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“I stopped needing to save the world.”

Spider-Man 2

Is it a lovely romantic comedy or a superhero-action flick with delusions of seriousness? Unfortunately, pieta scenes and speechifying crowd out the superpowered romance, which is much more compelling.


I’m with David Fiore, “superhero” is no good. I’m sure it’s fine as a genre for commerical purposes, but as a critical genre, it mutates and limits the discourse in ways that are not useful to me. David’s “neo-existentialist romance” mutates and limits the discourse in ways that I find more interesting. I don’t know if he cares about this at all, but I’d be interested in some study of how the generic necessities of superheroism/crime-fighting distort the “neo-existentialist romance” in his interpretation of the Gwen Stacy clone saga. “Superhero” stories, like any fantastic stories, use fantastic elements to create pleasing and meaningful resonances with real-life stuff. (Well, that’s what I think fantastic stories do.) The generic expectations associated with “superhero” tend to calcify the potentiality of fantasy and make the resonances in “superhero” stories dull and predictable, which is how Spider-Man 2 became a movie that aches so heartbreakingly to be a romantic comedy but ends up overwhelmed by hoary old ruminations on the importance of heroes.

The Iron Giant

Now, I have to admit my favorite “superhero” movies is one about heroism. But The Iron Giant comes at the theme from an unfamiliar angle: the Giant rejects violent confrontation with “bad guys;” he wants only to protect people and rescue them from danger. It’s so refreshing to have a hero whose code of justice isn’t based on vengeance and punishment.

“Saving is what misers do.”

Is that profound or does it just make no sense? Despite my ill-advised participation in some of the debates on the artistic/critical worth of “superhero” comics several months ago, I find most “superhero” stories actually pretty dull. Most of the really good ones either ignore entirely the standard trappings of heroism and saving the world, or they shine that “existential spotlight” on heroism and find it seriously problematic. Not usually because it’s fascist so much as because it’s miserly. “Saving is what misers do.”—forget Watchmen, The Invisibles has my favorite critique of superheroic ethics.

Goodbye, subdomain

As you can probably see by now, we have dropped our bloggy subdomain for uninteresting technical reasons. Fear not, old URLs will redirect painlessly to new URLs. (If you find that some URL doesn’t redirect and doesn’t work, please let me know.)


We have returned, and comments are reactivated.

Warning: Comments are disabled

Over the last couple days, Peiratikos has been inundated with over 200 comment spams (none of which made it onto the blog, thanks to WordPress). We’re going out of town next week, and to save ourselves the trouble of deleting millions of spam comments during our vacation or after we return, we’re disabling comments entirely until next Friday.

The illusion of free will

OK, Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2’s greatest strength is integration of gameplay and story, with the deceptively simple method of presenting story as part of gameplay instead of as more traditional cutscene movies (or their ancestor, the introduction text). Half-Life pioneered the now popular practice of taking story events out of noninteractive cutscenes and implementing them as scripted events within the game. The difference this can make is surprising: walking into the test-firing chamber in “Blast Pit” to see a huge tentacle smash through the window and grab a screaming scientist five feet from you is more viscerally intense than a third-person cutscene of the same thing could ever be. It’s simply more immediate. Lots of games use extensive interactive scripted events like Half-Life’s now, but most still also have cutscene movies—probably because few developers want to deal with the consequences of doing all story as in-game scripted events. The most obvious consequence of Valve’s decision seems pretty nasty at first glance: because the player remains in complete control of Gordon for the entire game, the player cannot participate substantively in any scripted event that must occur one way. That means Gordon can’t talk to any other characters. Half-Life 2, with a vastly more complex story than Half-Life, hedges the player’s freedom a little by generally locking Gordon in one room whenever another character has to tell him something important, and for two scenes restricting the player’s movement entirely. Still, Gordon can’t talk. There’s no diegetic justification for his silence, it’s simply an artificial device. He doesn’t even have implied dialogue—most of the other characters’ speech is structure subtly to acknowledge that Gordon doesn’t reply when they talk to him, and nobody ever says anything to him that would require a response. This seems superficially like it would necessarily make the game into a shallow shoot-em-up with a characterless bad-ass protagonist (albeit a bad-ass theoretical physicist protagonist), but Valve cleverly turns Gordon’s silence into one of the driving engines of the game’s narrative.

The behind-the-scenes book Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar suggests that earlier development versions of the game gave the player a lot more context information, like that it’s been ten years since the Black Mesa incident of the first Half-Life and that the mysterious alien Combine that’s conquered Earth arrived several years after Black Mesa. The published version of the game doesn’t give you even that meager information: at the beginning, the G-Man appears, informs you it’s time for your first assignment under his employ, and teleports you onto a moving train. You figure out Earth has been conquered by something called the Combine and that your former Black Mesa administrator is the head of a collaborator government a few minutes into the game, and after a few more minutes you meet up with some old friends from Black Mesa, now leaders of a resistence movement, who don’t seem to wonder where you’ve been for the last several years. You’re sort of appointed the new leader of the resistence movement, and you set off to overthrow the Combine, which seems to be the mission the G-Man sent you to complete.

By the end of the game, you have learned almost nothing more than that. Half-Life 2’s ending is even more audaciously anticlimatic than Half-Life’s—I expected a cliffhanger because I’d already heard Valve is working on Half-Life 3, but the game never gets around to explaining what’s up with the Combine or filling any of the mysterious Black Mesa backstory, and it doesn’t even hint at the biggest question, namely, what’s up with the G-Man?

There’s a scene late in the game in which the evil Admistrator jokes about Gordon’s mercenary employment status, which prompts one of Gordon’s allies to ask worriedly, “What’s he talking about, Gordon?” This scene comes a few minutes after a several-minute sequence in which Gordon, strapped into a restraining harness, is taken on a ride through the depths of the Combine Citadel. During the climactic scene in the Administrator’s office in which he reminds Gordon that he’s a mercenary employed by the G-Man, not a genuine resistence fighter like his friends, Gordon is also locked into a harness. This is the point at which I looked back and said, “In retrospect, I’ve been in a harness all along, haven’t I?” It’s true, Half-Life 2, is strictly linear—there’s one path through the game and you don’t to make any decisions that affect the narrative substantively (you have control over your strategy in battles and that’s about it)—although Valve have gone to great lengths to obfuscate the game’s linearity with some amazing map design, so you can easily forget how straight and narrow your path through game has really been until the harness ride and the Administrator’s sinister jokes remind you.

And what does Gordon think of all this? Does he know any more or less than you do about what’s going on or what it means that he’s working for the G-Man? He certainly can’t let you know what he knows. Can his friends really trust him as the leader of their resistence? Should they? Should you? Gordon’s silence is a distancing, ironic device that shines a spotlight on the central dilemma of the game. Gordon is alienated from the rest of the world as you are alienated from him, some mysterious force has usurped his free will—or was it ever more than an illusion in the first place?

Most artistically ambitious video games have, I think, focused on increasing the player’s decision-making power and adding moral weight to the player’s decisions. That’s an endeavor doomed to fail at some point, as any increase in thematic/moral entertainment value of a game based on increased decision-making power must be undermined by the necessity of placing some arbitrary limitations of the player’s decisions to keep the game’s size from exploding into infinitude. Valve wisely chose to focus on another trait of video games that distinguishes them from other art forms: the immediacy of the player’s role as actor in the game world. Valve CEO Gabe Newell suggests this when, in the foreword to Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar, he writes, “A single-player game is really a movie that you create in cooperation with the player, where the lead actor [i.e., the player] doesn’t have a copy of the script.” As I said above, watching something through your “own” (really the player-character’s) eyes in real time is fundamentally different from watching a third-person cutscene movie of the same event—and Half-Life 2 would be a fundamentally different experience if it were a movie. The game’s entire experience (in both aesthetic and gameplay contexts, which ought to be the same context in a video game) is built on the tension between the player’s role as lead actor (in all senses of the word) and the ironic devices of a silent player-character and a linear-path game world that seem superficially to make the game shallower.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 breaks with some popular trends in video gaming. Now, the last new game I played before Half-Life 2 was Grand Theft Auto 3 a couple years ago, but I think the popular trends in action gaming have remained pretty much the same: open-endedness and stealth. Since Thief, practically every first-person shooter game has included a stealth component. (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.) Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have nearly as well-developed stealth gameplay as Thief. With the exception of a few annoying levels that require stealth, it’s generally easier to run through games like No One Lives Forever without worrying too much about sneaking. Still, especially considering the recent popularity of ‘realistic’ tactical shooters, a stealth gameplay component, however half-assed, has been the cool thing to do in shooter games for several years. The recent popularity of ‘realistic’ tactical shooters is important, because much of the stealth play in recent action games is related to attempts to increase realism, meaning the classic full-frontal-assault style of play in games like Doom is a good way to get killed fast in a lot of recent shooters.

Then there’s open-endedness. First of all, you’ve got games like the Dungeons & Dragons CRPG Baldur’s Gate 2, which has something crazy like 150 hours worth of quests, many of which are available based on your character-creation and gameplay decisions so you have to play the game many times even to hope to see everything. Each play-through is different from the rest. In action games, Grand Theft Auto 3 lacks the overwhelming number of choices of Baldur’s Gate, but it gives the player even more freedom to choose what to do at any given moment during gameplay. There’s a series of missions forming the narrative core of the game, which must be played in order, but at any time you can choose to complete them, take on one of dozens of optional missions, or simply cruise around town committing the titular crime and causing other criminal mayhem. The other paradigm for open-endedness in action gaming is represented most famously by the Thief games and Deus Ex: these games have a linear series of missions for the player to complete, but present several options for completing each task in the game. E.g., in Deus Ex, the player, infiltrating a terrorist headquarters or something, might come to an electronically locked door that can be blown open with a grenade, ‘picked’ with an electronic lockpick, unlocked with a key found on a guard (whom the player could have killed or knocked out, using stealth, a full-frontal assault, or some clever indirect means), or opened with a hacked security computer. And Deus Ex’s narrative, although very similar in each play-through, has a lot of nuances based on the player’s decisions. Indiscriminately kill all the terrorists in your first mission as a police agent of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, and you’ll earn praise from your more hotheaded colleagues and disapproval from your colleagues who believe in following rules of engagement. Go stealthy and incapacitate terrorists with nonlethal methods so they can be arrested, and you’ll get opposite reactions. You never get a game-over based on your decision (unless it results in the player-character’s death)—even if you, say, totally bungle your mission objectives by killing a target you’re supposed to be bringing in for questioning, you can keep playing and discover the consequences of your actions. (There is a limit to your freedom, obviously—you can’t wander away from the determined narrative and become a real-estate agent in Hoboken.)

And then there’s story. Every video game arguably has a narrative—although, in the case of a game like Tetris, not necessarily a gripping one. Some genres are better known for their stories than others, particularly adventure and interactive-fiction games, and to a slightly lesser extent, RPGs, especially monster-huge games like Baldur’s Gate 2. Stories in action games have ranged from Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, whose narratives exist primarily as meager organizational structures for gameplay only mildly more engaging than Tetris, to Deus Ex, which attempts to grapple weighty (and ever more relevant as the War on Terror(ism) drags on) political and philosophical problems and is arguably as important a part of the game’s experience as is the gameplay itself. Of course, story/game is a false dichotomy, because, as I noted earlier, at least some aspects of the story are based on player decisions during gameplay. Part of what Deus Ex attempts is tight integration of narrative and gameplay.

With all that in mind, let’s talk about Half-Life. One of Half-Life 2’s goals is the same as Deus Ex: tight integration of narrative and gameplay. The Half-Life games have always gone a step farther than most games in accomplishing this integration, though—where a lot of games advance their stories with cutscene movies between game sections, the revolutionary Half-Life implemented scripted events that happened in real time in the game. E.g., the entire introductory scene, with player-character Gordon Freeman arriving at work on an automated tram, going through security, donning his hazardous-environment protection suit, and participating in the experiment that ends up teleporting in all the nasty aliens Gordon has to shoot in the rest of the game, is a series of in-game areas you have to traverse. (Lots of games have sections like this now—even the decidedly old-school Doom 3—but Half-Life was one of the first.) When characters talk to Gordon, they walk up to him and start talking, and you retain complete control over Gordon—a consequence of which is that Gordon doesn’t get any speaking lines of his own, since it would look pretty goofy if the player decided to run away or shoot the other speaking character in the middle of dialogue. It’s somewhat less goofy, although equally artificial, to have Gordon remain mute. (The modeling of scripted events isn’t so sophisticated that characters notice and complain about your rudeness if you run away from them, although I think they usually shut up if you start shooting at them. Half-Life 2 sort of resolves this problem by locking Gordon into one room whenever another character is talking to him.) Gordon’s muteness may be a necessary consequence—or maybe the designers at Valve wanted him to be mute in the first place, I don’t know—but at any rate, they’ve turned this artificial device of a mute protagonist (and to be clear, Gordon’s muteness doesn’t have any justification for verisimilitude, it really is an entirely artificial device) into one of the most brilliant aesthetic conceits I’ve seen in any game, certainly in any first-person shooter.

And that’s a brilliant aesthetic conceit I’m afraid I won’t be writing about tonight, as I’m losing steam. (And, bad me, I might not get around to writing about it till Sunday, since Rose and I are leaving for Christmas visits to relatives tomorrow.) (But the great thing about not being a professional writer is that I don’t have to act professional!) I’ll say only, as you’ve presumably guessed by now if you haven’t played Half-Life 2 yourself, that Half-Life 2 is a game with not a whit of open-endedness in gameplay or narrative, and with no stealthiness required or even much allowed. In fact, much of the gameplay consists of running through restricted paths executing full-frontal assaults on dozens of highly trained soldiers who, if realism were any concern, could instantly destroy rogue physicist Gordon Freeman. Is Half-Life 2 tragically old-fashioned, or were those brilliant folks at Valve too busy designing the worthy heir to Half-Life’s Best Game Ever throne to bother acquiescing to the dominant trends in what makes a good modern shooter? (Not that my answer to that question is hard to guess, right?)

Good Thor Title

This Fanboy Rampage post is about a bad Thor book, but it gave me an idea for a good title for a Thor book:

Pieces of Asgard!

Return(ish) from Hiatus

Well, Rose and I got married, as you know, which took up a little of my blogging time. (Most of it was taken up with laziness, though.) We used wedding money to get new computer stuff: a cute iBook G4 for Rose, a Radeon x800 Pro for me. I’ve been spending the several days taking advantage of my new awesome video card to play Half-Life 2 and Doom 3, which has definitely taken up all my blogging time. My first blog post after my unannounced hiatus isn’t going to be such a great post, but I have some thoughts on Half-Life 2 which I’ll probably blog about at some point just in case there are some gamers reading Peiratikos who will actually care.

I feel sorry for Wally West. He’s one of an apparently dying breed of superhero who doesn’t think forced mystical brain surgery is a good way of “fixing” people’s psychological problems. It’s a tough decision, but I think my favorite part of Identity Crisis #7 is when Oliver Queen suggests Batman would have been OK with having his own memory wiped, and that Batman’s traumatic past makes him best-equipped to understand the heroic sacrifices people are willing to make for the ones they love. Not that Batman isn’t the poster child for not being able to deal with trauma, but I suspect Batman wouldn’t include lobotomizing your wife so she doesn’t have to be sad about her rape in a list of things “someone will do for the people they love.” My second-favorite part is that when Jean Loring went to “scare” Sue Dibny, she brought a flamethrower “just in case.” My third-favorite part is that murdering somebody gets you locked up and doped up in Arkham without a trial or anything (Jean seems shockingly unremorseful, but hardly insane), but forcibly lobotomizing dozens of people in a desperate and failed effort to maintain the illusion of a superheroic world of innocence gets you sympathy as a tragic hero. My fourth-favorite part is the random Arthur Miller quote: “An era can said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Thanks, Brad Meltzer, the world of superhero comics really needed another lame attempt to shatter the Silver Age’s ‘illusion of innocence.’ My fifth-favorite part is that, according to Oliver Queen, it takes the brutal murder of a superhero’s wife to remind the superheroes that their choice of career puts their loved ones at risk. My sixth-favorite part is “Atom’s Wife Tortured by Inmates.” What the fuck?

Old-Fashioned Appreciation

I wondered what people even mean when they say something “took them out of a story.” J.W. Hastings explains what they mean:

Now, saying “X took me out of the story” doesn’t mean that “Until X I thought that the story was real and then all of a sudden I got dumped back into reality”, which is what both Steven and Dave are arguing, but rather that “X broke the mood” or that “X broke the rules”. […] saying “X took me out of the story” isn’t so much about breaking “suspension of disbelief” or puncturing an illusionist surface as it is about an audience member feeling that the art maker has broken the rules of a game they were playing or that the art maker has failed to properly set up or cue a change in these rules.

In fact, I have witnessed people use the phrase to mean, “Until X I thought that the story was real and then all of a sudden I got dumped back into reality.” (Not that I can point to specific examples of people using the phrase with such a connotation, so take my claim with a grain of salt if you don’t have your own anecdotal evidence to back it up.) On the other hand, J.W. is correct in suggesting that I should not have yoked the phrase so securely to the illusionist school of experiencing art implied in the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.” J.W.’s explanation of the phrase probably applies more often than not.

But I think what is underlying what both Steven and Dave are saying is their belief that being truly engaged with a work of art means analyzing and interpreting it. I even get a sense that they feel that an audience has a kind of moral imperative to analyze and interpret a work of art, or that this kind of analysis and interpretation is morally superior to old-fashioned “appreciation” of art works. […] Steven and Dave, of course, aren’t alone. Their kind of analytical criticism is practiced throughout academia. Personally, I think that this almost obsessive focus on analysis and interpretation has led to a whole bunch of “art critics” who don????????t have anything resembling traditional aesthetic sense. By approaching works of art merely as a group of symbols that need to be decoded in order to discover their “meaning”, these critics have cut themselves off from being able to appreciate the beauty of, to take pleasure in, or to be moved by a work of art. In fact, it becomes impossible for them to differentiate between, say, a Willem De Kooning painting and an advertisement for toothpaste. After all, both the painting and the advertisement are equally suitable objects for critical analysis and interpretation.

Ooh. A De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad? In my defense, I’ve never done critical analysis of a toothpaste ad—nor a De Kooning painting, for that matter. A De Kooning painting and a toothpaste ad, equally suitable objects for critical analysis? Hardly! (Which is not to say a toothpaste ad isn’t suitable for critical analysis—maybe it is sometimes.)

But I’m not talking about paintings or toothpaste ads, I’m talking about works of narrative art which, more often than not, have large verbal components. So what does constitute “old-fashioned ‘appreciation’” of narrative art, if it doesn’t include interepretation and analysis—however informal and schematic?

Scott Pilgrim!

Bryan Lee O’Malley has uploaded an image of the watercolor drawing he did for Shane Bailey, winner of the Special Art Appreciation Award in the Scott Pilgrim Contest: see the drawing at Radiomaru.