Monthly Archives: July 2015

In Search of Story

I have spent entirely too much of my life playing The Sims. Seriously, since I was first sent a copy of the game by my cousin in 2002 I’ve logged endless hours in the original game and its sequels. I’ve bought expansion packs and borrowed them from friends.

What I’m saying is I’ve played a lotta Sims.

Now, The Sims is one of those games that there are many ways to play. Personally, I got through my burning/starving/drowning phase relatively quickly (though I do enjoy revisiting it) and moved on to trying to make my Sims as rich as possible. When Sims 2 introduced family trees I’d craft magnificent family ties and recently in Sims 3 I’ve been trying to create some mildly bizarre characters with the intention of forming a dynasty and/or soap opera-esque melodramas.

All this to say, within The Sims I am constantly creating stories. It may be Jack and Tracy falling in love, Paul Tay fathering two dozen children by half as many women, or Hope the firefighter-adventurer fighting fires and adventuring. Within The Sims, a game with ostensibly no real goal. I find myself actively seeking out narrative.

Why?

When you tell someone about the time you ran into Mike Wilson from High School at the grocery store you don’t just say “I ran into Mike Wilson at the grocery store and it was odd.” No, you make it into a story: “So the other day I was at the grocery store [set up], and you won’t believe who I saw [build up]. Mike Wilson from High School [inciting incident]!”

See, story is how we process things. We, as people, naturally want there to be an arc to events. We want the end to be resolved — it’s what the whole notion of getting closure is all about. To this effect, we see narrative everywhere.

Like in sports. According to friends of mine who actually know about these things, a lot of investment in something involves the narrative of the adventure. Look at the recent Women’s World Cup; the US was once again facing Japan in the finals. Where last time Japan won, this time the US were able to pull of a victory. It’s exciting because, for the Americans, there was a comeback narrative. Had the US won the last three World Cups too, another victory wouldn’t have had as much impact as this one did. Even look at the Men’s World Cup, where interest in the US team piqued when, hey, they had a chance of making it to the Round of 16. Suddenly, there was a story to the sport.

Narrative shapes everything. Much of American propaganda in the Cold War had the country presenting itself as the underdogs against the Evil Empire of the Soviets. Because an underdog narrative is far more sympathetic than one of domination. Creating a story around the war inspired patriotism and helped make sense of it all. Just as it’s more interesting for a Sim who’s been having a real lousy go of it to turn their life around, the United States painting itself as the dogged good guys trying to do right legitimized their cause.

Because we want life to make sense. So much of The Sims is about making something happen. Drowning a family is (sociopathic) fun in and of itself, but it’s more fun if you make their best friend watch. There’s a lot more fulfillment to be found in making a Sim pursue a career rather than to hop from job to job (unless there’s a reason for that too). In chaos, be it life, war, or The Sims, there’s a want for order: story gives it that order. Because yes, there is a purpose to slowly starving virtual people.

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Whimsy!

I finally picked up Ni no Kuni: Wrath of The White Witch during a PlayStation Network flash sale last month. I started playing it this week (I also got Borderlands 2 during the sale and summarily compared it to Ulysses) and, man, I should have gotten this game ages ago.

Ni no Kuni is a Japanese RPG with all the trappings of the genre: young kid leaves our world to a fantasy world where he’s gotta save that world from evil. He is, after all, the chosen one. Gifted with a book of spells and aided by Mr Drippy the Scottish-accented Lord High Lord of The Fairies (yes), Oliver’s out to restore people’s hearts and defeat evil (and save his mom). It’s JRPG melodrama at its finest (see also: Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear Solid, basically any anime ever).

But that’s what’s so great about it. Granted, I grew up on a great deal of Japanese melodrama, but there’s something great to seeing such fairy tale-esque concepts played so earnestly. But unlike some other JRPG’s, Ni no Kuni is filled with pure, unabashed whimsy. It may be in part because Oliver’s a child in the same vague age group as a main character from Studio Ghibli (which, incidentally, animated cutscenes for the game and inspired the graphics), meaning the game isn’t going to get real gloomy. But there are other bits here and there that keep it feeling, well, like a fairy tale — in the best possible way. Oliver fights adorable monsters that wouldn’t look out of place as plush toys. He explores places like Ding Dong Dell where he must rescue King Tom XIV (a cat) from Hickory Dock XVII (a rat). It’s wonderful, and so darn happy.

It’s incredibly refreshing to see a story like this. I find that in entertainment these days there’s a huge distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘fun.’ You’ve got the divide in literature between the commercial and literature, where a book must be about Important Subjects for it to be considered truly great and fantasy is straight out unless it’s as Serious as A Song of Ice and Fire. More in the light is the different ways Marvel and DC are handling the adaptions of their comics into respective shared universes. DC’s Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman (both trailers of which dropped last weekend) feels like an answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: where Marvel has been embracing the pulp, DC has been advocating for the dark, gritty, and serious.

Which isn’t necessarily bad. The Dark Knight took a very serious tone and was all the better for it. But what set Dark Knight apart from Man of Steel and how Batman versus Superman and Suicide Squad are looking is the undercurrent of heroism. The central theme was that, yes, there was evil, but there also was good. The tone served a purpose. Man of Steel felt unnecessarily gloomy, as does the early marketing for Fantastic Four. It seems we’re at a point where we can’t take things seriously unless they’re Serious. Even the MCU, considered far more light-hearted and humorous than DC’s offerings, still keeps its enthusiasm in check for the most part.

I think that’s what I find so darn appealing about Ni no Kuni. There’s no attempt to try and dress up its cosmic themes; it’s pure good versus evil, light against darkness. It’s got an unbridled enthusiasm for telling this sort of story as it is.

There’s a time and a place for grit. I love Game of Thrones and am more excited for Suicide Squad than I thought I’d be. But after a while every shade of gray starts to look the same, and that’s when the pure, gleeful whimsy of Ni no Kuni is so appreciated.

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But What Does It All Mean?

When The Lord of The Rings was first published, there was a lot of talk about its relation to the second World War. It got to the point that in the foreword to a later edition, Tolkien explicitly said that no, it was not in any way an allegory of World War Two. Tolkien wasn’t a huge fan of allegories, to the point where he usually considered them detrimental to the story (and also the biggest flaw of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). Rather, he liked the idea of ‘applicability’; there is a point to it all, but it’s one for the reader to make up.

The Lord of The Rings does have major themes: the smallest can accomplish the biggest, teamwork over competition, war is bad, good wins; but there is no direct reference which gives it more latitude and reach. By opting for applicability, Tolkien gave Rings the leeway to mean more than he could have hoped; letting the book’s audience decide what they think is the most important part. Stories that dispense with an agenda allow more breadth of interpretations.

Like The Last of Us, an absolutely beautiful game. Is it about fatherhood? And if it is, what is it saying about it? Because the logline of protagonist Joel’s arc is inherently non-judgemental (a broken man who lost his daughter twenty years ago will go to extreme lengths to protect his newfound surrogate), it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not Joel is justified in his actions, let alone right. Is he doing what a father should? Or is he a monster playing at actually being someone decent? I love reading commentary on the game and various people’s takeaways. There’s room for discussion that makes the game so great.

Ulysses is another story like this. There’s not much plot, there’s not much in the way of a clear theme neither. The takeaway I got (and wrote a paper on) was that it is a book that lets you live as someone else for the altogether-too-much-time you’ll spend reading it; though everything external mayn’t be resolved, the book itself has the resolution that comes at the end of a day. But that was my takeaway; a friend of mine found more weight with Leopold Bloom’s interactions with women, another just plain hated the book. This space in interpretation is what lets us spend hours loudly discussing fictional characters’ sex lives over pizza and beer.

But being open to interpretation doesn’t mean ambiguous. Though the justification of Joel’s actions and long-term implications of Leopold Bloom’s day are up in the air, the events are clear. There’s no attempt from Neil Druckmann to obscure what Joel’s motivations are, and even though James Joyce makes Ulysses incredibly dense, it is possible to extract clear story details. Having no meaning is different from having many meanings. A story needs substance for it to have applicability. There are far less people who feel that “I Am The Walrus” describes their life than those that feel that way about “Here Comes The Sun.”

At the end of the day, one thing I love about applicability is its freedom. I don’t think stories should preach at you, they should be designed to entertain and let the reader experience and feel something they wouldn’t ordinarily. Firefly will forever be dear to me because it’s about life on a ship and Iron Man 3, way I see it, is a story about identity. Someone else will like (or hate) them for different reasons, and others will find my interpretations deeply flawed. But that’s the beauty of fiction. The story’s there on the page, on the screen, in the panels, prepared by the writer for you to understand in your own way.

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Pixel Problem

I remember seeing Patrick Jean’s short film “Pixels” when it first hit the internet a few years ago. It’s a cool short film with a fun concept. It does what it does and is great for it. Then there was Freddie Wong’s “Old School vs New School” which took a similar idea and, though not quite as visually spectacular or narratively sound, was a great ode to nerd culture (Lara Croft from Tomb Raider gets in the lander from Lunar Lander!).

Then along comes this new movie Pixels, based on Patrick Jean’s eponymous short. It’s always exciting to see an independently made short get a feature based on it, especially one with such a relatively nerdy concept. But based on the trailers and such for the film, it’s, well, it’s looking more Big Bang Theory than Chuck.

And not just because of Adam Sandler.

Although there’s an outlandish concept to accept, (not Kevin James as president; an alien invasion taking the form of classic arcade games) but it serves its purpose well enough. That is, it allows the story to collect a team of former arcade super stars. So far, not so bad. There’s a great opportunity here to celebrate retro-gaming and gamers in general: gamers get to save the world! Nerds get to be the winners.

Only thing is, it’s looking like nerds are the punchline again. There’s no attempt to show the them as anything other than people to be laughed at. They could keep them weird, they could make them normal, or even take a page out of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and have most of them have moved on in their life and now have to access something they thought they grew out of (which, for the heroes of Pixels, would also allow them to recapture the joys of youth). Instead, no, the nerds are social rejects who are thrust into the spotlight for us to enjoy how hilariously out of touch they are. Also, they’re saving the world.

Which, again, wouldn’t be so bad if it felt more like a love letter than, well, whatever this is. Having a fictionalized version of Pac-Man’s creator show up (by name) is awesome, but it’s quickly negated by his appearance being reduced to something of a racist caricature. Because a screaming Japanese man makes for an easy joke. Again, this is based on the trailer, but I have a great deal of respect for Toru Iwatani and it’s disappointing to see someone playing him only to get the short end of a stick.

Which isn’t even touching the film’s gender issues. Michelle Monaghan plays the all too familiar hot-woman-who-tags-along-with-the-nerds, albeit a Lieutenant Colonel. But in doing so the film falls back into the trap of the myth that women can’t be nerds. The film creates a clear gender dichotomy that a woman’s not a gamer and is instead the ‘normal’ character who keeps the others on leash. It’s very rare to see any form of media actually get through this (Chuck had its moments), but nonetheless it’s a bummer. Would it have been too much to rework her character into someone who avidly actually enjoyed games?

Look, Pixels isn’t out yet and I don’t really plan on seeing it (which makes this one of the few things I complain about without watching). But nerd culture is something I’m big on, seeing as it’s something that occupies a large chunk of my life. I want a movie like Pixels, but I want a movie better than it. One where being a nerd is cool and can be anyone, whether they’re socially apt, a man or a woman, or heck, whatever their race is. ‘cause c’mon, nerds are cool now.

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