Tag Archives: Ulysses

The Honest Truth

A lot of stories aim to be real. Or as real as you can be while being a, y’know, story. The challenge here, of course, is figuring out what real is.

One interpretation of ‘real’ is realistic. No spaceships, because spaceships are far from commercial right now. No superpowers or superheroes, because those aren’t things. And no magic either. Y’know, realism.

So like Lost in Translation. It’s about two people in Japan, and just about there. There’s no monsters in this Japan; Godzilla’s not here to do its thing this time. It’s a story about people, being lost, and being understood. This isn’t communicated through metaphor or by using fanatical elements to play it up. Everything’s communicated through Bob and Charlotte’s interactions, it all feels real. For these two people out of their element, the mutual feeling of outsiderness brings them together. There’s this sensation that, yeah, you could be one of them. But Lost in Translation is still very romantic — and not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but that of something being idealized. Tokyo itself is almost magical in Lost in Translation.

‘Realism,’ then, tends to be interpreted as gritty. Compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of The Rings. Despite both being very much fantasy, the former is more ‘realistic.’ In Westeros there’s political machinations, religious bickering, prostitution, and gory violence you don’t come back from. It’s realistic fantasy! It makes for a very different tone and world from Rings, but it works for the story the show is telling.

Mr. Robot also aims for realism. Now, one thing the show does really well is do hacking proper. No one hacks the mainframe by reversing the polarity of the hard drive; all the technobabble is real (which is great, let’s have more of that). Now, Mr. Robot also adds other things of ‘reality.’ There’s the grime of New York City, there are events outside of the characters’ control that sends the plots off the rails, there are these bibs and bobs that are all there to make the show seem more real, seem like an honest portrayal of the world.

Not that it does anything. Look, I wasn’t impressed by Mr. Robot, and I know I’m ragging on it; but for all its attempts to construct a very ‘real’ place, the characters and events don’t resonate. It doesn’t matter how real the world is, if we don’t care for the characters, we don’t care for the story. Even if we’re angry at the characters, that’s still feeling something.

There’s nothing inherently added by including the gritty details of life. Fiction, despite being a well-crafted lie, relies on honesty. The reason something like Star Wars resonates so well is because the characters feel true; Luke’s wanting to be more than a farm boy on Tatooine is something all far too recognizable. Both Thrones and Rings have characters with tangible motivations and responses. We understand Tyrion’s hatred of his family and Boromir’s desire to bring honor to Gondor. Beneath the dragons and Elves there’s an actual honest emotional truth. Lost in Translation is built entirely on that emotional honesty; it’s an exercise in empathy. The stories that really work, work so well because they feel true, even they aren’t.

Postscript, because I absolutely have to mention this:

Hardcore realism can have a role in fiction, minutiae can work. It just has to be incredibly well done. Like in Ulysses, by James Joyce, which has all the ins and outs and dirty humanity of a normal day (plus or minus a little bit of oddness here and there). Ulysses works, though, because of the honesty within it. Bloom is still haunted by the death of his infant son and we, as readers, are invited to try and understand what it’s like to go through your day like that. There’s a verisimilitude to it that lends it the honesty that makes it successful.

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Can Art Be Fun?

I’m still reading a bunch and my current book, Extra Lives, is essentially critical theory on video games as literature. This divide between what makes something ‘art’ is something I’m kinda big on, so it’s a fascinating read. There’s one thing that Tom Bissell says which struck me: that because video games must be, by nature, fun, they’re seen as being less artistic or literary than other mediums.

Which, well, kinda has a point. When was the last time you went to an art museum and had fun? And not the sorta fun you get from the unintentional humor of some paintings, but actual ‘fun’ (which is really hard to describe, has few cross-lingual analogues, and was explored heavily by Huizinga, but bear with me). Chances are slim that unless you’ve seen a particular statue of a man punching a horse in Vienna, you haven’t, and even that monument to equine assault was probably intended as serious. See, ‘high’ art is meant to inspire ponderings, not for you to have plebeian fun. You stand there, think, say a couple ‘mmhmm’s for good measure, and move on to the next one.

But that’s art, like art art; what about, say, books? The divide is even more stark there. No one’s gonna argue against Ulysses as a literary masterpiece, but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as being truly ‘fun.’ Enjoyable, maybe, but much of that pleasure probably stems from a mixture of latent masochism and the sunk cost fallacy. That and, y’know, trying to sound intelligent. But besides Ulysses (which I legitimately love), there are other Great Works by, say, Hemingway or Melville that you’d be hard pressed to describe as being legitimately enjoyable in and of themselves, especially when compared to ‘lesser’ genres like science fiction and fantasy. Point is, the Great Works can’t bother with the frivolities of fun-ness.

You even see this in comics, arguably already a ‘lesser’ form. Watchmen is heralded as one of the best comics ever and is all doom and gloom. Compare it to Sex Criminals, which is much brighter, much funnier, and much cruder, but takes its story no less seriously. Though Criminals is held in some esteem (TIME named it comic of 2013), it’s seen as being nowhere near as literary or iconic as Watchmen, perhaps due to its adult subject matter and relative newness, but probably also because it’s so goofy. Never mind that it deals with depression, intimacy, and a host of other things, it’s too silly and too fun to be considered serious art.

Which brings me to games. If a game’s not fun, you’re not gonna play it; plain and simple. Games have to be enjoyable on some level to maintain player involvement. Thus gaming becomes a very visceral experience, whether it’s your curiosity that’s been piqued by Gone Home, the sheer beauty of Journey, or the exhilaration that comes from fighting Covenant in Halo. It’s experiential on a level that no other medium is, and thus has to make the audience want to experience it for the sake of the experience (as opposed to, say, the story or visuals).

And here is where video games run up against the brick wall of literary merit. Games are, like Sex Criminals, seen as being simply too fun to be real literature. No matter how serious they are, by virtue of being leisurely they can’t be art. The Last of Us is a gripping story about fatherhood, loss, survival, and so much more that the player is forced to experience rather than just observe. Even when it’s at its darkest and bleakest, it remains ‘fun’ to play in the sense that the game works. No, the violence of the game mayn’t be enjoyable per se, but it holds your attention and makes you want to keep going. But because The Last of Us is ultimately a piece of software that’s developed and patched rather than born out of pure artistry like, say, a book; it’s relegated to being mere diversion. And because of that, it can’t really be art.

Which is a bummer. Because I think art should be enjoyable on at least some level. That much of what makes comics, well, comics is that it’s illustrated shouldn’t be a detractor, just as in order for a video game to work it has to be on some level fun. Writing off games because of that would be like lambasting books because you’ve gotta turn the page, or disliking Aaron Sorkin’s work because you insist on watching it with the sound off. Let’s get off our high horses and be willing to afford fun mediums their due; games can have all the mindless glee of Michael Bay (Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel) and the melancholic tenderness of The Fault in Our Stars (The Last of Us: Left’Behind*).

‘cuz hey, let’s enjoy it.

*Writer’s note: The Last of Us: Left Behind is arguably superior to The Fault In Our Stars, but I’m having trouble thinking of a good comparison. Blue Is The Warmest Color is remotely somewhat thematically related, but nowhere near as poignant as Left Behind; recent romantic films like About Time may be as tender and sweet, but they lack the beautiful tragedy of The Last of Us’ DLC. Perhaps Left Behind is remarkable on its own, not just as an extension of a game or as a story, but for being a piece of literature that is, frankly, incomparable.

But that’s a rant essay for another week.

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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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Another Life

I’m me. That’s pretty obvious. I’m a biracial guy in my mid-twenties who lives in New York. I’ve had my own relatively interesting life, but at the end of the day it’s mine. Barring some crazy The Matrix or Total Recall-esque invention, I’m only ever going to live my life. It’s the only experience I’ll get.

Well, outside of certain kinds of fiction. Fiction offers a window into someone else’s life. The thing is, it’s hard to really make someone experience that life. Doesn’t matter how expertly crafted the movie is, at the end of the day you’re watching someone else’s life, not experiencing it first hand. You’ve no actual involvement.

Books can be a little better, as can let you actually into a character’s mind. Something like Ulysses is an exercise in empathy. There’s very little actual plot to the story, rather the catharsis and enjoyment of the story comes from being someone else. I got to spend a day in the head of an Irish man in his thirties in 1904. It was weird, somewhat long, but a completely new experience. Few books can really make you feel like you are someone else, let alone at this level.

So ‘normal’ narrative isn’t really that good at giving you another life. But video games are. Video games are an experiential medium, rather than being a spectator, in a good game the player experiences the narrative. In The Last of Us I got to be a father trying to protect his daughter. Hopefully, I’ll never have to carry my daughter through a crowd of zombie-esque people, but the game gave me that experience. And because I ended up so invested in the action — after all, I was the one trying to protect her — the ensuing story progression was that much more visceral. I got to be Joel.

It’s part of what makes action games like Halo or Uncharted such fun. You’re not vicariously taking part of the action, like when watching Bruce Willis Die Hard his way through Nakatomi Plaza, instead you get to be the action hero. Halo has you fighting off aliens while Uncharted 2 lets you run across the rooftops escaping from an attack helicopter. The player gets to be the action hero.

But it’s not all fireworks and zombies. Papers Please has the player as an immigration officer in a country that’s not unlike a Cold War USSR. Gameplay centers around making sure travelers have the right documents to cross over, and then rejecting or allowing them. This means double checking stamps and forms with a precision that gave me too many flashbacks to my time as a temp at a law firm. There are some choices too, like whether you help the resistance or if you’ll let the old lady with the sob story over even though everything’s not quite in order. But the strongest aspect of Papers Please is the experience. Suddenly I found myself caring a lot more for immigration officers at the airport, since for a few hours at a time I’d gotten to be them. I wasn’t just told their story, I got to live it for a while.

It’s fun to be someone else for a while, to not just be told someone else’s story, but to actually experience it. When games give you choices (from small ones like how best to get through a group of guards in Uncharted to major ones in Mass Effect where which squad member you assign to a task risks their death), they let you take an active part in the narrative. Storytelling then stops being a spectator sport and lets the audience be a part of it.

So yeah. Games are a fantastic method of telling stories.

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Narrative Contracts

Early on in Borderlands 2 the player encounters a fence of electricity in between them and their goal. Claptrap, the voice over the radio, tells you there’s a fusebox on the other side and that if you run fast enough, you won’t take damage from the fence. Your objective changes, now saying to run into the forcefield. So you do, and it deals damage to your shield and pushes you back. Claptrap suggests you do it again, he says you weren’t running fast enough. Seeing as this is a video game and voices-over-the-radio are seldom wrong, and your objective once again tells you to run into it. You do, and the same thing happens.

Undeterred, Claptrap tells you to try again, only for you to once again be electrocuted and pushed back. He then starts to make another suggestion for how to run through it when another voice on the radio comes in and tells you to just shoot the fusebox. And to ignore any advice Claptrap gives you.

It’s a funny moment, in no small part because the player is used to games and objectives being helpful. Borderlands 2 is effectively using the tropes of the medium itself to screw with you. It’s like a betrayal by the game, a really funny one. But it also serves to highlight the contract between a player and a game.

See, when it comes to entertainment there’s this sort of unspoken agreement. The movie’s arc will come to a head and resolution, the book’s narrative will conclude in some way, this essay will make a point at the end that warrants the five minutes you spend reading it. In video games, completing objectives will both advance the plot and progress the player. When the voice on the radio gives you an objective, you do it.

Which is what makes that gag in Borderlands 2 so great. These narrative contracts are vital to maintaining reader interest and telling a good story, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in breaking them. Community, for example, plays fast and loose with the expected promise that a tv show doesn’t know it’s a tv show. There’s something a little unsettling when a character in a tv show refers to ‘seasons’ or seems acutely aware that it’s a show.

Yet in the series finale a couple weeks ago, the characters envisioning how they’d want the Season Seven of their friendship to play out give us a unique look into each character’s psyche. That each scenario is introduced by a truncated version of the show’s opening only further draws the viewer in. What’s key is that the breaking of the rules service both story and humor.

For another example it’s hard not to mention Ulysses. The James Joyce novel eschews much in the way of the plot that’s expected of it. Bits of stories are started and continued, but nothing is ever truly resolved as the modernist novel captures the wandering minds and lives of a fairly average day in 1904 Dublin. Had the book instead followed a more traditional structure, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest books ever. More importantly, it wouldn’t have felt half as realistic and emotionally true to life as it does.

But if we’re talking about books breaking narrative contracts, nothing quite beats Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In an increasingly frustrating fashion, the narrator tells the reader that he, as the storyteller, could do anything he wanted, like set the titular Jacques and his master off on a great adventure. But he doesn’t. Instead the book is one of unmet expectations, where the reader neither gets to hear the true story of Jacques’ loves or is even given a proper ending to the book — rather the reader is given three to choose from. But as an exercise in playing with narrative, it excels.

All this to say that rules are meant to be broken. That said, rules have to be broken right, like in Community or Ulysses. Because unless you’re Denis Diderot, there’s not much point in doing it just to prove a point. Or if you want to screw with your player.

Now I’ve just gotta finish Borderlands 2.

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I’m Going To Use The Word ‘Intertextual’ Because I Want To

Intertextuality is a fun word to say. It’s an even funner concept: it’s the idea that one text will reference another. And I’ve been on a vacation of sorts this week so I’m going to write about it.

See, when intertextual literature lets its world be informed by the outside. Chuck, for example, uses it to inform characters. Characters’ references to Tron or Back to the Future lets us in to their heads and gives us an idea of who they are. When Casey tells an amnesiac Morgan that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, we know that he does actually care about the guy he’s always found insufferable. First off, the show at-large is tapping into general consensus that Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, was comparatively awful. But more importantly, it’s got Casey entering into Morgan’s nerdy world, something he usually doesn’t entertain. But because he does, we know how far both his character has come but also his relationship with Morgan. Outright telling Morgan he cared would be clunky (and also not true to the character), but the smaller reference feels far more natural. All because of an Indiana Jones reference.

Of course, when talking about intertextuality and characterization, it’s hard not to bring up Ulysses, but that’s mostly because I’ve read it and the book’s kinda taken over my head. The tome portrays a day in Dublin from deep within a couple characters’ minds. Bloom and Stephen, the main characters whose heads the book spends the most time in, both use contemporary culture in their thoughts, but both do differently. Stephen, the intellectual young man, quotes and references Shakespeare and Catholic funeral rites. The former because it’s what he’s familiar with, the latter because of residual guilt over his mother’s death. Bloom, on the other hand, being a rather normal middle-aged man, has advertising slogans and popular songs crawling through his head. Since Ulysses is meant to be as close to life as literately possible, it wouldn’t make sense for it to not have this. Intertextuality here serves to make James Joyce’s Dublin feel even more real. Then there’s also the fact that much of what they reference has to do with their own internal conflicts (see Stephen and his mother) and also elucidates more of the book, but that’s an essay rant dissertation for another day.

Intertextuality, however, extends beyond simple references. Star Wars is deeply intertextual, although it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where contemporary pop-culture isn’t a thing. Rather the plot as a whole is heavily influenced  by traditional mythology as well as classic Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featured many ideas and plot beats that were integrated into Star Wars.  This isn’t to say that Star Wars is derivative, no more than The Lion King is for taking a lot from Hamlet (or, for that matter, Lion King 1/2 and its relationship to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).

Rather it makes you realize that literature — and that’s literature insofar as film, books, video games, television, comics, and any form of telling a story — is inherently interconnected. Everything references something else and now, with the internet making pop culture osmosis prevalent enough that I can mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and know that a good many of you will get it even if you, like me, haven’t read it.

All this to say that intertextuality isn’t going away, and isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it’s a fancy word for a normal enough thing that, when used well, adds layers to a story that wouldn’t otherwise.

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