Let’s Talk About Gaming Addiction

Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) has moved to include gaming disorder as part of the 11th revision of their International Classification of Diseases.  According to their website, gaming disorder is defined as “a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”  It goes on to say that, to be classified as a disorder, the amount of gaming must be severe enough to impair a person’s functioning in daily life for a time period of at least twelve months.

My initial reaction to this, of course, was an instinctual dislike.  Video games are one of my primary hobbies, and have been since I was a kid.  So when I heard that gaming disorder was going to be an officially recognized thing, I immediately thought that it couldn’t be good.  And the interesting thing is that the pushback against the classification didn’t just come from people who play video games.  It also came from medical experts who believe that the WHO’s definition of gaming disorder is too vague and too broad.

However, at the same time, the classification does make sense.  There are people out there who definitely spend far too much time on video games, so much so that it starts to take precedence over everything else.  And we are long overdue for a conversation about mental health in this country.  Because while conservative politicians love to blame mental health issues for mass shooting events, they never seem to actually DO anything about it.

But that’s a rant for another time.

Gaming addiction is not a new issue, especially in places like South Korea where it has become such a problem that they even have gaming addiction rehabilitation clinics.  So it’s definitely something worth talking about.  But on the other hand, there’s the media, who have a long and storied history of being slanted against video games.  For instance, here’s this story from the BBC, which was originally titled “Computer game addiction: ‘I spend 20 plus hours a week gaming”.

Pffft…that’s weak.  Get real kids.  Twenty hours is nothing.  You hear me?  Nothing!

In all seriousness, if you actually watch the video, it at least explains that the kid who plays “20 plus hours” a week is part of a healthy crowd of friends.  But if all you see is the headline, your perception of that “20 plus hours” is going to be much different.

And if we’re really going to criticize video games in this way, I think it’s worth noting how we consume another medium: television.  According to this New York Times article from back in 2016, a Nielsen study found that, on average, American adults watch five hours of television a day.  So per week, that adds up to roughly thirty-five hours of television.  Yet we don’t see the WHO coming out with a classification on television watching disorder, or the BBC making a video about people addicted to television.  And the only major reason I can think of for this is that watching television is a normalized thing, whereas video games are still seen as a kind of weird new thing that people don’t understand.

This is to say nothing about the fact that binge-watching is not only a term, but a socially acceptable one.  When “Stranger Things” season 2 came out, over three hundred thousand people watched the entire season in one day.  But of course we’re not raising a stink about this.  We might scoff and say “get a life”, but our condemnation never goes much beyond that.

I should mention here that even the WHO recognizes that the number of those afflicted with this gaming disorder are a very small percentage of the people who play video games regularly.  And I’m willing to bet that, more often than not, the root cause of the addiction lies not with the games themselves, but with something in that person’s life that has forced them to retreat into their hobby.  Because video games are typically used as a way to cope with the stresses of life, something I can attest to personally.  While there are some games that are designed to entice players to keep playing regularly over months and even years, we need to understand that the extreme form of addiction the WHO is talking about is not the norm, especially in a country where the statistic of watching over thirty hours of television a week is accepted without so much as a second thought.

In the end, it’s possible to have an unhealthy addiction to pretty much anything.  And it’s time we accepted that instead of adhering to this stodgy old idea of “everything was better when I was growing up and anything new in these kid’s lives is clearly bad for them”.

Because the world is going to change, whether we like it or not.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful day.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Spotlight: Thirty Flights of Loving

“Thirty Flights of Loving” begins as more games should: with some smooth jazz.  After walking downstairs and encountering these fine gentlemen…

 

Stop looking at meeeee!

 

…we make our way through a secret passageway into the basement where we run into our two comrades, Anita (at least I’m assuming that’s her real name) and…uh…Other Guy.

 

 

 

Clicking on either of them brings up a flashy series of images denoting their skills.  It’s clear that Anita is the muscle of the group, as her skills include demolitions and sharpshooting.  Other Guy has a more utility focus, as he is a forger and a safecracker.

 

Evidently he’s also good at weddings.

 

You make your way downstairs to an airplane and the three of you take off.  The scene quickly cuts and it’s obvious something went horribly wrong.  Anita has a gun pointed at you that’s clicking empty and Other Guy has a bullet wound in his chest.  You pick him up and begin making your way through the crowded airport.  But soon enough the scene shifts again.  This time it’s a flashback, as you and Anita are in an apartment, peeling and eating oranges.

 

Why oranges? Why NOT oranges?

 

As you walk toward the door time jumps forward and Anita is joined by Other Guy.  The three of you make your way up to the building’s rooftop and sit down at a reception.  People start dancing.  You and Anita start drinking…a lot.

 

I’m not sure if this makes me want to drink less…or more.

 

The two of you then make your way downstairs to the apartment, where Anita waits for you on the bed.  Before you get to her, the scene shifts back to the airport, where you use a luggage carrier to help move Other Guy.

 

Oh wait, his name is Winston? Ah screw it, I’m still calling him Other Guy.

 

Making your way into the main entrance for the airport, you suddenly find yourselves trapped and set upon by police cameras floating from balloons.  Other Guy pulls out two guns and begins shooting them down.  Eventually, you are allowed to make your way through the entrance where the cops are waiting.  The scene jumps forward and apparently the two of you were able to steal a cop car.

 

Oh no, they’re chasing us through the highway of love!

 

You have a sudden flashback to you and Anita riding together on a motorcycle.  She turns around to you, love clearly in her eyes.  But the scene is quickly interrupted by an on-rushing semi-truck, snapping you back to the present.  However, it’s too late, as you collide with it head on.

And then, in what is either a self-aware jab or a display of pretentiousness, you are catapulted into a museum scene where people are standing around drinking champagne and marveling at various exhibits related to the game.

 

Mmm yes quite…that is a lovely police vehicle…mmm yes….

 

All in all, the game takes about 10-15 minutes to beat.  It’s not very long, and there’s no dialogue at all.  In fact, whenever someone talks it reminds me of the adults from Charlie Brown.  But the big question is, did I like it?

Honestly…not really.  The game is too short and lacks the detail that would normally get me invested in a story.

Now, before someone says it, I understand that was the point.  “Thirty Flights of Loving” is an experiment in telling a short story with all the context ripped out of it.  So you either have to poke and prod to find the context or make your own.

I get what the game was going for.  It just didn’t resonate with me.

But apparently it did with video game journalists when it came out six years ago.  The site Rock Paper Shotgun praised the game in a recommendation back in 2015, saying that “it’s more thrilling, funny, romantic, and tragic than many games manage in fifteen hours.”  Now, I’m not sure if I missed something, but I didn’t feel that emotional at all when I finished the game my first time through a few years ago.

In fact, my reaction was more “wait…that’s it?

 

There’s also a weird section in the museum about Bernoulli’s principle…because reasons.

 

I understand that many video games can get bogged down by bloated storytelling.  You don’t have to look much further than “Modern Warfare 2” as a good example of this (I did a story analysis of the game way back when too).  In the game the main villain’s motivation is literally “I lost a whole bunch of soldiers when a nuke went off, so I started World War Three to drive up recruitment numbers”.  Because logic.

And yet, the context of a story is what makes it worth it for me.  I like learning a character’s backstory, their motivations, their hopes and dreams.  It’s part of what makes reading books so engaging.  You get to see how the character thinks and feels.  “Thirty Flights of Loving” doesn’t have that.  If anything, stripping out the context only made me understand why I like that context in the first place.  Hell, it’s a big part of the reason why I enjoyed “Cryostasis” the game I talked about last month.  And I couldn’t even explain half of what happened in the game.  To me, “Thirty Flights of Loving” feels more like a hollow shell of a story.  It’s got charm and style on the outside, but the inside is just air.

All of this is going to make my next statement seem very strange:

I’m glad this game exists.

I may not have liked the game, but I still think it’s good that the game is out there.  It’s good that independent game developers are able to experiment and get their creations noticed.  They may not appeal to everyone, but the nature of artistic expression cannot always be held down by what is profitable or what has wide market appeal.  Because sometimes, you don’t know what has wide market appeal.  Something new could come along and drastically reshape things.  It’s kind of like how superhero movies experienced a downturn for a while, then Marvel came along and started their cinematic universe.  Suddenly BAM…it feels like we can’t go more than two or three months without another superhero movie opening in theaters and making hundreds of millions in revenue.

I may not have cared for “Thirty Flights of Loving” in much the same way that I don’t really care for superhero movies anymore, but I can appreciate that it exists.  Experimentation should be encouraged, because even failed experiments can teach us valuable lessons.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post, and as always, have a wonderful month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Cryostasis

 

…I have no idea what this game is about.  At least not entirely.

On the surface, “Cryostasis” doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary.  It’s a survival-horror game where you as the player make your way through the frozen wreck of a ship, doing battle with mutated monsters and making the best of your limited resources.  But there are some unique elements.

For example, your health is determined by temperature.  The colder you get, the weaker you are and the easier it is to die.  This means that the only way to gain health back is to seek out heat sources.  You can regain health by warming up at a smoldering pile of wood…

 

 

…light bulbs…

 

 

…and other, less conventional heating sources.

 

 

This interplay of heat vs. cold also plays into one of the major thematic motifs of the story, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As you progress through the ruins of the ship, you’ll do battle with the mutated denizens with a variety of melee weapons as well as some guns you’ll find later on.  Combat is slow and clunky, but purposefully so.  Being in such a cold environment and clad in heavy winter gear, you’re not going to be running around and jumping off of walls like an action hero.  No, the game forces you to play methodically.  Because if you don’t, you will die.

 

Hello sir! Do you mind if I…AXE you a question? Ha ha ha…follow my blog for more top tier jokes!

 

So now that the basics of the gameplay are down, let’s jump into the story.

Spoiler alert: it’s weird.

As the story begins, we’re treated to a very optimistic and upbeat quote…

 

I lied.

 

But before we even get control of our character, we’re introduced to this strange parallel plot of a group of villagers and their trek through a dark forest.  It almost feels like a fairy tale of sorts.

 

This plot runs parallel to the events of the game and helps provide some insight into the themes, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

 

After this brief introduction, the player is then given control of their character.  Through a series of flashbacks (triggered by interacting with a faceless figure in a coat), it is revealed that the player character (known as Alexander Nesterov) traveled to the wreck of the icebreaker via sled dogs, but was forced to continue on foot after the ice broke and wrecked the sled.  As Nesterov progresses through the ship, he experiences flashbacks to when the ship was operational, and it becomes clear that some type of disaster took place.

But just when you think you might have a handle on things…this happens:

 

 

The game prompts you to use your “mental echo” ability to travel into the man’s past and fix his mistake so that he survives (because, you know, that’s a thing…that…that normal people do).  These sections are often like puzzles where you have to figure out what to do.  Some are simple and logical, while others are more obtuse and frustrating.  For example, a later section sees the body of a man dead in his chair after a window exploded and pierced him with glass shrapnel.  The simple solution would be to just exit the room and shut the door behind you, right?  Wrong.  That doesn’t work.  Apparently the real solution is to hide behind the chair and let the chair take the hit.  Only then will you be able to progress.

Because logic is for suckers.

 

You get this message upon the completion of your first “mental echo” segment. I love how even the tutorials are cryptic.

 

As the story continues to progress, more flashback events give insight into the story of the ship and its crew.  And we start to get an idea of the major players in the story.  Most notable in these beginning sections are the ship’s captain and his first officer.  The first officer wants to use some sort of divining rod equipment to help steer the ship through the ice, but the captain decides to rely on sheer intuition alone.  This leads to a confrontation between the two men where they argue over the dangers of the course the ship is taking.

 

Famous last words…

 

The captain disregards the first officer’s advice and, predictably, the ship finds itself stuck.  The first officer decides to go behind the captain’s back and send a message back to the company that owns this ship.  He gets a message back and, despite being advised by the ship’s security officer not to share it with the captain, does so anyways.  The contents of the message are kept hidden for a while, but its effect on the captain is evident.  He gradually grows demoralized and finds that everyone he turns to seems to despise him.  When he goes to the chief engineer of the ship to share the message, the engineer rebukes him and tells him to just go away.

 

 

Eventually there is a flashback with the captain standing on the deck, looking forlorn as he holds the message in his hands.

 

 

After a moment, he releases the piece of paper and it floats away from him.  It is then that the contents of the message are finally revealed: the owners have decided that, following the ship’s completion of its current journey, it is to be decommissioned.

 

 

This feels like a good time to pull that parallel fairy tale story back into play.  In the fairy tale, the people are trying to escape a forest, but the forest seems alive and wants nothing more than to  prevent their escape.  It is in their darkest hour that a man among them named Danko takes charge and leads them onward.  At first, the people rejoice at Danko’s leadership, feeling hope swell within them.  However, as the journey continues and grows harder, resentment begins to take root.  They begin chattering among themselves, becoming doubtful of Danko’s ability to lead.  Eventually the people rebuke him entirely, to which Danko fires back, criticizing them for how easily they allowed themselves to be led.  The people then start surrounding him, clearly intending to kill him…

Numerous parallels to the game’s story can be found.  For example, the idea of man vs. nature becomes a very strong motif in the latter half of the game, with the shifting ice around the ship a parallel to the malevolent forest from the fairy tale.  There’s a “mental echo” segment where you play as someone in a slaughterhouse, and the solution is to open the gates and let the cows go free.

 

Damn liberals and their environmentalism…

 

Not to mention there’s a later, optional segment where you help a polar bear escape from the people hunting it.

But I digress.  As the story continues it becomes clear that something bad happened to the ship’s nuclear reactor considering…you know…there’s a giant hole where it used to be.

 

 

It’s also revealed that the crew began to suffer some kind of massive medical emergency, which appears to stem from some kind of radiation leak from the reactor.

 

 

On top of that, the ship’s layout starts to become more surreal.  Doors begin to disappear, entire areas shift around you as you interact with things, and there’s even one really bizarre scene where, after activating an old-fashioned film projector, you’re forced to battle enemies shooting at you on the screen before one of them walks through the damn thing into the room itself.  All of this seems to imply that the ship you travel through during the game might not entirely be real.  But it’s hard to say.  The game is metaphors layered on top of parallel allegories.  It confuses the hell out of me sometimes.

In any case, following his thrashing by the rest of the crew, the captain makes one last desperate move.  He orders the ship full speed ahead in an attempt to brute force their way out of the ice.  During the attempt, he is injured as the first officer and security officer break into the bridge.  They order the ship in reverse, which only makes things worse and ends up dooming the ship once and for all.  While the crew deals with fluctuating temperatures and radiation sickness, the main officers hatch a plan to take a helicopter and abandon the ship and its crew.

One popular theory is that the captain of the icebreaker is the parallel to Danko in the fairy tale, and I can see why.  They both lead their people.  And they’re both rebuked by their people when they fail to lead them to safety.  The parallels between the two of them are numerous, and it seems to be the most solid conclusion.  However, it is only but one interpretation, as I’ll explain shortly.

As the game nears its close, the two parallel tales come to a head.  In the fairy tale remember, the people are circling around Danko, ready to kill him.  But Danko finally sees that it is not hatred that drives them, but fear.  His resentment is then swept away by a wave of compassion, which causes his eyes to start glowing with light.  The people misunderstand what’s happening, fearing that the glowing is another symptom of Danko’s anger.  But then, Danko rips his still beating heart out of his chest, the sheer light of it obliterating the forest and giving way to a new land.

Danko looks upon this new world with a smile, then falls over dead.  Because happy endings are for losers.

On the icebreaker, the first officer and the security chief carry the captain to a helicopter piloted by the chief engineer.  The crew watches anxiously as the helicopter begins to take off, leaving them all behind.

But it’s not over yet…remember that whole flaming heart thing from the fairy tale?  Yeah…the ship’s nuclear reactor functions as that parallel as it decides to go all ker-plooey and explode.

 

Hooray! Everybody dies!

 

The helicopter is vaporized, and the following scene implies that the explosion transformed the crew into the monsters you fight throughout the game.

So yeah, that’s it.  That’s the story.  I mean, there’s no way things could get weirder or anythi-

 

 

 

 

Hold on a second…I have to go make sure nobody spiked my drink…

So the final boss of the game is Father Time.  No, I’m serious.  I’m dead serious.  The title of the level itself is “Chronos”, which is the ancient name for the personification of time.  So yeah, the giant blindfolded man with the hourglass is literally Father Time.

And you must do battle with him by shooting mystical orbs at the people who appear around him.

Yeah it’s definitely one of the most out of nowhere moments I’ve ever experienced in a game.  I mean, this game was bizarre to begin with, but when this happened I think my jaw literally dropped.

Anyways, after defeating Old Man Time (I can’t believe I actually typed that), he rewards you with an opportunity to go back and change one singular moment that alters the fate of the ship and its crew entirely.  There are multiple ways this can take shape, but for this playthrough it takes the form of the chief engineer.

 

 

There was that scene earlier in the game where he basically told the captain to piss off.  Well, you can change that by having him express sympathy for the captain, a small act of kindness that averts the tragic fate of the entire vessel.

 

 

The story then shifts back to the beginning scene, with Nesterov approaching the vessel by dog sled.  Only, this time people are waiting for him.

 

 

After the sled falls through the ice, the captain appears above and extends his hand, saving Nesterov from falling into the water.  He is joined by the chief engineer, the security officer, and another officer.  Together, the five of them head off toward the ship as the story reaches a close.

 

 

Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this craziness…

Like I said before, the fairy tale story is a clear parallel to the tragic tale of the icebreaker.  And like I said, a popular interpretation is that the captain is Danko’s parallel.  However, I’ve also heard it as the ship’s crew being Danko’s parallel, although I don’t particularly agree with that assessment.  It seems more fitting for the crew to be the parallels of the villagers in the story, as they gradually succumb to fear and begin fighting among each other.  Another interpretation could be that the ship itself is Danko, as the captain does personify the ship during an early scene in the game, saying that to be a true captain the ship must “respect you”.

There’s a lot more to unpack with this game, but I think I’m gonna leave it alone for now.  This post has gone on long enough.

I know I made light of the game’s weirdness at points, but in all honesty that’s part of what makes the game so fascinating to think about.  It’s so weird and so out there at times that it makes you want to understand, makes you need to understand.  And there are lots of things I didn’t even go over, like the theme of confinement or being trapped that’s a motif throughout the game (many of the enemies are horrifically constrained within their armor, with one tough enemy having only a keyhole on his helmet to see through).  There’s also references to other obscure Russian works of literature and art that I haven’t even begun to delve into myself (the game’s subtitle “sleep of reason” is one such reference).  But despite how cryptic and obtuse it is, the game has a charm to it that cannot be denied despite some of the technical shortcomings (i.e. the game chugs along at times, even on powerful hardware).  Unfortunately, the game doesn’t seem to be available on any digital storefronts.  In fact, the only way I can see buying it now is via a physical copy from Amazon.  So if you’re interested in trying it out, that might be the only way to do it aside from other…less reputable means…if you catch my drift.

In any case, thanks for reading my long ramblings about some obscure game barely anyone’s ever heard of.  Have a wonderful rest of April and check back on the third Wednesday of May for my next post.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Video Game Movies

With the release of “Tomb Raider” this past Friday, we find ourselves with another movie based on a video game.  Only, this time it seems like the movie has fared decently well.  It was still outperformed by “Black Panther” at the box office (or “buried”, as news outlets like to put it…you know, because puns), but people who liked the video game also seem to have liked the movie as well.  Now, I haven’t seen the movie myself, but from what I’ve heard it seems like there might be one big reason for that:

It mirrors the video game almost exactly.

 

 

Now, I can’t speak for everybody, but I think what most people want to see is an adaptation.  They want to watch a video game they love made into movie form.  They don’t want to see Hollywood get all cute and switch things around to try to make their own version of the story.

Which is exactly what happened with the 2016 “Assassin’s Creed” movie.

If you’ve never played any of the “Assassin’s Creed” games before, here’s the rundown: they center around a device known as the Animus, which allows a user to relive the memories of their genetic ancestors.  The first game has you playing as Desmond Miles as he wakes up in a mysterious location, kidnapped by an unknown organization with sinister motives.  The sections in the present day are very brief and low-key, building up an overarching mystery as to who these people are and what they want.  But the majority of the game takes place in the Animus.

Apparently the movie didn’t get the memo, because from what I understand the majority of the film takes place in the modern-day.

Seriously, how do you take a game that features super cool stuff like jumping off tall buildings and landing in a pile of hay, and make a movie where the main character only does that twice and the majority of the movie is people sitting around talking about shadowy conspiracies?  In the games, the modern-day segments are largely kept in the background, an overarching element to the franchise’s story.  But the main focus has always been the Animus segments, with whatever assassin character it happens to be for that game.

Now while I can’t speak for the quality of “Tomb Raider”, having not seen it myself, the simple fact that it has fared better than most other video game movies would seem to indicate that it at least did something right.  I honestly think people just want to see something that compliments what came before instead of trying too hard to be its own thing.

Another failed case study of that can be found in the 2008 “Max Payne” movie.

 

 

 

In what seems like another incident of Hollywood trying to play cute, “Max Payne” only shares surface level elements with the game.  The movie keeps the names of most of the characters and the drug known as Valkyr, which plays a crucial role in the story.  Other than that, the progression of things seems  entirely different.  In fact, the main villain of the game doesn’t even die in the film.  No…instead they keep her alive so they can force in a post-credits scene to hint at a sequel.  Of course, that never came to be because of how poorly the movie did.

Hey guys, I don’t know if anyone told you, but the game already has a sequel.  And it’s certainly far better than whatever you had planned.

The sad thing is the movie should have been good.  All of the elements were there for them to turn the game into a stylish, gritty revenge movie.  But instead, they tried to twist things around to give their own personal interpretation on it.  Maybe they thought they could do better than the game’s writers did?  I don’t know.  You’d think with the history of video game movies being so terrible they’d stop and think “maybe this is a bad idea”.

I think a large part of the problem is that the people who make these movies either have never played the games themselves or just don’t have respect for the source material.  Or possibly both.  It’s almost as if they just read a synopsis of the plot somewhere and wrote a script based on that.  You’d think that if you really wanted to adapt something and do it justice, you’d actually bother immersing yourself in it.

But I guess that’s just me.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post and have a wonderful month.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Plot Twists

The Sixth Sense

 

Warning: spoilers for multiple stories lie ahead.  Read at your own risk.

Love ’em or hate ’em, plot twists are an integral part of modern storytelling.  You know what I’m talking about…those moments in stories that make you go “HOLY CRAP” or “WHAT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”  But the question is: when is a plot twist good and when is it bad?

For my personal taste, a good plot twist is one that makes you reevaluate what came before.  To start with, I’m going to use an example from something I’m betting not all that many people know about: the television show “Fringe”.

For those who’ve maybe never watched the show, it’s similar to “X-Files”, only instead of investigating weird, far-fetched supernatural stuff they investigate weird, far-fetched science stuff.  The basic premise is this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates after everyone aboard a commercial airline flight is killed by a strange contagion that caused their skin to fall off (in spectacular, gooey fashion).  The case leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a man known for extreme experiments in science…who is also now in a mental health facility.  Because of the facility’s rule allowing only family members to visit, Olivia must track down Walter Bishop’s estranged son Peter.

 

Over the course of the first season, the three deal with bizarre and terrifying cases, ranging from killer computer viruses to a bio-engineered monstrous animal.  As the season progresses, an overarching plot involving parallel universes starts to unfold.  In the season finale, the trio stop a bad guy from crossing over into another universe to do bad things.  As things come to a close, we realize that the three have grown close together.  Peter finally starts to accept his father despite his failures.  And Walter has a poignant moment standing in front of-

 

 

…hi-his son’s grave.

……

Wait what?!

And this is where, if the twist is good, your mind goes into overdrive.  You start seeing the clues, putting the pieces together, realizing that certain little things you initially thought were innocuous actually hinted at a bigger truth.  In this case, the truth is that the Peter we know in the show actually belongs to a parallel universe.  And, in this case, your mind is likely to go back to a scene earlier in the season where Walter is talking to Peter and mentions a time when Peter was deathly ill.  Walter says he became consumed with saving him, but that Peter eventually just got better.  Obviously, with the twist at the end of season one, we know that’s not what happened and Walter’s version of Peter died.

There are also other, smaller hints throughout the season that you’d probably never catch on your first viewing.  For example, during one very early episode, Walter is rambling about eye color when he says Peter’s eyes are green.  But when we cut to Peter, we can clearly see that his eyes are blue.  Initially, you likely brushed it off as just Walter being not altogether there.  However, with the added information we get at the season’s close, it takes on a newer significance.  Same with another scene where Peter is holding a G.I. Joe toy and says something like “weird…I always remembered the scar being on the other side”.  Again, innocuous on its face, but hinting at a greater truth.

Another great instance of this kind of plot twist comes from “The Sixth Sense”.  I’m sure most, if not all of you, know the story by now: Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist who helps a young boy that claims he can see ghosts.  Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time.  He’s just another ghost that the kid can see.  But what’s genius about this twist is that unlike “Fringe”, where most of the clues are only really recognizable upon re-watching the first season, “Sixth Sense” actually replays snippets of scenes from earlier in the movie during the climactic reveal, giving them new meaning and context.  That scene with his wife in the restaurant?  It shifts from being the portrayal of a couple falling out of love to that of a widow grieving for her lost husband.

And it doesn’t even show all the clues the movie had in it.  There’s actually a scene where Bruce Willis is standing behind the kid as the kid reaches for a doorknob.  There’s a quick close-up shot of the knob that shows that Willis has no reflection.  It’s truly crazy how much foreshadowing the movie does right under your nose.

Now let’s move on to the other side of things.  When is a twist bad?  For my money, it’s simple: when the twist is done for pure shock value and offers very little payoff.  For example, one of the seasons of “24” reveals that the president of the United States (or former president at that point…I can’t remember for sure) is in league with the bad guys to do…something I guess.  I don’t remember if there was a good explanation for it.  What little I remember tells me it was more done for shock value than anything else.

Another example comes from the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”.  In the game, a character named General Shepherd sends one of the playable characters to an estate in the middle of a forest somewhere to retrieve data on the enemies operations and help stop World War III.  Only, at the end of the mission, Shepherd shoots and burns the playable character alive upon receiving the data, revealing that he was the mastermind behind it all and was just covering his tracks.  It’s a moment that screams “epic” at first, but once Shepherd reveals his motivation later on things fall apart quickly.

It’s as if the writers had to hamstring together an explanation last-minute.  Basically, there was a nuke that went off in the previous game, killing a whole bunch of soldiers.  This made General Shepherd mad or something, so he came up with a convoluted plan to start World War III in an effort to drive up recruitment and get more soldiers…

…who will then more than likely die in the ensuing global conflict, leaving General Shepherd with a far larger body count than he would have had otherwise.

It’s best not to think about it too much.

(If you’re curious, I did write an entire story analysis of Modern Warfare 2 over two years ago.)

Another example of a twist that underperforms is in “The Village”, another movie by M. Night Shyamalan.  For my part, I actually liked the twist itself.  But at the same time, I admit that it does have a lack of payoff for the story.

The plot of “The Village” is as follows: a colonial era village lives in fear of monsters that lurk in the woods around the town.  But later on, it’s revealed that the monsters are nothing more than the village elders wearing outfits in an effort to keep people from moving away from the village.  And the noises they keep hearing in the woods are made by things like wind chimes.  Then, at the very end, it is revealed that the movie actually takes place in modern times, with the village elders starting the village in the 1970’s as a way to escape the traumas they experienced in modern society.  They’re basically an Amish-like cult.

While the twist is cool, there’s very little payoff for it.  We already know that the spooky noises are fake and that the monsters are just old people in costume.  It does give us an explanation for why the elders did all those things, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying.  It feels…anti-climactic in a way.  Not only that, but the twist has some serious explanations with plausibility, the most notable of which being how did no one ever see a plane flying over the area?  The movie tries to explain this away by saying they set up a no-fly zone over the area the village is set in, but it still seems far-fetched.

I could talk about more plot twists, but that would make this post go on longer than it needs to.  And it’s already long as it is.  So to recap, for a plot twist to be good, it needs to redefine or alter the arc of the story in a way that makes sense.  Twists that are thrown in there for shock value (which is something broadcast television shows seem obsessed with these days) tend to collapse under the weight of their own implausibility.  The quality of twists can be highly subjective, but in the end I think most people would agree that it needs to be logical.  It needs to follow some sort of common sense.  Otherwise, its artificial nature is plainly obvious for everyone to see.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Difficulty vs. Fun in Video Games

 

With the release of “Super Mario Odyssey” and the success of the Switch, Nintendo has once again proven itself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the video game industry.  I own a copy of “Odyssey” and I have to say it’s a great game.  It’s pure and simple fun to play, leaving you with a big smile on your face.

Ever since its release, “Odyssey” has been drawing rave reviews from all over.  However, there were a few who weren’t pleased with the game, and it often boiled down to one simple complaint:

The game was too easy.

This is a common criticism to hear from gamers.  “Games these days are too easy.  Where’s the challenge?”  Having played a decent amount of “Odyssey” over the last couple of weeks and reading this complaints online, it got me thinking about the intersection of difficulty and fun when it comes to video games.

What it came down to for me was two basic questions:

  • Why were older video games harder?
  • Should games be more difficult?

So with that being said, let’s get into it.

 

Why were older video games harder?

This isn’t just a matter of perception either.  It has been scientifically proven that older games were more difficult.  But the question remains…why?  Well the answer is actually quite simple.

I talked about this a couple of years back, but in the 1980’s arcade cabinets were king.  And it is well known these days that arcade games were specifically designed to DEVOUR ALL OF YOUR QUARTERS.  They were purposely difficult for the sole purpose of getting you to spend more money.  This meant that, when systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) were being designed, the audience for those systems were made up of the very same people who played arcade games.  So game developers had to make their games difficult enough to appeal to them.

 

 

So yes, older video games were harder, but because they had to be in order to be successful.  Today’s video games are easier because the audience has shifted.  When Nintendo released the Wii in 2006, it tapped into an audience of casual gamers and people who had never even played games before.  As time went on, video games became far more mainstream of a pastime.  Because of that, games were made to be easier to help ease newer players into the medium.

There are other factors in this as well, such as the shift to being three-dimensions.  This made games exponentially harder to design and program.  But for the most part it had to do with that change in audience.  Which leads me to my next question…

 

Should games be more difficult?

There are a series of games out there known as the “Dark Souls” games.  They are known for being punishingly difficult, and actually become harder if you die.  Now, I’ve never played any of these games, but a lot of people really enjoy them.

When I was playing “Mario Odyssey”, I recognized that the game was fairly easy.  Nothing came across as overtly difficult, and you unlock new levels very quickly.  There’s not a whole lot of challenge to the game, but something I realize after thinking about it is that I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter to me that the game isn’t that hard, because it’s just fun.  It’s a blast to say to yourself “hey…I wonder if there’s anything up on that platform”, make your way up there, and then be rewarded with a Power Moon (the game’s main objective is to collect these, as you need a certain amount to get to another level).  The game is designed to reward your curiosity.

Which is probably why there are over eight hundred Power Moons to collect in the game.  That’s no joke.

I think what it comes down to is that there shouldn’t be a set standard of difficulty that all games adhere to.  Games like “Dark Souls” can be fun as well as games like “Mario Odyssey”.  And I think most gamers would agree that those two games are at very different ends of the difficulty spectrum.

A game’s difficulty should be set in a way that enhances its overall design.  For example, if “Mario Odyssey” had the punishing difficulty of “Dark Souls”, it wouldn’t be fun because it would discourage people from exploring every nook and cranny they can find.  At the same time, a game like “Dark Souls” shouldn’t be made super easy because it would lessen the thrill of finally beating a boss you’ve been stuck on for days.

Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

Whenever someone says “games are too easy”, I feel like they’re over-simplifying things.  There are plenty of games out there that can offer the challenge some people seek.  Some games even grant you an ultra-difficult mode upon completing the game for the first time.  I think it’s not necessarily that games are too easy, but that games are more diverse.  There’s a wider range of people to appeal to now, so some games are naturally going to be easier than others.  Besides, I don’t always want a game that challenges me.  I don’t always want a game that pushes me to the limit and forces me to fight for every inch of progress I make.

Sometimes I just wanna have fun, you know?

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Nostalgia

With the release of season two of “Stranger Things” right around the corner (October 27th), it got me thinking about nostalgia.  You know, that warm and fuzzy feeling you get while thinking about pleasant past experiences.  Those who have watched any of “Stranger Things” know that it is a show steeped in nostalgia.  It’s heavily influenced by classic ’80s movies, and takes inspiration from Spielberg, Carpenter, and the like.

You don’t even have to go past the show’s title sequence to see that ’80s influence.

This has become a common theme recently.  Many forms of media…be it books, movies, or video games…have steeped themselves in this wave of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  In fact, the game “Stories Untold” which I wrote about earlier this year has an ’80s veneer over it in the form of old text-based adventure games.  Now, I don’t hate this nostalgia…although I do feel that sometimes it becomes overbearing.  That’s something “Stranger Things” did really well with during its first season.  Despite the obvious ’80s influences, the show never went out of its way to point them out, relegating them to things like movie posters hanging on the wall in the background of a scene or taking story cues from said movies (like the van chase scene near the end of the season which is clearly inspired by “E.T.”).  The most obvious it gets is a scene where the school’s science teacher is explaining to his wife how they did some of the special effects in the movie “The Thing”.

However, there are times where I feel like the ’80s nostalgia is used like a crutch.  The book “Ready Player One” almost falls into this trap.  The premise of the story is that, in a dystopian future setting, kids like Wade Watts spend most of their time in a humongous virtual reality world.  As the book begins, we learn that the creator of this massive virtual reality passed away recently, and with his death left behind an “Easter egg” inside the game.  Whoever finds it first will inherit the creator’s massive wealth and legacy.  Because of the fact that the creator grew up in the 1980’s, this leads to a massive resurgence of ’80s pop culture as players pour over anything they can get their hands on to figure out the clues and find the Easter egg.

 

 

None of this is necessarily a bad thing.  And the book explains the origin of a lot of the ’80s references, especially the ones that are critical to the main plot.  But it teeters dangerously close to the edge of the nostalgia hole, and risks alienating younger readers who have no real connection to ’80s pop culture.  Having grown up in the ’90s, a lot of the references in the book didn’t really do it for me.  The text-adventure game “Zork” is referenced at one point, which I do have a passing familiarity with.  But most of the things I either have only a vague recollection of or I know it in passing.  Having never been steeped in that ’80s culture, part of the appeal was lost on me.

If the book wasn’t well-paced with likable characters and a fun story, the ’80s charm would have been completely wasted on me.  That being said, “Ready Player One” is definitely worth a read.  It’s a dystopian science-fiction story that manages to avoid falling into that cliché trap of lamenting the dangers of technology.

However, there is one modern instance where I really noticed the nostalgia crutch.  And that instance is…”Rogue One”.

 

Hey look, it’s Jyn Erso and Captain…umm…Captain What’s-His-Face.

 

I talked about “Rogue One” before and how I feel like the movie is a mixed bag.  The storytelling is jumbled at times.  Most of the characters aside from Jyn have very little development and aren’t memorable.  It’s part war movie, part Star Wars movie but doesn’t really nail either of those…at least until the second half of the movie.  But one thing that grated on me more than it probably should have was the fan service.  The biggest example of this was early on in the movie.  Our heroes are making their way through the holy city of Jedha when they run into those two guys from the Cantina in “A New Hope”.

You know the guys.  “I don’t like you.  My friend doesn’t like you either.”  Those guys.  They have a random ten-second cameo that adds nothing to the movie aside from making people go “hey I remember that!”

But then like twenty minutes later the entire city is destroyed by a test-firing of the Death Star’s laser.  So how did those two guys escape exactly?  Did they just happen to have a ship they flew away in just before everything was vaporized?

The movie doesn’t stop there either.  There’s a random cameo by C-3PO and R2-D2 later on.  There’s a not-so-subtle reference to Obi-Wan.  And there’s a scene with Darth Vader on Mustafar (the lava planet from “Revenge of the Sith”) that adds nothing to the plot and just regurgitates stuff we already.

And also Vader makes a pun.  So that’s cool…I guess.

My biggest gripe with all of this is that “Rogue One” was often subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, implying that the movie was meant to be standalone.  Except it isn’t, because it very clearly binds itself hand and foot to “A New Hope”.  It kind of makes sense, considering the movie is about stealing the Death Star plans, which helps the Rebel Alliance destroy it in “A New Hope”.  But at the same time, there’s so much stuff in “Rogue One” that feels like it was put there merely to appease the super fans.

Why did Obi-Wan come back to help even though he was in hiding from the Sith?  Because his friend Bail Organa asked him to of course!

Why did the Death Star have a super critical weakness that caused it to blow up from one proton torpedo?  Because Galen Erso purposefully designed that flaw of course!

(To be fair, I actually did enjoy the explanation of the Death Star’s weakness.  It was a nice little detail that filled a plot hole from the older Star Wars movies.)

Honestly I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene with C-3PO and R2-D2 getting on the blockade runner with Princess Leia, just to explain why they’re on the ship at the beginning of “A New Hope”.

At times the movie feels less like its own thing and more like a forced justification for everything that follows.  I could go on and on about “Rogue One”, and I would still say it’s a good movie.  It just isn’t the great movie it should have been.  It relies a bit too much on nostalgia and not enough on its own original content.  And in the end, that makes the movie feel lopsided.

Nostalgia isn’t inherently a bad thing.  It can help us cope with bad periods in our lives by remembering good times and reminding ourselves that things can and will get better.  But nostalgia can also be blinding.  It can blind us to the flaws in our past.  It’s like whenever people reminisce about the 1950’s as the “good ol’ days”, but fail to remember that they were only the “good ol’ days” if you were a straight, white, Christian male.  If you were anything else, your memories of the 1950’s were probably a bit different.

Perspective is a funny thing.  It can grow distorted, showing us things that have been exaggerated or blown out of proportion.  And sometimes it can show us things that weren’t even true.  Perspective is fickle.  And that’s why nostalgia can be dangerous.  Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses is pleasant and fun, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.

If anything, it just lets them sneak up on you and cause more harm than they rightfully should.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.