Game of Thrones, Miguel Sapochnik and the Devolution of Battle Strategy

Last week Game of Thrones fans were finally treated to the battle which the series had been building towards since the very first episode, the biggest battle put to film, the most important battle in Westerosi history: “The Long Night”… and it was, um, something. The battle itself is undeniably a visual spectacle, with incredibly tense moments as our heroes get put in danger and an overwhelmingly bleak tone as all of their efforts to stop the horde of the dead are met with failure after failure. However, if you give the episode any sort of critical thought, the whole facade begins to quickly crumble, assuming that you could even see what was happening (for my part, I watched it on a 10″ tablet with max brightness and could see well enough, but can still acknowledge that the lighting was too dark and lacked necessary contrast to be able to tell what’s going on). The way that this battle was directed and written just makes absolutely no sense from the characters’ perspectives and was obviously designed solely to elicit the reactions that the showrunners wanted at any particular moment. This kind of writing wouldn’t be an issue if it was done well, in such a way that you won’t notice and can justify it easily. “The Long Night” is not that kind of episode, unfortunately, and it really got me thinking about how Game of Thrones‘ battle sequences have nosedived since Season 6.

There are a couple elements which are key to the drop in quality of the writing and direction of Game of Thrones‘ battle sequences. First, and most obviously, the show caught up to and overtook the books in Season 5, meaning that showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff have been having to make up the rest of the story themselves ever since. Secondly, the directing duties on the show’s big battles have been passed on from Neil Marshall, who helmed “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”, to Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed “Hardhome”, “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Long Night” (among other, smaller episodes).

With this in mind, I want to take a look back at Sapochnik’s battles, analyze the writing, the strategies of the characters and then compare them to Marshall’s battles. Oh, and I really shouldn’t have to specify this, but in case you’ve gotten this far without realizing, this article is going to contain SPOILERS!

Hardhome
I’m actually going to start this article off on a positive note by opening with “Hardhome”, the episode which put Sapochnik’s name on the map and probably earned him the job of directing all of the big battles on Game of Thrones going forward. Season 5 of Game of Thrones was a dreary slog, with such highlights as Dany being ineffectual in Meereen, Sansa’s storyline of “who’s going to try to rape her this season!!!” coming to a satisfying conclusion with her getting brutally raped by Ramsay Snow*, and the Dornish subplot that everyone loves! Then, out of nowhere, comes “Hardhome”, which was so good that it’s straight-up my favourite episode of the show. The surprise factor was probably the biggest thing about it – traditionally, Game of Thrones saved its big moments for the ninth episode of the season, and this was only the eighth episode. Plus, the episode was already going on its way for about 30 minutes before it cuts to Jon, Tormund and Edd all taking a trip to Hardhome to try to rescue the tens of thousands of wildlings camped there.

Sapochnik and the writers then spend the 10 minutes before the battle very wisely. For one thing, they introduce us to some great new characters. Most notable is Karsi, a fierce wildling woman who makes a massive impact considering she only has a few scenes in the episode. We also meet a Thenn called Loboda who, despite being a meathead, is a pretty fun character and effective for what they’re going for. Sapochnik also using establishing shots to subtly show off where the action will be taking place – a confined area just off the beach with a cliff to the side, a wall closing off the rest of Hardhome and a hut where Jon and company debate with the wildlings. I also like that, in this set-up, Jon Snow is set-up as a leader who really knows what must be done – the army of the dead are coming and the enmity between the Night’s Watch and wildlings has to be set aside or they will all die. Jon’s taking a great personal risk coming to Hardhome, not only because the wildlings could just kill him, but also because he’s disenfranchising the Night’s Watch back home. After 10 minutes of debate, Jon manages to convince 5000 of the wildlings to come with him, because he knows that the army of the dead is the more important issue than the squabbling of the Nights Watch and the free folk. However, there are still tens of thousands of wildlings who don’t trust him and who refuse to leave. It’s a strained situation, but it seems like everything it working out about as well as can be expected.

…and then there’s a thunder in the distance and things suddenly go to shit. No one was expecting a battle, not the wildlings or the Night’s Watch, so the fact that everyone is caught off guard and overwhelmed is very much justified. Jon and the other fighters are scrambling to mount any sort of defence, keeping them from breaking through the ramshackle walls while the Night’s Watch evacuates the 5000 wildlings by boat. The battle sequence is visceral and chaotic, but thanks to the establishing shots we got earlier and a very cool long-take in the middle of the battle, it’s easy to tell where everything is happening during the fighting. Then there’s just tons of cool moments, from the horror tone of the wight attacks, to Wun Wun tearing through wights with his bare hands. Then there are two of my favourite moments in the whole series: the fight between Jon and a White Walker (which ends with the Walker looking legitimately surprised) and Jon and the Night King staring each other down as the overwhelming threat of the dead finally becomes clear.

Tactically, the battle makes a lot of sense. The defenders were caught off-guard and have to scramble to mount any sort of defence. Jon’s objectives during the battle also make sense – buy time for the wildlings to retreat to the boats and secure the dragonglass since it’s the only weapon they know of that can defeat White Walkers. The White Walkers’ battleplan seems to make sense as well – their only real objective is to kill as many wildlings as possible in order to bolster their ranks, and considering that they have gotten probably 50,000-80,000 wildlings by the end of the massacre, they’ve clearly achieved their goal. In addition, the White Walkers keep themselves on cliffs high above the battle where they can observe and be safe from any danger and, when the defenders put up more resistance than expected, they send an army of wights off the cliff to outflank and overwhelm the remaining living.

All-in-all, Hardhome’s a great battle. Compared to Neil Marshall’s battle sequences, it has a lot more visual flair. However, it balances spectacle with good writing, making for a battle sequence that is thrilling to watch without having to turn your brain off. Some of this comes down to the fact that it breaks the series’ usual conventions where, instead of having some last-minute outside force come and save the heroes from certain death, instead the whole battle is a desperate and unexpected retreat, meaning that tactical acumen gets a bit of a free pass (spoiler alert: even then, the characters still make better judgments than they do in Sapochnik’s next two battles). Hardhome is especially impressive when you remember that it came during the first truly dreary season of the show as well, providing the one stand-out episode of season 5.

Battle of the Bastards
Then we come to Sapochnik’s sophomore battle sequence, “Battle of the Bastards”. Considering how good “Hardhome” was, I was expecting the best battle in the entire series up to this point. However, even the first time I saw this episode and people were raving about how it was the best episode of television ever, something rang truly hollow and disappointing about it. It quickly became evident than, unlike the previous battles on Game of Thrones, “Battle of the Bastards” prioritizes spectacle over sensible character actions, victory is won through sheer luck and contrivance rather than strategy and heroism, and the show’s attempts to make us think that characters could die at any time are cast aside completely. The writing also takes a nosedive, setting plot beats that the showrunners think will be particularly effective, but failing to string them together in a way that is satisfying or makes sense. Season 6 was, overall, an improvement on season 5, but “Battle of the Bastards” was the moment where it became obvious that this show had completely changed (a fact that many others would not recognize until the idiocy of season 7, but the seeds of episodes such as “Beyond the Wall” were very much planted here).

Season 6 builds up the coming conflict between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, having Jon try (with little success) to gather bannermen to take back Winterfell for the Starks. Irritatingly, he ignores good counsel from Sansa for basically no good reason other than to create conflict between the two of them. “Know your enemy” is just a sound tactical foundation and surely Jon is not stupid enough to believe he would learn nothing from Sansa. It’s literally just there to create conflict, but it’s unearned and it makes the series’ hero suddenly seem like a total idiot. I really want to reiterate this, because people seem to have forgotten such a simple fact: Jon was not stupid before Season 6, nor was he a bad commander – hell, in Neil Marshall’s second battle for Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall”, Jon’s intelligence gathering, heroic escape from the wildlings and assumption of command are instrumental to the Night Watch’s victory against overwhelming odds. He is also the only character smart enough to realize the bigger picture, that the politics of Westeros are unimportant and are only going to cause the army of the dead to kill everyone when winter comes. Jon Snow is only stupid when the writers need him to be – in this case, to make Sansa look smarter, rather than, oh I don’t know, making Sansa actually do something smart.

Anyway, so Jon at least justifies why they’re staging the attack now, despite being badly outnumbered: with winter rapidly approaching and their supplies dwindling, their window of opportunity is shrinking and they don’t expect to get any more reinforcements soon. So, while the odds aren’t great, this is their one best shot, which is a fair enough explanation (see, show writers, it’s that simple!). He does seem to have some sort of strategy to draw out Ramsay’s forces and limit their advantages, but we don’t really see much of it, nor does it really matter in the end regardless.

The next morning, the battlelines are drawn and they’re set up fairly well, initially – Sapochnik shows off the wide-open battlefield and the sizes of the forces. He also uses a traditional film trick here which shows up in similar battle sequences, where each side in the battle is oriented to face one side of the camera (Jon’s forces facing right, Ramsay’s facing left, as seen in the image above). This is a technique used in battle sequences such as The Two Towers to help keep the viewer aware of what side they’re seeing at any given moment and to keep the action understandable, no matter how chaotic it gets.

However, things start to break when Ramsay brings out Rickon Stark and forces him to run across the battlefield to escape his arrows. Look… I get that Rickon’s in a panic, he’s going to try to run as fast as he can and he’s not going to think to dodge the arrows coming at him. And I get that Jon is going to try to save his brother… but holy shit, no one tries to yell at him to stop? They all just stand there, mouths agape, no one tries to help? It gets even worse though: Rickon gets shot to death and then instead of going back to his forces, Jon fucking charges at Ramsay single-handedly. Inexplicably, he survives multiple volleys of arrows landing all around him and a cavalry charge completely alone. This is just unforgivably stupid. It makes Jon look like a goddamn idiot who single-handedly screwed up the entire plan and who gets tons of his own men killed because of it. Like I said – I can understand him getting emotional about saving his brother and screwing up the plan because of that. If that was the only dumb part about this episode, it would irritate me, but it would be something I could overlook… but no, we’re just getting started…

The big, spectacular moment of the battle comes when the cavalry from both sides meet and Jon is caught in between them in a brutal, visceral and admittedly insanely well-crafted long-take that shows off the insane chaos of the battle. It’s clearly ridiculous that Jon Snow makes it out of all of this completely unscathed due to pure luck (and impregnable plot armour), but that’s so obvious that I’m not going to nitpick about it too much. Then we have Ramsay firing arrows at his own troops on the off-chance he hits one of Jon’s men, a move which shows off the character’s ruthlessness, but also should have caused his men to rebel against him. It’s not like the Bolton men are staunchly loyal to Ramsay, and even if they are, are they really going to be fine with killing their own friends and allies for no good reason?

In my opinion, the point where this battle truly goes off the rails and becomes stupid is when a mountain of bodies just appears out of nowhere and causes Jon and all of his forces to become encircled. Sure, Sapochnik tries to set up that there are mounds of bodies starting to pile up during the fighting but… why? Are people just scrambling to be king of the hill on writhing and screaming terrain? And how the hell are you going to justify that these enormous piles of bodies just so happen to form a crescent shape which corners Jon’s entire army when a unit of Bolton men with shields suddenly and miraculously encircles them without contest? It’s just so stupid and the writers’ intention is transparent – we need Jon and his men to look like they’re all going to die! Just make it happen, dammit!

By this point, the battle has well and truly become a clusterfuck. After several minutes of fighting, the wildlings just show up and get surrounded by a shield wall that came out of nowhere. We don’t even ever find out if Davos and his men were caught up in this – at one point we see them rushing into the battle, but were they caught inside the shield wall? Who knows! If not, why didn’t they try to help break Jon’s men out? Who knows! Also, the “sides” camera trick has been well-and-truly abandoned by the time the shield wall shows up and it becomes hard to tell which side of the battle anyone is even on now. Hell, we don’t know which direction this mountain of bodies is in for several minutes.

But then, the tide turns in the manner basically everyone knew was going to happen – Littlefinger shows up with the knights of the Vale and saves the day. Despite being obvious to anyone who had been watching the show, this “twist” was just plain stupid writing, in my opinion, mainly because Sansa withheld the information of their arrival from Jon for no other reason than to build dramatic tension. Seriously, Sophie Turner confirmed as much herself.

Emotionally the payoff relies on Sansa withholding critical information purely to get a smirk when her plan (???) pays off and it’s like the writers started from that moment and wrote backwards to get there.https://t.co/RzyFhcrtGC
— Dan Olson (@FoldableHuman) May 3, 2019

Again, this is just the writers making Jon look like an idiot purely to make Sansa look smart, without bothering to make her do something that was actually intelligent. Instead, we get a scene that makes her look like she’s making a very petty power play that results in the deaths of hundreds of people for little more reason than to stoke her ego. She really couldn’t let Jon know that there were reinforcements coming that would change their entire battle plan?

Through all of this, Ramsay has actually been a pretty smart battle commander (firing on his own men aside). He figured out Jon’s weak point and lured him into a trap, then encircled his forces and nearly killed them all. However, when the knights of the Vale show up, he knows that he’s beaten and makes the smart call to retreat into Winterfell. Jon had said as much earlier, if Ramsay was smart he would have just holed up in Winterfell to begin with, but he wanted to toy with Jon and made the critical error. Still, based on Jon’s existing forces, he would have won the battle if not for help from an unexpected quarter and a whole lot of pure luck on Jon’s side. It’s pretty bad when you write your villain as being the only one using any sort of tactics, the one who deserves to win the battle, and yet they still lose regardless. Personally, I think it would have been way more interesting to have Ramsay’s bannermen turn on him. This was set-up earlier in the episode when Ramsay refuses to duel Jon and Jon says that he wouldn’t stick his neck out for his men, and when Ramsay orders his men to fire at his own troops. It also would have called back to a really cool sequence from A Dance With Dragons where Stark-loyal bannermen are turning on Ramsay within the walls of Winterfell. Hell, we can even have Sansa be the one coordinating with them if we want to have her do something truly clever without having to knock someone else down a peg to make her look good. All-in-all, “The Battle of the Bastards” is such a wasted opportunity and is emblematic of the way that Game of Thrones‘ writing quality has nosedived. It only really cares about spectacle and “big moments” and sloppily moves between these with poor justification for it. The fact that it turns the heroes into morons for plot convenience is just the icing on the cake.

The Long Night
Miguel Sapochnik’s latest battle came just last week with the much-anticipated “The Long Night”, one of the longest and most epic battles ever put to film. However, the reaction has been much more negative than I was expecting, being the second-lowest scoring Game of Thrones episode on Rotten Tomatoes and inspiring numerous critical thought-pieces on everything from the poor lighting to the nonsensical battle plans… oh wait, that’s what this is, isn’t it? Seriously though, all of the critiques of Jon and Dany’s battle plans are totally valid, because they really, really suck. I’ll give some credit where it’s due – unlike “Battle of the Bastards”, I actually like this episode. It is truly epic, visually stunning and there is some major tension throughout about who will die and whether any of our heroes will make it out by the end. However, all of this is undermined by the fact that I just can’t ignore how unjustifiably bad the army of the living’s defensive strategy is. If you can, then sure, you’ll probably love this episode whole-heartedly. I just can’t get past it though because, once again, it’s very clearly done to artificially maximize the drama while making our heroes look completely incompetent.

First of all, the entire plan is flawed from the beginning. Sure, they know that they need to kill the Night King in order to defeat the entire enemy force in one blow, that’s a solid objective. Hinging the entire plan on luring him to Bran is… questionable. For all they know, the Night King might not even show up, or he might just send a horde of undead to kill Bran indirectly. Still, I won’t nitpick this too much either, because in the grand scheme of things it’s not that important to the episode’s issues. What rackles me is that they don’t seem to have any sort of idea about the enemy that they’re going to be fighting. Are you trying to convince me that Jon, Dany and whoever else came up with this defensive “strategy” didn’t gather all the people with experience fighting wights and White Walkers, or read history books about fighting them before coming up with their defensive strategy? They have Tyrion on location, a man who led the defence of King’s Landing and won through clever tactics, are you telling me that they’re not going to leverage his talents and figure out the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, or the vulnerabilities they might exploit? I actually thought that the whole “bad things are going to happen in the crypt” foreshadowing was going to be a misdirect because… c’mon guys, Jon isn’t about to forget the time he saw the Night King resurrect tens of thousands of people right in front of him. Are you seriously telling me that no one, no one thought that maybe the crypts would become a problem if the bodies inside weren’t burned or removed? Apparently not, because the writers wanted that dramatic moment, therefore everyone has to be stupid… and that’s just the dumb shit in the planning phase.

As for the battle itself, Jon and Dany line up their forces… outside the walls… in front of a spiked trench with a single choke point to retreat to… with catapults set up outside of Winterfell and basically no one manning the walls. Bloody hell… As if that wasn’t dumb enough, the Dothraki are then sent to charge into the darkness with the goal of… uhh… winning the battle single-handedly? Dothraki are shock-and-awe light cavalry, they’re obviously going to be ineffective against a literal wall of dead who give no thought to their own self-preservation. This becomes even funnier when you realize that Melisandre showed up unexpectedly and lit all their weapons on fire moments before their charge, meaning that the original plan was apparently to charge in the dark with no way of seeing what was going on and with weapons that would be ineffective against their foe! Predictably, they nearly all get wiped out in moments during an admittedly really eerie shot as the rest of the army of the living sees their fire lights burning out one by one. The scene continues the series’ questionable portrayal of non-white races in how casually it dispatches the Dothraki, but hey the writers got their big, epic spectacle so I bet they’re happy about killing off a race of people uneventfully.

Then when the dead come for the rest of Jon and Dany’s forces, they are predictably overwhelmed and need to fall back into Winterfell. This shows off exactly why being outside of the walls of the castle in the first place was stupid – they’re vastly outnumbered and can barely see their foe, why not leverage their advantages and fight from a position of strength? That’s before you take the trench into account, which is designed in such a way that the defenders are forced through one narrow choke point to retreat. Not only does this mean that the defenders could gore themselves if they are pushed back, but it also necessitates the Unsullied to be nearly wiped out in order to allow as many troops as possible to escape. Again, would they not have been better served holding a narrow choke point where they could maximize damage instead of being overwhelmed and wiped out? Apparently not, because the writers needed a dramatic last stand for them!

Anyway, the dragons then engage in the battle and, predictably, give the defenders a small reprieve with the major damage they can inflict on the dead (although it is a drop in the bucket compared to the size of their entire force). The dragons could have been the key to the defence, but the Night King actually makes a pretty smart move by summoning a blizzard to severely limit their visibility and neutralize their effectiveness. I’ll also give Jon and Dany some credit here – they couldn’t really foresee this happening and so I can’t blame them for not having a plan to counter it. However, relying on Drogon to light the trench was probably not the best idea, but luckily Melisandre manages to set it ablaze and buy the defenders another short reprieve. And what do they do during this reprieve? Fuck all, basically. Apparently no one was manning the walls until the wights start throwing themselves at the flaming trench to create bridges of corpses across it. This one doesn’t even make sense to me… like, why? Did the writers think it was more dramatic to have no one on the walls, as if we’d think the battle was over and won? Why are they not just there shooting at the dead regardless? Even then, when the dead start swarming up the sides of the walls, there are absolutely no defences to stop them – no rocks, no burning oil, nothing. This is especially egregious when you go back to Neil Marshall’s previous battles, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Walls”, which have the defenders explicitly dropping rocks and explosives down on the attackers to keep them from getting up, because that’s just smart.

At this point, the battle starts turning into a clusterfuck of chaos. For one thing, the geography of Winterfell is very unclear. I don’t know if Sapochnik thought that we were well aware of the layout of Winterfell after several seasons here, but… fuck man, I could barely keep track of the characters when I started watching this show, like hell I know the actual layout of Winterfell. At one point, we have a dragon smashing through a courtyard, while cutting back and forth to Sam, Brienne and Jaime who are all surrounded by wights and fighting in… another courtyard, I guess? The proximity of these two areas is not clear at all.

Furthermore, the editing does not help matters any. Characters will be surrounded and overwhelmed when we last see them, disappear for what seems like ages, and then when they reappear, somehow they’re still fighting? At the rate that we see the wights flooding into Winterfell, the whole castle should be swamped with dead very quickly, but there’s still plenty of time for Arya to get into a stealth sequence inside of the keep that lasts several very quiet minutes. And, as much as I love him, how the hell does Davos survive this battle? At one point we see him on the wall by Arya, who is getting swarmed by wights and only escapes because she’s rolling high on her acrobatics and stealth checks. Then, he disappears until the very end of the battle when he pops out and basically says “hey, I’m alive still and was still on the wall the whole time!” This swarming also makes the whole plan with Bran even more questionable, as Theon and the Ironborn should have been quickly overwhelmed trying to defend Bran from the horde of undead that bear down on them.

After getting knocked off his dragon, the Night King nearly seals the deal by resurrecting all the dead from the battle, surrounding Jon before he can deal a killing blow, overwhelming the already-overwhelmed defenders and unleashing chaos in the crypts. It’s clearly another effective move by the Night King, and Jon only makes it out when Dany arrives on Drogon and burns a path for him. Then, because the writers need Daenerys off of her dragon for a dramatic finale, they cause her and Drogon to stand around like utter idiots on the ground so that dozens of wights can swarm the dragon, knocking her off and forcing Jorah Mormont to come to her rescue. This is another moment that’s just so obviously contrived to get the characters into a position that the writers want them in, since it makes Dany look like a total moron for forgetting that there’s still an army of the undead right behind her. Bloody hell, Game of Thrones

And then we get to the ending. There’s another tense sequence as we see all the characters getting overwhelmed and Jon struggles to try to get into the Godswood to rescue Bran, a zombie dragon blocking his path and preventing him from doing so (it sure would have been nice to know if the Godswood was just on the otherwise of that dragon though, that would have make the scene even more tense). The Night King, all of the White Walkers and hundreds of wights pile into the Godswood, kill Theon and the Ironborn and then the Night King moves to kill Bran personally. In contrast to everything else he’s done so far, this was just dumb on the Night King’s part to expose himself and proves to be the critical error… however, the manner in which it happens is just baffling. Literally out of nowhere, Arya apparently runs through the horde of the undead without any of the wights or White Walkers noticing and then jumps at the Night King to stab him! He catches her, but she does a fancy trick with her Valyrian steel dagger and stabs him to death, killing him and instantly killing all of the White Walkers and wights in one blow… Wow, the dues ex machina weakness of the White Walkers was bad enough, but since that was established in season 7, I won’t belabour it here. Really though, there is no justifiable reason for how Arya could get through that crowd unnoticed and attack the Night King. I’ve seen people saying that she was hiding in the tree above, but if you watch the episode again, that’s clearly not the case. They don’t show us how she does it, we just see the wind past a White Walker’s head, heavily implying that she literally just ran and went for it and, once again, bails our heroes out through sheer dumb luck. It’s a really disappointing end for a threat that the show has been hyping up since literally the first minute of the first episode, and when the show has been hammering home to us that the politicking and squabbling has never actually mattered compared to the threat posed by the dead. Once again, the defenders’ plan was so bad that I was actually hoping that the showrunners would have the balls to just let the dead win and spend the last three episodes with Cersei struggling to stay alive against the Night King.

As for Arya being the one who got the killing blow… well, I think it was a really badass moment, but the more I think about it, the more unsatisfying it is to me. For one thing, it makes the whole Jon vs Night King set-up that the show has been pushing since season 5 kind of pointless. Sure, there was some minor set-up for Arya to do it – she performed her knife trick on Brienne in season 7 and Melisandre mentions a prophecy that Arya will close “blue eyes” (a prophecy that was retconned afterwards to fit this episode, by the way). However, this is basically nothing compared to the seasons of prophecy about Azor Ahai, the legendary warrior who will defeat the darkness and who, based on the criteria for the prophecy, really could only be Jon Snow or Daenerys. I guess the show just decided to drop the whole prophecy it had been building towards for several seasons? It’s not like Game of Thrones is a series where prophecy doesn’t come true either, especially not prophecies from R’hllor the Lord of Light. Sure, Melisandre may get the details wrong, such as when she believed that Stannis was Azor Ahai reborn, but a whole prophecy is never wrong like that. Personally, I think that they just should have gone with the obvious choice and have Jon kill the Night King. It has been his struggle for several seasons now and it’s only obvious because it has been set-up to happen. It just feels like a more satisfying payoff to me than having Arya kill him, considering that there have been basically no stakes built up between the two. It would be like having Jon kill Cersei in the big finale – he barely even knows her, why make him be the one to do it? Honestly, I would have much preferred Arya to get the killing blow on Cersei rather than the Night King. That would have been much more satisfying and deserved, but considering that they had her kill the Night King, I doubt that we’re going to see that happen now.

As you can see, “The Long Night” is a tactical mess which continues to show off the series’ emphasis on spectacle over sense that it had gained since season 6. Going back to Neil Marshall’s battles, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”, it’s striking to see the difference. Sure, Marshall doesn’t inject quite as much visual flair into his battles as Sapochnik, but they do a much better job of conveying the action to the viewer in a coherent manner, both battles are won by the heroes for outsmarting the opposing side rather than by dumb luck, and they still manage to work in an impressive amount of spectacle and character moments. There’s still one Miguel Sapochnik battle to come on Game of Thrones, but considering what we’ve gotten these past two seasons, I’m not holding out much hope that it will be any better than what’s come before.

*I’m being sarcastic of course, but I know someone will take this seriously so I need to specify that. The first 5 seasons of Game of Thrones completely wasted Sansa to an infuriating degree.

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Circular Logic (aka, Let’s Blame the Feminists for Gaming Sexism)

So recently my morning started off in fantastic fashion as one of my friends on Facebook shared a forum post by Merlynn132 which blamed feminists for the issues with female representation in video games (click on the picture for the full-sized image):

Now admittedly, I actually found this guy’s points to be quite interesting at first glance and there may actually be some kernels of wisdom in here. However, the more I thought about the points that he was actually making, the more I realized that his argument is fundamentally flawed and falls apart under just a little scrutiny. So you know what time it is then, good reader: it’s time for yet another I Choose to Stand feminism post!

One big disclaimer before we move on though. I get the distinct feeling that Merlyn132 is directing some of these criticism specifically towards Anita Sarkeesian, but unfortunately its context has been removed to make it “shareable”. Admittedly, I haven’t looked into Sarkeesian’s criticisms myself, although I have found some of her examples to be at least somewhat suspect. If this post is intended to be a direct response to specific criticisms that Sarkeesian has made, then that’s fair enough (I would still disagree with its ultimate conclusion, but I could at least get behind some of its points). However, the tone and body of the post is written in such a way that it ends up being directed at feminism in general, which makes it fair game for a general response as far as I’m concerned. The lack of overall context for the post is unfortunate, so be sure to keep that in mind as the reality of the original post may somehow be shifted if we could see the whole conversation it was a part of.

As usual with this kind of criticism, Merlynn132’s first problem seems to be a lack of understanding of what feminists are actually campaigning for. His critique opens up with a statement that female characters aren’t allowed to have negative traits or feminists will cry out “sexism”. This could actually be the case with Sarkeesian based on some of the examples that I have heard her use for Feminist Frequency, but even that could be a misunderstanding of her intent when using these examples. As I have written previously, these examples are likely not intended to be blanket moratoriums, but rather ways to make writers make more deliberate choices when they write characters and to avoid lazy stereotypes (such as objectification, sexual violence for shock value or the desire to “fridge” a female character to give the male lead a motivation). An example of this in action would be the Tomb Raider games. Critics (not just including feminists) complained for a long time about how ridiculous Lara Croft’s boobs were, for good reason. However, they also praised Lara Croft for being a great character, in spite of the game constantly sexualizing her. Consequently, when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider series, their much more realistically-proportioned Lara Croft was praised as she was still a very interesting character with a much less garish visual design to go along with it. Despite what Merlynn132 would suggest, this actually earned Crystal Dynamics two separate purchases of the game from me (not to mention that I’m eagerly anticipating the end of the Xbox One’s exclusivity deal on Rise of the Tomb Raider, whereas before I wouldn’t have even looked twice at a Tomb Raider game). All of this is comes down to Crystal Dynamics deciding to listen to their critics and making a better product for it.

Let’s tackle Merlynn132’s assertion directly though, that women can’t have a negative trait or it will be deemed sexism. Merlynn132’s own examples are less-interested in physical traits and more in reference to their character, so we’ll leave objectification out of this. I’ll address his second example first because it is just flat out wrong. He claims that women aren’t allowed to be mentally unhinged as they walk across a hellish battlefield, but this is just not true. Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot is made far more interesting as she feels remorse as she is forced to kill for the first time (although the gameplay-narrative dissonance in this aspect is annoying admittedly). I also just replayed Metal Gear Solid for my upcoming retrospective series, and found Meryl Silverburgh’s admission that killing for the first time made her not want to be a soldier anymore to be a fantastic character moment. If anything, I find it offensive that more men aren’t given this sort of treatment, as most big shooters just force you to stupidly mow down hundreds of enemies like a psychopath (with the Uncharted series being one of the most egregious offenders in this regard).

The first example that Merlynn132 gives is that men are allowed to be lecherous drunks, but women are not, because “sexism”. “Sexualizing women and what all” as he puts it. This is an example that I can actually see possibly happening, but the context of the character is probably the most important part in whether it will be accepted or not. Does her character start and stop at “lecherous drunk”, or does she have some actual depth? Are they a main character? Or are they background dressing that exists just to give the player something to ogle at? Such considerations make all the difference in this sort of situation, as there is no quick-and-easy answer. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a contextual difference as well, since men are rarely sexualized in video games whereas women are quite frequently. Since it’s so prevalent for women to be reduced to sex objects, it can come across as very lazy if you put in a lecherous drunk background character unless you’re being very deliberate when doing so. Think of it this way: if I made a white character who loves watermelon and picks cotton, it would be fine. However, if that character was instead black, it would obviously be ridiculously offensive. This is because meanings change based on the contexts that they are placed within, so you have to be aware when you’re falling into a stereotype and, if you are aware, you have to have good reason for doing so.

Merlynn132’s third example revolves around a theoretical situation where Guybrush Threepwood is replaced with a female protagonist in Escape From Monkey Island. He is convinced that “Galwood” would never be allowed because she would be a cowardly, weak and socially awkward character hated by everyone around her. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that this would cause a feminist uproar or even be considered sexist for that matter (depending on how the game handles these elements in a female context, as I said before). For one thing, this sort of character actually sounds rather interesting and would fit into the very different sort of characterization which feminist critics have been asking for for ages. I can’t be the only one who thinks that this description fits Amanda Ripley, the extremely well-received heroine of Alien: Isolation, right? Ripley is a strong, positive female character, not because she is a Markus Fenix-style meathead, but rather because she is absolutely terrified, avoids confrontation as much as possible and just tries to stay alive by being resourceful.

Secondly, Escape From Monkey Island was just a poor example for Merlynn132 to use for this argument. The main thrust of Merlynn132’s overall argument is that feminists are actually being sexist, and by being sexist they are making female-led games economically unviable. Using the Monkey Island games to support this idea is very strange to me as they are hardly a mega-selling franchise. In fact, the Monkey Island games have far more in common with the modern day indie-game scene where female-led games are far more common and interesting than in the AAA blockbuster space. I can’t even remember the last time that we had a proper adventure game, although Quantic Dream and Telltale-style narrative adventures seem to be the closest analogue… and what do you know, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Beyond: Two Souls and Until Dawn all tend to have pretty solid, flawed and interesting female characters without causing a feminist uproar.

The third, and probably most ridiculous, aspect of the argument is in regards to Merlynn132’s conclusion. Basically, they believe that feminists force female characters into a very specific mold, which makes female characters boring, which doesn’t sell, which is why we don’t have female characters leading our games. This is just so obviously bullshit that I shouldn’t really have to explain why… but will, naturally. The games market would be boring if there were more female-led games? Seriously? The market has ALWAYS been dominated by male characters, many of whom are the exact same macho-fantasy repackaged over and over again (Contra, every Call of Duty ever, Gears of War, Booker in Bioshock Infinite as the generic/requisite action game hero, etc). Despite featuring the same stereotypical leads over and over again, they still continue to sell and are often some of the highest-selling games of the year. It’s not feminists’ fault that female-led games are in the minority, it’s because publishers believe that their teenage male target demographic won’t play unless they offer them a male fantasy.

Just to look into this claim a little further, I decided to check the list of best selling video games of all time. I was actually surprised to discover that most of these games feature no distinct characters at all, either being 100% gameplay-based (Tetris) or 100% player determinant (Minecraft). Only three franchises dominate the list. Mario has the most entries, with 8 games selling over 15 million copies each. I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Mario has a personality that is anything other than boring, not to mention that the franchise formulas of his various franchises have been nearly the exact same for well over 20 years now. Call of Duty comes in second with 7 games selling over 15 million copies. The franchise is notorious for featuring paper-thin characters, iterating very lightly from game-to-game and for its macho-fantasy, male-dominated plots. While I, along with many others, would definitely argue that this franchise has gotten extremely tired in the last few years, the fact that the series still continues to sell is proof enough to me that the claim that “boring” female characters are the reason why they don’t get any representation is bullshit. The third highest-selling franchise is Grand Theft Auto with 5 games, and it’s a bit of an oddity since these games actually are known for their interesting characters and writing. However, I have a strong feeling that this is not the main reason why these games have had so much success, but rather that their core gameplay is extremely appealing. If this is truly the case, then the picture that these three franchises and the characterless mega-sellers paints for me is that characters are not a major factor in determining the success of a game, but rather fun gameplay. As a result, whether or not a “feminist conspiracy” caused female characters to end up being a bunch of bland copies, it shouldn’t matter because we already have a bunch of bland male copies running around and raking in the cash. Of course, if the actual argument being made is that “real gamers” don’t want to buy games with female protagonists, then at least be honest…

As I said in the opening paragraphs, I don’t really know the exact circumstances that prompted Merlynn132’s original post, but I kind of wish that I could understand where his perspective is drawn from. Is he directly responding to arguments made my Sarkeesian? As I have hopefully shown, his arguments will still end up being incorrect in the end, but if Sarkeesian’s arguments are just as flawed then that might make a difference in the way that this is all handled. Or perhaps Merlynn132 just misunderstands the whole point of feminism, having equated feminism with the opinions of its more extreme or unlearned factions, or worse, with the gigantic strawman feminist which is so often evoked in these sorts of rebuttals. In all honesty though, I’m glad that I came across this post. While I think that the overall argument is extremely flawed, it is quite interesting and is a good reminder that feminists could actually hurt their own cause sometimes with their critiques. I hope that Merlynn132 is open to this sort of critique, as I think that both sides in this debate could learn things from one another and hopefully come to a point where we can understand one another.

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Deliberate Inequality

So I was recently reading this article on Polygon about unequal racial representations in gaming, and it got my mind jogging. Oftentimes, when someone calls out a system or representation for being racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever, people less versed in the subject are quick to come out and ask what the big deal is, that the person is looking too far into things, claim that it’s a part of the “creative vision” or that SJWs are trying to censor art (that they agree with, of course), etc. In any case, I believe that some of these responses stem from a misunderstanding of some of the basics of social justice analysis.

I think that many people believe that racism et al are only actually worthy of being pointed out if examples of them were done deliberately with malicious intent. For example, my father complains about how the media seems to always be complaining about racism in regards to police activity or their representation in Hollywood, and yet would quite likely stand up for someone if somebody was slinging racial slurs at them in public and discriminating against them in an obvious manner. People like him probably find these “smaller issue” social justice concerns to be extremely frivilous, get burnt out from hearing them all the time and definitely do not consider themselves racist. Unfortunately, due to a lack of interest or education on the subject, they are missing the underlying, unconscious issues in society which are contributing to the lingering of racism/sexism/etc. This often means that people concerned with social equality need to be concerned not so much with the less-common and clearly unacceptable examples of deliberate racism, but moreso with the unintentional examples.

Honestly, I find that deliberate examples of inequality are potentially less offensive than the unintentional, ingrained ones where people don’t even realize that they’re being potentially offensive. To link back to the start of the article, think about how big budget video games and movies rarely feature a hero who is a white, a male and a power fantasy of some sort. Think of how Assassin’s Creed: Unity ditched the option to play as a female assassin, claiming that they didn’t have the development time or budget to do it (which was promptly revealed to be a bullshit excuse, they just didn’t prioritize the female audience). Another good example is in Warhammer 40,000. Every couple months, someone comes onto the Dakka Dakka forums and asks where all the non-whites are in 40k. The simple answer is that there ARE other races in the Warhammer universe, and there are a handful of examples of them in 40k art, but it has literally not even occurred to the painters to paint any of their soldiers non-white. Honestly, I fell into the same trap with my 40k armies. When I was growing up, it never even occurred to me to paint any of my Space Wolves anything other than white. When I started an Imperial Guard army years later, I still didn’t think to paint them anything other than white for quite some time, until one of those Dakka Dakka topics pointed out the issue. We all have our own blind spots where we don’t even realize that we’re missing out on a chance at equality, or at least to make a conscious artistic decision one way or the other.

This is why the Bechdel test is so crazy – women rarely speak to one another about something other than a man because of the way that the screenplay is written. When 2 women speak, they have to advance the plot in some way by the very nature of the narrative. However, the fact that most movies fail the Bechdel test really shows how marginalized women are in movies, and that they aren’t generally the ones who the movie really cares for. It shows that women are not prioritized in the scripts, nor are they generally the focus, and generally serve as little more than plot convenience, especially when they speak to one another (because rarely do they bother to have 2 real women characters with any agency). My friend and I were watching the 1998 Godzilla, which isn’t an overtly sexist film by any means. However, we were commenting on it the whole time, when halfway through I was suddenly struck by the realization that the film had bombed the Bechdel test. There were only a couple scenes in the whole movie which featured two women talking to one another, and they spent all of them talking about a guy as the focal point to set up the love story subplot. It really illustrates where the film’s real focus is, and the fact that it’s so common is distressing (and let’s not even mention the 2014 Godzilla, which doesn’t even feature a single scene with more than one woman in it with a speaking role… this is a frighteningly common reality in movies).

What about deliberate examples of inequality though? The Witcher 3 is getting taken to task for apparent sexism in the game (although I’ll admit, Feminist Frequency does not have the best track record of picking good, clear examples). I haven’t played The Witcher 3 unfortunately, so I can’t comment, but one complaint that sounds valid is that the game features a lot of gendered insults when you play as a female character (or when they’re around at least… again, haven’t played it). Moral judgments about it aside, can we at least agree that having such marked differences in the insults directed at male and female characters is sexist? How odd would it be if enemies taunted your male game hero by saying they were weak, had a small dick, couldn’t pleasure their partner, or threatened to sexually assault them if they fail? Unfortunately, this is a strangely common trope for women in video games: quite a long time ago I wrote about Lollipop Chainsaw, a game I actually rather enjoyed, but lamented how the enemies will frequently call the protagonist a “bitch”, “slut” and threaten to violently sexually assault her. This also apparently happens all the time when you play as Catwoman in Batman: Arkham City – there’s a 6 minute video on Youtube of nothing but the instances where enemies hurl gendered insults at her, which is kind of insane. On the more positive end of the scale, I recently replayed the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 and, despite the island being inhabited by violent, insane, foul-mouthed sailors, I didn’t find the game any less “realistic” for not having them sling gendered insults at Lara all the time. Rather, they simply act as if she was any other badass running around kicking their asses, and shout out her actions (“she’s flanking us!”) rather than taunts.

While gendered insults are undeniably sexist just by definition (male characters get generic taunts, female characters are taunted based on their gender), that isn’t to say that this is something that needs to be eliminated necessarily. I’m wondering if the point that Sarkseesan is trying to make (and the one she tries to make whenever she picks a really questionable example) is simply pointing this out to bring awareness to this potential issue in gaming, rather than saying “This is bad and needs to be eliminated from gaming RIGHT NOW.” If anything, it is more likely stopping devs from taking this sort of thing for granted and trying to get them to be more deliberate when they utilize gendered insults and female characters – is being beaten down and shamed for their gender key to the experience that the devs want to give the player when playing as a female character?

One common mistake that inexperienced writers make is when they try to make their story “mature”, they tend to overcompensate and just saturate it in misery, rape and constant violence. This causes the plot to be completely forgotten or overshadowed, and the acts themselves to feel meaningless. The fix, of course, is for the writer to be more deliberate with the use of mature themes, so that they have the impact that they SHOULD have. Rape, sexism and the like can be used in fiction effectively, but artists should be very deliberate when doing so and do it with the expectation of some potential backlash.

Like, in Season 6 can we finally get to a storyline other than “Who is going to try to rape Sansa this year?”

For example, I hardly want to call myself a great writer, but this deliberate inequality is something I have tried to take into account with my own sci-fi novel I have been working on. It takes place around a thousand years after humanity undergoes a biological revolution and colonizes the galaxy. Racism and sexism aren’t totally dead, but they are significantly diminished because the fearful have turned their attention towards bio-engineered organisms. As a result, women and men (of various races) hold equally prominent positions within the civilian and military structures without people having to comment on it. Homo/trans-phobia is also considered a non-issue in the universe of the story. One major character is bisexual and hated by basically everyone, but no one even thinks to belittle him for his “queerness”. When deliberate inequality is brought up, it is done to show characterization, not just because I decreed that this story featuring six foot spiders and space magic has to be “realistic”. This is not pressuring me to conform to diversity, this is making my story far more interesting and opening up more avenues for creativity than if I stuck to my own narrow “vision”.

People seem to assume that criticism is an attempt at censorship (a misunderstanding which helped kickstart the whole GamerGate movement…). They claim that criticizing media for just fitting with the status quo and featuring “realistic” examples of sexism/racism/etc is an attack on the creative rights of the artist. However, I think that criticism should be seen more as an attempt at artistic improvement. By pointing out examples of inequality, critics are effectively saying “this art would be improved if the female characters weren’t such a flat plot device, consider making them more interesting in the future, because it will enrich the narrative”, or “I would enjoy this more if they weren’t calling the female protagonist a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ all the time, this is grating for me because I hear these sorts of insults get hurled at my sex all the time”. The artist is free to accept or dismiss that criticism however they wish, but if they dismiss it then they shouldn’t expect not to be criticized for it.

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IC2S Playlist Update 10/06/2015 + Stannis Rant

Normally I’d try to make this little intro as short as possible just out of obligation, but this week I’m going to rant a little bit about Game of Thrones… so SPOILERS if you haven’t seen Season 5 Episode 9, in which case I’d recommend skipping down past the album art…

So, if you know me personally, then you’d know that I really like Stannis Baratheon. He’s probably not the ideal ruler in Westeros, or even have a snowball’s chance in hell to pull through to the end (because, believe it or not, Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire tends to be rather predictable). However, he is a great character and the only one with a truly legitimate claim to the throne thanks to the right of a popularly-accepted conquest. He is the most righteous man in Westeros, and always tries to do the honourable thing (although Melisandre does cause his moral center to shift a bit on occasion).

However, Game of Thrones just screwed him up so spectacularly that it has me fuming at the show: with little provocation, Stannis went and burned his own daughter, Shireen, alive in order to offer her as a sacrifice to R’hllor. Don’t get me wrong – I think everyone knew that Shireen was going to die this season (because, again, GoT is rather predictable). However, I take issue with how it was presented, because it made absolutely no sense, turned Stannis into a big idiot and basically made his storyline going forward almost pointless. The only way I could see him killing Shireen was if Ramsay’s troops had fatally injured her, at which point Stannis would decide to make the most of an awful situation… but of course, this doesn’t happen and he basically does it with little justification.

First of all, Stannis loves his daughter above all else, and she’s basically the only person he actually feels any love for at all. That said, Stannis believes that he is Azor Ahai reborn, and a key part of that prophecy involves the hero sacrificing the person closest to him in order to save the world from eternal darkness. As a result, I’m not even opposed to the idea of Stannis sacrificing Shireen, because she obviously would have to be sacrificed if he wanted to follow the prophecy. Unfortunately, GoT tends to cut these sorts of contextual details out of the storyline, so in the show Stannis basically kills Shireen because he’s in a bit of desperation. Book Stannis basically says “screw this snow” and forces his troops to march through it regardless, which is the Stannis-ethos in a nutshell (remember, he also refused to surrender during the Siege of Storm’s End, even when all the food ran out and his troops were having to cannibalize each other to survive, and has been described as one who will “break before he bends”). Also, remember that he agonized about killing a bastard who he cared little for in order to acquire king’s blood, so you’re telling me that he’ll suddenly make the decision to kill his own daughter, his only heir, on a whim? Why wouldn’t he just take a bit of her blood like he did with Edric Storm/Gendry?

Furthermore, this move has basically made Stannis into a gigantic idiot. First of all, taking his wife and daughter with him on campaign was just an incredibly idiotic and contrived move in the first place. Book-Stannis leaves them with guards at Castle Black in the King’s Tower, which just makes so much more sense (and also means that if she gets burned, there’s a very good chance that Stannis will not give the order and be unaware of it). Secondly, he just lost his Hand of the King and probably a ton of soldiers with this act. The only reason Ser Davos has followed Stannis is because he sees him as the most righteous man in Westeros. Now that he has killed his own daughter (with a certain amount of deception directed towards Davos in the process), he basically has to kill Davos or he’s going to end up getting betrayed for certain. Who knows how Stannis’ troops are going to react to this, although I doubt that watching their lord’s child get burned alive is going to galvanize their spirits all that much… It’s just a stupid situation, and one in which the books handled things SO much better.

Anyway, enough of that, onto this week’s first selection, “Imposter” by Red from their newest album of Beauty and Rage. I really liked Red’s first two albums, but they got perceptibly weaker on their third album, Until We Have Faces. Their fourth album, Release the Panic, was basically generic crap with way too much dubstep influence. After Release the Panic, I basically swore off of following the band, but luckily they seem to have realized their mistakes and have gone back to their roots for of Beauty and Rage. “Imposter” is one of the best songs on the album in my opinion, it’s just a really solid opening track with a very polished sound. It’s nice to see Red getting back into the swing of things, and I hope that they can keep it up for any future endeavours… at which point I might consider myself a fan again.

Secondly, we have “The Game” by Disturbed, from their debut album, The Sickness. I really like Disturbed, having seen them in concert twice now. However, my enthusiasm for them has dulled somewhat since they have gone on hiatus 4 years ago. That said, if they announced tomorrow that they were releasing a new album, I’d be right back on the hype train in an instant. I think that “The Game” is one of their more interesting songs. I take the lyrics one of two ways. On the surface layer, it’s about a girl who stupidly keeps cheating on her boyfriend until it drives him into a murderous rampage. My preferred interpretation (and probably the more likely of the two anyway) is that the boyfriend is an abusive and paranoid asshole who constantly freaks out at his girlfriend who he thinks is a cheating whore, until his insanity drives him to go on a murderous rampage. So, um, yeah… it’s a pretty happy song. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning that it just has a really catch sound to it.

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