Posts Tagged ‘culture’

I’ve been reading up on Prometheus and the Alien movies lately.  Why?  Well, here’s a Tesh secret: I’ve never seen any of them, and I never will.  I simply do not watch R-rated movies (or play M-rated games).  Still, they are sort of a Big Deal in the film industry, with echoes through the game industry.  My college degree was aimed at letting me work in film.  Maybe someday I still will, but for now, I work in games.  It behooves me to understand the cultural touchpoints that the Alien storyline offer to my professional interests.  If nothing else, understanding a bit about Aliens means I can communicate a bit better with those I work with.  “Ripley in a Powerloader” isn’t exactly “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“, but the principle is the same (and if you get that reference without looking at the link, you understand what I’m getting at).

Some of this is simply being aware of the linguistic and cultural effects of the Aliens IP, but I’ll admit, I’m also a bit curious as to why they became such a Big Deal.  I find horror movies to be… very distasteful.  It’s noted sometimes that the first Alien movie was a horror movie that happened to be cloaked in science fiction elements.  The sequel was apparently more of a prototypical Action Movie with Alien overlays, and the others were action…y.  Prometheus sounds like it’s more of an Alien-like film, in that it’s more about the horror with a little sci-fi musing for flavor.  Not having first-hand experience with these, I’m only speaking to what I’ve read about them over the years, so if those hasty generalizations are inaccurate, well, I’m not maliciously and intentionally misrepresenting them, at least.  I’m just wrong.

So why do I care?  Oddly, I find myself fascinated not with the subject material so much as why they are even hits in the first place.  It’s the same sort of fascination I have for trying to figure out the appeal of the endless zombie movies and games, like Romero’s stuff, F.E.A.R. or Silent Hill (and Shamus has a handful of really good articles on horror in games, especially Silent Hill).  Y’see, I don’t like zombies, but I think zombie game mechanics are actually a fair bit of fun.  They also serve as interesting social commentary sometimes.  Still, horror is not the sort of content I’m looking for when I think of “entertainment” or “enlightenment”, and it’s strange to me that these things make as much money as they do.

It seems to me that there are a few key concepts to dig into.  One, Fear.  Two, Horror.  Three, the difference between the two.  Four, catharsis.  Five, killing monsters.  Six, voyeurism.  Seven, schadenfreude.  Eight, fiction as a coping strategy for avoiding awful, horrible truths.  I haven’t really wrapped my head around all of it yet, and it’s a low priority with everything else I’m working on, but still, there’s something there or else this particular flavor of entertainment wouldn’t be making any money.

Also, a thought question I proposed on Twitter a little while back:

What would a horror film look like if there were no gore, no monsters, and most importantly, no death?

To which I might add:

What would the horror genre look like if death itself became unhinged in any of a variety of curious ways?

All this to ask, ultimately:

What makes horror stories most interesting, and why?  Can that be explored outside the realm of R-rated and M-rated schlock and actually be approached in a truly mature manner?  (I reject the ESRB’s definition of “mature”, which is a prime example of Orwellian doublethink, where most M-rated content is deeply immature.)

Also, and maybe more importantly, what really constitutes “horror”?

It seems to me that there are significant differences between Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven and Ridley Scott, but all seem to play within the “horror” frame at some level.  I have a very strong dislike for the gore, profanity and “torture porn” that might constitute the bulk of modern horror, but at the same time, I am often fascinated with stories that chase down the implications of bad decisions and how people deal with crisis, tragedy and their own failures.  That said, I prefer stories that show people learning, or walking a path of redemption, rather than stories that are dystopic, deeply cynical or calculated to be offensive.

I think there’s value in stories and entertainment, value in learning from someone else’s mistakes… but delighting in those mistakes and the often dark, soul-crushing trappings of the horror genre seems to me to be unhealthy.  I think understanding horror and fear is important to understanding life, so there’s undoubtedly value in fiction exploring them.  There really is Bad Stuff out there, and sometimes we have to deal with it.  It’s just… I think there’s a line between understanding it and embracing it, and flirting with that line seems like a bad idea.

This isn’t all just academic, either.  It’s practical, as I’m writing what will likely become a series of novels, largely dealing with a fictional alternate history’s huge war and how key characters deal with it.  Death is a bit unhinged there.  My characters will wind up living through things that nobody should hope to live through.  It’s important to face the horrors, though, and ultimately, to prevail in spite of them.  As in so many stories, understanding the psychology of these characters will be essential to selling the events and character arcs as interesting and believable, even in unbelievable settings.

So… I’m getting there.  I’m not angling for the horror market in any way, but I want to understand the psychology of fear and horror so that I can make the most of them without sliding into the Nietzscheian abyss that waits out there in the dark.  It’s good to know where the dark is and how to fight it, but delighting in the fight is dangerous.

Edited to add this link to a comic summary of the first Alien movie, just because it’s good.

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“It’s A Wonderful Life”, “A Christmas Carol”, “Silent Night”, “What Child Is This?”, “Carol of the Bells”, “Auld Lang Syne”

This time of year is packed with tradition.  Why do we do the same things each year?

“The Lord of the Rings”, “The Hobbit”, “The Blue Sword”, “I, Jedi”

Why do we read books more than once?  What is it about them that we want to revisit?  Why are they so great?

“The Ten Commandments”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Tempest”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Canterbury Tales”, “Casablanca”

What is it about these bits of entertainment that sticks?  Is pop culture actually culture?  (Beej, I’m especially interested in your take on this…)  More than once, I’ve noted that a story is good, but “it’s no Shakespeare”.  What was the expression before Shakespeare’s time?  “It’s good, but it’s no Chaucer”?  How is it that these things stand the test of time?  How do they become cultural touchstones that people continue to look to and revisit?  Why?

Why can we watch episodes of our favorite shows over and over?  I can watch Stargate SG-1’s “Window of Opportunity” every week and not get tired of it.  (The whiplash change from silly to serious just works, far better than most shows I’ve seen.)  Things that resonate with us seem to always have a home.

Sometimes it’s just a moment.  “You Shall Not Pass!”  A Crowning Moment of Awesomeness.

“Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian” isn’t Shakespeare, but I’ve found that I enjoy it.  A few moments stand out, though:  The Tuskegee Airmen are my clear favorite, especially in a quiet moment with Amelia Earhart.  You might get the gist of the interaction just from watching them exchange salutes, but if you know a bit more about the Airmen and Ms. Earhart, the moment is considerably more poignant.  Custer‘s moment of reflection near the end of the movie also resonates with anyone who has read a bit of military history, or who has served in leadership, especially in the military.  The movie works best when it draws from real history.  (Of course, I’m also partial to the Air and Space Museum anyway, so it probably just resonates with me more than some, and I spent time in Alabama, where the Airmen are rightfully lauded as heroes.)

We can mention the Titanic in casual conversation and use it as shorthand to allude to hubris, arrogance, and human incompetence.  No internet firefight (or id game) is complete without someone invoking Hitler or Nazis, whether directly or indirectly.  The Constitution isn’t just a piece of paper.  Da Vinci, Einstein, Newton, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, Stalin, Ghandi.  We don’t even need their first names any more; everyone knows who they are and why they are important.  (Tangent:  or at least, everyone should know.  Don’t get me started on the sorry state of American education.)  These are the names, places and items that wove the tapestry of culture today.  Does it always need to be real, though?

George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, Puck…

Aeris?  Is she even a spoiler any more?

Video games are young.  Very young, compared to most of these cultural touchstones cited.  And yet, what serious gamer hasn’t at least heard of Aeris?  For good or ill, her plight is a touchstone in the gamer culture.  And are we not members of society at large?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Video games have a place in history, for good or ill.  I harbor no illusion that Arthas is in the same weight class as Rocky, but his name is not unknown.  He is no MacBeth, but he is important to some people.  His rise, fall and ultimate fate aren’t exactly Campbellian, but they are an important component of a game that millions of players have played.  It’s still bizarre to me to see “For the Horde” as a bumper sticker, but it communicates a lot in three small words.

We’re a motley bunch, we gamers, but more and more, we’re everywhere.  What effect are we having on culture?  Are we providing cultural touchstones that will help us build positive things in the future, or will our legacy live in infamy like that of the Titanic?

Perhaps it’s just that I’m especially introspective this time of year, but I do reflect on these things on occasion.  I believe that games have great potential, and can be a force for good.  We can make things that are replayable, and offer something each time through.

I’ve taken the opportunity to replay LucasArts’ “The Dig”, and I’m finding things that I didn’t catch the first time through when I played over a decade ago.  Each time I read “I, Jedi”, I find something interesting.  Each time I watch “It’s A Wonderful Life”, something else clicks for me.  (Especially now that I’ve spent a few years studying financial and political concerns.)  I fully expect that playing FFVII or even watching Advent Children again will make something else click for me.  Playing Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days has me itching to play the original KH again, to see what else fits together.

Every time I read the scriptures, something else clicks for me.  Not because the content of the scriptures changes, but because I have changed.  It’s nice to have those touchstones to bounce off of, and build on.

I often wonder what I’m providing to build on.

Happy New Year, everyone.  Here’s hoping the last one was a good one for you, and that the next one can be built on the successes of your past.

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Like any good little RPG gamer, I have a notion that mana is some sort of magic power, perhaps derived from the land and channeled by mental or emotional focus.  It’s typically a consumable resource, sometimes regenerating and infinite, sometimes finite.  It’s neither creative nor destructive by nature, it is merely power, bent to the will of humans and monsters to varied ends.

Until last week, I had no idea that Mana is actually an Oceanic concept, and that the notions of mana that I’ve grown up with are somewhat mutated.


Of course, I knew that people have taken the concept of mana in different directions, whether it’s Larry Niven or SquareEnix.  I just had the mistaken idea that the concept of mana was some gaming offshoot of Shinto beliefs.  I guess that the concept of mana in the Final Fantasy games and the Mana series (of which Secret of Mana was one chapter, and is known as the Seiken Densetsu series in Japan) is somewhat influenced by Shinto beliefs, and the Oceanic concepts aren’t all that far removed conceptually, but seeing that there are Polynesian roots for the concept intrigued me.

It does make me wonder why we don’t have some games digging into the Oceanic roots of the concept.  Then again, I wonder why we don’t have a lot of other cultural storytelling in games.  Yes, Valkyrie Profile was good, but even that was filtered through Japanese notions.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I would like to see some more games built a bit closer to the source material, from many different cultures.

And yes, I’m probably missing some that are already made because they aren’t made in English.  Russia is apparently hitting the world game stage harder a bit lately, with higher profile releases like King’s Bounty.  Perhaps I’m just asking that American and Japanese devs look a little deeper into their sources, and treat them with more respect.  To a degree, there will always be filtering, and to borrow a Trek concept, “it’s impossible for a non-Klingon to understand the Klingon soul”… but I do wish devs would try a lot harder.

I do like a well-crafted fictional world, just as much as any other child who geeked out on Tolkien and Asimov, but even those two giants put in a LOT of study and a lot of thinking about ramifications and consequences.  Far too many game devs are content to employ generic fantasy tropes, using a few buxom characters and some addictive mechanics to make FantasyDIKU#157 or GenericJRPG/WRPG #08976-B.  New games need not be historic real-world riffs, but we would do well to see why real-world legends have persisted through cultures (oft times only through oral history mechanics), and how they offer stability to their populace.  Games need not be realistic, but plausibility goes a long way to suspending disbelief.  Great game storytellers understand sociology, psychology, history, theology, art, politics and all sorts of other aspects of the human condition.  There aren’t many great game storytellers, at least, if the evidence of their work is any indication.

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