Author: Nathan Lawrence

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Defending Indy and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Multiple re-viewings of Indy’s most derided entry reveal a story that’s worth telling (or, at least, one that’s not worth loathing).
By Nathan Lawrence

It’s easy to bag out Indiana Jones’ fourth cinematic outing, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, becaus…

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Are the Valérian Comics Really a Big Influence on Star Wars?

A Star Wars nerd dives into the Valérian and Laureline comics to discuss just how influential the French series may have been on the Star Wars saga.

By Nathan Lawrence

If you’re a Luc Besson fan, you’ve likely seen at least one of the flashy trailers for his latest movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets[1]. Like many big-budget movies these days, Valerian is based on a comic. If the Valérian and Laureline comics don’t ring a bell, that’s okay: you’re not alone in not knowing about the French source material.

The thing is that while the trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may look like a colourful Star Wars prequel rip-off, the reality is that the Valérian and Laureline comics were birthed a decade before the original Star Wars movie hit the big screen in 1977.

There’s been a lot of discussion about just how much of an influence Valérian was on Star Wars[2]. It’s a controversial topic because though Star Wars creator George Lucas acknowledged many influences for his juggernaut sci-fi creation – including Flash Gordon, Toshirô Mifune, Akira Kurosawa, mythological heroes, old series and even comics – Valérian has never been mentioned. No one else who’s worked on the Star Wars movies seems to have listed the preceding adventures of Valérian as an influence, either.

Let’s take a closer look at the surrounding controversy and how the Valérian and Laureline comics might have influenced the Star Wars saga.

What the frack is a Valérian?

Unsurprisingly, Valérian and Laureline are the two eponymous agents of the French sci-fi comic series. The series is cited as one of the most influential French comics of all time, which makes sense given that Besson’s Valerian movie is reportedly the most expensive French movie ever made.

Our two heroes.

Our two heroes.

The series started in French comics magazine Pilote in 1967, and went on to have an incredible run that lasted until 2010. Valérian and Laureline is described as a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, and the titular characters are Spatio-Temporal Agents (read: time cops) who protect time (and sometimes space) from various evildoers.

Though set in the 28th century, Laureline is actually a peasant from 11th century Medieval France, who travels back to the future with Valérian to become a time cop. Together, they work for the Terran Galactic Empire which, unlike the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, is a benevolent leadership tasked with protecting all space and time.

In terms of those influences, the concept of time-travelling agents and galactic empires is more Isaac Asimov than wholly original. Similarly, Valérian and Laureline’s relationship is probably closer to the leading duo (doctor and companion) in Doctor Who on the surface, more so than Han Solo and Leia Organa.

The authorship menace

Valérian and Laureline was created by childhood friends and creative collaborators Pierre Christin (the author) and Jean-Claude Mézières (the artist). After seeing Star Wars in 1977, both Christin and Mézières believed there were distinct similarities between their creation and Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. But the Valérian and Laureline creators had different reactions.

In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt[3] (translated to English here[4]), Christin refused to be baited into animosity towards the potentially pilfering Lucas. Christin felt more connected to Star Wars because of the similarities between Lucas’ movie and his comics.

Valérian and Laureline was created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. After seeing Star Wars in 1977, both believed there were distinct similarities between their creation and Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.

He was, however, upset that Lucas hadn’t replied to any correspondence about what he believed to be parallels between Valérian and Star Wars. In the interview, Christin did acknowledge that sci-fi creations tend to feed off each other. He cites sci-fi legends Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury as key influences for Valérian and Laureline.

“That’s how it goes in sci-fi: it’s all about copying from one another,” says Christin, in the English-translated Die Welt interview. “Or, in other terms, you borrow something from someone else and develop it further.” In Christin’s mind, this meant it was okay that Lucas may have borrowed from Valérian – as Lucas acknowledges he did with other influences – but shifted the sci-fi storytelling in a different direction.

But it’s the debated impact of Mézières’ artwork from Valérian and Laureline that has added to the controversy.

Even Christin acknowledges this in the Die Welt interview. “In the ’80s, particularly in France, people were convinced that George Lucas had stolen from Valérian.” He goes on to clarify that French comics weren’t particularly popular in the US at the time.

“Nevertheless, the few people in the US who do know French comics fairly well are Hollywood’s art directors and storyboard artists,” argues Christin, in the same interview. “They might not be able to read the magazines, but they still flick through them now and then in search of ideas. That’s what French filmmakers who’ve been to Hollywood have told me: they happened to have seen piles of French comics in the creative departments of various film studios.”

Revenge of the artist

Mézières was less diplomatic in his response to seeing Star Wars for the first time. In 1983, the same year that Return of the Jedi hit cinemas, Mézières published a crossover cartoon panel in Pilote #113 that depicted Valérian and Laureline sitting at a booth with Han Solo and Leia Organa (in her iconic Return of the Jedi slave outfit). “Fancy meeting you here,” says Leia. “Oh, we’ve been hanging around here for a long time,” responds Laureline. Ouch.

Valerian and Laureline meet Leia and Luke.

Strong is the salt with this one.

In some ways, Mézières’ saltiness is understandable as most of the parallels that have been drawn between the Valérian comics and the Star Wars saga have been based on visual references more than anything else. From a conceptual perspective, both IPs are space operas with leads who prioritise banter above believable dialogue when the Sith hits the fan.

It could be argued that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker may have been derived from parts of Valérian’s personality, as the latter sci-fi hero is “a classically handsome, slightly cocky, excessively loyal (sometimes to a fault) young agent”, as noted by IGN’s Lauren Lavin in her ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: What You Need to Know’[5] article.

“Classically handsome” and “cocky” describe Han well, and loyal-to-a-fault encapsulates one of Luke “your faith in your friends is yours” Skywalker’s biggest character flaws. For the comics’ leading lady, Laureline, the comparison is less nuanced: she’s a lot like Leia Organa, both in strong-willed personality, and even in character events.

Building from here, this is where the visual crossovers between the Valérian comics and Star Wars saga start to bubble to the surface.

Attack of the clones

One of the biggest visual similarities between Star Wars and Valérian is in design philosophy: both have lived-in worlds, which act as a stark contrast to the clean view of the future that dominated sci-fi at the time. Then there are the specific examples that leave the influence open to debate.

The Millennium Falcon has similarities to Valérian and Laureline’s ship, which has an infinitely less sexy name: the XB982 astroship. Both are built off a flying saucer design, and the XB982’s rear viewport looks like the Falcon’s thrusters. But given the prevalent fascination with flying saucers during the inception of both respective sci-fi IPs, the Falcon isn’t necessarily based on the XB982.

The XB982 astroship.

The XB982 astroship.

In a stronger argument, Laureline has a storyline that includes her being forced to wear a slave-girl outfit by a morbidly obese ruler in The Land Without Stars (1972). Leia, of course, has a similar experience in Return of the Jedi, which wasn’t released until 1983. Despite the close similarities in design, the counter-argument to this specific instance comes from costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers.

Rodgers said artist Frank Frazetta was her inspiration for the slave Leia outfit in this Wired interview[6], which can be seen in Frazetta’s Egyptian Queen painting, as well as his depiction of A Princess of Mars.

Art from Frank Frazetta.

Egyptian Queen and A Princess of Mars.

The irony of that latter painting shouldn’t be lost on sci-fi fans. Disney’s critically and commercially panned John Carter movie was based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels that were published from 1912. Part of John Carter’s failure was attributed to it feeling derivative of Star Wars, when the source material (greatly) predates the creation of Star Wars.

Valerian trapped in liquid plastic.

Seems familiar.

There are other visual cues, too. The Empire of a Thousand Planets (1971), the comic with the most debatable Star Wars influence, has a villainous and vengeful group called The Enlighteneds, who wear Darth Vader-like helms[7], and have echoing voices that are “deep if slightly muffled”. One of The Enlighteneds eventually removes his helmet to reveal a burnt, human face.

The Enlighteneds live in a fortress in the Syrtian Jungles, which has more than a passing resemblance to the look of Yavin IV in A New Hope (both jungle and temple). Valérian is also trapped inside liquid plastic in this story arc, in a pose that’s very reminiscent of Han Solo’s similar carbonite fate in The Empire Strikes Back.

Beyond this, the creatures that capture Valérian and Laureline look similar to Ralph MacQuarrie’s original sketches for Chewbacca[8]. The Empire of a Thousand Planets also includes a desert planet, an ice world, the aforementioned Yavin IV-like locale, as well as a bazaar that’s reminiscent of Tatooine’s Mos Eisley in both A New Hope and Mos Espa in The Phantom Menace.

The comparisons don’t stop there, either.

Cloud City inspiration?

Cloud City inspiration?

On the False Earths (1977) introduces an army of Valérian clones, which are created for a very specific secret purpose, much like the secret Clone Army that’s based on Jango Fett’s DNA in Attack of the Clones. Ambassador of Shadows (1975) introduced greedy traders called Shingouz, who look quite a bit like The Phantom Menace’s Watto (a Toydarian). Watto was designed by Doug Chiang, who was the design director on The Phantom Menace, and produced additional concept designs for Attack of the Clones and The Force Awakens. Mézières reportedly claims Chiang is a Valérian fan.

There are other design parallels, too, with this niptastic NSFW look at what might otherwise be Yoda’s hut[9], what could have been an influence for the look of Cloud City, and a ship that may have inspired the design of the Mon Calamari cruisers[10].

Return of the controversy

Kim Thompson from The Comics Journal wrote an intro to one of the first English translation of Valérian: The New Future Trilogy, which claims that “over the years word leaked back that the Star Wars designers (some of them French) had indeed maintained a nice collection of Valérian albums.” Despite Thompson’s claim, no names of French designers were offered, and I couldn’t find any evidence of this while scouring through the IMDb credits, most notably for the earlier Star Wars movies.

The cover art for Valerian: The New Future Trilogy.

Pure sci-fi awesomeness.

Apart from some of those potential visual influences, by far the biggest parallel between Valérian and Star Wars, for me, is one that’s not great for either: clunky, overwritten dialogue. While the dialogue improved in the Original Trilogy as Lucas moved away from writing and directing, the clumsiness returned in the Prequel Trilogy when he came back to those roles. In Valérian and Laureline, the dialogue often dominates the panel and is unnecessarily expository, though I can appreciate that some of this may be due to the reality that it’s been translated.

As much as I love the original Star Wars, even the legendary Alec Guinness struggled with Lucas’ dialogue, and called it “rubbish”, according to letters Guinness wrote to a friend while shooting Star Wars. “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges [bundles] of pink paper, and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable.” There’s even recent evidence that Carrie Fisher rewrote Leia’s dialogue[11].

Ultimately, I expected the parallels to be more clear-cut, given the recent noise that’s been made about the similarities between Star Wars and the Valérian comics. From what I’ve read, seen and researched, there’s certainly an argument for design influence.

In his Die Welt interview, Christin even recognises that Star Wars influenced later issues of his comics. If Lucas or Macquarie had been influenced by Christin and Mézières’ work, that fed back into the Valérian comics, which Christin admits were inspired by earlier sci-fi works. In this respect, the circle is complete, albeit without acknowledgement. Given that the Valérian and Laureline comics aren’t terribly well known outside of Europe even today, though, it seems more likely that the crossover was, at worst, unintentional and, at best, coincidental.

English-translated compendiums of the Valérian and Laureline comics are relatively recent, and that’s in the Internet Age, let alone in the ’70s when all comic consumption was physical. Valérian and Laureline comics are interesting in their own right, but their titular characters explorations through space (and, tangentially, time) fall more into the pile of notable sci-fi works that delve into different territories than what George Lucas was obsessed with in his battle of good and evil in the Star Wars saga.

Nathan Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Sydney. He’s a film freak and shooter specialist. Track him down on Twitter[12].

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The Troubling Psychology of Pay-to-Loot Systems

Two video game psychologists weigh in on the tricks and impact of the increasingly popular pay-to-loot microtransaction trend.

By Nathan Lawrence

“In behavioural psychology, that randomised system of reward is the one that creates the most addiction,” says Emil Hodzic, who runs the Video Game Addiction Treatment Clinic[1]. “That’s the one that causes all the drama.”

This comment comes from an interview about microtransactions tied to random number generator (RNG) card packs, or what I call “pay-to-loot”. It’s a system that exists beyond genres and irrespective of the price of a game. It’s becoming more common, too. You can find it in Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Gears of War 4, Dirty Bomb and Hearthstone, to name a handful of names that constantly arose while researching this piece.

Publishers will tell you these RNG microtransactions are optional, and to an extent that’s true, but they’re baked into the games in question, and are offered via a number of access points. Sure, you can spend a few (or a lot of) real-world bucks, but you can also use artificial in-game currency… all to buy what amounts to uncertainty. That’s how RNG systems work. What may have been a shiny loot drop one time, isn’t likely to repeat again anytime soon because of predetermined loot drop rates. And, as I’ll explore in this article, that randomness and uncertainty seems to be the point of why they’re becoming more common.

What may have been a shiny loot drop one time, isn’t likely to repeat again anytime soon because of predetermined loot drop rates.

Pay-to-loot is a relatively new microtransaction system that’s been borrowed from smartphone and tablet apps. In what I can only imagine is a very separate psychological phenomenon, users happily spend many hundreds of dollars on a new smartphone, but balk when an app (game or otherwise) is deemed too expensive – i.e. isn’t free. The microtransaction systems inside these free-to-play or low-price-point apps have actually become the business model. That in itself is a topic for another day, but the point is that within that ecosystem players are incentivised to spend money, and some of these players spend thousands – or significantly more – on these kinds of systems and are dubbed “whales”. It makes sense, then, that console and PC publishers have seen that model and decided to pull it across into their titles, despite the large difference in initial investment from the player.

Online, you’ll find debate around whether some of these RNG systems – the ones tied to randomised unlocks that impact gameplay – constitute derided pay-to-win systems. While that debate is interesting to follow, I’d argue pay-to-loot isn’t the same as pay-to-win. Pay-to-loot is something subtler and, arguably, worse.

According to Hodzic, these systems are “certainly comparable to the card packs that you can purchase with Magic: The Gathering. It’s just the same thing in one way or another, so there is that randomness that goes there, and the poker machine-like experience that comes with it.”

This “poker machine-like experience” refers to the randomised nature of these loot drops, and ties into primitive parts of our brain, making them particularly effective because of how susceptible we are to them. If you’d like to read more about this topic as it relates to loot drops in regular games, you can read “The Science Behind Why We Love Loot” here[2].

A loot box.

The box, THE BOX!

Hodzic uses Overwatch’s Loot Boxes as an example to highlight the loot effect. “One thing that I’ve spoken to people about, whether it’s 12-year-olds or adults, is the loot boxes that you get within games,” says Hodzic. “If you’ve played Overwatch, basically, every time you hit a new level, you get a new Loot Box, and even though they’re not saying, ‘Hey, buy $20 worth of loot boxes,’ what they’re doing – by you being exposed to that reward system – you are, in a sense, getting reinforced to [be] expecting something and getting a reward.

“Then that dynamic of the gambling – the poker machine motivation system comes in – whereby, you get one really good skin or emote one time and it wants you to [get] more. Over time, the interest and the attachment and the drive for what you get from that loot drop can definitely increase, especially when they’ve got the seasons thing, like [a] Halloween [event].”

In a separate interview, Ph.D. psychologist Jamie Madigan, who runs The Psychology of Video Games website[3], theorised about why Blizzard, in the specific example of Overwatch, might have chosen a randomised loot-drop system associated with microtransactions.

“I imagine that the people at Blizzard and Activision and so forth have done their own internal testing and found out that this sort of system does keep people engaged longer,” says Madigan. “It gets them either playing the game longer or spending more money on in-game purchases if they have to rely on chance, and they have to pull the slot machine arm every time they want to get something, rather than just paying for it up-front.

“Even if they would end up paying a premium to get what they wanted. It’s still exciting to get one of those boxes [in Overwatch] and open it up and see what you get. I think that excitement persists, and it would go away if you could simply buy what you wanted. You wouldn’t have the drive to keep playing the game to work towards one of those loot chests that may give you something awesome, or it may give you a bunch of junk.

“And it’s going to be mostly a bunch of junk but, every once in a while, it’s going to be totally awesome. In a lot of ways, that’s the same psychological mechanisms that are going on with random loot drops in other games like your Diablos of the world: where you just kill a monster and something pops out. There’s a lot of the same psychological phenomenon going on.”

Part of that “psychological phenomenon” is how our brains work in relation to fixed rewards versus randomised booty.

“A lot of research shows that fixed rewards are not as effective for getting people to change behaviours, learn a new behaviour, or form a habit as random rewards are…” – Jamie Madigan

“A lot of research shows that fixed rewards are not as effective for getting people to change behaviours, learn a new behaviour, or form a habit as random rewards are,” explains Madigan. “Our brains are wired to try to make sense of unexpected things. When you have a random number determining what loot you get, by definition, you’re going to get an unexpected result, or an unexpected predictable result every time.

“Whether you get that by playing the game for so many hours or winning so many matches, or whether you get a roll of that random number generator from spending five dollars to buy a pack of cards or a loot chest, it’s still the same rush, the same experience, the same hopeful anticipation to try and figure out, ‘Well, did I figure it out this time?’ Even though, in the front part of your brain – in the rational slow-moving part of your brain – you know that it’s completely random and, no, you haven’t cracked the code or figured it out. But those circuits are hardwired in our brain, and they’re very effective and very powerful.”

In fairness, our brains are responding to and being attracted to these randomised systems in a variety of places, and it’s certainly not exclusive to video games. According to Hodzic, the challenge, though, is when the contact with the same randomised systems happens repeatedly. “There are gambling mechanics in other things,” admits Hodzic. “Like, if you play card games, that’s not really cracked down on. You play 21 with your family, it doesn’t seem so bad.

“But the repetitive exposure, almost like a commercial – every time you sign in – you’re getting that over time, and it just works and works and works on you. Maybe it’s not that week or maybe it’s five months later, but I think at some stage, and this, I’m really putting myself out by saying that you’re going to end up spending some money, either great or small.”

Personally, the main issue I have is when RNG monetisation systems offer more than just cosmetic options. Where those previously mentioned pay-to-win systems offer certainty in exchange for currency, the random nature of a pay-to-loot drop impacts balance and creates an unfair playing field, where luck becomes a factor external to skill. As far as Hodzic is concerned, though, cosmetic loot drops such as skins can be just as appealing as gameplay-impacting ones.

“The skin will apply to the person who is really, really interested in novelty,” says Hodzic. “If that’s their currency, then it’s going to really stick for them, and then some people want to goof around and not really take it too seriously but they want to look good, strangely. Now, of course, for those who want to get better at their skills, getting that randomised weapon, that add-on, is going to really want you to keep going. There is an issue because the motivator is to drop money and keep going back to that system hoping you’re going to get it, as opposed to the game companies rewarding you for putting in the effort.”

For Madigan, there’s an additional level of consideration when pitting cosmetic against gameplay-impacting loot drops. “I think people do think of it differently,” says Madigan. “When you start to get into pay-to-win and you get items or powers or whatever that give you a competitive advantage, even if it’s a single-player or a cooperative game, then you start to invoke concepts around fairness and justice. Like, if you and I are doing the same thing, but because you were able to pay five dollars, you’re getting a greater reward for it, or it’s easier for you, or you’re succeeding more often. It’s an area that I think really needs to be studied more.”

It’s all well and good to identify the potential problems with pay-to-loot systems, but what would actually help solve the issues with pay-to-loot systems?

“It would be a lot safer, especially for minors, if the loot that you got, say, for levelling-up and putting your time in and playing well was actually expected: there was no randomised nature to it.” – Emil Hodzic

“It would be a lot safer, especially for minors, if the loot that you got, say, for levelling-up and putting your time in and playing well was actually expected: there was no randomised nature to it,” argues Hodzic. “If, for example, when you play [Call of Duty], you get to Prestige One, you get a certain emblem. If they had a similar system in terms of whether you choose an emote or whether you choose this or you choose that for games, that would be a lot safer, and that way, the exposure to young minds to a kind of gambling mechanic would be a lot better.

“In a perfect world, the game developers have an age checker, and when kids [are playing] – the persons not of adult [gambling] age – the loot system becomes structured, expected, as opposed to randomised. That might suck out the fun for a lot of people, but I think that in terms of giving people a chance, it’s the decent thing to do.”

For Madigan, the pay-to-loot systems aren’t problematic until they start to impact on a person’s life, in the same way that gambling addiction would. “Even if you do have someone doing that a lot [engaging with pay-to-loot systems], it’s only problematic when it starts to interfere with the rest of their lives,” reasons Madigan. “When they’re spending money that probably should be spent elsewhere. If they’re just dropping a few dollars that leads to them enjoying the game more, then that is probably not problematic.”

Still, Madigan believes there’s room for a greater level of transparency from digital platforms and retailers. “A better solution would be to flag those games that are going to have in-game purchases, like, it’s done on the Apple App Store,” says Madigan. “Where if you go and shop for an app or a game, it’ll tell you whether it has in-game purchases and what the most common or most popular in-game purchases are.

“If it described that sort of stuff or if there was some standardisation – like, game offers purchase of in-game consumable items – that would go a long way towards cluing people in to, ‘I either want to stay away from this entirely,’ or, ‘I want to go online and find out a little bit more information,’ or, ‘Hey, I don’t care in the slightest, this sounds good to me. Let’s go!’ I would like to see some sort of consumer information and awareness built up there before people buy the game.”

The reality is these pay-to-loot systems are becoming more commonplace in video games, yet these features aren’t exactly listed in the bullet points on the back of a box. A greater level of transparency about these mechanics and greater awareness of how they impact players would, ultimately, better help to guide purchasing decisions and temper some of the drama surrounding these systems.

Nathan Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Sydney and shooter specialist. Track him down on Twitter[4].

References

  1. ^ Video Game Addiction Treatment Clinic (www.videogameaddictiontreatment.com.au)
  2. ^ “The Science Behind Why We Love Loot” here (www.gameinformer.com)
  3. ^ The Psychology of Video Games website (www.psychologyofgames.com)
  4. ^ Twitter (twitter.com)