The Heart of Wreck-It Ralph is in the Small Choices

July 24, 2013

The second time I watched Wreck-It Ralph, a number of slightly strange choices they made in the story jumped out at me. It wasn’t that the choices were all that strange in and of themselves, but rather that they weren’t what you’d typically see in a children’s movie. As I thought about them, I realized that each of these small changes was essential to the story emotionally–specifically, essential to establishing Ralph and Vanillope’s friendship. I tear up every time I see Ralph diving into the volcano and hear him recite the Bad-Anon affirmation. But the reason it’s so emotionally impactful is because of all the small decisions the filmmakers made to bring you to that moment. I think this is a difference between a movie that only children watch and one that people of all ages can enjoy: children don’t necessarily notice this extra depth, but it gives it more substance for adults.

Here are all such emotionally-impactful decisions that I’ve noticed so far. Warning: spoilers for all the significant moments in the film below.

  • When Ralph breaks into the kart-making minigame, as well as later when he breaks into Felix and Vanillope’s cells, most films would have shown a zany action sequence. But such a sequence would have absolutely no bearing on the heart of the movie. The point of those scenes is that Ralph is using his wrecking ability to help a friend, and all that’s required to establish that is a wall and Ralph wrecking it. Anything else would have been superfluous to that point. Sure, it would have been a shared experience that would have built up Ralph and Vanillope’s friendship. But since the film isn’t mainly about friendship but rather about Ralph’s trying to find significance, it’s more impactful to have their friendship built in a scene where Ralph is creating something (i.e. the kart-making minigame).
  • In the kart-making minigame, Vanillope dispenses with her usual jokes about everything and simply says that she loves the kart. This is significant because of Ralph’s insecurity about whether he can to do anything but break things. This is his first glimpse that someone could see past his shortcomings–and, in fact, not even see them at all. Since this is where their friendship really starts, this moment wouldn’t have worked if she had made a joke about the kart; Ralph would have been crushed, as he already was when he first saw the kart.
  • In the scene where King Candy tricks Ralph into thinking that Vanillope’s life was in danger if she raced, it’s striking how sincerely he comes across. You don’t even see an aside glance of him making an evil smile, as you’d expect. But it’s most striking in the fact that he just gives the medal to Ralph. One would expect him to bargain: you can have this medal if you stop Vanillope from racing. But Ralph and Vanillope’s friendship has progressed to the point where he would never do something to hurt her. He had to be convinced that it really was for her own good, and for King Candy to offer him the medal just to “hear him out” was the only way to convince him of that.
  • The camera cuts away from Ralph when he first starts wrecking Vanillope’s kart, just showing her reaction. The scene parallels the earlier destruction of her first cart by the other racers, but in that case the destruction was shown from the start. But the scene functions on a totally different emotional level. The other racers had no relationship with Vanillope, but Ralph is her only friend. Whereas the first kart was only the symbol of her hopes to race, the kart is also the symbol of their friendship–so they couldn’t just show it being destroyed. The audience needed a moment to prepare themselves emotionally. If they had just shown the kart being destroyed from the start, the significance of it would have been devalued.
  • A typical movie would have “raised the stakes” by saying that Vanillope had to actually come in first place in the race to reset the game. As far as I can tell, the game-resetting is one of the few things in the movie that has no basis in the reality of video games, so it would have been just as arbitrary to say she needed to win. But if they had done this, they would have lost out on this priceless exchange:

    Ralph: “OK, remember: you don’t have to win. Just cross that finish line and you’ll be a real racer!”
    Vanillope: “I’m already a real racer. And I’m gonna win.”

    If Vanillope had to win to save herself from being a glitch, she’d be acting out of self-preservation. But that would rob her of the opportunity to actually have the motivation of a racer in that moment. Surprisingly, the race is more significant emotionally because she is racing to win because she wants to, not because she has to.

  • When the cy-bugs are approaching the exit to Game Central Station, Calhoun and Felix move behind the game barrier and leave Vanillope behind. This bothered me at first because it doesn’t fit with their character at all. But then I realized that it’s symbolic. She is the only one who is ultimately at risk. They are able to escape the game, but she isn’t. By reminding us of this visually, this narrows the focus to the character who is part of the central plot. Calhoun and Felix are secondary characters; the story is about Ralph and how he grows from seeking validation in externals to seeking validation in his friendship with Vanillope. If Calhoun and Felix had been stuck in danger, the message would have been diluted to a generic “save people in danger.” By emphasizing that it was only Vanillope who was in danger, the focus on the friendship is preserved.
  • When Vanillope finally crosses the finish line, she does it not under her own power but by Ralph pushing it. There is no surface-level reason why this needed to be the case; she didn’t have to leave her car because it was broken (if it even was), but because the cy-bugs were attacking. And Ralph has already played his central role in saving Vanillope. The fact that he pushes her across the finish line is, again, symbolic: it represents the larger reality that he has helped someone else to achieve her dreams, and that achievement wouldn’t have been possible without him.
  • Not only did King Candy steal Vanillope’s role and her palace, he stole her kart as well–that’s made clear by the fact that it fits into the “throne” in the palace. Yet at the end, when Vanillope re-inherets her role as ruler, not only does she keep her old outfit, but she keeps racing the kart she and Ralph made as well. A less subtle film would have used the King Candy kart to emphasize what she had accomplished, and would have shown Ralph hanging out in Sugar Rush to show that they are still friends. It actually bothered me on my first viewing that it’s unclear at the end how often Ralph and Vanillope get to hang out. But upon a second viewing, it wasn’t unclear at all: Ralph says “to be continued” about their name-calling banter, and Vanillope is racing the kart that symbolizes her and Ralph’s friendship. That’s all you need to see to know that their friendship continues.

Did you find Wreck-it Ralph as emotionally impactful as I did? What other subtle filmmaking decisions did you notice that contribute to the impact?

Why Does Privacy Matter?

July 18, 2013

In discussing recent concerns about the NSA’s surveillance programs and the Xbox One’s always-on Kinect, the most common response I’ve gotten is indifference. And it’s very reasonable to think that, if you already share lots of information online anyway and if you have “nothing to hide,” you shouldn’t need to worry about your privacy. However, there are still good reasons that you should be concerned about privacy, learn about the privacy implications of legislation, terms of service, and technologies, and speak up about concerns. Here’s a summary of reasons you should care, most of which come from this excellent Lifehacker/EFF article.

  1. The more systems your personal data is stored in, the more opportunities malicious individuals have to steal it for identity theft purposes. So you can’t say that you have nothing to hide–your personally-identifying information is something to hide.
  2. If your health insurance company knows everything about your behavior, they can find unjust reasons to deny your claims. Eat a “triple coronary bypass” burger at The Vortex restaurant one time? Funny name to you, pre-existing condition to them. Think about unjust trouble health insurance companies have given you or your friends in the past–the more they know, the more trouble they can give you.
  3. Thinking specifically about the Kinect, are you ever in your living room in your underwear? If photos/videos of you ever got out, they could be shared online and manipulated in a pornographic way.
  4. Even if you think the company you’re sharing your information with wouldn’t do anything bad with it, the government can easily get access to your info from that company. And the government does extensive investigations of everyone associated with suspected criminals. Are you sure no one on your Facebook friends list will ever be suspected of a crime? The more information about you that companies collect online, the more likely you are to be unjustly involved in a criminal investigation.
  5. Even if none of the above reasons convince you you need privacy, others certainly do for their own safety and the safety of their families: victims of domestic violence, targets of violence or racial or personal-moral reasons, political and human rights activists, whistleblowers, police officers, and public figures. By going along with systems that are gradually making privacy impossible, you’re inadvertently endangering these individuals’ safety.

If you want to learn more about privacy issues and what you can do about them, read the article I got most of these points from or visit EFF’s privacy page.

Genius Bar exchanges are not returnable?

December 9, 2012

I just had some trouble returning an Apple TV to the Apple Store. The store manager was eventually able to make an exception to allow me to return it, and I’m very grateful for that! But I also learned something alarming: if you swap out a device for a replacement one at the Apple Store, the replacement isn’t returnable, even if it doesn’t work.

Here’s what happened. I bought an Apple TV from my local Apple Store a few weeks ago. All the online streaming services worked great, but I mainly wanted it for AirPlay, the service where I can share my Mac or iOS device screen to the TV. AirPlay was unreliable, so I made a Genius Bar appointment to get it looked at. I checked in using the Apple Store app on my iPhone, but it seems like the check-in didn’t work, so my appointment was missed. Because of that, the associate I spoke with (probably a manager) was trying to fit me in and give me a quick fix. She said they can’t service Apple TVs at the store, so she took another Apple TV out of the box, gave it to me, and took mine. My wife was with me and realized this was a strange thing for her to do, but neither of us thought to ask her anything about it. I assumed managers were able to be flexible and it would all be OK.

A few weeks later, after we’d had the opportunity to try AirPlay on the Apple TV a few more times, we had the same problems, so at this point we decided to return it. We asked one Apple Store employee about returning it, but he said that when you swap out a device, you get a “repair part” which is not returnable. This of course was very surprising to me: if I swap out a device because it’s not working, why would it then be unreturnable? He said this was stated on the paperwork I signed. (In fact, I had not been given any paperwork to sign, but I didn’t remember this right away.) I tried explaining to him that this seemed like very bad customer service, and in fact seemed like a trap to keep me from returning the device.

He eventually spoke with his manager (a different one than in the first visit), then she talked with us and said she would do what she could. As she looked for records, it became clear that the original manager who helped me hadn’t done the exchange properly. She was eventually able to refund our purchase, and I thanked her and told her I would thank her publicly online as well. But I also asked some follow-up questions for my sake and for the sake of sharing with others. (She asked me not to share her name, but said it was fine for me to share this information.)

Here’s what I learned: Whenever you are getting diagnostic or repair work done at the Genius Bar, or getting a replacement (a “repair part”), the associate should always give you paperwork to sign. If they don’t, you should ask the associate to give it to you, to make sure things are properly documented in case you need it later, as I did. Also, if you are swapping out devices for a “repair part,” the document you sign does say that it cannot be returned. The manager said that the employee should encourage you to read the agreement, and that it’s only a paragraph long. But she said the employee would not necessarily point out to you clearly that the repair part is not returnable. She said she advises me in the future to ask to return the device for a refund and to buy a new device—that way it is returnable. It still bothers me that this is Apple’s policy—intentional or not, it feels like trapping customers into being unable to return their device.

My wife pointed out that, since Macs and iOS devices are serviceable in the store, this problem probably would only come up with secondary devices like Apple TVs. Still, it’s good to know to be cautious about this “repair part” policy and anything you’re asked to sign at the Genius Bar. It sours my opinion of Apple a bit—it doesn’t fit with what I would consider good customer service, and I can’t think of a good reason for them not to point out the potential problem.

Requiem of the Goddess FAQ

June 9, 2012

I just finished playing the Requiem of the Goddess DLC for Final Fantasy XIII-2. I can understand why some people wouldn’t want to pay $5 for a single battle, but it’s really enjoyable so I personally recommend it.

I had a bit of trouble with it, and had a hard time finding a FAQ on it online. So here are a few of the things I wish I’d known going into it:

  • This will sound dumb, but remember to save. You’d think that would be obvious, but I (at least) had trouble with it. When you choose Valhalla from the Historia Crux to enter the DLC, it brings up a menu, and one of the options is Exit Game. Without thinking about it, I just assumed that would auto-save my progress. Not correct! You need to go back to the Historia Crux and then choose to save there. Early battles with Caius can take upwards of 30 minutes, so you definitely don’t want to lose that progress!
  • The DLC consists of playing as Lightning in a battle with Caius. Caius has two forms: first you fight him in human form. If you don’t beat his human form quickly enough to five-star it, the battle will be over but you’ll get no ending cutscene. If you do five-star that phase of the battle, you’ll fight his second form, Bahamut. If you beat Bahamut, you’ll get an ending cutscene and credits. There is a second secret ending—I believe you have to five-star the whole battle to get it. (I cheated and watched that one on YouTube instead ;-)
  • Lightning can gain CP and increase in levels. Unlike in most battles, you gain CP whether you win or lose. If you’re killed, you gain up to 100 CP, based on how long you survived. If you beat Caius’ human form but don’t five-star it, the battle is over and you still get only 100 CP. I haven’t died at Bahamut so I don’t know how much CP you’d get then. If you beat Bahamut, you get 10,000 CP, which is more than enough to max you out at level 10, the highest possible level.
  • The level you’ve reached is the maximum level you can play at, but you can decrease your level to challenge yourself. Higher levels have negative multipliers that decrease your overall score, so you won’t be able to five-star Bahamut at level 10.
  • As you go up in level, a number of things happen. You gain HP, attack power, magic power, and defense. You gain new abilities for your roles. You sometimes gain new roles as well—you start with four, but can get up to six.
  • The roles Lightning has available are somewhat similar to main-game roles and use the same color-coding, but there are some differences:
    • Paladin: basically the same as Commando
    • Shaman: like a Ravager, but only uses elemental strikes, not spells
    • Mage: like a Ravager, but only uses spells, not elemental strikes
    • Knight: like a Sentinel, but better: when you use the action, you don’t take any damage at all. Very useful, because there is no Medic role
    • Conjurer: like a Synergist. Only has two abilities: Mighty Guard which applies multiple defensive statuses, and Aura which applies multiple offensive statuses. Only one of them can be active at a time. You gain this role at level 3.
    • Sorcerer: like a Saboteur. You gain this role at level 6. I haven’t used this role, because I beat Bahamut at level 5.
  • Don’t stress about how hard Caius is at first. You gain levels rapidly, and they quickly make a difference. The biggest difference is getting the Conjurer role at level 3. The extra protection from Mighty Guard lets you be more aggressive and take down Caius faster. Usually at level 2 the best I could do was a stalemate for a while, although I did get lucky once and he didn’t switch to the Healer role, so I was able to beat him.
  • As far as strategy, JoloStuki’s FAQ on GameSpot is great. I only had a few differences: (Thanks to Ken Mulford for help with this!)
    • When you’re just starting out at level 1-2, you’ll need to play more defensively to survive long enough to get 100 CP to help you level up. At that level, when Caius is in Commando mode I recommend only switching between Paladin to maintain his break gauge and Knight to protect yourself. Even if you end up in Knight for a while waiting for Caius to act, better safe than sorry. Around when you hit level 3, though, you’ll need to take more risks to get to the point where you can five-star Caius to get to Bahamut. You have more defense at that point, so it’s OK to do so.
    • When Caius was staggered, I always stuck with Paladin, no matter what role he had been in when I staggered him. To me, that seemed to do the most damage.
    • With Bahamut, I tried keeping his break gauge at 350% as suggested, but it didn’t seem to help me much. So I’d recommend just staggering him as normal.
  • This battle is intense, so to do well you need to know exactly what you’re doing with controls. Here are some things I didn’t know at first:
    • When you select Auto-Battle, the list of targets comes up, and in this DLC there’s always only one: Caius. You can stay in there as long as you like, and your action gauge will fill and then stay full until you press a button. For example, if you’re in Knight mode waiting for Caius to attack, you can wait until he begins to attack before you select the target and begin to act. That ensures you won’t run out of Immortality before he attacks.
    • Conversely, when you have the target selected, you can press Y (on 360) to act immediately, regardless of how full your action gauge is. I thought you needed to press A to select the target, and only then could you press Y, but no, you can press Y immediately. That fraction of a second makes a difference in this battle.
    • As soon as you select a target, you can press LB (on 360) to bring up the paradigm menu and scroll to another paradigm. Lightning will continue to do what she was doing: waiting for her action gauge to fill and/or acting. This allows you to be ready to shift to the Knight role at a moment’s notice, so it’s a really good idea. If Lightning finishes acting before Caius/Bahamut attacks, you can just back out, choose an action again, and then go right back into the paradigm menu.
  • If you’re like me, intense battles stress you out, and in this case you don’t have the option of leveling up elsewhere. But relax! If you lose the battle, not only are you getting better as a player at this battle, but you’re also gaining CP to level up. (That is, unless you’re an idiot like me and forget to save!)



Square Enix RPGs for iOS, Ranked

February 11, 2012

(Updated 6/9/2012 with Chaos Rings II)

I just finished Final Fantasy II for iOS, so I thought I’d rank all the Square Enix RPGs for iOS that I’ve played (although iOS wasn’t necessarily the platform I’ve played each of them on). Here they are, best first:


  1. Chrono Trigger: It’s a toss-up as to whether this or Final Fantasy VI is my favorite SNES game. Amazing storyline and characters, great battle system, lots of optional quests.
  2. Chaos Rings II: Lots of improvements on the original to give it more depth.
  3. Chaos Rings: The iOS-original turn-based RPG. Great graphics, good story, battle system with a unique spin.
  4. Final Fantasy III: An OK FF game, but the jobs system gives you unique options. This 3D remake looks great. Story is just OK.
  5. Chaos Rings Ω: I ranked this below FF3 because it feels like an expansion pack of the original Chaos Rings. Not nearly as long, unless you count the optional non-story-driven content. Not worth the money.
  6. Final Fantasy 2: Not my favorite FF game. The leveling system is interesting, but there’s not much uniquely fun about it: the battle system and story are fairly straightforward.

(Note: I haven’t yet played the original Final Fantasy on any platform.)


Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 4

December 19, 2011

This is the last of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical
In this series, I’ve presented practical arguments for some churches not to hold Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday. I then presented a number of points that seem to be assumed in arguing that services must be held, points that cannot be substantiated Biblically. After that, I argued that effectively reaching and growing people is more important than meeting 52 Sundays a year. I’d like to finish this series by talking more generally about extrabiblical commands. 
Although my opinion is clear, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being dogmatic on this question. If anyone is aware of Biblical passages that shed a different light on this topic, especially my points in part 2, I would be very grateful to hear them and will give them serious consideration. 
What I am emphatically speaking against is anyone who insists that it is a sin or wrong not to hold Christmas Sunday services without Biblical support for such a claim. To insist on something extra-Biblical (such as Christmas Sunday services) in such a way that it hinders obedience to a command that is Biblical (for example, loving your family and prioritizing them over professional or lay ministry, 1 Tim 3:4) is the essence of Pharisaism, and is one of the things that Jesus vocally opposed more than anything else. When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples broke traditions, he retorted, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mat 15:3).  
Legalism is a danger and a temptation to every Christian. Following it destroys your own obedience to God, and imposing it upon others leads them astray. Whether you hold a Christmas Sunday service is not a big deal, but whether or not you’re a legalist is absolutely vital. We need to challenge ourselves to hold with an open hand everything that isn’t Biblically commanded. If that ends up risking our traditions, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe God is testing us to make sure we’re willing to choose him over the traditions we’ve set up for ourselves over the years. 
So let’s celebrate Christmas, let’s talk about this issue, let’s respect one another, let’s get Biblical in our reasoning, and let’s refuse to elevate tradition where it competes with the word of God. Sunday services don’t give life; Jesus gives life. Sunday services aren’t worship: your whole life is worship. 

Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 3

December 15, 2011

This is the third of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical 
In the first two parts of this series, I gave the practical reasoning some churches give for not holding Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday but moving them to Saturday instead. Then, I argued that there is no Biblical command on several questions related to the topic, and therefore churches are free to hold services or not, whichever they decide is most strategic for them. I’d like to continue this series by discussing a bit about church mission and the role of the church service.  
Insisting on Sunday morning worship more strongly than the Bible does may betray a deeper problem: subtle idolization of the church service. As my wife recently wrote on her blog, the church is not a building, and it is not an organization: the church is a collection of people. It’s good for us to gather, but we do not cease to be the church when we leave. In fact, many of God’s commands to the church can only be obeyed in the context of relating to one another, not when sitting in rows.  
Also, if the only time you worship is on Sunday morning, you may be missing the point of worship. Worship involves the whole person relating to God, loving him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mat 22:37), and this is a command that cannot be obeyed one morning a week alone. Can you genuinely love your spouse for two hours a week, and then stop? Meeting with other believers does play an important role for the church, whether in worship services or in small groups. But the Bible never describes it as so vital that we’re cut off from worship or from God if we don’t meet a certain morning.  
If the Bible doesn’t command us to hold services every Sunday, might there still be practical reasons to do so? Maybe some people have in mind the “Christmas and Easter” crowd; they might think that we shouldn’t lose one of only two annual chances to reach them with the gospel. But how many of that demographic would really give up Christmas morning around the tree to show up at church? I’d love to see some statistics on this, but in my mind it seems like not many. As for the committed crowd, will they be any less likely to come Christmas Eve day than Christmas day? More likely, it would seem to me. Will they be any less edified? Of course not. Worship is worship and preaching is preaching.  
Some might say that, while this is true, gathering is still better than not gathering, no matter how few people come. Even the act of meeting is a witness to the world who see us committed to our faith even when it’s inconvenient for us. If anyone knows of someone who has come to faith because their friend attended church on Christmas day, I’d love to hear it, but I can’t imagine it’s too common.  
By contrast, God has used North Point’s church model to lead hundreds or thousands of people to Christ over the years, and I’ve gotten to see hundreds of them give their testimonies and be baptized. Our church tries to make every decision in light of what most effectively leads people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. And we’ve found that we do that best with hundreds of staff and volunteers to put on a service: parking attendants, greeters, production team, care ministry, preschool leaders, etc. If we can manage to have this great of an impact on 50 Sundays per year, then I don’t think God will say at the judgment that we should have given all that up in order to be able to meet 52 Sundays instead.  
This is not to say that all churches that meet for 52 days per year aren’t fulfilling their mission, but only to say that the focus needs to be on doing whatever it takes to reach and grow people. If, for any given church, that means breaking the tradition of meeting every single Sunday, then it seems that this is what God would want them to do.  
This is also not to say that it’s categorically wrong to hold services on Christmas Sunday. If you have a demographic that is demonstrably interested in meeting that morning, and you can get enough staff and volunteers without having to resort to pressure, guilt, or begging, then it’s certainly a fine thing to do. And it would be a tremendously Christlike thing for churches to set up, for example, an optional Christmas morning program for families to volunteer to serve the homeless or bedridden: giving up their own Christmas morning to bring a happier one to those who would otherwise be alone and in need. But none of that amounts to proof that churches are morally obligated to hold normal services on every Sunday including Christmas.  
In the final part of this series, I’ll address a general issue that this topic brings up: insisting on something extra-Biblical in such a way as to hinder obedience to a command that is Biblical.


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