Posts Tagged Video Games

The Gilded Age of Television

The television landscape may be doing some pretty great forms of entertainment, but the severe lack of diversity has been more problematic than critics seem willing to admit. Why?

I feel bad for Lena Dunham. The creator and showrunner for HBO’s Girls has gotten a lot of flack for the lack of racial, social and/or sexual diversity in her critically-lauded show, and it’s not really her fault. She has no responsibility to speak for an American society that now has more minority babies than Caucasian ones, or for the scores of homosexual people concerned over the future of marriage. The onus is really on the executives to greenlight and schedule shows that involve minorities, as well as promote them with the same rigor that they would their flagship shows. Girls have been receiving the backlash primarily on two fronts: 1) its very premise and characters make it impossible to deal with the real – and complex – issues plaguing the modern twenty-something, and 2) its pedigree have been exalted so much by both creators and critics that they seem unwilling or incapable of criticizing the very problem that the so-called Golden Age of Television represents. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that borderlines on conspiratorial; critics praising shows of a singular and narrow vision for their jobs encourage creators to create shows of a singular and narrow vision for critics to praise, and so on. This problem has extended from the AV Club to even our beloved Hulk.

Points 1) and 2) are noticeable in the promo photograph for Girls:

Girls Promo Photo

(Check out the parody here, which touches upon the larger point, even though I don’t quite agree with it.)

Look at it. Just look at it. Not a single person of color or minority – and this show takes place in New York, so no one will deal with the pressures of casual racism. Not one of them is gay, so they’ll never deal with the issue of coming out (or “passing”). Hell, not one of them is geeky or fat or even different in anyway, which are all real issues twenty-somethings deal with. This photo alone showcases such a strange and narrow vision of expectations, and the show, from what I’ve heard, only confirms it. Please don’t get me wrong. Denham has no responsibility to “speak” for those outside her singular vision (although this is a serious problem with auteur theory that critics fail to address – more on this later). But everything that is endemic about TV today is encapsulated right there.

We’re not in a Golden Age of Television. We’re in a Gilded Age of Television, an era that professes a greatness that masks the numerous issues that are facing the TV landscape. There is great television out there – from Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to Community and Happy Endings, to even shows like My Little Pony and Adventure Time and Regular Show. It’s stuff I truly enjoy watching, but even with this sample we can see how the “macronarratives” lean towards the heterosexual, WASP vision of the world.  (Yes, even MLP – Take a look at the comments section on Youtube for any showing of the episode “Over a Barrel.” And I know that a Youtube comment section is the seventh level of hell, but I still recommend looking because it did foster a debate worth having.)

The issue, as I see it, has always been concerning auteur theory, an ideal but extremely flawed method of thinking about collaborative forms of art that ties distinctive styles and techniques to a singular person. In the broadest form, it’s a fine way of thinking about film or TV, but over the years the inherent flaws of auteur theory – the danger of discounting those “other people” who worked on the film; the limits of tying inherently “free” techniques to one (often straight, male, white, and American) person; disparaging different forms, styles, ideas, and media as having intellectual merit over others – completely fell by the wayside. Critics were careful to note these problems at the beginning of auteur theory formulation; now, it’s as if these dangers were mere trifles. There are those creators that are defined “great” and those that aren’t, and it’s odd that those “great” people are mostly, well, similar to their physical and sexual traits, defined within intellectual paradigms.

Nothing represents that most distinctly then Roger Ebert’s takedown (and subsequent non-apology) of video games as art. It’s not that I agree or disagree with him, but it’s sad, borderline embarrassing, how Ebert frames his argument, then follows all that up with some arbitrary poll when his readers can vote whether they would rather play a game or read Huckleberry Finn. As if this whole thing amuses him, the masses of people with their over-the-top and implied-uneducated-and-therefore-unworthy opinions, because of course he’d never actual, maybe, sort of, kind of, think about the issue a little. This is the modern form of criticism. It’s no longer informative, debatable, self-aware, and cautious; it’s direct, declarative, non-ironic, and bold.

And even in regards to Murray’s misappropriated essay from above, after the general disappointment and backlash against it late in the comments section, you would think there would be some sort of re-thinking of the approach the issue of “micronarrative” representation over at the AVClub and in criticism in general. But in a recent Girls review, head editor Todd VanDerWerff posts the following comment in response to the continuing Girls backslash:

“People seem completely unwilling to extend this show even an inch of intellectual/critical charity, as if every minor deviation from their own reality on the part of the show’s reality is somehow a huge failure. It’s just fucking wearying.”

Which threw that idea out the window. (Which goes doubly so for this screed on a recent Girls review, at least the second half of it.)

I know Todd and met him a few times in New York and in Los Angeles. He is a very nice person and definitely has a solid head on his shoulders. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to come off glib or dismissive, but hearing “it’s just fucking wearying” is irritating. As if we’re supposed to, once again, follow that auteur theory road that Dunham is a part of, and play their game of television art and be satisfied, because those who don’t or refuse to or even have legit reasons for their dislike is “wearying”. Poor Todd and critics like him, forced to think maybe other people have a point.

This, I believe, is the inherent reason to the internet’s backlash to people like Ebert or to shows like Girls or to places like Cartoon Brew. They simply do not, or in many cases will not, acknowledge the flaws in their criticisms or attempt to explore, legitimately, the criticisms of other places. They will not participate in those debates in any meaningful fashion; not to say they need to at every single occasion, but it’s that they don’t even bother. I have my issues with people like Jim Sterling at Destructoid or Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins) or Kevin Smith, but their willingness to mix it up with the average person and willingness to explore ideas garners more points from me (and most of the internet) than most critics these days.

If more critics fall to honestly explore the problems with modern television (well, in entertainment across the board), then this Gilded Age will only grow worse, these opinions will become “rules,” and criticism will no longer be the critical thinking/exploration method like the days of old, but the biased preference of “universal” rigidity of today – which is really, really male, straight, and white.

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Smurfs, Hollywood, and the Nature of “World-Building”

Hollywood will be smurfing our theaters with the new Smurfs movie, released on August 3, 2011:

The Smurfs Rocking out with Neil

It's kinda like this.

I’m no longer the type of person to decry the end of Hollywood’s creativity or bitch about the onslaught of lazy slop of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels, “re-visionings,” and poor adaptations. I’ve heard all the complaints, whines, eye-rolling comments, and exasperations. Don’t get me wrong, I agree. But there’s no point complaining, since Hollywood and the rich executives who run them will continue to produce them. Marmaduke. Underdog. Yogi Bear. Alvin and the Chipmunks. They’re just gonna keep coming.

And why not? People go and see them. And the public isn’t exactly running to the original stuff – Inception being the exception (and even that has its problematic justifications). Besides, beyond the lame premises, people do work on these films, and arguably a few of them actually work hard on their respective roles. And, I’ll be honest: on a slow day in the future, when it’s on TNT and I’m bored and have time to kill, I may watch an hour of one of these films. Hell, I saw twenty minutes of Underdog while at the gym. Stupid, but hearing Patrick Warbuton say “Dogfish” while wearing a too-tight stocking cap was damn hilarious. (Does the context even matter?)

This write-up isn’t about the hack-work of the Hollywood system (it’s always been there, from the lesser studio system works of the 50s, to the trash-exploitation films of the 70s, to the early TV-show-turned-films of the 90s). This is actually about an interesting set of comments concerning these types of stories and attempts to wrap one’s head around the premises in question. People seem more willing to explore the fringes of a concept a lot more than usual; in other words, they seem to want more “world building”.

In effect, people wants to see characters inhabit their own existence, and the logic in which that existence came to be. Why couldn’t the Smurfs exist in their own world? Why make them interact with humans? The same could be said with Hop. Couldn’t he just be a Easter bunny in an… I don’t know, an Easter bunny world? Or, take Cars – a film which has been sarcastically befuddling people: who built these cars? Why are there sidewalks? And so on.

It’s difficult for me to acknowledge this, but these films are the now-equivalent of the 2D-live action films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam. Unlike today’s CGI/live action films, however, Roger Rabbit and Space Jam at least tried to contextualize their worlds. In Roger Rabbit, cartoon characters were “actors” of their own right in 1940s America; in Space Jam, the animated world, underneath our own, was about to be invaded by aliens. It doesn’t make “full” sense in closer inspection (do animators exist in Roger Rabbit? why would aliens really need to play basketball to global domination?), but there’s enough content to keep our focus and suspend our disbelief.

The problem isn’t really the writers, but the base material and the intended audience. Yogi Bear and the damn-near full gamut of Hanna-Barbara cartoons place animated characters among humans. Looney Toon shorts did too, so it isn’t Cartoon Network’s fault per se that the upcoming cartoon randomly places Bugs and Daffy among a world of humans. They ought to take lessons from Lauren Faust, whose reboot of MLP seem to establish a fully-fleshed world in which the characters can thrive, without falling into the two traps of over-explaining or under-explaining their worlds.

Over-explaining puts -too- much detail into the world, focusing on the excessive details without providing a solid story to work with. Heroes fell into this trap, Final Fantasy games and most JRPGs are notorious for this, and Sonic the Hedgehog fans seem enamored with the details of everything Mobius instead of the story of the comic run (comics, with their constant need for retconning, seems to be the biggest culprit in over-explaining). By contrast, under-explaining creates a broad world without fleshed out rules that fail to stay consistent with the various stories being told. Heroes did this (yes, somehow a show both OVER and UNDER explained its world), and recent shows like V apparently has been throwing a ton of ideas to the wall without anything in place.

Bottom-line: good world building is hard. It takes planning, a dedication to understanding the types of stories you wish to tell, and the surroundings in which you wish to tell it. The characters must be beholden to this world you create, and the audience should be drawn into it. Showcase this world, and let the characters thrive in it, and let the audience figure out where the limits of this world go. Sure, some forms of entertainment can be looser in this regard (take Spongebob, where fires burn and electricity flows freely underwater), but the basis is there (all the characters are underwater species, and mammals need aquatic suites to breath.)

So, really, it’s not a BIG surprise that films like the Smurfs, Hop, and Yogi Bear tosses its characters in the real world and let them do whatever. Why bother to put much thought into the world of such films if their mostly for kids, kids who care very little about “where the sidewalks in Cars” came from? Good world building is better for long-term venues, like television, books, and video games anyway; films, as great as they can be, are difficult to justify in several months of rules, laws, social hierarchies, status quos, and so on. Not to say they can’t exist in cinema, it’s just harder to make it work in three hours or less without over or under-explaining everything.

Towing the line between “but how?” and “who cares?” is a tricky one, especially pushing into sci-fi territory. In a certain way, not only does one have to create a certain level of plausibility in the self-created world, but – and here’s the key – work to deny further inquiry. The limits are not only what the characters can do, but what the audience is willing to believe. Yogi Bear is a good example. He’s a talking, walking bear, so why aren’t they other walking, talking animals? If there were at least 2 or 3 other talking animals, then the audience wouldn’t be so hard-pressed in wondering about Yogi. (In effect, the later Hanna-Barbara crossover films, which contained a number of the talking animal characters, was an easier pill to swallow).

Films are better served to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) in their worlds unless we’re entering trilogy territory; even then, there’s shaky ground. Both the Matrix and Star Wars were straining by the third film, the former more so than the latter, and the less said about the Star Wars prequels, the better. Books, games, and TV have more time to share their environments in detail, but even they can be over and/or under achieving.

My advice in the art of world building is to let your characters and story define the world, and not the other way around. The goals should reveal the strengths and limits of the environment, no more, no less. Build your conflict, understand your tone and genre, and from there, the rules should automatically come. Don’t force your beliefs, ideologies, or philosophies into the world until and unless they are emphatic to the development of the story or character. And above all, know when to stop. Let the fans fill in the details.

I’m sure all five Smurf fans in existence have already nailed the lore down, so they should be the only ones truly angry come August first.

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SUPER MARIO BROS. ADVENTURES – “Pirahna-Round Sue”

Before I begin, I want to mention that the title confuses me. Is it suppose to a play on the line “Prance Around You?” If so, that’s an awfully big stretch for a pun. If anyone has any ideas what this is supposed to mean, let me know, please.

My second entry into the Super Mario Adventure series, “Piranha-Round Sue” is a fairly ambitious ten pager that never manages to live up to its potential. Oddly enough, many of the Valiant entries have bold ideas but weak executions. It’s difficult to put a solid story in such a short amount of time, but considering that there are a few comics that are fairly great (including a particular one that is flat-out excellent), I do believe that there could have been more hits than misses during the series’ run.

One of my favorite ideas about Super Mario stories is expanding the various factions within the Mushroom Kingdom world. To wit, I mean to think of sects of characters that go beyond “Princess Toadstool supporters” and “King Bowser minions”. Whenever a comic or game looks to insert not only new characters, but new groups of people, it elevates the franchise immensely. And while not every comic or game can toss in a Smithy, a few X-Naughts, or even a Shadow Princess (who I personally think is an underrated but amazingly evil villain), fooling around with already-established creatures is a great way to work with what you got. It’s always cool to see actual Koopa Troopas being on the right-side of the law, and in a perfectly creative would, these Troopas would be treated with a cautious approach, a constant shadow on where their loyalties still lie – the Death Eaters of the Mushroom Kingdom world. (And don’t get it twisted – Nintendo could allow something like this to happen, albeit in a more light-hearted fashion.)

So in “Piranha-Round Sue,” we’re treated to what appears to be a new wrinkle in the Toadstool v. Bowser conflict: the piranha plants are revolting!

Page 1

Not only that, but the King has be transformed into a chameleon, and Mario and Toad have to find the magic wand to change him back. That’s three conflicts total: the uprising, controlling the king in his chameleon form, and finding the wand (yeah, I know the second one isn’t a conflict per se, but it theoretically would be one if there was time to focus on the King’s situation within the palace. I’m still counting it.) In addition, Mario is given a magic jewel called the Green Gecko Gem (despite the fact that the king was changed into a different type of lizard entirely. Also, did the king always possess this thing?) It’s essentially a poor man’s Starman. Protect you from mediocre attacks, but you can’t touch anyone else. Why they dropped the Starman concept for this Gecko Gem I have no idea – probably because it’s difficult to draw a multicolored figure on the page? In it’s own way, this is another conflict, an ultra-weak version of the ring from Lord of the Ring. It still counts, though, especially how the comic handles it later.

Again, this is crazy ambitious, and a full comic might have satisfied all the beats required to accomplish this. But then we see this.

Screenshot

Toad plans something with Mario. Interesting at first. But it leads to this:

Screenshot

Mario acting like a PURE DICK.

Now, I’m going to stop here and talk about Mario a bit, and why this sort of makes sense, contrary to our heroic dispositions. It’s often ridiculed in pictures on the web, but Mario as a gleeful, arrogant hero actually works. He stomps, kicks, punches, and attacks what seems to be innocent creatures all the time, often with a smile on his face. Of course, the visual aspect of SMB is ultimately whimsical; a cute, visceral metaphor of a struggling person fighting these monsters under a false, carefree veil of poppy music, bright colors, and charmingly cure henchman. The gag, therefore, is to showcase Mario as an needless aggressor, attacking innocent Koopas and helpless Goombas for no reason. Humorously, it’s fine, but every so often, it seems the writers here take that idea and make it into a real trait, as showcased in that screencap. And you know what? I dig it. It gives Mario a darker side. A personal conflict that he has to keep in check. In fact, to this comic’s credit, it plays with this idea later on, as well as touched upon in later issues.

So, leaving Toad in the dust, our tricky antagonist, Sue, confront our solitary mushroom and manipulates him into forcing Mario to choose between his gem and hubris or his friendship. Another layer of conflict? Hey, I’m down for this.

Screenshot

This is probably one of my favorite panels in the entire run. It looks cheap, but on purpose; it has a strong 8-bit video game vibe to it. I love how it divulges so much info without being too expository (well, it is, but no one exposits directly to Toad, so I buy it.) The other piranha plants are all doing different actions, the simple but refreshing “mustache on Bowser gag”, and the spacing of the three different “character-areas” is very well established. All this clutter for the this short gag.

Screenshot

Comics are best thought of what happens between the panels than what happens in them. This is a great example of this.

Of course, things go off the rails. Sue convinces Toad to test Mario’s friendship by pretending to drown. Mario is a jerk, but he isn’t a monster; so it’s just wrong to see Mario complain about being unable to help due to the Gem’s restrictive powers. Sue hurries things along in another great panel:

Screenshot

… finally forcing Mario to drop the gem (and the wand he found which was, strangely, underneath a random rock) and save his friend. Sue snatches up the gem and the wand, declaring herself to be the most powerful creature in the world. (If the piranha plants are all connected, they theoretically all could be gem-protected as well. That is never made clear though). Those plants are about to unload on Bowser’s tyranny, Egypt-style.

Screenshot

OR ARE THEY?

You see, apparently only extremely strong forces can penetrate the gem’s barrier. And Bowser is pretty damn motherf*cking strong. So in instant, Bowser undermines the revolt with a neck-snatch and a belittling and tossing aside of these cheap trinkets, as he calls them. Snatching them up, Mario and Toad head off, with this extremely bizarre revelation:

Screenshot

BACK THE FUCK UP.

So, everything that happened was pre-planned? Did Toad whisper to Mario, “The plants are revolting, so pretend to be a jerk, so that one of the plants will try to goad me into testing your friendship with a near-death experience. That plant will possess the gem and wand right until Bowser appears from nowhere and just quell that rebellion shit in an instant, leaving us the gem and wand, killing two birds with one stone!”? No. No. NO. I can’t imagine even part of the idea being in Toad’s plan. Mario acting like a jerk wouldn’t necessarily lead to the Sue encounter, nor bring Bowser into the picture. Mario’s line “That could work… if they try anything!” kind of implies the Sue meeting (“they” being the plants) but “That could work” then means Bowser coming into the picture, or bating Sue to monologue loud enough to capture King Koopa’s attention, who for some reason was in the area. NONE of this makes sense. In an instant, a cute story goes to hell. Cutting out the idea of Toad executing all that would have at least turned it into a charmingly cartoony tale. Now it’s just a Shyamalan mess.

Anyway, they return to the castle, transform the king back into his former self, and grin at each other while the king still seeks out flies to eat. Haha. (Also, the Wooster character is INEXPLICABLY wrapped in bandages on the final page. I am completely baffled as to why.)

Like I said, the comic is okay and they are some really nice moments, but the story collapses on its own weight. It tries to be greater than the sum of its parts, but it instead just blows up in the face of simple logic. I don’t remember the other comics trying to be smarter than its content (the sucky ones suck for other reasons) but the idea that the characters knew it all along is just undramatic, illogical, and unnecessary. Being silly is one thing; being stupid takes work.

Next time: A sillier comic where Princess Toadstool goes punk: “Magic Carpet Madness.”

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