Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Poisonous Heroism and the Death of Fantasy

I didn't expect this to be a series of posts, but sometimes things get out of hand. I recently dealt with a few things that need to be cobbled together into one more of these to sort it out. This will be my last post on this subject of devolved storytelling (at least for the foreseeable future), however, I do have one more subject to talk about in addition to the destruction of mediums and forms.

That would be the stories themselves, in particular the muddying of good and evil. Anyone who has paid attention will quickly realize what this is referring to. There are no heroes left in mainstream entertainment.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, there are a few heroes out there holding on to their dignity, but all are on the precipices of falling into the same bin as the action movie star, the pulp hero, the lone detective, and superhero. They are all very close to forgotten by the mainstream, and what remains out there is a pale imitation of what they were at their peak.

For an example, E3 2018 (a gaming expo) announced a new game by the creators of Life is Strange (a decidedly un-heroic game) about a boy who deals with his mother's death and empty life by pretending to be a superhero to ignore his pain and problems. This is decidedly different from something like Calvin & Hobbes with the Spaceman Spiff character as that is used as a joke to compare Calvin's imagination to his real life--and doesn't undercut either to do it. The superpowers are intentionally showed to be cheap and lousy to constantly remind the audience that this isn't real . . . even though this is a video game.

I shouldn't have to say how silly that is.

In a video game, you are supposed to be taken to imaginary places to engage in gameplay that grips your senses and ingenuity. Because of this gaming has taken us into 80s action movie settings, cyberpunk dystopias, deep an dangerous jungles, and distant planets where mechs roam free. It even allows us to do things like become sport stars or expert soldiers which are much more down to earth than becoming a holy warrior on a desert planet. What video games are is a way to play pretend and inspire gamers to greater heights and places. It's pure escapism with an interactive component.

What this game does is let you know heroes not only aren't real but are a coping mechanism to get you through the empty pointlessness that is life. Nothing matters, but we can pretend it does. In a medium where you can do anything, you are instead relegated to a pathetic loser not unlike the one from the Richard Donner stinker Radio Flyer about a boy who imagines abuse away in a red wagon before riding off and never being seen again. Charming.

And it would have been easy to make this game have meaning.

The boy's mother dies, and he's down and trying to figure out a way through it. Then he searches the basement which holds a strange artifact that gives him superpowers not unlike the fake ones in the game. What's worse is that aliens/the government are notified due to a strange frequency the artifact gives off after being activated. It turns out his mother was an alien herself and died due to Earth's atmosphere and was hiding this artifact from those that would harm innocents. Now he must figure out how to use these powers to rise above himself and his sadness to become what he needs to be for those around him and to carry on his mother's task at the same time.

There you go, I made the story have an actual point in a few sentences. Instead of this the story is going to climax at a point where the kid has a break down when he realizes his powers don't work and has a big confrontation with his father at the end. They'll hug and tell each other they'll get through this and he'll probably go back to pretending because that's all he's got. The end. Why does this need to be a video game? This is closer to Bridge to Terabithia in that it's more focused on teaching "reality" than it is in entertaining the audience which is what the Game part in Video Game should be focused on.

The rest of E3 had similarly pointless narratives including many with Strong Women Characters who have no personality other than being perturbed and downtrodden with flat personalities. They're all about the women discovering themselves as everything in the world struggles to kill them with nothing unique to set them apart except bad hair styles. They're all overly serious without any semblance of fun or hope in them. And when I think video games I think escapist fun. These don't fit the bill.

It's no wonder audiences are tiring of the AAA industry with hardware sales far higher than software (Nintendo aside who still remembers there are other tones other than piss-yellow filters and hopelessness) even with a new console generation looming in the distance. I'm certainly not looking forward to buying another console if this is all we are going to get from now on. The lack of joy is depressing.

But other mediums have a similar problem.

Think of the popularity of a franchise like George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, a nihilistic dirge where nothing matters and the ending is going to be about the genius psychopath who successfully stabs the most horrible people in the back the best to get his monetary prize and worthless title. The worst person wins at the end and being good is pointless. And this is the model modern fantasy writers are attempting to ape. Because Fantasy now translates to Realistic for some who have a much different dictionary than I do.

This attitude is everywhere in entertainment. There's been a slow poisoning of heroism that has left us with nothing but selfish anti-heroes who never grow and exist only to cause chaos and misery for others. And we are expected to love them because they are "realistic" by insinuating that the world being pointless and without magic or hope is realistic. Again, even were that true, what does that have to do with fantasy?

We all know where this attitude came from. It's been years of an entertainment industry more interested in flipping tables instead of putting anything on them. It's been about mocking heroes and hope and boosting "realism" and despair in its place. The turned tables are all cracked and breaking, and have nothing on them, but they keep getting flipped regardless despite the lack of anything new. Creators have been trained to not create, only to focus on the aesthetics and ape the same subversives that led them into this rut. Fantasy is sunlight to these vampires, which leads them to live only in the dark.

It is much like genres and how they have been utterly divorced from their original purpose of guiding the audience toward the sort of experience they want into instead outright segregating stories based on surface features like if someone uses a wand or a hydraulic wrench to solve a problem. Why does aesthetic matter more than storytelling style? Just as short stories were ripped from their place as the form where inventive fiction usually spawned and became a place for slow, depressing, and meandering pieces that exist only to preached warmed over politics from the 1960s from big publishing approved writers workshops. Everything has to be beaten down and quarantined in tiny boxes. How does this fit with a form meant for wild and free new ideas to grow and inspire others?

This all connects together.

A lot is said of previous decades, but they were never as hopeless and empty as the stories we tell now are. The 80s might have been overly optimistic or over the top, but always had hope to contrast the darker stories. The 90s were characterless, but they still had stories about heroes who fought for things and thought there was more worth saving than their own skin. Now there is no hope, there are no heroes, and there is no chance to imagine anything better than the slop being fed. And what is there now is intensely shallow.

To illustrate that last point, I'll end this off with one anecdote.

Recently someone on social media was so offended by a joke I made that they had to relentlessly insult me while guessing at why they thought I made the insult. Yes, yes, this is social media, but hear me out first. It ties in.

A new comic book was announced and the publisher used the term "You asked for it" to describe the product, so I answered with a picture of the Deus Ex meme of "I never asked for this." which led a few hardcore fans of the low selling character (whose last book was canceled for low sales) and several humorless comic book writers (including those on the book) to join in with them. This would have been fine enough, but what fascinated me was the reason these people thought I made the joke. You see, the first thing that popped into this fanatic's head was that I was mad that this book existed (I didn't care, and said as much) and that I "had enough books for me" while he listed books I don't actually read to tell me what "my" books supposedly were, and that he "knew my type" and why I wasn't interested in this book. This went on for a good half hour as the fan frothed and raged over a simple meme in an attempt to make me look like a monster.

All this over a silly picture.

Is this who heroes are written for now? Humorless and hateful obsessives who can't think in terms other than genitalia and skin color as to how people relate to heroes? Looking at what the industry puts out, and what the low selling writers continue to churn out, it definitely appears to be the case. Heroism has gone from being the universal traits of a Captain America that anyone can admire and attach themselves to into a mix and match game of surface traits to segregate shrinking audiences into. Is it any wonder comic sales are falling with attitudes like this? There's no Fantasy or imagination here.

I don't think the mainstream is going to change in the near future. They are too set in their ways and too scared of any new idea that comes from outside their shrinking and ever-narrowing view of the world. If a revolution comes it will have to be from the outside by those vilified by the same "creative" types who chain themselves to rule books and corporate approved writing workshops. We will have to be the ones to dig up what has been left buried and forgotten and make our case to the public separate from those who wear heroism and fantasy as a skin suit.

It's a different sort of revolution, but not one any less worth having. Shake some evil and get back to what makes things great again. We need heroes, we need fantasy, and we need hope. We need a reason to keep the lights on.

In a world with infinite possibilities where hope falls like rain, anything can happen. So don't lose your way. Things are about to change in a big way.

I wrote my own book about heroes in fantastic world. If you like action, romance and fun, then Grey Cat Blues is for you! Check it out below.

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