492. About Storytelling: Representation Really Matters

This post is a long one, but I believe it’s much more important than most of this blog’s nonsense, so please bear with me patiently. (This post is also extremely geeky, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.)

A friend and I recently watched Doctor Strange, the latest in a long line of superhero movies based on Marvel comics. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor from Sherlock who looks like an otter. Along with some psychedelic visuals—watching certain scenes was like taking drugs without actually, y’know, taking drugs—Mr. Cumberbatch’s performance elevated an otherwise predictable Marvel movie.

Yes, Marvel movies are pretty formulaic at this point. The dialogue is peppered with quips, the villains are generally unimpressive, and the starring heroes are white dudes.

It’s tradition.

Every headlining star in a Marvel movie has been a white man. There are female characters and characters of color, of course, but nearly always in supporting roles. Black Widow (a woman) and Nick Fury (a black man) don’t get their own movies. War Machine and Falcon, both black heroes, are sidekicks to Iron Man and Captain America, both white heroes. Movies starring a black man (Black Panther) and a woman (Captain Marvel) are in development, but after eight years, only white men have starred so far in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place for diverse representation. Maybe I should look at, say, video games.

I’m pretty sure that each of these famous video game characters is actually the same guy in a different wig.

Maybe not.

I have absolutely nothing against white guys. I am a white guy. Many of my friends are white guys. There is nothing wrong with white guys. However, when white guys become a default template for fictional characters, well, that just ain’t fair.

People like to see themselves represented well in fiction. For example, I’m a Christian, and it really bugs me that Christians are often underrepresented, or represented badly, in popular culture. Joining Christians in that category are… well, lots of people. Women, people of color, various minority groups, and people with certain body types, among others, are often not represented well.

It ain’t fair.

I could yell and shake my fists, but won’t. (I find it doesn’t help.)

Instead, I’ll give a shout out to Marvel Entertainment, whose films I criticized earlier for lacking diversity, because its story doesn’t end there.

Marvel makes TV shows with fairly diverse representation. Luke Cage stars a black man, features a mostly black cast, and offers thoughtful takes on black culture and identity. I didn’t like Jessica Jones, but its depiction of a woman recovering from (maybe literal and definitely metaphorical) rape trauma deserves consideration and respect.

In the meantime, Marvel’s comics are becoming steadily more diverse. I hardly read superhero comics. However, I do occasionally read articles from Evan Narcisse, a journalist who offers brief but fascinating glimpses into contemporary comics.

Well, this is different. I like it.

Mr. Narcisse’s articles inform me that a woman carries Thor’s title at the moment. The current Spider-Man, Miles Morales, is a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager. Iron Man’s successor is a young black woman. Bruce Banner has passed on his Hulk condition to a young Asian-American man.

Marvel is embracing diverse representation, and so are many video games. I can think of at least two games—not indie games, mind you, but triple-A titles—that star Native Americans. More games are getting people of color, and fewer babes in chain-mail bikinis, as playable characters. The latest Tomb Raider games reinvent Lara Croft, perhaps the most egregious sex symbol in the game industry, as a smart, tough woman who actually wears clothes.

Then there’s Overwatch. God bless Overwatch. It’s a multiplayer video game in which colorful characters shoot each other with guns. It also boasts some truly amazing (read: Pixar-level) animations. I’ll never play Overwatch—I don’t care for multiplayer games about shooting people with guns—but I’m glad it exists.

Overwatch has an amazing cast of characters.

The characters in Overwatch represent quite a number of races, nationalities, and body types. As you might expect from a video game, there are a couple of tough-looking white guys and a few slim, curvy white ladies. There’s also a chubby Asian woman, a black Hispanic man, an old Middle Eastern woman, and a brawny Slavic woman, to name a few. (There’s also a gorilla from the moon. How’s that for diversity?)

I will remember the characters in Overwatch long after I’ve forgotten most of the generic white dudes from other video games—and that’s one reason representation really matters. Far from getting in the way of storytelling, representation can actually improve it. Diverse characters bring backgrounds, languages, cultures, and points of view to a story that might otherwise be generic or forgettable.

By the way, I know this is a longer post than usual, so please accept, as a reward for reading this far, this animation of a character from Overwatch booping someone’s nose. It’s barely relevant, but it makes me happy. Here you go.

Boop!

What was I saying? I was distracted by the boop. Ah, yes, I was making the case that diverse representation can actually benefit storytelling.

A lot of people grumble that diverse representation is just “political correctness,” and that it causes harm. Does it?

Believe it or not, there can be harm in diverse representation. It can be done badly. Diversity for its own sake, lacking respectfulness and understanding, is a huge mistake. Not doing can cause less damage than doing badly. It’s wrong to leave a starving man hungry, but it’s worse to feed him poison.

Diverse representation isn’t easy. Like everything else in a good story, it must seem real. It must convince. A storyteller must understand and respect whatever he represents, which is especially hard if it doesn’t represent him.

This brings me to a personal note. It’s easy for me to preach diversity in storytelling without actually practicing it. Up to this point, I haven’t practiced it.

I want to practice it. Instead of merely ranting that contemporary stories aren’t diverse enough, I should tell a story with diversity. Conveniently enough, there’s a story I want to tell.

Anyone who has followed this blog for more than five minutes knows of the Lance Eliot saga, the story I’ve tried for more than a decade to write. Its hero was always a white dude because, y’know, I’m always a white dude.

This time, Lance Eliot isn’t white. He’s Hispanic—Ecuadorian American, to be exact.

lance-square-portrait

The premise of the Lance Eliot saga is that Lance saves another world from destruction. I had always planned for a few other characters to represent other races, but imagined Lance as a white man.

In so doing, I became unintentionally guilty of upholding the white savior narrative, in which a white person rescues a community of non-white people. On the surface, it’s a bit racist. Look a little deeper, and… well, it’s still racist. The narrative is common, however—just look at James Cameron’s Avatar, whose white hero saves an entire society of people of color. (That color is blue, but the narrative is the same.)

I didn’t want Lance Eliot to be another white savior. The world has enough white saviors; Lance can be a coffee-colored one.

I chose to make Lance an Ecuadorian American specifically because of all non-white ethnic groups, I believe it’s the one I can represent most faithfully, respectfully, and convincingly. I grew up in Ecuador; I live in America. Beside, I’m well acquainted with an Ecuadorian American: my aunt, a wonderful lady who not only makes delicious Ecuadorian food, but also watches American football with greater enthusiasm than any of the white people in my family. (My white relatives prefer Latin American soccer, ironically enough.)

Has Lance’s change of ethnicity gotten in the way of the story? Not at all! In fact, I believe it will enrich the story… whenever I get around to writing it. As a character suspended between cultures, Lance now has better reasons for feeling insecure and out of place, and for hiding those feelings behind sharp sarcasm. He can adapt quickly to the fantasy world I will create, because he’ll already have learned to adapt to other cultures. I can relate to Lance more than ever before. My attempt at diverse representation will (probably) help me to write a better story.

People like to see themselves represented well in fiction, but even as a white guy, I’m tired of seeing white guys. I want to see other experiences, cultures, and points of view. There’s a big world out there, and I want to see more of it.

On a related note, Disney’s Moana just hit theaters. It looks rad.

Well, I’m hooked. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

I know this post was a long one, and probably not much fun to read. Thanks for reading it anyway. Adam out. Boop!

477. About Storytelling: Comic Relief

Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?

~ G.K. Chesterton

The Internet is buzzing over Luke Cage, the latest Marvel superhero show from Netflix. I’ve watched only a few episodes, but it’s pretty good so far, with compelling drama, solid acting, a funky soundtrack—and thank heaven, a sense of humor.

Fun so far!

In art, as in life, humor is invaluable. Shakespeare understood this. He wrote a lot of comedies, and even his tragedies have gleams of humor. Romeo and Juliet is full of dirty jokes, and Hamlet has the funny gravedigger. (I don’t even like Shakespeare’s plays, but that scene from Hamlet makes me smile.) William Shakespeare is widely regarded as a master storyteller, and comic relief is a key part of his stories.

Comic relief is a storytelling technique in which humorous moments, characters, or dialogue are included in an otherwise dark or serious story. The purpose of comic relief is generally to relieve tension, softening stories that might otherwise be unpleasant or unpalatable.

(Comedies can’t have comic relief because they’re already comical. Comic relief describes not a comical tone, but a break from a serious one. Incidentally, if tragedies have comic relief, shouldn’t comedies have tragic relief? Just wondering.)

When Netflix began making shows about Marvel superheroes, it began with Daredevil, an outstanding series that I totally lovedDaredevil used comic relief very effectively. It’s a dark show. Its heroes (and, unexpectedly, its villains) wrestle with guilt, rage, self-doubt, and other inner demons. A lot of people die violently. Corruption runs rampant. Heck, there’s even a lot of literal darkness.

Tons of fun!

Fortunately, the darker elements of Daredevil are kept in check by comic relief. My favorite character, Foggy Nelson, brings sarcasm, cheerful pessimism, and warm humanity to a fairly angsty cast of characters. One of the villain’s advisers, Leland Owlsley, reacts to everything with a perfect mixture of snark and grumpiness. Even Daredevil’s mentor, a ruthless killer named Stick, speaks with a dry, sardonic sense of humor. There’s just enough humor (and humanity) in Daredevil to make the darkness and tragedy palatable.

Then came Jessica Jones, Netflix’s follow-up to Daredevil, and lo, it was painfully bleak. Without going into details—believe me, they aren’t pleasant—it’s a show about violence, abuse, betrayal, addiction, and toxic relationships, with some rape metaphors thrown in for good measure. The entire show hinges on the protagonist’s abusive relationship with a super-powered sadist. Yeah. Nasty stuff.

The thing is that Jessica Jones is actually an artistic, thoughtful, well-written, well-acted drama. It’s just painful to watch. There’s nothing to brighten the gloom or ease the tension. (David Tennant is in it, and he’s awesome, but his character is a cruel, rapey, mind-controlling stalker, so… yeah, that doesn’t help.) None of the characters are likable, and there’s no comic relief. Wait, no, I recall one joke. I think it might be repeated once. That’s it. Jessica Jones is thirteen episodes of misery.

No fun at all.

I’ve seen the first season of Daredevil twice. I will never watch Jessica Jones again. The hope and humor in Daredevil make the darker bits bearable. Jessica Jones is all darker bits.

So far, Luke Cage, which follows the events of Jessica Jones, has been really good. There aren’t as many quips as in Daredevil—man, do I ever miss Foggy Nelson—but the characters in Luke Cage at least have a sense of humor, and it makes a world of difference.

Not every tragedy needs comic relief. I can’t help but think of Shūsaku Endō, who wrote such terrific novels as Silence and The Samurai. There’s no humor in these books, and they’re more powerful for it.

Comic relief isn’t an absolute necessity, but it’s often helpful. Stories are told to edify, sure, but also to entertain… and who doesn’t appreciate a laugh?

Disney’s Darkest Movie

Walt Disney Animation Studios is the most famous, important, and successful animated film studio in history. Its first movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the first ever feature-length animation. Its latest movie, Zootopia, captivated critics and broke box office records. (It was a touching film with catchy music, and I loved it.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios gave us such enduring classics as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King… and also The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a movie I still can’t believe was actually made and distributed by Disney. It’s dark.

It’s really dark.

I still can’t believe this film saw the light of day.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not only grim, but brilliant: a daring film with pathos, beauty, and gleams of humor. That said, it really doesn’t fit Disney’s kid-friendly image. The movie begins with a corrupt official (one of my favorite Disney villains) pursuing and murdering a woman in front of a church, and then almost murdering her baby.

A tense song narrates the scene, and throws in some vengeful Latin lyrics for good measure: Dies irae, dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla (Day of wrath, that day shall consume the world in ashes). The video above is a dark rock cover of this song. It’s a little edgier than the original… but only a little. A few notes foreshadow another song in the film, “Hellfire,” which is exactly as cheerful as it sounds; its lyrics describe unfulfilled sexual desire, murderous intentions, and literal hell.

Lust, fear, fury, and hellfire—y’know, for kids!

After that first scene, The Hunchback of Notre Dame—which, I remind you, is an animated movie by Disney for kids—goes on to address such family-friendly subjects as physical deformity, child maltreatment, lust, genocide, and eternal damnation. I’m serious. I haven’t even mentioned all the creepy statues and gloomy Gothic imagery.

This is a dark film, and it becomes even darker if the viewer chooses a cynical view of the protagonist’s gargoyle friends. These statues come to life when nobody else is around, like Hobbes in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, bringing Quasimodo comfort and hope.

Just who are these guys?

Sure, there are optimistic explanations. Maybe these lively gargoyles are just imaginary friends, or perhaps God brings them to life as companions for Quasimodo. He does live in a church, after all, and the film is underscored by religious themes and imagery.

However, a cynical viewer might dismiss Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends as hallucinations: symptoms of psychosis, or his deranged way of coping with the horrors of his lonely life. This theory is unlikely, but given the other grotesque subjects in the film, it wouldn’t be hard to add mental illness to the list.

So yes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a dark film, and also a really good one. I recommend it… but probably not if you’re a kid.

On a more cheerful note, the guy who arranged the cover of “The Bells of Notre Dame” in the video above has done some other great covers, including “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (because no blog can ever have enough covers of that song) and “The Hero,” the epic theme to One Punch Man.

462. About Storytelling: Subverting Expectations

Not long ago, I began playing a little game titled Recettear: An Item’s Shop’s Tale, and promptly decided it may be the best thing in the universe.

I exaggerate, but Recettear is delightful all the same. It’s set in a standard fantasy world of monsters, swords, and magic, with one important twist: the player doesn’t control an adventurer. The player controls a shopkeeper: a sweet, chipper girl named Recette who must pay off her absent father’s debts. Recette’s motto: “Capitalism, ho!”

Capitalism, ho!

Capitalism has never been cuter.

Fantasy games have always had shops. They’re a ubiquitous feature in the manner of inns, dungeons, and bosses. Gamers accept them without thinking. Heck, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single fantasy game that doesn’t have some kind of shop.

Recettear turns the cliché of the fantasy-game shop on its head. This time around, the player isn’t fighting to save the world—he’s fighting to make that next debt payment. A player can’t just waltz into dungeons; she must hire an adventurer to keep her safe while she searches for items to sell. Recettear shows the behind-the-scenes struggles of keeping a fantasy-game shop open for business, providing a twist on a well-worn trope.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale represents a brilliant creative tactic: subverting expectations.

After a certain number of stories, we begin to see patterns. The good guys win. Things end badly for the villain. Depending on the story’s tone, either romance happens, or it doesn’t—either way, we can usually see it coming. If Sean Bean is in a movie, his character probably dies. We expect these things. We figure out that stories usually work a certain way.

It’s neat, then, when stories come along that work differently.

Consider, for example, how Disney’s Frozen handles the love-at-first-sight cliché. In many previous Disney films, the guy and the girl fall in love hilariously fast. I mean, seriously, the prince in Cinderella decides to marry the eponymous heroine before he even knows her name. They dance for one scene, and then he wants to get married. It’s actually kinda creepy.

Love is an open door, I guess

Will you marry me? Oh, and what’s your name?

Frozen is different. (Spoilers ahead, in case anyone cares.) The movie sets up the love-at-first-sight cliché between Princess Anna and her crush, Prince Hans. Shortly after meeting, they decided to get married. I mean, they sing a cute song and everything. When they share the news, however, they’re met with incredulity and derision. “You can’t marry a man you just met,” declares Anna’s sister flatly. Later on in the film, Kristoff reacts in pretty much the same way.

When I watched Frozen, I wasn’t expecting the movie—a Disney movie about princesses, mind you—to mock the love-at-first-sight cliché. But it did. And it was refreshing, funny, and simply delightful to see.

Let’s look at a more literary example: Father Brown, the mystery-solving priest from the stories by G.K. Chesterton. Detectives in fiction are often marked by certain characteristics, which are best exemplified in Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective of all: intelligence, logic, curiosity, emotional distance, and a strong sense of justice.

Father Brown subverts practically all of these.

Father Brown (alt)

He isn’t your garden-variety sleuth.

He’s a perfect foil to Sherlock Holmes—the Anti-Holmes, if you will. Holmes is tall, thin, emotionless, and just. His brilliance is painfully obvious. By contrast, Father Brown is short, stout, deeply empathetic, and merciful. His intelligence is belied by his humility and simpleminded manner. Holmes solves mysteries by careful reasoning; Father Brown solves them by common sense and an intuitive understanding of human nature. Holmes kills his greatest enemy; Father Brown redeems and befriends his own archnemesis.

Everyone expects Holmes to be brilliant. In a charming subversion, everyone dismisses Father Brown as a superstitious simpleton, which makes it all the more satisfying when he apologetically solves the mystery right under their noses. It’s another terrific subversion of audience expectations, and it makes for great reading.

We’ve all come to expect certain things from fiction. How exciting when fiction gives us things we don’t expect!

Mad Max: Fury Road Is Still Awesome

If you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, you should. It’s good. I mean, seriously, it’s really good. At any rate, it’s better than a film about spiky death cars has any right to be.

Why is the latest Mad Max considered a masterpiece? I’ve already written about it in a couple of blog posts, but I can boil it down to just a few points: narrative minimalism, sparse dialogue, practical effects, striking color saturation, flawless cinematography, and flame-spewing electric guitars. (Maybe not that last one.)

Seriously, though, the cinematography is superb. As the video below explains, the movie guides the audience’s eyes, tracing a clear path through the maelstrom of explosions, gunshots, dust clouds, and Tom Hardy’s scowls.

Incidentally, I still wonder whether the film’s villain, Immortan Joe, is secretly Donald Trump.

Immortan Trump

I’m thinking… probably.

It was a red-letter day when my brother and I trekked to our local movie theater to see this movie on a whim. Oh, what a day. What a lovely day!

Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures

Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures

The panels above mark the exact moment at which I fell in love with Bone, the epic comic book series by Jeff Smith. I could provide story context, but really, none is needed. Stupid, stupid rat creatures.

As an artistic medium, comics face unique challenges, such as depicting action and movement in a limited number of small, silent, static panels. I’m sometimes amazed by the ingenious ways artists bring their comic panels to life, and have noticed a number of visual tricks and techniques used to tell stories in comics.

Absurd sound effects are one way, of course. Others include filter effects, blurred backgrounds, and squashing or stretching to represent movement. In Japanese comics (and animation), symbolic shorthand is common: for example, an oversized bead of sweat to represent anxiety or a throbbing vein to represent anger.

Manga iconography

Manga iconography is a visual shorthand for character emotion.

A thing that delights me in the Bone panels above is how economically the artist tells the story. Several actions must occur between the first and second panels, yet the artist doesn’t bore the reader with them. He sets up the joke and then immediately provides the punchline, assuming the reader is clever enough to infer what occurred between panels without having to be shown. It’s quick, efficient storytelling, and I really dig it.

Bone is an incredible comic series. There’s nothing else quite like it: an unlikely blend of The Lord of the Rings with the Pogo comic strip. It’s at once dark and lighthearted, serious and cartoony, and above all, quirky. There are bloodthirsty rat-monsters in one scene, and jokes about Moby-Dick in the next. Heck, one scene even pits the rat creatures against Melville’s novel. (The rat creatures lose.)

Moby Dick Vs. the Rat Creatures

I adore the rat creatures’ expressions in the third panel.

Jeff Smith self-published the first issues of Bone in the early nineties, helping kick start the indie comics movement, and eventually winning boatloads of awards. I was introduced to the series by the same kindly relative who occasionally sends me random books and comics. (I aspire to be that kind of person.)

I began reading Bone a year or so ago—at this point, I own the entire series—but had to set it aside halfway through due to busyness. At the moment, my reading list is dominated by background reading for my book project, but someday I’ll revisit Bone and read it from start to finish, stupid rat creatures and all.

445. How Much Should I Talk about My Book?

All right, guys. Serious question.

How much should I talk about my book project, the Lance Eliot saga, on this blog?

As TMTF staggers ponderously toward its imminent demise, I’m wondering how to fill its final fifty-something posts. I’m also thinking a lot about the changes I plan to make to Lance Eliot’s story. Should these musings intersect? Should I start sharing some of my plans for the Lance Eliot saga—no major spoilers, mind you, just basic stuff—on this blog?

I’m excited about my book project, and eager to share some of my early ideas. I would appreciate feedback, too. As Neil Gaiman observed, “writing is, like death, a lonely business.” Community is important for creativity. I could use the suggestions, ideas, and enthusiasm of my readers.

Writing is hard

A writer needs all the help he can get.

Another potential benefit of writing about the Lance Eliot saga is the possibility of raising interest in, and awareness for, the project. It would also give me a smoother segue from writing a blog about nothing in particular to writing a book.

However—and this is an important “However,” spoken in a deep voice and with a concerned expression—I don’t want to annoy or alienate any of my readers by talking too much about my writing plans. People read this blog, I assume, for… whatever it is that happens here. (Heck if I know.) Most readers don’t come here to read about unrelated projects.

I don’t want readers who enjoy TMTF for what it is to be disappointed by repeated discussions of a completely separate project. I don’t want anyone to feel that TMTF has become a blog “just for that book project,” especially since there is only a limited number of posts left.

If I wrote about my plans for the Lance Eliot saga, new posts might offer character profiles, an updated geopolitical situation for my imaginary world, stories from its lore, thematic elements, and maybe more.

I’m not sure what to do, so I’m leaving this one to you. What are your thoughts? What would you like to see from this blog? Should I share early ideas from the Lance Eliot saga? Should I stick to… um… whatever this blog is already? At this point, TMTF exists largely because of its readers. (I care about you, believe it or not.)

Should I write occasional posts about my book project, or stick to this blog’s usual topics? Let us know in the comments, or send me a note on social media!

440. Christianity in Video Games

In my last post, I wondered whether video games can be art. They’re fun, sure, but can they be anything more?

My own belief is that video games have artistic potential. Whether they actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they favor fun over artistic expression, leaving weighty subjects to other media.

Religion is an especially weighty subject, and its effect on art is incalculably great. Christianity in particular has inspired art for two thousand years, and some of it isn’t particularly religious.

Of course, much of the art informed by Christianity is overtly religious in nature: works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy, music like Handel’s Messiah, and countless more. However, Christianity has also influenced many secular works—watch nearly any movie by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers and you’ll see what I mean.

Pulp Fiction

The book of Ezekiel is apparently a bit more vengeful than I remembered.

Yes, the influence of Christianity has reached some unlikely places. It begs the question: If video games have artistic potential, have they used any of it to explore the subject of Christianity?

The answer is… hardly.

Christianity has informed many video games, but its influence is mostly superficial. Many games draw upon Christianity for its cultural or symbolic flair—or, if I may put it another way, its flavor.

The Legend of Zelda, one of the most important games ever made, uses Christian iconography not to make a point, but rather to convey an impression. For example, the game’s protagonist has the symbol of a cross on his shield.

Zelda NES screenshot

Is it just me, or does the hero of The Legend of Zelda look like he’s going from door to door with a Gospel tract?

I don’t know why the game’s developers put a Christian cross on the shield. Perhaps it was inspired by the cross designs on shields in medieval Europe. Maybe it was supposed to represent nobility, righteousness, or heroism. Either way, this symbol of Christianity is literally front and center in one of the greatest games of all time.

Incidentally, the game features another Christian symbol: the Bible, whose title was translated for Western versions as the Book of Magic. In the game, the Bible empowers the protagonist to throw fireballs, which isn’t something Bibles generally do. (At any rate, mine doesn’t.)

I’m going to discuss a few more games in this post, but for full disclosure, I should admit that I haven’t played most of them. I know them mostly by reputation, by reading about them, or in one case by following the game’s story on YouTube.

Christian imagery shows up occasionally in video games, many of which avoid association with the religion itself in order to avoid controversy. This has led to fictional religions that bear outward resemblance to Christianity—particularly to Roman Catholicism.

Video games such as the Final Fantasy series sometimes feature Christian (especially Roman Catholic) elements such as priests, churches, cathedrals, holy water, and baptisms.

Final Fantasy VII church

Can we take up an offering to repair the church in Final Fantasy VII? It could use a new floor. And some more pews. And a table in the back for coffee and doughnuts.

A few games even tackle the subject of religious corruption, but always within fictional religions whose resemblance to Christianity is only superficial.

Of course, some video games take a more direct approach, depicting Christianity itself (instead of a fictional religion) for its imagery, culture, or history.

The Hitman series—which, as its name suggests, is all about assassinations—uses “Ave Maria,” a song based on a Christian prayer, as its theme. It may be meant to evoke a somber mood, or perhaps to suggest an ironic parallel between the Church and the syndicate that employs the eponymous hitman. Either way, the series doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about Christianity; the games merely borrow from it.

The Assassin’s Creed series uses religion as a backdrop to its fictional history. The first game takes place in the Holy Land during the Crusades, and the second in Italy during the Renaissance. That second game apparently ends with the player beating up Pope Alexander VI, which seems weird to me. What developer, when given the limitless possibilities of game design, decided to make a game that climaxed in a fight against a fifteenth-century Pope? Did that developer just assume that all Christians are evil? Should I be offended?

There are a few games—just a few—that try to say something meaningful, whether good or bad, about Christianity.

The Binding of Isaac is an indie game named for the biblical account of Abraham nearly sacrificing his own son. It follows a young boy through an underworld of twisted imagery: much of it Christian. The game seems almost blasphemous with its lurid imagery and grotesque monsters.

The Binding of Isaac

This is, um, not a game for children.

I’m not sure what point The Binding of Isaac is trying to make. The game definitely has something to say. It may be an exploration of how religion can be abused, or maybe an outright censure of Christianity. I’m in no hurry to find out; I prefer my video games not hopelessly gloomy, thank you.

The most interesting treatment of Christianity I’ve seen in a video game comes from Bioshock Infinite, a story-driven first-person shooter. (For the uninitiated: a first-person shooter is a game in which the player shoots things from a first-person perspective, simply enough.) The game doesn’t focus on religion itself as much as on what it brings out in people.

The original Bioshock game is set in Rapture: a ruined underwater dystopia. It was built by an atheist who was convinced he could harness the potential of humankind in an enlightened society. The city fell apart, its remaining inhabitants fighting for the survival of the fittest.

No gods or kings

Welcome to Rapture?

By contrast, Bioshock Infinite is set in Columbia: an airborne city bustling with religious folks and overseen by Father Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet. Despite its bright exterior, Columbia is also a dystopia. It reflects not a Darwinian struggle for survival, however, but the ugliest blunders of American Christianity.

The religion in Bioshock Infinite is the Christianity that excused slavery, oppressed Native Americans, reviled foreigners, and mistook love of country for love of God. It’s an exaggerated picture, but also one based on history.

Bioshock Infinite mural

Welcome to Columbia?

I appreciate that Bioshock Infinite doesn’t blame Christianity for Columbia’s problems, but acknowledges how it has, throughout history, sometimes brought out the worst in people. The game suggests the problem is not with faith, but with human beings.

Fortunately, Christianity also brings out the best in people. The game’s debt-ridden protagonist, Booker, is hired to rescue a woman from Columbia on the promise that his employer will “wipe away the debt.” As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that Booker’s debt isn’t just a matter of money. He needs to be forgiven.

Besides forgiveness, Christian themes in the game include baptism and longing. The latter is beautifully expressed in the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is part of the game’s soundtrack.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t a perfect game, and its depiction of Christianity is definitely upsetting. However, it’s a more ambitious and nuanced take than I’ve seen from any other video game, and I respect it for that.

While a few games offer thoughtful explorations of Christian themes, others exist simply to appeal to a religious market. They’re the worst. They often steal their ideas from other games, and they’re nearly always terrible.

What are your thoughts on Christianity in video games? Let us know in the comments!

434. Reviving Lance Eliot

I recently declared my intention of resurrecting the Lance Eliot saga. With that announcement out of the way, I was free to sit back, swallow a feeling of rising panic, and ask myself, “Now what?”

I won’t begin working on a new manuscript for The Trials of Lance Eliot until after this blog bites the dust later this year, but I have plenty of groundwork to lay in the meantime. Not much research or planning went into my previous attempts to tell Lance Eliot’s story. This time, as I prepare for one last do-or-die effort, I want to give it a solid foundation.

In case anyone is interested in getting a glimpse into my creative process, here are some of my early preparations for reviving Lance Eliot.

Flipping heck, when did I get to be so old?

Figure 1: A writer hard at work in the conceptual stage of stage of writing.

Background reading

Reading is often a deceptively vast part of the writing process. Before returning to Lance Eliot’s story, I want to revisit some of the works that influenced it. One of these is Dante’s Divine Comedy, upon which the Lance Eliot saga is (very) loosely based. Another is Reading for Redemption, a book by one of my college professors. It posits a theory of literary criticism that informed the Lance Eliot character.

I also need to do some research. In previous drafts of the story, the setting is simplistic: a kingdom tucked between two empires, quietly minding its own business. I want to create a more precarious political situation by making the kingdom a reluctant player in a rivalry between its neighbors. When I explained this idea to my dad, he suggested I look into the history of Uruguay, which was apparently caught in a conflict between Brazil and Argentina. I clearly have some reading to do.

Uruguay

Figure 2: Real-world inspirations can be helpful.

I’ll also have to reread the latest version of The Trials of Lance Eliot because, honestly, I’ve forgotten most of it. There was a character called Tsurugi, wasn’t there? I’m pretty sure there was. And Lancelot came into it somehow? I could use a review.

Story planning

I need to begin fitting together the pieces of the story long before I start writing. Some writers are able to get away with making things up as they go along, but when I do that, I generally end up with a lot of fluff.

I want to streamline the story this time, making sure every scene and character contributes something meaningful. That will take a lot of careful planning. I’m not yet sure how I’ll keep track of everything—a notebook? Index cards? Desk graffiti?—but I’ll try to craft a more focused story.

World-building

In previous attempts to write Lance Eliot’s story, I felt too impatient to do any more world-building than absolutely necessary. If Lance Eliot doesn’t see it, I thought, the reader won’t see it, and I won’t have to make it up.

Sadly, my apathy toward the world I had created made it a bland, generic place. I need to start asking myself more questions. What’s the history of my fictional kingdom? What sort of holidays does it celebrate? What are its cultural influences? How high are its tables? I need to answer these kinds of questions even though some of my answers won’t make it into the story.

High vs. low tables

Figure 3: Table height. It matters, guys.

The reader’s image of the world I create will be much vaguer than my own. If I have only a faint concept of Lance Eliot’s world, how much fainter will the reader’s be!

Reader feedback

The Trials of Lance Eliot has been rattling around in my head for so many years that my view of it is deeply subjective. I could use some objective views from other people. What works in the story? What doesn’t? What needs to change?

If you’ve read the book, and if you can offer any feedback, please feel free to send it my way!

These early preparations for writing a story are, for me, the fun part. It’s when the writing starts, and I have to put my ideas onto paper, that things get tough.

I suppose I’ll worry about that when I get there.

425. Stealing Ideas Is Wrong (so Borrow Them Instead)

Today’s post wound up on someone else’s blog. Hey, don’t give me that look. Bloggers sometimes misplace their posts. It happens. Don’t judge me.

My friend JK Riki wrote the book on creativity. (This isn’t just a figure of speech; he wrote a literal book on the subject.) He also writes a monthly newsletter with creative tips, and a personal blog on creativity.

JK's blog header

When I got an opportunity to write a post for JK’s blog, I wrote about J.R.R. Tolkien, because of course I did.

My latest post, “Stealing Ideas Is Wrong (so Borrow Them Instead),” can be read here!