The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings (Enhanced Edition) emerged on my radar a few weeks ago. Until then, I’d never heard of The Witcher, and the simple description given to me did not entice: An RPG where you kill monsters and stuff. However, within an extremely short span of time – maybe a few hours – I was shocked to realize this game might be one of my favorites – not only because it’s beautiful, well-structured, and sharply written, but because of its characters.
And that got me thinking of some of my other favorite protagonists: D (Vampire Hunter D and VHD: Bloodlust), Alice (Resident Evil franchise), and Hellboy (comics and movies). All these characters have something in common: they contain within them the seeds of destruction, the presence of Other.
Alice contains the T-Virus, which has the potential to change/destroy all life as we know it. It makes her stronger, faster, powerful. Less human, and more more. She uses her skills to destroy other infected. Vampire Hunter D is half vampire and half human. He hunts vampires and their servant creatures for a living. Hellboy is the Right Hand of Doom, the carnal representation of the end of the world. He chooses instead to strike down evil and fight for what good remains in the world.
|This poster gets it.|
And that’s right where the interest factor kicks in: choice.
Choosing to act against your lesser (but more powerful) nature, to struggle against what you are in order to remain who you are, is perhaps one of the most important and most compelling messages we as an audience will ever receive.
In Resident Evil: Afterlife, Alice is ‘cured’ of her infection by her nemesis. She thanks Wesker for “making her human again.”
In Resident Evil: Afterlife, Alice is ‘cured’ of her infection by her nemesis. She thanks Wesker for “making her human again.”
Hellboy’s character arc in the first film concerns his struggle to be considered a man despite his complicated and monstrous nature.
D, despite being aloof and disconnected from mortality and mortals, makes a deal with a human: their gravestone pact has whichever one survives the other visit the fallen’s grave. At the end of the film, years after the adventure ends, D honors the pact. Time has stood still for him, but he has made and held true to that long-ago connection.
|…Hiding behind a tree in the distant background is as close to sociable as D gets.|
Characterization like this provides a framework for the greater story as well. On the surface, Resident Evil is a zombie horror flick, but the plot reveals that the real monsters are the normal people who created and unleashed the T-Virus. Hellboy spends his time in the first film fighting monsters, but the true demons turn out to be scheming humans who broker deals with the old gods of chaos in exchange for power, control, and other self-serving treats. In Bloodlust, D is sent to kill a vampire that abducted a girl, but the story reveals that the two are actually in love, and that the vampire is actually winning in the battle against his thirst, keeping the girl safe and human to spare her the horror of being a vampire.
In all these stories, the obvious and superficial line between good and evil, monstrous and humane, blurs. And perched at the center of these conflicting concepts is the protagonist, not welcome in either world, feared or despised, and forever teetering on the brink of an irredeemable fall. The consequences for losing balance can be outwardly epic — if Hellboy succumbs to his destiny, our world will end in flames — or inwardly dire — if D gives into his own vampiric bloodlust, he will lose what little humanity, what little worth he has managed to scrape together, regarding his soul.
|Flames, I tell you!|
We return to Geralt; suddenly his attraction is not so mysterious. Geralt is intriguing, not because he hunts monsters, but because he is part monster himself. And by that I do not mean that he has tentacles or drinks blood, but simply that he is considered monstrous by the normal people of his world, and that is the only definition of monster that matters. His choices shape his external landscape as much as the internal one, and while he does slay all manner of creepy critters, the true destruction in this game comes from war, and the kings who wage it.
|Some of the destruction may come from dragons. Maybe.|
These high stakes make the characters and their actions, choices, and struggles compelling. Their existence in two worlds throws each world’s inconsistencies and hypocrisies into sharp relief. The imperfect natures of these worlds and characters resonate within us as a participatory audience, pulling us in deeper and faster than silly, escapist fantasy has any right to do (sic).
This is, however, not a foolproof formula. A large segment of the entertainment industry stands as a monument to fools who ruin a good formula, character, world, or idea. Take for example the stand alone X-Men Origins film, Wolverine. The title character is a mutant who struggles with his ‘animal side’ while striving for love and peace within himself. Sadly, that’s where the formula breaks apart; instead of making strong choices that further the plot and nurture the character, out-of-character choices (like allowing others to experiment on him and exploit his animal side, something his character avoids in other renditions) ruin Wolverine’s character and derail what could have been an engaging franchise. As a whole, the film suffers from ‘Stuff Happens So More Stuff Can Happen’ Syndrome.
|Above: Stuff happening so more stuff can happen.|
This shows that the true power doesn’t come from the formula, but from its application. How it is wielded by writers, artists, and other entertainment-smiths decides whether these characters and their choices will resonate in their worlds and in ours.
The two latest works to come from the minds of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty. I had always intended to write about Ponyo, on the assumption that it would be worth writing about – but it wasn’t.
|Really. Nothing to talk about at all.|
Arrietty, then provides a dilemma. Am I intrigued by it simply because it is not Ponyo?
Ponyo was rambling and incoherent – but lavishly so. Fault cannot be found in the animation or attention to detail. But, several months after the initial viewing, all I can truly remember is listening to a goldfish-girl shout “Ponyo!” over and over…
Arrietty however, is different.
While attention to detail and flawless animation are still present, we have very different story and character components. Instead of a loosely-defined world on a massive scope, with loudmouthed title characters, we get the secret – and quiet – world of Arrietty – a memorable and serious, yet believable little Borrower.
|Arrietty being serious and memorable.|
This is a world of vast differences – not a new concept to the creators. Just about every film they’ve crafted pits two worlds against each other (humans v. nature, our world vs. spirit world, the sea vs. the land… etc.) – the world with which we are familiar, and the vastly shifted perspective of the Borrowers.
Set against the digestible dichotomy is a simply story of friendship, healthily portioned with the importance of family and coming of age themes:
At the tender age of fourteen, Arrietty is ready to go ‘borrowing’ from the big people with her father. Accidentally seen by a young boy who is visiting the big house, a tentative friendship sparks. The boy yearns for company before his risky heart surgery; Arrietty is desperate for adventure and contact with the outside world.
Although their connection endangers Arrietty’s family, in the end, their mutual trust and understanding allows them to save Arrietty’s mother from the slightly bonkers house keeper, and both of them come away from this summer encounter a little stronger. The boy, previously resigned to death, is now determined to fight and win, while Arrietty has gained experience and more than a little wisdom regarding the wide world that awaits her.
|A Borrower’s view.|
Perhaps it is too simple, but after the convolution and irrelevance of Ponyo – its inability to establish suspension of disbelief – Arrietty is a welcome change.
Neither massive in scope, nor sprawling in story, it’s not meant to be the next Princess Monoke or Spirited Away. Its down-to-earth (sic) setting prevents it from being Howl’s Moving Castle. Instead, its solid characters, simplistic story, and graspable setting seem designed for one thing: to be as unlike Ponyo as possible.
|If you analyze this picture carefully, you will notice it is the exact opposite of Arrietty…|
If my like for Arrietty is simply a knee-jerk reaction to Ponyo, I assert it is because Arrietty is itself a reaction to Ponyo.
Editor’s Note: This article was part of a series of April Fools themed articles released on April 1st, 2012. As such, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the author, the ACP staff, or anyone with basic logic skills. Enjoy, but try not to take them too seriously!
I’d like to start by saying, Well done, Disney! You’ve pulled it off again, successfully rendering a classic story with a ready-made fanbase as unprofitable as that one movie no one went to watch.
It’s a nice change to see a big production and distribution conglomerate not focused on making money. Way to go, Disney — way to show everyone you’re not afraid to churn out one expensive flop after another.
|Disney reminds us it’s not about the money.|
This is not a data blip, however, but an emerging trend — what with Spiderman 3 and X-Men 3 making passionate anti-capitalist statements by being so terrible they effectively ended what could have been much longer and more fiscally successful franchises.
But kudos, Disney, you were the first to do it from the first movie. John Carter of Mars (JCOM) is obviously slated to have a sequel — or four — and by the standard you’ve set, none of those will reel in any money either.
|John Carter attacks your capitalist notions of success.|
Instead of trying to capture us and our hard-earned dollars with yesterday’s news (story, character arc, plot development), Disney is taking active steps to focus on what is important: 3D and action.
Removing all the interesting bits was a real stroke of genius, such as John Carter’s immortality, which (along with his initials) makes him a Jesus figure, and therefore a tragic and intriguing figure… but, of course, words always get in the way of action. Better to leave all that creationist stuff in TRON, where it can clog the plot-flow — no, what JCOM really needs is another action set piece.
|Don’t worry – just because it’s 3D and blue doesn’t make it a blockbuster.|
And it was a nice touch including the above shot. This particular shade of Avatar blue is quite meaningful in this scene, serving as a slap in the face to Cameron, who is renowned for having such successful movies it’s physically sickening.
|The face of mindless greed.|
In this way, Disney is yet again setting the trend. Making this film shows that they do not suffer from what experts on Executive Producer Psychoses are terming ‘Pandora Envy’. In fact, this film makes it very clear that Disney is totally against Cameron’s wanton use of character arc and memorable worlds to reel in audiences and their wallets.
Sadly, there are still those unbelievers who insist that films must be profitable, followers of Cameron’s camp. The reboot of Spiderman seems disappointingly profits-oriented, as well as the next big Batman installment. Obviously, this trend has not yet dawned on them — but when it does, boy will they feel silly.
|Drinkers of the Cameron Kool-Aid.|
However, until the day when the industry catches wise, we can all appreciate massive entertainment entities like Disney making films for the love of 3D and action, instead of for the next big blockbuster bundle.
It’s that time of year when we make lists and check them twice, and all that nonsense.
For me, however, no list is required, no double-checking needed.
All I want for Christmas is HalfLife 3. Or an announcement about it. Failing that, I had to receive my VALVe fix in another format:
|Don’t get your hopes up: this contains neither HalfLife 3 nor announcements concerning HalfLife 3|
As far as a placeholder (and let’s face it, all VALVe games until Episode 3 will be placeholders) it’s gone beyond my expectations. I once wrote (at the risk of jingling my own bells) about Halo and how the commercials for those games deepened story and character in unexpected and delightful ways – and while I would expect those characteristics in a comic format, I was unprepared for the truly game-enriching experience this comic collection provides.
But then, VALVe is good at that.
|And at being a tease.|
They’ve injected character into games where character is rarely expected, let alone a major goal. TeamFortress2 is a shoot-‘em-up multiplayer. There are plenty of those around, but TF2 sets itself apart by having honest-to-goodness personalities, as well as backstories for all the character options.
The Sacrifice delves deeper and into more personal pasts, than the snippets in the links above, providing us with reasons for the endless battle between Team Redd and Team Blu, reasons that go beyond garnishing gameplay and actually alter the way you view the feud.
The collection also explores Left 4 Dead territory. Here the tone is poignant and intriguing, not everyday fare when you consider the genre: survival horror/shooter. Portal, too gets loving attention – there is tenderness to be found in the images, side-by-side with the chaos we would expect from this twisted-science world.
|Something about cake.|
Of course, VALVe knows how to do things properly; there is true attention to detail, character, and plot – a delightful lack of shortchanging. Throughout the collection, the visuals are beautiful, the words captivating.
|There I go, talking about HalfLife again…|
Now, just to be clear. I am in no way telling you how to spend your money. I am definitely not saying you should rush out and buy this collection. For one thing, it’s Christmas Day – face it, the time to get a present is past. Also, there is no solid science to prove it will bring about the release of HalfLife 3 any faster.
All I’m saying is that HalfLife 3. HalfLife3HalfLife3HalfLife3. Halflife3halflife33halflife3halflife3 halflife33halflife3halflife3. Halflife33halflife3halflife3 halflife33halflife3halflife3 halflife33halflife3halflife3 halflife33halflife3halflife3.
|HalfLife 3 Proof they understand the concept HalfLife 3|
HalfLife 3. HalfLife 3 halflife3 half life3.
HalfLife 3 halflife3.
(Seriously, VALVe, it’s time.)
I heard it yesterday.
I was waiting in line to buy a ticket for Breaking Dawn, or as I like to think of it: TwiHard: Live Vicariously or Die Trying. What I heard solidified a few things for me. I’d known I would write about the movie (or movies) at some point. I’d known I (like most others of my ilk) dislike the rabid fanbase more than the lukewarm franchise.
What I heard combined these two things.
I heard this: “Omigod, it’s like the best Romeo and Juliet evar.”
If you just winced, thank you, from me and Will.
|Will thanks you for wincing.|
Twilight is not Romeo & Juliet. I say this as a casual fan of Romeo &Juliet, and again as an English Major, and again as a student of Shakespeare’s work.
Yes, there are two lovers.
Yes, there are two families.
Yes, this is a (un)life or death scenario.
Sadly, this is where the similarities end. Let’s begin:
Romeo and Juliet are from opposing families. These families hate each other with a passion. This scenario is not present in Twilight. Bella’s parents don’t hate the Cullens. The Cullens are human-loving vegetarian hippy vampires, so no hate there.
|Lovers gonna love…|
Furthermore, the hate and feud would have to be public, or at least acknowledged by both sides.
This would only be true in Twilight if Jacob and Edward fell in love.
|Just in case you were wondering, yes, this would sell tickets.|
Another missing element is the the risk of death if discovered. If Romeo is discovered with Juliet, her family would murder him. If Bella’s dad walked in on Edward watching Bella sleep, there would be some explaining to be done, but no one would die over it.
Besides, everyone who could make life miserable for Bella and Edward already knows: the vampires known, the Volturi know, the werewolves know – and everyone is staying hush about it.
In Romeo & Juliet, we also see God taking an active role, in the presence of the Friar that marries and protects them. Through this Friar, God is trying to heal the hate and hurt wrought by generations of feuding. The relationship between Romeo and Juliet serves a greater purpose than their happiness – and so does its destruction.
The deaths of the young lovers are shocking and needless, the byproducts of pointless hate. The deaths of the young lovers bring about a reconciliation between the two families, as well as a realization that they were to blame. In the end, Romeo and Juliet’s deaths accomplish what their love might never have done: a truce is forged.
Looking at Bella and Edward, none of these things are present. In fact, most of the second book deals with Edward leaving Bella. Aside from her own personal and melodramatic downward spiral of depression, nothing changes.
When Bella and Edward reunite, they reap the most benefit. There is no greater risk, price, or meaning for their love. There is, of course, nothing wrong with love for love’s sake, but the love of Romeo and Juliet has a purpose. Bella and Edward’s does not.
And finally, we get to the message. Romeo & Juliet serves as a tale of caution to feuding families: feuding hurts. Forgive thy neighbor. This play is for adults more than it is for young lovers, since young lovers like happy endings. Also, the people of Shakespeare’s time knew better than to try and caution teenagers…
Twilight as a series bears no resemblance to this. It cautions neither parents nor children taking their first steps in love. Every disastrous choice is later resolved happily and cleanly. For example:
- Bella falls for a vampire. She doesn’t get eaten. Instead, she gets married.
- Bella gets pregnant with a demon baby. She delivers, and instantly becomes the world’s most natural mother.
- Bella chooses to be a vampire, and instead of losing her family, gains a new place with the Cullens, gets to keep her relationships with her mortal family, and manages to keep Jacob as a friend.
As a tale of caution to no one, Twilight fails as a Romeo & Juliet adaptation. Whereas selfish action leads to death and despair in Romeo &Juliet, here all conflict is happily resolved despite selfish actions by both parties. For example, the only reason the baby isn’t killed is because Jacob imprints on it. Morality has nothing to do with it…
|Say hello to Pedo!Jacob.|
There are far too many happy coincidences for Bella and Edward to have any running for the coveted Star-Crossed Lovers of the Year title.
|Hint: the Star Crossed Lovers statuette looks nothing like this|
The thing about being Star Crossed Lovers is just that: the very Heavens are against you. The planets have aligned, and it is not your day. For all the good fortune and happy endings that Bella and Edward go skinny dipping in, I submit that they are Star Blessed Lovers.
So, the complete opposite of Romeo and Juliet, then.
As a genre, Noir has had a fascinating life as well as a tremendous impact on modern narrative. A beautiful complexity rose out of noir films, because, as Frank Kutnik puts it, “The thrillers of the 1940s represented a shift from earlier crime films in the extent to which they foregrounded the psychology of crime. Not only do they often represent a crime from the viewpoint of the criminal, but there is a more general emphasis on motives for and the psychological repercussions of the criminal act.”
Criminals were no longer simply bad people — they had complex and moving motives for the (frequently) terribly things they did — and the detectives that chased these criminals were no longer the shining bastions of humanity. They had flaws, addictions, perversions. They had violent tempers, drinking problems, and sexually aberrant appetites.
Obviously, I like a good noir, and L.A. Noire promised to be one. With its groundbreaking facial animation (and an expansive list of actors to provide the HD acting) we were finally going to become the detective that solved the case. The game is also heavily influenced by L.A. Confidential, which was successful at creating a noir film that updated the genre. The movie and the game share many elements — similar names, similar villains, similar protagonists, and the same settings to name a few.
But while it is clear that the game-makers absolutely loved the movie L.A. Confidential, I don’t think they understood it.
|Not that it’s complicated.|
In a TED Talk, J. J. Abrams (at the 12:30 mark) talks about his fascination with mystery, and gives some really good advice to people who would like to ‘rip off’ their favorite movies, whether to flatter or to make a quick buck: “If you’re going to rip something off, rip off the character, rip off the stuff that matters (the emotions – not the situations or monsters, etc.).” And that’s where L.A. Noire went wrong. They copied the names, the places, the setting, but they forgot the emotions and the themes.
To illustrate: Blade Runner, (if I can let my rabid fangirl off its leash for just a moment,) is a magnificent (sci-fi) noir film. It is not set in the 40s. There is no detective — just a hunter-killer. There are no crooks, just murderous robots that need to be put down.
But Blade Runner contains the ultimate noir element: complexity. We have a protagonist who counts himself as human, and who is chasing something he counts as subhuman. However, throughout the course of the narrative, we discover that he may not be as human as he believes, and there is a certain scene in the rain that humanizes the subhuman Replicant robots so poignantly that it has itself become iconic.
And this is what noir means to me: a crime thriller as a stage for discussing what makes us Good and Evil, and finding that the question should be what makes us human and not human. Taking a good long look in the mirror is the next step.
No doubt the tools for achieving this have changed. Borde and Chaumont wrote in their analysis of the noir genre that “[in] film noir there is an attempt to create an atmosphere of latent, vague and polymorphous sexuality which everyone could project their desires into and structure how they wanted, like a Rorschach ink-blot… Occasionally, abnormal sexual relationships can be guessed at, or even perversions — as in Gilda, where a few clues indicate troubling relations between men.”
In the 40s, including homosexuality was a quick way to show someone was subhuman or perverted (and perhaps make the viewer doubt themselves in the process), but we know better now, and that won’t work anymore. So what do we use now?
L.A. Confidential presented us with two detectives, both of them Good Cops. But one of them is so clinically correct and politically strategic that you hate him for the better part of the film, and the other is a brute who plays dumb muscle for the corrupt Chief. This makes it interesting when they team up, and latent humanity emerges in both characters (a visceral sense of right and wrong for Mr. By-the-Books, and a serious injection of cunning for the Heavy). In this way we are shown the complexity of character that is what noir was all about when it first sprouted out of German Expressionism, picked up some French cinema finesse, and exploded into Hollywood.
However, in L.A. Noire, we get a protagonist who is neither humanized nor de-humanized for almost the entire game. His name is Cole Phelps, he’s a war hero, and the game is almost over before it’s revealed he’s married with two children. Then, in an attempt to dehumanize a character that was so neutral as to be non-existent, they chuck him into an affair with a German Jazz Club Singer. Which of those four capitalized words is supposed to spark disdain in the player?
If I’m supposed to be appalled at his choice to have an affair at all, I’m afraid that doesn’t happen. Up until just before the revelation that he’s sleeping with the Deutsche Darling, I didn’t even know he was married. He obviously has no intimate or emotional connection with his wife, and these days, when that happens, people divorce.
It’s not seen as a mark of shame to be unhappy in a loveless marriage — and it must be loveless, because through all the cases he works, he never mentions her at all. In current culture, people are allowed to be unhappy and do something about it.
Towards the very end of the game, the creators seem to realize what they’ve done and hurriedly shove some character into the story — but not into Cole Phelps. As players, we’re presented with a new character and a new POV. Within minutes I preferred the new vessel to Cole, but the feeling remained that they should have done the same for the main protagonist from the get-go.
|This is my Default face.|
L.A. Noire tries so hard to be a noir on the surface that it forgets what should be simmering underneath. Noir is about introspection, about finding something deeper on the screen and in oneself. It’s about raising questions and not necessarily answering them. L. A. Noire accomplishes neither.
Overall, L.A. Noire reminds me of someone who has read a word, and loves the idea of using it in a sentence, but has no idea how to pronounce it, or of its actual meaning.
L.A. Nwar indeed.