Anyway, I finished the paper (my rationale) and finalized my booklist. This is that booklist in all its glory:
TMD's Creatively Named Blog
Anyway, I finished the paper (my rationale) and finalized my booklist. This is that booklist in all its glory:
The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.
But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.
It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.
Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.
Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.
Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.
Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.
So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.
Or at least get to Mars already.
I’m busy this weekend. I’m writing a rationale, essentially a jumbo-sized one of these blog posts about everything I’ve been studying since coming to college to prove that my studies have had a point (which is, currently, Narrative (Re)Construction). As I’m focusing an inane amount of brain power into writing this paper, I don’t have time for a proper post this week.
So let’s go back to before Essays, Not Rants! and find something old.
The year is 2012 and Josh is futzing around in unemployment and playing Mass Effect 3. Josh being Josh, he decides to write a thing about it. Which I’m representing below in all its three-year-old glory.
The close to the Mass Effect Trilogy came out a week ago and since then I've been playing through it. I've been meeting up with old friends, brokering alliances, and fighting evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things with the eventual goal of taking back Earth and saving the galaxy from said evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things.
One of the things I love about Mass Effect is the immersion. Now, those of you who've heard me talk (rant) about video games will know that I highly value immersion in a video game (that and cinematic/plot). Mass Effect does this exceptionally.
The man saving the galaxy is named Joshua Shepard, he was raised on a (space)ship and, I like to think, bears a passing resemblance to me. It's fun, I get to be the hero, saving lives, deciding what to do in circumstances, making big important decisions.
Then I watched one of my favorite characters die.
I was powerless to stop it, right? I mean, I had no choice in the matter, it was what the plot demanded, yeah?
But no, I did have the choice.
Instantly my mind backpedaled to a moment not to long area. I (as Shepard) chose to speak up about something.
I could have chosen not to. I could have lied and reneged on a deal but, in the long run, wouldn't that have saved my crewmember's life?
Guys, I could have saved him.
And then I realized that this is what makes Mass Effect so immersive, so real.
Everything I do has consequences.
I could look ahead; crack open—who am I kidding—google up a strategy guide and see just where each choice I make will take me.
But really? Where's the fun in that. Where's the adventure in knowing where each step will take you?
Hang on. That's like life, isn't it?
Everything I do has consequences.
For example, staying up till 1 am writing a piece on a video game (and then proceeding to go investigate the supposed defection of some Cerberus scientists) will further mess with my sleep cycle and result in me waking up late tomorrow.
Sure, it's not the same as having a imaginaryish friend dying, but, still.
I don't know what my actions will cause tomorrow. I can guess, I can do the right thing. But, like in Mass Effect, something will happen. Sure, I tend to doubt my decisions are as grave as Shepard's, but hey, they're choices nonetheless.
Writer’s Note: I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3 lately (when not, y’know, writing this rationale or doing other homework) and the choices the games present you with are almost as interesting as the illusion of choice. The game wouldn’t work with too many variables because, well, how do you program that game? Every now and then its inner workings show through, but hey, I’m really looking forward to the next game in the series. If only because the plethora of video game criticism I’ve read since then makes me super curious about the future of open-ended virtual storytelling. That and I love the Mass Effect universe.
A professor who I had, who I didn’t really like, once told me that I could probably connect any variety of works. But that didn’t necessarily mean I had an essay. Another professor said that you know you’re paper’s successfully if there’s a point that could be proven wrong. Most succinctly, when I presented an idea for a paper to her, yet another professor responded with “So [beep]ing what, Josh; so [beep]ing what?”
Which, y’know, is a really good question. I can talk a bunch about how Madame Bovary’s titular protagonist wants a life akin to what would be known as the melodramatic genre, but where’s the point? That’s what I had to figure out if I wanted to write a legitimately good essay. Well, stories are a lot like that too. You can have a plot and all that, even be perfectly plotted and so on, but so what? A story’s gotta have a point.
This is the big thing with action movies. On the one hand, we have Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road; arguably two of the best proper action movies, well, ever. Both of these movies have clear themes, which both amount to the ability of anyone to step up and be a hero, regardless of profession and gender, respectively. Look at the massive reaction to both movies, Die Hard remains a staple nearly three decades after it came out and is referenced constantly. Time will tell if Fury Road has the same staying power, but it’s sure looking that way.
And why do these films stick? Because the points made them matter. Look at The Expendables, it’s good dumb fun, but the only real point to it is that it’s really fun to see ‘80s action heroes on screen together. It’s pure mindless fun, and there’s certainly a time and a place for that (The Expendables sits proudly on my shelf), but I doubt most people will really care in a few years. Or take a look at Expendables 3, which dispatched with the famous cast in favor of younger ones; it was still mildly fun, but tried to be something it wasn’t (a movie about the old becoming to old and having to hand the baton over, but not give them the proverbial sins-of-their-fathers instead of, y’know, watching action heroes do action hero stuff).
It’s science fiction that rides on this a lot. Star Wars has the good old anyone can save the world theme driving it (along with a very clear good wins thing). Godzilla has a lot to say about nuclear weapons and is at its best when it uses its kaiju as a metaphor. Or, at the very least, most memorable.
Neill Blomkamp’s filmography may be a good example in and of itself. District 9 is plainly an allegory for Apartheid that has us sympathizing with someone who’s an obstinate racist who’s forced to confront the other on a personal level. It works so well because it’s not content to present institutionalized racism in another guise, it actually says something about it. Elysium, on the other hand, says very clearly that a stratified healthcare system has issues and… well, that’s about it. It amounts to commentary saying nothing, which you can kinda maybe afford in a weekly blog, but not so much in formal papers and films.
Oh, and for the record, the importance of interpreting Madame Bovary as Emma wishing to enact melodrama is that it paints her as a quixotic figure actively escaping blame for her own failings.
Pacific Rim is predictable; you’re not gonna win any prizes for pointing that out. It’s not like The Last of Us or District 9, which subvert the expectations of the audience. When you watch Pacific Rim you know what’s gonna happen; Raleigh and Mako will team up, something will happen that lets them prove themselves, and there has to be some last minute complication.
Yet it’s an absolutely fantastic movie, and one of my own favorites. No, it’s not narratively groundbreaking, but it’s nonetheless great. Why?
Because when you dig beneath the foundations of how to tell a good story — y’know, plot, character, conflict, structure; all that good stuff — you get to what a good story is about. Namely, why is this story being told? What makes it important?
These are one reason why Edgar Wright’s movies are so great. Though the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim VS The World may seem at first blush like simple comedies, there’s actually a lot more going on beneath the surface. Scott Pilgrim isn’t just a pulpy story about winning a girl’s heart in a world where the rules of video games apply; it’s actually a fascinating meditation on the nature of relationships. Sean of the Dead is about being willing to deviate from the routine. The World’s End is so remarkable because beneath its fun veneer of getting the old band back together and preventing (or, er, causing) the apocalypse via a pub crawl is a story about sobriety and growing up. Without preachifying, the movie looks at friendship and escaping from problems. Now, it’s not the whole point of World’s End — a particularly profane phrase containing Legoland remains a highlight — but the more ‘serious’ themes give it great staying power.
Not that the theme has to be ‘serious.’ Star Wars explicitly follows the Hero’s Journey, and makes no attempt to do anything really new. It’s mythological, plain and simple. But when you ask what Star Wars is about, sure, there are the lasers and spaceships and Wookies, but it’s also about a farmboy stopping the Empire. Star Wars resonated with my dad in the seventies and resonates with me when I watch it today because of its simple enduring theme: anyone can be a hero. It tells an old idea so exceptionally well and with great imagination. One of the reasons The Phantom Menace fails is, arguably, that though it’s cool and shiny and has all the trappings of a Star Wars movie, its theme is, well, murky at best and nonexistent at worst.
So Pacific Rim. The movie proudly wears its themes on its sleeve, if you’re willing to look. Amidst the giant mecha fighting giant monsters is an undercurrent of hope against imposing doom. When Pentecost says they’re canceling the apocalypse, he’s not just issuing a rallying cry for Jaeger pilots. Pacific Rim is expertly crafted, nothing lags and the twists are all in the right, albeit predictable places and it fully commits to its outlandish premise of mecha vs kaiju. It’s with its defiantly youthful tone that Pacific Rim really becomes a great movie.
There are only so many stories to be told; there’s a reason the site TVTropes exists, it’s why Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Thing is, there’s always gonna be a new meaning to stories. The whole prince-and-pauper story has been retold over and over again in different contexts with different connotations. The story can have been told before, but it’s what it’s about that makes it special.
Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.
The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.
Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.
Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?
And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.
Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.
It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.
This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”
Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a breweryor where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there's gonna be something the audience doesn't know and will have to learn (seriously, if you're doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you're still gonna have to tell us why she's going to her grandmother's). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let's keep Othello on trial.
I’m still reading a bunch and my current book, Extra Lives, is essentially critical theory on video games as literature. This divide between what makes something ‘art’ is something I’m kinda big on, so it’s a fascinating read. There’s one thing that Tom Bissell says which struck me: that because video games must be, by nature, fun, they’re seen as being less artistic or literary than other mediums.
Which, well, kinda has a point. When was the last time you went to an art museum and had fun? And not the sorta fun you get from the unintentional humor of some paintings, but actual ‘fun’ (which is really hard to describe, has few cross-lingual analogues, and was explored heavily by Huizinga, but bear with me). Chances are slim that unless you’ve seen a particular statue of a man punching a horse in Vienna, you haven’t, and even that monument to equine assault was probably intended as serious. See, ‘high’ art is meant to inspire ponderings, not for you to have plebeian fun. You stand there, think, say a couple ‘mmhmm’s for good measure, and move on to the next one.
But that’s art, like art art; what about, say, books? The divide is even more stark there. No one’s gonna argue against Ulysses as a literary masterpiece, but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as being truly ‘fun.’ Enjoyable, maybe, but much of that pleasure probably stems from a mixture of latent masochism and the sunk cost fallacy. That and, y’know, trying to sound intelligent. But besides Ulysses (which I legitimately love), there are other Great Works by, say, Hemingway or Melville that you’d be hard pressed to describe as being legitimately enjoyable in and of themselves, especially when compared to ‘lesser’ genres like science fiction and fantasy. Point is, the Great Works can’t bother with the frivolities of fun-ness.
You even see this in comics, arguably already a ‘lesser’ form. Watchmen is heralded as one of the best comics ever and is all doom and gloom. Compare it to Sex Criminals, which is much brighter, much funnier, and much cruder, but takes its story no less seriously. Though Criminals is held in some esteem (TIME named it comic of 2013), it’s seen as being nowhere near as literary or iconic as Watchmen, perhaps due to its adult subject matter and relative newness, but probably also because it’s so goofy. Never mind that it deals with depression, intimacy, and a host of other things, it’s too silly and too fun to be considered serious art.
Which brings me to games. If a game’s not fun, you’re not gonna play it; plain and simple. Games have to be enjoyable on some level to maintain player involvement. Thus gaming becomes a very visceral experience, whether it’s your curiosity that’s been piqued by Gone Home, the sheer beauty of Journey, or the exhilaration that comes from fighting Covenant in Halo. It’s experiential on a level that no other medium is, and thus has to make the audience want to experience it for the sake of the experience (as opposed to, say, the story or visuals).
And here is where video games run up against the brick wall of literary merit. Games are, like Sex Criminals, seen as being simply too fun to be real literature. No matter how serious they are, by virtue of being leisurely they can’t be art. The Last of Us is a gripping story about fatherhood, loss, survival, and so much more that the player is forced to experience rather than just observe. Even when it’s at its darkest and bleakest, it remains ‘fun’ to play in the sense that the game works. No, the violence of the game mayn’t be enjoyable per se, but it holds your attention and makes you want to keep going. But because The Last of Us is ultimately a piece of software that’s developed and patched rather than born out of pure artistry like, say, a book; it’s relegated to being mere diversion. And because of that, it can’t really be art.
Which is a bummer. Because I think art should be enjoyable on at least some level. That much of what makes comics, well, comics is that it’s illustrated shouldn’t be a detractor, just as in order for a video game to work it has to be on some level fun. Writing off games because of that would be like lambasting books because you’ve gotta turn the page, or disliking Aaron Sorkin’s work because you insist on watching it with the sound off. Let’s get off our high horses and be willing to afford fun mediums their due; games can have all the mindless glee of Michael Bay (Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel) and the melancholic tenderness of The Fault in Our Stars (The Last of Us: Left’Behind*).
‘cuz hey, let’s enjoy it.
*Writer’s note: The Last of Us: Left Behind is
But that’s a
grew up on a ship
at New York University
frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games