LynLynSays Nominated Me For The Liebster Award!

liebster

So I have no idea what I’m doing. Just gonna put that out there! I don’t know  what I’m doing. (You can tell because I accidentally published this early before it was done shhhhhhhhhhh) But I’m gonna do a thing, you guys.

You guys.

I’m doing a thing.

Why I’m doing a thing: lynlynsays (Just Something About LynLyn) nominated me for the Liebster Award which I guess is a chain-post-type-thingu to send to bloggers under 200 followers (which I am SO TOTALLY one of:D) to put them out there. Which is really cool. Here’s the rules, shamelessly stolen from LynLyn’s blog.

rules

So here are my answers to the questions that LynLyn gave me!

  1. If you could describe your personality in three words, what three words would you use? And why those words?
    Defiant, because I love telling people who think they know everything exactly how they’re wrong.
    Cheerful, because I like to make people laugh for no reason. That’s what I try to do here in between my being smart at you (which, by reading this, you are now contractually obligated to let me be smart at you. I’m sorry, it’s the law.)
    Uncensored, because I don’t give a shit.
  2. Do you have a pet peeve? If so, what is it?
    People touching my face. I grew up with parents who felt it  was their responsibility to make sure my face was free of particles or lint or stray hairs or other shmutz and I slowly developed a complex. (If there’s one thing this post should tell you, it’s that I *really* need therapy! :D)
  3. Do you think out loud?
    All the frickin’ time. It’s ridiculous. Sometimes I hold more meaningful conversations with myself than the people in my life. I’ll be talking to myself about a blog post or a paper or a story I’m trying to write and someone will walk in to my room and then just slowly turn around and go away lolololol
  4. Do you listen to music while you blog? If so, what genre of music?
    Trashy J-Pop. Especially trashy 90’s J-Pop. With the occasional glam rock, country, or EDM thrown in for flavor.
  5. If you could make a “Soundtrack of Your Life,” what five songs would you put?

    No order, no context.

    Next

  6. Have you ever went karaoke? Did you like it, why or why not?
    I have not gone to karaoke, but I really want to. At least part of me wants to. The other, lazier part of me prefers to stay at home and watch anime in my underwear.
  7. Coffee or tea?
    Coffee. Black, or sometimes a hot mocha. No question. I’ve never had a taste for tea. Not even “sweet” tea, and I was born in Kentucky! (It’s not the Deep South but it’s South! South of here, anyway.)
  8. Your top five favorite books of all time (well so far in life)?
    This question kills me inside every time someone asks. I don’t have favorites of ANYTHINGGGGG. I read books and I may love them but I just don’t rank them in my head like that. But I’ll give it a shot :D1. Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson. It’s a warm, hilarious, touching, ridiculous, semi-autobiographical train wreck by one of, in my opinion, the greatest human beings to ever walk this earth.

    2. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. It made me think and it made me cry. It made me cry big, gross Studio Ghibli tears. It’s also poignant and hilarious and one of Pratchett’s best books. His sense of humor makes up at least half of my writing, at least.

    3. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. It’s a kinda-scholarly book about etymology and the history of the English language. It opened my mind to how crazy my language really is and how much language really does matter from day to day in our lives.

    4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein is the granddaddy of all science fiction. It was written two hundred some odd years ago and still it’s message is important. And the words that Shelley uses to express that message are put together in a way that still sends chills up my spine four years after I first read them.

    5. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. The big bullet points of a dying man’s life condensed into 250 pages. It will leave you a blubbering mess but it should be required reading in “How to be a Human Being” class.
  9. If you could rewrite the ending of a book, anime or manga? Which would it be and why?
    I would rewrite the ending of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders to not be fucking stupid. Because it’s fucking stupid. Next question.(This might be a blog post coming down the pipeline *spoilerspoiler* it is for real but shh it’s a secret.)
  10. If you knew the world is going to end tomorrow, what would you do on your last day?
    Get with my friends and family, make cookies, slam Mountain Dew, and play couch co-op video games until the end.
  11. Would you meet a blogger (or bloggers) in real life? If so, who and why?
    I don’t see why not. I’m a blogger and I guess I’m an ok guy. I’d meet lynlynsays and buy her a coffee/tea because she nominated me to do this post and that’s pretty cool of her. Madoka Swagica at Abysmal seems pretty legit, too. I’d meet everyone who follows this blog because they’re all pretty cool, too. I don’t really know a lot of bloggers yet! HEY! If you’re reading this and you have a cool blog you should like this or follow me so I can find out about your cool blog!

So I guess that’s that. Time for eleven facts about me?

um.

1. My favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chocolate chip.
2. I have a dog. Her name is Missy and she’s 12 and hates everything. Just like me when I was 12!
3. I’m going to college for a history degree because living with my parents until I’m 35 can’t be *so* bad can it?
4. I will never have a job that will not allow me to wear a black t-shirt and jeans to work unless it literally means the difference between life and death.
5. I like to cook.
6. I hate coming up with eleven facts about myself.
7. I really hate trying to think of interesting things about myself.
8. I don’t have many interesting things to say about myself.
9. I almost shit my pants when I saw The Last Guardian at E3.
10. Hearing the CEO of Sony of America talk about games being “the cultural zeitgeist” took all of my happy from The Last Guardian and ripped it to shreds.
11. I’m not gay, I’m just sparkly.
12. I don’t play by your rules.

And I guess all that’s left is to nominate eleven other bloggers for the award. Problem is, I don’t know that many bloggers. So I’m just gonna pick a few that I’ve seen cool stuff from.

1. Abysmal – because it’s not often I read something that makes me laugh like this blog does. Plus, they nominated me for this award a second time so I intend to keep the cycle of masturbatory self-congratulation going.
2. JustAnotherAnimeFan – because they’re one of my first followers and it doesn’t look like they’ve been nominated yet. (Edit: I was very wrong. They’ve been nominated SO many times.) Also their recent Seiyuu Spotlight was really cool. Haven’t seen a lot of voice-actor-love around these parts.
3. PopCultureMecha – because they were also nominated by LynLyn but their blog is cool as hell and they seem no stranger to smart stuff. They also follow me and I secretly want to be their bff. They’ve been nominated a bunch of times though. I won’t be mad if they don’t want to do mine. Just go look at their blog. Is gud.
4. Wanimu – because they legit just followed me as I write this. Get rekt.

I’m gonna go exploring on the  blogosphere to find 7 more cool people to nominate. Until then, here’s my questions for these 4:
1. Why did you start blogging?
2. Favorite video game and why? If you don’t play video games, why not?
3. Favorite tabletop game and why? If you don’t play tabletop, why not?
4. Favorite author? Favorite book by that author?
5. How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, why are you such a scrub?
6. What’s the design on your favorite t-shirt? (You can tell a lot about a person from their t-shirts)
7. What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to the you of one year ago?
8. Favorite YouTubers? If you don’t watch YouTube, why not?
9. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in public?
10. What was the first book you ever remember reading?
11. If you were on death row, what would you pick for your last meal?

I’ll be back with more cool people to nominate, I promise!

I hope…

Thanks again for nominating me, Lyn!

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Shokugeki no Soma: An Overanalysis

It’s been a hot minute since I wrote anything here. When I was last here (over a month ago 0.0) I think I was making an impassioned progressive/feminist argument about anime. Hopefully you guys thought it was smart and interesting enough to read, and if so, that means you let me be smart at you and that’s pretty cool of you. You rock.

Last time, I wrote a lot about Kill la Kill, which a lot of people have already done, but that’s okay, because it’s awesome and I love it and… it’s awesome.

personal space

Watch it, BlueHair McShinyNipples

One of the things that I love most about Kill la Kill is how it takes a situation that is fundamentally absurd and blends in aspects of the mundane so beautifully. It can go from a character heavy, perfectly average scene by the side of the road, to a plot-heavy no-holds-barred extracurricular S&M shoot-out in about two seconds. This actually happens. Please watch it. Please.

What? Your driving outfits don't look like this? Weird.

What? Your driving outfits don’t look like this? Weird.

Kill la Kill’s implicit goal was to turn the tropes of high school and battle anime on their heads. The protagonist is not a generic male audience surrogate, but a developed, interesting, self-reliant young woman, whose (albeit simplistic) motivations change throughout the series. This woman is dressed in a comically skimpy outfit, but her sexualization is done for explicit plot and character reasons, and her consent is a central element to the show’s development.

The reason I bring it up (apart from the previously mentioned fact that it’s AWESOME) is that another anime I really like from this season is rooted in the same kind of genre-bending style as Kill la Kill was: Shokugeki no Soma, or Food Wars.

shokugeki
Both are very similar in their competitive high school settings run by an elite corps of students, with one alpha female at the top who is disgusted with the overconfident red-haired protagonist. They also play up absurdity and fan-service. They operate in the same genres with the same general goal: twist the tropes to their breaking points. My question: which one does it better?

According to CrunchyRoll, here’s what Food Wars is about: “Shokugeki no Soma centers on Yukihira Soma, a middle school student who is determined to surpass his father’s culinary skills. One day, his father decides to close down their family restaurant and hone his skills in Europe. Before leaving he enrolls Soma in an elite culinary school that is extremely difficult to enter with a graduation rate of only 10 percent. Will Souma be able to improve his skills, or will the kitchen prove to be too hot?”

Straight forward enough. So here ya go, my thoughts on Food Wars, what I think it gets right, why I think I like it, and also why I think it comes up a little short.

(Note: the show is only up to episode 14 as of today, so my opinions may change by the time the series is finished. Cool? Cool.)

#1. First Episode

The first episode of any series should do a few things. It should 1) introduce the principal cast, 2) establish a setting and 3) develop the protagonist’s motivation(s). More generally, it should also set the tone for the series to come. Shokugeki no Soma’s first episode introduces Soma as a young kid about to start high school, working in his father’s diner. It gives us a clear protagonist and a supporting character. It gives us a setting in the diner. It also tells us the Soma is initially motivated by becoming a better chef than his father. Alright, sick. We did everything. Pilot’s done. It’s a wrap.

Except when Soma saves the restaurant from being closed and then his dad closes it for no reason to send him off to boarding school.

Wait.

Wait what.

There are questions that could have been hinted at here that just weren’t. Why is Soma trying so hard to become better than his dad? What’s their relationship like outside the diner? Where’s his mom? This was disappointing to me. Pair that with the no-warning setting change and the plot significance of the first episode felt a little wasted.

Tonally, the message is clear: this show is gonna be crazy. The graphic, clearly-orgasmic scenes of people’s bliss after they eat Soma’s cooking are hysterical and balls-to-the-wall fun (except when they get weird but I’ll get to that.) It was a great introduction to the kind of fun and delicious hilarity that the show does so well in later episodes.

I thought the first episode of Food Wars was super fun and engaging, but also just a little bit pointless. It felt like there was no progression. I felt like there was not a really strong foundation to build a world on. The setting, the only supporting character, and the only real conflict are thrown out in exchange for the high school, so the second episode has to establish setting, motivations and principal cast all over again. I can handle an early change of setting and I can understand motivating the plot the way they did, but it felt so sudden and sharp that there wasn’t any adjustment period. “Unpolished” is the word I would use. Ultimately, the first episode is a delightful romp that just… doesn’t accomplish a lot.

#2. Cast

Shokuegki’s cast is just too big, and too thin. It suffers from a case of “Star Wars Prequelitis,” by which I mean that, like the Star Wars prequels, it has a broad cast of one-dimensional characters that remain, as of episode 14, relatively untouched. There are so many side characters fighting for screen time that none of them end up with truly satisfying development. Even the key players like Soma, Megumi, and Erina, seem to be almost shoved to the side for the sake of squeezing in an extra scene with the dorm mates.

It’s not as if these characters don’t all fill a role. Marui is the nerd, Soma is the confident protagonist, Megumi is his nervous foil. Isshiki-senpai is the weird, homoerotic upperclassmen walking around mostly naked except for his pink apron. (Is that not a real trope? Because it should be.)

It totally should be.

It totally should be.

But if I’m being entirely honest, these are the only characters I can name off the top of my head. I can’t remember any of the alumni. I can’t remember half of the roommates. I could look their names up, but I honestly don’t really care enough about them to do so. Keep in mind: I last saw this show three days ago. That is not a good sign. These characters don’t need to be there if they aren’t going to either stand on their own, move the narrative forward, or somehow develop one of the central characters.

On the other hand, there are some characters that are totally interesting and multi-dimensional! Megumi, for one, is slowly coming to terms with her own shortcomings and starting to stand on her own. Soma is learning that he isn’t infallible and that he isn’t always going to be able to pull another trick out of his hat. Isshiki-senpai is, like I said, a half-naked man in a pink apron. This speaks for itself.

The rest of the cast is tragically underdeveloped, and it kinda makes me sad. I would love to see more of Nikumi and her backstory, and how she deals with falling out of favor with Erina. I would love to see a deeper characterization of Erina than “self-righteous preppy bitch.” The “rival” is thrown away by design, mocking the typical contrived “you-are-my-mortal-enemy-because-I-just-hate-you-go-die” way of setting up antagonists in some anime, but he’s still there, taking up screen space, and even got his own five minute backstory scene. The least they can do is not make him window dressing.

It was me! Fake-Dio!

It was me! Fake-Dio!”

#3. Boobles and Butts (and stuff)

I’ve been trying to avoid directly comparing Shokugeki with Kill la Kill for the last two points, but this one has to be done. The nudity, fanservice, and absurdist humor in both of these shows are done in very different ways and I think the differences are important. Earlier, I mentioned how KlK blends the mundane into the absurd. The day-to-day is sprinkled into a fundamentally absurd world (totalitarian high school with magic transforming space uniforms.) Well, I feel like, for Food Wars, it’s the opposite: the world is normal (a culinary school) and it’s sprinkled with the absurd (half-naked senpai and the Foodgasms.) This is good and bad.

The fanservice in both shows is graphic and in both it serves the plot. But in Kill la Kill, the nudity is real and visible and has to be in order for the main themes of consent and self-presentation to work. But in Food Wars the weirdly sexual-but-not-sexual stuff exists entirely in mental imagery. Mostly, it’s in the context of reactions to food. It is toned down after the first few episodes, but it’s still very graphic. I don’t have a problem with most of it: it’s fun and silly and pretty equal opportunity. It doesn’t objectify, and it’s too ridiculous to actually be arousing. Associating the pleasures of eating food with sex is nothing new, but Food Wars takes it up a notch without going too overboard. Most of the time it feels like harmless, over the top, self-aware fun at the expense of some genre conventions. Many of the reactions are not sexual and are actually pretty clever.
Inserted without context or comment.

Inserted without context or comment.

I guess I’ll just come out and say it: the tentacle shit is creepy and weird and a little unnecessary. To clarify: there are a few scenes where Soma makes girls eat squid tentacle grilled in peanut butter for laughs and their gross out reactions are depicted as surprisingly graphic scenes of tentacles grabbing them and touching them in a very “hentai” kind of way. I can understand the motivations. Going from the foodgasm to the really powerful gross-out uncomfortable taste test is a visceral way to communicate the different experiences of taste and also demonstrates the childish trickster element to Soma’s character. But the execution is a little much. Also, I think it, in a small way, trivializes the issue of consent and relegates nonconsensual sexual activity to the realm of an inconvenience. Something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth but isn’t something that really needs to be addressed. That’s not cool. That’s actually pretty terrible.

To their credit, it hasn’t been done again so far, probably as a result of the more general tone shift from “nuckin’ futs” to “a bit more subtly nuckin’ futs.” But this generally cavalier relationship that Shokugeki no Soma has with sex and nudity is contrasted with the way Kill la Kill handles it. KlK makes nudity and exposure central to the narrative and the character development. Ryuko dresses in a skimpy outfit that basically gives her superpowers, but at the cost of being ogled all the time. How Ryuko reacts when, for instance, she wakes up to a heavy breathing man (soon to be revealed as Mako’s dad) hovering over top of her speaks volumes to her character as a whole: she punches him in the face, calls him a pervert and then has a very confused Mako stand behind her with her squared up ready to fight.

Pictured: correct reaction.

Pictured: correct reaction

With consent and self-definition at the center of the story, Kill la Kill turns the vulnerability of nudity into a kind of strength. The resistance movement is called “Nudist Beach.” They are fighting the literal enslavement of humanity by clothes. The show engages with the very concept of fanservice by making Ryuko such a strong, self-determined character who has clear boundaries and is unafraid to defend them. Food Wars does not engage with these ideas. The foodgasms are just naked people going crazy. And that’s okay. That’s actually pretty hilarious. But what I think is not okay is the way that some of the inherent issues with depicting things like graphic tentacle groping in an otherwise light-hearted context are thrown away. Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but those two scenes do color my impressions of Food Wars in a very real way. Not enough to get me to go on a tirade over it, but enough to make me concerned about its direction moving forward.

At the end of the day, Food Wars is a great show with a lot to love about it. It’s pacing leaves a lot to be desired. It starts slow and uncertain, without clear direction as to where it’s going to go. It’s pacing is hectic: some things are taken fast as a bullet from a gun, others are sluggish as a continental shelf. Some aspects seem unnecessary, others feel just plain gross. I feel like it has a lot of untapped potential.

I would say that the first half of Food Wars is best seen as a series of wonderful moments, rather than a well-polished whole.

That should not be taken as “Don’t watch Food Wars.” Everyone should ABSOLUTELY watch it. I love it. It has… issues. Most things do. Even so, it doesn’t apologize for what it is and that’s something that I absolutely love. Food Wars is a show that defies explanation in a lot of ways. It’s not perfect but it stays fun and compelling. And who knows? Maybe all the problems I have with this series will be resolved before it ends. I would like nothing more. It would make a good show great.

It’s just plain fun. Watch it. Right now. I promise you’ll have a foodgasm or two.

I'm just... I'm just gonna leave this here.

I’m just… I’m just gonna leave this here.

More Animus:
The Weird is Okay: Lessons from Anime

More Smart Stuff:
Some Walls are Built for a Reason: Windows 10 and Steam Machines

The Weird is Okay: Lessons from Anime

I finally did it. After years of being one of the only members of my immediate group of friends with zero interest in anything that Japanese animation had to offer, I started watching anime.

I know.

I have learned a lot about the genre and myself in the past few weeks but I think the most important thing that I have learned from my experience with anime up to this point is that The Weird is Okay.

Here’s what I mean. Bear with me.

I have watched three anime to their latest episode so far: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Kill la Kill, and Punch Line. Here’s my plot summary of each one.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: The Joestar family has superpowers and is followed through the generations as they fight an evil vampire stepbrother, homoerotic vampire gods, the same evil vampire stepbrother for some reason, a kid with a manga that can tell the future and a guy who’s really good at video games. They take as allies street urchins, Tibetan masters, Italian masters, French masters, Egyptian masters, Dog masters, and robo-Nazis.

Kill la Kill: A seventeen year old girl tries to find her father’s killer wielding half of a giant red pair of scissors and wearing a tight skimpy schoolgirl outfit that basically makes her invincible and can turn into a rocket ship with razor blades all over it. She has to fight her way through basically her entire high school full of other people with superpowered uniforms before eventually being called on to, you guessed it, save the world from evil.

Punch Line: A guy living in a house with four women goes out-of-body and has to use his spirit powers to try to save himself, his roommates, and the world, but if he sees panties twice in a row, the world ends.

These three shows are balls crazy. They are hyper-sexualized and hyper-violent. And they know that. And I love them. I think these three shows might be three of my favorite things about being alive right now. I could break out into reviewer mode and start critiquing them all and all their finer points but that wouldn’t really serve my purposes for this post right now. This might get a little literary, maybe a little symbolic and hippy-dippy, but don’t worry. It’ll be okay. This is the internet, you’re safe here.

I’m interested in how these shows have given me something that I never knew I wanted out of media: the spectacle. The Carnivalesque. The flash-bang of insanity that just doesn’t have a proper niche in the environment of western TV and film right now. Something that doesn’t just not apologize for being ridiculous and overblown, something that is and needs to be ridiculous and overblown in order to work.

I found that in anime.

I know that anime is capable of doing a lot more things that just perverted, self-referential slice-of-life bits and over-amped action series. But the thing that really drew me into each of these three shows was how, for all their very real faults, they blend the stupid and the serious perfectly.

The one that does this the best, I think, is Kill la Kill. On the surface it looks like a show about jiggly boobs and arena battles in which biologically impossible amounts of blood are spilled. The main character, Ryuko, and the principal antagonist for the first half of the show, Satsuki, are nearly always squeezed into their battle outfits that leave about 5% of their bodies to the imagination. I expected to be grossed out by the near-constant objectification of the female body. Or at least turned on by the more than half-naked jiggly bits. But by the third episode, I realized something surprising: I was not grossed out, nor was I particularly turned on. It was almost a non-issue to me. Kill la Kill managed to depict a kind of female sexuality that was, at least in my eyes, not designed (entirely) for male consumption.

In part, this is because Ryuko and Satsuki are characters with supreme agency. They own themselves and their bodies. They choose to wear these outfits, not because they are putting their bodies on display, but because these outfits give them the power to beat the ever-loving Christ out of their enemies (see the razor-blade-rocket-ship above). In many ways, they do not want to dress the way they do, but they have to in order to function in their world of no-holds barred high school death matches. There are so many layers of meaning here that I wouldn’t even know where to start digging. However, the most interesting facet of this is the characterization of Senketsu. Senketsu, for those of you who haven’t seen Kill la Kill, is Ryuko’s outfit.

Yes.

The outfit is alive.

The outfit can talk.

I didn’t mention that?

Well I’m telling you now.

By giving a voice to Ryuko’s clothes, Kill la Kill makes explicit the very personal relationship between a human and their clothing. This relationship becomes central as the plot progresses. It’s a show that blurs the line between clothed and nude in a way that, at the same time, blurs the line between strength and vulnerability. Ryuko says at one point to Senketsu, “I have to get naked. You have to become my skin.” In a way, her putting on Senketsu is addressed not like a woman dressing up in a titillating outfit, but as two equal partners going to work. The fan-service is there, of course, but it feels secondary to the exploration of a relationship between two living, intelligent things that are working together to achieve their goals. Throughout the series, their relationship grows into a real friendship. The exhibition of Ryuko’s body is not about making her into a sex object, but primarily about the authentic presentation of herself to the world around her. Combine that with Mako, the little ball of love and energy that becomes Ryuko’s best (human) friend, and you have a triad that puts strength of will, body confidence, filial love, and self-recognition at its core.

I think Kill la Kill may have made the strongest, most self-aware and cognizant statement about the performance of gender of any show that I have ever seen. Western media rarely sees female protagonists that are as different, confident, and independent as Ryuko. It’s not perfect and I have some very real problems with it, but Kill la Kill is an amazing, eternally fun ride that is intelligent in its stupidity; unique in its sameness. How did it manage this? By embracing the spectacle. By being unapologetically Weird. It pushed boundaries, blended homage and parody until neither were entirely recognizable, and kept a kind heart through it all.

The Weird is OK.

More than okay, the Weird is Important.

Somewhere along the way, America lost its Weird. Maybe we never really had it. We certainly imported it. Monty Python is the progenitor of modern experimental comedy and even their highest points are dwarfed by the kind of insane, self-referential nonsense that can be found in anime and manga. And their Weird never really left the realm of comedy. Satirists like Stephen Colbert come the closest to bringing the Weird to the Serious in western media, but only in short bursts in very specific areas. For some reason, the absurd is always just outside the core of our media. You’ll find nuggets of it in orbit around something or interspersed throughout it, but the Weird is never at the core of what a western visual narrative is. That’s what made me fall in love with JoJo, Kill la Kill, and Punch Line. That’s what makes me excited to find more and more animated fusterclucks to fall in love with. Anime has access to the absurd and the experimental in ways that American TV, for whatever reason, just doesn’t right now. Entropy has begun to set in. We have reboots and laugh tracks and overacted crime dramas.

Apart from a few amazing exceptions, we are lost in a sea of banality. Maybe anime is the lifeboat we need: a reminder that for every cookie-cutter sitcom, there should be a space where the absurd and experimental can thrive. For every Big Bang Theory dressing up old plotlines and calling them fresh, there needs to be a Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson going to France with a pantomime horse and discussing existentialist spirituality with Eddie Izzard.

Anime isn’t all Fruit Loops, and American television certainly isn’t all soggy Weetabix, but I see a very real difference in attitude. The freedom is there to push boundaries, to step outside of expectations, and to take from what has already been done without simply remaking it. That freedom is in short-supply for American television, and I think we are the worse for it. After all, you don’t know what the Weird can do until you let it try.

Hatred: The Great Big Adults-Only What-the-Fuck of 2015

A sentence that I hate having to write, but have to anyway: Let’s talk about Hatred. I hate having to talk about Hatred, mostly because I don’t want to be lumped into the clucking henhouse of pseudojournalists shouting at each other and themselves, but mostly themselves, about how a) Hatred is some-kind of devil-spawn of “controversy” or how b) blacklisting Hatred marks a line-in-the-sand for creative vision and gaming everywhere.

For those who don’t know, Hatred is a recent game released by Polish developer Destructive Creations in which a nameless protagonist embarks on a self-styled “genocide crusade.” Here’s one of the fruits of my vigorous internet research (read: skimming the Wikipedia page). From the announcement trailer:

My name is not important. What is important is what I’m going to do … I just fuckin’ hate this world. And the human worms feasting on its carcass. My whole life is just cold, bitter hatred. And I always wanted to die violently. This is the time of vengeance and no life is worth saving. And I will put in the grave as many as I can. It’s time for me to kill. And it’s time for me to die. My genocide crusade begins here.

Hatred received an Adults-Only rating from the ESRB for violence. That rating has, historically, been reserved for porn. Let’s be clear here: AO ratings only exist as the kiss of death for undesirable games. That is just a simple fact. An M rating means a seventeen-year-old can buy this game, an AO rating means an eighteen-year-old can buy this game. I speak from experience: there is no functional difference between a seventeen-year-old kid and an eighteen-year-old kid in terms of maturity or ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. So we can all agree that the AO rating is meaningless except in that it serves as a scarlet letter, signifying to the uninformed consumer that this game is filthy, terrible, sinful, of low-moral fiber, and will probably give you some kind of disease if you so much as look at it so leave it on the digital shelf. Read it yourself from the same Wikipedia page: “The rating effectively prevents any mainstream retail distribution of the game in the United States, or on video game consoles as all three major console makers [Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo] forbid AO-rated games on their platforms.” Quick note: What did Hatred have to do to earn this rating? Depict the player-character attempting to exterminate humanity one person at a time. What do most games have to do to earn this rating? Show too many female nipples. There’s clearly something wrong here. But I digress.

There has been no explicit censorship of Hatred or Hatred-related content, but it has certainly shaken things up in an, if not stable, comfortable community of games developers, consumers, and commentators. Earlier this year, Valve impotently removed Hatred from Steam Greenlight, before being preempted by Gabe Newell himself (Praise Be to Gaben, Long May He Reign.) A few days ago, Twitch disallowed AO rated games to be streamed on its website, which was met with criticism throughout the internet as a transparent and disingenuous way to target Hatred without actually mentioning it by name. After all, the first unreasonably high-profile Adults-Only game to be released in years came out this week. Come on. We know what Twitch is up to and they know we know it.

Why all the huff about a game that, if everyone had ignored it, would have stayed small and invisible? The AO rating does little more than blacklist a game from every outlet except PC digital download. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the Great Gabe himself, Hatred would not have seen the light of day. No way around it. But why Hatred? Sure, it won the lottery and caught the attention of a few people with a lot of influence, but other than that, why has it caused such a stink?

A criticism leveled at Hatred, and some other violent video games, is that the player is not “punished” in-game for immoral behaviors. Hatred may take violence to the nth degree, but it is not alone in games that center around the player killing innocents without consequence. In the interview with Polygon’s Colin Cambell, creative director Jaroslaw Zielinski wrote that: In fact, when you think deeper about it, there are many other games out there, where you can do exactly the same things that the antagonist will do in our project.”

I mean, he’s right. The Elder Scrolls is a good example: you can slaughter innocents and keepers of the peace indiscriminately with no in-game “punishment.” If you murder, the guard will come to take you away, but you can kill him too if you are a high enough level character. In fact you can kill everyone in the game-world if you want to and have the capacity and the game does nothing to discourage this. Through its Dark Brotherhood story-lines, it actively encourages and rewards the killing of innocents. This is not met with horror and disgust: after all, it’s an assassin’s guild. That’s just how it’s supposed to be.

Also of note here is that Zielinski calls the player-character the ‘antagonist.’ Implying that the player is not supposed to identify with the character the narrative follows. Ridiculous! What a… what a… what a simple postmodern story-telling technique that has classically led to the production of complex and interesting experiences and consumer-media relationships. Which is good. We don’t want simple, morally bland characters. That way lies boredom and Christ-figures. Look at Shakespeare! He told morally complex stories that did not require ham-fisted reminders of wrong and right.

Nor should immoral acts on the part of a player-character necessitate an appropriate ludological punishment in order for the game to be acceptable. It is reductive and childish to claim that killing an innocent in a video game is okay as long as you lose points or some dualistic morality scale is tipped to the dark-red scary side and you get scars all-over your face. This is a convention that exists in video games purely because they are seen as an infantile medium. A protagonist in a book commits an atrocity, the author is not then required to add as a caveat, “This is very bad and wrong and don’t do this because it’s bad,” because the assumption is that the people reading this book are not children and are, therefore, capable of coping with disturbing images in a fictional context.

But video games are different in two important ways: 1) interactivity blurring the line between player and player-character, and, 2) the still-present social assumption that games are things that children play because playing is something only children do. When adults play, they call it “going out” or “chilling” or “hunting” or “going for a walk” or “doing stuff with my kids” or any number of things. Why do you think the stereotype of the gamer as a manchild living in his parent’s basement still exists? Because the act of playing a video game is still treated as a signifier of immaturity. “Adults don’t play games,” the greyheads writing laws and social commentary think to themselves while adjusting their orthopedic socks and taking another Werther’s Original from the candy dish. And, following that thought process, if adults don’t play games, then the concept of a game for adults-only is itself contradictory, absurd, and dangerous.

So tagging a game with the Adults-Only rating is not only blacklisting it from almost all avenues of public sale, but it is demarcating it in a visible, social way, as something that is deviant and undesirable. And maybe it is. Maybe Hatred goes too far. I would never let a kid play it, or even see it played. Maybe we need an AO rating: a line that says ‘this far and no further.’ Maybe this failing of the AO rating is a symptom of the larger failure of the ESRB to provide comprehensive and meaningful information to potential consumers. But real people worked on this game, and whatever their motivations in doing so, their livelihoods more than likely hinge on this game achieving some kind of success. Does that mean Hatred is owed anything? No. Does that mean we should allow Hatred the same access as other hyperviolent games to appropriate avenues of sale? I think so. Gamers are picky. They don’t generally buy things they don’t like. A lot of us also tend to be decent judges of character. And despite what Colin Cambell seems to think, the market for a game like Hatred isn’t simply people who get off on graphic depictions of violence.

As with any piece of media, a video game carries a kind of social weight or influence. They exist within social contexts which inform their material, which is then affected by the content of the media. Art imitates life imitates art. Hatred is a disturbing game, that is not in dispute. That’s the point, after all. Don’t get me wrong, I am not interested in playing the game. I think it’s far away from my tastes and, to be blunt, it disgusts me on a physical and moral level. I don’t like it and I am not going to buy it. But just because I find a piece of media disgusting does not mean it should be silenced. That’s just petty moralizing.

There is room for the exploration of the evil in every medium. Art exists to push boundaries. If art offends you, it has done its job. Yes, I think that video games are art. Just like books and paintings and rock gardens and blog posts. That’s the thing that some people cannot seem to cope with: if video games are art, then the bad ones are art too. Because being art is not a statement of quality. There is no qualifier on what a work has to be before it is art. If it elicits an emotional reaction, it is art. Done. Full-stop. You do not have to like the emotional reaction it elicits (fear, disgust, self-doubt, etc.) for it to be art. If you do not like the reaction a work elicits, that is all the more reason for the work to exist. The things that get us to think about death, destruction and horror can sometimes be the things that help us most understand ourselves, our beliefs, and the world in which we exist. We accept this for “mature” media: literature, visual art, music, film. Video games are a new breed: a medium with massive implications for the experience of art itself that is still taking its first unsure footsteps into the world. Now is not the time to over-police it. If a game is valid, it will stand on its own. If a game is invalid, it doesn’t need our help to become irrelevant.

Cited and Related Sources:

http://www.polygon.com/2014/10/17/6994921/hatred-the-polygon-interview

http://www.pcgamer.com/twitch-bans-adults-only-games/

http://www.pcgamer.com/hatred-gets-red-light-on-steam-greenlight/

Some Walls are Built for a Reason: Windows 10 and Steam Machines

Pre-ordering recently opened for the “Steam Machine:” Valve’s break-out into the stand-alone console market. I’m not sure what to make of it. I look at the thing and I see something that appears to be what would happen if Alienware started churning out tiny Xbox Ones packaged with a $50 controller that has all the sleekness of a half-rotten potato.

I know exactly what Valve wants this machine to be: a way to bring all the benefits of PC gaming to the couch. They’re trying to bridge the supposed gap between console gamers and PC gamers, hoping to sell to the disaffected middle ground. For their goals, this methodology seems to make sense. They’re trying to broaden their market, which is almost always a sound business strategy. At the same time, they’re offering creative solutions to long standing problems with both PC and console gaming.

There are three big reasons why some gamers choose consoles over PCs: price, user-friendliness, and environment. There are probably more but three is a nice number. Here are three on the PC side (which I am firmly a part of): graphical potential, massive back-catalog, and customizability. From the early marketing, it seems like the Steam Machine is designed to take all of these benefits and roll them into one handy little black box. Whether or not it will succeed is another matter.

Steam Machine is just one part of a nascent trend among industry giants of trying to bring console, mobile, and PC gamers together into one big happy blob. The other major player trying this is Microsoft, except they already have a framework to build from, because they already have a stake in both markets: Xbox and Windows. The announcement of Windows 10 came with the announcement that, on the new OS, you can stream games from your Xbox One. Oh, frabjous day. I was just the other day thinking to myself: “Oh, if only there was a way to play games alone on my computer but have them processed by an inferior machine in my living room with the added benefit of server latency!” I’m kidding of course: In all honesty, I can see the practicality for some people in very specific circumstances. Actually, only one circumstance. People who have an Xbox One, a shitty little computer, and godlike internet might just find Xbox to Windows streaming worthwhile. I’m sure that microscopic segment of the market is very excited about it.

(A lot of my opinion on this topic is informed by TotalBiscuit’s Content Patch on the Windows 10 conference back in January. If you want more detailed commentary on this particular gem, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beny_-IJAyE)

More to the point, in the buildup to E3, Phil Spencer has expressed Microsoft’s new cross-platform gaming strategy to PC Gamer. Addressing the absolute shitpile that was Games for Windows Live, Spencer could have been addressing Microsoft’s relationship to PC gaming from time immemorial: “We weren’t fully committed as a company…. We made commitments to developers and consumers that I don’t feel we lived up to. The key difference now is that the Xbox team is driving the Windows and console gaming efforts as one connected ecosystem.” This would suggest that Microsoft’s stance on gaming hasn’t changed: more Xbox. They’re just bringing more Xbox to Windows.

I’m pretty young, but even I’m old enough to remember when PC games were ported to consoles, not the other way around. I remember when games were designed to be played with a keyboard and mouse, and now some PC games don’t even have resolution settings or rebindable keys. I’m sick of this toxic interplay between PC gaming and console gaming. It’s like the exact opposite of a symbiotic relationship: it’s parasitic in both directions. The two markets are taking the worst parts of each other and killing themselves in the process. Microsoft and Valve are pouring resources into blending these two ends of the market instead of better understanding their differences.

People who buy consoles instead of computers do it, for the most part, because a console is cheap, easy, familiar, and they can plop in front of it with their friends and family on the couch for a night of fun. People who buy/build computers do it because they want the precision of a keyboard and mouse, free access to their hardware, and the confidence that a game made in 1994 can be made to run on a computer built in 2015 so long as you’re willing to fiddle with it for a couple of hours, simultaneously cursing and praising DOSBox all the while. People who own both a console (or two) and a PC generally play different games on their different platforms. Phil Spencer said it himself: “While we want to break down the walls between platforms, we also know that certain games are optimized for certain devices.” There is a place for console gaming and PC gaming, so long as both are cognizant of what makes each gaming experience unique and why people run to one and not the other.

I was raised a PC gamer. I never really had consoles growing up. From that perspective, I have never had hope for a Microsoft that gave a damn about PC gaming. Frankly, I don’t need or even want a Microsoft that gives a damn about PC gaming. I, for one, am used to Windows sucking ass. Windows 8.1 is tolerable, compared to the shit I’ve seen. (Vista? 2000? ME? They haunt me.) 8.1 knows when to shut up and get out of my way. That’s all I want from Windows in my gaming experience: for it to shut up and get out of my way. So when Phil Spencer talks about breaking down walls, I don’t see that as tearing down barriers: I see that as a protracted siege on the relative peace and security of a Valve-dominated PC gaming market.

Steam has its many problems, but it almost single-handedly brought PC gaming out of the doldrums of the early-2000s. Microsoft went to war with Sony when the first Xbox came out and in that time Windows kept on with the same old crap. Then along comes Steam and all our prayers were answered. So many games you guys. It was heaven. Even old games! I wouldn’t have to scrounge around abandonware sites or dusty cabinets to find older games that I loved: they were RIGHT THERE. Steam gets flak for its old games not working on modern OSes, but in the 00’s GoG was much less of a thing and toying around with compatibility settings was the name of the game if you wanted to play older titles. Sure, its DRM is totalitarian, but Steam opened up computer gaming in a way that my 12 year old brain just couldn’t handle. I’d rather have Steam dominate gaming on PC than Microsoft: no question. Microsoft had its chance and it kicked PC gamers like me out of bed for Xbox. And so, when and if I upgrade to Windows 10, these gaming features will more than likely be lumped in with all the other useless nonsense that comes prepackaged with Microsoft OSes. And on any computer of mine, Windows default programs are one thing and one thing alone: an invasive species to be culled.

Valve isn’t guiltless though. What’s the starting price on a Steam Machine? $450. The price goes up from there. PS4s and XB1s are going for around $350-$400 right now. I have to ask: What is Valve’s market here? People who already have decent PCs will, at most, be looking at one of their Steam Links to stream games from their PC to their TV. (That’s how streaming should work, by the way. Let the big horse pull the most weight, so to speak.) I can’t see a dedicated PC gamer being interested in a Steam Machine. At the same time, they’re priced so prohibitively that I can’t see a console gamer being very interested in them either. Console gaming is supposed to be cheap and easy. If someone already has a PS4 or an XB1, I don’t think a Steam Machine is going to be for them. Certainly not for a dedicated console gamer, because the whole machine is run through SteamOS and plays games purchased through the Steam client. If you don’t have any games on Steam, you’ll have nothing to play. The only person a Steam Machine will be worth the money to is someone who is in the market for their first gaming platform (or maybe a potential console convert?), but Valve has, to this point, done virtually nothing to seriously differentiate a Steam Machine from the other two “serious” consoles.

So, at the end of it all, you have a machine that a PC gamer surely will not need and a console gamer probably will not want. How exactly is this going to bridge the markets? Obviously, Valve thinks there is a market for Steam hardware: otherwise they wouldn’t make it. I know there are some people firmly in Valve’s corner, but I’m not sure there are enough to make the Steam Machine a real success. I mean, sure, it could pull a Wii U and come from behind to win the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere, but the Wii U was just the next link in a long standing chain of Nintendo success stories. The Steam Machine faces a lot of issues with regard to building its brand and, based on what little promotion I’ve seen from Valve, I can’t say I’m optimistic for its future.

There is a space for console gamers and PC gamers in the industry, absolutely. But, they are two distinct markets who are playing different games in different environments for different reasons. Microsoft can’t mend fences with gamers disheartened with Windows by making Windows more like Xbox Live. If we want to play on an Xbox, we’ll play on a fucking Xbox. On the other hand, Valve seems to have no clear grasp on what console gamers want out of their video games. Valve knows the PC market. And Microsoft knows the console market! So why don’t they work with what they know instead of trying to expand into the other side of the industry? Xbox isn’t going anywhere and neither is Steam. Depth is almost always better than breadth. Gamers are diverse: we want different things out of our platforms. It seems like, when figuring out how to give a diverse market what it wants, Valve and Microsoft forgot to ask us what we wanted.

Cited and Related Sources:

http://www.pcgamer.com/interview-phil-spencer-on-why-microsoft-is-joining-the-pc-gaming-show/

http://store.steampowered.com/hardware

http://www.polygon.com/2015/6/4/8727269/steam-machine-launch-date