Gaming Translations

What makes for a successful board game based on a pop culture artifact?

Obviously you have more souvenir/revenue generation machines on the one hand: Your Simpsons Monopoly, Seinfeld Scene It?’s, The Vanilla Ice Rap Game (no joke). There’s also things like game shows that just convert simply. Everyone’s wanted to prove that they, too, want to be a millionaire, meaning the core concept of a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game would be fairly easy to adapt for a home audience to play what is essentially Trivial Pursuit with a new brand name.

But the flip side of this would be games that are intended to—like a film adaptation or novelization—adapt the concept and qualities you so love about a show into a board game. It’s sort of like challenging an audience (or perhaps a hardcore subset of an audience) to pony up and put their money where their mouth is; if they think they could hack it in the imagined world, prove it.

For that to be successful, you need more than just cutesy namechecks. I think that you’d theoretically want people to feel rewarded for engaging with your media on such a high level: The game Harry Potter: Mystery at Hogwarts is essentially Clue—except for a few key developments. For instance there’s more pieces at play with different (in the theme of Hogwarts, maaagical) powers that can affect gameplay. But some Harry Potter trivia comes into play as well.

Games like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones are intricate and detailed, in order to better resemble the show. Sure the titular game of thrones is not won so easily, and the cylons are not likely to be defeated by just finding a few spies in your ranks. But the core ideas of the show—winning power over others, rooting out the humanlike robots amongst you, defending your people—are preserved. A Game of Thrones fan might enjoy the game even if it weren’t branded as such because the like the powerplays that come into question. Battlestar Galactica as well.

For the rest, who just like the drama of it all—well, that’s just bonus.

 

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The Lost Hope of Ramsay Bolton

When Ramsay was introduced he seemed like the logical successor of Joffrey: He was rabid and sadistic, unquenchable in his thirst for violence. The difference was he was effective. RamsayBolton

At his best Ramsay Bolton introduced an uncomfortable question to the world of Game of Thrones: Was it worth serving a ruler who got shit done if he was a vicious madman? When the show is at its strongest it manages to interrogate the beloved fantasy tropes that so often run amuck in the genre, and Ramsay was a logical, if cruel, extension of that. In his own Hitchcockian way he got at the audience’s tickle for violence. His final battle this past season showed that his proclivity for violence at least informed his genius as a battle commander.

But too soon he became 2D. He was all-knowing (how could he possibly have ferreted out the woman within Winterfell who talked to Sansa almost exactly after they conversed?), and his violence wasn’t used to service the story anymore. It felt as if the writers were just using his new levels of depravity as a reminder for the audience that, yup, he was still a brutal, evil character.

We didn’t have to like Ramsay. Hell, we didn’t even have to respect him. But we as an audience had to respect his position in the story. His awfulness had to be used for something beyond titillation, and—by at least season 6, if not earlier—it was clear he no longer served that narrative purpose. YOU'RE THE WORST

Contrast that with characters like Jimmy and Gretchen on You’re the Worst: They’re far from likeable. The log line of the show is essentially “two awful people learn how to be in love with each other.” But their disrespectful and hurtful actions serve a narrative purpose when they do happen; each time one of them lobs a verbal handgrenade at someone else it’s to communicate something deeper about themselves and their characters.

It seems almost cheap to say that Ramsay should’ve been deeper: It’s the fool who asks for shows to be something they clearly don’t want to be. But if Game of Thrones wants to hit with the best of them, it’s going to need to start seeing even its peripheral characters more dynamically. Or else it’s going to have stop rewarding them narratively.

The Reality of UnREAL’s characters

I’m just as surprised as you are that one of the best new shows of the year is a Lifetime original. But here we are.

“UnREAL” takes a look behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-esque show, and the twisting of reality to create reality TV. Our lead, Rachel, is a producer who swings anywhere on the spectrum of morality from questionable choices to downright manipulative all within a single moment of her day, guiding these girls and their “Prince” through the “romantic” process.

It’s a tricky line that actress Shiri Appleby walks: Rachel has no business being likable, and often crosses in Walter White-territory of “should I even be rooting for her?” But as the protagonist and lead anti-hero of “UnREAL,” she needs to stay engaging and engrossing. Don’t worry, she sticks the landing. “UnREAL” hinges on it.

(L to R) Shiri Appleby (“Rachel”) and  Constance Zimmer (“Quinn”)
(L to R) Shiri Appleby (“Rachel”) and Constance Zimmer (“Quinn”)

Between her and the woman literally running the show, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), a sort of unholy union is formed where only one thing matters: the advancement of their own desires.

What makes “UnREAL” such exhilarating television is that it depends so wholly on the full moral compass of its characters. Digging into the themes of what people want and what they are capable of to get that, the show isn’t afraid to wade in-between the white knights and gray areas, and get really dark.

It’s a stark differentiation to “Game of Thrones” which continues to simplify its characters as it draws them out of the book. Tyrion, a fan favorite, should’ve become the monster everyone expected him to be at the end of season four when he killed Shea. But instead the show wrote in reason after reason to keep him as their champion—and we see this pattern over and over again. Stannis, Ramsay, Ser Meryn Tant; the plot goes out of its way to establish behavior that reduces them to either good guy or bad guy.

Given that, it’s no wonder the show often struggles with shock factor to keep its audiences guessing. “UnREAL” isn’t perfect and delved into the same shock plot lines in the course of its first season, but for the most part it didn’t have to. The electricity of watching characters whose spine is so movable makes for thrilling enough television on its own.

The season ends with an unlikely pairing that should’ve always been the sure bet: Rachel and Quinn. They both know they’re not locked into their partnership, but they also know that they’ve always got each other’s best interests at heart (or something next to it, anyway). It’s an intoxicating dynamic. Now to see if they can keep us guessing.

Set the Scene

I have never been a huge “Hannibal” fan. To summarize reasons I may still get to at a later time, it fell in a camp similar to “True Detective” for me: I appreciated the artistry, imagination, and visual feast of the show, but could not get on board with the pseudo-philosophical debates and interactions that were sprinkled so heavily throughout the hour.

But in my own way I am sad to see it go. Bryan Fuller has written plenty of shows that deserve all the acclaim and viewers they never had; his dreamy style different but always imaginative. In “Hannibal,” Fuller’s phantasmagorical style was on full display—from the art house production to the fact that Hannibal gets up to an awful lot of shit without anyone being the wiser. But perhaps the best was Fuller’s refusal to put sexual violence in the show.

This publicity image released by NBC shows Danish actor Mads Mikkelson as Dr. Hannial Lecter in a scene from the upcoming TV series,

“It’s one of the things on the show that we really wanted to avoid. They’re ubiquitous on television, and there’s an entire series [NBC’s Law & Order: SVU] that’s about rape,” Fuller told Entertainment Weekly. “We didn’t wanna glorify it—well, not “glorify,” because I don’t think any of the crime procedural shows are actually “glorifying” rape. But it is certainly explored so frequently that it rarely feels genuine…And I’m saying this as somebody who can derive immense entertainment from cannibalism – there’s an irony to cannibalism that I find horrific and amusing. I can totally get behind cannibalism and have fun with it. But rape? Not so much.”

Of course Fuller’s response was contrasted with “Game of Thrones” who, as I’ve written before, have struggled to find the words to defend their use of sexual violence. The parallels are pretty easy: Both are drawing from source material that heavily features sexual violence, particularly towards its women. To George R.R. Martin and the showrunners it would be unrealistic to feature this fantasy world without any sort of general expectation of violence against women.

But Fuller’s approach demonstrates a subtle shift in how television (at least) is being packaged, with a greater enlightenment towards social justice—beyond just the greater push for diversity (yay!). He’s showing that a world can be ethereal yet grounded, and violent without being off-putting.

It’s not that rape doesn’t exist in the world of “Hannibal.” But by deemphasizing it the audience doesn’t have to weigh their feelings about the show against its treatment of women, and arguably Fuller is able to handle the discussion around the repercussions of sexual violence in the universe in a much more levelheaded fashion.

This is only better because immediately after he says
This only gets better because immediately after he says “I stand with Wendy!”

But it’s not just “Hannibal.” Take Andy Samberg’s character on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Jake Peralta. He’s a goof, brash, and a good cop. As they say in the show “Jake is stupid, but he’s smart.” And when you watch the show, he has a subtle (or not so much) feminist streak. He respects Amy’s decision to not date him, he calls out catcallers, he makes a point to respect women (even when he’s trashtalking Rosa).

On its own it could just be a one-off, just great writing in a character that could easily be unlikeable. But what “B99” and Fuller have done is show that a showrunner’s scope of the world doesn’t have to drag others through the mud and, what’s more, that those choices aren’t inherent to any world or another. “Mad Max: Fury Road” definitely showed that even stories that focus on violence done to women can give women agency and center stage in that same world.

Because if a cannibal, a cop, and a apocalyptic wasteland can be feminist and forward thinking, why can’t we all?

Dancing With Dragons

This week’s “Game of Thrones” was all about hard decisions and compromises, the value of a human life as a pawn in the higher game of thrones—and it’s almost as if the show-runners were trying to speak directly to the haters.

In a season that has been a bit of letdown all-in-all, not to mention a source of much controversy, there’s been much to-do about what sort of show “Game of Thrones” wants to be. Could it still balance its prestige drama with the abusive world concocted by George R.R. Martin? When can a fantasy decide it’s more than its medieval roots? And though I’d argue there is a case to be made for the universe they work within, it’s hard to argue that the either of the head writers (nor Martin himself) have done an adequate job explaining why it should be.

The truth to that question is because it is the world imagined for them, and by them. They have decided it will be a show where being a woman is as powerful as it is worthless, where rape will exist as a logical plot development, and where death is always around us.

GOT5_102214_NW_0422Set against the backdrop of that, Mother of dragons Daenerys opened the fighting pit last Sunday while her betrothed and her counsel banter about the value of her strategy. Hizdahr (said betrothed) boldly triumphs the brutality of the entertainment. “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” he asks.

Tyrion jumps in; perhaps to defend his pride against Hizdahr’s boasting, maybe to score some points with Dany, likely just to give himself something to do. “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be. Especially when what is has worked out so well for you.”

“Confusing what is with what ought to be” is, in a sense, exactly what critics of “Game of Thrones” have been complaining about since day one, now more vocal than ever. So imagine my surprise when it was from the mouths of one of the show’s characters when it came out. Let alone in response to a comment so similar to the creators’ defense.

And therein lies the dilemma for “Game of Thrones:” It’s got interesting things to say, about power, politics, sex. But it feels bound to provide the thrills that in season five, a 10 weeks largely about rebuilding the world and restructuring the unruly plot of the books, felt increasingly like they were drawn from a checklist of upsetting ideas rather than earned moments of uncomfortable truths.

Its worth as a prestigious drama rooted in its characters has always been weighed against its need for shock value at the expense of its (often female) characters. The showrunners have always maintained that these threads will be explored and touched upon. But even with season five’s leisurely pace and a chorus of critics louder than ever, there’s been little proof that they can put their money where their mouth is.

Maybe they’re right, and the change is gonna come. But as Tyrion also said, “in my experience, eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.”

It’s All Been Done Before—But that doesn’t mean it’s the end

If there is one show on TV that is unparalleled in quality, it’s “The Americans.” No other show can take the same core principles—be they intimacy and relationships or the Cold War spy drama—and turn them over and over, finding new aspects to explore every time. It’s been a week since the season finale and I still can’t get this latest season out of my head.

12696Without spoiling too much, season 3 saw its leads Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, respectively) struggle to maintain their cover while also protect their family from outside sources, now including their employers the KGB.

“The Americans” isn’t inherently new territory. Heck, exploring the fabric of marital couples and the intimacy both in and outside of those relationships is the foundation of a massive bulk of pop culture. But in the constant turmoil of the show, coupled with “The Americans” writers’ commitment to building their universe on a slow-burn, creates a new facet, a fresh angle, and a new scar to heal from with every turn of the plot.

Oh that old "falsely accused of murdering my nephew the king who is product of my brother and sister's relations" trope.
Oh that old “falsely accused of murdering my nephew the king who is product of my brother and sister’s relations” trope.

Too often I hear friends complain that they don’t like a show only because “it’s nothing new,” as if there’s nothing it could possibly offer aside from being a completely unique plot. Most sci-fi or “Game of Thrones” plotlines aren’t likely to be something you couldn’t find somewhere else in literature, but that doesn’t mean they can’t provide a fresh take.

The forest looks the same as any other show about a family of spies (if there are enough of those out there for this to be a legitimate analogy) but the trees are so rich that everything about it is enriched. “The Americans” builds on the knotty and overloaded lives of families (and spies) and turns it into some real insight into both (with “The Americans” it’s exactly the kind of show that’s so fascinating to share with people, while also making it a hard sell).

If you’re looking for a concept that’s not been done before you’ll be, as Bruno Mars says, locked out of pop culture heaven. Because so many of the best shows out there aren’t retreating into familiar territory, they’re building on it.

Game of Naughty Zones

(Content warning: rape, sexual violence, comments on violence)
Anyone who’s been near pop culture in the last four years is no stranger to the provocative nature of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Between unsparing battle scenes and frank sexuality, it’s not your Grandmother’s fantasy realm. Or maybe it is, but it’s certainly not your six-year-old cousin’s.

And while I’ll fight anyone who argues that women’s nudity can only be a tool for “shock value” to pull in viewers and demean women, “Game of Thrones” gives me a peculiar sense of vexation when it comes to nakedness.

1. The Sexposition

A pioneer in “sexposition,” or the strategy of men speaking their inner monologues or plans out loud while women drape  themselves around them, flaunting their bare naughty bits, “Game of Thrones” frequently uses naked women to…well, pull in viewers. Or at least treat them as objects while men talk about their important plans.

Game of Thrones sexposition example
Because otherwise this scene would just be some dude talking. Who would be able to watch that?

All in all, I’m generally pretty neutral about sexposition as a plot device. Though it’s worth noting that for a show that’s just trying to knock down the puritanical hangups around sexual relations with a more natural and open portrayal, it’s strange that basically all women share the same beauty standards across the board. There must be one helluva profiting waxer in Westeros.

What I do have a problem with, is the fantasy trope that is a strong danger for these sort of expositions: you run the risk of your female characters being sex-centric. Again, not something I can say I’m wholeheartedly against, but it’s a common element of fantasy novels to have women few and far between. Those women who are featured are often stuck using sex as their only tool or weapon. “Game of Thrones,” does display a pretty hefty roster of strong, complex women, has featured a whopping number of sex scenes, wherein (according to a Buzzfeed breakdown of the first two seasons) had an imbalance between how the characters were portrayed. Leading me to the second point:

2. Where have all the nude men gone?

Buzzfeed infographic
Part of Buzzfeed’s infographic on the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones” and sex scenes

Now I could break down for you what the scale of each of those squares means (or you could click through to the Buzzfeed page itself), but realistically, there’s no way this breaks down well. So while I’ll rage against the machine or anyone else who says that these women are inherently cheapened because they feel comfortable showing their body, there is an imbalance here that can’t be ignored.

The fact of the matter is that though “Game of Thrones” has had its share of coitus, the display has been almost consistently women going bare. By no means would I argue that these women reduced to just a pair of boobs (at least, not by any intelligent viewer). Women on “Game of Thrones” are each powerful and nuanced in their own way (though their power is still, often, filtered through their role, which is intrinsically linked to their gender). But when there’s such a disproportionate difference between men’s nudity and women’s nudity, something’s off.

Though the quality in writing has changed, a long-time selling point for premium cable has been that it was uncensored. But when your show is more comfortable with showing a man busting out of his skull rather than busting out of his pants, you’ve got some messed up priorities. There’s a way to have women be in the buff and not have them be just straight photography, but one-sided nudity is a quick route to over-sexualizing your female characters.

3. A bit (too much) of the old ultraviolence

When the show first started, it seemed tapped into the (largely) feminist-friendly (ish) vibe of its source material. And yet, over the years the show’s sexual nature has featured a growing rate of violence in Westeros.

In most fantasy novels, TV shows, and movies, “medieval misogyny” is believed to be par for the course, making it common to parade of sexual violence–most often against women. Similar to casting choices in Thor, while Westeros is a land of magic and dragons, it’d just be too unbelievable and just plain illogical if the women of Westeros weren’t subjected to some sort of sexual threat. Four seasons in, many of the main female characters, and a number of background women, have been raped. And a man has, at one point or another, threatened any women who haven’t yet been sexually assaulted.

And to screw up the narrative even more, several sex scenes from the book—which were at worst questionably consensual—were added to the show with a uncomfortable dynamics. In fact the character Ros, a street-smart prostitute who was invented just for the show, existed pretty much entirely to be hurt at the hands of men. Although it could be argued that at one point she served as if not a player in Westeros than at least an intelligent pawn, very little came of her plotline beyond her own pain, and eventual gruesome death.

It seems the model for Westeros is that if you want to hurt a man (like Oberyn Martell) you hurt a woman. And if you want to hurt a woman (like Ros, Cersei, or basically any other female character) you hurt a woman again.

 


 

 

At the end of the day, those who engage with “Game of Thrones” will have to decide for themselves how they feel about the show’s sexual politics. The creators certainly don’t seem open to the discussion. But maybe it’s time we recognize that just because women in Westeros are afforded certain power, privileges, and freedom from FCC regulations, doesn’t mean they’re not also being used to satisfy and perpetuate the same tired problematic relationship to women’s bodies.