Category Archives: Entertainment

It’s a Whole Lot More, But Sometimes Less is More: A review of Black Mesa

(Note: The following review features details of the plot of the first installment of Half-Life, including its climax.)

Over twenty years ago, the original Half-Life changed the world of first-person shooters. Advertisements for the game boasted that its predecessors, by comparison, could be summed up as “Run, shoot, run, shoot” ad nauseam. Following shooters would take cues from Half-Life for years to come, and the game itself started a franchise beloved by legions of gamers.

But given the technological restrictions of the era, as well as its much-maligned final levels, it was inevitable that modern Half-Life fans thought the first entry didn’t live up to its limitless potential, and would appreciate a full-blown remake of it. And that’s where Black Mesa came in.

Black Mesa, which was released earlier this year in its entirety for the first time, is a complete fanmade remake of Half-Life in the same engine as Half-Life 2. While the story remains more or less the same, at least in ways that are relevant in regards to its sequels, it significantly increases content, particularly in the final levels, and takes full advantage of two decades’ worth of advancement in game technology.

The original game’s biggest fan.

One of the first major advancements the player will notice is the atmosphere of the titular government research facility. The interiors of the Black Mesa Research Facility in the original Half-Life were often austere, metallic and sleek, like something out of the lower levels of the Academy in the X-Men movies. Black Mesa adds some much-needed realism by piling on the wear, rust and warning signs one would expect to see in the bowels of such a facility.

The last levels have been vastly expanded upon, with new enemies and mechanics abounding. One memorable foe is a zombified scientist wearing the same high-tech armored hazmat suit as the protagonist, with its onboard monitoring system audibly glitching and struggling to make sense of its occupant’s transformation.

Entirely new sequences are added, such as a high octane escape from scads of aliens impervious to the player’s weapons. Many more puzzles are added, which are never so difficult as to require a consultation of a walkthrough, nor so easy that no sense of accomplishment will be gained from solving them.

The scenery has been greatly altered overall, ranging from lush wetlands to bleak factories and shantytowns. While a commendable effort is made to create a world that is somehow recognizable while remaining distinctly alien, it’s questionable whether the resultant awe at its beauty is preferable to the trepidation of traversing dangerous landscape that was evoked by the level design of the original game.

The other levels stick more closely to the source material, though there is the occasional new set piece, such as a fast-paced shootout after falling into a trap set by enemy marines or a later attempt at stealth in a large aircraft hangar.

Also of note is the completely new original soundtrack, which of course features plenty of adrenaline-pumping fare for action sequences, but also some interesting surprises. The eerie, mournful main theme is oddly fitting for the game as a whole.

The equivalent area in Black Mesa.

Aside from the updated engine, the biggest change is the overall push to make the game more cinematic on the whole. In addition to improved graphics, there is more effort put in to the development of characters. There is much more dialogue, and allies and enemies alike are rounded out.

Emergency alert broadcasts advise civilians to leave the area and take flashlights and radios with them, to head to a disease control center if they experience dizziness or hair loss, and to contact a military officer if they have firearms training. The player overhears a plea for help over the radio by a marine who is slowly bleeding to death.

All these elements make for an experience that is more immersive, and emotional for the most part. But there’s something to be said of the design of the original Half-Life that doesn’t quite translate to this new aesthetic.

In one notorious scene towards the beginning of Half-Life, the player pressed an elevator call button, and the car immediately came crashing down from above, carrying a few screaming scientists with it. The overall scene has been reproduced in Black Mesa. But now, the crash is no longer immediate. The occupants’ frantic pounding on the door and cries of how they don’t want to die are heard for several seconds until they plummet to their deaths.

It’s certainly more emotionally wrenching on most levels. But given that the fall doesn’t immediately follow the button press, it’s less obvious that it was indirectly due to the player’s actions — which was why the scene was so memorable in the original game.

The design of enemies is also flashier and more detailed, as could be expected given the modern gaming era’s newfound abundance of polygons. Half-Life‘s original monsters indeed look fairly primitive by comparison. But they had notable traits of their own that Black Mesa seems to have ignored.

A bullsquid as seen in Half-Life.

Take the bullsquids, extremophilic bipeds that spewed globules of noxious bile at the player and could often be found near pools of toxic waste. Aside from a bizarre assortment of tentacles surrounding its mouth, it was pretty much featureless save for a pair of barely noticeable eyes. When killed, it let out a capitulatory whine disconcertingly similar to that of a family pet.

Its counterpart in Black Mesa, however, sports two glowing, angry, textbook-evil red eyes, with a repertoire consisting of snarls and exaggerated gargles. Its status as a threat and an enemy is emphasized, at the expense of its sense of mystery and otherworldliness.

Then there’s the final boss, the Nihilanth. The battle with the surprisingly weak and cowardly Nihilanth in Half-Life is often regarded as a major disappointment, but the character itself gave the player pause: It was suggestive of a human fetus, with empty black eyes and a tiny mouth that seemed to be in the middle of intoning something ominous. It occasionally gave cryptic messages to the protagonist, presumably through telepathy, that were perceived as an unsettling, reverberating moan.

In Black Mesa, the Nihilanth, as could be expected at that point in the game, presents a far greater challenge. But it now has fiery eyes that reveal an unquenchable rage, and its mouth is now lined with piranha-sharp teeth. The telepathic messages are still present, but they are now in the form of the guttural growl of a black metal singer trying to sound as intimidating as possible. Hell, it even has a Jabba the Hutt-style chortle.

A bullsquid in Black Mesa.

Closer alignment with traditional archetypes of monsters does not necessarily make a monster more frightening or impactful. Nor does higher production values and detail in its presentation. Consider Forbidden Planet, which presented one of the scariest monsters in cinematic history via nothing but emphatic howling noises and a bunch of red scribbles.

Black Mesa is a highly impressive update of a highly innovative game, making full use of what an advanced engine has to offer while increasing much-needed gameplay and trimming what was unneeded in the original game. It can certainly be recommended to someone who wants to play the Half-Life games in chronological order or the order of their release, unless they’re a purist. But it needs to be considered that perhaps some of the content in the original Half-Life lacked further detail by intention, rather than due to the limits of its technology.

What Makes a Movie Remain Scary

Source: implied promises that the installment before this one would be the last, there’s yet another Saw movie out. I can understand to some extent why audiences find them entertaining, and perhaps even scary. But if the movies do manage to scare people, it’s not as if they deserve any accolades for doing so.

By releasing so many entries in the series, the Saw franchise has essentially admitted that not much effort is needed to frighten the viewer in the manner they’ve devised. The formula is fairly simple: Show a victim trapped in a room who will soon be killed unless they manage to survive through means that will cause them great pain or mental anguish. Sure, it’s scary when the viewer thinks “What if that was me,” but it’s a fairly obvious means of frightening someone, and the filmmakers aren’t demonstrating a great deal of talent. Anyone could devise one of Jigsaw’s games given an hour’s time.

There’s a difference between a movie that is scary when it’s seen and a movie that remains scary afterward. Exceedingly few films have succeeded in generating fear long after they’re over. I’ve been left queasy after a movie is finished because of its implications for the future of its characters and society as a whole, as was the case with Larry Clark’s Kids, but very rarely frightened for my own sake.

Former Tom Servo Kevin Murphy, in his book A Year at the Movies, describes the criteria for a film to be genuinely horrifying:

To genuinely evoke fear, a movie can’t simply address our fears, it has to dig them out of where we hide them, in our subconscious. Find a filmmaker who can draw from our subconscious and show it to us, and you have a true master of horror.

Given this definition of a true horror film, it’s no surprise that he goes on to name David Lynch’s Eraserhead as the most horrifying movie he’s seen. The premise of Eraserhead — as best I can understand it, anyway — is that a young man discovers that he’s fathered an illegitimate child with his girlfriend, and is now expected to take care of it as any father would. And the baby in question has… something wrong with it.

I’ve read about a common archetype of a monster being an entity that is human in most respects, but is still not quite right, dipping into the “uncanny valley.” Eraserhead exaggerates this trope with the baby, which given the shape of its head is suggestive of something cute and infantile, but sweet Jesus is that thing NOT an infant and it sure as hell is NOT cute. It channels our innermost instincts to care for and protect anything that resembles a human child and then vomits them up right in our faces by showing itself to be repulsive upon closer inspection. It’s the same reason we are put off by pictures of dolls that have been abandoned and subjected to the elements.

Murphy writes of Eraserhead: “David Lynch has managed to do what few other filmmakers can accomplish: to present on film a dream, or in this case a nightmare.” Through the medium of a film presented through the filter of “dream logic,” Lynch portrays the fear inherent in the newfound responsibilities of parenthood.

But while the revolutionary means of storytelling establish Eraserhead as a cinematic milestone, it did not strike me as especially horrifying. I suppose it would have a far greater impact on me if I saw it as an expectant father, just as I’d be frightened by Rosemary’s Baby. But other movies have certainly succeeded where others have failed, with one outstanding example.

The movie that scared me the most is one that I’ve never seen described by anyone else as one that scared them. Actually, compared to the likes of The Exorcist and Eraserhead, I’ve hardly seen it discussed at all. It’s Sisters, one of the early efforts of Brian De Palma. (You may not recognize his name, but you’ve almost certainly seen at least one of his movies.) The plot concerns a pair of conjoined twins that have since been surgically separated… Oh yes, and one is evil.

Granted, the premise may not exactly be anything too groundbreaking, but that wasn’t the aspect of the film that I found so frightening. I was most scared by two scenes toward the end that had little to do with the conjoined-twins plot. Nobody was killed in these scenes, nor even a single drop of blood spilled.

(Of course, to explain why these scenes are scary, which I’ll now proceed to do, would entail spoiling the ending. Read further at your own discretion.)

The protagonist of the movie is a reporter, notable for her columns critical of law enforcement, who witnesses a murder at the hands of the presumably evil twin. As the police are wary of her given her body of work, they are incredulous of her claims, and it falls on her to solve the crime herself with the help of a private investigator. Not that she displays a great deal of competence in contrast to the cops: Right after the murder is committed, she finds a cake wishing two people a happy birthday, proving her claim of twin sisters rather than an individual living in the apartment. She brings the evidence to the detective… And then trips, dropping the cake and smearing the frosting.

Her leads eventually lead her to a mental hospital, which employs the murderer’s accomplice and ex-husband as a doctor. She’s then found, however, by another staff member, and said doctor explains that she’s a patient who has delusions of being a reporter. She refutes that she really is who she claims to be, which can be proven by her ID… which she left in her car. After a few minutes of being condescended to by the staff member and her desperation growing, another of them arrives with a needle. The reporter screams for help to no avail.

After being sedated, the reporter is then subjected to hypnosis by the doctor, who repeats that the murder she witnessed didn’t actually occur. By the end of the film, he too falls victim to the murderer, drawing the attention of the police, who now have reason to believe the reporter’s story. So the previously incredulous detective sits her down and invites her to reiterate her story…

…Which goes nowhere, as she’s been successfully brainwashed by the doctor and can only repeatedly insist that the whole thing was a ridiculous mistake. And unless the private eye can actually come up with something, the murder will be unsolved forever. The end.

So there are the two scenes that scared me, the one where the reporter tries fruitlessly to prove her identity and the one where she demonstrates herself to be brainwashed. And while I found them both frightening, they were frightening for different reasons.

The first scene was a classic example of the protagonist as audience surrogate becoming trapped and helpless, in the same vein as Jigsaw’s victims. But there are some key differences here. The most obvious is that the audience has followed the reporter’s plight for a while now and has had time to establish rapport with her, so they can relate to her more than someone who is introduced to them already chained up in a filthy bathroom. The other may be connected to the aforementioned monster archetype.

The Eraserhead baby was far scarier than the Blob or Mothra because it was not something so exaggerated as to be unrelatable. It started out as something to be nurtured and not feared, and then corrupted. Likewise, the asylum scene in Sisters was not a situation as outlandish as finding yourself needing to gouge out your own eyeball in order to survive. It was a logical escalation of the film’s conflict, and it bore some resemblance to commonplace, everyday arguments with with most audience members would be familiar.

It was all too easy to imagine myself in the reporter’s situation, surrounded by people whose trust was gained by my enemy rather than me. And like the reporter’s previous incident with the cake, her having left her ID in her car was her own fault that she could easily have avoided, thus adding another layer of irony. If only she’d brought it with her…

It wasn’t just the set-up of the scene, either: Its pacing and staging built perfectly to its conclusion. As it plays out, the viewer slowly and steadily comes to the realization that the woman is completely screwed.

I have never been kidnapped by a sadistic madman or a serial killer. I have, however, been antagonized by people who wield some degree of authority. I could easily envision myself falling victim to an authority figure who managed to outwit me, and his pawns who thought they were doing what was right. The believability of the scene enabled it to bore into me like few movies could.

The scene where the reporter shows herself to be hypnotized showcases a scenario that is truly terrifying: What if, under outside influence, one can be betrayed by their own mind? What if the very tool that is used to perceive and store information about the world around them can become someone else’s plaything? What if we can no longer trust our own memories? It’s classic paranoia fuel, and the only consolation is that the concept is simply a Hollywood fiction that can’t be reproduced in reality… Oh, shit.

That’s why Sisters was the film I’ve seen that I found the scariest. (It’s also one of the reasons I consider De Palma to be an accomplished filmmaker — call him a shameless plagiarist of Hitchcock if you want, but the fact remains that Sisters frightened me more than Psycho and The Birds combined.) I realize that doesn’t mean it’s the scariest film I’ve seen, of course. Every audience member is different, and the task falls to the storyteller to figure out which parts of their psyche will recoil when prodded.

Happy Halloween…

A Primer on Pills


So there’s this new documentary out called The Red Pill. It’s from the point of view of a feminist who starts researching the men’s rights movement, and gradually starts to realize the movement may be in the right. Thus the film’s title: She “took the red pill,” or at least she did from the point of view of a men’s rights advocate.

The phrases “red pill” and “blue pill” have seen an upswing in use as of late, and they’re often associated with certain social and political movements. But given the potential of the expression, it shouldn’t be tied down to any one specific mindset.

The terminology of red and blue pills originates from the hit 1999 cyberpunk sci-fi movie The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowski… Well, let’s just call them the Wachowskis. It may seem odd for a motion picture to serve as inspiration for an idiom, but it’s hardly unheard of: You may have heard that someone who abandoned their moral principles in their pursuit of wealth or prestige has “gone to the dark side of the Force.”

On the off chance you haven’t seen The Matrix, here’s a recap of the relevant details with spoilers minimized as best I could. Keanu Reeves stars as office drone Thomas Anderson, though he prefers to use his hacker moniker “Neo.” Neo has been getting subconscious urges to seek a mysterious figure known as Morpheus. When the two finally meet, Morpheus compares Neo to Alice on the brink of the rabbit hole, and offers to show him “the truth” about something known as the Matrix. He presents Neo with two pills, one red and one blue, and offers him a choice:

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

It wouldn’t be much of a movie if Neo took the blue pill. After ingesting the red pill, Neo is shown the shocking, devastating truth about his entire life: It was a complete lie.

It was a computer simulation the whole time, to keep his mind occupied and unable to see the world for what it really is. Nearly everyone he knew was also trapped in the Matrix, created by sentient machines to harvest humans’ body electricity. (So why, you ask, do the machines bother farming humans and setting up this simulated reality to use their body electricity for energy, instead of just burning whatever they’re feeding them for fuel directly? Well, that will have to be a story for a different time.)

Morpheus introduces Neo to others on his team, most of them former Matrix inhabitants who have presumably taken the red pill themselves. They live a rather miserable life, manning a futuristic hovercraft and roaming a wasteland devastated by the war between man and machine that machine won. Their mission is to “unplug” more people from the Matrix and give them the red pill, so they too will be awakened and realize the truth about the world. But Morpheus explains this will not be easy:

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

It would seem that not everyone would be open to the idea of leaving the reality to which they have grown accustomed and start exploring the real world. In fact, not all those who have already been unplugged are satisfied with their choice. One of Neo’s shipmates confides in him that he wishes he took the blue pill. He’s aware that he would be living a lie if that were the case, but at least he wouldn’t be stuck in a vast dystopia eating food of dubious origin on a tiny ship. “Ignorance is bliss,” he moans as he savors a bite of juicy steak that by his own admission is really nothing more than a few lines of code.

Such is the choice to be made by the inhabitants of the Matrix. Do they take the red pill and learn the bitter reality of the world around them? Or do they take the blue pill, and remain in a comfortable dream world, avoiding unpleasant truths at the cost of their own freedom?

That dilemma is central to the expressions regarding red and blue pills. When you are offered the chance to see the world for what it really is, do you accept, and risk facing unpalatable realities, but gain enlightenment and the ability to improve the world? Or do you refuse, and continue to live a life that is fake but comforting, being part of the problem as you allow the state of the real world to stagnate?

It is rather obvious that this allegory feels relevant to those who believe the common consensus about society does not reflect the actual state of it. It’s especially useful when the speaker believes that people believe falsehoods about their reality because they have been brainwashed by a malevolent, powerful force, and the truth is difficult to take in and handle.

Therefore, to “take the red pill” is to accept the knowledge of how the world really is and how it functions. To “take the blue pill” is to be offered a chance at the truth, but to refuse, as they are so helplessly lost in lies that they refuse to consider they have been lied to, or they prefer a comforting lie to an inconvenient truth.

Here are some ways the terminology of pills can be used:

“James has suddenly started questioning the effectiveness of the 12-step program the court ordered him into. He must have taken the red pill.”

“Of course it’s in the Rothschilds’ best interests that everyone keep taking the blue pill.”

“I didn’t really consider the possibility that Jews control the banks and the media until I took the red pill.”

“Don’t send your kids to public school — they’ll be force-fed the blue pill every day they’re there.”

“A redpilled group on campus is challenging the gender studies majors who claim that gender is just a social construct.”

“Bonnie still refuses to read about how the world is really run by a cabal of humanoid lizards. She really must have swallowed that blue pill hard.”

The speakers in each of these situations may or may not be correct in terms of these statements, but they are using the expression of red and blue pills correctly in the context of their beliefs.

The same cannot be said of some I’ve seen using these sayings. The most glaring error is attempting to adopt the action of taking the blue pill as a badge of pride: “I’m glad I took the blue pill.” This makes no sense, just as you would not say, “Well, I guess ‘not being the sharpest knife in the drawer’ must be a good thing!” If someone accuses you of taking the blue pill, the proper counterargument is that the pill allegory does not apply to the topic at hand, or that it is in fact they who have taken the blue pill.

So there you have it. The allegory of pills can be useful when discussing matters of censorship and unpleasant truths. Just don’t assign the idiom to any specific movement.

Also, if you really haven’t seen The Matrix, you should. But do yourself a favor and take the blue pill — pretend the sequels don’t exist.

Five Awful Movie Taglines

5. Die Hard (1988)

'Twelve terrorists. One cop. The odds are against John McClane... That's just the way he likes it.''

Uhh… No, it isn’t. When John McClane first realizes the plaza building is under attack, one of his first courses of action is to call for help, so the odds won’t be against him. After all, he may want to rescue the hostages and have the training of an NYPD officer, but he’s only human — which is kind of the point.

After audiences had their fill of Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, Bruce Willis breathed new life into the action hero archetype with John McClane. McClane would never refer to crime as a disease with himself as the cure. He would never wax poetic about crushing his enemies, seeing them driven before him, and hearing the lamentations of their women.

So he was clearly a different kind of action hero, and Die Hard was a different kind of action movie — which would seem like its main selling point. But no, the tagline makes McClane out to be no different than the larger-than-life meatcakes before him. How often do you see a tagline that actively negates what the movie has to offer?

4. Psycho (1998)

'Check in. Relax. Take a shower.'

The necessity of Gus Van Sant’s practically shot-for-shot Psycho remake was and always will be questionable at best. It certainly doesn’t help that its tagline depends upon audiences’ foreknowledge of the original film to work, and implies that little will be different this time around. How exactly does one expect to sell tickets by saying, in effect, “You’ve already seen this before”?

3. Yogi Bear (2010)

'Great things come in bears.'

Come to think of it, I don’t really feel like dwelling too much on this one. All I’ll say about it is that the poster doesn’t help matters. Moving on.

2. Clockstoppers (2002)

'What if you had the power to stop time?'

On its surface, the tagline “What if you had the power to stop time?” is merely boringly simplistic. But given that this movie is targeted at teens and preteens, it really becomes a problem.

It insults the intelligence of the one group of people who really don’t want their intelligence insulted, and would prefer to be treated as reasonably mature whenever possible. “What if you had the power to stop time?” is so lacking in nuance that it sounds more fitting as a premise to a Saturday morning cartoon rather than a movie that adolescents wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen watching. It also sounds like the prompt for a school writing assignment.

On the plus side, however, this tagline can inspire you to create taglines of your own that follow the same format. “What if you could enter someone else’s dreams?” “What if your daughter was possessed by the Devil?” “What if your family started to draw you into organized crime?” “What if the ghost of your father visits you and claims he was murdered by your uncle so he could be crowned King instead?” Have fun!

1. Contact (1997)

'A message from deep space. Who will be the first to go? A journey to the heart of the universe.'

Let’s get this out of the way first. I liked Contact. Yes, even the ending. But this tagline… It’s a matryoshka doll of terribleness. Where to start?

First, there’s the overall structure. A tagline consisting of multiple paragraphs is not unheard of, so long as there is an overarching focus. Nothing of that sort in Contact‘s horrifically disjointed tagline: It meanders listlessly from one possible point of interest to another. It’s as if the marketers resorted to throwing random bits of what could pass as a tagline on the poster to see if anything would stick.

Furthermore, bombastic claims about the film’s epic scope are far too vague to leave any impression. Messages from deep space and journeys to the heart of the universe could be featured in anything from a space opera to a gory extraterrestrial monster movie.

And as for who will be the first to go, why should anyone care if they’re not yet familiar with the plot? The question is of little importance, as they haven’t been introduced to any of the characters and see no reason to root for any of them in particular. And why is this such a point of contention anyway, as potential viewers are unfamiliar with the context of the issue and don’t understand why everyone who wants to go can all go at once?

For a story about a woman overcoming the odds to explore different worlds, communication with extraterrestrial civilizations, and humankind’s place in the universe and potential to better itself through science, the tagline causes it to come off as boring.

Five Years of MLP:FiM

Five years ago, if someone from the present met me (having used a time travel spell) and informed me that I would be a fan of the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, I would be rather incredulous. Not about watching something whose target demographic I was clearly outside, but about watching something whose express purpose was to sell merchandise. Such entertainment never sat well with me, both due their ethical standing and the quality of their actual entertainment.

But as of today, I see no shame in calling myself a brony. Part of it’s due to my changing political views regarding capitalism. But it’s mostly due to MLP:FiM proving itself to work despite the constraints of a demanding executive board, and having an appeal all its own (as I’ve discussed before). Had the show been broadcast on IFC with none of their characters appearing on toys or tiny backpacks, it would probably draw in subscribers to Adbusters.

The only moments when MLP:FiM irritates a little is when it can’t help to remind the viewer of why it exists, usually in the form of plot contrivances wherein the main characters all change their physical appearance: Different color schemes, pretty butterfly-like creatures, or even sparkly crystalline versions of themselves. Especially problematic are the instances where knowledge of where the show’s priorities lie leads to the predictability of major plot revelations. (Does the mysterious chest with magical keys contain something surprisingly drab and ordinary, à la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Or will it be something bright and shiny, whose miniature physical simulacrum will stand out in an aisle at Target?)

After having seen the Big Special Episode whose airdate on the show’s fifth anniversary was presumably deliberate, the cynical part of my brain wants desperately to remind the rest of it that its major reveal was probably due to the demands of the merchandising department. But as it has been for the past several years, I can’t help but set such concerns aside and enjoy the show for what it is.

Many of those outside of the fandom find bronies odd, if not outright depraved, and given some of the show’s fan-made content, it’s hard to blame them. But given what the overwhelming majority of bronies are like and what they make, I will still readily count myself among their ranks. I’m not ashamed to be part of a community whose members can take inspiration from this and create something like this. For all its occasional, shall we say, eccentricities, the bronies are not something to be feared or even underestimated (in terms of both their artistic talents and philanthropy).

Even so, I suppose I’m not very hardcore a brony. I have yet to attend any conventions. I have purchased no merchandise save for the comic books, a DVD, and a hat. (Perhaps some traces of hippie reside in me still.) And I’ve only drawn one piece of fan art (which — SPOILER WARNING — the Big Special Episode has officially rendered non-canonical). But if anyone asks me point blank if I’m a brony, I’d certainly say yes.

And if someone asked me “Who is best pony?”, as someone already had when they saw me in the hat, I’d just as certainly reply, “Twilight Sparkle.”

Why Gamers Watch Gamers

So it would seem that Jimmy Kimmel has ruffled some feathers with his jabs at YouTube’s new service for video game streams. And indeed, it would seem that many gamers can’t take a joke and their response has been childish at best (though it can be assumed a solid chunk of those replies were from actual children).

But one can’t help but empathize with the gamers a bit. The entertainment they enjoy has from its inception been regarded as somehow inferior to other media, lacking some sort of quality that earns it status as true art. And gamers themselves are not held in very high esteem in contrast to those with more traditionally revered hobbies. Perhaps it’s only to be expected that when Kimmel joins those piling on them, they’re not in the mood to take a joke.

Kimmel dismisses the comparison of video game streaming to spectator sports by saying it “isn’t like watching people play football, it’s like watching people play fantasy football.” But are spectator sports themselves as intrinsically fulfilling as some examples of seeing others play video games?

To watch another person play a video game is to see them experience entertainment and have their skills tested simultaneously. Even watching another person view entertainment can be entertaining in of itself, for example, seeing audiences react to a certain scene in The Empire Strikes Back for the first time:

And seeing others performing feats of skill can always be enthralling, from showcases of athletic prowess to acts as simple as food preparation:

Surely, many would deem it worth their time to watch others show their skills at video games as well?

But there’s a glaring difference between spectator sports and spectator “e-sports.” There are only several sports that are watched by wide audiences. Their athletes are restricted by the rules of the game, and there is no backstory to the game besides the backgrounds of the teams and players. All the action is constrained by those rules, and there will be no twists in the narrative, or at least none that extend beyond those that are possible given the game’s constraints.

Yes, you can make this stuff up.

However, there are thousands of video games, most of which strive to create both their own unique set of rules and a dramatic narrative.

So while people can watch a few seasons of football and see nearly all of the passes and plays possible given the game’s rule set, it would be practically impossible for them to watch other people choose all the possible means of playing through a highly complex computer role-playing game, let alone play through them themselves. Many developers pride themselves on constructing games so exhaustively crafted they will respond logically to whatever input the player gives them. Many games are so intricately designed that it’s impossible for one person to experience everything the writers, programmers, and voice actors have prepared for them. Why not provide a platform to show gamers the routes they have not taken themselves, and what would have happened to them if they had? Otherwise, the developers’ efforts would have been for naught.

And as it was with The Empire Strikes Back, it’s entertaining to see others react to plot developments in games as well. Who wouldn’t be interested in how others reacted to the big twist in Knights of the Old Republic (perhaps the greatest Star Wars game yet released)?

So perhaps there really is an appeal to watching others play video games that Kimmel has not considered. If it’s socially acceptable to spend a solid portion of one’s waking hours watching other people play one game, it should be just as fine to watch people other types of games as well.

Don’t knock it till you try it.

Sharing the Crazy in a Box With a Side Order of Fries: The appeal of Freeman’s Mind

The original Half-Life, released over fifteen years ago, was a milestone for first-person shooters on the level of Doom. When it first came out, many predicted it would set the standard for shooters to come and its features would be copied by countless other games, and history proved them all right. Concepts such as a narrative that stayed with the point of view of the playing character (not even an opening cutscene) is now a staple of the genre today.

Of course, another way the game proved innovative was the character it assigned to its protagonist, Gordon Freeman — or lack thereof. The player only knows what he looks like from the box cover art, as he’s never seen in the game itself due to the first-person perspective (and odd absence of reflective materials). Information about his professional background could be inferred from a letter from his then-future employer regarding his new position, shown in the manual. And in the opening of the game itself, there is some superimposed text about him, though that focuses on such data as his education, job title, security clearance, the ominous-sounding “Disaster Response Priority”… All minutia within the realm of some bureaucrat. (Or, perhaps, some sort of outside observer? But that’s another story.) As opposed to, say, Doom‘s space marine, who as the manual notes “assaulted a superior officer for ordering his soldiers to fire upon civilians,” no background information provided for Gordon sheds any light on his morals, actual personality, or unspoken goals outside of his career.

This, of course, allowed gamers to have their own ideas for who Gordon really is, what he makes of the mess and the violence that he in a sense started himself, and where he hopes to be at the end of the ordeal. Was Gordon a classic hero, who immediately takes the initiative to rescue his coworkers and set things right by any means necessary? Or is he merely a common working stiff who just wants to live another day and escape the situations into which he is thrust?

The player was free to think of Gordon in any way they saw fit. However, it seems unlikely that any of them had a concept of him that was anything similar to how he is as portrayed on Ross Scott’s web series Freeman’s Mind.

Freeman’s Mind is a series of videos showing a playthrough of Half-Life, complete with a narration purportedly comprising Gordon’s inner thoughts. According to this inner monologue, Gordon is still the Gordon as presented by the game: A young theoretical physicist with a doctorate from MIT, now working at the “Anomalous Materials” department of a sprawling government research facility in the New Mexico desert. After being in the middle of an experiment gone horribly wrong, he must now must face off against extradimensional aliens and soldiers assigned to purge the facility of any witnesses.

But as for his character and personal life, the narration goes into further detail: Gordon’s pastimes include recreational use of prescription opiates and hitting on unwilling coworkers. After the ill-fated experiment, he never once considers the fate of the other personnel or the outside world with the aliens teleporting in, instead focusing on his own well-being (something he clearly holds in very high regard) throughout. After discovering that the hostile military forces know him by name, his plans shift to hijacking a ride to Massachusetts, grabbing a stash of gold he’d buried in case he was caught embezzling, and making his way to India. Meanwhile, he still makes his way around the facility, as one is forced to do by the game, although he sometimes gets distracted by the occasional supply of tranquilizers or morphine.

This version of Gordon is different than a usual gamer’s conception of him primarily because he’s not aware that he’s in a video game, and therefore does not take cues as a gamer would. He doesn’t pick up a highly powerful weapon because he takes seriously a warning that it’s still unstable. He takes his time coming to the conclusion that the marines have been orders to kill personnel as well as aliens, and mistakes their shooting at him as sheer incompetence. (“I’m on your side, you [expletive] idiots! How many of you do I have to kill for you to understand that?”) He is concerned about things a gamer would know is not an issue, such as aliens teleporting into the walls and support structures as well as out in the open, which would presumably explain why it’s falling apart. (“We’re turning into the Swiss Cheese of the Damned!”) In later episodes, however, Freeman seems to have learned the unspoken rules and language of video games to some extent, even though he wouldn’t consider it as such. (“It’s glowing. Therefore, it must be important. I think that’s how the hierarchy works around here: Whatever glows has more status.”)

Scott also lends credibility to Freeman’s character by giving him an appropriate level of scientific expertise — the one area in which his astronomical self-worth is actually warranted. This leads him to point out inaccuracies in the science of the game, both in terms of his colleagues’ knowledge (Why would they need to keep something as pedestrian as the equation for gravitational force written on the whiteboard?) and the new scientific frontiers invented by them (How can a teleporter not preserve momentum?). Freeman often takes time out to ponder how such things work, while a gamer would of course accept it and move on.

But all the nerdy, self-aggrandizing humor doesn’t fully explain its success. What appeal do gamers see in watching other people play what they’ve already played?

With Freeman’s Mind, Scott has spawned a long line of “Mind” series, all videos of playthroughs accompanied by the playing characters’ interior monologues. They have a structure similar to that of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with a middleman commenting upon source material in real time, both presented to the viewer.

But MST3K tackles film, a medium that is traditionally viewed by many people at once in a large room, and discussed among them afterwards. And if that discussion of the artwork isn’t enough, there is no end to more critiques and observations of it in the media — as it is, after all, a Legitimate Work of Art. By contrast, video games, at least single-player games, are consumed one isolated player at a time, with nobody with whom to share their experience and analysis of the artwork afterward, save for some nooks and crannies in the Internet.

And Half-Life certainly has its memorable experiences: Being at Ground Zero during the disastrous experiment; seeing the supposed rescue team gunning down a fellow scientist; watching another scientist grabbed by a massive tentacle that smashes through the window; suddenly falling in a shark cage, then dropping into a body of water containing something that necessitates the shark cage; being left for dead in a trash compactor that’s just started compacting; carefully navigating a room filled with trip mines, rigged to start a chain reaction ending with nuclear warheads. Such moments set it apart from previous shooters, which usually lacked any truly striking moments outside of cutscenes and boss fights. After playing Half-Life for the first time, many a gamer sought out others to share their experience of innocently pressing an elevator call button, only to cause the elevator to plunge down the shaft, carrying a few screaming scientists with it.

It is only natural, then, to be curious about how this incarnation of Gordon Freeman would react to such moments, fighting new enemies, picking up new weapons (“Now I can solve up to eight hundred problems a minute!”), and noting other interesting features of Black Mesa Research Facility and the Xen “borderworld.” Video games deserve dissection as much as any other art form; for entertainment’s sake, why not have it performed by a megalomaniacal manchild?

Freeman’s Mind, which will soon finish its run unless Scott tackles the sequel, succeeds mainly due to Gordon’s constant off-kilter musings. But the overarching draw to the series is the opportunity for gamers to gather in a common space where their experiences are shared, and see how one alternative take on their playing character would handle them.

The appeal is guaranteed, of course, when Scott’s Freeman reacts to his inadvertently causing his aforementioned colleagues to fall to their deaths by thinking, “Oh man, I hope at least they were jerks.”

So-Called Social Justice and Free Expression Don’t Mix: My thoughts on the latest threat to the artistic integrity of video games

I suppose I should preface this by acknowledging I haven’t been diligently keeping tabs on the “GamerGate” movement. I am not a heavy reader of gaming journalism, as I am not too avid a gamer — I complete perhaps three or four feature-length games a year. But I still appreciate the artistry behind the games I play, and it is that artistic integrity at stake, in the long run. That’s why I find the current, censorious movement in gaming to be so troubling.

Efforts to censor video games are, of course, nothing new. One canard that refuses to die is that violent video games lead to violent behavior in those who play them, and game developers and consumers have had to fight the resultant efforts to censor content (even though repeated studies have refuted this theory). Now, the industry faces another charge against its work: It’s sexist. According to victim extraordinaire Anita Sarkeesian, popular video games are rife with misogyny and pandering to the male demographic, even though there are now just as many female gamers in the market.

Of course, what Sarkeesian fails to consider is that female gamers seem inclined towards simple puzzle-based games, the kind that can easily be played on a smartphone or tablet; the audience of more time-consuming, plot-heavy games remain mostly male. And when your target audience is overwhelmingly male, it pays to feature male protagonists as muscular warriors and female protagonists as improbably shapely and scantily-clad. The results can be silly, no question, but how often has it been demanded that romance novels feature at least some pudgy, balding men on their covers? Every artistic movement is granted some suspension of disbelief so that it may appeal more to its audience. Why should games be any different?

But the people who now stand opposed to free expression in gaming aren’t just against the skimpiest of “armor” and the amplest of bosoms. The current movement consists largely of those known as “social justice warriors,” whose philosophy on free speech was best summarized as, “Your rights end where my feelings begin.” Known as the driving force behind “trigger warnings,” people of their ilk have gained notoriety by “debating” those who disagree with them by stealing and vandalizing their protest signs, and pulling the fire alarm* when they are slated to speak.

These are the people who have nominated themselves as the judges of what is and is not appropriate content for video games.

For an example of the threat SJWs pose to artistic integrity, let’s look at my favorite game franchise of all time: Fallout, a series that canonically spans four role-playing games and a combat-focused spinoff set in a United States after a nuclear apocalypse. Boasting an incredibly rich mythos and atmosphere, it chronicles humanity’s efforts to rebuild civilization from the ground up in an environment that has allowed the darkest elements of humanity to thrive.

A common enemy seen in all Fallout games are bands of violent bandits, known as raiders, who routinely pillage the more civilized communities in the wasteland. As feminists themselves would probably guess, those raiders count some rapists amongst their ranks. This has become an issue for some, as chronicled in this series of exchanges between a social justice warrior and one of the series’ designers.

Exerpt from the discussion

One of Fallout‘s strengths is its uncompromising look at what the worst of humanity has to offer, and all art must be uncompromising to maintain its integrity. But here is someone who wants the narrative to be softened, defanged, for no other purpose than to avoid making a small fraction of the games’ audience uncomfortable. What sort of artists would permit this?

Some artists, of course, may be easily swayed by the appeal to supposed equality and fairness. (Legendary designer Tim Schafer, for example, appears to have been suckered in already.) But the main threat comes from ill-advised investors on new game projects. The most highly developed and promoted “AAA” games require budgets rivaling those of Hollywood blockbusters. And the higher a game’s budget, the more willingness to sacrifice artistic expression in order to avoid potential controversy. (Yes, it might seem hypocritical to denounce self-censorship of art while condoning pandering to the audience, as I’ve defended above. But the key difference is that pandering is the choice of the artist, while altering content to appease the social justice warriors is yielding to the power of the censor.) And there have already been movements to pressure games to contort themselves into SJW-approved content:

Special thanks to @SabrinaLianne for the screenshot, and alerting me to this.

But the question arises: What if there’s a dearth of female gamers because they’re put off by male-centric games, and there are no games that cater to them because they don’t appear to be a significant demographic of the gaming audience? What would it take to break the cycle?

The answer is not, as the SJWs have proposed, to browbeat existing games into submission and deny them free expression. It is to put more effort into attracting women to the games industry, allowing them to design games that appeal to female audiences. In other words, to expand the industry and make more games, not to cut content from existing games.

And why hasn’t anyone taken the initiative to bring women into the industry already? Actually, they have. You can be forgiven for being ignorant about this, of course, as the SJWs don’t seem to care much for it. They seem dead set on cursing the darkness, with cratefuls of candles and matchbooks laying at their feet.

What drives the social justice warrior in this matter? Is it really to help the gaming industry reach different, untapped markets and providing underrepresented demographics with games they would enjoy? Or might this be yet another misguided attempt to make the world fair by forcing those perceived to be unfair to play by their rules?

In the end, I just care about the games, and developers’ right to portray what they want in them. If there is disagreeable content in a game, it should be regarded as controversial artwork, not a defective product. If video games are art, they should be entitled to the same rights of free expression as any other medium.

If you’d like to read more on GamerGate, some well-written and -spoken pieces on it can be found by Allum Bokhari, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Cathy Young. For more in-depth coverage, you can check out some resources put together by hardcore GamerGaters here and here. I haven’t exactly perused these myself, so this is not an official endorsement of them, but they should provide some counterpoints to the movement as it’s been portrayed by shamelessly biased media in the mainstream.

* Edit: It has been noted that I had brought this up while disregarding the violent actions of those opposed to Ms. Sarkeesian in order to silence her, such as sending her death threats. After some consideration, I must admit that it was rather hypocritical of me to imply that the false fire alarms were exemplary behavior of SJWs as a whole, while presumably dismissing the actions of those behind the death threats as those of a few bad apples within the GamerGate movement. Please grant me a bit of space for some hyperbole in the name of rhetoric, and take my words with a grain of salt. Thank you.

Whence Cometh Bronies?

Well-muscled chap with Pony toys

Is the appeal really that difficult to comprehend?

It seems that thousands of words have been written about the enigma of the “bronies,” loosely defined as fans of the latest incarnation of the My Little Pony franchise, Friendship is Magic, who are outside its target audience of young girls. The majority of bronies are male, and in their teens to late twenties. A great deal of puzzlement has been expressed over why such an odd — and specific — demographic would take notice of a series that would stereotypically feature an endless parade of little girls (or their equine counterparts) serving tea in tiny cups to stuffed animals.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic takes place in the magical land (no really, that’s how it’s described in the first line of the first episode) of Equestria. Equestria is home to a wide range of animals and mythical creatures. Nearly every species is sapient, and the hoofed mammals (save for perhaps goats and swine), as well as creatures such as dragons and sea serpents, speak English (and some French). The ponies themselves are split into three types: Unicorns with magic powers; pegasi who can fly and walk on clouds; and wingless, hornless “earth ponies” who don’t need any pity because it’s rumored they have supernatural bonds with the natural world.

The main character is Twilight Sparkle, a scholarly unicorn given the task of studying the nature of friendship and reporting her findings to Equestria’s ruler. Said findings tend to arrive after twenty minutes’ worth of adventure and/or wacky hijinks.

The only other show I can recall that successfully employed a moral-lesson-per-episode formula was Doug, an only-slightly-surreal cartoon concerning the adventures and tribulations of an average 11½-year-old boy. Surprisingly watchable due to the fact that it never felt like being lectured, it was also notable for featuring daydreams that honestly seemed to reflect a preteen’s worries and fantasies.

But while Doug was a hit with its target audience when it was on TV, I can’t see it being of any interest to an older audience. While MLP:FiM excels at telling stories which (seemingly) just so happen to tie in with a moral, Doug never managed to present itself as a show that was primarily plot: It always seemed to be moralization first, entertainment second. Bronies would find Doug too preachy, even though it’s pound-for-pound less so than MLP:FiM, because its texture is too close to that of one of Aesop’s Fables.

Its characters were rather flat, as well: There was the standard issue best friend, love interest, bully, and wacky neighbor. In contrast, bronies are quick to praise MLP:FiM for its unorthodox group of protagonists. Here, the socially awkward bookworm is the main character, not the sidekick who is there to offer hints to the hero in their quest when the answer lies in some obscure legend. And one may be surprised to learn that the fashion-obsessed socialite with a Persian cat is not the bitchy girl who makes fun of the nice girls’ secondhand clothing, but is every bit as supportive and friendly as the others.

But beyond the reasons for praising and enjoying MLP:FiM that can act as a rubric for any show, there’s a quality inherent in it that I believe is the main reason it resonates so well among Generation Y. Writes Melody Wilson of the Washington Post of MLP:FiM‘s fandom: “In a generation weaned on irony and sarcasm, such fresh-faced delight can seem startling.

Not necessarily. Perhaps so many twentysomethings enjoy MLP:FiM, not in spite of its genuine wholesomeness, but because of it.

It’s true that our generation has been raised on TV shows that rarely end on an iris out while everyone onscreen is laughing. Judging by our taste in comedy, we prefer humor rooted in darkness.

In one of our most fondly remembered sitcoms, Arrested Development, the central theme seems to echo the beleaguered straight man’s insistence of the importance of family. But the family in question is in financial ruin due to the betrayal of one or more of its own members, who also include a shallow housewife who needs constant reassurance of her desirability, a thoughtless hothead with delusions of grandeur, and a man-child grappling with an Oedipal complex. In the same tone, Curb Your Enthusiasm has its would-be hero being the perpetual victim of endless misfortunes and miscommunication, and is only likable because it’s impossible not to pity him.

But the crowning example of cynical humor is probably the cult favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000, which (to squeeze a surprisingly intricate plot into its bare necessities) presents awful movies and short films, and humorous commentary provided by quick-witted audience members in silhouette. Here, they tackle “A Date With Your Family,” an embodiment of the idyllic life to which social conservatives wish to return, narrated by Hugh Beaumont himself and made back in the day when its title would not elicit snickers nor off-color jokes:

While the cast predictably mock the stuffy atmosphere of forced pleasantries and stilted conversation (“Emotions are for ethnic people”), a good portion of the quips are dedicated to twisting the wholesome family values enshrined by the short. References are made to the father disowning his children and the mother’s affair with the postman, as well as noting the unintended connotations of the description of the manner in which the teenage boy seats his mother at the table. Besides poking fun at the short, MST3K corrupts it and what it stood for.

This type of humor based on the skewering of traditional ideals has seeped into children’s programming, as well. The first episode of big kid’s show Adventure Time found a character devising a formula for resurrecting the dead, and ended with children being happily reunited with their late grandparents, in what seemed to be a deliberate nose-thumbing of the most sacred rules of kid’s entertainment. (Never, ever include any plot points that might give impressionable youngsters the idea that deceased loved ones can be brought back to life. Hell, even Nearly Headless Nick had to make explicit that only witches and wizards could become ghosts.)

Much humor, it felt, was to be found in darkness, so much so that audiences may have gotten the feeling that such darkness is necessary to be truly funny. If something was appropriate for a kid’s joke book, there was a limit to how funny it could be. And didn’t it seem like there’s a finite amount of jokes concerning the incompetence of public officials or the unscrupulousness of lawyers?

Generation Y’s entertainment fostered the mindset that humor was directly correlated with cynicism, something that was challenged with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

It was true that MLP:FiM occasionally let slip some references that may not have meshed too easily with its purported wholesomeness. In one notable scene, a new father is asked why his twin foals are a unicorn and pegasus, while both parents are earth ponies. His reply could be read as an attempt to reassure himself of his wife’s fidelity:

In another episode, the aforementioned fashionista pony escapes her predicament by guilt-tripping the antagonists who kidnapped her into releasing her, providing the episode’s lesson of “Sometimes your friends can take care of themselves” with a tongue-in-cheek example of them “taking care of” a problem by being manipulative.

And that convention of a girl having a party with several imaginary friends? That happens — when a party-loving pony convinces herself that her real friends no longer like her parties and no longer wish to associate with her — and this is how it plays out:

But while the writers clearly enjoy pushing the envelope, the less-than-savory elements never threaten to corrode the show’s moral infrastructure. MLP:FiM‘s overarching tone and theme of genuine friendship are never compromised. The characters are genuinely friends with each other, with no façades of good graces to curry favor. And when a friendship is threatened, it is always mended by episode’s end, usually in tandem with the episode’s moral. The sly winks to mature audiences only comprise the frosting on the cake for bronies; their true devotion is to the show’s earnest nature.

After wading through the grizzled, gnarled humor of contemporary TV, not to mention dramas striving for the grittiest of realism, it’s refreshing to cleanse oneself with the unironic good cheer that MLP:FiM has to offer. It must be comforting and invigorating for bronies to realize their souls haven’t been calcified by years of dark entertainment, and they can still enjoy a show intended for the very young. They still enjoy the other, disturbing TV, of course, but it’s nice to have MLP:FiM on hand to cleanse the palate.

Soon a season finale will air, a two-part episode dealing with a wedding between two characters who haven’t even been mentioned thus far. It seems doubtful that the bronies will revere it as highly as the previous two-parter, which featured a villain inspired by a trickster archetype character from Star Trek: The Next Generation and voiced by the same actor. But if MLP:FiM has demonstrated anything, it’s the ability to find fans and praise in unlikely places.

Image of what a typical brony might look like courtesy of Redditor ZachGates.