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On Rape in Narrative, Objectification, and the Path to Better Writing

“Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.” – Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway

[TW: This post does discuss rape as a narrative device and thus if the topic of rape is uncomfortable for some I would advise against giving this a read.]

One of the hot topics of recent months has been the use of rape as a narrative device.  The subject shows up more frequently than one would like, but whenever it does, so too does a lot of very poorly thought out defense.  The issue is rarely treated with the delicacy such a topic deserves, and is rarely ever treated as something that happens to real people, and probably people one is aquainted with on a daily basis.  Its treated as something that only happens to people “in the wrong place at the wrong time” or at the hands of nearly inhumanly depicted monsters, child molesters, and other media stereotypes of what a “Rapist” actually looks like. There are multiple layers of problems to “rape as device,” and the most common one is that its a “great way to show how evil someone is,” a defense is perhaps best summed up by an actual person of “merit” within the narrative field, Mark Millar, who stated:

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” Millar said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.” http://herocomplex.latimes.com/comics/mark-millars-rape-comments-superheroes-tca-panel-the-comics-world-responds/

For which he was summarily pilloried for, and with good reason.  But this same defense reared its head once again with the release of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, in which the fate of Paz Ortega is relegated to that of becoming the Woman in the Fridge, to borrow from Gail Simone.  Paz spends the entire (short) length of GZ being an objective, and then an object, and finally a (presumable) “motive” for revenge in the upcoming main game, Phantom Pain. In similar fashion people rushed to defend Kojima’s decision to include the rape of Paz as a “great” way to show how “evil” Skullface, the villain seen for less than 5 minutes, is.

We get it. He’s a bad guy. He’s named Skullface.

The issue with this defense is that Kojima already successfully shows the player that Skullface is evil: He keeps people locked up in cages at a military prison camp, he uses a fake FOX logo that’s literally just the mirror image of Snake’s FOX logo down to inverted colors, and at the end of the game we infer that it was Skullface and his soldiers that destroy Motherbase. From the perspective of the player, there really isn’t much else we need to know he’s “bad,” because we’ve seen him do bad things.  His voice and his mannerisms (what little we see) reek of “bad guy” imagery from movies, games, and comics–Skullface doesn’t need more indicators that he’s a Villain and Evil Person than we already have been given.  If anything, its almost shockingly out of character for Kojima to have a character that comes off so “blatantly” evil: his “villains” tend to be overly cartoonishly evil (Volgin), or with shades of “deeper motives” (Boss, Ocelot, Liquid) that give them the perception of depth; Skullface is the most boring villain Kojima has ever constructed simply due to the fact that as far as GZ is concerned he’s just a “bad person.”  There’s very little to redeem his motives in game and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the player to consider his viewpoint as “misquided,” just that he’s simply evil. And, being simply “evil,” that makes it easy to include rape as one of his crimes–and if you notice that seems to be a very large jump in logic, then I hope I got your attention.

The biggest problem with rape as a plot device in narrative works is that it focuses on the Rapist and not the Victim, and the Rapist is rarely ever anything but a “evil person we are not supposed to like.”  What’s interesting is, going back to Millar’s quote, is that if the villain simply decapitated a woman, the audience would likely not view him as instantly “evil” as they would if he raped her.  Millar’s own argument falls apart because of the gravity of the act at play, but in further examination it shows much of the weakness behind using rape as a “motive” to hating a villain.  Without even talking about the Victim of the act, using Rape to show us “this is a bad person” is an exceptionally weak and “easy” method of making a character “hateable” to the audience–instead of fleshing out a character and giving them motives, desires, or modus operandi for the things they’re doing, rape simply allows the writer (and thus the audience) to toss the person into the “Bad” pile, quicker even than if they had murdered a handful of people on screen or robbed an old lady.

If you’ve ever seen the show Law and Order: SVU, you may be familiar with how television tends to depict rapists: gross, sweaty, usually middle-aged white males, fitting almost every stereotype on the “sexual predator” sheet.  The second thing one might see is that these men are depicted as those who simply “can’t control” their desires: they see an attractive woman and, unlike normal, non-monstrous men, must sexually dominate their target. There are numerous problems with this depiction, but the biggest is that it relegates rape to an act of sexual indiscretion, an act in which men simply “can’t control” their animal urges, like the Big Bad Wolf from Red Riding Hood (which is apt, as the entire story is basically warning girls not to talk to ‘strange men’ once they reach puberty and put their Purity at risk of being Devoured).  Rape is not a crime of “sexual passion,” its a crime of power, dominance, and control–Rapists seek to control their victims, and while sexual pleasure may be a part of that process, the idea that rapists are simply people who can’t keep their penis in their pants when a woman says no is as unrealistic as it is pushing the blame towards female characters/people: “why didn’t you defend yourself better against this man who couldn’t control himself,” etc.

The second, less obvious problem with these types of depictions is that it removes “humanity” from the Rapist Character Sheet, and that is a problem rarely, if ever, considered.  A man who rapes his daughter or coworker will not scurry into the sewers afterwards–he might simply put on his clothes, go to work, and act as if nothing happened, feigning innocence of threatening unseen violence if the victim makes any sort of attempts for help.  The rapist might be an awful person, but on the outside they do not become “visually” obvious–thus, when the news interviews someone in your area for rape, see how many times you will hear people on the TV or news source state things like “He didn’t seem like / He didn’t look like / I never pictured him / He was such a nice man.”  Take a look at the defense many rapists gets from media after their convictions for how “good” of a person they are, to not “stigmatize” them for a moment of indiscretion–basically, “Don’t turn this person into a caricature of a human,” which is kind of the same argument being made here, but from a different, disingenuous angle.  Rapists don’t run around in “costume,” and yet the belief (mostly reinforced by multiple aspects of rape culture and media depictions / beliefs /norms) remains that they are, somehow, different from the rest of humanity not only psychologically, but physically.

So, returning to Skullface, all his being a rapist accomplishes is to give the player more “ammo” to hate him.  But, that ammo is blank; the rape happens off camera, and the player has to go out of their way to find out the reality of what happened to Chico and Paz.  Plus, there’s no real indication that Big Boss would actually care about Paz enough to want “revenge” for her death, and even in the coming attractions for Phantom Pain, he makes very little inference that Paz’s death is even on his mind in the 9 years following GZ.  But, this has more to do with Paz losing her role as “human” and becoming that of “object,” which we’ll move on to in a second.  To close the book on Skullface, and Kojima’s writing of him, “rape” as a motivation for hating a character is weak writing, plain and simple.  Removing the objectionable content or sexual taboo of rape, the act being attached to a character to simply make them “more evil” is wasted effort by the writer since it is rarely, if ever, focused on the actual narrative character that it could serve in any fashion: the victim.  The rapist simply becomes “bad,” whereas the victim becomes “the thing that was raped” instead of having that event become integral in any meaningful way to their character–all to often, the victim of rape in media also becomes the victim of murder, suicide, or simply dies somehow shortly afterwards, giving the writer an easy escape for dealing with the psychological, physical, and social trauma that follows sexual assault. The rapist gets to simply remain who they were–a bad person–in a story, where as the rape victim usually becomes a prop.

And with that, let’s move the discussion to just how Paz Ortega becomes a prop in GZ, while also talking a bit about how objectification works.

A common misconception about Objectification is that fictional characters cannot be objectified because they’re “already” objects–they don’t exist, they aren’t real, etc.–but the word doesn’t actually mean the character themselves as an OBJECT of the writer’s creation, but instead that their existence and presentation to the viewer is that of an Object, not a Person.  Another way of putting it is that an Objectified Character is one that is Passive, while an Active Character is one that has Agency, or is the character who possess the Gaze as opposed to the one that is the object of the gaze. (Agency meaning they can change, or have the ability to change, their existence within their world instead of being forced to accept it due to any number of outside influences.  In video games, the PC almost always has Agency, since the player is the one controlling them, and thus makes it one of the easier ways to see Agency in action.  For further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_%28philosophy%29 is a good start, as well as: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaze).

The Gaze is an exceptionally powerful tool and critical concept, but it is sometimes hard to quantify to people unfamiliar with it.  In basic means, the Gaze is the way in which something is seen–if the person is doing the viewing, they posses the gaze.  If they are the one being viewed, they are the object of it.  In media, the narrator is usually the possessor of the gaze; in film, comics, and video games, the “camera” (or POV) is what gives the reader the gaze prescribed to them by the creator of it–so, if a film you are watching seems to take an uncomfortably long time panning over a woman’s body, its because the director, in control of the Gaze, has decided that you, the viewer, should view this Object (a woman) in extreme, intimate scrutiny, and (this being the most important part) the Object cannot do anything about it; the woman on film could not object and cannot stop you from looking at her the way the director has demanded, and thus lacks agency in the process–you, the viewer, do possess agency, and thus become complicit in the director’s methods (for ill or for will, depending on why they were doing so)–your agency is that you could always close your eyes, or not watch, or do something else.

So, when a game, movie, novel, or comic uses rape as a device, so too does the idea of Object and Objectification become apparent:  the victim is rarely the protagonist, and thus becomes a “prop” or “motivator” for the protagonist to act upon.  In many ways, this relationship shares quite a bit with Sedgwick’s Homosocial Triangle, in which the relationship between 2 men and 1 woman (in which the men are competing for the woman’s affection) is actually about the relationship between the 2 men, with the woman being a “prize” that one of them gets to laud over the other.  She doesn’t have any agency and rarely exists as a character of any merit (Fans of Twilight might begin to see some uncomfortable reality in the relationship between said series protagonist, Bella, who simply seems to exist solely for 2 men to fight over, and the Woman-Object of the Triangle).  In terms of the Rapist, Victim, Protagonist relationship, it works somewhat similarly:

The Rapist wishes to punish/damage/take something from the Protagonist, and does so by Raping the Victim, thus motivating the Protagonist to seek revenge upon the Rapist for the loss/injury/punishment inflicted upon them by the Rapist.

If you notice, the above description could easily be changed to:

“The Thief wishes to punish/damage/take something from the Protagonist, and does so by Stealing the Object, thus motivating the Protagonist to seek revenge upon the Thief….”

And, while you could also change that to “the murderer,” that still doesn’t change the fact that the Victim is not a “person” in this equation, but is a target, trophy, or goal for the other two parties–their feelings amount to nothing and their own personhood doesn’t matter; Paz could be replaced with a car and the gravitas would be the same in regards to the dramatics surrounding the event from the way the player/viewer/audience sees it.

It is at that moment that a “person” becomes an “object,” and in the case of Ground Zeroes, the moment that Paz Ortega goes from being a Character to a Prop:  Paz (supposedly) serves no purpose other than to incite Big Boss’s anger at Skullface, and before the discovery of the violence inflicted on her, the retrival of Paz and Chico are the literal Objectives of the game: Chico retains some of his “character” abilities, despite also being an object, but Paz loses them all; ironically Paz has the most “speaking” role of Ground Zeroes in the form of cassette tapes and diaries, but these are collectible artifacts–objects–instead of Paz herself actively doing anything; they’re passive–players can listen to them while actively doing other things.  And in almost further irony, the player already has a much more obvious object be destroyed/removed/torn from the Protagonist in the ending movie: Motherbase.  Paz is almost an afterthought to the narrative–she could have been dead and accomplished the same amount that she does in game–because Villain has already removed Object of Desire from Protagonist, and does so in a much more demanding, obvious, and visually depicted way–the scene at Motherbase makes up nearly the entire ending cutscene of GZ, and the slow motion “death” of Motherbase and a few soldiers eat up more time than Paz spends being awake in the entire game. Her death (and the conditions leading to it) are simply window dressing, played for shock, than they are narrative merit of display of masterful writing craft.

So, where does one go from here? Many times this argument is met with indignation, either from artist or ardent fan of artist, with complaints of censorship; that critiquing and analyzing how absolutely poorly rape is used in narrative is some form or attempt to force them to “remove” said scenes from fictional works entirely.  And, sadly, that is probably an EASIER answer to the issue than the actual one, but its not the one anyone wants, just the one that would probably solve issues like this from occurring as frequently as they do.  Because the most unfortunate reality of this is that many times rape scenes in fiction are created and envisioned by men, men who are not victims or rape, in the vicinity of rape, or even understanding of the trauma it causes–many times they simply replicate other similar scenes that have played out in countless forms of media before they arrived on the scene, and have chosen to use it like any other plot device like “accidental crossdressing” or “misunderstood neighbor causes wacky comedy,” as if “rape scene” were just another interchangeable “dramatic” scene.

The reality of “fixing” rape in narrative is that it either needs to go away (due to the writer being incapable of using it for anything more than showing how bad someone is / giving the Protagonist reason for revenge) or to focus on the complexities and trauma the victim suffers due to the event.  And in many cases that second part is impossible without having been party to it; it is not a sequence of mental events that makes logical sense for many people, nor is it universal–each victim has their own story, their own path, and it is not something that can be so easily universalized as it is in media.  If that seems like an inconclusive place to stop, that’s because it is.  Rape in narrative is a weak plot device at best, and a callous disregard for the humanity of victims at worst–if it is the only way one can show how “evil” a character truly is, perhaps one should instead find a new avenue of expression. And if a writer cannot stand to have their works criticized, it is perhaps best that they keep their works private; in the words of Samuel Johnson,

“I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”

If we, the audience, want better writing, we need to make sure the author knows it.  And if we, the authors, wish to become better at what we do, we need to start listening before picking up the pen (or keyboard) and writing off an ill advised tweet/screed/essay about how one’s “rights” to express oneself as an artist are under attack–if people really thought one’s work was absolute trash, they probably wouldn’t spend time being upset about it, which, in short form, means they at least took the time to read and reply to it.  And it is with that in mind that things like rape as a plot device need to be buried long well past, to allow newer, better things to take its place–not simply because its “taboo” but because at this point, its eye-rollingly dreadful to have to sit through.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

The Terrible Whiteness of Being: On Privilege, Discovery, and a 30 Year Journey Without End

This particular post is going to be a relatively more personal one than others; its also a bit of a departure from the things you might expect to find here. I hope what I say is of use to you, dear reader.

My father tells me that my family is descended from mostly Irish stock, a family that built its fortunes in the tugboat industry in New York before being financially ruined by the depression.  My mother tells me my family is descended from Romanian Jews and Russian Royalty, mixed with Welsh ancestry.  Both of those are important to me, personally, but they mean almost nothing–I am so far removed from whoever those families were and what that meant, because by the time I arrived in the world, I, and many others, simply exist in the “void” of Whiteness.  Stories like the ones my parents tell me are interesting and unique and wholly inapplicable to who I am today; I suspect like many others, whenever I hear other white people ask the question, “So where are you from?” they’re both looking for difference and hierarchy as much as they are some sort of landmark in a vast, white gap in space, a desert filled with destroyed monuments like those of Ozymandias.

I spent the first ten years of my life in upstate New York, son of a NY Firefighter and a high school teacher.  I lived a great, nearly rural existence, two hours away from the city–enough to call myself a ‘New Yorker’ from Brooklyn without having to live there. As far as I knew, that’s what the entire world was like.  Big cities surrounded by maple and pine trees, season changes, great swaths of color–except in people.

I didn’t know a POC my own age, and “up close,” until I was 8.  I knew OF POC, but I had never known one.  We didn’t become friends–in fact, probably my most awful moment in my entire life was when I joined some of my classmates in making fun of a new kid who also happened to be black–I think I called him chocolate. All I know now is I can somewhat remember the face he made that day, and there are times, when I think of my regrets at 4 am, that face stares at me, or at least, through me.

When I was 10 my father retired from the NYFD and we moved to Florida.  Here, I became the ‘oddity,’ the Yankee kid who couldn’t say “Mario” like everyone else, or “ball” like other people–but I still wasn’t as ostracized as the Hispanic, Black, and Asian children in my class (of which there were only a handful).

I have never had a “best friend” who was not white; the closest I ever came were school acquaintances who were of Indian and Pakistani descent, students who, like me, excelled academically and were placed in the top of the class; we met more due to circumstance than anything else.  I never hung out with or played with them, but we were friendly, yet I never really understood the sense of desperation some of them exuded. One of them, Krishna, was my closets “friend” in the bunch, and by the time he and I were done with high school he had been arrested twice and had to take routine drug tests; I peed in a bottle for him a few times, out of respect, but I honestly have no idea what ever happened to him.  I know his mother was exceptionally hard on him to do well and not run a gas station like his family did up until that point. I just assumed he fell off the wagon, but I honestly never understood any of the pressure he might have felt.

My high school itself was diverse, but segregated–not by force, but mostly by choice–the Hispanic population, mostly Mexican children of migrant orange grove workers, never left the west wing of the school; the black kids similarly never left the east wing.  Routinely other students would talk about how you ‘shouldn’t go’ to those parts of campus alone or look at certain people, but I never had that problem.  I was smart, my mother was on the school board, and I had free ability to do anything I wanted on campus–I routinely roamed the halls my junior and senior year, soaking up ‘business credits’ because I had already blown through all my academic requirements save time thanks to AP courses–and the black kids would always be friendly to me, saying “Hi,” or “Say hello to Ms. ___,” my mother; I never really understood how they knew her, until I realized that many of them were customers of the diner she worked in during the week.  They were polite to me simply because not being so may have had a repercussion that I didn’t even know about until 3 years after I left high school.

I didn’t know any of them by name, but they all knew me, and they knew that I was one of those “white kids” you weren’t supposed to mess with. I just thought I was somehow cool to them and they were giving me a sign of mutual respect.

I still don’t know any of their names.

Through college I metamorphosed from being the ‘nerdy loner kid who knew everything and had all things handed to him’ to ‘the smart guy who liked to read comics a lot but still was pretty much a nerdy loner kid.’

One of the reasons I’m so hard on “Fedora-lord Liberals / MRAs / Libertarians and ALLIES” is because I used to be those people. I look at them and what they’re doing and I see myself in them.  I realize that they, too, probably don’t understand why people hate them so much, I even understand what brings a lot of them to go “Not all men,” or “I’m a nice guy though,” or “Geez why are you so angry, I’m a supporter of gay rights, but…” and other statements.  I used to live by Comedy Central as my political compass: Daily Show, Southpark, Stand Up comedy were the tools by which I understood the world and how I decided to base my viewpoints.  Rape jokes, racist jokes, violent jokes, all of them were “okay” to me because I would say “I’m just joking around,” or “why are you taking things so seriously? lighten up–we’re on the same side” more often than I’d care to even try to remember.  I never really got reprimanded and even when people would get angry at me I’d deflect it with “you’re being unreasonably angry, why aren’t you more nice? I might listen to you if you were nice.”

My best friend through a good portion of college was trans*; she confided in me, and only me, and I would use the word t****/s****** almost interchangeably; she would play it off and make jokes back and I never thought what I was doing was hurting her.  I’d like to say that’s why we aren’t friends, because at least I’d know that’s what happened–the sad reality is we just drifted apart and they vanished. I don’t even know if she’s still alive, and I think about whether I could have changed that by being a better friend than I was, or at least not being an “Ally.”

It took me until last year to even realize that what I had done was be anything but a good friend to my best friend, and while it didn’t excuse any of the other things that had happened between us, I still have a tinge of guilt that the one person she confided in about her situation couldn’t even recognize they may have been making the situation worse.

This all may seem like a roundabout way of getting back to me talking about being white, or the idea of privilege, but really, its the exact example of the “problems” inherent in being the “white cis straight male” that seems to be made fun of so frequently as the “target” for “SJW” ire. I AM that exact description and I’ve honestly been either oblivious to other people’s sufferings, shouted my ‘better’ ideas over their voices, or ridiculed them while also supposedly being their “ally.”

The biggest issue is that the word “privilege” is used very frequently as a dismissive joke–that its a “dumb phrase” someone made up on the internet and it doesn’t exist.  Its actually existed longer than the internet has in terms of academic usage and study, and it most certainly is understood and used outside of the world of the internet all the time.

What I believe is the biggest misunderstanding is that if you do fall into the category of having privilege, you don’t “see” it, and therefore it doesn’t exist.  People joke that “Well no one’s opening doors for me or giving me special treatment,” or “I’m poorer than Jay-Z so where’s my special privilege” as if it were a special, Members Only Card that gave you carte blanche.

The reality is so much more complicated but also so much more depressing.  In a few short paragraphs I’d like to try to codify it in a way that can perhaps make it better understood to those who “don’t get it” or “think its a joke” people use to “be better than me”:

When I first started to understand the word privilege, it hit me like a truck.  The best reality check I ever got in terms of it was the “fluidity” through which I could travel.  No one ever stops me at the airport. Police ignore me unless I’m doing something egregiously wrong.  I’m never given a second look when I walk or enter any area.  I can come and go as I please and I can whatever I want while I’m there.  I can wander into a corner restaurant in a poor black neighborhood, sit down, and blindly ignore the looks people give me.  I might go, “How quaint this place is!  its a shame no one else eats here. I think I’ll tell my friends/post about it on Yelp!” and not bat an eye at any rolling eyes or looks of disgust.  I can wander into any area of the United States and no one would ever consider trying to stop me.  And, in the event that they did, I could always call my congressman, or the cops, or start a petition, or a rally, or go to a town hall meeting. “How dare this person stop me!” I’d probably say.  “Its a free country,” I’d probably scream at them.

And heaven forbid that stopping me meant physical violence: “You shouldn’t be here, white boy,” someone might say to me on a corner of a street in LA.  I can either ignore them, or if they harm or even kill me, is it really worth the effort? Either way its going to cause a raise in crime patrols, police presence, and “justice” to be sought for my loss.  If I were a woman there may even be questions of whether my dignity/purity was hurt or if I was sexually assaulted by “thugs;” (Of course since I’m male no one would follow up any of those questions with “well, what was she doing there in the first place,” or “what was she wearing? Maybe she attracted their attention because her top was too low.”).  So, sure, I might get a broken nose or lose my wallet, but in doing so it would cause an uproar of protest and problems. I’d be on the news, probably front page or headline.

Outside of the United States I can wander into numerous places without any worry of trouble.  If I “shouldn’t be there,” friendly locals will happily warn me (usually at my 5 star hotel on the beach) that I should only go to certain areas. I’ll remark how “beautiful” the country is as I see less than 1% of it.  In places like Europe the only thing that will stop me from blending is my lack of understanding other languages; otherwise, I’m just another face in the crowd. With the right clothes, I might even look like I’ve been there the whole time.

That’s privilege–white privilege–in action.  You exist as a voided object, devoid of color and devoid of restriction.  No one will question you if you wander in to their corner store at 3 am. The police won’t follow you with their eyes as you round a corner at night in a hoodie.  No one can stop you from shopping in their district and calling it things like “Little Tokyo” and turning it into a “tourist” attraction–they may even just decide after a while to give in and do what the majority of visitors expect to see.  There’s no need to–like a blinding light, being white gives you the ability to roll over others like a direct ray of sunlight.  Sometimes its malicious and burns, like years of slavery and colonization; in others its a slow drying, a sweating heat, a ray of light that never averts its gaze from how “different” you are from it, and how much it seems to want to stare at you without end: “Your hair is so pretty, can I touch it?” “What do you call that thing on your forehead? Can I wear one?” “That food looks great, but do you make it without meat/fat/GMOs?” “I wish I could look like you! You look so exotic!”

Similarly, being male just gives you even more questionless areas of existence–no one is going to stare at your chest; hell, you can even go outside without a shirt on if you’d like.  You aren’t being “indecent” or a “slut” if you feel like walking around your neighborhood without a top on. Sure, you might need to throw a tank top on to go to McDonalds, but few people are going to try and secretly take pictures of you with their cell phone because they can see your nipples.  Your entire body isn’t turned into a viewing spectacle: “look at her rack/ass/legs/feet/hair!” in either admiration or admonition–depending on the gaze and the tone of it, anyway.  Male “privilege” really just means you can do whatever you want without anyone really bothering to ask why you’re doing it.  People won’t casually ask you while you shop / they shop at a store “Oh, you play games?” or “Oh, you’re into sports?” or “Oh, you don’t seem like the type to do ___.” You’re just there, and that’s nothing very interesting.

And that’s honestly what privilege is.  As mundane as it sounds, it is the simple right to exist without having to justify your existence to anyone.  The reason “white cis straight male” seems so universally “hated” is because its the most default “setting” anything could ever be on.  Everything is built for you; nothing exists that you aren’t taken into consideration for.  There is never a shadow of doubt over who you are or what you’re doing; you don’t look in the mirror and see difference reflected back in your culture, you look in to your cultural mirror and you see yourself, and your day continues.  If you even stop to acknowledge “that’s nice,” you’re almost a step below being self-aware of what that means.

Its taken me 30 years to figure out any of this. 30.  And I used to consider myself “one of the good guys,” a person who was “doing the right things” simply because I laughed at some raunchy jokes about religion on Southpark and then voted all Democratic.  I hated people who were overly religious.  I fit almost every single hole on the ‘fedora’ checklist.  I laughed at ‘check your privilege’ and ‘cis’ as joke words used by lunatics and crazy people.  And then one day I woke up and realized “oh my god I’m a step above being a literal monster.”

I don’t know what made it click.  Maybe it was some of the people I’ve come to know, people who have known me for long periods of time and just sighed every time my “white male” started acting up, because they knew that maybe one day I’d figure it out.  I really can’t say what flipped the switch, but all I do know is that I wish I could tell all the people I’ve hurt, disregarded, or dismissed over the years that I’m sorry.  Or that I should have listened more instead of talked.  Or that I would have been there had I known what to do or how to not open my mouth and be just as, if not more poisonous, than the hurtful things around them.

Like Jacob Marley I’ve carried the chains of whiteness around with me, weaving links one by one, but unlike him I’ve felt no burden from them until just recently.  And unlike Marley I can take them off, but I can also try and show people how to remove their own chains as well.

The biggest thing I had to learn how do to was listen.  Really, truly listen.  Not interject with “well, I don’t do that,” or “not all….” when people say things.

The 100% honest to god truth I can give you, today, reader, is that you need to Listen, and you need to not blame yourself.  When your friends or those around you talk about “white people” you do not need to instantly say “not all white people” because you are white.  They are your friends; if they were talking about you, they would include you.  Perhaps they know, like some of my friends knew, that I was different, that I could block out the White Noise if I only tried, that I could turn down the dimmer on the blinding light I ignorantly cast around myself simply by learning to let others turn their lights on.  When people around you talk about sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, shaming, and they say or make a comment about a group of people, if your first thought is “I’m not…” then that’s why they’re telling you.  They want you to hear them, and they want you to learn how to help them.  They want you to be a part of the process–even if the part of the process that you are is a sounding board.

One of the most common complaints about activism, particularly online, is that it “does nothing.” It only does nothing if you’re not willing to listen to what’s being said.  The idea that “problems would be solved if more people just DID something” ignores the problem that actually exists.  Yes, it would amazing if every trans* person or POC got to do whatever they wanted, and that would maybe bring some change.  But we live in a society, globally and locally, and you cannot do anything alone.  Institutions still run on backwards ideas of equality (or lack them completely)–simply DOING is not enough; it requires everyone to help.  And those not willing to help or willing to put up roadblocks will have to be left behind.  Progress isn’t made when you defend the bigot’s right to exist over the marginalized’s right to protest or speak up.

My journey took me 30 years to get here.  And I’m not done.  But I’m maybe taking a small moment to stop, and talk, and try to get more people to listen, like I had to learn to listen.  To learn that even though I understand the history of colonization, I will never understand what it MEANS to be colonized; that I can read every feminist text in the world but never really know what it means to be a woman.  But I can listen.  I can do that, and I can let others fill that void for me, instead of trying to absorb everything myself.

And maybe if I keep doing that, one day, that kid’s face from 3rd grade will stop haunting me in my sleepless nights, when I think of all the things I’ve done wrong.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

What’s Wrong With Online Discourse?

In the act of full disclosure, this post originally began with a focus solely on video game discourse and criticism; it has, since then, become readily apparent that this is not an isolated issue but instead a collection of issues uniquely spread across almost every form of communication–if anything I only notice it in concentration in certain areas because that’s where my interests lie, before seeing the pattern spread across multiple places.  So, here is a list of things that are more than likely wrong with online discourse–I’m making no claims that these are the ONLY issues, nor am I even proposing solutions, as I’m somewhat uncomfortable making absolutist statements in this regard, but also because I’d hope that by explaining them, perhaps they would begin to clear themselves up (a futile and somewhat hopeful belief, I’ll cede).

So, what exactly IS wrong with online discourse, and why is it that the word “criticism” is treated as if it were a searing brand, a destructive storm, or an earthquake from Hell, ready to tear asunder communities and groups at its mere presence?

1.) Everyone’s a Critic

It might seem strange to start a defense of critique and discourse with a statement that is generally used to dismiss overly negative statements; however, this is one of the most pressing issues, in that it will tie in to a future # down the line.

The biggest issue of everyone on the internet being a critic, is that many of them routinely do not understand how the apparatus of criticism works; it also means that they don’t neccessarily understand what to do with it once they read criticism.  One of the most commonly used metaphors for criticism in the literary/cultural studies field is that criticism is like a toolbox; there is a “tool” for every “job,” and no one tool replaces the other in terms of usefulness, just “best application.”  This is why Feminist/Gender Studies Criticism, Marxist Criticism, Race Theory, Queer Theory, Reader Response and many others can all exist at a single time, and in many cases work together to construct an informed, unique view of a cultural object with insight into not only how said object works, but also what it does.  What the toolbox does not mean is that one tool replaces all others and claims dominance: the hammer does not shove the screwdriver out of the way and claim it can do its job better, instead each worker is able to select the tool that is either most appropriate, or perhaps even experiment in how multiple tools can work together to construct (or deconstruct*) something unique.

The problem is that many online “critics” use the aforementioned “Hammer for Everything” approach: one such is the particularly divisive FemFreq/Tropes V. Women project (we’ll come back to another issue facing discourse related to this topic later); at issue is not TvW’s existence, but instead its extremely limited approach to nuance: everything gets the hammer.  At best TvW is a serviceable “intro” to critique of cultural products, but even then it lends too much credibility to another issue, “Criticism = Condemnation,” because there is, again, very little nuance to how TvW approaches issues of gender and representation, but simply settles on “this is bad and thus must be hammered.”  There are moments of brilliance and insight in the TvW project, but its also an unfortunate beacon for what happens when the application and use of criticism is taken out of context or taken as complete, utter truth; criticism is not THE way, it is ONE way, that of the critic.

What is most at issue with “everyone is a critic” is the fact that since there is so MUCH communication on the internet, it is impossible to “deligitmize” problematic, wrongheaded, or backwards criticism; most “critics” are barely taught how to use the Toolbox, and are simply mimicking or attemtping to mimick things they’ve seen before.  And while that might sound like a View from the Ivory Tower, it is easy to see what happens when you use a tool the wrong way: the object is marred or destroyed, and the tool is blamed for it, not the user.

As mentioned, I will not propose a solution, as the only one I can give (and I don’t personally even know if I can agree) is that critics need the proper training to apply their craft.  This doesn’t mean everyone who wants to write a critique of something needs a Masters degree or a PhD., but in many cases the reason there is so MUCH deformed views on criticism comes from those who exit high-school or even college after taking some form of humanities class and claiming they understand every and all ways to critically interact with something.

2.) Criticism = Condemnation

This problem runs hand in hand with #1, as the very people who utilize poor critical tools do so to an audience who have similarly poor understanding of those tool’s worth.  It is routine now to see any and all criticism come under fire as an “attack” upon an object or a medium, that the critic “hates” the thing they are writing about, or that they are attempting to “censor” it because of “political correctness.”

#2 is perhaps the problem I have the hardest time with; as is pretty obvious, my position within academia and within the critical apparatus within that community is from years of work and refinement; but that is again the Ivory Tower at play, as my works and writings are rarely shared outside of that circle; the idea that articles published in academic journals be shared with the “masses” is almost laughable to many people in my field, and while I think that’s wrong-headed, I also can see their trepidation from how criticism is received.

Criticism = Condemnation is a fallacy of high order, and it is not wholly on the body of the audience to blame for this, but the critic as well.  As mentioned, TvW has routinely created issue in the fact that it simply “condemns” tropes without applying nuance or even skill to its critique: “This character is a trope, and therefore it is bad” is the gist of many of TvW’s videos.  In a similar vein the TVTropes website has perhaps some blame to shoulder in this regard, as it has routinely and wrong-headedly (and here I generally mean its community) applied the idea that Tropes are not only concrete, but absolute: there can be no nuance, things must fit in Categories and those Categories are further Binary in “Good” and “Bad” piles.  It is the reason why many critics of anime, comics, video games, or any cultural object routinely start and end their critiques with “I really love this thing, please don’t think I hate it,” because they are already on the defensive for their performance, already dodging tomatoes from the crowd because of the notion that what they are saying is going to somehow tear the medium to the ground and destroy it.

In essence, any medium that cannot withstand criticism, (well done or not), is a medium that probably does not deserve attention, resepect, or time.  It is at that point that you are dealing with a momentary diversion, not a medium, something that amuses and is promptly discarded when a newer, more interesting amusement presents itself.  If Criticism is Condemnation, then the existence of art forms and mediums that have grown and evolved with them are direct evidence that this fallacy is not only completely wrong, but needs to disappear; and, for the sake of record, there IS a difference between “critique” and “hating” something.  This is perhaps something else for a different discussion, but it is another in a long line of assumptions that critics simply show up to “destroy” or “force” mediums to be what they want it to be; for the amount of time it takes a well formed critique to begin, to its publication, it would be nearly impossible or untenable to believe that comes from a position of disgust and resentment, of hating the object one is critiquing.  Criticism instead comes from places of love and warmth, of wanting things to either be better than they are, or to be viewed and respected for the hidden value within them, hidden under layers of easily overlooked camouflage; it is almost possible to say that the critic must love the object more than the “fan,” as the fan simply wants to be “rewarded” for loyalty or devotion, while the critic wants the object to continue to strive for betterment.

3.) Legitimacy

Online discourse and criticism face perhaps one of their biggest issues in the form of legitimacy, and in this case it is almost impossible to avoid many of the constant arguments within the video game community for examples.  In most mediums, extremely fringe attitudes are discarded or ignored, relegated to the outliers–however, with the advent of social media, 24/7 news cycles, and other things, not only is EVERY viewpoint given the light of day, but they are also (wrongly) viewed as having equal and legitimate merit; it is the reason the “Feminist vs. MRA” argument has flared up in recent years, as what was once fringe, forgettable pap has gained footholds by finding like-minded people who can simply claim each other as their legitimizing factor: “My friend agrees, therefore we are right and you are wrong.”  This can only appear in a discourse location that lacks any types of reality based thinking: people no longer confront their own views and opinions by challenging themselves, they instead look for people who think, act, and believe as they do and double-down on their positions.  Say something racist?  Don’t apologize, just have a friend speak up and say you are not one / you didn’t say anything bad (better still if said friend is a PoC). Sexist? Homophobic? Transphobic? Same thing! Just find a person who thinks like you to agree with you, and hand-waving criticism is easier than breathing, and most certainly easier than thinking about what you did.

This, of course, links to another issue, “You’re just looking to be upset,” or “Stop taking things so seriously,” in that surrounding oneself with a discourse of confirmation means that any negative voices can summarily be silenced or ignored; in many cases, this is most troublesome when people in positions of power–social, economic, political, cultural–are routinely turned away from interacting with critics and instead buoyed by their “supporters,” never truly looking the other side in the face, but instead having a curtain drawn for them and told comforting things to block out the “noise.”

Unfortunately, not everything said deserves legitimacy, or deserves to be heard–the act of free speech is an amazing one, but it does not require that one listen to or even respect what is said, nor does it mean that just because one CAN say whatever they want, that they should do so without thinking.  This applies just as much to the Critic as it does to the Commenter, and can be seen routinely in the way that trash-can reporting from places like Gawker earn and sustain legitimacy in the 24/7 information world, just as much as it can be from the toxic replies from “community advocates” on social media, comment sections, and the like.  Since there is no Accountability, no Peer Review, there is also nothing stopping the sewage from mixing with the river water, and all that is left is murky water.

4.) “You’re trying to ruin/change this thing for yourself!”

This particular statement generally comes from discourse dealing with gender, sexuality, or race related issues in communities and discourses, and is one of the more head-scratching ones to figure out.  It generally comes from people who also make claims of wanting their mediums taken “seriously” or “as an art form,” without a hint of cognition that they simply are looking for someone to justify the way they waste their time instead of the reality of having their medium that they enjoy taken as “art.”

But, inclusion has never been easy, for any medium.  Prose writing serves as one of the best examples, as women and PoC were routinely forced to use pen-names or hide their identities to get published, even up until the mid-20th century.  It is perhaps almost charmingly idealistic to hope that any new medium less than 100 years old could obtain that within such a short period of time, but it is not really all that impossible.  What is most at issue is how insignifcant many of the people in “online discourse” fail to realize they really are–for the 100s of comments in an article, there are 10s of thousands of consumers buying and selling in the medium without any interest or care about how “good” a commenter “got” a “feminist” with their reply.  Inclusion happens, and it happens either more slowly or more quickly depending on the market and the viability, but also on visibility.  The more consumers see themselves in a product, the more they are likely to buy it, and the more creators see themselves in the field, the more that field is to reflect the creators.  It is perhaps simply time to watch those against “inclusion” as a funny relic of a dying age, a fire that is slowly burning out yet struggles greatly against the lack of oxygen, flickering and dancing with curious power.

Of course, the reality is simply that things will and must become more inclusive, and the idea that it can be “stopped” is almost as ridiculous as claiming one can “stop” the earth from rotating around the sun.  As our world becomes flatter, as people become more and more mixed, as more voices are allowed and more people find the courage to either speak or hold up those who will, inclusion marches on.  It is simply at that point that one decides to be a gatekeeper, to attempt at being George Wallace of the 21st century, or to simply realize that not only do these people share your love and interests, but that they are also looking to see themselves reflected in the mirror, instead of looking at the back of your head all the time.  And, perhaps most beautifully, the realization that there are not only enough mirrors to go around, but that people can share them too–seeing a new reflection might help you recognize things about yourself you hadn’t before.

5.) Silencing

Out of all of the problems, there is perhaps none so toxic and awful as #5, as it is the forceful and willful decision of a person or group of persons to relegate another into a position of silence, through force, threat, or other means.  Why it is at all tolerated in online communities is perhaps one of the biggest issues to online discourse and criticism being able to go toe-to-toe with traditional academia; there is no time in which an academic conference would devolve into a speaker being told to “kill themselves” or “shut up” or “stop being so offended” when they are given the chance to speak.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Silencing is that groups who feel “attacked” routinely claim that THEY are the ones being silenced: “stop censoring me!” when in reality that defense is, in itself, a silencing tactic.  What is at root in Silencing is that a group that holds a majority position simply dose not want to entertain or “hear” voices that do not match their own, like a Diva who resents anyone singing their song in a different key.  Silencing is also further “helped” by people in positions of power being dismissive or silent in the face of them–when someone comes forth with a criticism, those people in power either immediately become defensive (“Stop attacking me” style) or simply idly watch/ignore as their devoted “supporters” do the work for them.  In many cases this plays into the issues of Legitimacy and Criticism = Condemnation, as it places the person who wants to offer a critique in an immediately defensive position: Is it worth speaking up when it may do nothing but attract hateful language, harassment, and possibly stalker-like activity to you, for the act of commenting about something? The answer is obviously no, and the fact that many people have to even ask themselves that question before saying anything is an unfortunate, sobering reality of online discourse.

Similarly, the argument that one is “looking” to be offended is an attempt to silence the critic as someone who is simply looking for attention–that there can be no obvious critique of something unless you’re just TRYING to find something wrong with it, which is of course not only ridiculous, but is particularly harmful.  Creating an atmosphere where critique is viewed as “toxic” to a supposedly “perfect” medium is one that is ripe for the sands of time to wash it from history.

6.) “Ownership”

This is a problem in which groups of people seem to believe, or unconsciously believe, that a critique of their medium of choice is an attack against them–that they must be offended on the sake of the creator for the critique, because as its supporters, they “own” a share in it.

There are some obvious ways to see how this belief is completely ridiculous, and yet it is easy to see (once again, sadly, within the gaming community) due to the way that critics are routinely forced to defend against angry “fans” who treat statements like personal attacks.

Criticism of an object is not criticism of a person, nor is it criticism of the group that enjoys or partakes of the object.  It is criticism of the object.  Being unable, or unwilling, to accept that means you are not a supporter, you are a fanatic.  You no more own the object than the critic, and in many cases you don’t own it any more than the creator does once the object is made public (outside of obvious economic ownership, a different beast).  This mentality of ownership is almost Gollum-like, selfishly attempting to shield the object from any other eyes while keeping it to oneself again denies the object the ability to become a medium or a creative landscape, but instead relegates it to a personal amusement.

Similarly tied to this is the idea that by including larger groups, or being more sensitive to issues facing your much broader demographic, will somehow ‘ruin’ your medium, is linked to the idea that you ‘own’ that medium because you somehow contributed to where it is.  In that sense, one would consider that if so many people would like to see it improved, that since you BUILT it, you would work with them, would be perhaps the obvious reaction.  However, it rarely is, and is met with either creator chiding or claims of “its not FOR you,” as if mediums were limited to certain audiences and the fact that someone outside the “fence” got a hold of it is the problem, not that the thing you created has issues.

No one is going to “leave” a medium because it became more inclusive or more open to new ideas and people.  And if there are people that DO leave, did you REALLY want them to be in your medium to begin with, if the idea of allowing more people access, comfort, or acceptability is what drives them out?

7.) Being Reactionary

This issue applies to almost everyone within online discourse; it is the thing that ruins friendships and sends huge divides into communities.  When something happens, there are reactions to it.  Some people take the reaction too far, and it leads to a cascade of other problems, like a hurricane that causes a mudslide which causes a flood. The issue with #7 is that it includes so many of the other problems within it, that its hard to even think of a solution except to “not respond.”  This is one of the hardest solutions to cope with–I personally have a hard time with it–but not everything needs a response, nor does it deserve one.  Reactionary responses are also the tools by which Silencers love to utilize; they are the things passed around to show how “crazy” a group is, like propaganda: “Look at what this crazy person said! Did you know that they’re a FEMINIST? I bet they’re ALL like that!” Which of course is not necessarily fair to pin on the person being reactionary, but if there is one thing all forms of discourse need online, it is mediation and the realization that everyone’s voice not only deserves to be heard, but that each voice should do so in a way that is respectful to the other; if someone gets upset, too often the reaction is to goad them into being MORE upset and say something ridiculous or awful to another party, instead of sussing out why they were upset in the first place and creating dialogue.

I’m sure there are more numbers that could be added to this list; all in all, its a reason I act with trepidation in terms of wading into discussions these days.  It is also why I relish certain opportunities; the AX Symposium that I take part in is one such opportunity, as it allows academics to produce criticism and speak to a “public” audience, showing them the interesting and new ways that their medium can be enjoyed and is, in fact, respected or legitimized.  It would be a great future for online discourse communities, particularly those with such apparently passionate members, to have that sort of future–a place where critics are not only respected, but have earned that respect through their hard work and years of practice, not because they are ‘popular’ or say the ‘right things.’  I’m not really sure how long it would take to get there, but I’d like to think that it will, because the other alternative is a scorched wasteland, while academic discourse continues from its Ivory Tower, echoing into the empty to halls to no one in particular.  The best future is one where “public” and “academic” no longer have to be separated, but there is so much work to be done, and it seems so much easier to be divisive than it is to build bridges.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Escape from Planet of Nostalgia: Space Dandy, Sci-Fi Pop-Culture, and Absurd Revival

In the post-80s world, it becomes hard to envision a world of Sci-Fi that did not have Star Wars or Star Trek smack in the center of it, a black hole of inescapable gravity that clouded much of the genre’s past and influences.  Similarly, the 00s have more or less put the coffin in “Saturday Morning Cartoons,” the types that people of a certain age might warmly reminsce about, in the style of “I used to rush to eat (Sugary Cereal X) and watch TV until noon every Saturday,” bathing their eyes and brains in the likes of He-Man, Silverhawks, Thundercats, Brave Starr, Flash Gordon, and numerous other attempts to create the perfect storm of pop-culture profitability: toys, shows, movies, tie-ins.

The period between the 60s and 00s may seem like an exceedingly long time period, and they are, but within those time periods the genre of Sci-Fi evolved and expanded in new, bizarre ways, coming from the nuclear / cold war era 50s and into the more psychdelic 60s-70s to the post-war, post-modern 80s-90s, Sci-Fi changed with each time period, having to not only one up the previous decade, but also adapt to a rapidly expanding and changing landscape–50s paranoia about gigantic ants from Them! gave way to fears of nuclear influenced creatures like Godzilla, and invaders from the moon or mars had to increasingly expand outward from Earth as we ourselves expanded into the stars.  In many ways the late 60s/70s era began to think about the worst possible sci-fi monster, “human,” with films like Planet of the Apes2001 A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green and the like emerging, with 1979’s Alien perfectly straddling the period between a return to bombastic space odyssey (Star Wars) and pulpy Sci-Fi filled with bubble headed space suits,  and Robby the Robot, and sexy space goddesses like Barbarella.

Of course, TV would help fill those gaps, with the original Star Trek fulfilling viewers needs and imaginations for bold new worlds, beeping technology, and women painted green in skimpy attire; it is also in the realm of TV that cartoons began to take hold, with He-Man and the like slowly trickling into the subconcious of Western, American viewership.  Most “heroic” sci-fi cartoons (or, in reality, “heroic” cartoons) work in similar fashion:  hero lives with a peaceful (usually human) people, and must defend them from some sort of evil, malevolent (and mostly inhuman) force–the further from the 50s and orientalist yellow peril you move, the less likely they look like Ming the Merciless, and more like Skeletor, ghoulish creatures of yellows, reds, and dark hues, always cursing and scheming to destroy the heroes with their new weapon or henchman of the week.

Star Wars of course changes a lot of the landscape of both how Sci-Fi would operate afterwards, but also how it was viewed in the pop-culture vein; in many cases early sci-fi was simply popcorn fodder or for children, things you would watch but discard afterwards, a disposable form of popular culture built more on profit returns than on saying anything particularly intelligent (although, as in the case of films like Day the Earth Stood Still, later viewers might find them interesting time capsules of 50s/60s fears, paranoia, and mindsets).  In a lot of ways, Sci-Fi works built from works of literature mostly known as “Invasion Fiction,” with H.G. Wells War of the Worlds being perhaps the most famous; but prior to Wells, most “Invasion Fiction” preyed on the fears of outsiders as ACTUAL humans, not tripod legged brains in jars; most works in English detailed the devilish attempts of Germans to erase proper English society from the globe, or positioned England as the only possible stop-gap between the “degeneration” of mankind from “outsiders.”  Star Wars is different; it builds on the space operas of Flash Gordon kitsch, played entirely straight–Star Wars makes fun of its characters and their situations, slight winks to the audience, but the series plays itself entirely seriously, and lacks the “cheesy” aspects of previous Sci-Fi works (something that, as a divergent discussion, one could say the 3 “prequel” films 100% forgot to do).  Star Wars abandoned the Star Trek camp for an attempt at being a “serious” film that just happened to feature talking robots, magical space powers, oddly Catholic cosmology, a giant walking carpet, and a space princess with cinnamon buns on her head.

The Post-Star Wars era looked remarkably “Earthy” in comparison:  more Alien films, Predator, and perhaps most notably the Terminator franchise (among many other works, revivals, and sequels to ‘classic’ films-Planet of the Apes in particular).  These works tended to abandon the attempt at grand Space Opera a-la Star Wars, or even the Alien of the Week (That Teaches Us About Ourselves) of Star Trek for much more visceral narratives that pit humanity against antagonistic alien species or technology run amok.  Sci-Fi, as stated early, requires an almost consistent update to utilize the fears, prejudice, or even weakness of its current audience to develop narratives; viewers in the 80s and 90s were no longer “afraid” of “outsiders” from foreign lands (and in many cases were probably now second and third generation descendents of said “outsiders,”) but hey, that computer with the punch cards might one day try to play Global Thermonuclear War, isn’t this crazy technology stuff just advancing so FAST?  No time for Flash Gordon Ray Guns when a shotgun in a box of roses will do the trick, and who needs to worry about the cunning guile of Ming the Merciless when the Alien Brood Queen just simply wants to use your species as incubator and buffet?  The “modern” sci-fi “fear” evolved more into the idea of a fight against extinction, a fight to stay relevant in a modernizing world, and a fight to stay individual in a slowly shrinking global environment.  There were no flying cars in the 80s and no Jetsons, but there sure were fears of food shortages and cold war revivals.

Perhaps what is most important to glean from this discussion of the past is that Sci-Fi is not a “melting pot” as much as it is a “blackboard,” one that is continually erased every time something “new” becomes “old,” a medium through which the viewer can supposedly glance at the “future,” but is more than likely going to be looking at the “future past” by the time the film hits the big or home screen.  Sci-Fi spends a lot of time trying to stay “relevant” or “modern” to pick the brains of its viewers–the expansion of the internet in the post-AOL world and the sudden popularity of the Matrix are not idle coincidence.  But, what exactly does that have to do with Skeletor, or for that matter, what does any of this have to do with Space Dandy?

While those behind the PRODUCTION of sci-fi might view their medium as a blackboard to be rewritten, those who engage, consume, and enjoy said material rarely view it so myopically; instead, they are the ones who notice the small Planet of the Apes reference here, or the appearance of a VHS tape there, things that fellow fans have left for them along the way and have just simply become a part of the “mythos” of sci-fi; there are, of course, those blinded by their faith–hello Dr. Who, Star Wars, Star Trek–but in many cases the people creating and enjoying science fiction are likely to have been fans themselves at some point, gently bending the ear of directors, or becoming directors themselves.  They, too, were once footie-pajama clad tots burning their eyes out as He-Man screamed I HAVE THE POWER and beat Skeletor once again, or watched as the Silverhawks came to the rescue just in time to stop Mon*Star, all while (supposedly) imparting a message about teamwork, friendship, hard work, or other moralistic lessons that would allow them to bypass scrutiny from TV censors and networks worried about parental backlash (which was shockingly a thing at one point–today it’d probably just make the show more popular).

It is with this state of mind in place that it becomes able to approach why Space Dandy is such a delight; even if its single currently existing episode were to exist as a stand-alone work, divided from any possibly continuity with another episode, it is a blisteringly fast tour of sci-fi trope, tableau, and styling.  Dandy openly acknowledges that it is not serious, and comes in at near Spaceballs levels of genre-acknowledgement.  Space Dandy is also cognizant of the fact that its viewers are likely those same people that grew up 20, 30 years ago watching Saturday morning cartoons, watching Terminator, and playing video games; it wears its heart on its sleeve, and in a few ways approaches the sort of sci-fi absurdity of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, playing its genre for a laugh while also reveling in its best parts: splashy visuals, alien life forms, sexy girls in skimpy ‘space’ costumes, and of course, overly camp villains plotting from a distance.

Let’s take a moment to look at some visuals before resuming this line of thought:

index

Here is the Space Dandy logo (in Japanese); one of the most striking things about it is its use of blue, gold, silver, and of course red; it also has the ‘exploding from a single point of origin’ aesthetic with its big blocky letters that triangulate to a single space in the logo’s background.  Here are a few other logos from other franchises:

Silverhawks_Logo_png__by_gauge0001

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flash_gordon_logo_blue

Brave starr logo

One of the common themes of “classic” pop-sci-fi cartoons tends to be big, flashy logos usually adorned with some sort of ‘ornament,’ and Space Dandy is really no different in this regard; each work has its own little “flair,” but there is a oddly genre specific uniformity to them: gradients of color, large ornamental symbol, blocky, outlined letters.

the logo alone doesn’t make the show that particularly unique, but instead just part of a greater body of works; perhaps most interesting is to take a quick look at the “antagonists,” of whom we’ve really seen very little so far:

11179865436_2c608c1fd4_o Space_Dandy_005 KSK973T

These three are the current “villains” of Space Dandy, and of particular note are the two with the most screen-time, Dr. Geru and Bee; Geru in particular is almost entirely made of references to science fiction works, from his destroyed statue of liberty head ship and facial features (Planet of the Apes,)planetoftheapes19682006

but Geru also has something oddly in common with Mon*Star, villain of Silverhawks:

MonStarbio

Both feature eye ornamentation and are, of course, less than human looking, and Geru also has the ‘traditional’ saturday morning villain garb of being almost bizarrely out of touch with the rest of the characters.  However, Bee, his associate, is yet another odd link between the Geru and Mon*Star; those who might remember Silverhawks may also remember that Mon*Star’s yes man is literally a character named Yes Man, a small, green, snake-bodied man who pretty much exists solely for Mon*Star to have someone to talk to (fans of Skeletor can likely fill in other similar characters here, like Beastman, who seem to exist solely to go “but why do you want to do that, boss?” so as to not make the villains seem ridiculous (well, more ridiculous).

Of course, the “big bad” that we know little about pretty easily brings to mind said Skeletor:

KSK973T skeletor

But he might also remind you of another villain, Mumm-Ra:

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Its pretty easy to note why “dead” people were villains for cartoons of these types, mostly that it makes them easily identifiable as “evil” to children without having to go into much more exposition on the matter; it also helps alleviate the possibility of the characters being “too human,” where their counterparts usually embodied the best and brightest parts of human existence: noble bravery, friendship, valor, honor, sacrifice, and the ability to always be muscled.

Space Dandy‘s titular hero, is, well…

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None of those.

In a pre-release review, the New York Time’s Mike Hale seemed overly critical of Space Dandy‘s inability to “hit the target” of its comedy, using the opening sequence in Boobies to denote an apparent lack of comedic skill that comes off as “sleazy;” Hale writes:

This cringe-making scene is presumably meant as a lampoon of the typical titillating “fan service” aspects of Japanese science-fiction anime, but the satire has been entirely lost in translation. That may be literally the case: Adult Swim is presenting an English-language version of the show, and it’s possible that the humor isn’t as broad or crude in the original. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/arts/television/space-dandy-makes-its-us-premiere-on-adult-swim.html?_r=0)

What’s interesting here is the phrase “lost in translation”–there’s really nothing different between the “comedy” of Space Dandy, although in translation things are always changed or adapted; instead, Hale’s criticism seems to completely miss the focus of Space Dandy‘s comedy: it isn’t in crude jokes about boobs, but instead of nearly 60 years of pop-culture; Dandy is an objectifying jerk, a Captain Kirk on steroids, a Flash Gordon more interested in his hair than injustices; Boobies is the commodified Jabba the Hutt Palace without a Rancor, the crystallization of 60 years of “sexiness” in science fiction that has always decided that the best way to picture a woman in the future is, apparently, latex cut out clothing and gogo boots.  The villains appear almost as if on cue to plot and scheme like they need to, but with their ineptitude turned up 100 degrees; no adult viewer views Skeletor as threatening, and Space Dandy‘s villains have taken that cue to heart more than their need to produce thrills and chills.  Dandy’s ship is a bizarre timecapsule of camp, a bizarre mixture of science fiction and Hawaiin kitsch, co-piloted by a robot that literally prints messages in punch-card format.  Space Dandy has jokes, but it itself IS the joke, as it takes every single beloved thing in Sci-Fi and posits it into a fast paced 23 minute episode.

The final pieces of the first episode give the viewer an odd panorama of sci-fi monsters and beloved archetypes: giant insects, tentacled beasts, huge eyed man-eating monstrosities, and blocky, geometric robots (well, here its more conical, but Gort approves I’m sure)–said robot even gives viewers the T2 “thumbs up” as it dissolves, a simple, yet almost easily missed little reference that’s part “hey I know you love that” and “this isn’t anything but a loving send up of this genre.”  Geru (in the dub) makes a Buzz Lightyear joke, and the entire episode comes to a literal end by killing every single cast member like a demented Looney Tunes callback, the “Its a great trick, but I can only do it once!” revived to galactic proportions.

And, perhaps the best way to encapsulate Space DandyCowboy Bebop was a tour of sci-fi pulp, Bruce Lee films, and hard-boiled dramatics (mixed with occasional winks of comedy); Space Dandy is figuratively and literally a cartoon, a work that uses its elasticity and absurd nature to dazzle the eyes and tickle the audience with jokes; however, the reason Space Dandy works is because of its careful attention to where it came from and how we came to be where we are in the genre; it knows exactly what Sci-Fi has done and where its been going, and it has no interest in “furthering” the genre–it isn’t interested in erasing the “blackboard” like other works, but instead its more interested in how it can turn the language on the blackboard into a ribald inside joke that those who are enamored with the genre can laugh at while also doing the “oh you!” gesture at its more ridiculous moments.

Space Dandy isn’t interested (at least so far) in cutting a swath across science-fiction as the new icon, but is instead interested in asking everyone over for a drink (Gilgamesh gin, perhaps?) and laughing at just how ridiculous a genre Sci-Fi is and always will be–that its much better to love something’s history so strongly that the best possible tribute you can give it is a glorious roast.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

That Game with the Guy: Deadpool Mini-Review

This may seem like a departure from what I write here normally, but I’d like to take a few moments to talk about a relatively surprisingly fun and really well done game:  Deadpool.  I’ll wait. Ok, done laughing? Here we go then!

First off, the game is of probably no merit if you are not a Deadpool fan, or don’t know who he is; the humor is reliant on you (the player) knowing who he and most of the characters are, although there are short flashbacks presented in the event that you are somehow totally new to the character.  (Deadpool himself even notes “why would you be playing this if you don’t know who I am”).  Personally, I’ve actually ‘known’ Deadpool since his inception (and own pretty much all of his early appearances), and he has remained one of my favorite characters in comicbooks, in the right hands.  To be honest I ended up reading most of Cable and Deadpool ‘in hindsight,’ but it was a very solid series that followed the spirit of the earlier works (where he was a very odd 90s character that managed to somehow stay memorable).  I wasn’t a huge fan of the Way Deadpool, and that’s the Deadpool that’s featured in the game, for the most part: the one with three voices in his head.  However, Way did at times write a pretty good Deadpool, and the video game version is much closer to that than the “constant everywhere comic tie in cover stealer” and general “lets make a joke about pop-culture lol so random” Deadpool that Marvel has been pumping into almost everything since 2010.  The game obviously needs Deadpool’s personality to work, and it does, and without making him the obnoxious character he can so easily be when done poorly.

The game is actually pretty nice looking, graphically (I’m on a PS3 vers., fyi), and the cutscenes are nicely animated with good details and lots of character flair; Deadpool feels very much like himself, and the version here is mostly based off the the Way Deadpool (With the 2 voices in his head, the screwball and the ‘serious’ one, + “Wade”).

In terms of playstyle, the game is basically a third person action game, with a combat system focused on combo strings through melee attacks: a regular attack button, heavy attack, and a dodge/counter button are three of the 4 face buttons (X being jump).  Shooting is included but is not a ‘major’ part of the game, and the game itself is not meant to be a shooter. Deadpool’s guns are limited ammo wise, and are used for far away enemies or combo string extension.

I hesitate to say its like DMC, because it really doesn’t have that flair or polish to its fighting system. Instead, there are a lot of ways it feels like the older third person action games that used to be around in the PSOne and PS2 era which honestly don’t seem to appear that much anymore these days.

Enemies are of different varieties, with general goons, tougher goons, specialized goons, etc.  There are boss fights, and parts of the game break from the ‘traditional’ third person action sequence into little diversions (a sliding segment, a retro-game top down segment, etc.) that are interwoven pretty nicely.

The game has a HUGE amount of unlocks in terms of skill and weapon trees that I wasn’t expecting.  From the menu it looks as if there are 3 types of melee weapons, and around 4 guns, plus “tools,” flashbangs, mines, etc.  Aside from purchasing each individual item, there are also upgrades for each item itself (more money after combos, health after so many hits, critical hits after so many hits, more damage, bleed effects, etc.) that really give the game a lot more ‘life’ than would really be expected.  You earn DP points for combos, and the longer your combo, the more points you get in reward; if your combo breaks, you lose points as a penalty.

Gameplay is solid, to be quite honest.  The camera is competent, aiming is solid, and combos are responsive and in your control.  I’m early in the game, but enemies are more of the ‘large swarms’ variety on Normal than ‘smart uber AI combat foes,’ but I did notice some better tactics as I advanced into the later part of the level, and again I’m just trying it on normal and only finished the first level. It is very possible to die if you stand around and soak up damage, by the way. With enough time or after encounters Deadpool’s regeneration kicks in and heals him (which oddly makes total sense, given the character).

One particularly cool feature that I noticed after a long gun fight was that Deadpool’s suit actually takes damage, and the longer a fight, and more damage you take, the more of his suit becomes ripped and lost (it regenerates slowly over time), and it was honestly a really neat little touch that is hard to miss and basically pointless, save adding flavor.

Honestly I think that’s one of the best aspects of the game: flavor.  The opening is you being in Deadpool’s apartment, gives you 2 trophies simply for starting the game, and then allows a third one to be unlocked by interacting with things in the apartment, which honestly have a LOT of content/voice work in them: sitting at a computer, Deadpool has a particularly long list of quips (and a neoGAF joke in there), and will actually end most sequences instead of just repeating them over and over again. (My personal favorite is his interaction with the bookshelf, which if you play a lot of games makes sense if you think of ‘prop design’ and ‘background items’ in video games being rigid objects).  The 3 voices are well done and written pretty well, with the basic juvenile, self-referential Deadpool humor that more or less defines the character; it makes very liberal use of its M rating, as well, which honestly makes the game a bit better since its not bound by the ‘PG-13′ rating of Marvel comics.  There are some pretty nice touches elsewhere: the main menu is kind of interesting to watch if you let it idle, and there are sections in the game that have details that really don’t need to be there (a completely passable section of the sewer part of chapter one has a reference to some mutant teenagers, if you look closely), but are put in for simple fun / homage.

Character models look surprisingly nice, and the voice acting is very good (Steve Blum makes his return as Wolverine, to the surprise of absolutely no one), and the environments are also pretty nice as well.

I’m not really sure what sort of rating the game will get, but I’m going to guess somewhere in the 7-8 range, unless gaming sites are much more generous than I’m expecting (I’d be really suspicious of anything lower than that, by the way, as the game is really solid graphically, architecturally, and gameplay wise).  Again its really more of a ‘niche’ title than you’d probably expect, given it being Deadpool, and in a lot of ways the game seems to be catering more to long time fans of him than people who know him as ‘the guy who did Gangnam Style on a cover of a comic I saw once,’ which is honestly a plus.

The main menu lists a challenge mode (which seems to be like Bloody Palace style stages like in DMC or God of War) that unlock as you complete parts of the game’s campaign.  There’s no multiplayer, which maybe explains the amount of polish that went in to the single player experience (its sad that I have to actually say that), but there are leaderboards.  There’s also an Extra’s menu, but I don’t know what else is in there other than profiles of characters; I haven’t unlocked anything in there yet, as far as I’m aware.

I’ve honestly been more surprised with how much I liked Deadpool than how disappointed I’ve been in “AAA” games like Bioshock Infinite. Despite it being a much less than AAA game; and perhaps that’s the charm behind it.  It has really decent production values, but goes for solid gameplay, good controls, really nice atmosphere and touches, and doesn’t focus so much on ‘being the Citizen Kane of videogames.’  Its stupid fun, its cheaper than most games (49.99), and packs a good amount of singleplayer action content into what seems like what could have been just a cheap licensed throwaway title.  Its pretty obvious that the people at High Moon Studios wanted to make a really good action game that starred Deadpool, instead of a Deadpool game that also kind of was an action title.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

A Peek into the Makings of a Dissertation

I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the way a Dissertation list is constructed.

What follows is the “Narrow Area” list for my Dissertation; it contains most of the texts I would be focusing on.  The list is incomplete and likely to change at any moment, so this isn’t concrete or even particularly binding, so I’m comfortable with posting it here. I hope its interesting or illuminating in some way.

The Focus by the way is on Absurdist comedy, misfits, Others, and basically post-modern deconstruction of Japanese cultural norms; groups like outcasts, “losers,” otaku, fujoshi, and the like, as well as how comedy manga operate and challenge normative behavior; there’s also somewhat of a focus on darker works (either in terms of dark comedy or just dark, somewhat disturbing works) but those are a bit less of a focus and might get cut. That disclaimer is mostly to give some idea of what this list is “for.”

Primary Texts

Akira, Hiramoto.  Kangoku Gakuen (Prison School).  Young Magazine.  Kodansha. 2011. Print.

Akiko, Higashimura. Kuragehime (Princess Jellyfish)Kiss.  Kodansha. 2008. Print.

–. Kuragehime Gaiden: Barakura – Bara no Aru Kurashi. Kiss+.  Kodansha. 2012.  Print.

–.  Himawari – Kenichi LegendMorning.  Kodansha.  2006.  Print.

Tezuka, Osamu.  Barbara.  Ed. Ben Applegate.  Digital Manga Inc.  2012.  Print.

Mari, Yamazaki.  Thermae Romae.  Yen Press. 2012. Print.

Hikaru, Nakamura.  Arakawa Under the Bridge. Young Gangan.  Square Enix.  2004. Print.

Koshi, Rikdo.  Excel Saga.  Viz Media.  1996.  Print.

Kuhmeta, Kouji.  Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei.  Weekly Shonen Magazine.  Kodansha. 2005.  Print.

–. Katte ni Kaizou. Shonen Sunday.  Shogakukan.  1998.  Print.

Nawoki, Karasawa.  Super Cruel and Terrible Tales of Mangaka.  Big Comic Spirits Special and Ikki.  Shogakukan.  2005.

Reiichi, Sugimoto and Katou Shinkichi.  Kokumin Quiz (National Quiz).  Morning.  Kodansha. 1994.

Furuya, Usamaru.  Lychee Light Club.  Vertical Inc. 2011. Print.

AX Volume 1: A Collection of Alternative Manga.  Ed. Sean Michael Wilson. Top Shelf.  2010. Print.

Masamune, Shirow.  Dominion Tank Police.  Dark Horse. 1985.  Print.

–.  Orion.  Dark Horse. 1991.  Print.

ONE and Yuusuke Murata. Onepunch Man. Tonari no Young Jump.  Shueisha. 2012. Web.

Hideki, Arai. The World is MineEnterbrain.  Shogakukan.  1997.  Print.

Inio, Asano. Oyasumi Pun-Pun. Big Comic Spirits and Young Sunday.  Shogakukan.  2007.

Okazaki, Kyoko.  Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly.  Vertical Inc. 2013. Print.

Kengo, Hanazawa. RessentimentBig comic Spirits. Shogakukan. 2004. Print.

–. Boys on the RunBig Comic Spirits. Shogakukan.  2005.  Print.

Mineo, Maya.  Patalliro! Hakuensha. 1979.  Print.

Eiji, Nonaka.  Sakigake!! Cromartie Koukou (Cromartie High School).  Weekly Shonen Magazine.  Kodansha.  2000.  Print.

Hideki, Owada. Dai Mahou TougeShounen A.  Kadokawa Shoten.  2002. Print.

Aihara, Koji and Kentaro Takekuma.  Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. Big Comics Spirit. Shogakukan. 1990. Print.

Tatsuhiko, Takimoto and Ooiwa Kenji.  NHK Ni Youkoso! (Welcome to the NHK!). Shounen A.  Kadokawa Shoten. 2004. Print.

Shunjuu, Aono.  I’ll Give it my All…Tomorrow. Ikki.  Shogakukan.  2007.  Print.

Yoshikazu, Ebisu.  The Man Who Saw Hell.  2008.  Print.

Yusaku, Hanakuma.  Tokyo Zombie. Last Gasp. 2005. Print.

 

I’ll have some more posts coming soon! Sorry for the radio silence.

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

“The Best way out of a Difficulty is Through it.”

Welcome back, fair customers! I hope you enjoyed your cocktail last night.  Perhaps this one, inspired by one Robert Frost, will also be to your liking.

Perhaps one of the most disheartening trends in video game development of late is the removal, or skirting, of “difficulty.”  Traditionally, games focused on intense difficulty and mechanics that forced players to polish, improve, and master their skills in order to best the game at, well, its own game.  In many ways this was due to the fact that games were created to munch quarters and force players to continue at a cost, or lose their hard work.  As games moved from arcades to homes, however, that difficulty tended to remain in place: give players the challenge they wanted, and reward them with memories and stories to share with their friends and fellow players.

Recently, however, that trend has more or less evaporated; in some ways, gaming difficulty seems to have been diverted from its normal path in place of a Golden Calf, “accessibility,” sometimes known also through the infamous quote, “We want the Call of Duty audience.”  The term “casual gamer” became something of an industry standard, but also a sort of a false idol: chase an audience that has had no real passing interest in your market, with the promise that they will be duly rewarded with victory with very little required from them, and they will come in droves.

And, perhaps sadly, they did.  The Wii sailed to amazing sales heights on the back of “pick up and play” mechanics and games, flooding its market (and the market of competitors) with titles geared less towards the usual market, but more towards quick “cash grab” consumers interested less in battling heroically against the games they bought, but more looking for those games to hold their hands and give them “a good time.” Of course, people should get what they pay for, but in many cases this attempt to attract larger market share came at the cost of games developed with the challenge of their older compatriots.

Perhaps the most vexing part of this exchange, though, was that recent games made to some of the same difficulty standards were judged harshly: games like Maximo, for example, faired somewhat unwell in the light of the new “difficulty” standards; a game being “too hard for most gamers” was a point off a score, not a point added. The idea of mastery, of being rewarded for hard work, was replaced instead by the fact that “everyone” should be able to complete the game they bought regardless of how good or bad they were at it. Of course, difficulty settings have existed for some time, but the “new” era of difficulty settings was oddly skewed; in many cases, even playing a game on “hard” presented a challenge somewhere below that of the “harder” games of yore.

And in the very worst cases, the addition of “harder” difficulties was done, as per the current term that I like to play around with, “Artificial” means. In most cases, newer games, particularly games in the current generation, replace increased difficulty with “increased damage taken,” or “reduced damage given.”  Others simply flood the game with enemies; some, like Hitman Absolution, place stock in the idea that making games “retro” or “purist” is accomplished not through programming, but by removing modern day conveniences like HUDs and navigation.  All this truly accomplishes is giving the players who yearn for older styles of play a broken game; the game isn’t inherently more challenging, nor does the harder difficulty change anything in terms of HOW the game is played, in terms of enemy patterns, AI levels, or skill required on the player’s part. Instead, the difficulty is instead relegated to making things “disappear” that the game was created with in mind; removing a map does make a game more difficult, but it does so for the incorrect reason: players can’t see where they’re going, but the game is laid out with one specific path in mind, meaning that not having a map simply leads to endless wandering through areas than making the experience more difficult due to finding one’s path.

Similarly, recently released Bioshock Infinite does much the same thing with its touted “1999 Mode.” The game is built around a navigation mechanic, and 1999 mode disables it. The mode also increases damage taken by close to 5x, and reduces damage dealt to half.  What this means is that players are not challenged with a more difficult game with better AI or forced to master secrets, as in FPS games of yesterday like Wolfenstein and Doom, but instead are left puzzled at why they continually die to over-powered grunts, who blend in with the environments and give no real idea of their movement patterns, while “boss” characters like the Firemen and Zealots die with extreme ease because they move in simple, telegraphed ways; a game that is more “difficult” should require that the player become much better at playing, or should have the challenge be placed at the foot of the player: if you are willing to master these skills and break the game’s “engines” down to your own design, you can march to the top of this hill and claim it as your own.  Instead, players are left frustrated and desiring of more, finding it in either retro-rediscovery, or playing what are more or less considered “niche” titles.

One of the most recent examples of this is the PSN/XBLA game, Black Knight Sword. Created by Grasshopper Manufacture, Black Knight Sword is, on the surface, a simplistic sidescrolling action game with only 3 real “control” options: attack with a sword, jump, or use magic.  The game however takes these three mechanics and requires players to not only master them, but understand them in specific ways in order to conquer the game, but also to discover all of its secrets: in one stage, in order to grab a Cat Head Grass (the collectible ‘secrets’ in each area), players are required to, with extreme speed and precision (and perhaps a bit of wiggling through a wall ‘accidentally’) to turn a giant cog-wheel, then turn it a second time, scraping under it before it becomes impassable and then also making a very quickly timed jump in order to arrive at the top of the cog before it becomes impossible to jump over. The sequence seems ridiculous, and the reward is mostly miniscule, except that it gives the player perhaps one of the greatest things a game can bestow: satisfaction.  Instead of rewarding players with endless “loot” or achievements, the game simply gives the player the knowledge that they have collected that item, and when they wish to, they can view all the cat-head grasses they’ve obtained on the main menu (There is of course an achievement for collecting all of the grasses, by the way, but so is the modern gaming world).

That sense of satisfaction is maybe the heart of the matter: games are no longer about a bond created through a player and the game, but instead are now a “social” experience tied to gamerscores, achievements, and being able to say you too completed a game.  Perhaps one of the oddest current gaming complaints is that a game is “too short,” in the case of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.  The game can likely be completed by the most average of players in perhaps 8 hours maximum, but “completed” is maybe the wrong word. The player can see the entire plot, but they likely could not collect all hidden items, listen to all codecs, unlock all upgrades, or complete all VR missions. However, this “shortness” is reflected in review scores (many of which are played on easy to allow for “speedy” finishes to games before a deadline, so take reviews with a grain of salt), despite missing something rather key.  Many gamers, those enamored with the medium, replay the same games over and over, always looking for more things to do, unlock, discover, or simply find ways to beat the game “faster” than they did before.  With the move to more “casual” experiences, as well as focusing on creating movie-like narratives, games do indeed become completed in short times, but they also then lack any real reason to continue playing them after completion. In this case, the complaint of “too short” is very true; there is no reason to invest time beyond completing the main “story” of a game, and there’s no impetus (or sometimes even ability) for players to go off the rails and experience the game for themselves. The difficulty in this regard acts as a “speed limit,” making the game either longer or shorter depending on how hard or easy the game is.

The Demon/Dark Souls games, then, probably exist as something almost of an anomaly in the “modern” gaming world.  They give very little narrative, focusing more on letting players discover and create the experience for themselves. Enemies are punishing, but not simply to infuriate: they possess patterns and strategies, and require players to use patience and take notice of what enemies are doing in order to find the best way of confronting them and conquering them, whether they’re bosses or simple “grunts.”  And, perhaps most shockingly in the age of instant-respawns, regenerating health, and “shield” mechanics, Souls games are not just willing to let players fail, they place all responsibility for those deaths at the hands of the player.  If a person dies in CoD, they die despite regenerating health, cover mechanics, and other things that are literally forcing them to remain alive despite lacking the skill to understand how their deaths happen–instead of recognizing their mistakes, they instead cry about “unfairness” or “cheap” deaths–and thus don’t learn, requiring more hand-holding.  Souls games, however, take the more “hands off” approach to this. If a player wishes to run off a cliff, there is no invisible wall to catch them. Want to attack a giant creature, or a shopkeeper? Go ahead. The consequences are one’s own, and the game secretly desires that you recognize and take responsibility for your actions.  Your death is your fault, and you can learn from it, or continue doing it over, and over, and over, and over again.

This sense of “responsibility” perhaps most easily links back to that sense of satisfaction.  There are many ways in which Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls perfectly encapsulate gameplay styles of yesterday, crystallizing them in new forms for new players: learning the game, mastering it, and discovering anything requires that the player enter into a covenant with the game.  As long as the player is willing to work at it, learn from it, and hammer away at the game, the game will continue to reward them with satisfaction, whether it is from new areas, hidden lore, breathtaking landscapes and hidden secrets, or simply from collecting the “best” weapon that player could hope for.  For those willing, there is an endless amount of content to be found in Souls games, much beyond the simple surface of the “narrative” behind it–most expert players could likely “beat” the game in a few scant hours.

It is likely that games that vexed players for years, like Ghosts and Goblins, have seen their days come and go…from the mainstream market.  Smaller, niche titles, and “indie” developers, are perhaps the only places left to turn for players looking for these sorts of experiences again, or looking simply for a game that gives them the tools, and lets them build, instead of a predetermined “roller coaster” that shows the player through a series of great set pieces, and deposits them back where they started.  Sadly, difficulty in games tends more towards the heavily flawed “Purist” mode of Hitman or “1999 Mode” of Infinite; it would perhaps be great, in the future, to discover developers have gone back to creating titles that challenge skill instead of endurance, test mettle instead of patience.

While we wait for those days to return, however, there’s never been a better time to rediscover the “hard” games of the past, because there is always the sad possibility that those games may become lost relics; enjoy them while you can, lest they be wiped from history forever; in the modern gaming world, Shelley’s Ozymandias still rings true: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”  For like the sands of time against a statue, there is the possibility that difficulty and challenge may simply become worn away and forgotten.  Perhaps, though, the era of Kickstarters, of retro-revivals, and of indie-developers may place a buffer between the altar of “difficulty” and march of “mass audience appeal.” And perhaps that buffer will be enough, a blanket to stop the corroding winds, as long as there are people willing to help hold it up.

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

 
 
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