Monday, April 9, 2012

Or Else...

When I was in 8th grade, I hated the shit out of Gannon, and I don’t know why. Or, to be more specific, I didn’t specifically know what Ganon did to cause my hatred, but man oh man did I hate him. Let me back up.

The year was 1999, and I was fully immersed in a game called Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There are tons of reasons why Ocarina of Time was an amazing game, and even more articles explaining (/ frothing at the mouth) as to why. Today I want to focus on just one, the one that can actually translate to other mediums.

OoT starts out with your main character, Link, as a young child. (Seriously the dude must be five or six.) You’re growing up in this happy, bright forest home, surrounded by pixies and fairies and I don’t know what the fuck else, spending your time with your bestest bud who happens to be an adorable elf with anime eyes times ten. Then you start out on an adventure which involves you walking around your immediate vicinity and noticing that, hey, everywhere else is whimsical and cute too.

But then, things change. Your character hops into a time portal and comes out the other side a fully grown man (which happens at the age of 17 according to the Japanese.) The world changes drastically from a cute, bright and overall pleasant society into something permanently dark, with a lot of miserable people and monsters all over the place. The cause is a guy named Gannon, but what he does, I have no idea. (You miss it because of the time warp.)

Anyway, this is such a brilliant narrative move. You have no idea what Gannon does to mess things up, but you hate him anyway. You hate him because you saw how bad he makes things when you fail. It adds an immense amount of pressure to the game. You know that your character must succeed because you know how nice the world is without this schmuck in it.

Compare it to the world of, say, Star Wars, for example. Despite his shady administrative practices, can you really say what the Emperor or Darth Vader did to the galaxy to make it so terrible? I mean, everything seems to be pretty ok, right?

As an audience, we need to be shown what’s at stake to create tension, and only a few pieces of entertainment (that I can recall) actually go so far as to show you what happens when the hero loses. In general, these tend to be very good games or movies.

To take another example from movies, recall the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. Throughout the entire trilogy, we’re shown and reminded that the Shire is a blissful, peaceful existence, free from any worry in the world and seemingly picturesque in its perfection. Then, as the characters’ minds begin to wander, they arrive at thoughts of the orcs arriving at the Shire, and effing its es up. “There won’t be a Shire, Pip,” is the epitome of this idea. The hobbits are sick of this whole business and want to go back to where life is easy, but the only thing that stops them is the fact that the Shire won’t be easy peasy no more. You almost get a general sense of, “Well, fuck the rest of the world, but don’t touch the Shire.” Again, this furthers the tension in the movie, as you really don’t want to see a hobbit get murdered in his little hill house.

Going back to video games, recall Final Fantasy VI. In it, you spend roughly half the game in an admittedly imperfect world, and then seemingly out of nowhere, the antagonist destroys it. The continents shift, populations are wiped out, your team of heroes is divided and distraught. One of your characters joins the enemy side. One of them contemplates suicide. For the most part, all of your people just give up on fighting.

In this scenario, there wasn’t really a “perfect world”, but the results are still the same, if not more devastating. Here, life goes from being “so-so” to “completely fucking unbearable.” You begin to see that it’s not a question of the antagonist ruling the world or somebody else ruling the world, but instead realizing that if this bad guy stays in charge, everyone will slowly, mercilessly die. It makes you despise the antagonist and puts so much pressure on you as a gamer that you feel you have to defeat him. There’s no way he can allowed to do this! That little 32-bit son of a bitch!

This seems like such an effective method that I have no idea why more movies and games don’t do it.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Wolverine and the X-Men

Recently, I’ve been bemoaning the fact that none of my friends read comics, and I’m stuck reading them by myself and having absolutely no one to talk to about it. I would go out and find some people, but there are two difficulties in that. One, if I found someone online, they’re almost certainly guaranteed to be a complete asshat. And two, if I found someone in person, that would require the shameful first move of admitting that I like comics, in public, to a living, breathing homo sapien. Neither of these are good options, so I find myself, once again, writing something that only I will read about comics that I like, and why I actually like them. Also, I’ll probably include some other thoughts on them as well.

Wolverine and the X-Men

First off, this title is improperly named. However, I understand why they used this name; if you throw the word “Wolverine” in the title of anything, it’s bound to sell more books. And while Wolverine does play a starring role in this book, I wouldn’t say that the main focus is Wolverine himself, but instead his students.

X-Men has always been, at its core, about a school of strange young people in a world that hates them. It’s a very relatable concept, and it’s easy to see why it’s been repeated throughout the X-Men universe so often and achieved great popularity. However, focusing on students as they sit through classes is hard to make into a superhero comic book. It can easily be a drama comic book or even a romance comic book, but superheros? It’s hard to do. Wolverine and the X-Men has turned the focus onto the school, its students and its teachers, while not sacrificing any action or slowing down the pace. On the contrary, the pace is one of the defining characteristics of this book, as the endless series of problems facing Wolverine’s new school keep everything feeling frantic, but not cluttered.

While still keeping a lot of action in the mix, Wolverine and the X-Men has been able to focus almost entirely on its characters and it does a damn good job of it too. I’ve always lamented the fact that the X-Men were too large a group, with too many personal relationships floating around. After M-Day and Schism, however, I can see that all that is changing. The focus has been set on the personal relationships between the teachers and the students, amongst themselves mostly.

The resounding overall theme here is that of being something more than you could have hoped to be. There are so many examples of this I don’t even know where to start. Well, that’s not true, I suppose you’d have to start with Wolverine, since his name is in the title and all.

First of all, if I told you, as a reader, that Wolverine would be the headmaster of a school, you might think that’s, at best, a somewhat wacky idea, and you’d be correct. That’s one of the issues dealt with here, as Wolverine himself has to come to grips with being a professional, official headmaster, being a team leader instead of the lone wolf.

And it only begins there, since Schism, the X-Men have been split in two, and it seems as though the more august superheros have gone in one direction, and the misfits have headed towards Wolverine’s school. As a result, many of them have to come to terms with how they want to act when they’re in the classroom and, in some cases, how they act administrators. For example, Gambit, who has long been defined by his shadiness has discovered recently that he loves being a role-model to young students. Rogue is now an extremely capable and well-liked leader and teacher, but a terrible subordinate. Iceman has been experimenting with what his true potential is, while lamenting the fact that he’s been underperforming for years. I can’t repeat it often enough: It is stories such as these that make an excellent comic, not the quality of their “fight scenes” or how cool their characters appear.

When I stated before that the “misfits” had made they way to Wolverine’s school, that applied to the students as well. Some of the younger mutants had remained with Cyclops, and those students were indeed the more serious group. At Wolverine’s school, however, we find many students who feel as though they’re less than this ideal image of a “School for Gifted Youngsters” attendee. We have Broo, who is struggling with what appears to be the unavoidable fact that he is a monster trying to be a well-educated, polite and kind young boy. Genesis, who may or may not be irreversibly damaged to be the point of being the most evil person in the world, has to find his own identity and then come to grips with being the reincarnation of genocide and destruction. Quentin Quire represents every good-for-nothing and smart aleck know-it-all that ever cursed a classroom since the dawn of time. It’s interesting to watch him grow and change, and as a reader, you want to see him succeed. In fact, you want to see all the students succeed as they struggle to not only survive and thrive in a world that hates and fears them, but also overcome their own setbacks and shortcomings.

In general, I regard the art to be secondary to the story by a great deal, but not here. Not only is Chris Bachalo providing beautiful pencils for this book, but moreover, it fits. His cartoony, playful style absolutely represents the characters that he’s drawing. Anywhere else and I would absolutely hate this artwork, but here, dealing with characters who live their lives as the butt of the joke, who revel in their strangeness, who have never seemed to have found a home for themselves, this tongue-in-cheek style of art absolutely fits and the book would certainly not be the same without it.