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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:

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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:

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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:

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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

 

“Cause baby, you’ve got you and me.” The Importance of Being Skullgirls.

Welcome back, customers! I know its been quite a while since my last update, and most of that is attributed to moving and relocating following my PhD. work. I hope you haven’t gotten too thirsty without your favorite bar to serve your needs.

Your first notice may be that the site’s theme has changed a bit! please think of it as your viewing the menu of our new drinks and dishes. As I’m sure you know, bars and restaurants are highly seasonal, so we do appreciate keeping things changing when we open our doors…

I suppose one thing to get out of the way is that, in the coming week, I will be working on at least one update a day! So, I’ll be trying to do my best to restore the blog to a more constant updated status, but to do that, I have to begin here, with the reason behind the slew of coming updates: Skullgirls.

During the recent Indiegogo drive to fund expansion of the game, I promised my readers / twitter followers that I’d update once a week if the game met its goal. And boy, did it. Even I am still pretty amazed at how much fans were willing to invest in the dreams of the Skullgirls team and in the game itself.  So, I thought perhaps it would be only fitting to begin my updates with a contemplation of Skullgirls, and what it really means.  It might seem like a departure from my normal postings so far, but this is a blog to catch all my ideas, musings, and thoughts, so bear with it! You might like what you see.

Skullgirls, for those that don’t know, is a 2D fighting game developed by the Lab Zero team, headed by Mike Z. and Alex Ahad; the two of them, as well as others, combined forces to create one of the first “indie” fighting games, a project that was ten years in the making before it came to light.  Taking the things they loved the most in fighting games, and seeing ways in which they could improve, refine, or even better them, the Skullgirls team launched their game in 2011 with success, although financial issues caused the team to put the brakes on any real updates.

With that primer out of the way, though, its perhaps more important to consider what Skullgirls really means in terms of games, gaming, development, and above all the dream to create. In many ways, Skullgirls seems like the type of thing that gamers would think up on their days off: the “perfect” fighting game, created by them, with all of the great elements from past games that they loved, and things that had never really been seen before.  Fighting games, perhaps, breed this sort of thought more readily than others; the mechanics don’t seem all that hard, and the flashy moves and well known inputs allows many people to perhaps think they know how to do it better than others.  The Skullgirls team, however, decided to put their money where their mouth was, and go ahead and actually work to create the game.

However, the story of Skullgirls is not neccessarily just one of ‘the little game that could,’ because the story is also fraught with a ton of pitfalls and misery; in many cases, Skullgirls is the game that almost wasn’t, and even when it was, it soon became the game that almost died at birth.  The real story of the game, though, goes well beyond the team itself, and instead has some more interesting implications for how game development works, or could work; it also has some interesting things to say about fighting games in general, and the people who play them.

As a genre, fighting games seemingly add little to the narrative power of video games, and yet recently the trend to include story modes, sometimes exceptionally complicated ones (Such as in Blaz Blue), but for the most part fighting game stories serve as illustrations of a character’s “personality” than it does as a device through which to tell an interesting story. In this regard, Skullgirls is quite a bit different than most games. Skullgirls focuses on developing characters with motivations and goals, whose personalities live beyond their simplified storymode and even bleed into the overall gameplay; one of the reasons for the game’s longevity, aside from gameplay mechanics, seems to stem from the very personal way in which players attached to their characters.  In games like Street Fighter, character personality means little in the scheme of the overall mechanics, but perhaps due to the balancing of Skullgirls to have “a fully viable cast,” players were left with the ability to pick characters that either appealed to their visual, playstyle, or personal preferences. Although no game is perfect, the system was a very admirable attempt to solve the problem of fighting games filled with “useless” characters, and in doing so created a community based around gameplay as much as it was around love for favorite characters.

Perhaps the best way to describe this, then, is atmosphere. The game executes its atmosphere with frightening attention to detail that even “higher quality” fighting games rarely manage. The animations are fluid and stylized, with each character having a very distinct personality and profile; its impossible to confuse two of them.  However, that detail extends into other details, such as background animations in stages for each character, and the music (composed by Michiru Yamane), which contains one of my favorite ending songs; I listen to the song often while writing, because it exudes a certain feeling and emotion that extends well beyond the game itself. (The song, “In a Moment’s Time,” is available on Amazon and iTunes, as well as listenable on youtube if you’d like a sample).  Its a shocking amount of polish for a game that, for all intents and purposes, exists at a very meager budget compared to higher budget fighting games, and yet launched with nearly no gameplay glitches and game-stopping flaws (like certain other “versus” fighting games of recent times…), but even the small ones (like characters turning into their hitboxes in certain animation frames) never stopped or affected the game from being top-notch in all of its attempts to define itself.  Its music, art, characters, and voices ooze personality and style with every drop.  And, perhaps, that’s one of the reasons that the game became so personable; each character’s voice is so lovingly crafted that the characters seem to come alive (perhaps best personified in motor-mouths Ms. Fortune and Peacock), and each character has special dialogue for special events in the game, making it seem less ‘mechanic’ when they speak and more animated and alive.

In essence, however, Skullgirls is perhaps more a triumph of community than a triumph of industry. The game provided, in many ways, the ability to show how dedicated a gaming community could truly be to their title: in two separate occasions, the Skullgirls community, created out of fragmented pockets all around the world, showed their support for the game with one of the things that speaks the most in this world: their wallets. One common complaint or gripe or (for lack of a better word) “salt” tossed at Skullgirls is that the game has very little presence at live events; in many ways this is true, but it doesn’t speak to the community behind the game…except, perhaps, that maybe it does. Skullgirls has shown that, when its fans are pressed, can raise nearly 2 million dollars in funding from the pockets of individual users, a feat not possible were the community so microscopically small that it was invisible.

Instead, it perhaps denotes more that the Skullgirls community is made up of fighting game fans from different geographies, but like-minded interest; in many cases, Skullgirls appeals to the older style of arcade fighting games, the type of quarter-crunching monsters that dominated smoky mall arcades and shops of the late 80s and 90s; in many cases, however, those places no longer exist, but the people do–and they’ve moved online.  Skullgirls perhaps embodies an evolution in playstyle more than anything else, a game that can be played locally, online, or both (one of the more intriguing feats was a tournament that comprised live, “local” gamers and online players in the same event).  However, fighting games are also sadly victim to the needs of “professional” players looking to make names or money, meaning that their interests may quickly fade; however, if that were the case, Skullgirls would never have achieved the “success” that is has–something brought those people to the game, and it kept them there.

In some ways, it is likely that vision of the vibrant arcade games of yesterday.  Skullgirls, at heart, ensconces many of the virtues of arcade fighters (and is comprised mostly of their best parts) that it is a paean to the days of yesterday; gone are meeting at arcades to slam quarters into arcade machines, here are the days of gathering at a late-night cupcake shop with wi-fi.  Gamers are getting older, and newer gamers are entering the fold in ways that cannot even comprehend the old arcade days of yore; instead, evolution takes place–find way to stay relevant, or die.  Skullgirls seems to have latched onto that, maybe begrudgingly, and has kept at it since as a defining way of playing it:  instead of going out, stay in. Instead of laggy online matches, use GGPO. Instead of bloating the roster with clones, create a core cast that allow for deep mastery and variation.  And perhaps most importantly, treat the customer like the creators want to be treated: create the game of your dreams, and then be sure to share it with other people without being prohibitive.

The dream of the Skullgirls team became the dream of its users: the fighting game they always wanted to play, the characters they want to see, the people they love to be around.  Other fighting games may have larger communities, bigger prize pools, or more “mainstream” success, but perhaps more of them could be like Skullgirls: a tight-knit community that seeks the prolonged success of their favorite title, and the people behind it, as well as the continued expansion of the game itself.  Its certainly a lofty goal, but so far has shown itself to be exceptionally successful; there is little doubt that the people who love Skullgirls will stop doing so, and perhaps with time that will allow more and more people to come into the fold as fans and aficionados.  Skullgirls is important. Perhaps that seems ridiculous, or perhaps it may be dismissed as simple “fanboy/girl-ism,” but the game signifies that perhaps gamers don’t need AAA titles crammed down their throats with millions (close to billions) of dollars behind a machine created to simply separate them from their money and their free time for short periods. The Indie Game scene is a massive market, gaining traction by the year, and Skullgirls is perhaps one of the best stories in that market: a game developed by fans, for fans, and championed by their community, funded out of the desire of their users to see it grow instead of meeting profit margins or sales projections.  In the future, it perhaps would be great to see more games develop in ways similar to Skullgirls–without some of the funding and publishing foibles–grown from the desires of fans and interested consumers, not by the need to attach season passes and locked content to games someone has already spent 60+ dollars on.

The future of Skullgirls looks bright, and even if the Indiegogo campaign is the last hurrah–the supernova instead of the big bang of new life–it will certainly remain dear to the hearts of its players, and in many cases may perhaps leave its mark on the gaming community and market at large for a long time; Fighting games are known to be a small market, and the money raised by the SG community is not groundbreaking in the scheme of things such as Double Fine or Project Obsidian, but it is perhaps groundbreaking in the way it shows players willing to put up or shut up: to give all they can in a shared dream and goal, all for the sake of playing a fun game with their friends, wherever they may be.  And, in some ways, perhaps that’s the most memorable and important aspect of the recent story.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

“What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.” – William Blake

Hello, customers. Its been a little bit of time! Sorry for the delay in service; sometimes, even your faithful bartender must attend to other duties.

Have you ever considered the way in which a story is told to you as something that, in itself, is important? This is something beyond simply what tense or point of view is it in, but instead, deals with the difference between two very distinct styles of storytelling: Explicit, in which everything is laid bare and explained to the most minute detail, leaving very little room for speculation, opacity, or subtext, and Implicit, in which the very bare minimum is shared with the audience, spurring them to do the legwork in terms of connecting dots and drawing conclusions.

I hate to start something like this with a judgement, but there are very few cases in which Explicit storytelling is superior to Implicit; however, it also tends to be the type used the most frequently within popular culture formats, from television, comics, movies, and video games–more on why video games are extremely important to this discussion in a while–so that audiences are not left “confused,” but are instead entertained. The idea of entertainment as the major goal instead of the telling of stories is why, in many cases, it seems like there is a distinct “dearth” of “creative” mainstream fiction. There really is no nice way of saying it: seems isn’t the case, there really is not. Whenever your entertainment, be it a comedy, drama, or action film must ploddingly connect all the dots for the viewer so as to not leave anyone behind, what happens is that creations become devoid of depth. Instead of becoming the Roadrunner-esque wall into which he runs, the modern consumer of entertainment instead plays the role of Wiley Coyote, slamming headfirst into a painting of a tunnel.  I want to be clear that “enjoying” Explicit-style stories isn’t bad; they’re made for you to enjoy them. What I do wish to be clear, however, is that they are the types of things that lack certain amounts of depth or sub-currents, making them very hard to be anything other than what they are: the Avengers is very much not a subtle movie, but it is a very enjoyable one, for example.

One of the first objections that might be made after stating that is “you’re just trying to be deep” or “artistic” and you don’t want people to “have fun.” That’s not true in the slightest; the problem of overly-explicit style storytelling is that it robs the audience of ever having any sort of interaction with the fiction, and makes investment with it very difficult.  Consider, for example, if you have a favorite film or show that you “identify” with because of the way you can connect with it.  For an example, lets use perennial favorite FLCL: quite a good number of people who watched FLCL generally attach certain personal “readings” of the series to their own lives, as the show dealt quite heavily with themes of first love, puberty, maturation, adulthood, loneliness, and the awkwardness of adolescence wrapped around a show about a boy with shoots robots from his head when these thoughts become too much for him.  Very little of FLCL is “explained” to the viewer, and when it ends, there really is not an extremely large amount of closure or exposition. Instead, the audience is asked to “infer” from their viewing and their own backgrounds, being asked quite literally by the piece to “figure it out” and think critically about the subject.  Moving to a very different form of entertainment, the Twilight series is the exact opposite, yet deals (in some regards) with some of the very same things that FLCL addresses, most notably romance, adolescence, and awkwardness (although to be fair that may just be attributed to bad acting).  What Twilight does differently, however, is that its characters leave nothing “vague,” and instead speak literally their feelings and emotions. The viewer doesn’t have to question motivations or ideas, or even “I wonder what he’s thinking,” because the movie/book will tell you directly; there is little to identify with, there is little to infer, and for the most part it becomes “I really think X is very attractive.”  Identifying with the text is not impossible, but it is very much more closed off and almost rejected than it would be in a work like FLCL or Harry Potter (which, to be fair, vacillates quite willingly between Explicit/Implicit.).  this is not a snipe at quality, so please don’t look at it that way. Instead, what I am attempting to highlight here is the fact that much, much too many works of fiction will not let the audience draw their own conclusions.

For a different point of reference, one might state that “books for children are obviously explicit, and I don’t want to be talked to like a child!” However, that statement itself is a bit too generalizing; in fact, you’d likely be surprised to find that children’s literature is one of the most implicit styles of storytelling.  I will suppose, gentle reader, that you are somewhat familiar with the works of Dr. Seuss.  Personally, one of the most fascinating stories I ever read as a child was The Lorax, because there is so much unanswered by the book by the time it closes, despite it being direct and very to the point in terms of writing / rhymes.  The Lorax may not be the most developed or critical piece of fiction ever created, but it knows well enough to conceal many of its deeper contemplations and meditations below the surface, “telling” them to the willing listener instead of “showing” them.  Many of Seuss’ other texts work in the same fashion, and this is most likely due to his past works as a WWII political cartoonist, who spent his career working subtext into simple illustrations; his children’s texts, by comparison, are created in a way to deal with social ills (racism, pollution, nuclear war) in a way that is digestible to children, but also recognizable to a parent; this is also why there are people who hold that Horton Hears a Who is an anti-abortion text, despite Seuss’ estate saying otherwise; because of that “confusion” caused by its Implicit styling, readers can come away with very distinct and seemingly abstract readings; whether they are “correct” or not is not always as important as the fact that those readings, according to those readers, can be supported by close readings of the text (Of course, research into the author and the historical context debunks those readings, but they can be made, which is the key here).

Shifting gears a bit, are you familiar with the games Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls?  Both games are action-rpg games in which the player character is placed within a world with little but the most scant explanation, and given the task of not only exploring and surviving the world, but figuring out exactly what, where, and why the world is how it is.  There are players who will say that the games have “very little story,” and this brings us to the discussion at hand.  Unlike other works, which share a somewhat 50/50 split between Explicit/Implicit storytelling, or simply rely entirely on telling the reader/viewer/player absolutely every last detail with little mystery, the Souls series is almost entirely Implicit.  Going off of what would be the “average” playthrough time of a new player, that means that a game that could take somewhere in the 15-30 hour range attempts, almost actively, to tell you nothing about its world and its inhabitants, even more-so in Dark Souls than in Demon’s Souls; since that is the case, we’ll be discussing Dark Souls for a good majority of the rest of this serving, as it best illustrates the power and importance of Implicit storytelling.

Dark Souls opens with a short movie that tells the player that the world they are entering is one in which the spark of fire gave birth to the Lordsouls, which are displayed as powerful, dangerous beings of great might: Lord Nito, the Chaos Witch, and Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight. The final figure is revealed to be a “furitive pygmy,” who is never spoken of or directly seen, the very first hint that the story will not tell you anything more than it has to.  Following this, the viewer sees as these figures slaughter the everlasting dragons with the help of Seath the Scaleless, and that after this the “Age of Fire” has begun, into which the PC is placed, an “Undead” who is cursed with the “Darksign” which means that upon death, they do not truly die, but go “Hollow,” lacking humanity–which is quickly discovered to be something similar to a type of “currency” as well as a metaphysical representation of the self. And then, after that movie (which lasts about 5 minutes) the game begins.  No more rendered cutscenes follow, and almost all dialogue is optional.  Even the direction the player is to go in after reaching the “hub” of the game, Firelink Shrine, is not told or revealed; numerous first time players end up wandering into places like the Catacombs before finding their way to the “correct” destination.

This vague direction style is tied directly to how the world is built.  While it may sound like the player is given very little information, that is because none of it is directly told to them. Instead, players can find out information by talking to NPCs, who are also somewhat unreliable, but perhaps 90% of the storytelling of Dark Souls is “figured out” through players paying attention to the descriptions of items, weapons, and armor that they encounter or pick up while playing. Each item has a distinct description, and it is through reading these, and playing “connect the dots,” that players can piece together the world of Lordran and the “truth” of what happened to it, and what is currently happening.  But, because all of this information is optional, there are good chances that players will never encounter it, or perhaps that they will not see everything on their first playthrough.  Certain areas are skippable, and not all items are easily discovered, meaning that a player who believes they know “the story” may in fact have missed a key part of it, or missed an important offshoot to it, that would only have been uncovered had they found an item they missed.

What helps immensely in this act, that every single thing, down to broken swords and pieces of armor, is connected, is the “geography” of Dark Souls.  As players progress, the world itself is very carefully constructed so that places players visit have links and geographical distinctions that allow the player to realize where they are in reference to another place in the game.  This is perhaps most notable in the following areas: Within the Tomb of the Giants, it is possible, before heading into the cave leading to Gravelord Nito, to see 2 distinct areas from a ledge: a cloudy area with large, leafless tree trunks, and above them, a red, glowing area of ruins.  From this vantage point, the player is simulteanously seeing the “top” of Ash Lake and are looking up into the ruins of Lost Izalith.  While it isn’t important to the story, the ability to “see” how the world connects to itself is visually jarring, as many video games exist in worlds that are “separated” by loading areas and such, or are simply linear hallways that have vast amounts of decoration.  Dark Souls instead very slyly ensures that, if you pay attention, you can generally see at least 2 or even 3 other areas of the game from where you are, giving the world a connected feel, and making Lordran feel like an “organic” place instead of an abstract collection of dungeons, something that Legend of Zelda games tend to do: the world of Hyrule is explained to be connected, but in reality each area is simply a “dungeon” connected to the “hub” or the castle/town of that game.  While areas in Dark Souls generally lead back to Firelink Shrine, they also lead to other places, and at least 3-4 areas have no real “importance” to the game and can literally be ignored: The Painted World of Ariamis, Darkroot Basin, Ash Lake, the Great Hollow, and Valley of the Drakes can be completely ignored by players on their journey to complete the game; Valley of the Drakes exists as little more, on the surface, than a slightly dangerous pathway between 3 areas.  In terms of storytelling and world building, however, these “empty” places are actually exceedingly rich and developed, giving the player/reader access to information that they would have perhaps otherwise never known, or allowing them to understand certain parts of the nebulous plot of Dark Souls.  Within the Valley of the Drakes, for example, players come face to face with blue drakes, which are never seen anywhere else in the game except for one specific time: the castle of Anor Londo, in a room in which Dragonslayer Ornstein’s “trophies” are displayed.  Within the Painted World, the player comes to meet Half-Breed  Priscilla, a supposed abomination of cross-breeding between Dragon and some other being, yet who her parents were is never explained, and the placement of the painting–again within a special room of Anor Londo–gives no answers, but instead raises more questions as to why the painting is where it is.

The NPCs of Dark Souls do little to make deciphering the story easier, and instead add nothing but complications to its rich layers: Solaire, perhaps the most “popular” of NPCs given his penchant for jolly co-operation, is never truly explained to the player. They know he is from Astora, but they only know this because Solaire tells them so. There is very little else given to the player in terms of information, and the ideas or suspicions of who he is abound among players: is he the lost son of Lord Gwyn? Is he just some crazy guy in armor? The truth is never revealed, and instead the game allows players to fill the gaps as they wish.  And, of course, none of this even matters if the player chooses to ignore or kill Solaire, which are options totally open to the PC. In this sense, the story of Dark Souls is so Implicit that it exists whether the player cares about it or not, almost as if it is asking the player to engage in a type of roleplay beyond their adventures: do they wish to become “archaeologists,” digging within the rich soil of Lordran for the truth and the clues to the world, or do they simply wish to just go from boss to boss, fighting big monsters or invading other players for the sake of battle? Both are totally acceptable, and Dark Souls makes no judgement upon the player either way. The world exists whether they look into it or not, and the game never “intrudes” upon their ability to play the game how they wish.

Contrast this style of play to games like Dragon Age 2, the Mass Effect series, Final Fantasy, or “cinematic” games like Gears of War, Call of Duty, or Uncharted: instead of letting the player fill in the blanks, or simply ignore them, most games tout their stories as their major “selling point,” which means that the player must be forced to experience them head-on, or that supposed economic value is lost.  If that sounds a bit asinine, well, it is: the product tells you that you will engage in a deep, rich story, and that means that the game must then force you to do so; choices don’t matter, and a player’s interest in the story (or lack thereof) is tempered only by how fast they can hit the button to skip dialogue or cutscenes.  It also eliminates the ability for games of that nature to be Implicit with their storytelling, because it must hit the viewer face first, or it has failed to do what it supposedly is advertised to do.  Even in games in which player choice is highlighted as a major “feature,” there really is no way to be implicit with that, or to allow those choices to have any real effect upon how the storyline plays out, because the game’s script is already written and given to the player in a completed form; the “freedom” players are given in terms of experiencing that story more or less amount to “will you go left or right,” and after making that choice one finds themselves at the exact same place as the person who went the opposite direction; instead of a river with many paths, they are rivers with large, diverting rocks in the middle of them, forcing the flow of water to skim to one side or the other before reconnecting once the rock has been passed.

If it sounds a bit like I’m touting Dark Souls here above other games, I am, to an extent.  Games like Catherine, for example, are fantastic stories and the choices do affect the way the story is told and how it turns out, but most games simply bring players along for the ride, rendering them inert and not allowing them to interact with and become “part” of the story beyond cosmetic decisions: the story has to be something that millions of hopeful customers can “view” while playing a game, and that means that anything that diverts too far from that ability will alienate potential customers. Dark Souls, however, simply broadens its market by providing itself to players as an action-rpg with tough gameplay and interactivity between players through invasions and co-op, but if you ever really get bored of shanking someone with your +15 uchigatana, the game wants you to know that you could, of course, always read about where your uchigatana, your estus flask, or that armor you just picked up comes from, who it belonged to, and contemplate how that relates to the game you’re playing now, and the mission you’ve been tasked with.

Explicit storytelling serves a purpose: it enables an author to directly tell a story to a wide audience and leaves little room for confusion or indecision about what that story means, who took part in it, and what they did. In simple terms, Explicit storytelling is Schwarzenegger’s Commando, while Implicit storytelling is A Clockwork Orange. Not all things must be Implicit; what should instead be taken away from this slight meditation on the use, and skill, of storytelling styles is the fact that any medium can tell a deep, engaging story that is able to be critically examined and pondered by an audience.  The decision lies in both parties: the audience must be interested in doing so, but the creator must be willing to allow the audience to “play,” as Derrida would say, with their creation, instead of simply stating “This story begins here and ends there and nothing else happened.” As media studies and literary studies begin to move into new circles, examining video games, comic books, graphic creations, anything beyond the “norm” of poem, prose, drama, and film, the focus of these examinations will likely be to look at the things that are not said on the surface, the things that must be uncovered. Like the history of Lordran, mediums that take advantage of the power of Implicit storytelling will not only reward those who wish to dig, but will continue to entrance them and entice them to continually sink their shovels into the ground one more time, perhaps uncovering another piece of the puzzle, or perhaps stumbling upon an entirely new mystery to be solved. Implicit storytelling, like your favorite drink, is complex and rich, always begging you to take one more sip of it, to feel the mingling of flavors on your palate, and teasingly leaving an aftertaste that makes you not only crave more of it, but question if you ever noticed the light hint of citrus, or the way the alcohol mixes so well with your favorite types of food, or why your favorite wine reminds you of that time you went to the mountains of France.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 
 
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