Gritty or Glittery?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of gritty media: books, films, and video games characterized by darkness, angst, violence, and square-jawed men brooding over inner conflicts. From Wolverine to Walter White, we’ve seen plenty of angsty characters on the large and small screens. Books—even young adult literature—feature people killing (and dying!) in all sorts of creative ways. The video game industry continues making games with guns, gore, and roughly one in every five words of dialogue being the f-bomb.

Angst! Darkness! Square jaws!

Angst! Darkness! Square jaws!

Why is gritty media popular? That’s a tough question to answer. I suppose there’s some truth to the darkness and violence in these media, and it resonates with people. We all feel sadness, discouragement, and anger. Some face depression, abuse, self-destructive impulses, or equally “gritty” problems.

Finally, gritty media often seems mature, sophisticated, or “grown-up.” All of this begs the question: Is it?

While gritty media has become more popular in past years, there are still plenty of lighthearted books, films, and video games: “glittery” media, so to speak.

Light! Smiles! Goofy braces!

Light! Smiles! Goofy braces!

Throughout history, comedy has nearly always taken a backseat to tragedy. Shakespeare’s most famous plays are his tragedies; Mark Twain’s cynical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is celebrated over his cheerfuller books; P.G. Wodehouse’s clever comedies are largely eclipsed by the gloomy writings of his contemporaries. It seems humor and optimism can’t be taken seriously.

While there are certainly good things to say for gritty narratives, I don’t believe grittier is necessarily better. A purpose of art is to reflect or represent truth; the truth is that life isn’t always gloomy. A Farewell to Arms or The Things They Carried may be brilliant depictions of the horrors of war, but peace is no less real than violence. I think it’s absurd to suppose, say, Anne of Green Gables is necessarily an inferior book because it reflects joy and sentiment instead of pain and despair.

In the end, it’s a mistake to judge the quality of a thing by whether it’s gritty or glittery, tragic or comic, cynical or optimistic. That said, I would love to see people take glittery media more seriously. Can we study humorists like P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber more widely in schools? I’m sure students wouldn’t mind putting down The Lord of the Flies. Can we have fewer gritty superhero movies and have more like Marvel’s quirky Guardians of the Galaxy? We could use a break from gloom and doom.

The world is an awfully dark place, but there’s a little light left. Some stories remember that, and I think they’re worth taking seriously.

This post was originally published on October 24, 2014. TMTF shall return with new posts on Monday, September 5!

441. TMTF’s Top Ten Hot Guys in Fiction

Do you know what this blog needs? Hot guys. This blog needs more hot guys.

What? You think hot guys are an inappropriate subject for this blog? Oh, I disagree. I won’t discriminate against anyone for being totally smoking hot. I think this post is long overdue.

It’s a burning question: Who are the hottest guys in fiction? There are a lot of potential answers, so let’s warm up with a list of ten.

We’re turning up the heat, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Hot Guys in Fiction!

10. Calcifer (Howl’s Moving Castle)


This friendly fire demon is not only helpful and adorable, but also sounds exactly like Billy Crystal. (Wait, he’s actually voiced by Billy Crystal? Well.) Calcifer may not be the hottest guy on this list, but he’s certainly hot enough to fry eggs and bacon.

Cooking with Calcifer

That’s pretty hot, right?

9. Anger (Inside Out)

Anger (Inside Out)

This one is easy. I mean, the dude’s head is literally on fire.

Hot guy. No doubt about it. Great movie, too.

8. Mario (Super Mario Bros. series)

Fireball Mario

Mario isn’t always hot, but he occasionally throws fireballs. These whirling spheres of flame aren’t terribly large or threatening, except when they get out of hand. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) When Mario cuts loose with the fireballs, things heat up pretty quickly.

Mario's Final Smash

Bowser is another hot character from the Super Mario Bros. series, but I chose Mario because this list has quite enough scaly fire-breathing monsters. Speaking of which….

7. Charizard (Pokémon)


Charizard is labeled a Fire-type Pokémon, and for good reason. His flaming tail is a life sign, like a pulse… but more likely to burn down buildings. Charizard also breathes fire.

Totally hot, man.

6. The Fury (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

The Fury

This crazy cosmonaut hails from my favorite Metal Gear Solid game as a member of the Cobra Unit: a team of supervillains working for a rogue Soviet colonel. The Fury is a pyromaniac through and through, packing a flamethrower and a jet pack—which, I can only assume, were standard issue for Soviet cosmonauts prior to the sixties.

When the Fury finally gives up the ghost, it’s with delusions, explosions, and surreal shrieking heads of fire. So hot.

5. The Guys in the Seventh Circle of Hell (Dante’s Inferno)

Seventh Circle of Hell

The circles of Dante’s hell offer various horrors, from violent winds to ceaseless whippings. It’s the seventh circle that most closely resembles the classic image of hell as a fiery place, with a river of boiling blood and flakes of fire drifting to the ground. “Thus was descending the eternal heat, whereby the sand was set on fire, like tinder beneath the steel.”

You can bet the sinners in hell’s seventh circle are pretty hot.

4. Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)


In the fantasy world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko is a firebender: a martial artist who redirects chi (spiritual energy) and unleashes it as fire. Firebending is awesome. It can be used to warm tea, heat bathwater, or do this:


Zuko is the show’s most dynamic firebender, learning from dragons and experimenting with advanced forms of his art. He never did learn to make a good cup of tea, but he’s still a really hot guy.

3. Hades (Disney’s Hercules)


At first glance, Hades looks like a shady uncle to Anger from Pixar’s Inside Out. Don’t be fooled. The smooth-talking god of the dead from Disney’s Hercules often loses his cool. (Pun intended. I’m still sorry.) When his temper flares (I’m so, so sorry), those flames rage out of control.

Yes, Hades is a hot guy… but he’s the master of the underworld, so what did you expect?

2. Smaug (The Hobbit)


Do I even need to explain this one? Smaug is a dragon. He breathes fire. Dragons breathe fire. Hot.

It would have been easy to fill this list with dragons, but I limited myself to one. I chose Smaug because, of all the dragons I considered, he hit the best blend of hotness and cultural significance. (Next time, Toothless. Next time.) Smaug is far from the only hot character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books; Sauron is represented by a fiery eye, and Denethor was pretty hot right at the end of his life.

1. The Human Torch (Marvel comics)

The Human Torch

I don’t really have anything to say about the Human Torch, except that he’s literally on fire, burning at impossibly high temperatures that would reduce ordinary men to greasy little piles of soot.

I can think of no hotter guy in fiction.

Who are your favorite hot guys or gals in fiction? Fire away in the comments!

439. Are Video Games Art?

Can video games be art?

This question has proved divisive and difficult. Some people have praised games for their visuals, music, writing, and interactive narratives; others have dismissed games as a childish diversion.

Are games art

My own opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that video games have the artistic potential of any other medium.

A few days ago, someone with whom I shared this opinion smirked, shook her head in contempt, and said “Nuh-uh,” before walking away as though she had just won an argument. I didn’t pursue the matter any further, though I did suppress a strong impulse to kick that person in the shin.

Such a jeering derision of video games—not of any specific game, but of video games as a medium—irritates me. If books, films, and songs can be valued as art forms, why not video games? They are just as capable of conveying ideas, challenging perceptions, and evoking emotions. What makes game design any less valid than other media as a form of artistic expression?

After all, many games blend acknowledged art forms—music, graphic design, storytelling, and sometimes acting—into a single medium. It seems irrational, small-minded, or even prejudiced to dismiss the entire medium as intrinsically inferior to other media, especially without giving any good reasons why.

Of course, some people have given good reasons. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the arguments against video games as an art form are well worth consideration.

Roger Ebert, for example, argued that the interactive nature of games interferes with their artistic value. Some degree of creative control is wrested from the game designers and thrust into the hands of players. To illustrate his point, Ebert posited a video game retelling of Romeo and Juliet that allowed for a happy alternate ending. Such an ending would weaken the story; the storyteller’s vision would be lost.

Romeo and Juliet

I’ve never played a Grand Theft Auto game, but its “Game over” message was too perfect not to use for Romeo and Juliet. I’m so, so sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

Another argument claims that the popular nature of video games disqualifies them for serious artistic consideration. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, stands by this argument. More than perhaps any other medium, games typically exist not to convey moral, emotional, or existential insights, but simply to be fun.

Yet another argument states that video games, with their rules and conditions, are no more artistic than sports, cards, or board games. Few people consider soccer matches or poker games works of art.

What about video games that exist not to be played in a traditional sense, but simply to immerse the player or tell a story? The argument goes that these aren’t really games, which brings us back to the contentious not-a-game debate. What is a video game, really?

In the end, the question of whether video games can be art hinges on an even bigger question: What is art, anyway? That’s a question with no easy answer, and without a categorical standard for art, there’s no way of knowing whether video games can meet such a standard.

Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter whether video games can be art. I believe they have value as a medium in any case. For example, I think the Portal games are works of art, but I know they’re tons of fun. My appreciation for those games doesn’t depend on whether anyone labels them art.

Adam and... GLaDOS

If any game is a work of art, it’s Portal 2. (I covered up the indecent bits.)

The question of whether video games can be art is interesting to discuss, but not worth a fight. I suppose the thing that irritates me is when people express unsupported opinions as fact, without acknowledging even the possibility of discussion—and that’s a problem that goes far beyond the video-games-as-art debate.

I believe video games have artistic potential. That said, whether video games actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they tend to favor fun over artistic expression, which is a valid choice.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the ways a subject of particular interest to me has been handled by video games. Stay tuned!

428. An Open Letter to Hollywood 2: The Sequel

Dear Hollywood Executives,

I know you’re all very busy, so I’ll try to keep this short. It’s been a while since my last letter, which I assume you all read, and another one is due. Consider it a sequel.

You’ve made a few small improvements since my last letter. For example, you actually made a Deadpool movie. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good. (I’ve also heard that it’s extremely vulgar, but Deadpool’s gotta Deadpool, I guess.) So many superhero movies are all doom and gloom, because, y’know, heaven forbid comic-book stories be fun for anybody. Irreverent takes on the genre like Deadpool and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are a welcome change. It’s okay for superhero movies not to take themselves so seriously. We don’t mind, honest!

Speaking of superhero movies, can we get a bit more diversity? Please? Take the Avengers, otherwise known as the League of White Guys. (They have only one female member: a token femme fatale with no superpowers.) I don’t read Marvel comics, but I know they feature more than white dudes. I don’t have anything against white dudes—I am one, as a matter of fact—but flooding superhero movies with them is unfair, uncool, and frankly kinda boring.

To be fair, I must congratulate you on giving Black Panther, the no-nonsense African superhero, a part in the new Captain America movie, and working toward giving him his own film in a couple of years. For a change, the black guy won’t be just a sidekick. He’ll be the hero.

Black PantherIt will be nice, after more than a dozen Marvel movies, finally to have one whose hero isn’t a white American (or quasi-British) male. It’s a step in the right direction. Keep stepping, ladies and gentlemen. Keep stepping.

I’ve already written about video game movies and portrayals of Christians in secular media, so I won’t repeat myself here. Just go read those blog posts. I will, however, emphatically repeat my appeal for a Metal Gear Solid movie. It should happen. It needs to happen. Please, please, please, make it happen. I will give you anything to make a Metal Gear Solid movie, unto half my kingdom. (I won’t actually give you anything for making the movie, but I will buy tickets to see it.)

Look, I’ve even done some of the casting for you.

Metal Gear Solid movie Now you just need to make the movie. Please do.

As long as we’re discussing film adaptations: Why don’t you adapt more old books? As you struggle to come up with ideas, consider the thousands of terrific stories available at your local library. I once made a list of books that would make great films, and you’ve made only one of them (Ender’s Game) with a second (Ben-Hur) on its way. Seriously, I want a film version of The Man Who Was Thursday almost as much as I want that Metal Gear Solid movie.

Incidentally, I hear Martin Scorsese is working on an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence: a brooding and powerful novel about the silence of God.

SilenceIt’s exactly the sort of obscure, slow-paced book you Hollywood execs won’t touch with a ten-foot boom pole. Mr. Scorsese thinks differently. Learn from Mr. Scorsese, Hollywood.

Moving on from a good director to some really bad ones: Why are you still letting Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan make movies? Why?! Just stop. Stop. Staaahhhp.

On a brighter note, Disney and Pixar have been making some outstanding movies lately. I’m glad to see that animation is not merely surviving on the Hollywood scene, but evolving and thriving. As long as you have Disney and Pixar, Hollywood, I think you’ll be all right.

I could go on, but that’s probably enough for one letter. I hope it doesn’t seem too harsh or demanding. For all of my grumbling, I really appreciate good movies, and I suppose I have you Hollywood people to thank for them. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen, for making my life a little brighter, and occasionally a little more explode-y.



P.S. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could just put Disney’s John Lasseter in charge of everything? No? Well, there was no harm in asking.

421. The Beginning of the End

Well, dear reader, this is it. This is the beginning of the end. After four and a half years of caffeinated rants and geeky ramblings, Typewriter Monkey Task Force is starting its final laps.

Final lap! (Watch out for banana peels.)

Final lap! (Watch out for banana peels.)

I’m ending this blog, but not quite yet. TMTF shall conclude with its five hundredth numbered post, which will probably be published toward the end of this year. I don’t yet have an exact date for that post; it depends on how many more breaks I take from blogging.

(You know, this bittersweet blog post could use an appropriately bittersweet soundtrack, such as “The Best Is Yet to Come” from Metal Gear SolidHere you go. No need to thank me.)

Why am I ending this blog? Well, that’s a good question. (I’m glad I asked.) Ending TMTF is a big decision, and I’m not the only one it affects—if you follow this blog, it probably affects you, too.

You may be a little saddened by TMTF’s impending demise. If you’ve enjoyed something over a long time, it can be hard to see it end. (Gravity Falls ended just a few days ago, so believe me, I know the feeling.)

Then again, you may just be wondering why I didn’t put this blog out of its misery ages ago.

There are a few reasons for my decision to end TMTF.

It’s getting harder for me to come up ideas for new posts.

As I think of posts to write for this blog, I feel like I’m beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. I would much rather give TMTF a respectable finish than drag it out endlessly: as Tolkien put it, “like butter scraped over too much bread.”

TMTF has lost its purpose.

I began this blog years ago with a strong sense of purpose. TMTF originally had three clear objectives.

  1. I wanted to build up an audience for the novel I was finishing at the time.
  2. I wanted to make some sort of positive difference with my God-given talents for writing, humor, and creativity.
  3. I wanted to try something new and exciting.

At this point, TMTF has either completed or failed these objectives; either way, they hardly matter anymore.

  1. My novel failed, and it won’t be getting sequels anytime soon, so there is no longer any point in finding an audience.
  2. At this point, I think TMTF has made pretty much all the difference it can. I’ve said most of the things I really wanted to say… except for the word pulchritude, of course, and now I’ve said it.
  3. After four and a half years, TMTF is neither new nor exciting. Writing this blog has been a great experience, but I’ve lost my passion for it.

When I started TMTF, I was motivated to write blog posts by a sense of purpose. Now I write them because I have to keep the blog’s publishing schedule. I’m trying to live more purposefully; it’s one of my resolutions for this year. My writing should be driven by a sense of purpose, not feelings of obligation. I owe that much to my readers, and to myself, and to God.

I want to work on a new project.

I could say more, but that’s another post for another day.*

I’m thankful for this blog, and I don’t regret the time and effort I’ve put into it. Working on TMTF over the years has brought me satisfaction, laughter, gleams of insight, and moments of catharsis… not to mention quite a lot of harmless fun.

I’ve met a number of amazing people through this blog whom I would never have met otherwise: JK Riki, the animator and creativity expert; Tom Zuniga, the wandering blogger; Rev Kev Niebuhr, the manliest Methodist of our generation; and more. I’ve also had the privilege of collaborating with awesome folks like Paul McCusker, a veteran writer for Adventures in Odyssey; Kevin McCreary, a YouTube and podcast creator; and colorful YouTube personalities like DRWolf and Crowne Prince, among many others.

This blog motivated me to write a fantasy novella and some short stories, not to mention hundreds of pointless rants thoughtful reflections upon faith, writing, video games, literature, TV, movies, life, the universe, and everything. With the help and support of its fabulous readers, TMTF raised hundreds and hundreds of dollars for charity. I even invented a holiday on this blog: Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day—which is coming up on March 4, by the way!

I’m thankful for Typewriter Monkey Task Force—and it ain’t over yet, folks! It shall continue yet for months and months, and there’s one thing I want to make very clear about its end. I’m not abandoning this blog. I’m finishing it.

Finally: Thank you, my dear readers. Thanks for the past four and a half years. I welcome you to stick around for whatever is left, and for whatever comes after!

*And that day shall be Friday.

The Ability to Pull Stuff from Nowhere

Art by iangoudelock on deviantART.

Art by iangoudelock on deviantART.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. As you watch a movie or play a video game, a character pulls out something from nowhere. Bugs Bunny and Wakko Warner reach behind their backs and bring out anvils or sledgehammers. Solid Snake and Link produce an endless assortment of gear and weapons from thin air. As Link demonstrates in the clever picture above, actually carrying around all that stuff is a physical impossibility.

The ability to pull stuff from nowhere is sometimes called the back pocket, a wry suggestion that the things characters pull from behind their backs were in their pants pockets the whole time. (This concept is particularly amusing in the case of characters that don’t wear pants.) In anime, the concept is called hammerspace. A comedic trope in Japanese animation is for characters to express anger by hitting something (or someone) with a large hammer produced from nowhere, making hammerspace the hypothetical place where all those hammers are kept.

The back pocket concept is usually played for comic effect in animation. Pinkie Pie, an exuberant character from a surprisingly awesome show about ponies, produces a wide assortment of items (including freaking cannons) from nowhere. Other characters know better than to question Pinkie’s defiance of physics.

In fact, when back pockets are used in any show or film, no one ever seems surprised.

In video games, back pockets are utilitarian rather than comedic in nature. The fact of the matter is that Link from the Legend of Zelda games needs his gear—all of it. Limiting his inventory would be a hindrance to the player, who would have to backtrack every time she needed something Link didn’t happen to be carrying at the moment. Constantly retrieving items, or plodding slowly under their weight, would be horribly annoying.

Thus Link carts around enormous shields and heavy explosives and iron-shod boots without any trouble. (Humorously enough, the iron boots only weigh down Link when he’s actually wearing them.) Solid Snake somehow sneaks through enemy territory burdened with cardboard boxes, sensor equipment and an entire arsenal of weapons (including massive rocket launchers). Every Final Fantasy character carries up to ninety-nine of every kind of weapon, armor and potion.

Where is all that stuff kept? Where does it come from?

Some questions, dear reader, are simply beyond answering.

This post was originally published on April 2, 2014. TMTF shall return with new content on November 30, 2015!

I Was an Action Hero for Halloween

Solid Snake costume

I was a ninja last year for Halloween. This year, I dressed up as someone equally sneaky: Solid Snake, the action hero and stealth operative of Metal Gear Solid fame. What’s that? You can’t see me in the photo above? Of course you can’t. The sneakiest soldiers know there is no better cover on the battlefield than cardboard boxes.

(No, I didn’t really dress up for Halloween this year.)

399. Review Roundup: Stupidly Long Edition

In the past few months, I finished some stupidly long books, films, and video games. Some are truly lengthy; others feel overlong due to tedium or slow pacing. A few are well worth their length. The rest overstay their welcome.

In this Review Roundup, I’ll take a quick look at Les MisérablesMetal Gear Solid 4The Once and Future KingSecret of Mana, Rise of the Guardians, and The Godfather Parts I and II.

I’ll try to keep this short. Spoilers: I’ll probably fail.

Les Misérables

Lez Miz coverI read the abridged Les Misérables a few years ago. It was fantastic. Set in nineteenth-century France, this epic story follows an escaped convict named Jean Valjean. His journey from grief to grace to redemption spans decades, interwoven with tales of war, crime, revolution, and romance. The abridged Les Misérables is one of the finest novels I have ever read.

The complete, unabridged Les Misérables is a badly-paced novel burdened with boring details and jumbled together with a bunch of essays. The story moves with all the grace of a drunken hippo with a blindfold and only three legs.

As a writer, I usually respect an artist’s original vision. Not this time. In this case, I think the artist’s original vision is deeply flawed. The book has too much detail and a number of subplots that go nowhere, but those aren’t its worst faults. At frequent intervals, the novel is interrupted by rambling essays about minor details. How can readers stay invested in the tale of Jean Valjean when it’s constantly derailed by the author’s digressions on street lingo or the Battle of Waterloo?

For example, at the climax of the novel, a band of freedom fighters makes a heroic last stand against the army in Paris as Jean Valjean flees through the sewers. In the next chapter, the author kills the story’s momentum with an essay describing how much money the city of Paris loses by dumping its sewer waste in the river instead of converting it to manure. Never mind Jean Valjean’s sewer escape! Never mind the martyrs of the revolution! All that must wait until the author finishes ranting about sewers several chapters later.

If the author really felt his opinions were so important, he should have published them separately. Les Misérables was written as a serial, but when it was finally published as a complete work, his digressions could have been included as appendices at the back of the book.

Read Les Misérables—the abridged one. For heaven’s sake, don’t waste your time on the unabridged version.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

MGS4 coverMetal Gear Solid 4 is a video game that thinks it’s an action movie.

In the, um, distant future of 2014, war has changed. A group called the Patriots has made war a business. Meaningless battles are fought all over the world by privately-owned mercenary companies, fueling a worldwide war economy. Using technology, economics, and the media—and nanomachines, of course—the Patriots control everything.

War has changed, and so has Solid Snake. This legendary soldier has aged prematurely due to a terminal genetic condition. Snake has become, in his thirties or forties, an old man with less than a year to live. When his former commanding officer asks him to undertake one last mission, Snake sets out to bring down the Patriots and end the cycle of war before the whole world burns. After all, what does he have to lose?

In the past couple of years, I’ve come to love the Metal Gear Solid games. I keep comparing them to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Packed with dialogue and populated by larger-than-life characters, they are violent, campy, stylish, contemplative, and frequently ridiculous.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is characteristically Metal Gear Solid-ish, and it does a superb job of pulling everything together. The games that preceded it are radically different in tone and story. Metal Gear Solid is a military thriller with shades of Tom Clancy’s novels and superhero comics. (It would make a great movie.) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty starts as an action game and spirals off into postmodern intrigue. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a James Bond-style adventure set in the sixties. MGS4 somehow ties together plot threads from previous games, uniting them in a triumphant (and surprisingly cohesive) conclusion to Solid Snake’s story.

The gameplay and level design of MGS4 are polished for a fairly smooth experience. For the first time in the series, Snake actually pilots one of the eponymous Metal Gears in an exhilarating clash of giant robots. A couple of the other boss fights are brilliantly designed. Tracking and shadowing targets adds a little variety to the usual shooting and sneaking.

Rex Vs. Ray

After three games of sneaking around in the shadows, a giant robot fight was long overdue.

If the game has a problem, it’s the cutscenes—scripted scenes that take away control from the player. These are superbly produced, but also really long. I mean really, really long. I spent probably a quarter of my time with the game watching instead of playing. MGS4 is a movie superimposed on a video game.

I also have a serious problem with the game’s portrayal of women. The Metal Gear Solid series has its share of good-looking ladies, but the babes of MGS4 aren’t sexy spies or cute scientists—they are freaking PTSD victims. Several of the game’s bosses are traumatized women trapped in armored suits and forced back onto the battlefield. When their powered armors are destroyed, these ladies crawl out in skintight bodysuits as the camera ogles their curves. I think it’s supposed to be sexy in a PG-13 kind of way, but it comes off as creepy and insensitive. There are just a few of these scenes, but yeesh.

It had a few disappointments, yet I really enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The game is a must for fans of the series. For new players, I recommend Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as a better introduction.

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King coverThe Once and Future King is a poignant tale of failure. Based on Arthurian legends, the novel follows King Arthur from his childhood studies under Merlin to his final regrets as an old man. Woven into Arthur’s story is the tale of Lancelot, Arthur’s greatest knight, who follows his own ambitions and makes his own mistakes.

It’s quite a long novel, but unlike Les Misérables, every page is worthwhile. It reinterprets the Arthurian legends, setting them centuries later and giving their characters much greater complexity. Arthur, for example, no longer establishes his Round Table (an order of knights governed by chivalry) for the sake of honor or conquest. The Round Table is reimagined as a redirection of violence from selfish to noble ends. Arthur is more than a king. He is an inventor of civilization.

At first, the novel is lighthearted and often hilarious. In fact, the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is based on the early chapters of The Once and Future King. The difference is that in the film, Arthur’s coronation is a happy ending, whereas in the book, it’s only the beginning of his struggles. The tone goes from funny to tragic as Arthur grows from a boy to a man.

The Once and Future King is easily the finest book I’ve read so far this year, and the definitive retelling of King Arthur’s story for our age. I highly recommend it.

Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana coverI had wanted to play this game for years. Released around the same time as RPG classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, for the same system and by the same company, Secret of Mana is widely hailed as a masterpiece of the SNES era.

It’s kind of terrible.

Yeah, it looks nice. Don't be fooled.

Yeah, it looks nice. Don’t be fooled.

There are good things about it. The battle system is robust, engaging, and way ahead of its time. Secret of Mana looks great, with bright colors and attractive old-timey graphics. Its menus are neat. I can understand why the game was so well received in its day. However, its weaknesses greatly outnumber its strengths. The music is forgettable, the story is an undeveloped stream of clichés, the game design is frequently obtuse, and the game settles into a rhythm of dull repetition that lasts way too long.

If you’re looking for an RPG classic, for heaven’s sake play Chrono Trigger and leave Secret of Mana in the nineties where it belongs.

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians posterI had low expectations for Rise of the Guardians, but it wasn’t bad.

The film recasts Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other figures of childhood lore as Guardians: members of a league that protects the happiness of children. When the Boogeyman tries to darken the world with nightmares, the Guardians recruit an amnesiac Jack Frost to restore the belief and hope of kids everywhere.

Despite its generic title, Rise of the Guardians is a colorful, well-paced fairy-tale film. (Unlike the other media in this Review Roundup, it doesn’t feel particularly long.) The Guardians are mostly likable; I particularly enjoyed Santa Claus as a gruff Russian and the Sandman as a silent protagonist. The villain is sinister and well-developed. By far the weakest link is Jack Frost, whose angst, amnesia, bland narration, and boy-band looks hit all the wrong notes.

It isn’t a classic, but Rise of the Guardians is all right.

The Godfather Parts I and II

The Godfather covers

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are allegedly two of the greatest films ever made. I decided I should see them. It was, as the Godfather himself might have put it, a recommendation I could not refuse.

The first Godfather film tells the story of the Corleone family, an Italian-American crime syndicate led by the eponymous godfather, Vito, and later by his son Michael. The second movie follows Michael as he consolidates power, and flashes back to Vito’s arrival in the United States and rise to power as a criminal kingpin.

Oh, and the first one consists largely of Marlon Brando making this face:

Marlon Brando scowling

Seriously. This is his default expression.

The Godfather movies are fairly old, and a lot longer and slower than contemporary films. They move at the leisurely pace of novels. (If it were made today, The Godfather would probably be a television miniseries, not a series of films.) The meticulous pacing allows for character development and plenty of subplots, but definitely makes watching the films a chore.

The Godfather movies boast great acting and complex characters. Vito is not just a literal godfather to his godson, but a sort of father-figure to his community. His life of crime is governed by strict rules of honor and loyalty. Michael, at first an innocent young man, hardens into a ruthless mob boss who abandons his father’s principles. In telling their stories, the films touch upon themes such as revenge, responsibility, betrayal, tradition, religion, corruption, and family.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II reward patient viewers with the epic story of a family’s descent into darkness. If you’re looking for something easy to watch, however, you had better look elsewhere.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

They’ll Make a Man Out of You

I haven’t heard such a rockin’ arrangement of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” since… well, the last one. This epic number from Disney’s Mulan has been my favorite since I was just a kid. (I’m not sure it made a man out of me, but then I’m not sure anything ever will.) This arrangement from guitar duo With Ether is flipping fantastic. Bonus points to Al Poon, the gentleman on the right, for wearing what appears to be a lampshade.

I’ve lately listened to a lot of With Ether’s music on YouTube; it’s a great soundtrack for blogging. They’ve arranged a lot of songs from video games and pop culture, in addition to writing some sweet original stuff. Among my favorites are their versions of the Sherlock theme, Metal Gear Solid music, and one of the catchiest songs from Shovel Knight.

These people. These people. Thank you, With Ether, and all the rest of you Internet people who make cool stuff.

393. About Storytelling: Magic, Destiny, and Nanomachines

Here’s a question for you: What do fate, magic, nanomachines, and sonic screwdrivers have in common?

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been playing a video game called Metal Gear Solid 4. Its blend of military intrigue, science fiction, and social commentary is kinda bonkers, but the story’s strangest turns always have an explanation—or, to be more honest, an excuse. That excuse is nanomachines. These microscopic robots are injected into the bloodstream of many characters in the game, giving them superpowers (or super-weaknesses) that defy all other explanations.

How does a character in the game survive being shot in the head and stabbed through the abdomen? Nanomachines. How are entire armies instantly disarmed, disabled, and defeated? Nanomachines. How is a long-dead character revived in a stunning twist? That’s right—flipping nanomachinesEvery impossible twist in the story is explained by these hard-working little bots.

The answer is nanomachines.

The answer is nanomachines. It’s always nanomachines.

In the end, throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, nanomachines are generally the catch-all explanation for things that otherwise make no sense. The audience never learns exactly how they cause immortality, raise the dead, regulate firearms, or do any of the other crazy things they do. Nanomachines are a vague, easy solution to plot holes that can’t otherwise be filled.

Let’s not cast all the blame upon nanomachines, though. Consider how often, especially in fantasy stories, magic is used to explain away things that make no sense. Science fiction often uses technology in exactly the same way. As Arthur C. Clark reminds us, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Marvel’s Thor movie openly acknowledges this when its eponymous superhero tells an ordinary human, “Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.” Thor’s hammer makes no sense. Most of the stuff in Marvel’s movies makes no sense. The easiest solution is to claim that it’s incomprehensible technology and call it a day.

Witness the power of... um... technology?

Witness the power of… science?

Fate and destiny can work the same way. In dramas and romances, these vague cosmic forces offer an excuse for crazy coincidences and irrational behavior.

Then there’s Doctor Who. Flipping heck, is there ever Doctor Who. Besides the good Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, which does anything the plot needs it to do, the show’s many plot holes are waved away by the concept of “wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey… stuff.”

Do you remember the concept of deus ex machina? It’s when a specific problem in a story is resolved by some contrived or impossible solution. This is the same idea, but bigger and more pervasive. It’s when a deus ex machina, instead of resolving a single problem, becomes the storyteller’s go-to resolution for all of the problems.

As cheap or lazy as this sounds, it doesn’t have to be so bad. It all depends on how it’s used. Some stories don’t need to be burdened by a lot of complicated explanations. If media like Doctor Who or Metal Gear Solid 4 obsessed over details, or else cut out everything that lacked a rational explanation, they would be a heck of a lot less fun. If the audience is willing to swallow a vague explanation, and it enables a better, tighter story, then it becomes a good thing.

Used badly, narrative tricks like magic and nanomachines make a story contrived and unbelievable. Used well, they prevent a story from becoming bogged down in details and explanations, and allow storytellers to focus on other areas of storytelling.

I would call my typewriter monkeys my blog’s version of this trick—a vague explanation for the complicated process of how TMTF is kept up and running—except for one thing. My monkeys don’t resolve problems. They cause them!