Some stories don’t need sequels

About a year ago, I read the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It is the winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it is completely deserving of that honor. The book brilliantly subverts multiple sci-fi tropes and mechanics, and its core as a mystery-infused personal drama makes the thing a page turner.

The novel is a full story, tying its loose ends and ending properly for the world and the main characters. I did not think there was a sequel. There did not need to be. And, in fact, there really couldn’t be, at least not in the traditional sense.

But I loved it so much that when I learned that there were indeed sequels two months ago, I immediately put them on my Christmas list. When I got them for Christmas, I consumed both novels within a span of about five days.

Wilson had more stories to tell in the world he concocted, and it was his right as an author to tell them. They are good novels, though the events of Spin prevent many similarities to that story. Still, both sequels–Axis and Vortex–work well, and the ending of Vortex does answer questions that were never completely answered in Spin.

However, I think that Wilson skirted danger here. Some stories don’t need sequels. That was the case with Spin–it did not need any. And while some sequels may work for these stories, sometimes sequels don’t do any good for the original story, and some even harm or retroactively modify the efficacy of the original story.

Consider Star Wars: The Last Jedi, for instance. I’m not going to go into detail here for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but those of you who have seen in know that seemingly immutable truths and qualities in the original trilogy are brushed aside in order to forge a new path. The new trilogy did not need to exist, necessarily; Return of the Jedi included a fitting end for the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. But exist it does, and its existence fundamentally changes the context in which the original trilogy operates. Some people like The Last Jedi because it goes its own way. Some people hate it for that reason.

darth-vader-pyre

In a more extreme case, take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is nothing but sequels. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to tell a self-contained story. The second Avengers movie was a wreck because it couldn’t focus on its own story and character development enough–instead, it had to serve a bunch of administrative tasks in tying the varying characters together and laying the groundwork for future movies. And beyond one example, it is almost impossible to create real tension in a cinematic universe where creative risks are stifled for the benefit of the whole.

Finally, the most innocuous of results for sequels is that they are so totally unnecessary that they can’t help but be depressingly boring. Maybe you remember the 2003 young adult novel The City of Ember (it was also adapted to film in 2008). I sure do; I was 12 at the time, and the book, which was a huge success, was written directly for my age group. It’s a great novel, but its plot is self-contained: once the inhabitants solve the city’s riddle and leave, the core elements of why the book was successful vanished.

Since it was such a success, of course there were sequels. But when a story is so tied to a specific time and place, with specific characters, can a sequel succeed? Usually not. That’s why, if you read The City of Ember, I bet you have no memory of its sequels.

We all know why sequels exist. Making creative media is expensive, and it is always more cost-effective to create something that already has word of mouth and an install base. But they don’t always need to exist. In fact, in a perfect world, most probably shouldn’t.

 

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My favorite movies of 2017

It’s that time of year again–time we go over what Things came out and celebrate (yay movies on this list!) or hate (boo Boss Baby!) them.

This will be like last year. Again, a disclaimer: I’m not a huge film buff. It’s not my thing. I often feel that film criticism tends to veer harshly into “my film taste is more advanced than yours” territory very quickly, whether it intends that or not. A lot of the time, I get the feeling that I should feel bad for liking something, which is not a tone that I perceive often in, say, video game criticism.

Another disclaimer: I’m not including Star Wars Episode VIII in my list because it’s Star Wars. Of course it’s my favorite movie this year. Anytime there’s a legit Star Wars Episode (versus, say, Rogue One) that’s going to be the case. As long as it’s not awful, that is. Looking at you, Episode I. Bless your heart.

HONORABLE MENTION – Thor: Ragnorak

Superhero films are inherently ridiculous. They feature random dudes with super powers, and then those random dudes claim dumb names (Spider-Man? Ant-Man? Batman? Wonder Woman?), put on dumb spandex clothing (BAT NIPPLE), and then fight bad guys who have equally idiotic names and costumes.

Thor: Ragnorak knows all of this, and rather than try and present itself as a second-rate sci-fi story like most superhero movies, it doesn’t take itself at all seriously and presents itself as one of the funniest comedies I have seen in a long time. It’s a superhero movie, so it’s in the ‘action-comedy’ genre, of course, but that just gives it even more opportunity for slapstick humor. Slapstick humor in space.

Also, Korg is the best. Long live Korg.

BRONZE MEDAL – Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a bit of a weird movie. It features an all-male cast, surprisingly few spoken words, and sparse character development. Those things deter a lot of people, and they should, except Dunkirk has reasons for all those decisions. It’s a period war film, which explains the lack of women. It eschews words in favor of actions, which are smart and help move the plot along (and, of course, there is speaking in the film, just not a lot of it). And Dunkirk’s lack of character development work inside its central themes.

Really, Dunkirk is what happens to an action movie if you suction out all the fat, distill the essence into something as pure as possible, and then stretch that out over a full two hour film length. It has an excellent score, and it’s a visual thrill. Most interestingly, it feels different than any war movie I’ve seen, which is a feat. It’s so easy to get into a rut when doing a war movie, no pun intended, and Dunkirk avoids it spectacularly.

SILVER MEDAL – Wonder Woman

I’m usually not a huge fan of superhero origin stories. They all feel the same after a while. Person acquires powers, person struggles with powers, person somehow happens to find worthy villain, person overcomes villain. Blah blah.

Wonder Woman gets around this in part by being very smart about it. It’s a period piece, taking place in World War I, a setting that is never touched by superhero films. As such, it’s able to make standard origin story beats feel fresh.

But also, and I can’t stress this enough, Wonder Woman is a shining example that film needs more women in charge of things. Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman with unnerving perfection as Wonder Woman, as if she was born for the role, but director Patty Jenkins is, I think, an underrated maestro. There’s a certain grace, strength, and twinkle in this movie that would not exist if a man had directed it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but Wonder Woman is refreshingly sincere and dignified in a way that most action movies aren’t. Representation matters, and Wonder Woman is a perfect example of why.

GOLD MEDAL – The Big Sick

What are movies but stories on a silver screen? And what are stories but ways in which we experience the world?

The Big Sick is a romantic comedy. For many, that might be enough to not watch it. But that would be a mistake. See, The Big Sick is authentic in a way that most movies aren’t. Don’t get me wrong: ‘authentic’ isn’t just a way of saying ‘it’s not that good but it means well.’ The Big Sick is a great movie. It’s characterization, pacing, and comedic timing are perfect. All the little things are checked and accounted for.

But The Big Sick is authentic. That’s its real strength. It communicates real humanity, both good and bad, in a way and a story that we don’t often see. It helps immensely that this is the real story of Kumail Nanjiani and how he met Emily Gordon. It also helps immensely that they are now married and it’s all just so adorable and lovable.

Watch this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Is anything nerdy anymore?

During last Halloween season, many of my friends posted pictures of their costumes on Facebook. A friend of mine and her husband dressed up as football players, their baby dressed as a football. Another friend of mine dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, complete with her dog standing in as Toto.

And there were plenty of fantastic costumes that would be traditionally referred to as ‘nerdy,’ and a few of my friends explicitly mentioned their nerdiness in their post. One dressed as Link from the Legend of Zelda (and had to explain to confused elders that Link was not, in fact, Zelda). Another dressed as Rey from Star Wars. Another dressed as a mashup of Doctor Who and Harry Potter.

Conventional wisdom is that these costumes, based on video games, science fiction movies and TV shows, and fantasy novels, are indeed ‘nerdy.’

But I think conventional wisdom has its drawbacks here, because I’m not entirely sure any of those costumes, or anything else on the Google Image search for ‘nerdy Halloween costumes’ are actually nerdy. I have my doubts that anything at all is truly ‘nerdy’ anymore.

Consider this: the nine-movie Harry Potter franchise has grossed over $8.5 billion worldwide. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, consisting of more than a baker’s dozen films, has grossed over $12.3 billion. Star Wars has grossed over $7.5 billion over seven films (and the entire franchise was sold for a whopping $4 billion to Disney five years ago). Of the top 12 film franchises by gross ticket sales, 10 (!) of them are science fiction or fantasy franchises.

harry potter coin gif gringotts

Harry Potter and the Coin Vault That He Got From All Those Film Revenues

What about video games? The industry generates about $100 billion in yearly revenue. Characters like Mario, Link, Sonic the Hedgehog, Master Chief, Lara Croft, and Pac Man are cultural touchstones. And television? Many of TV’s biggest hits over the last few years are, yep, science fiction and fantasy shows: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, A Handmaiden’s Tale, Black Mirror, Westworld.

‘Nerdiness’ and ‘Geekiness’ are slippery terms to define, but I think they encompass two big ideas. The first idea is a distance from social norms, whether actively sought by nerds and geeks or thrust on them by the ‘cool’ kids. The second idea is that of an ‘in-group;’ in other words, the only thing required for access to the close-knit nerd community is a knowledge and appreciation for the culture around which said nerd community revolves.

Today, both ideas are invalid or watered down. It’s impossible for something so widespread and culturally powerful as Star Wars to actively be uncool. When the high school quarterback says, “Yeah, I saw the movie with Thor and the Hulk and Iron Man and it was wicked,” that’s pretty much the death knell of comic book characters being nerdy.

And as far as community? Over eight million copies of the seventh and final Harry Potter novel flew off the shelves in a single day when it was released in 2007. Hundreds of millions around the globe have read the series in dozens of different languages. Your aunt has probably seen a few Harry Potter films, and I do not care how old/young or clueless/hip she is. That’s just how it is. And so, yeah, it’s awfully difficult to have something be an ‘in-group’ when everybody is there.

So the weird thing is that ‘nerdy’ isn’t a functional descriptor of something sincere, but is instead used as a legacy adjective that merely designates a particular swath of pop culture. In that way, it’s like The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings used to be nerdy. Then Frodo and Gandalf and company went on a merry adventure and won a bunch of Oscars and now ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS’ is as much (or more!) of the cultural lexicon as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ or ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’

You shall not pass gandalf gif parody

Is ‘nerdy’ then necessarily useless? Maybe? Maybe not. There are certainly some things that you could accurately describe as ‘nerdy’ today–role playing games, some tabletop board games, stamp collecting. Religious watchers of anime and voracious manga readers probably qualify. Cosplay, too.

But even some things that should be nerdy aren’t. Look at the curious case of fantasy football. By all accounts, it should be nerdy. Lots of numbers and analysis involved? Check. Game that you play need a computer/smartphone and an internet connection to play? Check. A sub-industry dedicated to intense fantasy football fans? Check. The word ‘fantasy’ in the name? Check.

No one calls fantasy football nerdy, though. That’s because sports are not nerdy, which is literally as nuanced and complex as the argument goes.

That throws a wrench into the existence of the word’s meaning. Put it this way: nerdiness is supposed to be about something that has a niche following, but the success of traditionally nerdy types of niche followings like Star Wars and Harry potter have nuked that definition. Nerdiness is supposed to be about traits or approaches that are not lauded by the ‘cool people,’ but the statistically-focused existence of fantasy football and sports discourse in general blow that definition out of the water. Nerdiness is supposed to be something the weird white guys did, but the continuing influx of women and people of color into the nerdy spaces has fundamentally changed that idea, too, without eroding the integrity or authenticity of the nerdy spaces itself.

There is a whole collegiate dissertation here for the writing. Actually, more than one: the gender history and implications of nerdiness alone is worth a dissertation itself. And so any conclusion of mine is going to be necessarily incomplete, but here it is anyway: while it is clear that nerdiness does not mean what it used to, and that applying the concept to wildly popular megafranchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars is inherently silly, being a nerd can mean different things to different people.

And isn’t that the point of nerd culture? For you to be you, no matter what you like to do?

 

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: A book review

Films have been including ‘how it’s made’ featurettes in DVD releases for years. Books, poem, and comics are self-explanatory, and significantly less interesting to watch being made. And recording sessions are embedded enough in the public consciousness that they, too, are inherently comprehensible, even if you don’t know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys.’

Video games, however, are a different breed. Many gamers–even passionate ones–simply don’t know how games are made, what processes are involved, the time frame needed, or the required building blocks to make a good game. This is true in part because games are a new medium, but also significantly due to the complexity and difficulty of making modern games.

Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a fantastic insight into the niche, secretive, complicated world of how games are crafted. It is the perfect book for those who are interested in how games are made, and because of Schreier’s focus on narrative and excellent ability to distill more obtuse concepts into easy-to-understand chunks of information, it’s perfect for game veterans or n00bs alike.

Though the book isn’t an argument, it has a core thesis that intertwines the composite parts of the book together, and that thesis is this: modern video games are incredibly difficult to make.

I had drinks with a developer who’d just shipped a new game. He looked exhausted…Some of them slept in the office so they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting, because every hour spent in the car was an hour not spent fixing bugs. Up until the day they had to submit a final build, many of them doubted they’d be able to release the game at all.

“Sounds like a miracle that this game was even made,” I said.

“Oh, Jason,” he said. “It’s a miracle that any game is made.”

Rather than sctructure the book around how a game in general is made, Schreier focuses on something more specific (and more accessible): the story of how individual games were made. Each chapter features a different game. The choice of games covers everything from small indie titles like Stardew Valley to some of the largest RPGs ever made (so far) like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. The book features 10 chapters in all.

Again, Schreier’s dedication to a strong narrative is impeccable. Each chapter is an individual story, and Schreier does a great job of outlining who is developing the game, why they are making the game they are making, what problems they encounter along the way, and how they decided to tackle those challenges.

Ciri from the Witcher 3 wild hunt

The book is extremely engaging, and I finished it very quickly. I had played four of the ten games included, and while I was naturally more interested in the stories of games I had completed (and, in my case, really loved), the stories of games I had not played were equally vivid and engrossing.

Schreier highlights a few issues repeatedly throughout the book, as they are natural to a game’s development. First is the dichotomy between funding and freedom. While a game like Pillars of Eternity has no publisher to answer to, self-funding represents its own set of challenges on the creative process. On the other hand, as it the case with Destiny, virtually unlimited funding can be constrained by the demands of the publisher.

The second thing that is highlighted is the prevalence of crunch time. In the gaming industry, crunch time is a period of extended hours that occurs before specific milestones, or in order to complete or add something special to the game. Its status is contested within the industry, as some see it as a necessary evil in order to produce great games, while others see it as a result of poor producing and management. Regardless, each of these games go through some manner of crunch time, and how it is utilized is a part of each chapter.

Third, Schreier highlights the oft-hidden world of conflict between developers about where a game should go or even what game is important to make. Video games are made by real people, and creative differences can arise even under the best, least stressful circumstances, let alone the pressure cooker that is game development. These creative and professional arguments can make or break a game, and their coverage in the case of Uncharted 4, Destiny, and Halo Wars is a core part of their story.

iron bull dragon age inquisition western approach

There are more than these three issues that recur, and it is this pattern that represents the book’s biggest flaw, though it is certainly not a fatal one. In the case of seven of the 10 chapters, the chapters follow the basic beat of A) here’s why and what game developer is making B) here’s the conflicts and problems the developer overcame C) here’s what the game did well and the story of how it succeeded.

That’s because those seven games–Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, and The Witcher 3–were critical and commercial successes. There are obviously different specifics, but the same beat happens because of the types of games they are: successes. Sure, those games exist, and their stories are important.

But the most interesting stories are why games don’t succeed, and the book’s three strongest chapters–on Diablo III, Destiny, and Star Wars 1313–focus on the varying failures that manifested themselves in the game (or in the case of Star Wars 1313, how the game ceased to exist). How Destiny shipped as a shell of what it was intended to be despite being given years and millions of dollars to percolate is fascinating; how Diablo III managed to turn a complete 180 degrees from angering its install base is fascinating; how Star Wars 1313 flopped so hard it didn’t come out is fascinating. These are the types of stories that I wish Schreier could have covered more in the book, and I was glad to see his coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a troubled game where everyone just wondered ‘how did this happen’, on Kotaku.

concept art star wars 1313 scifi city

Concept art for Star Wars 1313

Still, I recognize that this particular criticism might be personal taste speaking, and I realize that it’s probably easier to get developers to talk about successes than failures. The book’s quality is still evident.

If you’re a gamer, a person who finds games fascinating, or just someone in search of a good new nonfiction book to read, I highly recommend Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Not the least of which because the title includes an Oxford comma. Good on you, Jason; fight the good fight. Well, both of them: the Oxford comma one and the video game coverage one.

Revisiting Inheritance

Stories, more often than not, are not about the endings.

This is especially true for epics and fantasies, as the ending can be predicted as soon as the main conflict is constructed. Frodo destroys the One Ring and defeats Sauron. Luke Skywalker rallies the Rebel Alliance and vanquishes the evil Empire. Katniss Everdeen survives the Hunger Games and is the point of the spear that overthrows the Capitol. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, defeated the evil Lord Voldemort at great cost.

None of those endings are surprising, and while the fate of the good guys were dire in many situations, nobody thought those endings wouldn’t eventually come to be.

And that’s because stories, specifically epics and fantasies, are about the journey to the ending. What decisions do the characters make? How does the conflict affect the world or the characters? What are the consequences of the decisions? How do the relationships between characters progress? How do the main characters defeat the bad guy?

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

All of those questions are more important than what happens at the end. We don’t love specific stories because the good guys defeat the bad guys; we love specific stories because we become attached to the characters and become engrossed in their struggle.

So when I tell you that Eragon and Saphira topple King Galbatorix and bring peace to the land of Alagaesia, you should be as surprised as if I told you that water is wet. When I say that they left Alagaesia at the end of the series, that is not a stunner either. Those are not spoilers, and they are not surprising; they are telegraphed way ahead of time by Paolini’s choices and the genre itself.

In order to evaluate the book or series, therefore, you must look at the how, the why. Eragon’s journey is more important than the ending. To put it into one succinct thought: did the characters earn the ending?

Unfortunately for Inheritance, the answer is no.

Eragon leaves Alagaesia, ostensibly to never return, but there’s no justification that he would never return; it just is. When Frodo leaves Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, he is recognizing that his life can never be as it was, the burden of carrying the Ring too great. His journey justified the ending. Eragon primarily makes the decision to leave Alagaesia because of logistical reasons. His journey did not justify the ending, and so Paolini is left scrambling to legitimize Eragon’s decision.

And Eragon’s triumph over Galbatorix isn’t earned, either. Eragon is simply unable to defeat him at all without the help of Murtagh, who pulls a deus ex machina to give Eragon a chance at defeating Galbatorix. This is extremely important, as it neuters chapters and chapters and chapters of Eragon’s personal growth because it never mattered in the end. Yes, Eragon did eventually overcome Galbatorix in his own way a little later–which was extraordinarily clever on Paolini’s part–though he was only given the chance to do so by others.

But the biggest issue with Inheritance is that it does not earn the payoff with Eragon and Arya. For two books, Eragon pines for Arya with no reciprocity, actively damaging their friendship through pigheaded romanticism. In the third book, they start to finally settle into a friendship, the dynamic ending of the novel forging a deeper bond.

And yet the age-old romance mantra–will they or won’t they–is never a factor. Arya never shows no romantic intentions for Eragon, and Paolini’s greatest sin is that he never puts the characters in a position to make decisions about their relationship. It’s on a Calvinist path, a predetermined set of lines that never intersect. Arya becomes Queen as well as the newest Rider, insulating her from even the possibility of having a deeper relationship with Eragon.

Christopher Paolini author of Eragon

Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I want to make myself clear here: the problem is not any of the choices Paolini decided in the ending of the series. Arya becoming Queen and Rider is just fine, Eragon defeating Galbatorix is necessary, and Eragon leaving Alagaesia is just fine too.

The problem with Inheritance is more subtle. None of the characters make decisions that are reflected in their endings, or given the opportunity to make decisions given their ending. The problem is not that Arya and Eragon never ended up as a couple, but how they never ended up a couple.

Imagine this: Arya and Eragon admitted their feelings with one another before the final battle. They spent some intimate time together in their nervous state of mind. After the battle, everything happens just as it did in the book, including Arya’s return as Queen and Rider. Then, Eragon and Arya gingerly rekindle their relationship for a time, but they both know it can’t last. Just as in the book, Eragon decides to leave Alagaesia, and Arya decides to stay.

That’s a relatively minor change, but do you see how different everything is? Arya decides to accept becoming Queen knowing it would endanger a blossoming relationship with Eragon, and Eragon makes his decision knowing he’s giving up a realistic future with the woman he loves. It deepens both characters immensely, gives weight to their decisions, and makes the ending mean something.

Inheritance is not a bad book. Some people will encounter endings that don’t jive with them and figuratively burn the story to the ground in response, but I think that’s just silly overreaction. The Inheritance Cycle is still worth reading, and it’s still a fantastic achievement by Christopher Paolini.

But whether it was due to the framework of the story being written by a teenager, the unforeseen split of the third book into two books, simple pigheadedness, or something else, Inheritance‘s ending doesn’t connect like it should. It doesn’t ruin the series–but it could be so, so much better.

Let’s all admit that the story of Overwatch just doesn’t work

Overwatch, the colorful cross between a standard first person shooter and the hip multiplayer online battle arena (better known as MOBA), has a story and lore. It’s very lovingly-crafted, mostly told through gorgeous pre-rendered videos distributed outside the game by the developer, Blizzard.

Most of these shorts center around one or more of the characters in the game. The characters, or heroes, are the core of the game, and the intricate and varied play of each of the heroes is what gives Overwatch its fun and depth. Each hero is designed wonderfully, with fantastic voice actors and visual styles that make each hero feel individual and unique.

My favorite short that Blizzard has released was about Bastion, the robot turret/tank/salt factory with a cute bird friend. Bastion has no voice actor, instead beeping and whirring like a deranged R2-D2 as it unleashes relentless terror. Their wordless animated short about Bastion is a simply beautiful seven minutes, and it channels Pixar at its most transcendent.

It’s just too bad it doesn’t matter at all.

See, none of this painstaking characterization and storytelling is done in the game itself. It’s done through lore and video disseminated through other means–including both videos and comic books–and it gives the illusion of presenting a deep world while crippling the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Overwatch has no single player story mode. It has no in-game cutscenes that happen before you play a game. There is no readable history or lore a la the codex in Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect series. You get a few sentences of description for each of the characters and that’s pretty much it.

Don’t get me wrong: Overwatch does a ton of things right, and it is a phenomena for good reason. It’s a great game. But what it is not is a good narrative game. It has no narrative.

Somebody will likely argue whilst reading this that Overwatch does have a narrative. Overwatch is a group of heroes who defended the world in the Omnic crisis and then disbanded, only to be blah blah blah (cont’d).

Overwatch, the game, has no story. Period. There is a story that is vaguely told elsewhere, but even that isn’t cohesive at all. Ultimately, the franchise’s story and lore is not necessary and does not deepen the experience of the game itself. The matches of Overwatch are nonsensical in regards to the story, too.

Zenyatta from Overwatch

Zenyatta…and his balls (orbs, whatever)

It might sound that I’m hating on Overwatch for no reason, or that I’m being unnecessarily hipster about all this. I’m really not; I promise. While Rocket League is my one true multiplayer love, Overwatch is a secondary love, and it’s resulted in some truly spectacular evenings and moments. I don’t hate it at all (well, not until somebody insta-locks Hanzo on attack and then complains about team comp in the chat).

My point is this: Blizzard has done a tremendous job of crafting great pieces of narrative content but a terrible job of making that content relevant in relation to its core piece of media. That’s partially due to how Overwatch is constructed, but that was Blizzard’s idea, too. There’s nothing stopping them from creating some more expansive single player that, you know, actually works through some of the story.

I only have a vague idea of what’s going on in the universe, and when I sit down at my keyboard and mouse to select Bastion and apologetically destroy things, what story there is does not matter at all. Furthermore, just playing the game does not make me want to go out an learn more about what’s going on.

Ultimately, I care because the story elements of Overwatch are simply empty calories to the gameplay experience. The game deserves so much more.

Birbiglia, Burnham, and the oddity of comedy

Comedy is, on its face, pretty simple. We laugh at funny things and enjoy ourselves. BOOM.

*packs up, publishes article, goes home*

……….

Well, you didn’t think it was that easy, did you?

Comedy, while on its face being pretty simple, is bizarre and definitely not simple. The concept of what you find ‘funny’ and what I find ‘funny’ and what humans in general find ‘funny’ is extraordinarily intricate and personal. If I put a gun to your head (a NERF gun, now, I’m not a monster) and told you to define what makes something funny, I’m guessing that you probably couldn’t find a clear and suitable definition before a pink foam bullet hammered into your skull.

I think good comedy is about pushing boundaries, deliberate timing, presenting the unexpected, and acute self-awareness. Regardless the subject, good jokes always follow those four guidelines.

But the subject matter is extremely important. Why focus on one subject over the other? Are certain subjects ripe for comedy and others taboo?

Mike Birbiglia in Netflix special Thank God for Jokes

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia’s Netflix special Thank God for Jokes wrestles with that question. Birbiglia is adept at witty self-depreciation and wields an impressive knack for compelling storytelling. Early on in the special, Birbiglia says that “you should never tell jokes to the people the jokes are about.” One of the key parts about jokes is that they have to be about something, as he explains. You can never truly avoid making people angry forever. The point of jokes is the comedy of somebody or something being funny, and that fact is inescapable.

Extending from that is comedy’s inherent enigma: its purpose is to offer an escape and a laugh at the same time as it directly references the things from which we try to escape in the first place. We joke about the mundane, yes, but the best jokes are about what’s important. The comedy that resonates with people is often about the most important things because it reveals what’s true about those things in a unique and incisive way.

Bo Burnham’s eccentric musicality and penchant for absurdity, channeled through his Netflix special Make Happy, stares directly at the duality of performance and comedy. Burnham is unique, as far removed from mainstream comedy as you can get whilst still being extraordinarily popular. But he uses his uniqueness to great effect in Make Happy, questioning how a performer and audience connect over comedy, both parties interested in something different.

While a lot of comedians explore the full reaches of comedy, Birbiglia and Burnham are fascinating because their work is expressly aware of the oddity of comedy. They know and address comedy itself, and it’s refreshing to see two talented and funny people with fresh and important opinions on comedy itself.

I find commedy immensely important in my life. Often times, we have only two choices: we can either stew about something or make jokes about it. Comedy is a way of finding joy out of nothing, and these days that’s an extremely valuable commodity. Not everything is joyful, or fun, or great. Comedy can help do that in even the darkest situations.

In the words of Birbiglia in his special: jokes are important. They will always be important.