I have a weird confession to make

There are any number of movies I’ve seen multiple times. I’ve seen Alien and its sequels many times. I’ve seen the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones¹ trilogies lots of times. There are lots of Pixar and Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen many times… unavoidable, when you have kids. I’ve rewatched a bunch of Tarantino, and Fincher, and Gilliam. There are probably hundreds of films I’ve seen a couple of times, once when I saw them in the theater and a second time when I shared them with my sons.

But the film I’ve seen more times than any other — probably over 100 times — is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It turns 30 today.

I don’t know why I love this movie so much. I had a VHS copy in grad school and it was just the thing I would turn on at night after programming or studying all day. It was my wind-down film, one I’d have a friend over and throw on to watch over beers. There was a period of time when I’d just put it on randomly once or even twice a week, when my then-girlfriend was asleep, on low.

I don’t think it’s a perfect film. But I do think there’s something simply wonderful about its tone and I do think the structure is pretty great, too. It has an almost earnest sweetness to it, on top of an admittedly silly conceit. But that silliness leads to pleasures that just connect with me for reasons I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain, even to myself.

If you somehow have never seen this movie, let me try to get you a quick plot description². The film opens with two teens — Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan, played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves respectively — being informed by their history teacher that if they don’t absolutely ace their history presentation the following day, they will flunk the class and have to retake it over the summer. The stakes are high; if this happens, Ted’s father will send him to military school in Alaska, and that will kill Bill and Ted’s dreams of being in a band together. It turns out that the stakes are even higher — we are given a glimpse of the far future with Rufus (the late, great George Carlin) describing the utopia that the world has become… as a result of the music and philosophy of Bill and Ted. Rufus is tasked with getting Bill and Ted across the finish line of their history report through the use of a time machine… and we’re off to the races. They’ll visit various time periods, kidnap historical figures, and trash the local mall, all on the way to acing that report.

The absurdity of this premise leads to some wonderful places. It’s so peculiar and specific; the very idea that all the students of San Dimas³ high school will all give history reports to an auditorium filled with students is insane. The selection of historical figures is great; Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Beethoven. What would these historical figures think of San Dimas 1989? Well, we get to see. There are several wonderful montages: Napoleon enjoying a water park4, the teens kidnapping the historical figures, the figures enjoying the local mall, and the final presentation. The jokes are very frequent, though sometimes understated, and mostly motivated by character. There are a ton of tiny delights that never fail to make me smile, like Clarence Clemons being the apparent leader of that future utopia or the way Keanu Reeves will refer to Joan of Arc as “Miss of Arc” or Bill’s confession of a minor Oedipal complex (it’s a long story) or funny little time travel bits.

I was 18 when this movie came out, and I actually missed it in the theater, because it seemed too silly to me; to this day I don’t watch a lot of comedy. I caught it as a rental a year or two later and it just completely connected and I eventually got a copy of my own that I wore out. I don’t know how it has changed my brain to have seen this movie so many times, other than to say that it informs some of my sense of humor. Bizarre as it is to say this, it’s one of a few films that reflect something about my psyche, and the only one of those films that is lighthearted.

I haven’t watched it in a few years. I’m going to watch it again today. Happy thirty years, Bill and Ted. Thanks for being excellent to me.

¹There are only three Indiana Jones films, released in 1981, 1984, and 1989 and I will fight you on this. (back)

²Better yet, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can go and watch it there for free. It’s a lean 90 minutes. (back)

³Ever since I got a phone with a weather app, I’ve made one of my stored locations San Dimas. I’ve never been there, but sometimes on a rainy day I’ll just look and see that it remains beautiful weather in sunny San Dimas. True story. (back)

4A few years back Cameron Kunzelman made a trivial little web game that he shared with me on Twitter that recreates this scene in a minimalist style with the music playing… I laughed for a solid five minutes with joy. Cam, if you’re reading this, you have to send me that game again, it’s not on your site. (back)

Fuck Activision Blizzard and Fuck Its (Mis-)Management

I heard about the Activision Blizzard layoffs last night via Jason Schreier’s reporting, and read Patrick Klepek’s opinion piece on Waypoint this morning.

Layoffs are horrible; I went through a painful one at LucasArts in 2004 as we were finishing Republic Commando. I’ve been lucky, in an industry that is full of them and with a career of more than 20 years now, that I’ve only experienced one — and that I got to finish that game and see it on the shelf to boot¹. It was all pretty terrible and is easily the most traumatic thing that has happened in my professional life. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard.

Usually this sort of thing happens for business reasons — “we didn’t hit our sales targets,” or “we didn’t get the contract we needed to survive,” or what-have-you. The company can’t continue as it once did. Even then, it’s a failure of management. Management didn’t anticipate the problem, wasn’t prepared for the business environment, or failed some other way.

Which makes this Activision Blizzard announcement from yesterday particularly galling. After a record year with $2.4 billion in revenue, they felt the need to excise 8% of their workforce. This is a failure of conscience. It is a failure of fairness. It’s a failure of morals. It’s also a failure of both leadership and creativity.

You see, I’ve also worked with a company that had a title come out and take longer to reach profitability than had been hoped — that was a company that might have felt the need under those circumstances to cut back. It had no other titles in development, it was carrying several developers who didn’t have a lot to do. That company found temporary contract work for several of its developers, so that the financial burden of those salaries could be partly borne by others. This gave breathing room to pursue other revenue sources and look for that next contract that would keep everyone together. It was a creative solution to a common problem.

And that’s why I call this failure by Activision Blizzard a failure of leadership and creativity. I can understand that, after a breakup with Bungie, they may not need all the production services people that they have, going forward. I understand that. But you’ve invested in these people and they’ve invested their trust and faith in you, as well. With the amount of revenue from last year, and the investment that those people represent to your company, why not spin off a production services division as an independent entity that continues to serve Activision Blizzard’s needs in the near future and go out and drum up additional business? There aren’t tons of companies like that for games and there’s every chance there’s work out there for them, and potentially other work, too, in other entertainment industries. They had an opportunity to create something new.

Patrick ends his essay by pointing out a bump in Activision Blizzard stock following the announcement. The financial sector loves its cost-cutting, it just loves that, and as I had a guest say on our podcast this past year, “nobody ever got fired for saying no.”² Financial markets don’t care about the human cost. Apparently they don’t care very much about the lost investment in these people, either, money the company spent to make these people good at their jobs; hopefully other companies will benefit from that investment going forward.

Even better than cutting, though, is creating something new. Every single company that gets traded in the financial markets today was a new company once, founded to compete in a niche often — but even better to create a new one it could own.

With the amount of money Activision Blizzard brings in, they could have helped a new services company along as it slowly cut the cord, on a reasonable schedule. They could have created something, perhaps even a new niche. Given it time to sink or swim. Put the jobs of these people into their own hands. If it had made it out of the cradle, they might even have been able to sell it for a tidy profit down the line. Who knows?

But no, instead it’s clear that the “C” in Activision Blizzard’s “C-suite” stands neither for chief, nor for creativity, nor for courage. That “C” stands for cowardice. That “C” stands for cravenness. Fuck Coward-in-Chief Bobby Kotick and his whole suite of cowards.

Game workers, unite.

¹In that case, the studio contracted and then spent the next couple of years trying to expand again enough to support even one AAA-scale project on the XBOX 360 / PS2 level of hardware. The company’s reputation was tarnished, and it really never fully recovered that before it shut down permanently after the Disney acquisition. (back)

²It was this episode. (back)

A couple of great things from the end of EarthBound

Recently I played through EarthBound for the first time — it’s the most unconventional JRPG I’ve ever played, with bizarre choices in monsters, a setting that seems to be more or less on our own planet, and a progressive strangeness with which I’m still struggling¹. But there were a couple of things I really loved about the ending section of the game.

In case it was not abundantly clear from either the title or the preceding paragraph, this discussion must necessarily spoil plot points from the end of EarthBound.

Powering up the player… and maybe it’s not enough. Once you finish the quest to free the eight stones and unify their song, or whatever that’s about, there’s a mechanical boost that occurs to the player. The player gets dramatically stronger, gaining maybe 30% more hit points and for me I think about doubling his magic casting resources as well. What’s wonderful about this is that when you then make your final approach to take down Giygas, you are still… kind of underpowered? I died a few times on the way just to get to him from the randomly placed enemies, and then it took me four tries to defeat Giygas himself². So despite the fact that they’ve made you comparatively really powerful, it’s still balanced in such a way as you feel like you’re the underdog. You’re not, of course, because you’re functionally immortal and can basically level indefinitely… though if you don’t figure out the trick to beating Giygas, you might spend a lot of time looping there. Still, it’s a neat feeling to see your character get dramatically stronger only to still feel like you’re barely hanging on.

Aftercare. When we talked with Jill Murray on Dev Game Club, she brought up the idea of “after care” with respect to players. Tim had observed that we’re really good at stirring up emotions like fear and aggression in our players, and maybe not so good at warmer feelings, and Jill specifically lamented that we don’t take the time to care for players after we’ve brought them to that point. It was a good point and it’s notable that EarthBound does this pretty well, as do some others of my favorite JRPGs³. It’s different from simply allowing the player to go around and do lots of clean-up tasks, as most open-world games have tended to do these days. Here, we literally have a little celebratory moment with various characters, say goodbye to a couple of our party, and escort Paula back to her home before returning home ourselves. It’s lovely; we retrace our steps, characters thank us, there are no threats. The game also lets you know that it’s about to end, should you care to save and maybe go visit other characters now that you’ve saved the world. It’s really, really pleasant, and while modern game design often doesn’t allow for it, that’s to the detriment of modern games.

Anyway, very worthwhile to return to this 20+-year-old title, which I did via the SNES Classic. Lovely bit of hardware, that, and the presentation of the games is really great. I’m looking forward to playing a few other titles on there that I’ve never had the chance to. You can play EarthBound there, or I gather it’s also available on the 3DS.

Until next time…

¹Some of this made my jaw drop (suddenly changing the size of the player sprites when you descended to the Land That Time Forgot or whatever was a highlight) and some of this I’m not sure was used to good effect (particularly numerous abstract enemies that were surreal in some way but had no real unifying theme that spoke to me). One tends to want to forgive something like that because it’s unusual, but one still must ask — sure, this is all pretty surreal and unusual, but what are you trying to make me feel? (back)

²The first time I failed was because I didn’t know what the mechanic to defeat him was (though I looked it up and was also then informed by my stream friends), the second was because he overwhelmed me with attacks, and the third due to some bad luck using a combat mechanic. The signaling of the mechanic to defeat him was so subtle that I missed it entirely — it was the only time in the game whatsoever that I was really lost as for what to do. So I won’t dwell on it, but that wasn’t my favorite — mostly because there was a lot of retreading of combat to get to try your hand against Giygas again. (back)

³Final Fantasy IX, aka the Best Final Fantasy, immediately springs to mind. There’s a bit of post-final combat falling action, then a rising action to a different sort of emotional payoff. Most of it takes place in cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-engine. (back)