Zoological Musing

So I went to the Great Lakes Aquarium with a friend of mine this past weekend.

It was a fun visit.  There were lots of interesting things to learn and see (I particularly enjoyed the Shipwrecks Alive exhibit, if only because I had a fascination with them when I was younger).  But ultimately, something bothers me about the whole thing.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown more and more uncomfortable with the concept of zoos.  The idea of taking animals and putting them on display just seems really strange to me.

Perhaps an analogy is in order.  Have you ever seen the old episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “People are alike all over”?

If you haven’t, I’ll summarize.  The plot basically follows two astronauts as they make their way to Mars.  One of them is an optimistic man who believes that “people are alike all over”.  The other man is a bitter cynic.  When they attempt to land on Mars, the resulting crash kills the optimistic astronaut, leaving the cynic injured and alone.  He hears strange noises outside the ship that make him think some nightmare lies on the other side.  But when the ship is finally opened, it is revealed that the Martians look human and seem friendly.  They take him to a house decorated like it would be on Earth and tell him that it is his.  He initially loves the place, but once the Martians leave him alone he looks around and discovers that he can’t get out.  Furthermore, he finds out that he is part of a zoo exhibit, put on display so the Martians can gawk and take pictures of him.  The episode ends with him resting his head on the bars and saying “You were right.  People are alike…people are alike everywhere.”

I remember this episode because it posed a very interesting moral question about the nature of putting animals in zoos and our arrogant self-assurance that we are superior.  And I was reminded of that as we perused the aquariums this weekend.  More than once, I wondered how much the fish and other animals truly knew of their captive status.  Part of me understands that their brains aren’t as complex as ours, that many of them probably only care about eating, sleeping, and being alive.  But it’s hard for me not to feel a little weird about the fact that we take these animals, stuff them in cages, and then sit there gawking and snapping photos of them.  I’m sure the animals are well taken care of, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are still caged up for our pleasure.

Part of the reason this bothers me is because every time a lion, wolf, or something similar escapes from the zoo and attacks someone, everyone starts calling for its head like it’s some kind of demon or something.  And I usually sit there thinking “well what did you expect?  You took a wild animal from its homeland and threw it into a cage.  They’re in unfamiliar territory.  They don’t know what’s going on.  They’re alone and afraid.  Of course they’re going to go on the offensive.”

Does it make people feel better or justified if they label it a monster, a “thing” that needs to be put down rather than a living, breathing animal that shares this Earth with us?  Maybe.  I don’t want to think in such cynical terms, but there’s a certain ring of truth to the idea that I can’t shake.

This is not to say that zoos are all evil or anything.  There was an otter habitat at the Great Lakes Aquarium that we saw part of a presentation on.  In it, the woman speaking told us how these otters were originally from Louisiana.  They ate a ton of crayfish, which upset some of the local farmers.  One of them laid out a trap and the otters got caught in it.  If it wasn’t for the intervention of the Aquarium and the organizations it is connected with, the otters would no doubt have been killed.  Some good has come out of this idea, but at its core the Aquarium and other places like it are little more than tourist attractions to me rather than true havens for animals.

Do I have all the answers?  No.  Despite my qualms about the situation, I still enjoyed visiting the Great Lakes Aquarium.  I will freely admit to that.  I do wish there was a better way to go about things than stuffing animals in small little tanks or cages, but I honestly have no idea.  As long as it makes money, it’s going to continue happening.  I’m not calling for the abolition of all zoos and aquariums or anything, but I think this moral question is one worth considering.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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Enough is Enough: The Outrage Over Cecil the Lion

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ve likely heard the story.  A Minnesota dentist by the name of Walter Palmer went to Africa, paid some rather shady dudes a large sum of money to lure a lion to him, and then he shot it with a bow.  It was apparently only afterwards that they realized the lion was tagged with a GPS collar.  They hastily tried to cover up what they had done, but the story broke all the same.

And the aftermath?  Complete and utter outrage.

People took to Facebook, sending Palmer angry messages.  Some even threatened to kill him (or at least told him he deserved to die a slow death).  For at least a week straight, my Facebook was flooded with stuff about Cecil the lion, ranging from “what kind of monster would do this” to “so everybody cares about Cecil but nobody cares about this military solider who died saving his comrades?”  While I understand the outrage to some degree, it got way out of control for far too long.  And we’re still seeing the lingering effects of it.  I saw a news story earlier today that was essentially just “Walter Palmer’s dentist office reopened, but he’s still in hiding”.

Now, people can be outraged by whatever they want, which is why I don’t agree with the litany of people who were saying things like “how dare you get outraged by the death of one lion while all this other horrible stuff is happening.”  People can care about multiple things at a time.  The media would often have you think otherwise, but its true.  Just because some people are angry about the lion doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly stopped caring about starving children.

However, I do believe that the situation surrounding the story was majorly overblown.

Consider this: nearly a century ago it is estimated that there were more than 200,000 lions roaming wild in Africa.  And now, the most recent surveys say that there is less than 30,000.  Poaching is not a new thing.  It has been going on for quite a long time.  Yes it is true that Cecil was a research lion, but it can’t be the first time something like this has happened.  And the news keeps calling him “beloved” over and over.  I didn’t even know a lion named Cecil existed until this happened, so I have to wonder how many people outside the research team that tagged him actually knew about him.

And another thing, I find it kind of funny that people even bothered threatening Palmer with death.  “You killed this lion!  What a disgrace!  Now I’ll kill you!”  Really?  You hate the violence he perpetrated against this animal, so you threaten him with violence?  Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

I would like to point out at this time that I do not feel sorry for Walter Palmer.  The guy’s one and only statement seems to hint that he doesn’t really care about what he did.  You can read the full statement here.

I want to point out this particular line: “Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.”

Sure, it seems apologetic enough, but I can’t help but find it strange that he has to point out that he loves hunting and practices it “responsibly and legally”.  It’s almost like an underhanded way of saying “sorry but not sorry”.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe he truly is sorry about what he did.  But at the same time, the man hunts wild animals for sport.  I can’t imagine that he’d feel that bad about it.  I bet he’s more sorry he got caught than anything.

In any case, I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be angered by.  This was just my take on a story that’s been in the news for some weeks now.  Fortunately the whole thing seems to be tapering off, which honestly should have happened already.  There’s been no new information on the subject.  Palmer is still in hiding and his hunter guides are going to be put on trial.  Let the story die, and we’ll pick it up later if anything exciting happens.  Enough is enough.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everyone.

What’s in a Story? Part 2: Making the Story

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post called “What’s in a Story?  The Importance of Narrative Fiction” where I talked about, what else, the importance of fiction.  I decided I wanted to write a second part to it, specifically talking about what makes a story entertaining or engrossing to people.

The most obvious thing right out of the gate is characters.  Everyone loves a good character in a story, whether they’re good or bad.  Sometimes, we find that we may enjoy the villain’s side of things more than the hero’s.  This was definitely true of the first season of the Netflix show Daredevil.  This is not the say that the hero, Matthew Murdock, was any kind of slouch in the proceedings.  He had a very nice bit of conflict throughout the season where he was constantly confronting himself about how far he was willing to go.  But in the end, Wilson Fisk (the villain) stole the show for me.  I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the show yet, but Fisk’s backstory is incredibly disturbing, depressing, and gripping.  He’s one of those villains that actually has a noble goal, but the means he is using to get there are very much a problem.  Without the conflicting nature of Fisk I doubt the show would have been nearly as engrossing of an experience for me.  It’s one of those strange experiences where you actually understand where the villain is coming from, which isn’t something we often get from modern superhero fare.

This is what characters can do for a story.  They inject it with life.  They give it a lasting impact, make it stay on your mind for a long time after its inevitable conclusion.  This is a big part of the reason why movies like Interstellar stay with me for so long, because the characters in it are so well written.  They give the world they reside in a certain believable quality that it otherwise wouldn’t have.  They are the people who you follow through the story, beginning to end.

But characters aren’t the only thing that can engage you in a story.  It’s the obvious thing to turn to when talking about books or movies, because they are by their nature scripted and focused.  But what about video games?  Games can have great characters and story on par with movies (just check out the Uncharted video game franchise for an example of an action movie turned video game), but there is also a sense of agency that the player of these games has.  He can choose where to go and what to do to a certain extent, depending on how the game itself is designed.  Some games, like Myst, take advantage of this agency, driving the player to explore and discover the story on their own.  But what makes the story of these types of games engrossing?  What makes them tick?  The answer lies in the setting.

Setting can have a major impact on any story, be it in a game, book, or movie.  But it can have special significance in a game, being that the interactive nature of the medium often immerses you in it in a way that books and movies can’t touch.  In a book, you imagine the setting in your mind.  In a movie, you follow the setting as the director and writer have envisioned it.  In a game, you decide what places to explore and what is important.  Of course, the game developer has to design the setting, so in essence you are still seeing exactly what the person who created it wanted you to see, but the little details the designer may not have found important might speak to you in a way that they didn’t anticipate.

Let’s look, for example, at Dark Fall: The Journal (I know, again right).  I’ve spoken about this game many a time on this blog, but here I want to call it out for a very specific reason.  Dark Fall has a strong sense of setting.  In the game itself, you interact with no physical characters (a ghostly voice belonging to a child guides you for the first few minutes, but you never see him of course).  You play as the brother of Pete Crowhurst, an architect redeveloping the old Dowerton train station and hotel.  After receiving a cryptic and alarming message on your answering machine, you travel to the station to find out what’s happening.  When you arrive, you find nothing and no one.  But you are not alone…

In Dark Fall‘s case, your character is merely a shell, a way to interact with the world and its characters.  The people in this game are no Walter White.  They won’t regale you with a gritty story of succumbing to greed and slowly transforming into a monster.  They’re just ordinary people who lived their lives.  But the way the game presents their stories is what makes it so interesting.

Take, for example, this letter you find in one of the hotel rooms:

 

Dark Fall The Journal (9)

 

 

If you are unable to see the picture for some reason, I will transcribe it for you:

“Betty,

Whats going on?  You told me no one would know I was in this room!  Someone tried the door a while back, I didn’t open it, course.

Then bout half hour ago someone knocked and whispered my name, it aint you, I would know your voice anytime.

If your mam finds out I’m in here she’ll blow her top!  She’ll tell me dad too, and then we’ll really be done for.

I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom.  Hopefully you’ll find it, before who ever it is finds me!

 

Thomas

XXXX

P.S. Bring us some more beer, love.”

 

It’s bits like this that made the game for me, these little snapshots of people’s lives that have been left sitting there.  Considering you never physically interact with any of these people (they did disappear after all), the little touches are what makes the game so interesting.  The style of writing clearly belies Thomas’ out of country origins, and his subdued manner hints at the idea that Betty is the dominant one in the relationship.

But what I like more than all of that is this little bit: “I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom”.  Well, it appears the note never got there…

A little does indeed go a long way, especially where horror/ghost stories are concerned.  Dark Fall is effective not because it throws the ghostly nature of things directly into your face, but because of the feeling that these people were just going about their everyday lives, having fun and dealing with personal issues when suddenly they just up and vanished.  It’s the sense of a life interrupted.

I may have only talked about setting and characters when it comes to making a story tick, but they are by no means the be all end all.  There are plenty of ways to make a story engrossing.  You can even make a story that has no dialogue entertaining, like the movie Apocalypto (I have admittedly never watched it, but the lack of dialogue was one of its bigger selling points).  It all really comes down to knowing what is important in the type of story you are trying to tell.  If it’s a horror story, setting can often be more important than character.  If it’s a gritty crime story, characters are going to be the driving force.  It’s easy to say that a good story is one that’s believable, but harder to say what makes that story believable.

And in the end, it’s all about getting the reader/audience/player to be willing to suspend their disbelief, if just for a short period of time.

 

Well that’s all I’ve got for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!

Also, don’t you just hate it when someone writes a sequel to something out of the blue?  Yeah…*eyes dart back and forth suspiciously*…me too……

Bye!

 

Why Critical Acclaim Doesn’t Really Matter

When a new movie comes out, what do you normally do?  Do you ask your friends what they think about it?  Do you have a favorite reviewer that you go to?  Or do you, like me, end up going to Metacritic?  Metacritic is a site that compiles together all the current reviews on a movie, game, and so on then generates an average score based off that.  But at times you might find that your personal opinion of something is at odds with the average Metacritic score it gets.  And you know what?  It doesn’t really matter.

These days it feels like people give a little too much credence to critical reception of a movie or a game.  Take Kingsman for example, an over-the-top action movie about a secret spy organization.  I saw the movie in theaters with a couple of friends and we all thought it was great.  It didn’t take itself too seriously and the action was extremely well choreographed.  But Metacritic has it sitting at a 58 out of 100, which means mixed or average reviews.  But I’ve found that it doesn’t matter.  Letting your perceptions of something be colored by the opinions of others can leave you missing out on something you might really enjoy.  The wide breadth of preferences and opinions is part of what makes being human so interesting.  We don’t all agree on something.  We don’t all like the same things.

For a better example, let’s turn a personal experience I’ve had with video games.  I’ve talked before on this blog about the Dark Fall games and how they helped me realize that I had a love for point and click adventure games.  In one of my previous posts, I mentioned how after playing through the game Scratches, I was looking for another horror-themed point and click game.  Dark Fall: The Journal happened to appear in a games list on a site called Good Old Games (GOG for short).  It was a measly five dollars, and I decided “what the heck, let’s try it out”.  I picked it up, spent time playing through it, and never looked back.  It was one of those games that’s hard to explain my love for to other people, because often they just look at it and go “you like this?”

I mean the game does look like it belongs in the '90s.

I mean the game does look like it belongs in the ’90s.

But that’s not the point I want to make.  When I picked up Dark Fall I was going off an impulse.  The only reviews I had seen were a couple of users reviews on GOG itself.  I didn’t even bother looking at the Metacritic score of the game or anything.  In fact, I didn’t even look it up until after I was done with the game.  Dark Fall: The Journal sits at a somewhat mediocre 68 out of 100 on Metacritic.  If I had looked up the score for this game before playing it, I might not have given it a chance.  And I would have missed out on something that truly engrossed me.  It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it has a lot of heart.

What I’m saying is that if you let your life be run by what the critics have to say, you start endangering your sense of personal identity.  Sure, it’s fun to see what other people think about something you like, even if they hated it themselves, but it’s good to take these things with a grain of salt.

Let me put it this way.  James Cameron’s Avatar sits at an 83 on Metacritic.  It garnered universal acclaim and grossed over two billion dollars worldwide.  It was such a phenomenon that it got re-released in theaters with six minutes of extra content.  On principle, it seems like everyone should have loved this movie.  But I didn’t.  I remember watching it in theaters with a few friends and thinking that it was okay but nothing special.  Its plot felt like it was ripped from Dances with Wolves, only the Native Americans were now ten feet tall and blue.  It wasn’t a bad movie by any means.  I just didn’t feel like it deserved the reception it got.  It focused more on special effects than anything.  Just because something receives critical acclaim doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to like it.  And the reverse is true as well.

If you need more proof that critical acclaim doesn’t really matter, I’ll leave you with this.  You’ve probably heard of the Transformers movies, directed by Michael Bay.  The first movie received a 61 Metacritic score, which is pretty decent for an action flick.  However, the second film (Revenge of the Fallen) was pretty widely reviled by most people, and it shows in its Metacritic score, sitting at a 35 out of 100 (ouch).  And yet, despite the panning it got, the franchise went on to make two more movies, neither of them scoring as highly as the first one.  And it’s likely that there are still more on the way.  Last I heard they were planning on making a second trilogy after the first three, so there are at least two more movies in the works if that’s still true.

You’d think after the critics pretty much panned the second, third, and fourth movie they’d stop making them right?  Apparently not.

 

Well that’s all I got for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.