it. I haven't been this hyped up for "Star Wars" since "Revenge of the Sith". On the other hand, I have a lot of reservations about J.J. Abrams' capabilities as a writer and director, and it's not hard to cut together a good "Star Wars" trailer, so I tend to take them with a grain of salt. However, as soon as I start going down the path of talking about all of the things that bug me about what I've seen so far, I start to hate the way it all sounds.

It isn't fair for me to be cynical about this next movie, because honestly, the cynical part of me wants it to be terrible. J.J. Abrams is exactly the sort of "Star Wars" fan that has done nothing but whine about the franchise since "Return of the Jedi". Since I was a kid, all I ever heard from those fans was how much everything sucked. Ewoks sucked, the Special Editions sucked, Jar Jar sucked, the new puppets sucked, the lack of puppets sucked, Anakin sucked, etc. and why oh why can't they just make a movie like they used to!

And now Disney is doing exactly that. Old cast, old methods, a plot that seems to be a carbon copy of "A New Hope" but with different names and places, and disregarding almost anything that has transpired since J.J. Abrams was a kid (unless it happened to make millions of dollars).

A lot of people see this as a love-letter, but at my worst, I see it as the product of a jaded "Star Wars" fan. The sometimes-implied notion that "back to basics" is what "Star Wars" needed all along completely misses the point of "Star Wars" for me.

This movie being terrible would be very vindicating. A testament to how the cranky old fans were always wrong and that their desire to "save 'Star Wars'" was always just about them not wanting to admit that maybe "Star Wars" never needed saving in the first place. That they were just mad that it wasn't pandering to them anymore.

And even if the new movie is bad, it won't really hurt the "Star Wars" canon for me. The next director, Rian Johnson, inspires a great deal more faith in me than Abrams does. He's an old fan, but he's brimming with imagination. "Looper" impressed me by being a time travel movie that had a pretty simple plot, but managed to feel incredibly unique. Who randomly puts telekinetic powers into a movie about time travelling hitmen? Rian Johnson, that's who. And it doesn't stop there. Every movie he has made is unlike anything I've ever seen, and all without straying outside of convention. "Brick" was a film noir set in a high school. "Brothers Bloom" was a quirky caper comedy with a genuine heart and a gut-punch of an ending that still finds a way to be enigmatically optimistic so that it doesn't sour the overall tone of the film. It's the same kind of magic that made "Star Wars" work from the beginning. It's that kind of "chocolate and peanut butter" logic that makes perfect sense when you see it, but it takes a genius to come up with it in the first place. And hearing him talk about the job, it just sounds like he's exactly the sort of person I want handling "Star Wars". If J.J. Abrams botched this, it wouldn't really hurt "Star Wars", it would just hurt Abrams and all of the fans who thought that this was what "Star Wars" needed.

I can't really lose. Even if this movie sucks, I'll still get to be smug about it from now until the next movie comes out and saves the day.

And yet... I don't want to hate this movie. I want to love it. I want all of the things I'm hoping to see to be brought to life. And despite my issues with Abrams, he's consistently very good at directing actors in a way that George Lucas never was. He's not so good at writing and his movies almost always have incredibly disappointing third acts, but maybe collaborating with Kasdan will make the difference.

I have dozens of reasons why I might hate this movie. I'm worried that the third act will just be blowing up yet another spherical super weapon. I'm worried that the movie will tie itself into a convoluted knot to explain why the good guys are still underdogs even though they won in the last movie. I'm worried that too much of the movie will be about making winking references to the original movies, or worse, thinly-veiled put-downs directed towards the newer canon. I'm worried that Abrams is hiding the fact that certain characters might have the last name Skywalker or Solo just so he can give us a convoluted "surprise" reveal like he did with Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness" that isn't actually surprising and often requires a lot of pointless plot gymnastics to justify. I'm worried that the incredible and imaginative production design I'm used to will be reduced to just replicating things that were in previous movies, are remarkably similar to things that were in previous movies, or are just realizations of old, unused concept art. If there's more stuff like BB-8, I'll be fine.

But there are some things that would make me giddy as a schoolgirl. Finn turning out to be a clone would be an amazing revelation, especially if he's actually Force-sensitive (the implications!). Luke's "exile" turning out to be less about doing the hermit thing like Obi-Wan and Yoda and more about training the new generation of Jedi in secret would be nice. I'm hoping Captain Phasma turns out to be a sort of Stormtrooper Javert; Lawful Neutral to a fault. The Knights of Rey turning out to not be inherently evil, but a group misled by Supreme Leader Snoke (the new Emperor, basically) would be an interesting angle. The possibility that Finn isn't Force-sensitive, but Rey is would be cool because then you'd have a Force-sensitive character who doesn't use a lightsaber and a non-Force-sensitive character who does use a lightsaber.

In general, I'm just hoping that there's more to this movie than it seems. That there are real surprises hidden inside Abrams' "mystery box" this time around.

However, one thing I've decided is that even if the movie is terrible, even if all the "surprises" fall flat and it's just a cookie-cutter rehash, I don't intend to be cynical about it. I'll probably rant about it for a blog post or two, certainly, but I don't intend to fall to the dark side like many of the fans before me. I won't spend the next decade complaining about everything it did wrong. Hell, I'll probably still watch it whenever I decide to marathon the series, because even bad "Star Wars" movies tend to have something worth watching. And I won't have to put together a "fan-edit" to make it "the way it should have been". I won't act like the series has been ruined. I won't look forward to "Episode VIII" any less. And I won't be a jerk to the people who inevitably decide that this is their favorite movie in the series.

In a little over a week, I'll be going into a little theater near my hometown with my girlfriend, my brother, and some friends to see it on opening night. We will have a great time no matter how bad it might be because it's "Star Wars". And I'll probably go see it again the next day, even if I hated it, because it's "Star Wars".

Young children (but not super young children... the movie is rated PG-13, parents) will be seeing "Star Wars" for the first time next week. Good or bad, they'll hopefully walk out of that theater wanting to swing lightsabers, fly the Falcon, and feel the Force. They'll go home and dive into all the old movies and cartoons and they'll become a part of a fandom that, in spite of its darker side, still loves this franchise because of the way it connects all of us through our collectively captivated imagination.

How could I possibly be cynical about that?

May the Force be with you.

Monday, November 9, 2015

How to Get 100% Completion on "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain"

Since it's been a while since I've posted anything, I thought something simple would be a good idea.

I just (finally) got through playing "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain", by which I mean I got 100% completion.

Getting 100% completion on this game is hard, but I would say it's not quite as hard as it was in "Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots". And frankly, there are a few things I found out along the way that, if I had known from the beginning, would have made it significantly easier.

First of all, what do you need to do to get 100% completion?

1) Complete every Side Ops Mission.
2) Complete all 50 Main Missions with an S-Rank
3) Complete every objective of every Main Mission.
4) Complete every "important" Dispatch Mission (the ones marked with yellow dots)
4) Get every Key Item
5) Get every Memento Photo
6) Capture every animal (it's not enough to just identify them for your encyclopedia)

With that said, there are a few things you DON'T need to do in order to get 100% completion. You DON'T need to develop every single item, you DON'T need to find all the cassette tapes, and you DON'T need to unlock every emblem.

Let's start with the big tips:

Get the Following Items

Here are some items you ought to develop, not necessarily because you NEED to, but because they REALLY help:
Stealth Camo
- This item restricts Main Missions to A-rank only, but it still has TONS of uses. More on this later.
Wormhole Fulton
- The final upgrade to the Fulton recovery system allows you to Fulton almost anyone from anywhere.
D-Dog's Fulton Outfit
- Sometimes you just don't have time to extract someone, and with D-Dog's Fulton outfit, he can do it for you. It's a little temperamental, but so long as the prisoner or unconscious soldier is nearby and not in a locked room, D-Dog will be able to run over to them and extract them, usually without anybody even noticing.
Stun Arm
- The Stun Arm might SEEM useless, but it's quite possibly the single most useful weapon in the game. If you have it equipped, press and hold R2 to start charging it. Keep charging it until the little bar above the weapon icon charges all the way. You'll hear a little beep when it finishes. Then and only then do you release R2. This hidden move releases a massive area attack that hits EVERYONE in a 40-meter radius from you, no matter where they are or what they're wearing, and they stay knocked out for around 6 minutes, giving you more than enough time to do what you need to do.
Parasite Armor + Mist/Armor Parasites
- I know what you're thinking, but the game is lying to you. Using the Parasite Armor does NOT restrict you to an A-rank like it says it does. Only when you use the Camo Parasites are you restricted to an A-rank. The Mist and Armor Parasites can be used as much as you like and you'll still be able to get an S-rank.
EMN Mines
- You'll need these for a few missions that involve taking down vehicles (specifically "Backup, Back Down"). Max out the development on these so that you can carry as many as possible without needing to redeploy, since that's one of the objectives of the aforementioned mission.
Sleep Grenades
- Max these babies out because they are REALLY useful for taking out the Skulls in a couple missions.
Sleep Grenade Launcher
- This was really only useful in "Pitch Dark" and "Cloaked in Silence", but it was still useful.
Cluster Guided Missiles
- The best launcher in the game. It does a ton of damage and it locks on to targets within about 200 meters, so it's perfect for taking down helicopters and Sahelanthropus.
D-Walker's Fulton Ballista
- Not essential, particularly since it locks you to an A-rank, but there are a few Side Ops where you have to Fulton enemies with TONS of armor. Being able to just shoot them with a gun that automatically Fultons them makes those missions way easier.
Infinity Bandanna
- Unlimited ammo AND suppressors. Restricts you to A-rank, but again, it has its uses.

Some of these things require certain specialists or high-ranked Mother Base platforms, but every single one of them is worth it, trust me.

Side Ops Have No Ranking System, So Use Stealth Camo

Unlike the main missions (and unlike the Side Ops in "Peace Walker") the Side Ops don't judge you on your performance. They only care about results.

So break out that Stealth Camo, Infinity Bandanna, and Fulton Ballista and get cracking. Also, one you complete a Side Op, you can just return to the ACC through the Start Menu. Don't worry, the game remembers that you completed it. It just saves you from having to call Pequod and waste money on the extraction.

There are a few different types of Side Ops, but once you get a rhythm for it, they're pretty easy (just time-consuming).

Prisoner Extractions

These missions are the easiest. Bring along D-Dog with his Fulton outfit, sneak into the area with your Stealth Camo, when you see the prisoner, tell D-Dog to go Fulton him. If he fails, find the locked door and unlock it and do it yourself. Boom, you're done.

Secure the Blueprint

Either look up online where the Blueprint is or interrogate soldiers until they tell you.

Extract the Highly Skilled Soldier

These are harder than Prisoner Extractions because the target is unwilling. You'll need to find them and knock them out. Not too hard with D-Dog, Stealth Camo, and your INT-Scope. Don't bother capturing every soldier in the area or you'll be there all day. Just find the one you need, sneak in, take them out, and return to ACC.

Capture the Animal

There are a small number of missions that involve capturing animals. The hard part is usually just finding the animal. Once you do, just camo up and shoot it with your tranq gun until it drops.

Extract the Wandering Mother Base Solider

This is necessary for unlocking all of the Memento Photos. This is a little trickier than the other Extraction missions since they often resist you, but with a decent long-range tranq gun, you can land a head-shot, and that's all you need.

Eliminate the Heavy Infantry/Armored Vehicle Unit/Tank Unit

D-Walker's Fulton Ballista is very handy for these missions, but if you're not interested in keeping anyone alive, Air Support Bombardments can work fine too (though they're far less elegant).

Mine Clearing

Air Support Bombardments are big time savers for these missions.

Eliminate the Wandering Puppets

These missions are fairly easy at first, but they get tricky once the Puppets start wearing head armor. For this, I recommend packing a lethal weapon to shoot them in the head until the helmet falls off, then either tranq them with a head-shot or just finish the job if you don't plan to extract them. Just remember that you NEED a head-shot on these guys.

Target Practice

Most of these missions are easy, but one or two are practically timed easter egg hunts. Use a video walkthrough if you don't want to snap your controller out of frustration.

And that's pretty much it for Side Ops. Like I said, they're easy enough, just time-consuming.

You Don't Need to Get S-Rank and All Tasks at the Same Time

This is a very important thing to keep in mind. While you need an S-rank on every Main Mission and you need to complete every task for every Main Mission, you don't need to do both at the same time. In fact, you don't even need to get all the tasks in one go. Some missions are way easier if you just focus on completing a few tasks per run.

That's not to say that doing perfect runs can't sometimes be expedient, but there are some missions that are so hard that trying to get an S-rank while completing all of the objectives is just more trouble than it's worth.

Particularly because some tasks are far easier to complete with Stealth Camo and the Infinity Bandanna.

A simple way to go about completing all the Main Missions would be to start by doing the mission with your Stealth Camo and Infinity Bandanna, just to easily complete all of the tasks. Then do the mission again without the items that lock you to an A-rank and focus on getting an S-rank.

But how do you get an S-rank? Follow these basic strategies:

Use Mist Parasites
- It's not quite as good as the Stealth Camo, but it reduces visibility so much that you basically have to be within spitting distance of an enemy for them to notice you, and at that point, you can just run up and knock them out. But honestly, with Mist Parasites, you barely even need to do anything else. Just crouch-walk to wherever you need to go, ignore the soldiers, keep your distance, and do what you need to do. You can complete entire missions without knocking out a single soldier if you've got the Mist Parasites. Mist Parasites are OP. Use them liberally, and if you run out, go get some more from the Skulls in Kaz's mission. You can probably take them out quickly with either a decent sniper rifle or Sleep Grenades.
Use the Stun Arm for densely guarded areas
- If a building or area is crawling with soldiers, the Stun Arm can be really useful. Just make sure everyone is within 40 meters (D-Dog is very helpful for figuring that out) before you do the blast. You need a full charge and that takes a few minutes to build back up, so use carefully.
Turn off Reflex Mode
- I know it's helpful, but it's a crutch, and a costly one. If you have it on and it triggers, even if you take down the guy that spots you and avoid an alarm, you STILL won't get the bonus for Perfect Stealth, and that's in addition to losing the bonus for avoiding Reflex Mode. Just turn it off and if someone spots you, try to take them down without it. If you set off an alarm, just reload from the last checkpoint. The points you lose for reloading are significantly less than what you lose for using Reflex Mode and not getting Perfect Stealth.
Don't go out of your way to accomplish other objectives
- Yes, you sometimes get bonus points for them, but you also get bonus points for completing the mission quickly. The trade-off isn't usually worth it. Just focus on the main objectives and doing them as quickly as possible.
99% of the time, don't kill anyone
- This is a "Metal Gear" game. If you're killing someone, you're doing it wrong. There are a couple missions where the fastest way to complete them is to kill the target, so sometimes that's OK, but the rest of the time, do it non-lethally. You get a point bonus, you get new soldiers, and you get more Hero Points.
Use material containers for quick extraction
- Calling down a helicopter takes time and money. But if you climb on top of a material container, use the Fulton extraction, and then press and hold the action button immediately afterward, you can ride the material container out of the mission area. This is particularly useful for missions like "Pitch Dark".
Use Armor Parasites for combat missions
- A few missions are less about sneaking and more about fighting things. "Metallic Archaea", "A Quiet Exit", and "Sahelanthropus" involve Snake getting shot at no matter what you do. This is when you use the Armor Parasites. Seriously, with these babies, you'll be damn near invincible, giving you plenty of time to do whatever you need to do without needing to run to cover constantly.
If a soldier is too armored for a tranq gun, shoot them in the arms or legs
- The soldiers in the game gradually evolve to adapt to your dominant strategies. Eventually, certain soldiers start wearing armor to avoid getting knocked out by your tranq guns. If you aim for a head-shot but you hear a CLUNK instead of the satisfying PEW, then aim for their arms and legs instead. If you hear a RIP instead of a CLICK, then their arms and legs are armored as well. At this point, your tranq gun is useless, so don't waste your ammo. You can either try to knock these guys out with CQC or you can just use your Stun Arm. Or you could just avoid them, if possible.
Look up walkthroughs for "Subsistence" missions
- Subsistence missions are the worst. You have to complete the mission (and all the objectives) without any equipment, weapons, or buddies. You don't even get to pick the time of day. There are only a few of them, but they're still infuriating. Just look up walkthroughs on YouTube. Otherwise, you'll be there all day trying to figure it out.
Plant Capture Cages at the start of every mission
- They get extracted automatically and it will save you time during your eventual animal hunt.

So to sum up, each mission should play out something like this:
- Make sure Reflex Mode is turned off in the Game Options.
- Land.
- Plant Capture Cages.
- Run to your objective.
- If you see soldiers, activate your Mist Parasites. Turn on your NVG so you can still see. If you hear the iDroid voice tell you that "weather will clear shortly", it means your Mist Parasites are about to wear off, so redeploy them if you're still near enemies.
- If a soldier spots you, try to take them out quickly, even without Reflex Mode (usually running and using CQC is pretty reliable, but if you already have them in your sights, go ahead and try and knock them out with a silenced tranq).
- If you trigger an alarm, reload from the last checkpoint.
- Don't kill anyone. If you do, reload from the last checkpoint.
- If there's a bunch of people all in the same 40-meter area, charge up your Stun Arm and let 'em have it.
- Complete the main objectives (and any side objectives if you don't have to go out of your way).
- If there's a materials container, ride it out of the hot zone. Otherwise, call a chopper and get out, or just run out of the hot zone if that's easier.

As for completing the other tasks, I can't really give too much detail or else we'll be here all day. But for me, this was the most fun part of the game, so I would recommend you try to do this without a walkthrough as often as possible. Since you don't have to worry about getting an S-rank at the same time, you can just accomplish the tasks using whatever weapons and items you want, like the aforementioned Stealth Camo and Infinity Bandanna. You can also have fun with the Air Support strikes and special character outfits like the Cyborg (run faster, jump higher!). This is the part of the game where you get to cut loose, and at the end of the day, this IS a video game, so why play if you can't have a little fun?

The only part of this that is no fun at all is when you have mission objectives that require you to listen to every conversation. Those objectives are obnoxious and there's really no way to make that fun. Sorry. The best tip I have for this is to just have a run where you focus on listening to conversations and then do the other objectives in a different run. That way if something goes wrong, you don't have to listen to the same conversations over and over and over.

If you REALLY want to try and get S-rank and all the objectives at the same time, it is possible (for the most part) if you can avoid detection and having to restart. But I'd probably suggest bringing along the Stealth Camo just in case you get spotted. You only get locked out of the S-rank if you use it, so just having it can't hurt, and it'll be nice if something goes wrong after you've completed most of the objectives. At that point, you might as well just focus on accomplishing the tasks and try to get the S-rank afterwards, so go ahead and use your emergency Stealth Camo.

But again, you REALLY DON'T NEED TO GET ALL THE OBJECTIVES AT THE SAME TIME YOU GET AN S-RANK. There's no big reward for doing both at the same time. The game doesn't care.

That said, if you STILL want to try, these video walkthroughs are the best I could find by far. This person completes almost every Main Mission with every objective, perfect stealth, no kills, and S-rank, and he does most of them VERY quickly. If you're a perfectionist, look no further.

Dispatch Missions

Honestly, there's nothing all that special about completing the required Dispatch Missions. Just have a bunch of high-ranking Combat Unit soldiers and keep trying the important missions until you complete them all. Odds are you'll fail some of these a lot, even with all S-ranked soldiers, but just keep trying. Soldiers are easy to replace and eventually you'll get it.

Get all the Key Items

You'll get most of the Key Items just from completing and S-ranking all of the Main Missions and finishing the Side Ops. Beyond that, there are two Key Items that you only get if you collect all of the Delivery Invoices. If you don't know what these are, you'll find them on those weird orange metal things in certain areas. Those are delivery locations. If you have the appropriate invoices, you can hide in a box at those locations and fast-travel to anywhere else that you have an invoice. They don't have many practical uses, but they do come in handy for a few missions, so they're worth getting early on. Plus, you need them for two Key Items, and you need THOSE for 100% completion, so... yeah. Go get 'em.

The only other Key Item you might not have is the one you get for Marking 500 soldiers, and if you don't have that one by now, you probably should use the INT-Scope more. Just run around areas and look at people with the INT-Scope until you get that Key Item.

Memento Photos

You get these from the Wandering Soldiers Side Ops and talking to a certain character that's on your Medical Platform. I can't say too much more without spoilers, but basically, after you finish the first Wandering Soldier Side Op, explore the Medical Platform until you find an area that triggers a cutscene. After that, just head back to that location every time you finish a Wandering Soldier Side Op. When you finish, the last Memento Photo is hidden in that area.

Capture All the Animals

This is another thing that requires a walkthrough, to be honest. If you've been planting Capture Cages at the start of every mission, you'll probably have already found most of them, but there are a few that are damn near impossible to find.

Also, I mentioned this earlier, but it's not enough to just see the animals. You have to capture them. Sometimes an animal will appear in your Encyclopedia even if you haven't captured it yet. To know which ones you captured, look at your Animals Emblems in your Emblem Customization page. You unlock an emblem for that animal when you capture it, so if you don't have the Emblem, you still need to capture it.

This guide is pretty good for finding most of them.

And... that's it! Once you've done all these things, you should have 100% completion. If you don't, then there's probably something that counts towards completion that I'm not aware of. In that case, I'd say just focus on completing all of the Achievements/Trophies for the game. You'll probably already have most of them by now, so it probably won't take long.

Oh, and what did I think of the game?

Well, I spent countless hours getting 100% completion and unlocking all the trophies.

Clearly, I hated it.