Life with Louie

I've long thought that anger is an integral part of good humor. I'm not talking about Sam Kinison on stage here, screaming about operation desert storm. Good humor draws attention to the ridiculousness of our behavior, and lets us acknowledge it (semi-) safely, but you're not very likely to do that without a healthy amount of outrage, and a good clean eye on the dirty ways of the world.

Could anyone honestly tell me that they think Matt Groening had a positive childhood? And yet, the ridiculous and abusive behavior of what was no doubt Groening's own father gets tweaked probably only slightly, and suddenly, you've got Homer Simpson, who's hilarious. Life with Louie (a much better show than it was ever given credit for) was just Louie Anderson riffing on the fact that he had a shitty childhood for 22 minutes at a time, kind of like “A Christmas Story”, the animated series.

The best examples are all about processing difficult childhood issues, but it certainly doesn't stop there. Even Robert McKee has a joke in Story about a Christmas party with only comedy writers being one of the most unpleasant experiences possible.

And yet, I'd like to talk about “Family Guy”. I was never a huge fan of it, though I certainly don't object, and I find nothing wrong with the format of “I'm going to riff on pop culture references in rapid succession for an entire episode”. Nevertheless, I find the show interesting, because it so perfectly captures the Adult Swim style (despite originally starting on Fox). Personally, like with Family Guy, I'm not a huge Adult Swim fan. I'll watch a lot of their stuff if it's on, but the only show that I've ever intentionally sought out was The Venture Brothers. Really, Adult Swim is just on the very front of this new wave of humor, largely based on nihilism. I can't think of anything that typifies this better than the youTube poop phenomenon. (Has it surprised anyone else that it's yet to receive its own Wikipedia article, but is mentioned by name in the Wikipedia article on CD-is?)

If you're not familiar with what I'm talking about, look at the following: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3e/BowserSourpussToast.PNG

If you're like me, you find that picture really funny, but can't, at first glance, explain why. The short answer for why it's funny, of course, is that it's ridiculous. It features characters you're familiar with (Mario, Bowser), doing unfamiliar things (holding bread, sponsoring bread). This isn't like some dumb picture of a political figure where somebody photoshopped a bong into their hand, that's funny (well, not really, but you get the idea) because it's somebody intentionally flipping the meaning of the photo. Someone who normally stands for not using illicit drugs becomes an icon. It's a subtle jab at the hypocrisy of whoever is in the photo (politicians, cops, church leaders, whatever), which wouldn't be funny or relevant if we didn't have a vague sense of outrage at the hypocrisy of authority figures.

Mario holding Bowser brand Sourpuss Bread is definitely not that. It's funny because it's completely nonsensical. Why would Bowser make bread? Likewise, when Peter gets into a fight with a giant chicken, the joke there is that it makes no sense.

I submit that this is the inevitable consequence of the rising tide of relativism. People are realizing that standards they were brought up with aren't necessarily universal, and on the edge of that is people experiencing a backlash, and toying around with the concept that without absolutes, there exists the possibility that nothing really matters, and everything is as good as everything else. Humor that is designed around things not making any sense brings us face to face with that fact, and lets us deal with it safely, in the same way that The Simpsons does for alcoholic abusive fathers in dysfunctional families.


Bounty, Which May or May Not Belong to a King

Last night, I beat King's Bounty: The Legend. For those of you unfamiliar, it's a 2008 release, put out as a gigantic tip of the hat to the original King's Bounty, made by Jon Van Caneghem, and frequently credited as the precursor to the Heroes of Might and Magic series.

I played the re-release of King's Bounty for the Sega Genesis in 1991 when I was a kid, despite mediocre graphics, and music that was, frankly, atrocious even for the early nineties. (Come on, people! Megaman 2 was released in 1988, and that music was awesome. You have no excuse.)

The gameplay is fairly simple. Both the original and he remake are based around you controlling an army (in avatar form), and clashing with various other armies in grid based combat. The changes the remake puts into effect basically just make the original game more complicated, or are just slight tweaks to the format. The new one plays in hexes, the old one used squares, your spell book is much larger, you have a host of primary stats and equipment that affect said stats, and most troops now have their own special abilities they can use. All in all, if you even remotely enjoyed the original, or would be interested in a tactical, powergaming heavy ridiculous game, check it out.

But I'm not really here to review King's Bounty: The Legend. The plot to King's Bounty is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The tone was set rather nicely the first time I created a character, a paladin, and was told by my mentor to go pick up a sword and equip it, but not before he checked with me, “to make sure I didn't take any of those stupid vows, like 'No weapons after dark', or something else dumb.”

Further highlights include a quest where a prince asks you to retrieve a frog from a swamp, so he can kiss it and turn it into a beautiful girl, whereupon the frog you find in the swamp informs you that he asks everybody to do that, and all the frogs in the swamp are beautiful girls, but without true love, they turn back into frogs, so the prince just dumps them in his dungeon. This is all not to mention the fact that, in a conversation about this game, I said the following phrase:

“Dammit, my demoness wife can't hold the drill anymore because she has to hold her stupid baby.”

Yes, you can get married. Yes, your wife can equip items (such as a dwarven drill, giving my army -1 initiative, but +25% physical damage). Yes, your wife can have children (also giving you various and sundry bonuses), and yes, those babies, mysteriously, take up her equipment slots.

Make no mistake, I really loved playing this game (and will probably play through again on a higher difficulty), but the story was not very good. It showed a lot of attention to crafting a backstory to the events that occur in the game, but it didn't go anywhere that I didn't expect, and I certainly didn't get emotionally involved, but, as I began to elaborate on in the previous post, it pointed in a lot of directions that got me thinking, “Wouldn't it be fascinating if somebody took that and really ran with it?”

So it turns out that Endoria, the world of this game, exists on the back of a giant turtle, and the orcs, having (sort of) unwittingly set the apocalypse in motion, have kidnapped dwarven engineers and elven magics to build a flying machine to escape to another world, which they have reason to believe is on the back of another turtle floating in the great ocean of space. Therefore, you have to convince them to let you use the flying machine to fly to the ends of Endoria, to rescue the young Princess Amelie (I'm sure it would be a shame I was already married if she wasn't eight years old), and stop the dragon Haas from destroying the world.

The plot holes are everywhere. Why did the orcs go along with the plan in the first place, then decide to stay when you talked to them? The dragon had to kidnap the Princess because she's descended from the gods (King Mark is infertile, it seems), because he needs the tears of the gods to bring about the end of the world. Why on earth do the tears of the gods slay a giant turtle? Why did the dragon go insane in the first place?

Nevertheless, the overactive imagination takes something like the premise of an ocean of turtles with worlds on their backs, and can't help but think about the possibilities allowed by a premise like that. And yes, I'm aware of the similarity to Discworld, though I'm not particularly familiar with the books. Likewise, from the fact that your training involves rescuing a fake princess from a dragon, to the prince who asks you to pick up a frog from the swamp, to the fact that Amelie asks that you be made a prince after the fact, so that her rescuer can be a prince on a white horse, all point to a world that intentionally plays into fairytale tropes. (Again, seemingly not unlike Discworld)

Since I'm prone to analysis and narrative myself, I look at a world like this, and spend a lot of time thinking about the possibilities that you could come up with if you ran with it in various directions. I can't help but think that this is basically the same thing an overactive imagination does when presented with the environments in Super Metroid, or any vague premise, which is either not flushed out or flushed out poorly. I happen to think I'm a good writer, but it doesn't even really matter in this case. Because they're ideas I'm coming up with, I'm predisposed to like them, right? And because it generates, in me, ideas that I find entertaining, the game itself becomes more entertaining.

Oh, and for those who played the original King's Bounty, I can't represent how pleased I was that the final battle basically consisted of you just fighting a ton of dragons. That's the way it should be.


The Spirits Within

So, I meant to pick up on intuitive understanding, especially considering the discussion inspired by my previous thoughts, which I'm very pleased about, but I was knocked out for a while by an unfortunate illness, and need to throw up something good. Intuitive understanding and this month's roundtable soon to come!

I'll just cut right to the chase here. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within just wasn't a very good movie. I've talked to a lot of people about the subject, and a lot of people have a lot of difficulty putting their finger on why. The voices were of surprisingly high caliber, the visuals were good for their time (with the exception of the conspicuous lack of facial capture technology), the quality of dialog was usually high enough to not bring down the rest of the movie, and yet...

Despite having no explicit relationship to games in the series, (in the same way that games in the series have no explicit relationship to each other) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is definitely a “Final Fantasy” movie. For those of you who don't know the movie, the plot can be summed up as such:

The film is set in a post apocalyptic world where humanity has dropped the ball, and been forced to cede mastery of the earth to a more adapted, (arguably) less intelligent species. Humanity is slowly being pushed to extinction. Enter a young woman, who's able to save the day by seeing the planet as the victim of, rather than the giver of pain, but not before she butts heads with the worst that humanity has to offer in terms of selfishness and short-sightedness.

Those of who who've already heard my deal on this probably already know where this is going, but does this sound familiar? That's just a plot synopsis of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, goodness knows I reference it often enough on here.

The similarity is intentional, mind you. Even the opening scene of The Spirits Within is an homage to Nausicaa: the main character running around in the depths of the post-apocalyptic world, weaponless, observing the otherworldly beauty of the supposedly ruined surface of the earth.

Given that Miyazaki can pretty much be credited with single handedly shaping the face of Japanese environmentalism, and, more important to the discussion, popularizing the “Gaia hypothesis” (the suggestion that the earth itself is a kind of living organism), there can be very little doubt that Miyazaki, probably unintentionally, shaped the face of the Final Fantasy series, and by extension, Japanese Role Playing Games in almost all their forms.

(I'm glossing over drawing the line between early Final Fantasy and Miyazaki because it's merely a stepping stone to my point regarding the Final Fantasy film, but if there's enough support, I might go back and write more on the tangential topic of the environmentalism contained in early Final Fantasies)

When a big blockbuster is made out of a book, TV show, game, or comic, and it sucks, it's usually blasted for being somehow “untrue” to the original Intellectual Property from which it was derived (provided the original IP was any good in the first place): League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Starship Troopers, Resident Evil, the list goes on.

And yet, The Spirits Within is the perfect counter example to this trend. Given that Final Fantasy was so heavily shaped by Miyazaki, what could be more representative of the IP than a giant homage to the quintessential Miyazaki film? Nonetheless, the movie just wasn't all that good.


I could go on and pick apart every little part of The Spirits Within, and talk about how this didn't work, or that could have been better, but that wouldn't really get us anywhere. Instead, I submit, for those of you (myself included) who are Final Fantasy fans but didn't like The Spirits Within, that the Final Fantasy that exists in your head is just better than the actual Final Fantasy. A friend of mine has been telling me for quite a while that the reason why he liked Final Fantasy 6 so much better than any subsequent ones is because Final Fantasy 6 had poor enough graphics, and just the right about of vagueness in the dialog to leave things up to his imagination. He's just exceptionally aware and up front about what I think virtually everyone who grew up playing video games (particularly RPGs) does: Fill in the gaps with their own imagination.

There's very little actual time, if you go back and play the first disc of Final Fantasy 7, devoted to building the relationship between Cloud and Aeris, but the player nonetheless understands what the nature of the relationship is supposed to be, and can fill in the rest. The gravity of Aeris's death is less based on the quality of the relationship built within the confines of the actual game, and much much more on the quality of the relationship that exists within the player's head.

At first glance, this seems so obvious as to be meaningless. Of course the player's experience is incredibly important in how they experience a game. If I hate Japanese RPGs, I'm not going to get invested enough to care about any of the character development, let alone the death of a character part of the way through the game. It's not even that revolutionary or meaningful, I think, to suggest that the reality of the game is less important than the player's projection onto it.

So why did Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within disappoint? I could make an analogy about how trying to duplicate a Miyazaki movie is like trying to cover “Born to Run” with your garage band (read: a bad idea, don't invite comparison), but I think the truth of the matter is that the actual Final Fantasy IP is just not as good as the “Final Fantasy” that exists in the consciousness of the people who saw The Spirits Within.

This isn't just me whining about how fanboys are never satisfied, and how everybody and their mother has a secret Sephiroth/Vincent slash fic under their mattress. (Is it still a slash fic if they're from the same IP? I don't keep up on my definitions.) The fact is, there's a lot less to Metroid than everyone thinks too. I remember not even understanding that Samus without her suit on was the same character in the original Metroid. I thought it was a second character for the two player version that I didn't know how to unlock. She didn't even have a clear physical appearance until Super Metroid, and only that if you could beat the game in under three hours.

Nonetheless, the environments in Super Metroid were so evocative, those with overactive imaginations (a hallmark of the geek) couldn't help but speculate about the events surrounding them. Would their explanations (if they existed) be as good as the vague sense of wonder the game left you with? I doubt it.

How many of you remember being impressed with the romance between Locke and Celes? I know I was. Well, surprise, the number of lines out of either of them that can be assumed to have an even vaguely romantic connotation number under 25. You get a few more lines when you tack on anything he says about Rachel, but at the heart of it, there's nothing there. Nonetheless, people, myself included, ate it up.

So, is this a bad thing? Hardly. Nonetheless, any attempt to flush out all the dark corners of an IP, especially in a movie, is doomed to failure. Those little niggling aspects (sometimes those big niggling aspects) are always better left to the imagination. Just like how the histories I made up for the locations in Legend of Mana were way better than the actual histories, Braid captured the imagination of the Internet community because of how much it left unsaid.