Tag Archives: Cold War

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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Cold War Relevance

Alright. Quick one today because it’s my birthday and I have plans.

I talk a lot about science fiction and how often it works as a way to commentate on current events and what not. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to look at the interplay of fiction when it’s something that happened in the past (See: Gojira). The Cold War too, which was also when modern science fiction began to really take shape, has great influence on the stories of its time.

Ray Bradbury opens his short story “The Last Night of The World” with a simple question: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The answer isn’t wild revelry, rather the husband and wife at the center await the upcoming end with simple acceptance, living the last night of the world as if it were any other night.

Published in early 1951, the short story tries to capture the mindset of people who have been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for two decades. In Bradbury’s view, these people are powerless to change anything about their fate, and thus they feel that they have no recourse but to accept the end of the world. There’s little concern for a matter of how the world ends, it’s just described as like the closing of a book.

By focusing so small Bradbury is able to make implicit statements about those with power. Though the short story lacks actual overt commentary, “The Last Night of The World” is an indictment against the Cold War and the associated political atmosphere. There is an undeniable link in the short story between the end of the world and the actions taken by leaders during the Cold War.From the point of view of the story, the world can only take a certain amount of guns being constantly pointed at each other before the plug is pulled.

In this story, people can adapt to the constant fear of death to the point that when the end finally comes it is not so much greeted as it is all-but-ignored. Humanity can get used to anything, even if it means adjusting to a constant expectation of the end of the world. The end of the world has progressed beyond inevitability; it has become expected.

Compare this to Star Wars, released 26 years later. Written and directed by someone who actually did grow up in the Cold War’s tensions, the movie disagrees vehemently with Bradbury’s message. Luke Skywalker grew up under the Empire, or at least the far reaches of it, and dreams of fighting back. He’s not resigned to his fate, rather, he jumps at the chance to do something about it.

See, Star Wars has to be seen as a piece of Cold War literature. You’ve got the Death Star threatening to destroy an entire planet, reminiscent of the whole nuclear risk thing. A lot of contemporary (American) writings painted the Soviet Union as a faceless, evil, Galactic Empire-esque nation with the United States as the noble underdog espousing a rugged individualism. In light of all this, Luke Skywalker being able to rise up and destroy the Death Star is a statement that, hey, they can win. Not at all unlike how Pacific Rim is a millennial anthem, Star Wars was a generation growing up under the threat of nuclear doom saying that things would get better.

Writer’s Note: Do give “The Last Night of The World” a read, it’s short and findable online. Also, I feel like there’s a connection between the Cold War atmosphere and the idealism of ‘80s movies, but that’s another post for another day.

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