Forward Momentum

There are  a lot of lessons that can be learned from the 8 Bit era of video games:

-Vegetables are always good for you (especially mushrooms)

-It’s dangerous to go alone.

-There’s always a proper order in which to tackle things (like robots)

-Looks can be deceiving (or box covers aren’t everything)

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but the most important is one simple statement…

Move Forward.

In many of those classic games there was no going back. All your character could do was continue forward. You might have missed a power-up, you might have forgotten to grab a coin, or you may have timed a jump poorly and been de-powered; but none of it mattered. You had to keep moving forward.

In a weird way, that was one of my first life lessons; that regardless of what has happened sometimes all you can do here is

Move Forward.

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Those early games taught me that sometimes all you can have is your forward momentum; and sometimes that will have to be enough. Much like the games that we loved, life is full of ups and downs and sometimes it will throw things at us that will try to bring us to a screeching halt. It will put people in our path, some to help and some to hurt. It will throw us into the middle of a storm and not tell us how to swim. It will throw you into a no-win situation and expect you to come out on top.

In the games, it was the past that educated you. You had to learn from your mistakes – and there would be many. You had to remember what had come before, to better understand it in the future. More importantly, you had to understand that you couldn’t dwell on what happened before, because what was after was just around the corner. You couldn’t help but to…

Move Forward.

This is a lesson that I still struggle with today. Things happen and I want to dwell on them. I let them sit and fester inside of me and let life pass me by. I don’t want to move forward, I want to go back to the way things were. I want to correct the mistakes of the past. I want to go back to a time when there was still a chance for something good to happen…but I can’t…and neither can you. All we can do is…

Move Forward.

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Much like the games, it is healthy to reflect on what has happened before, but only with the knowledge that it’s to help you in what is to come. Dwelling in the past, trying to get back there, does no one any good. The past is there to educate the present and to effect the future. Mario learns the same way we do; through trial and error and continuing on, despite circumstances.

There are things in life that we will miss; relationships that we didn’t take the chance on, job opportunities that we let slip on by, and many others. There are mistakes that we will make; hurting someone close, choosing the wrong side, ignoring the obvious among other things. This is the way of things, one of life’s few constants. Nonetheless, if we are to keep living all we can continue to do is take one step on and

Move Forward.

It is one of life’s hardest lessons, and one that many of us still have a hard time overcoming. It’s a lesson that’s hard to teach, let alone grasp. Yet, the 8bit games that we love gave us a simple visual metaphor for that exact thing. Whether they knew it or not, those creators were teaching us something as kids that would help us for years to come; a lesson we could pass on to everyone who came after.

There will always be days that seem dark. There will always be times when it seems like we can’t move on. Luckily, there was an Italian Plumber who struggled with the same thing, and showed us the answer. We are indebted to the pink bottomless pit that reminded us what matters is the journey forward. It is in the sacrifice of the blue hedgehog that we were able to see that going onward, despite all obstacles is always the greater path.

To no matter what…

…Move Forward

 

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Sacrificing Peter; or Why the Amazing Spider-Man may not be so Amazing

I’m a fan of superheroics. Whether it has been Superman, Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern; I’ve always had a soft spot for those sorts of stories. Yet, despite my ever changing tastes there has always been one character that will always stick with me…

Peter Parker.

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Let’s rewind a little bit…

Growing up, school was always rough for me. By the time I had reached middle school being picked on had become routine, and the question had become whether or not I was going to get beat up in the process. I didn’t have many friends, and the fact that I was into video games, computing, and Star Wars sure didn’t help my case any. Most days ended with me getting home and wondering if I should ever go back to that place.

I dreamed of escape. I prayed for some way to fight back. I hoped for a way to make it all end.

It was about that time that I ran into Peter.

To this day, I can’t remember what exact series of events led me to stumble into Spider-man’s adventures, but it was just what I needed at the time.

Here was a story about a kid in high school, not too unlike myself. He was picked on, beat up, and could talk to girls just about as well as I could. (Which was not at all.) He was completely powerless until one day when some spider bit him. Then everything changed…

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It was complete and utter wish fulfillment for me. I saw myself in Peter Parker and took hope that if this nerdy guy can make it, albeit with superpowers, maybe I could get through this as well.

I firmly believe that Peter Parker is one of the reasons I made it through those rough years. Many, many years later now, I can still look back and read those comics and feel that connection to the character.

It’s probably why I was so shocked to see Peter as a skateboarding hipster in the newer film, The Amazing Spider-man.

My initial reaction was that my own nostalgia was getting in the way, but the more I thought about it, the more it got to me. This Peter was cool, a social outcast, maybe; but cool nonetheless. This Peter saves a nerd from getting beat up in the film, a role classically reserved for Peter himself. This Peter could charm Gwen Stacy.

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Everything had seemingly flipped upside down.

The Amazing Spider-man was a good action movie and did well enough that the sequel is coming out this summer. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t feel like a Spider-man movie.

The CG may be better, and Andrew Garfield’s body build looks better in the suit than Toby Maguire’s did, and the fight scenes may be a heck of a lot cooler; but there’s something missing.

What made Peter Parker so wonderful for so many of us was that he was just some kid thrown into unimaginable situations. He had the same problems that we all had; being picked on, school, girl trouble, plus the added stress of super-heroics and all the problems that caused.

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In this new film, Peter might has well have been destined for fights and tights. His parents were scientists and if the trailer for the sequel is to be believed, it’s implied that his father is responsible for many of Spider-man’s classic foes.

This cheapens his hero’s journey and takes away something that made him so amazing (pun intended.)

It is not heroic to fix your father’s mistakes, nor to solve your own. What makes Peter great is that he was an average kid, with un-average powers, that decided to put life and limb on the line for others for no other reason than he believed it was the right thing to do.

It is the fact that Peter is just, “one of us,” that makes his choice to don the mask truly incredible. He’s not just another guy in tights fighting super villains. He’s our “friendly neighborhood Spider-man!” For better or for worse, the new film seemingly loses that amidst the spectacle.

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It’s ironic that my last post here on the Playground was about the dangers of nostalgia and how it can effect our experiences; and one could argue that I need to listen to myself on this one. The difference here is that unlike other “re-interpretations” [see Transformers] that keep the spirit of the original, The Amazing Spider-man completely changes the core of the main character.

This is not the Peter Parker who inspired me to survive. This is not the nerd who had to be set up on a date with the prettiest girl in school by his aunt, because he was too busy with science projects. This “new” Peter is hip and trendy and coming from a totally different place. He’s the outsider, the underappreciated genius, the teen with the charming smile. Growing up, I would say I want to be this Peter; yet I look to the classic interpretation and know I am him.

As I have said in previous posts, I am glad we are getting more Spider-man stories. Nerd culture is better for it, and they always make for a good summer blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that we had to sacrifice Peter Parker to make that happen.

 Parker 7

 

Trust Me, I’m not a Fungi

BIG GIANT-SERIOUSLY DON’T READ THIS SPOILER WARNING FOR THE LAST OF US

I killed a man yesterday…and I am okay with it.

What’s more concerning is that I felt righteous in my act of violence.

But let’s backtrack a bit shall we?

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The Last of Us is a Playstation 3 exclusive from Naughty Dog, makers of Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, and the original Crash Bandicoot. The game takes place in a near future setting where cordyceps have ravaged the planet by mutating and infecting humanity and society, as we know it, is struggling to survive. It’s not a happy place, and Joel, our main character, is not a happy person.

We meet him at the beginning of the outbreak, living in Austin with his daughter and his brother living nearby. Within minutes of starting the game, we see Austin crumble, his daughter shot, and time jump ahead years and years into the future…

…with him staring at an empty bottle.

Yeah, Joel is not in a good place.

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Nonetheless, the game continues and through a series of events you end up traveling with Ellie. She’s a young girl who never knew the world before things went to hell, has a mouth like a sailor, and a secret of her own. She’s immune to the infection. Thus the real thrust of the adventure kicks in; you are to take Ellie cross country to the base of “The Fireflies;” a resistance group still working on a cure.

Suffice it to say, you both make it, but not unscathed. Joel wakes up in a room surrounded by guards, and is told in no certain terms that he cannot see Ellie. The reason being, she is being prepped for surgery to remove her brain to find out what causes her immunity. They tell me I can do nothing about it. They’re wrong.

I kill the first guard without thinking; after he tells me where Ellie is…

I snap the necks of a couple of guards who see me as I continue to get closer…

and once the alarms sound, I make sure no one is left to tell where I went…

…because NOTHING is going to stand between me and that girl.

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I finally get to the operating room, where two nurses and the surgeon await. I shoot one of the nurses to prove I am not joking around, hoping that they will get the picture, but the Doc pulls a scalpel on me. So I drop him and the other remaining nurse, and take Ellie away from there.

I killed those men and didn’t bat an eye. I felt righteous in my vengeance, and I KNEW I was doing the “right” thing. That’s what it felt like, at least. After all this time, I couldn’t let them lay a hand on this little girl that I had come to love and care for. Hell itself could not stop me in that moment.

Yet; let’s look at this objectively…

-I murdered the only people left looking for a cure to the infection

-I killed one of the last brain surgeons on the planet

-Any hope humanity may have had, is now gone because of my actions

I am not the “good guy.” I am most definitely the “villain.”   ….and I am okay with that.

————————————————————————

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This is not the first time that a “protagonist” turns out to be something “other,” in any art form. One only has to look to The Road (a big inspiration for the game) and stories like Watchman to see the trope used in similar ways. Yet, what makes The Last of Us so amazing and worth the discussion is that it puts the actions in the hands of the player.

In other media, we see the drama play out, and we are merely observers to the actions.  We see the characters rationalize their behavior, and we follow along. Yet, in a game-space it is the player that acts and rationalizes the actions that he/she must take. The greatest games have narratives that ensure that the player rationalizes those actions.

Nothing could be worse for game’s narrative than ludonarrative dissonance. In other words, for there to be a disconnect between player actions and narrative direction. It is jarring and can take the player out of the moment; to the detriment of the game. An easy example of this is Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Niko Belic, who bemoans his life of violence; but continues to commit heinous acts. Because there is a perceived gap between the Niko that the player sees and the Niko the player controls, there is less investment in the proceedings.

GTAIV

What The Last of Us does so incredibly well is not only remove that dissonance, but have such a strong narrative and emotional component that by the time end game occurs there is no question of what needs to be done. For hours and hours of gameplay, TLoU actively builds the player’s relationship with Ellie. There are optional conversations with her, comics you can pick up for her, and small personal moments that draw you into this relationship.

It is a credit to the creators and writers that by the end of the game, you not only want to protect Ellie, but are willing to kill for her. A few games go that far and are that successful with their stories; but none have ever staked the future of humanity on them.

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In a world full of terribly tragic things, gore, and violence; Ellie gives Joel and the player hope. You see people die all around you, you kill just to survive, and one little girl and her book of bad jokes is the only thing that makes this place a little brighter.

The true horror of The Last of Us isn’t the violence, but rather the fact that it is a world that makes good men do bad things…

…it makes the player do BAD things.

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This is something that only this type of art form can do. The player is complicit in the actions of the character, rationalizes those actions, and completes them. That’s not something that can be done in books or movies, and is one of the reasons this story is so powerful for so many.

As gaming continues to “grow up,” we’ll continue to see more mature and different types of stories come out of that growth. The Last of Us isn’t a flash in the pan, but the vanguard of a new type of storytelling. It is definitely something to experience on your own, and something to look forward to in the future. I look forward to the next time I can wake up after beating a game and realize that I am the bad guy….

Why Comics Growing Up Means Universes Have to Die…

Spoilers for New Avengers

What makes modern day comics so interesting in the “gray” areas in which they decide to tread.

In the medium’s early years of “flight and tights” stories, it was all about truth, justice, and the American way. Everything was black and white; you knew who the good guys and the villains were, and you knew the outcome every time…

The heroes would do the “heroic” thing, and win.

There wasn’t a discussion of the morality of the action. There didn’t need to be. Captain America just had to punch Hitler or Superman just had to save Lois one more time. This was the norm.  No one questioned it either. It was a lovely naivete that we all accepted, and we enjoyed the stories that came with it.

Yet, as the years went by, comics grew up along with its readers. Nowadays, things are not so clean cut for our heroes. Yes, there is still Cap, Superman, and all the other classics, but they are put into situations that would never have crossed the minds of their original creators. They force the reader to question their own ethics and morality, and to examine these “heroes” in a different light.

This brings us to New Avengers…

 

New Avengers focuses on the Illuminati of the Marvel universe, a secret cabal formed to take care of the universe ending threats that may come upon Earth. Its membership includes Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, Black Panther, Captain America, and most recently Beast (who took the deceased Charles Xavier’s position.) These men shape the Marvel universe from the background, and safeguard existence without anyone’s knowledge.

Since its relaunch, the group has been dealing with “incursions” into our universe. These incursions are where a parallel universe starts overlapping with our own, and if not stopped, destroys both in the process.

The group spends the first couple of issues trying to find ways to stop this from happening; even to the point of using a reality warping deus ex machina (the infinity gauntlet) to “push” one of the encroaching universes back. Of course, this only works once due to the gauntlet’s destruction, and the Illuminati are left to wonder what they need to do next.  This invariably leads them to a singular conclusion…

Destroy the other universes.

It is a terrifying thought, but a completely rational conclusion. If nothing is done, both universes will be destroyed; so why not destroy one in order to save the other? It is the classic ethical debate, the moral quandary that has been discussed by Ethicists and Philosophers for years.  Do you kill the one to save the many? Do you let some people die, so that not all will?  Yet, instead of reading it in a textbook, we get it played out in our comics…

This type of discussion forces the reader to confront his or her own feelings on the issue. As you read the page, you find yourself naturally drifting to one side of the argument or the other.  As the reader travels deeper into the story, they too find our more about themselves in the reading.

How far would you go to save your planet? What lines would you cross to what you believe is right? We are able to live vicariously through some of our most iconic heroes as they play out their own answers to those very questions…

Sometimes doing things that we didn’t think they would…

This is what differentiates modern comics from most of the Gold and Silver age stories. Those were written to make you feel good, to experience a bit of escapism, and maybe some pro-America propaganda (lookin’ at you, Cap.)

Now, there are many mainstream comics out there that exist not only to tell a good story, but to make you think along the way. This, of course, leads to much more adult and darker story beats; not for the sake of being edgy but for greater narrative depth.

Long gone are the days of yore where your heroes were always the “good” guys. We live in a world where people get their hands dirty when trying to do the “right” thing; where even our heroes are living in shades of gray in the name of protecting all of us. Modern comics have given writers the opportunity to discuss these types of philosophical and ethical issues in a medium whose typical reader wouldn’t be normally interested in such discussions.

Because comics have “grown up,” they have become an open forum to discuss topics like racism, sexism, morality, ethics, sex, philosophy, religion, and so much more. Writers today don’t want your comics to just be about escapism, they want you to use your mind in the process.

The flipside to all of this is the fact that there has been an innocence lost in our comics. Now that we culturally have crossed some line, there is no going back to that old way of doing things.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means things are different now, and different can be good.

The age of the morally ambiguous hero is upon us, and the stories that will come out of this will be incredibly interesting. Whether it is the questionable actions of the Illuminati, Superior Spiderman’s gang of spider-thugs, or the ENTIRE concept of the Suicide Squad; these stories would have been impossible to tell before; at least in their current form.

Only time will tell if we ever find our way back to the “flight and tights,” days, but until then all we can do is look back, remember who we were and wonder where our heroes are going next.