Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why Roger Ebert Needs to Play "The Last of Us"

This isn't Pacman, Roger.
I do not typically review games. The last time I did, with Mass Effect 3, I was attacked by a gang of hater nerds, and it took me a good few months to get rid of them. I review books, on the other hand, because I have insight into authors' mental processes, understanding what choices were made and why, and how things might have been improvedThough I've played through hundreds of games, I have no real expertise in the matter. But books themselves, binding and paper, have no innate value, only what they can convey. Books are more likely to contain superior story telling in that a blank page offers the greatest freedom from constraint (all games, by definition, necessitate a goal, something for the player to do). However, I am just as passionate in defending a story telling medium from the literary snobs who thumb their noses at comics and movies. I adore Shakespeare and Steinbeck, but feel no less love for Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Recently, Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad proved that the very best fiction can sometimes be found on TV. Still in its infancy is the video game. As the newest medium to tackle this age old form of expression, it has yet to prove itself to the high brow community. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert has gone so far as to state that video games are not art and will never be art. Now there are many amazing examples that contrast this view, but perhaps the most compelling, to date, is The Last of Us. If I could tie Mr. Ebert to a chair and force him to play one game, this would be it. Whatever emotional impact one hopes to attain from a great work of art, whatever inspiration or perspective, it all can be found in this game. Without hesitation, I will say that The Last of Us earns its place on the same mantle as Citizen Kane (sorry, Roger) and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. So while the focus of my blog is not games, every now and then two of my passions will collide, and the very best story will come out of a game.

The Last of Us rises above its roots because of Neil Druckmann, who penned the story, and the actors providing the voice talent (yes, I said actors). For anyone who's TV and computer have been in the shop this past decade, The Last of Us takes place in an apocalyptic future overrun by zombies. Now I'll be the first to admit to zombie fatigue. After so many Resident Evil titles, the abysmal World War Z and starting-to-put-me-to-sleep Walking Dead, I could go the rest of my life without another zombie reference. But the undead only sets the stage for the characters and the struggles they overcome, and I found myself rushing to the conclusion not to see how many zombies I could kill, but, as with any good book, to learn what would happen to the characters I love. The game could just as well have been set during a nuclear holocaust, as it is partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, with only minor changes.

Ashley Johnson plays Ellie, a young girl who somehow becomes immune to the zombie virus, and Troy Baker voices Joel, a father who loses his only child earlier in the game. Both actors play their roles with subtle pathos and subtext. You can truly hear the fatigue in Joel's voice, the horrors and loss he must have endured. He's no hero, nor is he an anti-hero, but rather, a genuine and complex human being. As for Ellie, she walks a fine line between innocent child and someone who has lost and must lose their innocence to survive. Last of Us tackles some of the deepest subjects in fiction, exploring how humanity is transformed after tragedy on both a societal and personal level, and it does so with intelligence and compassion. Often, the smallest details will stir the heart, like the crayon drawings in an abandoned, makeshift preschool in an underground bunker; or the herd of giraffes roaming a college campus, offering Ellie a temporary reprieve of childhood wonder. Unlike most games in the end-of-the-world genre, The Last of Us is not about death and destruction, but how we deal with those things on an emotional level. It's not about heroics, but sacrifices. It's not about overcoming the enemy, but finding the courage to love someone in a world where the people you love are too easily taken away. Finally, The Last of Us throws us an ethical curveball in its climax, something that pushes us to think and to ask the really tough questions about life, and isn't that what great art is all about?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sex, Marriage, and Morality

I was married in Morocco, so my wife's hand looked like this
For decades, I have passionately argued that nudism does not = sex, and clubs like AANR (the American Association for Nude Recreation) have supported this philosophy, giving their stamp of approval only to those resorts that cater to a family atmosphere. Unfortunately, the promise of sex is a much better marketing tool, so places I once loved, like Caliente and Paradise Lakes, now openly promote a free sexual lifestyle. Other resorts, like Hedonism in Jamaica, were built specifically with sex in mind. This is a real sign of the times, when sex has become less of a taboo than simple nudity, and groups like AANR, comprising mostly of people with one foot in the grave, remain set in their antiquated anti-sex, pro-nudity ways. But changes in resort policy has had a harmful effect on traditional nudism. Parents with children feel less inclined to vacation at such places. While there may be just as much sex at Disney World, you don't see Mickey Mouse in skimpy lingerie advertising itself as a retreat for daring couples. But a growing and vocal number of young nudists are embracing the change, believing that part of nudist philosophy is accepting all behavior between consenting adults. My attitude is this: for nudism to remain innocent, something for families and children to enjoy, there can be no stance on sexual mores one way or the other. Surprisingly, nudists come from all walks of life. There are Christian nudists, atheist nudists, and everything in-between. Some resorts feature chapels and Sunday sermons. If we are to remain inclusive, our position on sexual mores needs to be mum. While swingers may feel free to "swing" in the privacy of their hotel rooms, they should feel no greater inclination to do so at a nudist resort. If swingers can be permitted into the movies, they should be permitted into Paradise Lakes. It only becomes a problem when the movie theater starts to advertise pornography and parents go elsewhere to watch Frozen. 

A typical add for Caliente "naturist" destination.

But this begs the question: Why should parents care what goes on at a nudist resort? If the proverbial movie theater is playing Debbie Does Dallas down the hall, why should it matter, if the kids don't see it? It's not as if swingers invite the kids into the act. This is where I bring up a controversial, and for some, offensive word: morality. Lately, when people bring up morals, what follows is a litany of hate directed at homosexuals. Historically, people have acted atrociously in the name of morality, castrating and murdering gays and lesbians, and stoning adulterers. But as a concept, morality is not to blame, no more than science can be blamed for killing people with bombs. Some people think that all we need is ethics, which can be argued from an objective position, but whether you grew up in a religious household or not, we all abide by the morals set by our society. Even the most sexually "progressive" person has boundaries. Most swingers do not advocate prostitution, or if they do, draw the line at public orgies, or if they are accepting of that, draw the line at children having sex. Incidentally, there are a number of psychologists who find that children can engage in consensual sexual activity (with each other) without harm. In the dystopian novel A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicts a future where sex between children is common. Shocking? Perhaps. Immoral? Maybe. Point is, the way we feel about children and sex is no different than the way people once felt, and still feel, about masturbation and homosexuality.

Is this love?

Now this is not to make a slippery slope argument, but to show that morality is always in flux, as it is determined by outside sources. For instance, the Prophet Mohammed said that it was better for a man to take four wives than for a woman to enter into prostitution (a common practice for unwed women at the time). In small African villages, where males greatly outnumber females, polyandry, or one woman marrying multiple husbands, is the norm. What is interesting about marriage is that, contrary to popular belief, it is the most successful social construct in history. There is no place on Earth where some form of marriage does not exist. While Free Love societies have been tried numerous times, often in the sixties, they never last, because human beings are inherently jealous and territorial. There are always rules as to who gets to fuck whom.

But marriage is not a part of our DNA. There is no commitment gene. In fact, humans are naturally promiscuous. We have evolved to seek multiple partners to better spread our seed, which was beneficial thousands of years ago, when infant mortality was high and the average lifespan hovered around thirty. King Solomon's thousand wives can be largely attributed to this fact. Like morality, marriage is always being redefined, based on the needs of the society. Most recently, U.S. courts broadened the definition to include interracial couples and same sex couples, because denying rights to people was deemed unethical.

Before continuing, allow me to clarify a few things which has some people confused. I do not intend to equate the word immoral with unethical. While often used synonymously, they can have different meanings. According to Wikipedia:

  • In its descriptive sense, "morality" refers to personal or cultural valuescodes of conduct or social mores. It does not connote objective claims of right or wrong, but only refers to that which is considered right or wrong. Descriptive ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.
  • In its normative sense, "morality" refers to whatever (if anything) is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values or mores held by any particular peoples or cultures. Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.

When I refer to morality in this article, it is not in the latter, objective sense. I do not equate swinging, for instance, with murder or rape. Rather, I am referring to the term in the relative sense, based on the cultural values within a (in this case our) society. 

As a social construct, marriage is determined by morality. It includes cherishing, loving, and respecting my partner (this was not always the case, as in ancient times, wives were more property than companions). But for the past century, commitment to a single partner has also been a fundamental part of marriage, and this is what makes modern unions so remarkable. When it comes to human desire, lust is second only to hunger, and people will risk prison time (in cases of rape) and the dissolution of their families (for infidelity) to satisfy it. The fact that our society elected to forgo this most primal instinct, in favor of greater emotional and spiritual aspirations, is a testament to our species. Throughout the ages, chastity was synonymous with being "true" and "virtuous". While the Ancient Greeks and Romans venerated Aphrodite, goddess of love, whose priestesses engaged in orgies; it was the virgin goddess, Athena, whom the Greeks most revered, and named their capital city after. In Christian times, Athena morphed into the holiest of holy women, the Virgin Mary. During the medieval age, chivalry forbade knights from fornication, which is why Sir Lancelot du Lac, in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, remained undefeated in battle, until having drunken sex in a tavern. He was then defeated by his virgin son, Sir Galahad, who found the Holy Grail and ascended to Heaven.

Personally, I can think of no greater proof of love than to remain committed to the same woman for life. But marriage doesn't always work out the way it should. Fifty-percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the reasons are many, but a lot of it has to do with sex. Swingers argue that resisting our most basic desires is unrealistic and unnatural, even harmful. In my father's time, it was common for a man to cheat on his spouse, and for the woman to knowingly "look the other way". But for the wife to do likewise, would be to risk violence, and even death. This is an outdated, sexist system, and I will admit that swinging is preferable to infidelity in that it is, at the very least, honest.

Perhaps someday, society's mores will shift, and swinging will become the status-quo. But monogamy remains the most successful of social constructs. Ultimately, people will say it is nobody's business what people do behind closed doors, and I agree. Condemning others is anything but moral. But we should not trade one freedom for another. We must not censure the right to set moral boundaries for ourselves in favor of sexual freedoms for others. My right to define marriage as a moral construct does not infringe upon those who think and act differently. I believe in monogamy, with all its traditional and religious implications---that true love can only exist between two people--- and belief makes marriage what it is.

Call me a sap, but this, to me, is love.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Reading Challenge: 1 Day, 1 Book

I put this here because . . . why not?
One of my many challenges, as a striving author, is figuring out what people read and why. Why is Game of Thrones so popular, for instance? Is it mainly due to the TV show? No doubt, cross promotions boost sales, but HBO would not have spent millions bringing the book to life without an established fan base. But in this current ADHD era, A Song of Ice and Fire, a 6+ book series of up to 900 pages each, defies convention. YouTube, PS4 and the Walking Dead offer instant gratification, while the oldest entertainment medium on Earth (besides oration) can be excessively time consuming. For this reason, I often wonder how time affects story. For example, I forget names and plot points after weeks of reading. But I have also found time to be a benefit, since spending more of your life with a character develops familiarity and attachment. This is why people often say the book was better, since even the most faithful adaptations deal with time constraints. If you've never read a Harry Potter book, you may not form an emotional connection after only knowing him two hours in the theater.

This got me to thinking how people perceive novels based on how quickly or slowly they read. I've watched my daughter struggle for months to get through a book, and when she's done, she usually feels apathetic toward it. Unless the story really grips me, which is rare, I take a leisurely pace, but in college I could knock out a French author in a weekend. Did the accelerated pace alter my perception? Is my love for the classics based on deadlines? To answer this question, I will attempt to read a novel in a single day; I know that I can technically do this, but skimming through a book for relevant information defeats the purpose of story telling, which is why I hate and have never used Cliff's Notes. A story needs to be felt as much as understood, and feeling takes time.

For this little experiment, I have chosen The Maze Runner by James Dashner, due to it's average length for Sci-Fi/Fantasy (374 pages), and because it has been recently made into a movie.

The questions I will then attempt to answer are:

1) Can I comfortably read 374 pages in a single day? This might end up a fiasco, if I only get halfway through it . . .

2) Will the accelerated reading rate hinder or enhance my enjoyment of the story?

3) Will the accelerated reading rate reflect more positively or negatively on the film? In other words, if I spend the same amount of time (1 day) on both the book and the film, will my emotional investment equal out?

By answering these questions, I hope to get a deeper understanding into how people read and why they enjoy certain forms of fiction. I will then post my results along with my review of The Maze Runner. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ages of Aenya Book Trailer!

The most difficult voice for a kid to play
When I was a kid, I used to play what I called "episodes". Suffering from the writer's disease at a tender young age, and with no time to get all the stories constantly popping into my head on paper, I resorted to the medium of toys. I did not know another kid who did this; everything was laid out in advance, like a storyboard running in my head. I knew what characters were to be featured, what they would be doing, and what their dialogue would be. Most of the time, I was alone and trapped in my house, so I had to act out every part, pitching high notes for Skeletor, deepening to a manly drawl for He-Man, or scratching my throat for Cobra Commander. I must admit, Soundwave from Transformers was the ultimate challenge. But here's where the crazy comes in: I was not only the writer, director and actor of my own Robot Chicken, but also the camera, recording everything in my head; so even though I didn't actually have a camera, if anyone uttered a word while I was playing, I became furious, because they were "ruining the scene" and I would have to start all over. 

Times sure have changed. As technology advances, my parents fears that I may have been prone to schizophrenia are no more. Thanks to Apple, most kids nowadays plays the same way I did in the 80's, except that now they actually have cameras and are actually recording something! My nine and four year old, along with her friends, use the iPad to make Shopkins videos. YouTube is full of kids and their toys doing the same. If only I had such technology at their age!

My kids love these things . . . for some reason.

Recently, my nine year old insisted I buy her this new video app, which I was reluctant to buy, since she already has so many. But this program was impressive (as you'll soon see); she even enticed me with the possibility of making a book trailer. 

Now, for professional use, this is very limited; it's designed mostly for kids, to be as user friendly as possible. You are limited by a small set of music and graphics, and what's more, can't even choose the video's run time or the number of shots or the length of those shots. All I could do is write a bit of text and then drop images into the predetermined slots. Looking at these limitations, I told her it just wasn't going to work out, much to her disappointment, but later that night I was determined to make something of it, and the end result, I think, is promising. I have always wanted to make use of YouTube and I think, with better artwork and a better program, I could make something really special. This is just a "proof of concept". So without further ado, I give you the first of many, the Ages of Aenya Book Trailer:



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is "Tarzan" Racist?

Long before Superman or Batman became household names, there was Tarzan. Originally published in 1914, Tarzan predates Superman by a good twenty-four years. In many ways, he is the first superhero. Children growing up in the 20's and 30's were as familiar with the ape man in comics, toys, and even at the movies, as the most beloved DC/Marvel characters of today. He further went to influence a generation of writers and scientists. According to Wikipedia,

Tarzan's primitivist philosophy was absorbed by countless fans, amongst whom was Jane Goodall, who describes the Tarzan series as having a major influence on her childhood. She states that she felt she would be a much better spouse for Tarzan than his fictional wife, Jane, and that when she first began to live among and study the chimpanzees she was fulfilling her childhood dream of living among the great apes just as Tarzan did.[7]

Tarzan, however, was born not from the pages of comics, but the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, the name is recognized by most everybody even though most people have never bothered to read the actual book. As of this posting, the character is one hundred years old, but despite the recent Disney adaptation, his popularity has dramatically waned over the years. You're not likely to see kids sporting Tarzan pajamas or asking for his image on birthday cakes.

Nineteen-fourteen was a different time. Knowledge of Africa, where the novel takes place, was sketchy at best, which is why for the longest time it was referred to as the "dark continent". Writing about Africa at the turn of the last century was to explore the frontiers of science. Today, you can tune into Discovery Channel for any number of documentaries about African tribes, lions, or watch "reality" shows like Naked & Afraid, filmed on location. Without mystery, Africa loses much of its appeal. Aside from that, our ethics have changed. Technological excesses coupled with an expanding industry and population has beaten the jungle into submission. We are more concerned with conservation and environmentalism now, so that the iconic image of a man wrestling and killing a lion is cruel and outdated. But I am not the type to judge a book by the ethics of our time. No doubt, our moral compass will shift in the future, and things we deem acceptable today will seem abhorrent in a century or two. But what I found impossible to ignore is the novel's excessive and blatant racism. We're not talking "Upworthy" racism here, where people cry foul for calling a black model "exotic". In my view, we are often too politically correct, especially when we ruin a person's career over a single racist comment. But even for 1914, Tarzan of the Apes is egregious in its treatment of black people, which made it hard for me to read.

I became interested in Tarzan after reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot and the first in his John Carter series, A Princess of Mars, both charming in a pulp fiction sort of way, where the hero always does the right thing for the sake of doing good. For me, Burroughs is a refreshing departure from the ponderous and pretentious fantasy novels crowding shelves these days, with their amoral antiheroes and severely cynical outlook (see: Game of Thrones). At one point, I joked that I might have been Burroughs in a past life, owing to his penchant for monsters, adventure, and of course, naked heroes. I am even planning a similar story, about Thelana living in the jungle, and thought this book might help to inspire me (it didn't). After reading Tarzan, I decided to distance my name from his.

With Tarzan, I thought I knew what to expect, and was not unsatisfied in that regard. All the flaws in Burroughs' writing are present: excessive exposition, melodrama, stilted dialogue, and sentences that can never be too long or lacking in modifiers. But its the concept that sets Tarzan apart from his other works, making for a superior though not quite classic novel. As most people are aware, Tarzan's parents, the Lord and Lady Greystoke, are stranded off the coast of Africa. Alone and with few provisions, and a baby on the way, this makes for great drama, but food and water are rarely an issue. It's the lions and panthers and gorillas that pose a constant threat. Was Burroughs ignorant to real survival situations or simply playing up to expectations? Needless to say, the people of that time would likely be surprised by Naked & Afraid in that the survivors are not constantly fending off lions. Even the gorilla, which we now know to be passive and intelligent, is portrayed as little more than a mindless killer.

When the heir to the Greystoke name grows up, the book takes a dramatic downturn. Being raised in the jungle, Tarzan becomes superhuman, someone to give Batman a run for his money. Not only can he out-wrestle a gorilla and lift weights that would otherwise take four men, but like Wolverine, he possesses superior senses and can even heal faster. In one embarrassing passage, Burroughs emphatically states that the "lower orders" have no advantages over humans with regard to their olfactory senses, that with training, a human's nose can rival that of a dog. Even in 1914, basic canine biology was known. Doubtless, a little research would have helped the story a great deal. But readers of that time were not as demanding of scientific accuracy. Now super powered protagonists are all well and good, even if implausible, but Tarzan's abilities are so ill-defined, there is rarely any sense of danger. The other problem is the novel's lack of focus; it reads like a hodgepodge of loosely connected adventures, like the serialized pulp Sci-Fi/adventures popular in magazines at the time. No wonder Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book (1894), said Tarzan of the Apes was written so that Burroughs could "find out how bad a book he could write and get away with it." In one chapter he is hunting a lion, in another defending his ape mother from an aggressive male, and still in another he is killing black people.

This is where racism rears its ugly head. Tarzan kills a lot of black people, wantonly and with little compassion. But what's worse is how he does it, with a noose, hanging and then gutting the victim with a knife. Now, I have not done any research to know how synonymous the noose was with racism in 1914, and being that Tarzan uses a rope to kill other animals, I gave the hero the benefit of the doubt. I waited, patiently, for the arrival of the white man to see how they would be treated. Perhaps, being a creature of the jungle, Tarzan simply kills everyone. Unfortunately, this was not the case. While some pirates, who were white, are described as cruel and savage, the European and American whites, those of "noble" bearing, are portrayed in an entirely different light. Almost at once, Tarzan identifies with these whites as those of his own kind, as if the blacks in the village were something other than human. And when he falls in love with Jane, you are forced to wonder why he never considers any of the women from the black tribe as potential mates. Surely, as a young man living alone in the jungle, Tarzan has needs, even want of companionship, but to sate such desires with a black female is unthinkable.

The story picks up after the arrival of the white man, as Tarzan begins to unravel his origin through various clues left by his parents and by interacting with the newcomers. Eventually, he is taught to speak French (of all things), how to be civilized, and how to wear clothing and eat with knife and fork, all in an effort to court Jane. Despite being raised as an ape, he never thinks to rape her (a thing which is alluded to, but, I imagine, too taboo to state flatly). The reason for his conduct, again, speak of race and the value of hereditary in the author's mind,

It was the hallmark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate. p. 192 

Later, when a French naval officer is captured by the black tribe (for no reason other than that they are bloodthirsty cannibals), Burroughs writes,

And then began for the French officer the most terrifying experience which man can encounter upon earth---the reception of a white prisoner into a village of African cannibals. p. 200

And then Burroughs has this to say,

The bestial faces, daubed with color---the huge mouths and flabby hanging lips---the yellow teeth, sharp filed---the rolling, demon eyes---the shining naked bodies---the cruel spears. Surely no such creatures really existed upon earth---he must indeed be dreaming. p. 201

Not to worry, because Tarzan shows up in the nick of time, using his lasso to hang one of the black men, which causes the others of the tribe to scurry off in a panic. When the French man is nursed to health, Tarzan returns him to his cabin on the beach, but then in a moment of confusion this happens,

. . . suddenly in the half dusk of the open door he saw that the man was white [egad!] and in another instant realized that he had shot his friend and protector . . . p. 235

But it's not all bad. After reaching civilization, Tarzan learns to converse like a gentleman, and at one point says something which almost redeems the authors' racist views,

. . . one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week [a black man murdering people, again, without reason] or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white. p. 249 

Strangely enough, the book ends in America, but Tarzan's courtship of Jane is never resolved, and the book ends in a Lady or the Tiger moment. The story is continued in the twenty-five (!) sequels.      

Was Burroughs a racist? On the one hand, it was 1914, and he may simply have been catering to expectations, keeping in mind what little was known of Africa and the customs of its natives. This was also long before the Civil Rights movement, when interracial marriage was still illegal. On the other hand, this is considerably after the writings of black abolitionist Frederick Douglas (1845-1892) and Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871), who argued that race did not exist. At best, we can say Burroughs was simply uneducated, but Tarzan of the Apes is no doubt racist, unapologetically so, which both hurts the novel and ensures this once beloved hero fades into obscurity.