The Tone Without Fear

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What a strange time to be alive! The coolest superheroes are Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the best TV series are skipping the broadcast networks and being produced by streaming services! One of the most fun and entertaining translations of comics to television is a woman-focused period piece miniseries spinoff of Captain America! A movie featuring Batman and Superman together is finally coming out, and the trailer makes it look like a dire, boring, outdated and uninspired mess. And people are getting really excited about Star Wars again!

Every time Marvel comes out with another solid movie or TV show, I go through the same process of gee-whiz-that’s-a-surprise, even though they’ve been so consistently strong — with enough missteps to prove that they’re far from infallible — that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But to somebody who read comics in the 1990s, it still feels like DC and Marvel did a Freaky Friday-style switch in mindset: DC’s spent the past decade and a half trying to make itself dark and gritty and realistic, while Marvel’s been focused on storytelling, world-building, and characters.

For Mature Audiences

I was one of the few people defending Man of Steel when it came out, but any remaining good will I had towards that movie’s decision to play up the “Superman as alien” angle dried up as soon as I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and how it made the combination of superheroes + science fiction seem effortless. And actually managed to have fun doing it, instead of wallowing in self-important meditations on What It Means to be an American in cloying montages straight out of a commercial for Ford Trucks.

But still. Netflix’s Daredevil series is a tough sell to me. Make Iron Man a romantic comedy with fight scenes, and I’m sold. Play up the X-Men angle of non-conformity and prejudice, and I’ll even think Wolverine is interesting. Give Joe Johnston the budget to make Captain America as a romanticized The Rocketeer-style period piece, or Kenneth Branagh the chance to present Thor in much the same spirit as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy, and those characters actually feel relevant for once. Take a license I’d never heard of and make it a sci-fi comedy adventure, and I’m in the theater even before you’re even finished with your elevator pitch (showing Chris Pratt in the trailer with his shirt off is pretty much overkill at that point).

But Daredevil has always been the one Marvel character that doesn’t just not interest me, but actively repels me. (Okay, sure, Cable and the Sub-Mariner, too, but get back to me once they get their own movies). I like Batman, so I always assumed I’d like Marvel’s version of Batman. And one of my favorite comic books of all time was Batman: Year One, which I’d long heard was influenced heavily (if not entirely) by Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. So I’ve tried reading what have always been recommended as the standout Daredevil stories, and they just don’t do it for me.

The reason is that they take the basic premise — Marvel’s version of Batman — entirely literally. It drains almost all of the fantasy out of the Batman universe, distilling it almost entirely to what I think is the least interesting part, the “lone vigilante against crime” angle. All the dark gothic history of Gotham City is subbed out with Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York. The larger-than-life supervillains are replaced with mafiosos. Interpretations of Batman have always had a hard time getting the balance right between camp and seriousness, but Daredevil always struck me as being so afraid of camp and so eager to be taken seriously that it’s perpetually stuck in the mindset of an adolescent boy in 1981. (In case that seems too harsh, keep in mind that the replacement for Catwoman is a Greek female ninja assassin with “low-level mind control and telepathic communication”). I’ve re-read Batman: Year One in recent years, and it doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, for much the same reason.

Martha Wayne’s Pearl Necklace

Which is all background for why I’m not in the target audience for a Daredevil TV series, and why it’s so surprising that I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, I’m still only two episodes in so far, so it could all fall apart. But it would take something pretty catastrophic to unravel everything built up by those first two hours. (Apparently Drew Goddard stepped down as show runner after the second episode, so maybe I should watch more before I go on gushing about how great the series is).

The thing that sold me in the first episode was the cleverness of the premise and the confidence in which everything was established. It checks off all the boxes of a comic book adaptation — the origin scene, the scenes with his father, the gym and the boxing matches, the glasses, the confessional, and even a scene standing watch over Hell’s Kitchen on a rooftop at night — but seems to understand exactly how and why they’re important to the story. It’s too early (for me) to tell, but this might be the first real case of a live-action graphic novel: feature films are always trying to cram decades of continuity into an hour and a half, and weekly episodic series are always conscious of having to state and re-state their premise with each episode. Daredevil seems designed with Netflix and binge-watching in mind: the episodes are more like chapters instead of installments, and it’s developing its own rhythm of introduction, repetition, and reinforcement that seems to be telling the story at its own pace, without fear of losing the audience.

The confessional is a solid example. Every Daredevil story I’ve read is pretty ham-fisted with the religious allegory, as if we might forget the “devil” part of the name, or forget that we’re supposed to be conflicted about a hero using violence to do good. But the series takes what could be a stock scene and uses it for character exposition. The last line, where he asks “forgiveness for what I’m about to do,” actually works, and it doesn’t just feel like the kind of line a writer high-fives himself for squeezing into a scene.

The “origin story” is an even better example. Even though it’s been 15 years since X-Men made comic book movies cool again, and we’ve seen so many comic book adaptations that they’ve gone through at least two rounds of backlash, and the last person to do anything novel or interesting with an origin story was Tim Burton in Batman Returns, we still get the origin story every single time. Because everybody assumes that’s just what comic book adaptations do. And, I assume, everybody wants to be the one who makes the definitive version, to come up with the thing that becomes as indelible and iconic as Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace.

Daredevil splits the difference: it doesn’t act as if it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before, but neither does it assume we’re so familiar with the story that it can use shorthand like Grant Morrison did for Superman. We’ve all been around the block enough times to know that if you save somebody’s life but get blinded by hazardous chemicals in the process, you’re going to get super powers. Daredevil isn’t even all that subtle about it:
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but in terms of comic book adaptations, it’s a paragon (I was about to say marvel) of restraint.

I saw two tweets today with criticisms of the show that I completely disagree with. One complained that the cool thing about Daredevil is that he’s blind, but the show ignores that. Another complained that “there’s no clear taxonomy [of sound], helping the audience understand what he does“. I think these are both examples of the same thing: we’re so used to comic book adaptations behaving a certain way, that it’s surprising to see any attempt at deviating from that with any kind of subtlety.

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When I saw the opening credit sequence, with all the iconography of Daredevil and New York City taking shape as it’s slowly covered with red wax, I thought I knew exactly what we were going to get: lots of fancy CGI sequences of outlines taking shape out of the darkness, to illustrate Matt Murdock’s echolocation. (My brain has mercifully blocked out all memory of the Ben Affleck movie, but if I remember correctly, they did exactly that). If the VFX team got ambitious, a crucial fight would take place in the rain, being the defining element that either saves the day or almost causes Daredevil to lose the fight, depending on however the writer decided rainfall would affect somebody with superhuman senses.

Instead, so far at least, there are frequent reminders that Murdock is actually blind, gradually more explicit indications that his other senses are becoming more sensitive (like young Matt reacting to a boxing ring bell or hearing a conversation on the other side of the room), Rosario Dawson’s character repeatedly asking how a blind man can smell someone through walls a couple of floors down or accurately drop a fire extinguisher several stories down a stairwell to hit someone at exactly the right moment, and generally, an implicit assumption that the audience can understand that super powers are happening without the aid of a visual effects crew.

Powers Beyond Those Of Mortal Men

And the reason I think it’s enough of a big deal to drag out is because the second episode, “Cut Man,” is just masterfully constructed. I’d say it’s as strong as Battlestar Galactica’s “33” in that both are seamlessly orchestrated self-contained episodes that also confidently and definitively establish the tone of the rest of the series.

Throughout the episode, what impresses me the most is the decision what to show and what to leave implicit. It’s the first episode where we really see the extent of Daredevil’s powers as something super-human, but it’s almost entirely conveyed via Claire Temple asking him how he’s doing all this. It took the setup from the end of the pilot — a child is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring — and immediately advance past his super-heroics to a shot of him lying in a dumpster near death. The bulk of the episode is his recovering from his near-fatal injuries while Claire recounts the standard “birth of a super hero” adventures that we’d normally get in a montage sequence.

And of course the final sequence really is a masterpiece; I’ll be very surprised if anything else in the series is able to top it. Again, it’s because of the restraint. The previous episode ended with a montage of all the horrible atrocities the bad guys were committing, to make it clear that Daredevil was hopelessly outnumbered against an insurmountable evil. The bulk of the second episode is spent making it clear that he’s broken and beaten, and that there’s a very real chance he won’t survive the night.

But then the final climactic battle is slow and almost quiet. It just trucks slowly — even self-consciously — up and down a long dark hallway, and we see the fight spill out from side rooms into the hall. We still get to see all the bad-ass highlights of a standard cinematic superhero fight, but the events of the fight itself aren’t presented as if they were part of the story. And neither is showing explicitly how he’s predicting his enemies’ movements or fending two or three of them off at a time. The story doesn’t deem it important to show how he fights crime; what’s important is simply to show that he does it.

That’s huge. In terms of just plain good storytelling, it’s what keeps the action from devolving into “movie musical number” territory that fight scenes and car chase scenes almost invariably end up being. It’s a super-hero story, so the ending is a foregone conclusion: he’s going to win. So there’s always a disconnect to see extended sequences of stunt people punching and kicking each other, presented as if it were advancing the story, when it’s actually just stopped the story to show you something cool.

The “story” here is that Daredevil is at one end of the hall, and he’s going to go to the other end of the hall and rescue this kid, or he’s going to die trying. The fight spills out into the hall not just so we can see some cool martial arts choreography, but to show that he’s beaten and he’s impossibly weary, but he’s not going to give up.

There’s no indication that he can’t see any of what’s going on, and no indication of how he’s hearing movements or heartbeats, because that would be worse than irrelevant. It would turn the story into one about a guy who fights crime because he has super powers, instead of a guy whose super powers make it possible for him to fight crime.

That’s a distinction that Superman and Batman stories have been wrestling with for decades. Superman’s only interesting when you play up the idea that he’d be a good guy even without his powers (which is why putting him against General Zod and other Kryptonians right off the bat was one of the few good decisions Man of Steel made). And most of the “serious” Batman stories put all the focus on how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents drove him to make himself a hero. Everything in “Cut Man” — including what would seem like an unrelated “B-plot” about Foggy keeping Karen company through the night — establishes Matt Murdock as a hero driven to help people solely because it’s something that needs to be done.

Marvel Universe

My other favorite aspect of the series is something I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews or comments: the central conflict that sparks the series is all a result of crime bosses fighting to take over Hell’s Kitchen after the destruction caused by the climactic battle in The Avengers. It’s just an ingenious way to modernize it while still making it feel like a timeless premise, and a perfect way to tie it in with the rest of Marvel live-action continuity without a Special Guest Appearance or cross-over. I’ve been watching The Flash on CW and enjoying it a lot, but its frequent cross-overs with Arrow just bring to mind the most negative connotations of “comic book adaptation.”

But really, that’s just one part of what makes The Flash seem like perfectly enjoyable (seriously!) but by-the-numbers episodic television comic book adaptation. There’s something about the entire series that just feels safe. You get the impression that when the idea came to develop a Flash series, their two main questions were how to do the running VFX, and how to work some racial diversity into the main cast. The rest writes itself: season-long intrigue, monster-of-the-week format, opening and closing voice-over that put the events of the episode into “larger” perspective, etc.

Which goes back to my old shorthand of “DC = fantastic, larger-than-life, fun storytelling; Marvel = adolescent obsession with ‘realism’ and ‘maturity,'” which probably hasn’t been true in at least 20 years. And seems to fall apart as a valid metric anyway, considering that the reasons I’m enjoying Daredevil so much seem to go directly against all my assumptions: it’s a more mature, realistic, and understated take on a super-hero comic book setup.

I think it comes down to tone, and walking the tightrope between wallowing in grim self-importance and floating off into irrelevance. “For Mature Audiences” in comic books has traditionally meant anything but maturity: it’s been dominated by reactionary, adolescent, and defensive attempts to make comic books more than “kids stuff” by slathering everything in violence, sex, profanity, and “adult content.” And Daredevil‘s standout creators in comics have been some of the worst offenders. Sure, Sin City, for example, is a self-conscious attempt to build on lurid pulp comics and novels, but it’s also so enamored of the pulp that it stops making any kind of commentary on it. It becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

I’m definitely not going to suggest that Daredevil the TV series is “light:” the first episode’s montage of all the evil going on in the city includes a sweatshop full of silent slave workers measuring out drugs for distribution, and they’ve all been visibly, violently blinded. Not to mention all the human trafficking, or the blood, or the pervasive paranoia, or the murders and murders made to look like suicides.

The Seduction of the Innocent

But still, there’s very much a sense of “comic book mentality” that carries throughout. Part of it is just the presentation: Murdock’s apartment and its intrusively bright LCD sign, the boxing gym where the bulk of the flashbacks take place, and the water tower on top of Claire’s apartment building, all have a very simple, iconic, and graphic feel to them. You watch a scene and can immediately imagine how the panels would be laid out on the page.

More significantly, it’s a comic book adaptation in that there is a very clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. There are crooked prison guards and corruptible or arrogant people, but there also exist characters who are Good and characters who are Evil. That’s the comic book aspect; the maturity comes from the way the first two episodes don’t attempt to milk any kind of artificial conflict out of the delineation. Claire advises Daredevil with little hesitation exactly how to jam a knife into a guy’s eye socket to inflict the most pain. And Daredevil uses should-be-lethal force so often that it makes Superman and Batman’s “no killing, no guns” philosophies seem almost as juvenile as Frank Castle’s.

That’s another way that the series benefits from being on Netflix instead of broadcast television, or even HBO. It doesn’t have to dance around questions of violence or profanity that make it seem even more artificial. A lot of “for mature audiences” material (see: True Blood, most FX series) seems as if it were written by people who found out they can use the f-word and then freak the fuck out. Daredevil has characters saying “shit” when a real adult in 2015 would say “shit.” And fight scenes that cause believable bodily harm with blood and broken bones.

Oddly enough, while watching the Daredevil series, the comic book that keeps coming to mind is Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. (And I better not get started on what an enormous disappointed the Constantine TV series turned out to be, or I’ll go on for another 3000 words). There was a real sense that its first motivation was to be a good, compelling story, and everything else was a product of that. It showed an innate understanding of its medium: it wasn’t attempting to tell a story that begrudgingly used the comic book format, or make a masterpiece that would elevate comics to some “higher” level of relevance, but used all the strengths and weaknesses of the format to tell its story. It understood that “mature” often means subtlety, but it didn’t shy away from being graphic. It understood that “adult” meant weighty questions of ethics and morality that couldn’t be summed up with some clumsy allegory, but also that a huge part of what makes comic book storytelling so appealing is its simplicity and abstraction.

Ultimately, it feels like something made by people who love comics and love television (and love martial arts choreography), instead of being made with some preconceived notion of what people who love comics are supposed to like. However they did it, if they can take my least favorite Marvel character and turn it into such a compelling show, I can’t wait to see what they do with Gambit, Jubilee, or Dazzler.

They Alive, Dammit. It’s a Miracle!


The best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way its premise is set up with an uplifting viral video theme song that’s abruptly cut short. Or how one of the “mole women” calls Matt Lauer “Bryant” and it’s never commented on. Or how Matt Lauer remarks that in 15 years, Donna Maria never learned English, and her caption says “These bitches never bothered to learn Spanish.” Or how the Today show producers shove the women out into New York City with gift bags, cheerily saying “Thank you, victims!” before slamming the big metal doors shut behind them. Or how Kimmy says “nukular” during her Today show interview, and then during her big Act 3 inspirational speech says she got “tooken” by a cult leader. Or how that inspirational speech is prompted by a rat in a New York trash can. Or how Jane Krakowski’s character has a refrigerator specifically for bottled water, and she casually tosses an unused bottle in the garbage after it’s been offered. Or how Kimmy dresses in the bright clothes of a middle-school-aged girl and it’s contrasted against every single other resident of New York, or how she runs wide-eyed into Saks Fifth Avenue and the only thing she’s chosen to buy is a pair of light-up sneakers.

What I’m saying here is that it’s got the best first episode of anything that I’ve seen in years. It’s like Lost pilot strong in terms of setting the tone of the series and getting me hooked. In fact, its ultimately uplifting message of indomitable spirit in the face of adversity was kind of lost on me, since I just went away thinking that I’ll probably never write a script that good.

I threatened to write a Slate-style think piece about how the opening theme of the show works on multiple levels to perfectly encapsulate the combination of satire and celebration that runs throughout the series. Then the show stole my thunder by making it all explicit over the course of the next few episodes. (Netflix means going from hyped-up first episode excitement to post-season-finale depression in less than two days).

For starters, it’s catchy as hell. I’d thought that it was just a reference to the Gregory Brothers’ viral videos, but was glad to find out that they were essentially referencing themselves. It gives a Gilligan’s Island setup of the premise of the series — four women released into 2014 after being kidnapped and held underground by a post-apocalyptic cult leader — but does it in the way that we hear about horrible stuff in 2014, through viral YouTube remixes of news reports. (“Also, look at these sunglasses I found. Unbreakable.”)

It’s a satire of how we take people’s personal stories of horror and tragedy, and then repackage and commodify them as concern-tainment. Like Titus says later on in the series, it gives people the chance to see all the lurid details of a story, but also lets them feel good about themselves for being concerned and having an opinion. And it requires no effort apart from paying attention just long enough for the media to get fixated on the next story. It’s Ace in the Hole condensed to about 60 seconds.

But it’s not presented as cynical, inert satire; nor as a j’accuse! condemnation. It’s an auto-tuned pop gospel song, a celebration. Of freedom and children getting to enjoy their childhood and dancing dogs in suits and scenes from the musical Daddy’s Boy. And I like how the theme song just says “girls” and “females” and not “women,” not just as a shallow “take back the language of MRAs,” but as an affirmation that the idea of strength is much more powerful than any PC name-wrangling.

And all that stuff is in there because the series has the same sensibility as 30 Rock — smart and confident enough in its own intelligence to be unabashedly absurd without spinning off into irrelevance, and able to combine dark and silly without losing either. Plus, you need to watch with subtitles on to get all the jokes.

Apparently, the series was first pitched to NBC, and they liked it but didn’t know where or when to air it, so it went to Netflix. Even though I would’ve liked to enjoy a full season of hype, running on Netflix was likely the best choice as there’s no feeling of self-censoring going on here. 30 Rock was at its best when it kept the sitcom format as just the barest skeleton for a bizarre storyline or stunt-casting guest appearance, like Paul Reubens as a horribly inbred prince. The equivalents here are Martin Short as a mad plastic surgeon and Nick Kroll as a cultish exercise leader, and they’re still batshit insane but grounded in a theme: the ways women fall into the trap of feeling worthless or unsure of themselves.

Ellie Kemper is amazing as Kimmy Schmidt; she deserves an Emmy for her reaction shots alone. It would’ve been easy for the performance, like the show itself, to settle into a rut of “wide-eyed teenager” or “fish out of water” or “unsinkable Molly Brown,” but she encompasses all of it. Constantly. Her entire first-time-in-New-York sequence is limited to the first five minutes of the first episode, and then afterwards she’s a real character. (Whose entire frame of reference is 1999 teen girl culture and a post-apocalyptic death cult). The 30 Rock style of delivering side jokes is so established now that it can seem formulaic, but when Kimmy answers an unrelated question with “yes, there was weird sex stuff” it’s a jolt that reminds you of the darkness that’s behind every joke.

And speaking of 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski is essentially doing a variation of Jenna Mulroney, but there’s more depth to her character (Mrs. Voorhees, because this series is brilliant) than there was on a network sitcom. The series doesn’t have any interest in bringing Strong Female Characters, but includes women of various states of intelligence, self-destructiveness, and general competence. Carol Kane’s character may be the closest to a stock character that the series has, but her delivery sells it. Tina Fey’s guest appearance as a permed incompetent lawyer is the exact opposite of Liz Lemon. And really, Jane Krakowski never got nearly enough credit for mastering the 30 Rock delivery, which she effortlessly does here without the benefit of Jackie Jorp-Jomp or The Rural Juror.

(The only reason I don’t have more to say about Titus Burgess is that the role seems to have been made specifically for him. It’s impressive to be able to take a character that insufferably self-absorbed and make him sympathetic).

It may be corny to say so, but I think that airing on Netflix instead of broadcast TV was the best thing for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because it feels like it belongs in a new medium. It’s something that could only exist in 2015, a time that Kimmy insists on calling “the future.”

No wait, I got it: the absolute best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the flashback to the bunker when Cyndee was overcome with Hulkamania and Kimmy had to talk her down by pretending to by Macho Man Randy Savage. Oh yeah, brother!

Firewatch

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There’s a phenomenon both charming and insufferable (depending on how inspired or intimidated you happen to be feeling at the time) in which people who are really good at what they do start to take it for granted. (I think a term more sophisticated than “the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect” has been floated out there, but I don’t need to do any research to find it because I am awesome at psychology). So they tend to downplay the results, assuming that everyone is starting from the same baseline level of competence and that anyone could achieve the same results by putting in the same amount of effort.

Which can result in Campo Santo, a small-ish start-up studio of absurdly talented people, fairly quietly making Firewatch, which may be the best-looking game I’ve ever seen from any studio of any size.

Granted, it’s kind of a no-brainer, since they managed to assemble the closest you’re probably ever going to see to a “supergroup” in something as ego-driven as video games. By the time they’d assembled the guys who’d brought the first real innovation to narrative-driven adventure games in years; a ridiculously talented graphic designer; and artists and programmers quietly talented enough to turn graphic design into a real place you could walk around in; the best sound designers, composers, and voice directors; then adding backing from Panic — a company with its own reputation for combining solid software with outstanding design and its own sensibility for making weird, innovative stuff — it all just seemed like overkill.

But even knowing that, the game looks better than I’d anticipated. I’ve been deliberately avoiding seeing too much of it apart from the screenshots and promotional material, but seeing it in motion is even better. It’s as if they took Olly Moss’s prints (which I really wish I’d bought when I had the chance, now) and turned them into 3D spaces. It’s graphic design sensibility and all the obsessive detail that goes into a static image, now spread across an entire section of wilderness.

When The Orange Box came out, I said that with Half-Life 2 and especially Team Fortress 2, Valve was working harder on visuals than they really needed to. They could get away with a lot less effort. There’s doubtless going to be plenty of comparisons of the look of Firewatch to Team Fortress 2 — which I believe is high praise — but I think it’s a good lesson to all of us non-artists about how much thought goes into art direction and world creation. TF2 had to emphasize playability, which means readability of the characters and environment and maneuverability around the space. Firewatch is no doubt concerned with much of that, but also focused on mood, narrative, and time. The brief bit I saw had the main character finding a group of unruly teens, then heading towards a cave as a storm was approaching. Even in that short segment, you could see all kinds of subtle storytelling going on. While TF2 is going for slapstick, bombastic action, and fast pace, Firewatch seems like a slow burn (sorry) towards an emotional climax: the tension between tedium and danger, a beautiful natural environment taken for granted, isolation vs. human connection.

Which leads to something I hope doesn’t get lost while everyone is talking about the confident art direction: the level of engagement you get from the premise of a first-person narrator having a running conversation with an unseen voice on the radio. It’s a brilliant case of an entire narrative being built on a single, easily-definable character relationship. (Like, for instance, that of a convicted murderer having to become surrogate parent to a little girl). At the risk of hyperbole: it reveals an innate understanding of how interactive entertainment works and how it’s unique, more than any number of hypothetical discussions about “ludonarrative dissonance” and the tension between “developer’s story” and “player’s story.”

The reason is that it understands that engagement is more necessary than any bullshit goal of “player empowerment.” The conversational options in Firewatch aren’t just joke dispenser voice menus, nor are they Critical Action Time Choice Junctures® in which you’re arbitrarily deciding what role you’re going to play for the next 1-5 minutes of developer-provided content. Instead, my friend Jared articulated it a lot better than I could: more often than not, you get to a moment in Firewatch, and you think, “I want to say this thing,” and then that thing pops up on the screen as a dialogue option. Get that balance right, and all the years spent thinking of how to fix the problem of “players wanting to break the game” just vanish. It’s not about empowering the player to do what she wants, because that keeps the player at a level of role-playing or gaming the system instead of genuine engagement and inhabiting the character.

It seems like a subtle, almost indefinable skill. But then, there are a lot of aspects of The Walking Dead that I’d thought would have a subtle impact, but instead ended up pushing forward the experience in ways that years of emulating traditional SCUMM games weren’t able to.

So yeah, I admit that I’m biased when I say I really want Campo Santo and Firewatch to get the success they deserve. But I also sincerely think they’re doing something capital-I Important (even if they’d never describe it as such). If there’s one thing that game developers are good at (including myself), it’s aping other games. If we get enough people pointing at a beautiful, engaging, and mature experience and saying, “This. We want to make more of this,” then the entire medium will be better off.

Red Room Resolutions

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I spent a few thousand words figuring the whole Twin Peaks problem, and that’s without even mentioning the Red Room. I was more interested in the more plot-driven, primetime-soap-opera aspects of it. That was the stuff that I’ve spent years being dismissive of, because I first watched the series in 1990 and could never make sense of it.

Re-watching the series now, in order, including the essential (and long unavailable) pilot episode, has helped me make sense of the series. Or at least, re-evaluate my memory of the series and my assumptions of what it was trying to do. All the bizarre, awkward, and disturbing stuff isn’t just a bunch of stylistic flourishes or weirdness for its own sake, but is there for a reason.

As I’m watching the series with a newfound understanding and appreciation of it, I get to the end of the third episode (helpfully named “Episode 2″). It’s Agent Cooper’s first dream sequence in the Red Room. It’s the most iconic image of Twin Peaks, the first thing that people think of when they hear “Twin Peaks,” even more than the title card, “damn good coffee,” and solitary traffic lights. It’s been parodied and referenced and “re-interpreted” dozens of times over the past 24 years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted from it, while of course doing The Man From Another Place’s little dance. It’s revisited multiple times throughout the series, and all of its content is explained over the course of the following episodes as we learn more about Laura Palmer’s murder.

So I revisited this old, familiar scene, and it completely blew my mind. Enough to challenge some of the most basic assumptions I’ve let build up for years. And enough to inspire me to change how I think about creative works, both as an audience member and as an aspiring creator. Here are the two main ones, in Buzzfeed-style list format:

1. Stop being reductive.

Everything that dream sequence establishes for the narrative could’ve been accomplished a lot more quickly and easily without having to hire a designer or teaching a bunch of actors to speak backwards.

And doing it efficiently would’ve robbed pop culture in general — and television in particular — of some of its most indelible images.

In fact, the series did more efficiently deliver all the information from its dream sequence. It was serialized network television in the Dark Times before DVRs, so even something as bizarre as Twin Peaks was obligated to get the audience back up to speed each episode. It’s not as if the series was so enamored of its artistic vision that it ignored its own format.

And I’m not suggesting that there was ever actually the proposal: “Let’s ditch this whole thing and just have Cooper saying, ‘Diane I just had the weirdest dream.'” I think the problem of being reductive is more pervasive and more subtle than that. It happens gradually, often without our even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve already got a tendency to treat narrative works as if they were puzzle boxes, or math problems. Break everything down to its basic components, then you’ve figured out what the artist was trying to say. Ax + By + Cz = Fargo. (Or, for that matter, “Twin Peaks is about nostalgia for something that never existed” or “Twin Peaks is Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place.”)

To make matters worse, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was coming off a brief (and mostly unsuccessful) stint as a film and TV major, which just enabled all the worst pick-it-apart tendencies. Sparse sets with ornate furnishings and the shadow of a piece of fabric blowing in the wind? I’ve seen Spellbound, thank you, and I know how movies and TV represent dream interpretation. Here’s what the scene is trying to accomplish artistically.

Plus, the scene seems to beg for interpretation. This is the climactic scene in the episode, and the breakthrough point of a murder investigation. Here’s what all the clues mean to the case. Here’s what the scene is doing narratively, which of course is the whole point of a murder mystery.

But the scene is stunning even to those of us who already know the solution to the mystery, and to those of us who’ve seen some of the works that inspired it. Not everything can or should be boiled down to a plot point or a visual reference. To suggest that there’s a “right answer” is, essentially, reducing artistic communication to telecommunications: the artist assembles a packet of “Important Meaning,” I process it and then acknowledge by blogging, “I get it!”

It’s not all or nothing, and it’s not a sudden insistence that everything be straightforward, non-challenging, and explainable. It’s a gradual process where our obsession with understanding art slowly takes dominance over our ability to just appreciate it. And in my case, at least, it was made worse by several years working to literally reduce stories down to a series of puzzles.

Screw the culture that turned “respect for the reader’s time” into “tl,dr.” Or “accessibility” into “complete lack of challenge.” Interpretation is fine, and even useful, but not if it’s presented as if it’s the single correct solution. And definitely not to the point where it reduces all media into Wikipedia summaries and, even worse, TV Tropes pages. It’s insidious, because it can feel productive, disguising itself as deeper engagement with and appreciation for media. But left unchallenged, it turns simply into the old problem of Cliffs Notes trying to substitute for the real thing.

2. Set a limit for compromises.

One of the best aspects of the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast is that it’s a reminder of how popular Twin Peaks was. I’ve always mis-remembered the show as some obscure cult classic, when in fact “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was as big a pop culture obsession in 1990 as “Who Shot J.R.?” was in 1980. [Ed Note: I’m 43 years old.]

To somebody who’s spent years insisting on a rigid division between “good” and “popular”, it’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance. Not just this shit actually aired on primetime network television in the early 90s?! but here’s a weird dwarf in a red suit dancing and talking backwards, and not only was it not immediately canceled, but it became a hit?!

For Twin Peaks, it goes back to that notion of accessibility and awareness of its own format. Murder mysteries are inherently compelling. So are soap operas, and in fact all serialized narratives. It would’ve been easy for successful filmmakers to dismiss a TV soap opera as slumming, just because the standouts up to that point were Dynasty, Dallas, and a bunch of other competent series that never strived for much more than “entertainment.”

Instead, Lynch and Frost made something that didn’t just use its format to make a commentary on its format and its audience, but used the format to make all their bizarre fever dreams accessible to their audience. It’s a brilliant way to take what most people would consider a limitation, and instead turn it into a strength. (Two of my favorite examples in video games: Grim Fandango‘s use of low-poly skeletons against pre-rendered backgrounds, which was a concession to the technical limitations of 3D at the time but has aged better than most contemporary fully 3D games. And the low-poly characters in Gravity Bone and 30 Flights of Loving are an essential part of its artistic design; having “higher fidelity” just wouldn’t be nearly as cool or memorable).

So bizarre stuff can be hugely popular. And accessibility and artistic vision aren’t mutually exclusive. Got it.

On top of that, I’ve got a deep-seated revulsion to auteur theory that’s so strong, I have a knee-jerk reaction to even innocuous interviews with “creative leads” as being repulsively fetishistic. I’ve experienced what it’s like to work on a project where egos are allowed to run unchecked, a couple of them where my ego was allowed to run unchecked. Plenty of “masterworks” are actually the work of dozens if not hundreds of people, and the people who most vocally defend the notion of the auteur are either the ones who are getting the credit, or aspiring to get all the credit.

Or the ones who are so far removed from the process that it’s a complete mystery to them. I have next to no understanding of how major film production works, so I’m often giving the Coen Brothers credit for Roger Deakins’s or Barry Sonnenfeld’s work (and sometimes, even Roderick Jaynes’s work). It’s pervasive, and it’s dismissive of the value of creative collaboration.

As a result of all of that, I’ve turned accessibility, collaboration, and compromise into a mantra.

And then I get a reminder: no wait, David Lynch and Mark Frost really are geniuses.

It’s not the work of any one person, it didn’t happen in a vacuum, it didn’t spring fully-formed from one person’s mind, and it didn’t even happen without precedent. But still, it had to take a singular artistic vision to convince so many people that this was going to turn out to be a good idea.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing. No doubt they had to make a ton of compromises and concessions, both technical and artistic. And it’s still entirely possible to be so confident in your own vision that you’re completely insufferable. But the first part of knowing where to draw the line is acknowledging that there’s so much leeway that a line even needs to be drawn. That there’s no one right way to do it. That there’s plenty of middle ground between egomania and complete self-censorship.

Even if we’ve never had to deal with it directly, I think most of us are familiar with the idea of horrible feedback. The clueless network executive, the crass and venal marketing team, the vocal critic, the insipid client: it’s so common that it’s become a stereotype.

But I’ve started to believe that the stereotype has backfired, and it’s far more dangerous to set the bar as low as the worst possible example. To believe that anything other than useless feedback is constructive feedback, or that anything less than completely abandoning your “vision” is acceptable compromise. It’s dangerous because it’s a slow decline, a gradual chipping away at integrity — with the constant reassurance that it’s not “that bad” — enough so that what you once would’ve considered unacceptable is now taken as a matter of course, and the demands get more and more absurd.

Eventually, you get to take a step back, and it’s almost as if you’ve become a different person. A long series of gradual, “harmless” compromises have resulted in something that can no longer be called even a collaboration, because there’s no trace left of you. Everything you valued in the first place — the entire reason you decided to do what you do — has been de-emphasized if not outright lost. You’re just left with the question “why am I doing this at all?”

(Purely a hypothetical, of course).

Seeing the Red Room in 2014 was a reminder of the version of me that saw the Red Room in 1990. And inspiration to start un-learning all the stuff I’ve taught myself since then. To get away from the person who’d say what does this mean? or how could you possibly broadcast this on TV today? and get back to the one who just said this is awesome I want to make a living making stuff like this.

That Gum I Liked Has Gone Out of Style

Laura Palmer Black Lodge
Recently I started watching Twin Peaks again, both because of the announcement of the new Showtime series, and because a couple of my friends have started a Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast. I’ve been realizing that it’s the first time I’ve seen full episodes, in order, since the show originally aired. (And I was a college sophomore).

What hit me first during the rewatch is how wrong I’ve been about the series, for years. I remembered it as being wildly uneven: some of the hands-down best scenes in the history of television, mixed in with a lot of painfully clumsy attempts at comic relief, long stretches of weirdness simply for the sake of weirdness, and a central plot that completely derails once its instigating mystery procedural is solved.

I’ve always thought of it as one my favorite television series, but it wasn’t until now that I appreciated just how good it is. (It probably helps that this is likely the first time I’ve seen it in order, without missing any scenes or episodes, something that was impossible in my distracted-college-student, pre-DVR days). It’s deeper than I thought, with the most obvious themes of the series being echoed and reinforced at every level. And it’s more cohesive than I ever realized: individual scenes and even entire storylines that once seemed superfluous now seem to fit in perfectly with those themes.

It’s not just that I didn’t understand it when I first watched it; I don’t think I could possibly have understood it. Not without seeing everything that came after.

Blue Velvet Meets Peyton Place

Both David Lynch and Mark Frost are quoted (in the same newspaper!) as describing Twin Peaks as Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place. Instead of doing any deeper Google detective work to find out which one of them actually said it, I’m going to leave it a mystery to myself. It’s a good reminder that the series was driven by two people, and not just the “typical David Lynch weirdness” that I’d always remembered.

(Incidentally: if you haven’t read Frost’s novels The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs, I highly recommend them. Not only are they two of my favorite books, they’re essentially Mark Frost doing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen six years before Alan Moore).

The reference to Peyton Place was lost on me at the time, and it still is, since I’ve never seen the series. I’m assuming that it’s mainly just a reference to the format, since Peyton Place was (at least according to Wikipedia) the first primetime soap opera.

But the first thing that jumped out at me, watching the series in 2014, is just how much of Twin Peaks shows that self-awareness of the format. It’s most obvious with Invitation to Love, of course, the soap opera within a soap opera. But that just makes it explicit. It’s an acknowledgement to the audience that they’re perfectly aware that it’s over the top, and they’re doing it that way for a reason. It’s a television series that’s extremely aware that it’s a television series.

Even when it first aired, I got some of the callbacks to earlier television series. I may be too young to get references to Peyton Place, but I did have access to Nick at Nite. So I assumed that Laura Palmer’s identical cousin wasn’t just a reference to soap operas’ fondness for identical twins, but the specifically implausible only-on-TV premise of The Patty Duke Show. And I understood that the fixation on a one-armed man as key witness in a murder investigation was a reference to The Fugitive.

With the casting, I assumed that Peggy Lipton from The Mod Squad, Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from West Side Story, and Piper Laurie from tons of stuff, were all meant to evoke the 60s. Basically, they were doing Quentin Tarantino’s schtick of establishing a time period via referential casting, before Tarantino did it.

Now that I’m a step removed from trying to follow the plot and just make sense of everything in general, I can see the “classic soap opera” influences in every scene. The score isn’t just the constant, ominous synthesizer drone I remembered (I spent basically an entire year of college with the tape of the Twin Peaks soundtrack playing on constant loop in my car) but segues into the flowery, melodramatic piano prevalent in soap operas. But in Twin Peaks, it’s not just “prevalent” but “omnipresent”; Donna Hayward and Sarah Palmer in particular are perpetually caught in the throes of melodrama. (Speaking of: I don’t know how much I buy Angelo Badalamenti’s account of composing Laura Palmer’s theme, but that clip is still delightful).

But as a survivor (mostly) of the 1990s, what surprises me the most is that this self-awareness no longer comes across as affected or distancing. Instead, it grounds the series and makes it seem all the more earnest.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

My formative TV-watching years coincided with the 1980s transitioning into the 1990s. This was the age when entire series were re-purposed at the last minute to be dreams taking place in an earlier TV series or the imagination of an autistic child. So I’m blaming that as the reason I started to value “postmodernism” more than anything else. Being aware of the conventions and limitations of your medium meant you were smarter than the medium; you were actually making a commentary about art instead of just delivering commercial entertainment.

I admit that at the time, I absolutely loved all the winking at the fourth wall in Moonlighting. Now, it’s just insufferable.

The X-Files is often listed as a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, or at least a series that wouldn’t have been possible on network television without Twin Peaks. I was a huge fan of X-Files, and to be clear: I still think that the first three or four seasons are outstanding. But it is absolutely a product of the 1990s. And while it’s aged much better than Moonlighting, for instance, it’s still ultimately a victim of its own self-awareness.

Almost all of my favorite episodes of the series were by Darin Morgan, and they became my favorites mostly because they showed a willingness to break out of the limitations of the format and comment on the format itself. My absolute favorite — and still one of my favorite episodes of any television series — is Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.

The episode still works now, but it’s even clearer what the episode was doing when you consider the context in which it was broadcast. At the time, Fox was aggressively promoting — and even “aggressive” is understating it — a special television event showing actual footage of a genuine alien autopsy! Ads for the special ran constantly during X-Files because, hey, perfect audience for it!

What the executives at Fox didn’t realize (or worse, assumed everyone else was too stupid to realize) is that The X-Files was aimed — at least ideally — at an audience most likely to believe a “real” alien autopsy was bullshit. Jose Chung was largely a response to that. There’s live-TV style video footage of Scully performing an autopsy on the alien, before finding the obvious zipper. There’s an absurd appearance by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as Men In Black. At the end, excerpts from From Outer Space are read, recasting Scully and Mulder as essentially fan fiction characters of themselves.

The episode does such a good job of playing the comedy straight-faced that it’d be fine simply as satire or parody. But what makes Jose Chung a classic is that it takes the ludicrous deconstruction and spins it into a mission statement for the entire series. It’s an earnest re-assertion of the main themes of the series: skepticism and faith.

For all of its strengths, the series was by no means subtle about its themes: it wasn’t as interested in conspiracy theories, aliens, or monsters-of-the-week, as in the idea that belief in those things had become a new religion. It was stated explicitly, over and over again: Scully’s crisis of faith as a Catholic vs Mulder’s dogmatic “I Want to Believe.” “The Truth is Out There” as a double entendre for the series as both a showcase of the weird and an analysis of the human need for definitive answers to the unanswerable.

The X-Files would go on for several more years, and it would often make another attempt at striking that balance between earnestness and self-awareness. But the 90s won out, and sincerity lost. Later episodes would fail to stand up as anything more than self-parody.

The Importance of Being Earnest


Which isn’t just a long digression about an unrelated TV series; it’s support for my Grand Unified Theory about Pop Culture in the 1990s. Namely, that it was a blight on the entirety of western culture, one that we’re still only just recovering from. It made ironic detachment something that wasn’t just inevitable, but prized and sought after, a sign that we get it. And sincerity became either mawkish and maudlin or insufferably pompous.

It’s the product of a generation that grew up completely saturated with popular media, which meant loving it but also being acutely aware of its cliches and its limitations. We wanted to talk about universal truths and issues of significance like faith, or the trials of coming of age, but didn’t want to get so close to it that we’d come across as too high-minded and pretentious about it.

It seems clear now that Twin Peaks pre-dated that (or at least avoided it). It’s still very much aware that it’s a television series, and spends a lot of time acknowledging its own format. But it doesn’t use it as an ironic defense mechanism or descend into self-parody. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction. Twin Peaks required absolute commitment from everybody involved to go all-in, without fear of looking silly, weird, or incompetent.

There’s not much in the series that’s muted or understated: everything is turned up to full volume. It’s an environment where the bizarre and unsettling are so commonplace that anything becomes possible. Even its most blatant winks at the camera — with Invitation to Love — don’t seem like mockery, but genuine affection. “We found soap operas so fascinating that we decided to make one.” Twin Peaks isn’t numb to any of the things it’s depicting. It feels everything.

(Wild at Heart is basically a feature-length exercise in this. Painfully sincere melodrama stretched as far as it can possibly go without breaking, and then a step farther. It’s an entire movie that goes to 11 and stays there. It’s possibly my favorite David Lynch movie, and I haven’t seen it well over a decade. I’m afraid to watch it again, in case I don’t like it as much as I remember).

One great example from Twin Peaks is a scene in which Leland Palmer, still going through a breakdown after Laura’s murder, shows up at an event at the Great Northern. He hears big band music start playing, which as we’ve already seen, triggers his memories of dancing with Laura as a child. He starts dancing by himself. Catherine Martell joins him, not out of any genuine compassion but to try and keep him from making a scene. When Leland finally breaks down and begins wailing, holding his head in abject misery, Catherine starts imitating him, as if it were part of the dance. Soon all the guests are taking part and laughing. The only one who recognizes the scene as a tragedy is Audrey Horne, who’s watching from a corner. She starts crying and the show cuts to a commercial break.

The dancing would be a corny gag, even if Airplane! hadn’t already done it. But what Twin Peaks does so brilliantly in its best moments is smashing together and subverting tonal opposites.

Since everything is turned up to full volume, it ends up creating something like feedback loops in tone: drama pushed so far that it becomes comedic, or comedy stretched out so far that it becomes tragic or unsettling. It’s kind of funny, in retrospect, to see Roger Ebert get so angry about the similar technique in Blue Velvet. Especially when you consider that Blue Velvet was a feature film marketed as provocative and disturbing, and just a few years later, the same tonal dissonance in Twin Peaks became a surprisingly popular primetime network television series.

It was insightful for Gene Siskel, in that same review of Blue Velvet, to compare it to Hitchcock. It is indeed manipulation, taking advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions of how cinematic storytelling works, and then using those preconceptions “against” them. In The Birds and Psycho, scenes go on longer than they should, the shots cut more quickly than they should, the camera gets closer to the actress than it should. It subconsciously contributes to that feeling of being trapped along with the protagonist. This isn’t right. It’s not just watching something horrible happen to someone else, it’s actually affecting you.

For years, I thought that was the end of it. It’s a clever directorial trick, a stylistic flourish that’s as arch and distancing as anything in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Rewatching Twin Peaks, though, I’ve started to believe it’s still self-aware and manipulative, but anything but arch and distant. It’s so surreal that it becomes “hyper-real.” And when David Lynch shows you these bizarre scenes, it’s the opposite of distancing; he’s actually inviting you to take a peek into the most personal and private thing of all: his dreams.

Just You and I


The genius of it is that it’s a way to elicit extremes of emotion in media that no longer allow for extremes of emotion. We’ve become so accustomed to the way that media works that we seldom feel genuine emotion from it. I’m a sucker for any TV show or movie; when it wants me to cry, I’ll bawl, and when it wants to me be scared, I’ll jump. But there’s always a sense that I’m crying because I’m supposed to be sad here, or I’m scared because the movie is giving me cues that I should be scared now. By breaking down and denying our most basic expectations about how scary scenes or funny scenes are supposed to “work,” Twin Peaks starts to elicit genuine responses instead of conditioned ones.

There’s the genuine pathos of that scene with Leland Palmer, where it turns farce into actual tragedy. As opposed to, for example, Laura Palmer’s funeral: that’s such an indelibly memorable scene from the series, but it’s more iconic than emotional. It’s so weird that it becomes farce.

Or the scene showing Killer Bob’s second murder. I’ve seen the series before, so of course I knew it was going to happen. And by that point in the series, we’ve seen pretty much all of the characters having extreme reactions to the most horrific sights they can imagine. And still, the scene is intensely horrific. Largely because everything in it is wrong. Why is there suddenly a spotlight there? Why does it switch to slow motion seemingly at random? Why is this happening now, when it seems like such a waste of a character? Why haven’t they cut to a commercial yet? How can they show this on network television in 1990? It’s all brutal and reinforces the feeling this shouldn’t be happening.

Or a brilliant scene when Donna meets Maddy in the diner. They formulate a plan to get Laura’s diary. Donna has started experimenting with the idea of being a “bad girl,” so she’s smoking and wearing sunglasses. Maddy’s decided she hates her glasses and breaks them, vowing never to wear them again. What’s brilliant about it is that I remember being frustrated by it in 1990 — I want to hear the plan; why is this scene so slow and stilted and awkward? Watching it now, though, it’s clear that the scene doesn’t care about its murder mystery nearly as much as it cares about its characters. They’ve both been affected by Laura’s murder — Donna tempted by the fact that Laura was more “experienced” than her, Maddy feeling frustrated at living in Laura’s shadow. But they’re so vividly teenagers. (Even though Maddy is supposed to be older, she’s established as kind of a sheltered nerd, a teenager in transition). They’re mired in affectations and insecurities. Almost childishly curious and fascinated by the bizarre: in a non-sequitur, Maddy tells Donna that Leland’s hair turned shock white overnight, and Donna responds simply with a fascinated “Weird.” They’re eager to start having adventures and more interesting, more adult lives.

At least that’s my interpretation. And I think the thing that so frustrated Roger Ebert with Blue Velvet is that when the usual cues are deliberately removed, it can be hard to tell what the actual intent of a scene is.

A great example of that is the scene in which James, Donna, and Maddy are suddenly together in Donna’s house, with microphones, recording a song for some reason. It’s so bewildering that it’s hilarious. Why are they doing this? Why are we seeing it? Why is his voice so high-pitched and weird? And then it’s interrupted when Donna has a fit of jealousy. Is this going to be yet another of Donna and James’s insufferably trite and maudlin romance scenes? Are we supposed to care? Or is it supposed to be funny?

Watching it now, I think the answer to all those questions is “yes.” In retrospect, what they’re doing in that scene isn’t even all that weird; when I was a teenager, I occasionally got together with a friend and recorded stupid videos or songs, and we were every bit as sincere and awkward. And the song — once you get over the weirdness of James’s voice and start to appreciate it as “Roy Orbison-like,” — is actually kind of pretty. And the teen love triangle jealousy thing is “real” because when you’re a teenager, everything you feel is real and extreme and the most important thing in the world.

I think the scene is indeed intended to be funny. But it’s not mocking the characters; it’s showing genuine affection for them. It’s funny because it’s charming. They’re so earnest and so sincere about everything that being awkward is an unavoidable side effect.

And it suggests to me that getting hung up on what was the intent is missing the entire point. Your reaction shouldn’t be based on how this scene is supposed to make you feel, but how you genuinely feel. Which in my case, is nostalgic for the time when I was a corny, goofy, awkward teenager.

His Faithful Indian Companion

I mentioned the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast earlier, and I recommend it. It’s a great way to catch some details you might have missed, find out some background details you might not’ve known otherwise, or just participate in that scene was so cool style fandom. But the one topic on which I find myself frequently disagreeing with Jake and Chris is in that whole question of intent.

There’ve been a few cases where they called out a misstep, or an accident, or a quirk of David Lynch’s corny sense of humor, or a product of its being a network television series in 1990. My take is usually that it’s a choice that fits in so well with everything else that it has to be deliberate.

I’m absolutely not saying that Lynch & Frost were flawless, to the degree that Stanley Kubrick obsessives believe every single detail has meaning. (One counter to that is the fact that the series kind of falls apart once the murder is resolved. I’ve seen frequent accounts that Lynch & Frost’s hands were forced by the network, but that ignores the obvious: of course people are going to be impatient at interminable subplots with Andy & Lucy or Ed & Nadine when the question that’s driving the entire series has yet to be answered. How could creators who get audiences to such an uncanny degree still underestimate how much people would be invested in a murder mystery?) But I believe that while they’re not flawless, there’s a ton of stuff in Twin Peaks that was intentional, but I never gave them credit for it.

One example is the character of Deputy Hawk. In 2014, the character seems like a cringe-worthy stereotype from a more ignorant time. But it’s important to remember that in 1990, the character already seemed like a cringe-worthy stereotype, but from a more innocent time.

I think it’s another case of the series being self-aware without self-mockery. The wise but taciturn Native American, second in command to a white hero, with a deep connection to nature that makes him an excellent tracker, is absolutely, unquestionably, a cliched stereotype. Even older than The Magical Black Man. But, I’d point out, so are the beautiful and popular blonde white homecoming queen. The detective with preternatural skills of observation and deduction. The sleazy, cigar-chomping businessman. The ruthless Iron Lady. The kindly and practical country doctor. The ditzy blonde secretary. The donut-loving cop. The buffoonish deputy. The spoiled rich girl and the teenage sexpot. The beautiful, duplicitous Asian temptress. The arrogant young quarterback. The biker bad boy with a sensitive side. The suburban housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The charming psychopath ex-con. The good girl from the perfect American suburban family, and plus she solves mysteries. The widow with a telepathic connection to the prophetic visions of her log.

Okay, not the last one. But the rest are all stock characters.

And when combined with the search for the one-armed man, the identical cousin, Invitation to Love, the various affairs and love triangles, the score’s tendency to veer into The Young and the Restlessness, and the cliffhanger filled season ending, it seems like I’ve got this whole thing completely figured out.

It’s a series of references. A Kill Bill-style pastiche of A Bunch of Stuff From Past Decades That We Love. Then stretched out, twisted, and subverted to be grotesque versions of the elements we recognize. Because it’s supernatural horror. It’s two seasons’ worth of the same theme as the opening scene of Blue Velvet: the horror that lurks beneath pristine, perfect suburban America.

Like I’ve said since 1990: Twin Peaks is a surreal murder mystery told in the format of a primetime soap opera.

Not What They Seem

Except it’s not.

Watching it now, I see that none of my assumptions about the series quite fit. There are too many earnest moments for it to be an ironic deconstruction. There’s too much affection for its characters for it to be a grotesque subversion. There are too many genuinely funny moments for the stilted hijinks of Andy and Lucy to be just comic relief. And the traffic light shows up too often for it to just be some pretentious art school thing.

Instead, I’ve started to believe Twin Peaks was a prime time soap opera that used a murder mystery as its instigating event. The callbacks to television cliches aren’t just self-aware references, but actual nostalgia. And all the stuff that I’d thought was superfluous — the “filler” material between the iconic scenes and the investigation into the murder — now seem to fit perfectly.

The theme of Blue Velvet, of darkness lurking under the facade of normality, definitely runs throughout Twin Peaks. It’s baked right into the premise of murder in a small town. It’s reinforced by all the soap opera subplots of affairs and scandals and love triangles. The show makes it explicit after Laura Palmer’s murder is solved, when a bunch of the investigators meet in the woods to discuss “the evil that men do.” The series then repeats it with its various symbols of duality and “doppelgangers.” Laura had a dark side that ran counter to her public persona. Killer Bob is the Mr. Hyde to the murderer’s Dr. Jekyll. The owls are not what they seem.

And it’s an idea that’s fine, but it feels a little too easy. It’s an idea that’s been repeated so many times that it feels like photocopies of photocopies getting less and less insightful or challenging with each version. Apart from Blue Velvet, I can think of The Stepford Wives, Pleasantville, and American Beauty just off the top of my head. (In order of descending quality). Each of those comes across as a challenge. And frankly, a fairly adolescent, just-got-out-of-film-school challenge. Everything you think you know about perfect, small-town, white America is a lie, and I, the artist, am here to expose it!

That sentiment doesn’t quite fit with Twin Peaks, though, since it’s got a sense of morality that is clear cut and — weird to say in reference to anything about Twin Peaks — even old-fashioned.

This is a universe where pure evil not only exists, it exists in a specific place, out there in the woods. And the Bookhouse Boys believe that they’re honor-bound to keep it at bay, as they have for generations. There’s an element of Tolkien-esque morality to that: good and evil aren’t abstract concepts, evil has an absolute embodiment, and there are men (only men, but still) honor-bound to defeat it.

But there’s as an element of Lovecraft that’s just as powerful, if not more so: the evil is out there, dark and unknowable. It’s right on the outskirts of what we can see, forever threatening to encroach on our feeble attempts at civilization.

I believe that that’s what the stop light represents. Before Twin Peaks, I’d never put any thought into the fact that stop lights cycle constantly, even when there are no cars around. Framing it by itself, in the darkness, on a (presumably) desolate road, makes it seem feeble and impotent. It’s a symbol of civilization, law, and order, but it doesn’t have any real power. We think of it as something that can keep us safe, but that’s just an illusion. It can’t stop anything that doesn’t agree to be stopped. So the light turns red out there in the dark, with no one there to see it, but evil still makes its way into the town.

Mystery-Solving Teens

Which finally leads to my interpretation of the entire series: it’s about our inevitable corruption and loss of innocence, and our nostalgia for a more innocent time that never actually existed.

The most iconic parts of Twin Peaks that I’d remembered over the past two decades turns out to have little to do with that theme. I’d remembered Audrey Horne as the impossibly sexy young woman who dressed like a femme fatale from a noir movie and could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue. I didn’t remember the scenes of her crying over Leland’s grief, or lying in bed praying for her Special Agent to come rescue her. I’d remembered Leland throwing himself onto Laura’s coffin; I didn’t remember his dancing with her to big band music. I’d remembered Donna’s attempts to be Nancy Drew; I didn’t remember her confession to Harold about skinny dipping with a bunch of older boys, or her attempts to be a bad girl. I’d remembered Catherine double-and-triple-crossing everyone; I didn’t remember her begging Pete to help her in memory of the way their relationship used to be. And I could never figure out how Nadine and Big Ed’s story fit in with the murder investigation at all.

It doesn’t. But it’s the most explicit version of that story of regret and nostalgia. It’s a bizarrely tragic story of popular teenagers who each settled and grew into adulthood regretting it. And then after the soap-opera double-whammy of an attempted suicide and a coma, Nadine regresses to her high school years. (And has super strength, because Twin Peaks).

That’s repeated over and over: with Catherine’s plea to Pete, Leland and his Big Band music, Ben and Jerry Horne remembering sitting on a bunk bed as kids and leering at a girl dancing with a flashlight. Dr. Jacoby’s obsessed with Hawaii, with his fake backdrop and fake sounds of surf on a PA system. It’s in Cooper’s fascination with Twin Peaks and its damn good coffee, to the point of telling Diane he plans to buy some property there. And Norma has Shelley as a constant, living reminder of what she used to be: a beautiful girl who got married too young (and to a total asshole).

Which leads to the teenagers. I’d always assumed that Donna and Audrey represented the good girl and bad girl aspects of Laura Palmer, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that Donna, Audrey, and Maddy were all fascinated by Laura’s dark side, not as tragic but as a sign of experience and maturity. Audrey acted out to get attention and simply because she could, but she wasn’t a bad girl. She was a romantic, who still believed she could handle anything that Laura could. Maddy was literally a wide-eyed innocent, but as she became a replacement Laura, she got to experience all the attention and devotion that Laura had. And Donna came from an aggressively perfect family (her sisters recite poetry at dinner parties and play piano like a prodigy), but always lived in Laura’s shadow.

Even Andy and Lucy’s story fits into this interpretation: they’re the most naive and “pure” of any of the show’s adults, to the point of being comical (and annoying). But Lucy gets bored with Andy’s pure-hearted goodness and invents reasons to get annoyed with him, going for an adventurous one-night stand instead.

And Bobby’s an almost entirely unredeemable asshole, but the show still portrays him as a stupid kid way in over his head as opposed to purely evil. He’s playing grown up, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he doesn’t appreciate how serious it is. His father categorizes it as normal teenage rebellion, and can still bring Bobby to tears by describing a dream in which they get along and respect each other.

It’s presented as a tragedy: while the adults are pining for something perfect that they feel like they used to have, all the teenagers are desperate to grow up. For most of the murder investigation (until we find out the horror of what actually happened), the story keeps reminding us that Laura Palmer wasn’t an “innocent.” To some degree, she went looking for trouble. The other kids knew that she was on drugs, but none of them seemed particularly scandalized by it. They treat it more like it was just a natural thing, the kind of experiences people have when they grow up.

It’s not just that there’s an evil presence in the woods, threatening to seep into the town and corrupt the children. The children are practically flinging themselves at it. And as illustrated by Shelley making the same bad choices that Norma did, it’s inevitable, and it’s cyclical.

The Man From Another Place

And, ultimately, it’s not real. That’s where the self-awareness of the television format comes back in, along with what I believe is David Lynch’s “earnest surreality.” The series is constantly reminding us that none of this is real. It’s bizarre, dreamlike, imaginary. Twin Peaks isn’t some magical village in the woods, untouched by time and uncorrupted by the outside world. It simply can’t exist.

Real cops don’t actually eat that many doughnuts or have dozens upon dozens of them perfectly spread out every morning. Real biker bars (I’m assuming) don’t have all the bikers sitting politely at tables or demurely dancing to slow, breathy Julee Cruise songs. Real towns don’t have so many secret passages and compartments. Real life doesn’t perfectly echo a televised soap opera. The podcast brought up a great example of how the show constantly blurs the line between diegetic music and background music. It often seems to use the standard conventions of television and then use them to draw attention to its own artificiality.

Very few of the performances — maybe Doctor Hayward? — are anything resembling “naturalistic.” Some of them are understated but still not “real.” Sheriff Truman is 100% the Old West Lawman, and Norma is the long-suffering soap opera heroine, a constant monotone of regret and perseverance.

And then, obviously, there’s the “everything else” of Twin Peaks, the relentless weirdness the series is known for. (It was popular enough at the time to generate several parodies, but it was clear at the time that people didn’t understand it enough to even parody it. I remember one in particular that ended with the town sign, and a gorilla standing in front of it holding a bouquet of balloons. As if that would even register on the Twin Peaks weirdness scale). Even when Lynch wasn’t aggressively Lynching it up, the show was developing its own language of oddly-paced scenes and non-sequitur insert shots. Why show the waterfall in slow motion? What does the traffic light mean? What are the owls supposed to be, anyway? Is this important? Are these clues? What does any of this mean?

I already said that I don’t believe that this artificiality is some exercise in postmodern deconstruction, or some distancing attempt to make it clear they’re not taking any of this seriously. And I don’t believe that it’s mocking its own characters or the viewer. And I also don’t believe that it’s some kind of satire or indictment, an accusation that everything we value is built on a lie, or that humans are all invariably duplicitous, or that television is nothing more than vacuous entertainment, or any of the other Statements on the Human Condition that Angry Film Students make by subverting traditional entertainment. So what’s left?

I say that it’s ultimately optimistic. Or, if optimistic is too strong, then at least non-judgmental. It’s saying that Twin Peaks isn’t a real place, but not in the sense that it’s fake, but in the sense that it’s an unattainable ideal. It’s like the place that Major Briggs describes to Bobby when he’s talking about his vision: it’s not foolish to describe it, but it would be foolish to believe that you could actually go there.

So Twin Peaks as an idyllic small town (“where a yellow light still means slow down”) untouched by the outside world can’t exist. Invitation to Love as a world of intrigue and drama we can safely watch from behind the safety of a TV screen can’t exist. The perfect, beautiful, generous prom queen universally loved by everyone can’t exist. And teenagers as pure, innocent creatures with limitless potential can’t exist. At least, not for long.

That in itself isn’t a tragedy. But we still treat it as if it were a tragedy, even though it’s inevitable. We tend to assume that innocence and purity are the same thing as “good,” but they’re not. Becoming experienced doesn’t make us evil or corrupt. We still have limitless potential for good, even after we’re no longer innocent. And it’s not just that it’s foolish to strive for something we can never have; it can be harmful. Laura Palmer was held up by so many people as a symbol of perfection that nobody tried to intervene and help her.

To bring the “golden age of television” references back in: for at least as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a persistent conservative sentiment of “pernicious nostalgia.” It says that everything was better back in the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best all the way up to The Brady Bunch. The problem with that is two-fold: it’s not just foolish to pine for things that were never actually real, but things demonstrably weren’t better back then. I think that there’s some element of commentary on that, however subtle, in Twin Peaks‘s format as a melodramatic soap opera with callbacks to classic TV.

Incidentally: it’s probably too much of a retroactive re-interpretation to claim that it was completely intentional, but this also explains and helps exonerate the show’s shaky handling of race. In Twin Peaks, as well as Twin Peaks, the only non-whites are Deputy Hawk, a sexy but naive Chinese femme fatale and her cohorts, and then the bizarre inclusion of Mr. Tojamura. As the Psych parody/homage pointed out: there are absolutely no black people. Even the “exotic” foreigners who are so significant to the Ghostwood subplot are all Scandavian, as white as can be. The show was definitely aware of it, since Lucy’s sister mentions to Hawk her guilt over white people’s treatment of Native Americans (to which Hawk responds “some of my best friends are white people.”) So maybe it was a constant unspoken reminder that the “good old days” of television were in reality only good to a select few, and that this perfect little small town was never really perfect; it was whitewashed.

The character of Albert Rosenfield is brought into Twin Peaks (and Twin Peaks) as The Outsider, and we in the audience hate him for it. He’s abrasive, insulting, and abusive. He’s dismissive of this podunk town that Agent Cooper has inexplicably fallen in love with. He insensitively complains that the yokels’ insistence on tradition is getting in the way of finding a murderer. He says they’re insular and backwards. He gets punched, and we cheer it, because we hate him.

Several episodes later, Truman calls him on it again, threatening to punch him again for insulting the town and the people in it. Albert gives a surprising response, saying “while I’ll admit to a certain cynicism,” that “my concerns are global.” He explains his commitment to non-violence and non-aggression, and he says that it comes from a place of love. “I love you, Sheriff Truman.”

When I saw this scene at first, I assumed that it was just another bizarre one-off gag. Now, I’m wondering if it was something of a mission statement for the entire series.

Use A Mail Chimp

MichelleMalkinStayClassy
Yesterday, the Twitter Offenderati came out in full force against a harmless joke from Best Buy about the Serial podcast.

This triggered my own irrational outrage over the outrage. (Although really, I’m a recently unemployed white dude in his early 40s. I think that sitting around at home writing angry letters about stuff is what I’m supposed to be doing). After all, I saw Best Buy’s tweet when it was retweeted by the Serial podcast twitter account itself. Somebody there thought it was humorous, and they’re the ones who are actually more invested in the case than some internet rando. They’ve actually talked to the people involved, read the testimony, heard from the victim’s parents, spoken at length to the accused, and become attached enough to devote over a year of their lives to it.

That made me realize what annoys me so much about the response: it’s just a show of ghoulish self-importance. And the lack of self-importance is my favorite aspect of the Serial podcast.

Almost all of my exposure to “true crime” stories is from the A&E (and A&E-styled) documentaries like City Confidential and so on. A guaranteed 30 minutes a week — even more, when you include repeats and marathons — of lurid details of horrific crimes. Long pans across grainy photographs of the victim, over the constant synthesizer dirge that lets you know this is very serious. Bill Curtis’s grave voice-over stretching about 10 minutes’ worth of evidence into 22 minutes plus commercials. And after the commercial break: the one detail that would blow this case wide open.

It’s personal tragedies, packaged up, commodified, and repeated. All the cases run together. All the details intermingle. Every few minutes the dirge stops long enough for an ad for Applebee’s or Volkswagens. It’s all a show of how gravely serious and respectful these documentarians are being, when it’s anything but respectful. It’s the equivalent of the slow fade to black at the end of the Oscars “In Memoriam” segment: a worse-than-empty gesture, since it tosses the lives of a bunch of people into a crock pot and serves it up as commercial television.

Serial, on the other hand, seems absolutely devoted to remaining bullshit-free. Sarah Koenig isn’t a voice-over artist, nor is she a grieving family member. She’s a reporter. Her tone can come across as flippant until you actually listen to the podcast and realize it’s anything but. She’s not looking for drama; she’s looking for the truth, or at least as close to the truth as a podcast can get. And the truth is that sometimes, she doesn’t know what to believe. Sometimes she calls interview subjects on something that makes no sense, or something she doesn’t agree with, even though letting them finish would’ve made for a better sound bite. Sometimes she thinks she has incontrovertible proof; she’s found the Key Takeaway Moment of the entire story, and then realizes she doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.

I’ve seen a few discussions about Koenig’s and the producers’ desire to remain objective. But I don’t think that’s their desire at all. “Objectivity” has been twisted to become a bizarre display of moral relativism, a way to say absolutely nothing by qualifying definitive statements with “allegedly” and “some say” and “according to.” On the podcast, Koenig isn’t objective but impartial. She calls a tragedy for what it is, and she acknowledges the grief of the families, but she doesn’t make empty, token gestures of false respect or deference. She’ll say exactly what she believes and doesn’t believe, and she’ll make it clear exactly to what degree she’s actually invested in the case. Which is as much as any reporter can be who’s spent that much time researching the violent death of a stranger. And which is definitely more than anybody lobbing sanctimonious recriminations on Twitter.

For a good illustration of the difference between objective, invested, and invested but impartial, check out Rabia Chaudry’s blog posts about the case and the podcast. She’s obviously not impartial (and makes no claims to be) and personally invested in the case. She’s still publishing facts, or at least her interpretation of them, mixed in with her impressions and memories. In fact, one of the recurring themes of the podcast, and likely the only definitive takeaway we’re going to get from the podcast, is exactly that lack of objectivity. The same facts, even if remembered correctly at all after 15 years, can be interpreted to mean opposite things.

And for a good example of why I don’t take at all seriously the outrage over Best Buy’s tweet (which didn’t at all make light of the murder, just the fact that the store doesn’t have a pay phone), check out the image above. One of America’s absolute worst people, Michelle Malkin, jumping on the outrage bandwagon like a cackling hyena. There’s nothing even remotely resembling respect or reverence for Hae Min Lee there. It’s all just a show.

I say let Best Buy crack harmless jokes, and let Mail Chimp take advantage of a meme while it still can. Both are at least genuine acknowledgements of the fact that we’re all wrapped up in accounts of the murder and life imprisonment of two strangers, using their tragedy for our own entertainment. And save the self-righteous indignation for a time when it’s at least a little bit less hypocritical.

Showtime, Synergy!


I totally bought into the first iteration of Disney Infinity, both financially and philosophically. The toys themselves are well made, and even more significant than that, well designed. They had to create an art direction that would be suitable for a century’s worth of disparate characters — not to mention an indefinitely expanding group of characters as Disney grows to encompass the entirety of human creative output — across multiple media including 2D animation, 3D animation, CG-created characters, and live action actors; and make it look internally consistent.

And on top of that, they had to make the designs suitable for real-world sculpts and reasonable-poly 3D models for games on every platform including tablets. When you see how easily Violet Parr’s head comes loose from her body, since all of her limbs are ridiculously narrow; or how Phineas from Phineas and Ferb was clearly only ever intended to be seen in profile; it makes it clear how daunting a task that must’ve been. And how the complexity of the design doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Plus, the game itself emphasized a “philosophy” that superseded its existence as a platform for selling movie tie-in toys. Infinity is most obviously Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the business model established by Skylanders. But if you play for a while, it becomes clear that it owes just as much to the Lego video games by TT Games. (No relation to Telltale Games). The most cynical take on the Lego franchise is that they’re capitalizing on whatever license that Lego and Warner Bros are able to acquire, with a competent-but-not-groundbreaking platform game. But the cynical take completely misses the appeal of those games: they’re most memorable not for their licenses but for their sense of humor and their charm.

Disney Infinity took the opening scene from Toy Story 3 and turned it into an enormous, all-encompassing platform. Each of the playsets has its own emphasis — racing for Cars, ship battles for Pirates of the Caribbean, pranks for Monsters University — which is impressive, considering how the game mechanics had to be as simple as general-purpose as possible out of necessity. But throughout the story-based playsets and the open-ended Toybox mode, the one constant is that these are unapologetically toys. You’ve grabbed a bunch of figures from your toy box and slammed them together on the living room floor for your own epic story.

There are plenty of products that promise to be about play and creativity — and, especially where Disney is concerned, imagination — but Infinity is one of the few that feels completely sincere.

These Toys Are for My Nephew in Canada

Still, I quickly hit a wall in how much I could enjoy it. The problem wasn’t, surprisingly, having to rationalize being a 42-year-old man and still buying action figures. At some point along the way, I crossed a significant milestone of not caring too much what people think or worrying too much whether something I like is age-appropriate. The problem was that it became impossible to disguise the fact that the game just wasn’t made for me.

The playsets are engaging enough, but they’re always going to be limited. The engine has to favor breadth over depth, so it can’t go too far in tailoring the gameplay around any one specific license. Instead, you get characters that all have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and can ride things. It’s genuinely impressive that they got as much variety out of it as they did, but the games are inevitably going to end up being simple and repetitive, and the characters are all inevitably going to feel mostly the same.

And the infinite expandability of the Toybox mode is clearly intended for someone much younger with more free time and patience than I have. If there’s a single image that sold me on Disney Infinity, it was Stitch driving an Autopia car on a racetrack past Spaceship Earth and the Haunted Mansion. And you can absolutely do that in the Toybox mode. But then what? A pre-teen — or even 20-year-old — might have a million different things in mind. I just want to sit back and watch TV or level up in an MMO.

So I ended up putting the toys in a plastic bin and leaving them under the entertainment center. Where, presumably, Jesse would lead the group in a mournful Sarah MacLachlan song about how no one ever plays with them anymore.

Version 2.0

But Disney continued its relentless assault on my wallet by releasing version 2.0 of the game, coming out swinging with a Marvel Super Heroes set and at least a dozen associated characters. Even if it weren’t inevitable that I’d keep getting Infinity stuff for as long as they put it out, they started with sets based on Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that I absolutely loved. (Along with hundreds of millions of other right-thinking people).

The game engine feels like a modest iteration on the last version instead of an entirely new version of the game. There are more bloom effects, and it now allows for interior environments, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuttering and generally poor performance on the Xbox One.

In terms of content, the playsets (at least based on what I’ve seen so far) seems to be aimed for a slightly older audience. (As you’d expect with a Marvel Super Heroes theme). There’s less platforming and more combat, and leveling up a character brings an RPG-like skill tree where you can spend points on different abilities.

One tremendous improvement is that they eliminated the random chance element from “buying” toys for the Toybox mode of the game. Now you unlock them from a tree similar to the skill trees. That means there’s still some since of accomplishment and progression as you unlock more and more stuff, but it’s not frustratingly random. And even better, everything that was unlockable in version 1.0 of the game comes already unlocked in 2.0.

I haven’t actually played with the Toybox mode yet, but it certainly looks like they’ve made plenty of improvements. The possibility of interiors, combined with more stuff to track player progress, and ways to generate text, means it’d be possible to create mini-adventure games. Again, 16-year-old me would be ecstatic at the prospect; 43-year-old asks “who has that kind of time?”

There’s something a little self-defeating about the Toybox mode, though, and it’s the game’s granularity. There’s plenty of stuff that seems as if it were made specifically for me — for just one example, if you have a character drive the Autopia car, it plays the audio from the original Disneyland incarnation of the ride. Like I said, I can plop down a Spaceship Earth or Haunted Mansion and realize that this is as close as I’m probably ever going to get to a real Walt Disney World Tycoon game.

But once you plop down the pieces, they’re mostly inert. I’m skeptical it’ll ever really match the appeal of something like Minecraft, because it emphasizes fidelity over granularity. Nothing in Minecraft ever looks quite like what it’s supposed to, because it’s made out of blocks. But that’s not the point or the appeal; the appeal is being able to build anything you want. All that said: if Infinity ever gave me a complete set of parts to make my own version of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d be all over that. Make a “Dark Ride Playset,” please.

When I first popped in the game, and it took me directly to a menu, I was a little disappointed that they’d omitted the charming (if over-long) introduction that came with the first version of the game. It taught you the basic game mechanics while running around chasing a spark through all kinds of different Disney environments, with a voice-over talking about creativity and imagination. And by the end of it, you believed that they were absolutely sincere about creativity and imagination.

As it turns out, there’s a similar semi-interactive introduction in 2.0, but it’s at the bottom of a text menu in the Marvel Super-Heroes edition. Which is fair enough, since there’s a good chance the kids who buy the game to play as Iron Man and the Hulk will have a little patience for running through a semi-interactive movie as Aladdin, Tinkerbell, and Merida. But the whole thing is still charming. It ends up feeling something like a playable version of Mickey’s Philharmagic at the Magic Kingdom, which in my opinion is still one of the best things Disney’s ever made.

Make Theirs Marvel

I was always a fan of DC Comics growing up, so Marvel characters just don’t have the same type of appeal for me. Several of them I just don’t recognize — why is Spider-Man sold with a character called “Nova?” Who’s the woman in the white catsuit? Why are Captain Marvel and The Wasp so prominently featured in the Avengers set? What’s the deal with the “Iron Fist” apart from looking cool? Why do the Guardians of the Galaxy get all their missions from a dog in a spacesuit with a Russian accent? (Actually, the story behind that is super-cool, if you weren’t already familiar with the comics. He just made a brief non-speaking cameo in the movie).

But even though I can tell there’s a level of fandom and love for the characters that’s simply lost on me, it’s absolutely clear that it wasn’t lost on the people making the game. Whether it’s true or not, the game certainly feels as if it’s made by people who love these characters, grew up reading the comics, and have wanted for decades to make a video game featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man.

It’s clear a lot of effort was put into making the characters feel right. A game with super-heroes means flying, so the game tries to convey the feeling of speed and scale that goes along with it. And I’d say they nailed it: when you hover as Iron Man, then press the left trigger to shoot off with a sudden burst of speed, it’s tremendously satisfying. When Thor swings his hammer in a circle before flinging it at an enemy, it’s satisfying. When Captain America flings his shield and it clangs against an enemy before circling back into his hands, it’s satisfying.

Best of all, by far, is Spider-Man. I’ve never had any real investment in the character, never read the comics, only watched the cartoon series because nothing else was on. So I’d planned to skip the Spider-Man playset, until curiosity overtook me. And swinging around Disney Infinity‘s smaller version of Manhattan is crazy fun. He picks up speed until he’s covering entire city blocks in seconds, spinning around the tops of skyscrapers to land on a corner, clinging to walls before flinging himself off and catching himself with a web at just the right moment — it’s straight-up delightful. The only other game that I’ve played that comes even close to getting it right is Neversoft’s Spider-Man game from 2000, and this feels bigger.

There’s such an enthusiasm for the characters and what makes them cool, that it overwhelms any reservations you might have about this being a revenue-generating machine. It just feels as if the developers are getting to make the super-hero games they’ve wanted to make.

Shadows of the Empire

Back when Disney bought Lucasfilm, I insisted on putting a positive spin on it. (In retrospect, I was doing that as several people I knew were losing their jobs or seeing their projects get canceled, so my timing could’ve been better). I’d said it would be ultimately better for all of us to open up the properties to more development teams. Instead of seeing developers cranking out one title after another, to the point where Star Wars becomes just another license to them, you could see different groups of fans give their take on the license, because they loved it.

I feel like the Marvel stuff in Disney Infinity is the first evidence of that. One of the reasons Marvel’s had so much success with their movies is that they’ve opened up their properties to creators to give their own take. So even if they’re not lifelong fans, they still have something different to bring to the property: Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Kenneth Brannagh on Thor, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. So even if I don’t have any particular attachment to the characters, the filmmaker’s own excitement is infectious.(Even for Thor, which works well as bombastic semi-Shakesperean semi-sci-fi opera).

Hollywood’s been so overwhelmed with re-interprations and “re-imaginings” for so long, that it’s easy to forget that they don’t all have to be soulless, creatively bankrupt cash grabs. That’s the central assumption of this essay in The Atlantic which dismisses the new Star Wars movies as just a crass attempt to capitalize on nostalgia. But not only is that needlessly, pre-emptively cynical, it ignores all the evidence to the contrary. JJ Abrams made an unabashed love letter to Steven Spielberg with Super 8, but we’re still supposed to believe that he’s not genuinely excited to be working on Star Wars? Or that the teaser videos from the sets, showing off life-sized spaceships and practical effects, is nothing more than viral marketing?

I’ve long had the opinion that licenses and sequels and adaptations and remakes were inherently inferior to “original IP,” even as I’ve spent my entire career working on licenses and sequels. But I’m gradually starting to think that that’s simple-minded. It misses a crucial component that’s unique to working on a license — the energy and love that goes into unabashed fandom.

Which is a good thing, because it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Disney Infinity 2.0 comes with a poster that shows all the figures and “power discs” that are going to be available, and it’s an overwhelming reminder of just how much stuff Disney owns now. These go from the Infinity Gauntlet to Doctor Strange to The Muppet Show to Gravity Falls, “it’s a small world,” Darkwing Duck, The Rescuers, and Gus, the field-goal kicking mule.

I pretty much gave up on the “power discs” with the last version, since it really does feel more like a shameless money-grab than anything else. But I see now that they have one for Mr. Toad’s car, and a Main Street Electrical Parade float. So those bastards know they have me at their mercy.

And if it’s an overwhelmingly compelling force for consumerism now, it’s only going to get worse. If I can get hooked on Marvel characters I don’t even care about, the inevitable Star Wars expansion is going to be devastating.

It’s a Good Life


Good morning, internet! Boy, it’s a good day today. Real good.

We had a little bit of “drama” over the past few weeks, but that’s all over with now, and we can go back to normal. We can go back to talking about progress, and inclusivity, and making sure that everybody’s voice gets heard.

Some people, like Elizabeth Sampat, get sad and angry about the whole thing, and that’s not good at all. Getting angry isn’t objective. Getting angry just helps the bad people, and we don’t want to be like the bad people.

Sampat can remind us all that it’s been seven years since people tried to wish Jade Raymond into the cornfield, and we could get all gloomy about how the situation hasn’t gotten any better. But isn’t it more constructive to think about all the good things we’ve done? For my part: I’ve said multiple times — out loud, even — that I don’t believe anyone should be harassed, and I’ve also bravely retweeted at least two messages from other people on the topic, even though I knew it was risky because some people might consider them “feminist.”

Devin Faraci said a real bad thing when he was talking about the people regularly gathering together to harass and threaten physical violence on other people and he actually compared them to terrorists! But things are good now, because he did what he should’ve been doing all along, which is being sympathetic and trying to understand the people perpetuating the harassment.

Leigh Alexander got so hostile and dismissive, and we don’t like it when women condescend to us. She actually said that people who identify as “gamers” are irrelevant. She said that the “obtuse shitslingers” and “wailing hyper-consumers” aren’t her audience, and they didn’t have to be ours. And oh boy did a lot of real smart people have a lot to say in response to the issues she raised! This is a really complicated issue with a lot of “facets,” so they made sure to flood the comments with criticism of her tone.

We don’t need to fight when there’s plenty of good stuff being done, too! There are lots of people working on games sites who took the completely non-misogynistic concerns of journalist integrity seriously. They said of course they condemn intrusive, demeaning, sexist harassment of women in gaming, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions about who it is and isn’t appropriate for a woman game developer to have sex with. That resulted in real change in the industry: a prominent site about video games will still run the steady stream of press releases from corporate video game publishers, but writers can no longer contribute to smaller independent projects and developers they want to support, because that would be collusion. It’s like what David Auerbach on Slate tells the angry young male gamers to help them get through this tough time: “people are listening, and your concerns are legitimate.”

And also a bunch of 4channers contributed to a charity promoting women in game development! That’s a real, real good thing, and there’s been no shortage of writers and bloggers giving them credit for it. Even if it started with the goal of spiting a woman developer, how could anyone say these guys have a problem with women? They created an imaginary woman who fit the image they all agreed to, who shared their interests and ideals, and who they could use as an avatar to represent them and speak through! If you’re going to be so uptight as to have a problem with that, I suppose next you’re going to say that Weird Science wasn’t an empowering work of new-wave feminism.

This is just a huge, complicated issue and it’s not going to change. If we want everyone to have an equal voice, we just have to accept that occasionally, someone’s going to get wished into the cornfield for using her voice to say something that’s not nice.

Everything in games is fine. Don’t listen to the very bad, bad woman spreading lies about video games. She says “it’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while being critical of its more problematic aspects” but then goes on to take completely out of context a scene in which the player character literally uses a woman as a doorstop and

Fuck it, I can’t even be sarcastic anymore. This is bullshit.

Justice in Moderation

I’ve always liked to see myself as progressive, moderate, and skeptical. Of course I believe that women should have equality in voice, representation, and depiction. And of course I absolutely condemn attempts to harass, threaten, or even demean women. That all goes without saying.

But I also never wanted to be so wrapped up in self-righteousness that I lost any sense of objectivity. Whenever I read anything that seems too didactic, too simple-minded, too black-and-white, I start asking, “what’s the catch?” Of course I condemn those sexist assholes, and they don’t speak for me. But I’ve always believed it’s important to rise above the trolls and circular arguments, and talk about things like rational adults.

As it turns out, that was pretty much bullshit, since by letting it “go without saying,” by keeping silent and calling it “moderation,” I was by definition letting the sexist assholes speak for me.

Earlier it sounded like I was just giving Devin Faraci shit for his essay, but I absolutely can’t fault his sincerity or his intent. After all, a few days ago I was trying to do the same thing. I’d been seeing all the reports of harassment, and I started wondering out loud what kind of mentality causes socially awkward nerds to become such violent bullies. I was saying that obviously, there are some irredeemable assholes motivated entirely by misogyny. But what about the non-trolls who feel so powerless they’ve convinced themselves that they’re the ones who are under attack?

A friend pointed out, simply: “I wouldn’t call them non-trolls.” And it was as if a lightning bolt finally struck through all the layers of rationalization and self-assurance I’d built up, and all the pieces started to fall into place. I realized that I was giving all of my sympathy to the people who deserved it the least, and all my skepticism and criticism to the people who deserved it least. Any second spent trying to figure out what makes these assholes tick is a second that’d be better spent trying to actually help the people who are being targeted by them.

It simply doesn’t matter what motivates these assholes — whether they’re seriously damaged psychologically, or they’re self-important “free-thinkers,” or they’re doing it “for the lulz.” You’ll see a lot of dismissals along the lines of “it’s not personal,” or “it’s just a game to them,” or “misogyny isn’t really the problem; it’s rooted in power/bullying/anonymity/whatever.” As if it’s somehow better if a person says, “Sure, I was part of the crowd targeting this person and her friends and family with rape threats, death threats, hacking attempts, a deluge of demeaning and critical messages on every social network, and YouTube videos, but I was doing it ironically.” The reality is that they are, demonstrably, provably, causing serious problems for people who don’t deserve it. And no one deserves it.

Looking through the harassing tweets that some women (and occasionally men) get, you see the same pattern over and over again: blatantly fake sock puppet accounts and compromised accounts, all repeating the same shit over and over again, most making sure to mention that it’s a huge, orchestrated groundswell. Unlike Sand People, but just like the One Million Moms, these people have to keep inflating their numbers, saying “We Are Legion.” Obviously, on some level it’s to help them justify it to themselves. But it’s also intended to isolate their targets. To make their targets feel alone and think there’s nothing any of us can do to stop the horde.

The least that we can do is put that shit to rest. Don’t just assume that everybody understands these assholes are a vocal minority; prove it. I know I’ve seen the lists of “Social Justice Warriors to Avoid,” and I’ve pointed and laughed, and I’ve said “Ha ha this just tells me who I should support you silly misogynists lol!” What we all should have been doing is seeing it as a condemnation. Not just “why aren’t I on that list?” but “how did we ever give these clowns the impression that they could fit us all on one page?”

Privilege Check and Mate

In my case, it’s because I’m really, really smart. I don’t want to brag, you guys, but I can see complexities and angles and hidden agendas that no one else on the internet can. Show me two extremes, and I can find problems with each of them. I don’t want to identify with either extreme; I want to see through all the angles and champion the truth. I’m like Yojimbo.

Here’s an example of how smart I am: for months I’ve been thinking about a blog post that’s going to drop a truth bomb smack in the middle of the internet and convince everybody to get along. The elevator pitch: I think “white male privilege” is bullshit. The concept behind it is absolutely, totally, 100% real; you’d have to be an idiot not to recognize that. But the things that people are calling “privileges” are actually injustices; they’re not special advantages but things that all people should have. The term “privilege” is outdated. It’s deliberately provocative, intended to make people feel uncomfortable to shock them into awareness. When the concept of civil rights was unfamiliar enough to be a “movement,” it made sense. Now, though, people spend so much time explaining what “privilege” means that the connotations of the word have outweighed its usefulness. It’s become counter-productive and divisive.

A few times, I’ve tested the waters for my groundbreaking theory by going online and saying “‘White male privilege’ is bullshit.” Here are the responses I’ve gotten:

  1. On Facebook, a young woman said “oh no when I use the word ‘privilege’ I mean this…” and linked to an essay about the subject. One of the key lines in that essay was, “Inclusivity can make some people feel uncomfortable.”
  2. Another young woman on Facebook said “I don’t know why guys just can’t get the f over ‘privilege.’ Nobody’s saying that you didn’t have to work hard for what you have.”
  3. On Twitter, some asshole looking to pick a fight said I was “whining” about how bad I had it and said “oh you poor baby” before calling me a c-word. (Obviously, she didn’t actually say “c-word.” I know it makes me sound like the villain from Misery, but no matter what I can’t say that word).

Can you see the breakdown there, the decades-long chain of misunderstanding? I’d guess at least 51% of you can see the problem right away.

The problem is that I can go online and say something deliberately provocative, and I can count the amount of push-back I got on one hand. And two of those were even people trying to help!

You could make a solidly convincing case that I’m just not famous or popular enough for anybody to notice or care. Except even on the occasions where I’ve gotten a “signal boost” from somebody famous, I still haven’t gotten any significant harassment. Once a blog post I wrote started a brief conversation on Twitter with Rhianna Pratchett. I got a few responses, some critical, some just “THIS!” followed by a link. I checked out her Twitter replies, though, and she was getting tons of criticism. Over something that I wrote.

The nature of the “criticism” is different, too. When a guy gets attacked, they almost always attack his ideas. When a woman gets attacked, they attack her.

Even when I thought “I get it,” I still didn’t quite get it. Even while acknowledging that I don’t have to suffer the same type of bullshit that a lot of other people have to go through, I still wanted to argue that the problem that needed to be addressed was that we were being made to feel uncomfortable.

Not All Mean

But white men get harassment, too. And suffer through the same injustices and tragedies and hardships that every human being has to go through. It genuinely is petty to use the phrase “winning the genetic lottery,” and it genuinely is unproductive to sling that a guy who doesn’t feel as if he’s been giving the magic bullet that will solve all of his problems.

Which is why it can seem like the whole backlash and meme-ification of “Not All Men!” is petty and vindictive. Sure, when someone drops “Not all men” into a conversation, or says “Men get it too!”, it can seem like an attempt to derail an argument with a pedantic counter-example, as if the whole argument were invalid. But I’ve often thought, instead of making fun of it and turning it into a hashtag, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the intent behind it? To see that it’s an attempt at empathy, and not condescension? Instead of just saying, “You don’t understand how bad I have it, and you’ll never understand,” wouldn’t it be better to say, “No, I don’t understand that, but I can relate in this way, because I’ve had a similar problem?”

I believe the main problem there — and it’s not necessarily a fair one — is false equivalence. Even if it’s intended to be empathetic, it’s still floated out there as if it were a counter-argument, a correction. It will never not come across as, “What you’re saying is bad, but my having to feel defensive is every bit as a bad!” It puts all the weight on “Well, I’m not like that!” and leaves all the work for the other person to decipher the intent.

Again, it assumes that we’re coming into the conversation from an equal place, we’re all on the same side after all, so we can start discussing all the finer points and subtleties that the “extremists” keep missing while they scream at each other. But we’re not coming from the same place. In my case, at least, there’s never been a lack of awareness that we’re not coming from the same place. I’ve just never acknowledged just how many assumptions I’ve made without realizing it. Yes, I probably have a lot more in common with a woman in her late 30s who likes video games, than I do with the vast majority of white men. But that just means I can assume we’re on the same page when we’re talking about Final Fantasy, not when we’re talking about being a woman on the internet. Or anywhere else.

I spent about a year working on a project whose lead was a young woman unquestionably well-suited to that position: organized, driven but able to delegate, etc. Still, people would come up and ask me questions as if I had any clue as to what was going on. And when I’d point to her and say, “She’s the boss,” they’d act surprised. Whenever I’ve read novels and screenplays that describe how a character can convey an entire sentence with just an expression, I’ve always dismissed it as lazy writing. But I’d swear to God one guy gave me a look that said, “Seriously? You’re that p-whipped?” And even when there wasn’t a nasty intent behind it, she’d still get tons of dismissive comments. One of the security guys called her “princess” every single time we went through the gate. It annoyed the hell out of me, but she just shrugged it off. I was describing that situation to a co-worker at my current job, and she just kind of laughed (good-naturedly!) as my naivety. What I would take as absolutely intolerable, she recognized as pretty much a day-to-day occurance.

We’ve got options: we can acknowledge that, and then move forward, keeping it as a constant reminder that we should listen as much as we talk. We can feel guilty about it, and despair that there’s nothing we can do about it except sympathize. Or we can interpret it as an attack, and get angry and defensive.

I’m Not Sure I Like Your Tone

Defensiveness is the mind-killer. It is the little-death that tricks us into believing that apathy is action. It creates an immediate problem that we think is solvable — clearly, if everyone could just understand how this offends me and people like me, we could all get along — while ignoring the systematic, longer-running problem that’s driving all of our assumptions. It lets us believe that by not siding with the “extremes,” we’re standing firm on the center path to equality, even though we’ve seen time and time again that the “center path” inherently favors white dudes.

That’s why a guy who goes by “Total Biscuit” can post a call for everybody to calm down and not “pick sides”, and be completely sincere as far as I can tell, and still have so many people yelling at him. (Including me). It’s just one big false equivalence after the other. He says that “social justice warrior” and “men’s rights activist” are just two meaningless insults that people keep throwing around in an attempt to dismiss and over-simplify each other’s viewpoint, but neither one actually exists. Well, I hate to break it to you, “Biscuit”, but Men’s Rights Activists absolutely exist. They’re a lunatic fringe — that Washington Post article is astoundingly even-handed and even sympathetic, but still doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that they’re preaching bullshit — but not only are they real, their “men are the victims” bullshit is the basis for all of the harassment going on. Equating it to “a feminist yelled at me that one time so feminism is extremist dogma” isn’t just misguided, it’s demonstrably false.

Not to mention: “SJW” and “MRA” aren’t even the same kind of term. “MRA” is the euphemism these assholes use to describe themselves. If we were going to pick a pejorative term to sling at them, we’d just call them for what they are: misogynists.

He’s also wrong when he says that the term “SJW” is meaningless. It’s actually a very useful shorthand, like “white knight” and “politically correct”. You can use it to instantly determine a person’s worldview and motivations. Just never the way it’s intended, because it says nothing about the speaker’s target but everything you need to know about the speaker.

One of my proudest and most hilarious achievements is when I had a guy on Twitter call me a “white knight” for something I’d written, saying that I was only criticizing GTA 5 because I wanted to get women to sleep with me. Once the laughter had died down, it was clear that the guy couldn’t even conceive why someone would say something in favor of women for any reason other than because he wanted sex. What else are women good for, after all? And the “social justice warriors” are only speaking out about diversity because they want to be seen as heroes and champions; why else would anyone speak out on this except out of self-interest? And why would anybody try to be more conscious of being inclusive and respectful? It can’t really be a desire to be “correct,” but as a shallow acknowledgement of some political agenda.

Just about the only thing I’d agree with Mr. Biscuit about: there aren’t “two sides” here. That absolutely doesn’t mean that it’s a complex, multi-faceted issue. It just means that there aren’t two equal and opposing sides. There’s the fact that women are entitled to equal voice and equal representation writing, making, and playing video games. That’s it.

And again — video games. I moved cross-country and devoted my entire career to video games, and I still can’t believe the kind of self-obsessed lunatic that would make such a big deal about them.

Ready Manchild One

Anyone who says that there’s more going on here is just wrong. Whether they’re intentionally misleading you, or looking for an excuse to keep on doing nothing, or just confused, it doesn’t matter. And entertaining them as if they have a valid point isn’t being moderate or objective; it’s picking a side. Their side.

I’d always said that by giving any attention to the “trolls,” you’re just giving them a voice they didn’t deserve. I was wrong. Ignoring them gives them a voice they didn’t deserve. Someone on Twitter made a pretty good analogy: if you leave the weeds alone, they’ll eventually grow to choke out an entire garden. Instead of leaving all the work to the targets of abuse, harassment, and discrimination to just “deal with it,” we need to make more of an effort ourselves to go through periodically and get rid of the weeds. Saying “trolls gonna troll, ain’t no stoppin’ it!” is worse than ineffectual; it just gives up what is literally the least we could to help, which is to show our support.

Andreas Zecher started an “open letter to the gaming community”, and he had to close it off after getting 2500 signatures in about a day. Is that going to fix the problem? Of course not, but at least it’s a start. And it’s a hell of a lot better than giving all our attention to the assholes.

If you engage one of these clowns — and I really can’t recommend it to anyone — you’ll see how quickly all their supposedly high-minded concerns fall apart into childish selfishness. We do need to identify where it comes from, not to give them sympathy and ease their fears, and sure as hell not to “let them know their concerns are legitimate.” We need to know where it comes from so we can all identify exactly how we’re all complicit. I can only point fingers at 4chan, or ‘gaming journalism,” or wicked games publishers, or “argumentative” activists, or the targets themselves, for so long before I’ve only got one person left to point at.

My friend Matt Dessem had an insightful theory that seems obvious in retrospect: video games and comics deal primarily in power fantasies, so of course they’re going to attract an audience that feels powerless. He equated the situation to the GOP spending so much time courting the Tea Party, and then acting surprised when it turned out so many of them were unrepentant racists and misogynists.

We can’t act surprised that the video game audience is so hostile and paranoid, completely losing their shit at the sight of anything they don’t like or find even remotely challenging. We spend all of our time telling each of them that he’s the most important person in the whole world. Even in games that aren’t explicitly about saving the universe, the entire medium of interactive entertainment is inherently a power fantasy: this entire world exists because of you, things only happen because you make them happen.

When a bunch of people were calling video games “murder simulators,” I thought we all agreed that it was only okay because players could separate fantasy from reality. But we’ve taken the premise that each (male, usually white) player is the most important person in the universe, and we’ve extended it to the real world. Publishers have always said “give the people what they want,” but as the budgets have increased, there’s been even less room for anything resembling challenging content or artistic expression. Game criticism — actual game criticism, and not just reviews — has spent years focused on player agency on the assumption that, essentially, artistic intent is for linear media, and games are different.

I’ve seen writers for game sites — who should know better — insist that if enough readers are interested in something, it’s worth addressing. That’s not even theoretically wrong; we’ve seen how wrong it is. We’ve seen exactly what happens when “journalists” forget their responsibility and instead start to believe their role is simply to parrot back everything they hear in the name of “objectivity.” It’s what makes revenue-focused “news” sources give equal time to climate change deniers.

None of this is a new or earth-shattering observation. It’s not even the first time I’ve realized it. I just never had to consider how important it was, because I was complaining about echo chambers from within the safety of my own echo chamber.

A Decent Actress, I Guess

As I’ve watched the harassment of women happen with increasing regularity, I keep thinking back to one event: a panel at Wondercon with the cast of one of the Resident Evil movies.

Nerd conventions are generally great for “high functioning” nerds like myself; we get a safe space to go and gawk and pretend that we’re somehow cooler and better-adjusted than everyone else. And the horrible but perversely thrilling highlight is always the celebrity panel, when they open the microphone up to Q&A from the audience. For the socially awkward, it’s kind of like watching other people fire-walk: we don’t have to go across the hot coals ourselves, but we can marvel at it and wait for something to go horribly wrong.

At this panel, the thing that went horribly wrong was this: a dude came up to the microphone and decided it’d be the perfect time to sack up and finally let actress Ali Larter know how he felt about her ruining the show Heroes. He said, “I mean, you’re a decent actress, I guess” but how did she feel knowing that her character was “pretty much universally” considered the thing that ruined the series? Her face was projected up on the huge screen in front of everybody, so we could all see her “what the hell is happening right now?!” expression as this brave young man fearlessly spoke up in complete anonymity out of the darkness.

But then a magical thing happened: the crowd started booing, and it got louder until it shut that asshole up and drove him away from the microphone. They didn’t say, “Well, he’s just speaking his mind; he’s not actually making any actionable threats.” They didn’t say, “Eh, it’s a nerd convention. This kind of thing is bound to happen.” They didn’t say, “We’ll just let the convention moderators take care of it.” They didn’t say, “She’s an actress; she’s going to have to get a thicker skin if she wants to survive for long.” They didn’t say, “This is representative of the inherent power struggle in which people of lower social standing ‘punch up’ against the established higher social class.” They didn’t say, “He’s just socially awkward and is probably motivated by years of being bullied himself.”

They just said “boo” enough times to make it clear that this shit was completely unacceptable. And because the camera stayed fixed on Ms. Larter, you could see her expression change from surprise at being attacked to one of relief that she was finally getting shown some support. During a later question, she started with, “Sorry, I just can’t believe how mean that guy was!” and got a laugh, which broke the tension.

Notice that I said they booed him off the stage. I spent the whole time standing in a dark corner at the back of the auditorium, just thinking about how horribly awkward the whole thing was and how uncomfortable it made me feel. Ever since, I’ve wished that I’d joined in.

Train in Vain

Snowpiercer cast
Snowpiercer is a modest-budget semi-indie post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie based on a French comic book from the 80s, and boy does it ever feel like it. I’d been seeing people raving about it on Twitter and Facebook, saying things like “drop everything you’re doing and go see it now.” While it’s not that good, it’s still interesting and kind of a marvel that it even exists.

It could be because I knew a little bit of its history going in, but I kept thinking throughout that it felt like a comic book movie. Not a super-hero movie — Chris Evans is here to show off his range and his commitment to interesting projects, not to show off his chest — but an “indie” comic book movie. It’s more concerned with imagery than with world-building, and more interested in legibility than in subtlety. The premise is about as direct an allegory of classism as you can make. The characters are broad — but still interesting — archetypes. The world is literally constrained, with each train of the car a “closed ecosystem” representing a single idea. Most scenes have just enough dialogue to fit into word bubbles. And the plotting and pacing are the kind you get when artists are rejecting Hollywood and trying to come up with their own conventions — with mixed success.

And maybe it’s only because I now know it’s based on a French comic book, but I kept thinking it felt like European independent movies from the 80s and 90s. It seems like Hollywood action movies filtered through a dream, where the tone’s all over the place, the pacing’s unsettlingly unpredictable, and Hollywood stars appear out of nowhere, for no good reason other than that they wanted to be in something interesting for a change.

Overall, I liked it but didn’t love it, but I’m still glad it exists. Especially as a counter to the standard action movie template, and I think that’s a big part of why it’s been getting so much positive buzz: people love it for not being Transformers, or even Captain America (which was actually good!)

The most intriguing thing about the movie, to me (and the only thing that made it worth a blog post), is the way the tone is deliberately all over the place. I think Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton both gave excellent performances, even though it didn’t seem like they’d belong in the same movie. Swinton was an over-the-top caricature, while Evans was playing it completely straight, particularly impressive considering that his most dramatic and emotional scene was a lurid monologue about cannibalism. Kang-ho Song*’s performance was entirely in Korean, but even without that, his seemed to be a performance from a more lighthearted, less high-concept action movie. With less competent — or even less confident — actors, it would’ve felt disjointed, as if they’d not bothered to talk to each other before filming. But it mostly works here, and it’s fascinating to see camp and deadpan work together without canceling each other out.

The screenwriter and director, Joon-Ho Bong*, also made The Host, which also seemed to veer wildly in tone between black comedy, camp, family comedy, and horror movie. It’d be easy to speculate that that’s just his style. And I’m still not 100% sure that it works; The Host was another movie that I wanted to like much more than I actually did.

But it’s interesting to see the attempt. Especially now that we’re seeing more and more long-form storytelling in television series. It’s meant that television is getting gradually better, but also that the rules are getting more ingrained. Even as the quality goes up, there’s less room to experiment.

Battlestar Galactica‘s final season was a complete disaster, but there was also something perversely thrilling about it — once everything had gone off the rails, you had the sense that for the first time, anything was possible. At any other point in the series, a scene threatening to blow Colonel Tigh out of an airlock would’ve been another example of “fake TV tension:” it still would’ve worked because these guys have had so much experience crafting television, they know how to make a tense moment fit in the overall arc of an episode, but you’d still know in the back of your mind what the real stakes were. But by the end of the series, after everything had gone horribly wrong, there was genuine tension. This would be bad, but they’re just crazy enough to do it.

Until the end of Snowpiercer, I got the same sense of exhilarated confusion: this isn’t playing by quite the same rules as a normal movie, so there’s really no predicting what they’re about to do. By the end, it settles into almost complete familiarity, but for a while, it’s just off-putting enough to be engaging.

*Apologies if I’ve got the surname/given name order mixed up for Korean names; IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are inconsistent about which comes first.

So Much Effort

Tomodachi Life cover
If you read any sites that talk about video games within the past week, you’ve probably seen the story about Nintendo’s new game Tomodachi Life. The “game” — from the sound of it, it’s more like a toy than a game or even a simulation — allows for characters of opposite genders to fall in love and get married, but doesn’t allow it for characters of the same sex. When some gamers started a kind of hashtag protest, Nintendo responded with a spectacularly tone-deaf comment to the Associated Press, saying that the game was supposed to be a silly alternate world instead of a simulation of real life. “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”

The internet quickly filled with a flood of confused and reactionary commentary like the Google Maps lady stuck doing donuts in a parking lot. There’s been a ton of posts and comments talking about what happened, what actually happened, why people are upset, and why it matters. On Gamasutra, Christian Nutt wrote a great summation of the situation and why it’s a problem, from the perspective of a man who’s played the game and who happens to be married to another man. (Except in Tomodachi Life, in which he’s married to a woman).

Today, Nintendo released a statement that gave a sincere apology for the situation and a pledge to work harder at inclusivity going forward. Really, that should be the end of it. It’d be just petulant to expect a more sweeping change to a quirky novelty title, Nintendo’s a notoriously conservative company that has a lot deeper problems with racial and gender inclusivity than this one game, and people got the chance to raise awareness of how much they care about the issue and why it’s important to them. There’s not a lot more left to say. Making it out to be a controversy is itself a big part of the problem; it’s something so “normal” that it should never be considered controversial.

But… it’s rare for a video game to drop such a perfect metaphor into our laps, so I’ve got to give my take.

No Weird Stuff


Above is a promotional video from Nintendo for Tomodachi Life, which shows Mii versions of Nintendo executives talking in their strangely-pitched computer-generated voices, singing and dancing in stage shows, racing as snails with human heads, taking to the runway in fashion shows, and hitting on female Nintendo video game characters. “Just think of all the crazy match-ups that can happen in this game.” But don’t think of too many crazy match-ups, because Nintendo doesn’t want any weird stuff. Like dudes hitting on other dudes.

On Polygon, Samantha Allen writes that Nintendo’s statement was rooted in hatred and bigotry, pure and simple. The rest of her piece is fine, because it talks about the heteronormative concepts that lead to a statement like “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary:” it assumes that straight people falling in love and getting married is perfectly natural and normal, but gay people doing the same thing is a statement. But I do take issue with the claim that it’s rooted in hatred and bigotry; frankly, I think calling it “hatred” is lazy.

Hatred is easier to deal with. If someone proves himself to be a hateful, unrepentant homophobe, you can just say “sheesh, what an asshole” and write him off. Same with an arrogant bigot who’s convinced that he’s calmly and rationally proven that your concerns don’t matter as much as his own. But Nintendo’s initial statement comes from a place of more subtle and systematic prejudice. It’s like the aunt who insists on calling your boyfriend your “friend,” and who keeps trying to set you up with a nice girl. (Note: purely a hypothetical in my case).

That’s not to say that it’s benign or that it should be given a pass, but just that it comes from a different place. And you have to handle it differently. Otherwise, you just make it seem like the full-on, recalcitrant bigots have all the numbers on their side.

Of course, it’s also not to say that the reaction is overblown or the issue shouldn’t be a big deal. That seems to be the most common reaction on message boards: why do LGBT types/liberals/liberal LGBT types/”social justice warriors” have to turn every little thing into some big issue? One of the comment threads was from a guy who made that exact point and qualified it by pointing out that he’s bisexual; apparently he’s the Lorax, and he speaks for the LGBTs. But instead of reinforcing his point, his mention of his own sexuality just underscored why one aspect of a deliberately silly game could blow up into such a big deal in the first place: it comes from the assumption that what’s important to one person is important to everyone else, and that one person’s experiences are a good indicator of everyone else’s experiences. (Besides, any gay man can tell you that bisexuals don’t actually exist).

Christian’s take on the game and Nintendo’s response describes how the struggle for LGBT rights has turned personal relationships into political issues: “…living, for us, is an inherently political act.” That’s true, but I think a lot of people miss the fact that the political aspect is a side effect, not a goal. When someone suggests that gay rights activists put forward their most “straight-friendly” relationships in a bit of political theater, it exposes their own biases and prejudices: theater has to have an audience, and the gays must be trying to sell an idea to the normals. That takes an already marginalized group and marginalizes them even further; anything you want is defined in terms of how it affects me. So you look at a lesbian couple in their 80s and consider how their marriage would impact the civil rights struggle and its longer-term effects on fundamental societal institutions. You don’t consider the simple fact that a couple who’d been together for decades would want to get married, and what a travesty it is that they couldn’t.

That’s why Nintendo’s first response was spectacularly tone-deaf, as opposed to outright “hateful.” Hate says that anything outside of my experience is wrong; cluelessness and callousness say that anything outside of my experience is weird. It assumes one version of “normal” as the default, and then assumes that anything that falls outside of that is an aberration. So a guy chasing after a girl on a beach is just how romance works. A guy chasing after another guy would be making social commentary.

We’ve seen this over and over again: heterosexual marriages are normal, so gay “marriages” must be a political agenda. Straight relationships among young people are about romance and commitment, but gay relationships must be all about sex. Action heroes are men, so having female action heroes must be an attempt to defy conventional gender roles. Leading characters are white, so introducing a non-white protagonist means the story must be about race and take advantage of the fact that he’s “exotic.”

Based solely on that Nintendo Direct video, and the amount of time spent with characters hitting on and fighting over each other, it’d be reasonable for anyone to assume that it’s Nintendo who declared that romantic relationships and marriages are a big part of this silly game. And it’s Nintendo who asserted that having characters who represent your appearance and your personality is a big part of the game. But then we’re supposed to believe that it’s the LGBT contingent who are turning it into an issue simply by pointing out that we’re not represented?

And the reason it’s such a great metaphor is that in video games, much as in real life, gay relationships are on by default. 99.9% of games don’t care about gender, so the only way you can prevent two characters of the same gender from pairing up is to explicitly forbid it. In the US, the only people who are “redefining marriage” are the ones who have been going in state by state, taking the idea of an institution that everyone understands, and appending “unless you’re gay.” In Tomodachi Life, the team had to explicitly make the effort to ensure that only characters of opposite genders would fall in love and get married. So who’s the one making such a big deal? It’s not the LGBT people in the audience, the ones who fell in love with someone of the same gender not to rock your world and defy your notions of conventional relationships, but because it’s simply normal to them.

Just Don’t Call It Woohoo

The effort it takes to allow for gay relationships is simply not to forbid it. The Sims is the first game I encountered that allowed this, and it could even tell I was gay before I could. I’ve told this story before, but I can’t remember if I have on this blog, so excuse the possible repetition:

In addition to letting you create your own characters and houses from scratch, The Sims also gives you several Maxis-generated families to start with. One of these in the first game was the “Roomies,” two women who were, according to the description, “new in town and looking to make friends.” I decided to create a “family” of two guys in the same neighborhood, who’d meet the girls, they’d all fall in love and get married, and pursue the music career. It’d be just like ABBA. I made the guys — “Tubbs,” because he dressed like a Miami Vice character, and “Logan,” because he dressed like a Sandman from Logan’s Run — and moved them into a house together, then had them start chatting with each other to build their relationship.

It turned out that the guys hit it off really well. I’d start a conversation between them, and they’d spend the next hour of game time just chatting with each other and sharing their dreams. They advanced from “friends” to “best friends,” and eventually got so close I started to wonder whether they’d seen combat together. Eventually, in addition to the conversational options, a new option appeared: “Give back rub.” What’s the worst that could happen? I thought. Nothing wrong with a dude giving his bro a completely consensual, heterosexual back rub.

But that’s when the hearts started appearing over their heads. I’d done it. It was my fault, because I’d given them permission. I’d somehow, completely inadvertently, unlocked a whole range of romantic options for the guys. And, I admit, I was “curious.” It’s just one night, after all, and it’s not like they’ll be locked into this as some kind of lifestyle choice, and I’ve already got a couple of very nice ladies set up for them, and well, why doesn’t this really seem all that weird to me?

My Exodus International-style attempts to get the guys back on track ended, predictably, in disaster. They preferred talking with each other and occasionally making out to talking with the Roomies. Tubbs, as it turned out, was progressive enough to be comfortable with bisexuality, and he quickly hit it off with one of the ladies. Logan didn’t want any part of it, though, and worse than that, he was crazy jealous. Tubbs’s ex-gay conversion started to get hot and heavy, and Logan reacted by slapping him, crying for a bit, and then going into the kitchen to make dinner. Because it was the original The Sims, though, using a stove meant instant suicide. A fire started, everyone panicked, and Logan was consumed by flame. A fittingly William Friedkin-esque end to the whole affair.

When a Sim dies, the game gives you a crematory urn that you can place in the backyard to turn into a grave. I did that, and Tubbs basically ruined the entire night with all his grieving. He abandoned the Roomies, choosing instead to go to the backyard and cry over Logan’s grave. His new girlfriend got bored, then came to the backyard to cheer him up. He was unconsolable at first, but eventually started to come around. Completely autonomously, she asked him to dance, and the two danced on his dead boyfriend’s grave. The game had let me consciously and subconsciously experiment with relationships, play around with the idea of what’s “normal,” and even push the characters towards a darkly comic moral retribution. All before I was ready to come out or was even able to recognize that coming out and being comfortable with myself was even an option.

(When I first told this story to my ex-boyfriend, his response: “Your first sign you were gay should’ve been when you bought a new video game and immediately wanted to re-create ABBA.”)

That’s an example of why representation is such a big deal in games and movies: it is, for lack of a better term, a “safe space” to see your own conception of what’s “normal” be abstracted and simplified and experimented with. The realization that this doesn’t seem that weird to me was a calming reassurance that “coming out” didn’t mean I’d have to transform into one of the bizarre stereotypes I’d always seen on TV and in movies. The game was effectively saying that it didn’t care one way or the other, so why should I? In retrospect, even the swift moral retribution for Logan’s wickedness was helpful: over the years I’d come up with so many possible nightmare scenarios of what would happen if anyone found out My Horrible Secret, that seeing one played out so broadly comic and cartoonishly helped defused the tension. It’s a big deal because it reminds players that it’s not a big deal.

Of course, somebody at EA or Maxis came along with The Sims 2 and effectively ruined it. They added the option of marriage — strictly non-denominational, of course — by giving a Sim new options for Sims with a high enough relationship level: “Propose” an “Join.” Two Sims could “Join” in a nice ceremony with all their Sim friends and it’d form a lifelong memory and a new spousal relationship.

But only if they were of opposite genders. Everything else was just as gender-agnostic as before, but if you had two Sims of the same gender, they could only “Join Union.” Every aspect of the relationship was exactly the same (except for the possibility of pregnancy from sex, of course) but they explicitly made the effort to distinguish real marriages of semi-autonomous computer-generated polygonal people with the politically-motivated civil unions of gay Sims. Of all the boneheaded decisions that EA has made over the years, that’s simultaneously one of the subtlest with least pragmatic impact, and one of the absolute worst with enough symbolism attached to wipe out almost all my goodwill towards the series. The beauty of The Sims was that it made no value judgments. The insult of The Sims 2 was that it said this distinction matters so much that we’ll go out of our way to differentiate it.

Of course, The Sims isn’t a completely free-love society; there are explicit rules against macking on underage Sims or blood relatives, for instance. And while Sims will take care of a lot of stuff on their own, they won’t do stuff like initiate romantic relationships, so players who want to play with the rule #nohomo will only ever see gay Sims if they create them themselves. Even after reading Christian’s description of Tomodachi Life, I still don’t have a clear idea of how autonomous it is, if at all — if the player doesn’t actually have control over which Miis fall in love and get married, then there is a technical question of how you implement that. If a Mii representing a straight player just automatically gets married to a Mii of the same gender, that’s really no better than Christian’s example of his Mii getting married to a woman.

But whatever the details, it’s not an unsolvable problem, because plenty of other games have solved it. And the key is that anybody who claims it’d take a ton of effort is either lying or mis-informed. If a Bioware game needs to write a whole plot line and dialogue for one of its established characters falling in love with an established character of the same gender, then that takes some effort. In a game where players create the characters and decide what they do, then it’s as simple as “don’t forbid it.”

And if you are going to make the effort to exclude me, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that you’re the one doing it. Don’t assume that what’s perfectly normal for me is actually some politically motivated social commentary. And don’t act as if removing the restrictions that exclude me is the same thing as catering to some special interest.