Dad

westminster-on-a-rainy-day-from-the-london-eye

It was raining.  It always rained.

He lowered his hood as he walked under the arch into the massive stone structure, unhappy about the ever-present showers.  Though it was late afternoon, there was little light left, and the stone building stood imposingly, seeming to him to contain some otherworldly power in the dark.  He took a program from one of the attendants and thanked her with a confidence that suggested he belonged, though his speech and mannerisms spoke to the contrary.  He sat down on the chair.  It was a good seat, thankfully.  He took a look around, stifling an arrogant sniff directed towards the wide-eyed tourists surrounding him.

Before he could dwell on the subject longer, the chapel singers strode out solemnly, breaking his thoughts.  They filed into their seats and then began to sing.  He did not recognize the piece.  Despite this, he closed his eyes, letting the music wash over him.  The choir sung exquisitely, maximizing the effect of every crescendo and accent.  So entranced in the music he was that he did not realize it had stopped.  Slightly embarrassed, he looked around and gathered himself.  As the service passed on, his thoughts turned inward.  He knew that he should pay attention to the short lesson offered by the priest, but he was unaware.  Didn’t everybody do this sort of thing? He had heard the Bible many times.  One missed lesson would not hurt anything.

It was the anthem that brought him back.  The singing brought him out of his trance, as it always did.  This time his wandering mind fixated on a few lines of text:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor can the floods drown it.

In a moment, cold terror washed over him.  He was afraid.  This God, the God stronger than death, the same God of the abbey he was in, knew everything about him.  He closed his eyes and, for a moment, could feel the incisive glare of an incomprehensible power. Then, as quickly as the feeling began, it dissipated.  He blinked, and focused intently upon the rest of evensong lest the sensation return.

As he left the church following the benediction, the giant brick and limestone clock tower loomed above him over the river.  Its famous façade and clock face shone in the darkness.  It was still raining; he was still annoyed by it.  He pulled his hood over his short blonde hair and shuffled to the nearest tube station across the street.

 ***

John was his name.  John, which meant ‘The Lord is gracious.’  He didn’t like his name.  He supposed that most people were at least indifferent to their names, but he hated his.

The next morning, John would pick up his father at the airport.  He had only told John he was coming a week previous.  John was surprised and apprehensive.  They hadn’t talked in the two years since John crossed the pond to this comparatively tiny island nation, smaller than the state in which he was born and raised.  That was more John’s fault than his dad’s.

John arrived at his living quarters, hungry and tired.  As he took off his wet coat and scarf, his always wandering mind settled again on home.  Home is where the heart is.  This little flat was home.  Or was it?  His father’s arrival was stirring uncomfortable emotions, ones John would much rather ignore.

Two years was a long time.

 ***

“This is my decision, dad.  You know that.”

“I do, but I don’t want you to make a mistake.”

John sighed, unsatisfied at that response and mentally exhausted at these exchanges, which had been going on for too long.

“Son, we love you.  We want you to stay.  Don’t you understand that?”

“Yes, dad.”

“You know how much your mom will miss you, right?  Your sisters?  You know what that will do to them.”

“Don’t make this a guilt trip.”

“What?  I’m not trying to guilt you into staying.”

A quick exhale of amusement escaped John.  “Listen to yourself.  You want me to stay because you want me to be close.  You don’t really have my best interests in mind.”

Dad had moved to chairs to face each other before the talk had begun.  He took advantage of their position then by placing an oppressively gentle hand on John’s knee.  “You can’t blame a father for wanting his son to be near, can you?”

“Maybe.”

“You really don’t think I have your best interests at heart?”

John hesitated.  “No.”

Dad raised himself out of the chair and walked to the other side of the room, looking out the window.  There was not a single cloud in the sky.

“We can’t help you, you know.”

“I know.”

“We just don’t have the money.  You’ll have debt.  Which you wouldn’t if you stayed here.”

“I know.”  John was getting impatient.

Dad looked straight at John, intently, and with a curious sadness.  Until that point, this conversation had been more or less repeated every few days or so.

“John, I don’t know what to say to you.  We’ve done everything in our power to raise you the right way, to make you a good Christian and a good man.  I don’t understand.  Why do you want to abandon everything and leave?  This is not your calling, son.”

John remembered that he said something to placate his father; he did not remember what.  But he knew that wasn’t the truth.  The truth was that John needed to get away.  Love was strong—for John, too strong.  He did not deserve it, and he could not explain it.

 ***

John walked to the tube station.  It was not raining anymore, at least not yet, but it was still a dreary and dark Monday morning.  Passing John were a bevy of vehicles.  Some, most obviously the comically tall double-decker red buses, pierced through the haze of grey.  Others, like the common black taxis, blended in.  Postcards of the city pictured it full of life, full of happiness, and retaining a sense of quaintness that many other cities have lost.  This was a lie.  The reality was that the city was usually colorless and gloomy.  John had met people who claimed that this was when the city really shone.  John thought those people were loons.

It would be easier if it always rained.  But it didn’t.  At times, the sun would burst through the clouds in a triumphant manner.  For a day or two this beautiful city and surrounding, equally gorgeous countryside would gain a hidden radiance.  Nothing is ever that easy.

Inside the station, he touched his faded blue card to the turnstile and followed the royal blue signs to get on the correct line, embarking on the train when it arrived. The tube was crowded.  He rolled his eyes and sighed.  He did not want to be near so many other wet and snobby other human beings.  Sometimes he hated it here.  He supposed it was better than home.

He scanned the train to see if anyone else was in a similar conundrum.  Most seemed to be alarmingly like sheep, many in boring business attire, all reading the same newspaper, all going to cubicles or other similarly boring occupations.  With a smirk, he imagined them in a field of grass on all fours, eating grass and following an obscured figure, a shepherd of sorts.

John wondered if he was a sheep, and who was his shepherd.  Money?  No, or he wouldn’t have gone to university three and a half thousand miles away from home.  Family?  No, same reason.  Fame?  Sex?  Drugs?  No, no and no.  God?

The train stopped, once, twice, three times.  Each time, sheep would enter and leave, but the composition remained the same.  John wondered again.  God?

God was supposed to be a shepherd and a father.  His love was strong, invincible, uncontainable.  He guided his sheep with a love that could move mountains.  And yet…this God, if truly omnipotent, had the power to destroy the world.  If Christianity was true, God did destroy the world, flooding it, purging it of evil and malice.  He had the power to kill, to murder, to harden the hearts of those who opposed him and for those who followed him.  God could utterly eliminate life.  If love was the alternative…was it really love?  And could someone even accept that love?

 ***

“Dad, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

Four years ago, at a baseball game.  The stadium was full, and it was a rivalry game for the teams involved. The bases were loaded, only one out, the home team down one run.  A walk would have scored a run.  A single, two, and the lead.  John always loved baseball.  It was patient, a game of tradition.  The core of it was an intimate battle between the pitcher and hitter; every pitch was their struggle and their struggle alone.  John liked that.

The pitch comes.  Swing, foul ball.  Strike one.

“Why did you and mom decide to have kids in the first place?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just that kids are dirty, noisy, they cost you money, you have to clean up after their messes.  Why did you decide to have kids?”

They watched as the pitcher prepared.  John and his father went to many baseball games.  Sometimes they talked about important things, sometimes they didn’t.  Baseball was one of the few things they both enjoyed, so they took advantage.  The pitcher wound up like a mousetrap, getting ready to strike and release the energy.

Fastball.  Called strike two on the corner of the plate.

Dad looked pensive for a few seconds.  “Well, mom wanted kids, so there’s that.  I suppose there are a number of reasons anybody has kids.  We wanted to continue the family legacy.  We wanted the joy of bringing someone into the world, of raising them, of loving them.”

“Did you ever consider what would happen if the kids didn’t like you?  Or if they rejected you?”

Windup, next pitch.  A nasty curveball, the batter swung and missed.  Strike three, you’re out.

Dad looked at John quizzically, but continued.  “No, I suppose not.  Why?”

John shrugged.  “I’m just curious.  What if you had a kid that rejected you?  Would you hate them?”

“If my own son or daughter rejected me…no, I wouldn’t hate them.  They would still be my kid.  I would continue to love them, though.  They wouldn’t have a choice in the matter.  I think…I would love them until they came back.”

John was thankful his father did not inquire as to why he would ask such a question.  He decided, though, to ask another.  “Do you think God is the same way?”

The final batter in the inning stepped up to the plate and, on the first pitch, hit a weak popup to second.  Inning over.

“Do I think God is the same way?  Well, who knows why God ‘had’ us.  But God is love.  He is also wrathful.  His love is irresistible because he is so powerful, I think; I mean, he does know everything about us.  I don’t think there is an alternative.”

John sat quietly.  That was what he was afraid of.

 ***

John got off the train at Heathrow.  He could not explain his feelings.  He was somewhat excited, but also frightened, and more than a little curious.  John wondered what his dad would say, if he would be angry, or if he would smother John in a love that he did not want.

He remembered his sleep-deprived arrival here two years ago, when he almost had a mental breakdown from the lack of sleep and stress. The airport was huge.  Shops of various kinds peddled a variety of goods and services for the zoo of people surrounding them.  People trundled, trotted, and strode to and fro.  There was a greater variety of people here than the tube, for sure, but once again there was no difference in composition.  These people were all going somewhere.

John’s meandering thinking brought him to a question.  Was he going somewhere?  Or was he just running?  He had been running from his father, from God.  He didn’t know his destination and was only biding time.   John was tired of running, but was not pleased with the other options.  He looked at his watch, and then at the arrivals board.  John’s father was half an hour from arriving.  That half hour was filled with pacing and wandering.  It seemed to John that the people were purposefully crowding him, glaring at him, making him feel out of place.

Eventually, the plane arrived, and the passengers disembarked.  After a few dozen people, John spied his dad.  He was disheveled and haggard from the overnight flight, but otherwise healthy.  John knew that the coming days would be awkward, that his father would try to win him over again.  He had been bracing himself for that possibility.

John sighed, gathered courage, and approached his father with reluctance.  His father was sure that love would win John over again.  John wasn’t so sure.

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Criticism and Enjoyment

Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany on May 1833 and died April 1897, is a mammoth in music history.  Brahms contributed to almost every genre of art music; among his contributions were symphonies, concertos, sonatas, songs, and choral works.  There is no doubt in his place among the all-time great composers–his works were masterpieces, advancing the use of instrumentation, harmony, counterpoint, form, and part writing.  Brahms continued the great Germanic symphonic tradition, which stretched a period of almost 200 years from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven to Brahms to Mahler.

I don’t like Brahms.  In a single sentence of explanation, his music is Beethoven’s but with more angst.  His music is thick, but not intriguingly so like Wagner; it is energetic, but not rivetingly so like Beethoven; it is melodic, but not captivating like Mozart.  I would rather listen to Beethoven or Mahler, but I find Brahms boring.  There are so many other good things going on in that time period–Liszt, Chopin, RUSSIA, Dvořák–and Brahms is just the status quo, only bigger and more romantic.  Obviously, I recognize Brahms’ contributions and brilliance; I just don’t enjoy listening to it or playing it.  Nobody in the music world would blame me for unjustly criticizing him or bashing him.  They recognize my opinion.  There are, actually, plenty of people who don’t enjoy these ‘important composers.’  I know of a surprising amount of people who don’t like Mozart, for example, and while this makes me question their sanity, they are entitled to their opinion.

Fast forward to the present day.  Critic Chris gives a movie a low score.  Average Joe sees the film and looks up reviews afterwards out of curiosity.  “Guffaw!” Joe utters, “Chris gave ‘A Kiss in the Sand’ a D- because he thought it was shoddy and unbelievable!  That was the best romantic comedy I’ve ever seen!  Chris is wrong.”

What is wrong here?  What is different between Joe’s view and mine?  Simply, Joe does not understand that there are two aspects to perceiving any work of art.  One aspect is a critical review, the other is a measure of enjoyment.

They are not the same.

When we’re talking about composers like Brahms or Mozart, their greatness has been solidified in many years of critical evaluation and performance.  This means that if I say, ‘I don’t like playing Mozart,’ people take it at face value (for the record, I love Mozart; he is, one might say, the bomb-diggity).  The same is not true for more recent works of art, especially considering the more recent genres like film, television, or games.  If I say, ‘Gee, I don’t like Star Wars,’ everybody freaks out in unison, chanting “Star Wars is awesome” repeatedly until Star Trek fans come and start arguing with them.

Critical evaluations of a work are important.  Many people discount them as just opinions of cranky people, but that’s not true at all.  Critics approach a work with a different mindset.  My creative writing professor spoke of this difference, too.  He said that there are objective qualifications that a story must meet to be a good story, and that evaluating a story is not merely a subjective exercise.  There are objective marks for what makes good characterization, language choices, dialogue, plot, pacing.  The same goes for videogames, movies, television, manga, anime, whatever.  Critics approach a work with these things in mind.  Of course there are disagreements about the combination of these elements and the effectiveness of the parts or whole, which is why critical response to a work can be varied.  This is why I prefer to use sources like Metacritic or Gamerankings to see the whole review pie and view individual slices at will.

Enjoyment of a work is often related to critical response; if there’s genuinely good writing, for example, people will probably like the writing and therefore have a higher opinion of the work.  But also, just as often, enjoyment is irrational.  I love the Transformers movies.  They are not good films.  However, the amount of glee that I experience watching gigantic alien robots smash, explode, and destroy other gigantic alien robots and cities is not undercut by poor pacing, thin characters, and other miscues.

What can we learn from this?  Next time you experience or discuss any work, keep in mind that critical opinions and personal enjoyment are different, and that a work is not ‘good’ just because you enjoyed it.  Otherwise, according to the opinions of the world, Justin Bieber is better than Mozart.  That is not something that I am comfortable enduring.

 

An Examination of Fire Emblem: Awakening

FEA
For many of us, our exposure to Fire Emblem went something like this:

“Yeah man, I’m so excited to play Super Smash Bros. Melee!”
“Me too! This is going to be awesome.”
“Wait…who’s Marth? Or Roy? What?”

Super Smash Bros. Melee, of course, went on to be the best-selling game of the Gamecube, selling 7.07 million copies and thereby exposing those people to Fire Emblem. Marth and Roy were favorite characters for many, and two years later Nintendo decided to release the first Fire Emblem outside of Japan. A strategy RPG like the others before it, this game for the Gameboy Advance (to which I will refer as ‘Fire Emblem 7’ because it was not given a subtitle outside of Japan) was the seventh in the series, was received well, and to date is the highest selling Fire Emblem game to be released. I bought it on a whim—little did I know that I would put over 100 hours into that game or that I would become a huge fan of what is, truly, an under-appreciated gem of a game series.

Ten years after Fire Emblem 7 and four more global Fire Emblems later, Nintendo brought the 3DS title Fire Emblem: Awakening across the Pacific Ocean. The Fire Emblem series has never been a giant commercial success, and after the previous title for the DS failed to sail across the sea, some were skeptical of Awakening’s global release. Thankfully, Nintendo did so. It was a great decision for everyone involved because it is the best game in the series.

Yes—Fire Emblem: Awakening is the best Fire Emblem game ever.

This is not a review. Reviews assign an arbitrary and biased number to something that can’t be quantified, and are meant for people who are knowledgeable about the subject. I wager that most of my readers haven’t played a Fire Emblem game (your loss), but the success of Awakening can be illuminated in a way that is applicable to art and entertainment of all kinds. So, why is Fire Emblem: Awakening successful?

1) Narrative
For an RPG (role-playing game), story is central to the event. Fire Emblem: Awakening succeeds in its narrative. Therefore, Fire Emblem succeeds as an RPG. Obviously, the best story in the world can’t save something if it’s boring (paging 2001: A Space Odyssey), but a fun game isn’t everything in a story-centric game. Not only does Awakening have a stellar central campaign story featuring difficult dilemmas, but Awakening presents a depth that is rarely offered in games. Through a mechanic called the support system, you gain insight into the roster of characters you have recruited. Conversations between characters are unlocked after they achieve a certain relationship level (improved by fighting beside each other). You care about the battle much more when each character has a history and relationships with other characters. Without character, there is no true conflict or stress. If you don’t believe me, go play a game of Risk and try and care about your troops as more than tools to be used. You can’t, because all you care about is taking North America from the blue army. Those idiots.

2) Mechanics
Mechanics are different for every media. For books, mechanics are the functional use of language and syntax; for movies, mechanics are lighting, effects, staging, editing, and the like. For a game, mechanics is simply how the game works. For instance, in the earlier Fire Emblem games, weapon types (axes, swords, lances) functioned the same against all other weapon types. Eventually, the ‘weapon triangle’ was established, wherein swords>axes>lances>swords. Awakening implements mechanics, new and old, perfectly. There is not a mechanic out of place nor a mechanic that is unbalanced. Often an overlooked part of game design, good mechanics result in smooth gameplay. Bad mechanics result in Superman 64.

3) Synthesis
Sequels are tricky because they are inevitably compared to the source material. Introductions of new elements can sometimes make the sequel feel entirely different, while reliance upon previous elements will result in stagnation and boredom. Awakening’s prime success is that it is a perfect synthesis–it takes the best elements from previous games, polishes them, and presents them together in an unmistakably original game. It features marriages, children, and skills from FE4; multiple main characters from FE7; an open map, side battles, and optional promotions from FE8; transforming characters from FE9; the non-traditional class structure of FE10; re-classing from FE11; and a customizable player character from FE12. In any series, reusing concepts is normal and inevitable. However, using previously established concepts in a new way is rare. Furthermore, Awakening presents new ideas in the form of downloadable content, wireless bonuses, and a far deeper multiplayer.

If you have a Nintendo 3DS and have not played Fire Emblem: Awakening, do so. Awakening is a great game, a solid introduction to the series, and an example of a sequel done right. But it may take over your life. You have been warned.

Science Fiction: The Great Divide Part 2

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The ship was, for its time, technologically brilliant. It served as a vessel for the 238,900 mile trip to Earth’s only natural satellite and functioned properly for the whole 8 days of the mission. There were no major issues; Apollo 11 brought back with it moon rocks and dust, along with the sheer wonder of being an object that made the longest round-trip in history.

Yet, none of this matters if the human element is not there. If Kennedy does not make the bold claim that the moon landing will occur within the decade. If Armstrong does not proclaim “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” If the pure amazement of transcending the only planet the human race has ever known is not experienced by the world. If the astronauts don’t return home and fill out the most amusing paperwork that has ever existed. Regardless of the technological breakthroughs, wonder, and achievement, the moon landing does not matter save for what it means to us both individually and as a human race.

In Part 1, I discussed the curious and often significant demarcation between television and other forms of media in regards to the success of science fiction. To recap: science fiction releases are some of the most profitable and hyped in film, video games, and books; meanwhile, science fiction TV shows struggle to succeed, and even the hyped ones rarely achieve commercial success. But why? Why is it like this?

1) Content
Movies are roughly two hours long. The most expensive movies in the world have a built-in limit on the final product; furthermore, movie releases are a singular event. A film needs only to enthrall the audience once for a short time, and it need not actually be good to be successful. Moviegoers enjoy spectacle. How else do you explain the performance of the Transformers films compared to their Metacritic scores? Meanwhile, a science fiction novel costs no more to write than any other type of novel, and again is a singular event. A video game is also one entity. Furthermore, for video games, it is important to have gameplay that is fun and interesting. Story is a secondary consideration for many video games (it often shows), but shooting lasers at people is fun, so science fiction is an easy genre to utilize.

A television show is made up of a legion of entities. Its success depends on retaining viewership across a wide number of episodes. If a person sits down and watches Star Explosion 5: Furtive Reconnaissance Disaster at the cinema and doesn’t like it, they can go home and never think of it again (though Star Explosion 5 is my favorite). If that person watches CSI: Mars Colony and doesn’t like it, that’s a problem for the show, as it must retain viewership to succeed. Furthermore, the CGI and effects for Mars Colony and other sci-fi shows make them very expensive. Sci-fi shows must gather a larger audience compared to other shows to stay profitable.

2) Character
The best science fiction stories are not those with the most and biggest explosions, or the craziest time traveling, or the weirdest aliens, though all of these things are good to include. The best stories are ones about people. Characters drive fiction. Star Wars has become a cultural icon because its characters are strong and memorable: Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, Han Solo. Star Trek has done a similar thing through Captain Kirk and Spock; Stargate through Jack O’Neill, Fringe through Walter–the list goes on.

In order to create a great show, you need to get people to care about the characters. A movie, book, or videogame can survive on a premise, on technology, on a gimmick, even. A television show can’t do that. Science fiction is great because it allows the creator to put characters into situations that we will never be in and under fascinating stresses that highlight humanity;s struggles in a truly unique light. It takes truly great vision and execution to do so. However, TV shows must also be accessible, or else you don’t retain viewership.

Conclusion
In many ways, TV sci-fi must be perfect in a way that other media do not need to be. A successful sci-fi show emphasizes character, emphasizes lore, emphasizes plot, is marketed well, consistent, able to change, different, accessible, full of wonder, full of normality, culturally relevant, culturally transcendent, fun, intellectual, and lucky. Other science fiction media needs far less of those qualities to succeed.

I do think part of this odd lack of science fiction on television is a result of the radically changing industry. TV is changing faster than movies, books, or video games. Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and others have fundamentally altered our consumption of TV, and the whole medium is going through a violent upheaval. Former subscribers are leaving cable in droves; the only thing I watch on cable, KC Royals games, I can get–you guessed it–on the internet, if I ever need to. Science fiction shows have met resounding success in the past, with Stargate SG-1, Smallville, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and X-Files leading the pack with a huge amount of episodes. Here’s to hoping that some good ones come back. I already miss Fringe.