Top Cartoons: A Wish For Wings That Work

It’s no holiday standard, but it means something to me.

Now that December is here, I’d like to talk about a TV Christmas special that I remember from my childhood. Adapted from the comic strip Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed, A Wish for Wings That Work tells the wistful tale of Opus the penguin, who pines for a pair of soaring feathered wings to replace the flightless fins he’s been cursed with. As a big budget production with sly adult humor, and featuring the voices of Michael Bell, Frank Welker, Joe Alaskey, Raven Symone, Tress McNielle, Robin Williams, and Dustin freakin’ Hoffman, A Wish for Wings That Work should have been a sensation. Sadly, it turned out to be just another cartoon special that never really got off the ground.

The tale begins in flashback via a letter to Santa Claus that Opus writes. He describes his desperate desire to fly as other birds do, the insecurity he feels because of it, and the building resentment he’s gathered for his mephitic but well-meaning friend, Bill the Cat.

Opus attends a support group for “earthbound birds,” but finds the thinly-veiled discussion on sexual inadequacy to be of little help. Later, he and Bill rig up a balloon harness to lift Opus into the sky, but Bill ties his tongue into the strings and dismantles the procedure. This sequence is very funny and well-animated, almost like something out of a Roger Rabbit cartoon, but it’s also a little brief. I kinda wish it had developed and expanded into a widespread catastrophe. I would have liked to see Opus and Bill drag an ever-growing train of detritus as Opus careens through streets, farms, and buildings. Still, what’s there is pretty good.

Fed up at his failures, Opus takes his frustration out on Bill and chews him out. As Bill sulks away, Opus realizes that there’s still one person who can help him: Santa.

Here we return to the present, when Opus closes his letter and, realizing that it’s too late for mailing, faxes it to the North Pole. As he dreams of waking up to new wings on Christmas morning, and Bill collects snow watching his friend’s house from a distance, we pan up, and up and up, until we’re in the troposphere. That’s where Santa emerges, sailing from cloud to cloud and ho-ho-ho-ing his enlarged heart out. It looks like dreams are about come true after all, but a loose sleigh hitch leads to disaster, and the funniest “Oh, NOOOOO!” I’ve ever heard in my life.

I won’t spoil what happens from here, but it’s not the fairy-tale ending you typically get in holiday programming. The story closes instead with a “We’ll do the best with what we’ve got” message that works well enough.

While I enjoyed its neurotic tone and gross-out humor, A Wish for Wings That Work was not a ratings sensation, and most of those who did see it didn’t much care for it. As far as I can remember, CBS only aired it once, and that confused me. Bloom County was popular, right? People knew what they were getting into when they watched this show, right? Hell, we were living in the age of The Simpsons, Liquid Television, and The Ren & Stimpy Show. Cartoons were growing up, and I was excited about it. Where was everyone else?

My guess at the downfall of Wings was its packaging as a sanitized, child-friendly Christmas special. When Mother and Father plop their kids down for some network-sanctioned holiday television, they’re looking for fat tabbies who hate Mondays, not emaciated ones who hork hairballs. They want beagles who pretend to be flying aces, not cockroaches who pretend to be different genders. So, I guess I can understand that. Had Opus made his television debut on Fox, he might have gotten away with his twisted take on Christmas. Hell, he might have given birth to a whole series, as The Simpsons did. On CBS, however, where Garfield and Snoopy make the rules, Opus was a dead duck.

Even Breathed considered the special a failure. He felt that the director was in over his head, and tried too hard to made the show edgy. Breathed didn’t like his own writing, would have preferred a different actor to play Opus, and generally despised the whole production. He says that an eventual Opus film will surely be better than this, but I was actually quite happy with what we already got. I love the ways that Opus and Bill walk, the bluesy musical score, the emotional and comical performances, and the exaggerated, striking backgrounds (even the ones with the disturbing visual gags).

I consider A Wish for Wings That Work to be a real tragedy. It stood at the vanguard of nuanced, adult-oriented cartoons, at a time when mainstream audiences appeared to be ready for them. Somehow, its particular formula just didn’t add up to commercial success. I admit that it’s a little dark, a little uncomfortable, a little out there, but that’s what I love about it. I say that as someone who’s not even a big Bloom County fan. I’m more of a Calvin & Hobbes guy, but you know what I’m getting at.

Walkin’ the Dog, Walkin’ the Dog

Did you know that, over at the Lewis Black fan site, you can submit your own rants? It’s true, it’s true, and if your rant’s good enough, Black himself will read it for an audience in his own, inimitable style.

I decided to try my hand at it in a rant about the anxiety-ridden ordeal that is walking my dog. I don’t know if Black will ever read it, let alone perform it, so I figured, what the hell; I’ll post it here.

Dear Lewis,

I hate walking my dog. I do it everyday, and everyday I ask myself, “Why the fuck do I keep subjecting myself to this shit?”

Of course, I know why I subject myself to it: the little fucker’s a butterball. My fiancee has overfed him to the point that he looks like a burrito perched on sticks. One night he was sleeping under an old, stretched-out blanket my fiancee had crocheted, and he looked like one of those netted roasts you find at the supermarket.

So he needs the exercise, and, well, let’s face it, so do I. I recently turned forty, and the godly metabolism that kept me rail-thin from my teens to my thirties finally gave out like an old air conditioner. I’ve also spent a lot of 2020 drinking more than I usually do, but I doubt you need me to go into the whys about that. So I’ve developed a gut that I’m rather ashamed of, and I figure any activity is good activity, so out with the damn dog I go.

Some people say that they find walking their dogs pleasant and relaxing. They say it helps clear their heads. Not me. Not in the fucking slightest. There’s a lot of shit you have to put up with when you’re walking your dog.

First is the little bastard himself. He’s always fucking stopping. He stops so much that  you can hardly say I’m walking him. Sometimes he stops to investigate a square inch of grass that’s apparently so alluring that I have to drag him away from it. Seriously, he’ll dig in and resist me, leaving little nail scratches on the sidewalk. I’m amazed that his claws haven’t been filed down to flat little nubs. Eventually he’ll give up and get back on the trail, but only so he can continue his pissing schedule. Jesus Christ, how can one fat little dog have so much piss in him? Every five steps he’s lifting his leg and letting loose, whether there’s an object there or not. When I do that, people tell me I need a prescription.

Now, I’m so anxious around people that I won’t use a public bathroom unless I’m alone in it, but this damn dog LOVES a fucking audience. He always waits to shit until someone’s near enough to get a good look. All I can do is stand there like a moron, sheepishly grinning at passersby, while my idiot dog defiles someone’s lawn. Then I have the lovely pleasure of picking up after him. Honestly, it’s not the smell or the appearance of dog shit that makes this experience so unpleasant, it’s really the warmth. When my fingers close around that little lump of former Purina, I get a real sense of the temperature of my dog’s lower intestine. You might say it makes me feel closer to him, like I know the little guy inside and out, but don’t, because it’s a shitty joke.

Meanwhile, people are walking by and looking at the whole thing. Now, even when the dog’s not shitting, these people piss me off. They’re always going in the opposite direction from me, so when I first spot them, I get to enjoy a long period of dread, worrying about how I should address them, or if I should address them at all. What do I say? Should I say hello, or give a silent acknowledgment? Should I nod, or should I just smile politely? Will they even see my smile through this god-damned mask I’m wearing? What if they want to pet the damn dog, and I have to yank him away before he snaps their fucking fingers off?

Usually they just give my dog a compliment. I hate when people compliment my dog, because my dog can’t understand English, and he comes off as rude when he doesn’t fucking respond. So I have to answer on his behalf, and I never know what to say. They give me things like, “Oh, isn’t he cute,” and the only polite response I can ever come up with is, “Gee, thanks,” and I feel like a fucking dumbass. I have nothing to do with the way my dog looks; why am I taking fucking credit for it?

Still, as nerve-wracking as all that can be, the worst and most baffling thing about walking my dog are the intersections. God, I fucking hate intersections, but not because there’s a lot of traffic in my neighborhood. If there was, I actually wouldn’t hate them so much, if at all. No, the real reason I hate them is that at least once a day, invariably, when I approach an intersection with my dog, a single car will pull up and stop at the same fucking time.

Let me repeat that: a single car — that is, with no cars before it, and no cars after it — will pull up and stop at the same time that I approach an intersection. If I had arrived at the intersection a minute earlier, or a minute later, this wouldn’t happen, but it DOES. What’s more, since the state of California apparently deemed turn signals optional at some point, I have no way of knowing what these fuckwads are going to DO. So, I’m standing there with my dog, wondering whether this fucking driver is going straight, or will turn in front of me. Again, the anxious questions run rampant. Should I assert myself and go forward, or is this guy a fucking nut-bag who will gladly run me over? Should I play it safe and let HIM go ahead, or is he one of those overly careful douche-nozzles who likes to feel good about himself by letting everyone else go first? When that turns out to be the case, the two of us end up staring at each other like a couple of dimwits with no plans on a Friday night.

“So, uh, what do you wanna do tonight?”
“I dunno, whadda YOU wanna do?”

This happens everyday, Lewis, and everyday it’s a different car, at a different intersection, at a different time. It happens so often that I have to wonder that it happens at all. I mean, think of all the variables involved in this sort of occurrence.

The time that I leave the house. My energy level, which determines my walking speed that morning. The number of times my dog stops to sniff shit, and the amount of time he takes sniffing all that shit. The number of times he stops to MAKE shit, and the amount of time he takes making that shit. The number of times he stops to piss, and the amount of time he takes doing all that pissing. The number of people I have to slow down and talk to, and how lengthy each of those social interactions becomes.

Those are just a few of the factors on MY end. The fucker driving adds even greater dimension to the equation. What time the asshole left the house. Whether his car started properly. The numbers of stop signs and stoplights he encountered. The amount of time he spent in the drive-thru at Starbucks because those fucking baristas always take FOR-GOD-DAMN-EVER. The number of homeless people he fucking ran over on the way — you get the idea. With so many factors to be aligned, you’d think the odds of a single car arriving at the same fucking intersection as I do each day would be astronomical. Yet, without fail, the mathematics always add up to: GOD-FUCKING-DAMN IT, HERE’S ANOTHER ASSHOLE I HAVE TO DEAL WITH!

After hours of pondering this strange choreography of the universe, I believe I have determined the way that I am going to die.

You see, ten-thousand years ago, the inhabitants of the planet Zebulon discovered how to harness geothermal energy, and use it to power their cities. Since the Zebulonites hired Chespeake Energy to do the work, however, they dug too deep into the Great Magoovian Fault. This caused a massive explosion at Zebulon’s core, and split the damn thing in half like a jawbreaker. The planet’s two hemispheres went sailing across the galaxy as though hurled by heavenly hands. One of the halves came into the path of an Abraxian battlecruiser on deployment, which blasted it out of its way with a photon torpedo. This sent chunks of debris in all directions, and one such chunk was sent on a trajectory that, in time, will bring it into contact with a small blue planet called Earth.

As of now, the chunk is still many millions of miles away, but soon it will enter Earth’s atmosphere, where it will come ablaze and crumble, until it’s about the size of a .32 caliber bullet. Then, it will fall seven miles out of the sky, and right onto my god-damned head.

They’ll find me splayed on the corner of Third and Atchison, where I was waiting at a crosswalk for a car to pass by, still clutching my dog’s leash. The coroner will say something like, “Poor bastard; he never knew what hit him.” But I DID, Lewis. I DID.

Now, I know that this isn’t really how things work. I’m not so egocentric that I really believe that the universe has it out for me, like some cosmic version of The Fucking Truman Show…

…but it sure FEELS that way sometimes.

Your fan,


Ceaselessly Into the Past

The use of firearms requires training, and not just in how to most efficiently bring death upon your target, but in knowing when doing so is actually necessary.

Self-control. Putting the situation before oneself. Recognizing the terrific and irreversible consequences of the trigger pull. These are the behaviors of the fit owner of a firearm. The fit owner is mature, careful, and draws his or her weapon only when death is clearly at hand.

Michael Dunn is not a fit owner of a firearm. I’m not even sure that he’s a fit member of society. Check out the video below to see how his story ended:

Before I get to the point, I want to give credit to Rhonda, Dunn’s fiancee, for her courage in telling the truth. Instead of scurrying and resisting and hiding and lying, she gave the testimony that incriminated her man, even though it clearly broke her heart. That she put justice before herself gives me hope for humankind.

So, what the hell, man? Why did this happen? Many of the comments on the above video say that Dunn is a racist, that he felt an immediate hatred for those boys because they were black. I’m not sure that that’s the chief reason. Prejudice certainly played a part in the motive, but I think what spurred Dunn was something more fundamental than that.

At the introduction to the video, the creator wisely holds on the telling phrase, “I’m the victor, but I’m also the victim,” which reveals, I believe, all we need to know about Dunn to explain this case.

Dunn was a successful man, and I’ve found that success often breeds paranoia. Once you have things, you start to worry about losing those things. Opportunists have reaped fortunes in money and power by exploiting real threats to successful people, and much more by selling perceived ones.

To an old, successful person, nothing is more threatening than the lands beyond the walls, where the indigent and misguided await to take over the world. With their stupid clothes and their fidget spinners and their weird, weird music, these creatures exist only to tear down all that the oldsters hold dear. Of course, this is exactly what every generation does, but let’s not think about that.

The disgust and distrust that every generation has for the next always amuses me. I’m guilty of it too; I hate the culture that teens have constructed, with their bronies, selfies, foodies, besties, and normies, but I try to remember that I was once no different from them. What must my parents have thought of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the surfer-dude lingo we once found so bodacious, or the anti-adult rhetoric of most Nickelodeon programming? It’s a cycle, and every generation insists that the next one is the worst one yet.

Even so, they feel a need to perpetuate it, and then they congratulate themselves for it. New parents say, “I just want my child to have a better life than I had.” Old parents say, “Kids today have it too damn easy.” I’m tough, they’re weak, but I loved them enough to make them weak. A classic ego stroke that works from both directions.

And the reason they stroke themselves is that the truth is hitting them hard. The system never gave them the rewards they were promised for their years of back-breaking work, and now has turned its greedy eye to the kids, to the young, to the liberal, to the ones who are relevant now. All the advertising is aimed at them. All the music is aimed at them. All the great shows aren’t on TV anymore; they’re on these new-fangled streaming services. And these kids, suddenly they’re interested in politics, talking about gun control and pollution and housing costs, and showing their anger that their parents didn’t do anything to ensure a better future for them. What a bunch of bratty little ingrates! While the old and middle-aged rock in their recliners, wondering why retirement isn’t making them happy, these kids are all over television, acting like thugs, rioting about issues they don’t have any right to be involved in, and spouting “OK Boomer” to their elders. It’s like they think they can do whatever they want! It’s all scary and foreign and impossible to understand. Of course, a lot of the examples I’m giving here occurred after Dunn’s crimes, but the sentiments are evergreen.

So I think that the sight of those annoying, selfish punks, blaring their wicked music in a public place, struck a nerve with Dunn. In those kids, Dunn saw all the threats in the world, everything that made him feel small and sad and marginalized as a middle-aged man in a secluded suburb, and he decided he’d had enough. In shooting at those boys, he would strike a blow against this sick, dangerous world that just didn’t make sense to him anymore.

It’s all pretty grim, but that doesn’t mean I feel sorry for Dunn. His victimhood was entirely fabricated. The world was never out to get him. Certainly, none of the kids in the car he shot up were. He thought it was, though, and he had a need to fight back, even if he didn’t know exactly what he was fighting against. This need to be the “victor” was born of an ego made fragile by perceived powerlessness. Here he stood, the last sensible man facing the representatives of the future, a throng of smartass kids and encroaching thugs, all giving the finger to authority with their militant hip hop music, and no one standing up to do anything about it. Until now…and look where it got him.


Having shown no remorse for Jordan Davis’s death, Dunn may never really understand why he was convicted, and why should he? Believing oneself to be a martyr provides the greatest sense of moral superiority, and there’s no more comfortable place than the couch of complete delusion. This is why I find the hateful noise in our culture so unsettling; there are people who really believe that the world outside their doors is full of monsters to be slain. Or, if they don’t think it is already, then it will be after the inauguration. They’re prepping for doomsday when the doom is all in their heads, and they’ll fire the first shot if they have to just to make sure it happens.

Is this how you want to live? Bitter, enraged, convinced that your cherished property is under attack from all sides? Seriously? You think on that a little, then get back to me.

What Really Grinds my G.E.A.R.S.

ac·ro·nym/ˈakrəˌnim/ noun: an abbreviation formed from the initdial letters of other words and pronounced as a word (e.g. ASCIINASA ).

Any given dictionary

Okay people, here’s another scorpion that’s been crawling around my pantry: the continued misuse of the word “acronym.” Say you see a word that’s printed in all-caps. How do you describe it? Well, that depends on how you say it.

Please direct your attention the ending of the above definition, the part that says “pronounced as a word.” This is important, because it means that if you have to read that all-caps word by spelling it out, then that word is not an acronym.

“PG&E,” for example, is not an acronym.

“NBA” is not an acronym.

“UFO” is not an acronym.

“BLM” is not an acronym.

“BRB,” “WTF”, and “LOL” are definitely not acronyms.

These all-caps abbreviations are only acronyms if you can read them out and pronounce them, like “POTUS,” or “NASCAR,” or “LASER.” You don’t read these out letter by letter, you sound them out phonetically. That’s what makes them acronyms.

Those former examples, which are not acronyms, are actually initialisms. That’s the correct term for them. Look now, and learn.

in·i·tial·ism/iˈniSHəˌlizəm/ noun: an abbreviation consisting of initial letters pronounced separately (e.g., CPU ).

Any god-damned given dictionary

Again: if you have to read it out letter by letter, it’s an initialism. “CBS” is an initialism. “SUV” is an initialism. “LAPD” is an initialism. “KYS” is an initialism, and if you don’t start getting a grip on this, you’re going to be seeing that one from me quite a bit.

The point is that not every word in all-caps is an acronym, so stop calling them all that. Learn the difference between acronyms and initialisms, and get a leg up on the language we’ve agreed upon. Intelligent decisions begin with intelligent discussion.

Gettin’ There

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Forget interactive movies. We’ve entered the world of interactive Peak TV series.

In The Last of Us Part II, we get another of Naughty Dog’s unique cinematic adventures, laden with scripted events, lengthy cutscenes, and exaggerated set pieces. Its focus is a single-player, stealth/shooting campaign set in post-apocalyptic America.

So…what’s the big deal? This is nothing we haven’t seen before. Why all the gushing, why all the buzzing, why the hate, review bombs, and death threats?

Well, that’s the interesting part. For what I think is the first — though likely not the last — time, we are seeing backlash against a game not because of it has bad graphics or poor design (this game has some of the best of these ever seen in fact), but because its story and themes are simply too challenging for people to handle.

Warning, spoilers.

The original Last of Us had a powerful story of its own, about an infective outbreak that enveloped most of the world, turning people into violent and dangerous beasts. The federal response was an unsurprising clampdown, so smuggling rings were formed to get needed supplies across checkpoints. One such smuggler, Joel Miller, was tasked with an unusual bit of cargo: a little girl named Ellie, who was to be brought to a group of survivalists called the Fireflies.

Ellie was special in that she was immune to the monster-making disease, and in her biology lied the possibility of a cure. During the trip, Joel, who had lost a daughter years earlier, became attached to Ellie, and when the Fireflies revealed that their exploratory research would kill her, he wouldn’t have it. In a climax that was surprisingly powerful for a video game, Joel slaughtered the survivalists, murdered their lead surgeon, and effectively destroyed any chance at ending the pandemic. Ellie, who was unconscious at the time, had no clue about any of this, and the game ended with Joel lying to her face about the whole thing. It was a particularly impressive ending as it required players to remain Joel’s agent even as he did questionable things, forcing them to pull the trigger and see it through. Maybe said players didn’t agree with Joel’s decision (I did), but they had to go along with it, or else be trapped in narrative limbo.

In Part II, Ellie, now grown up, must face the continuing ripples of Joel’s actions, as must the players. The material here takes on a life of its own, examining its characters, expanding its world, and exploring the different manners of human adaptation. The infection is reduced to little more than a backdrop, but that’s okay, as the horror in this survival-horror game lies elsewhere.

Joel and Ellie have been living in Jackson, Wyoming, a small mountain community developed by Joel’s brother Tommy. It’s rustic, but they have electricity, food, and other leisures. The monster disease is still rampant, so Jackson’s citizens run regular patrols to clear out the infected where they roam. This relative peace has attracted folks from all across the country, and one of them is Dina, a bisexual Jew who is madly in love with Ellie.

Aaaaaand this the point where Naughty Dog invited trouble. Supplanting the former protagonist — a hulking, bearded, Texan man — with a skinny lesbian was the perfect way to make right-wing reactionaries feel threatened, and the usual, scornful accusations flew. Obviously another game developer had been subsumed by the forces of woke-ness, and was using this game to push its evil agenda on us.

Agendas, for God’s fucking sake. Okay, listen, people: the only agenda the entertainment industry has, or has ever had, is to fucking make money. That means capitalizing on trends, shamelessly titillating, and deliberately pissing people off. They’re a troupe of entertainers, a traveling circus, the pushers of make-believe, the original attention whores. They’ll do anything to pull an audience. The more you bitch and moan about how they’re out to destroy your way of life, the more attention– and money — you end up drawing their way. So why don’t you just shrug it off instead of throwing a tantrum? The surest way to destroy a piece of entertainment, after all, is to ignore it. Maybe you should admit that the real reason you’re whining is that you want people to give their attention to you.

Besides, I also think there’s a bit of pandering going on here, but I can look past it, because there’s still a lot of good stuff happening beyond it.

See, what really bothers me about Ellie isn’t her sexuality, it’s her transformation to a self-centered adolescent. Now that she’s securely on the base of Maslow’s pyramid, Ellie is free to linger on dopey teenaged concerns like “omg she kissed me what do I do” and “can’t wait to score some weed.” Her journal is full of angsty poetry, and her personal pastime is plucking out wistful 80s songs on her new guitar. Ugh.

An early scene shows Ellie and Dina discovering a sort of pot house during a patrol. Instead of moving on, they stop and help themselves to some of the crop. After that, they strip down and screw, because as Orange is the New Black, Counterpart, and Game of Thrones taught us, you can’t have a mature story without a little girl-on-girl happenin’. Of course, they’re doing all this when they’re supposed to be working, and I felt like I was watching a couple of Crystal Lake camp counselors tempting fate. After playing as the no-nonsense Joel in the first game, I was incredulous about how stupid Ellie was being — and not for the last time.

Now, despite the bad behavior and obvious titillation she brings about, I really don’t hate Dina. My only problem with her is that she’s too sweet; she cloys me with her little flirty jokes and adorable glances. I realize that she’s meant to symbolize love and hope, a chance for the drifting Ellie to do right, but as such, it’s plain that she’s doomed to a life of victimhood.

The catalyst for this doom is one Abby Anderson, the other horrible blight Naughty Dog unleashed upon the world. Abby just might be one of the most reviled fictional characters in recent history, for some of the most head-shaking reasons. Due to her impressive physique, idiots online assumed she was transgender, tossed in as a token to the woke crowd, and as another attempt to devastate the American way of life. It’s always the end of the west when a woman is strong and capable, after all.

Abby does not, in fact, owe her muscularity to a now-removed penis, but to a strict diet and disciplined workout regimen. Imagine that, huh? She is part of a military-like faction called the Washington Liberation Front that has occupied the CenturyLink Field in Seattle. They eat the meat that they raise on the gridiron and make good use of its gym.

Sadly, this still isn’t a sufficient explanation for those post-apocalypse PhDs you find online, who argue that “it wouldn’t be possible to look like that in this world!” Of course, it’s not possible to turn into a flesh-eating mushroom from the inside out either, but that never comes into question. Exploding fungus people? That’s fine. Women with muscles? Gimme a break!

The other reason people hate Abby is more understandable: early on, she and a crew of her WLF buddies seek out and murder Joel, right in front of Ellie’s eyes. It’s an uncomfortable, vicious scene, but even as I watched it, I knew that the man had it coming. No one could just walk away clean from a past like Joel’s.

It turns out that Abby is the daughter of the Firefly surgeon that Joel killed, the one who could have stopped the pandemic and saved the world. Abby, hurt and haunted, is merely exacting justice. She doesn’t explain this to Ellie, though, so all we know at this point is that she’s a bloodthirsty invader with bulging arms and bitchy eyes. I can understand why people would hate her.

That doesn’t justify, however, the death threats against Laura Bailey, the actor who voiced and motion captured for her. Yep, that’s right: just like with Anna Gunn, who played the similarly disliked Skyler White in Breaking Bad, a horde of “fans,” who apparently can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, hustled online after playing this game and felt completely okay with threatening another human being’s life over the happenings of a fictional story. It didn’t even matter that this human being had nothing to do with the writing of that story.

It seems unbelievable, and I guess it’s possible that Naughty Dog’s PR department overstated the situation to get the game some extra attention, but…I don’t know. People are pretty fuckin’ dumb.

I can’t say I’m surprised at the ever-lowering depths of human stupidity, but I am impressed that it could be riled by a video game. As depressing as they are, these death threats stand as a testament to the game’s effective storytelling. Naughty Dog clearly did something right in order to get these people to react so strongly. I just hope that they played through the rest of the game, and learned a little about what such blind hatred actually earns them.

Anyway, Ellie and Dina decide to ditch Jackson and hunt Abby down. They trail her to Seattle, where they’ll spend the worst three days of their lives. You, as the player, will get to see those days from two angles, as the game switches perspectives, goes back in time, and lets you spend those days as Abby. With any luck, this will help you to understand Abby’s motivations.

So what do you actually do in this game, besides watch the story? Well, mostly you walk around and try to find your way in and out of buildings. You’ll gather supplies, build traps and tools, upgrade your abilities, but really it’s an exploration game. There are lots of little crawl spaces and locked doors to maneuver around, and you’ll spend a lot of time figuring out how to get from here to there. The attention to detail is wondrous: every location has a story. Not all of these stories are unique — you’ll find plenty of suicide notes, for example — but it’s pretty amazing that Naughty Dog took the time to put a tale behind every family, every store, and every room.

It would be pretty boring if you didn’t experience some of the dangers that made this world, though. The real challenges of the game are the groups of creatures, soldiers, and guards that you’ll need to sneak or shoot your way past.

The game tries really hard to unnerve you in these situations, but certain things trip it up. You’ll kill lots of people, people whose friends will wail out their names upon discovering their bodies. You’ll murder folks who are subdued and no longer a threat to you. You’ll even have to kill a dog or two. Now, I know these details were added to make me feel guilty, but it didn’t really work. After hearing baddies cry out, “Oh no, they got Omar!” about a dozen times in one play-through, I found it more funny than sad. After getting my face ripped off by an angry German Shepherd a few times, I was more than happy to reenact the climax of Old Yeller. And when a tense and lengthy stealth section went south because some fucking guard randomly turned around at the wrong moment, I was glad — glad, I tell you! — to disintegrate the fool with an explosive arrow. God, that shit pisses me off.

It’s all very Peckinpah, and the gorgeous, lifelike graphics slam the carnage home with maximum detail, but the simple human desire to beat the game overrides any personal or spiritual misgivings that the imagery is meant to provoke. As the game’s final trophy says, you do what you have to do.

But is it really what Ellie had to do?

In my first play-through of this game, I counted at least three instances when Ellie crossed dangerous lines, and completely without need. At times, I wondered if she even cared about living anymore. Having been robbed, as she sees it, of her purpose, she’s come to lead an aimless existence. As compared to her peers, Ellie comes off as shiftless, irresponsible, even trashy. Although we’re stuck with her as our main protagonist, the sad truth is that Ellie is kind of a mess.

Consider Ellie’s qualities, especially in comparison to the (slightly) more respectable Abby. Abby is rigid. Ellie flows. Abby follows the rules. Ellie follows her feelings. Abby embraces structure and schedule. Ellie forgets to change clothes. Abby collects coins. Ellie collects comic books. Abby’s body is a temple, and she sets goals to improve it. Ellie gets smashed and tokes up. I suspect that Ellie would abuse other substances, too, were they available.

I think that upon learning the truth about Joel’s encounter with the Fireflies, Ellie’s emotional development stalled. Her future was erased, stolen, so she became mired in the past. She tied her own destiny inextricably with Joel’s, and all her actions from that point on became about him as well as herself.

So Joel’s death begins a continuous spiral of destruction, repeated by recklessness and hate, as Abby and Ellie tear each other’s lives to pieces. People are tortured, pregnant women are killed, and in time it becomes plain that there’s just no saving these two: you’ll begin the game rooting for Ellie, and then switch to rooting for Abby, and then stop rooting altogether. There was a point in their first major clash when the game asked me to hammer the Square button so I could make Abby choke Ellie. As Ellie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she began to slide to the floor, I felt the urge to just drop the controller. I wanted them both to just stop. The game would have caused me to lose if I’d done that, though, so I hammered on, feeling a little defeated about it.

This clash seems to end on a merciful truce, and the game continues, apparently months later, in an idyllic scene suggesting that Ellie and Dina could actually live happily ever after. News of Abby’s resurfacing, however, opens the old wound, and Ellie, again, throws a good life away for the sake of revenge.

It turns out that Abby and her friend Lev, while searching for a rumored Firefly base in Santa Barbara, have been captured by a gang called the Rattlers. Now, up to this point, the game has been pretty even-handed about its characters. It’s been fair about showing both their flaws and virtues, but when it comes to the Rattlers, there’s nothing good to show. These are irredeemable bastards who keep slave labor and taunt the infected for fun.

So when Ellie discovers Abby tied to a pole and left to die, I couldn’t help but think of the climactic reunion of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in “Felina.” In that instant, hate, history, sadness, and sympathy all intertwined in a low, pitiless place. It was an emotionally hefty scene that The Last of Us Part II succeeds in evoking.

Ellie cuts Abby free and leads her to a motorboat where salvation awaits, but then, she fucks it all up again, and demands another showdown. It’s a jaw-dropping moment. In spite of Abby’s miserable state, after all she has already suffered, Ellie refuses to let go. As a player, I felt betrayed — I now had to follow Ellie down this awful pit, all the way to the bottom.

There is some hope to be grasped in Ellie’s sparing of Abby (even if it’s a symbolic gesture of forgiveness for Joel), but when she returns home after the encounter, she finds that the price of revenge was very high indeed. Almost everything she valued is now gone, but it feels appropriate and just. As Ellie trudges off for greener pastures, we can only hope that she has learned a lesson.

This whole Santa Barbara sequence is a pretty ballsy move on the part of the writers. Not only does it defy the game’s established plot structure, it unapologetically strips Ellie of all sympathy, and reveals her as the lost soul that she is. After everything I’d already experienced in the game, I was tired of all the killing. I was disappointed in Ellie for pursuing further death, and the gameplay almost felt mechanical. When the fight on the beach began, I got the sense that Ellie was as exhausted as I was, and was only acting out of a desperate need to believe that her personal crusade still mattered.

I know that sounds grim, but I’m actually pretty pleased about it. I’ve played hundreds of violent video games, from Doom to Smash T.V. to Grand Theft Auto, so for Naughty Dog to bring us one that makes me feel something must be commended. They managed to sidestep the deadening effect of continuous video game violence by way of great writing and direction. The story could have been ripped straight from the pages of The Walking Dead, but as a video game, it’s presented in a way that makes it fresh. Since it’s lengthy and well-told, we get to know its people on an intimate level, and a slow-burn effect takes place, much as it does in today’s Peak TV series. After spending so much time with Ellie, I couldn’t help but feel sad as she descended, although I was, in essence, the one making her do it. There’s a peculiar sense of tragedy here.

Sure, there’s been some backlash about the story, and the decisions Ellie makes, but it’s not esoteric video game backlash, it’s a fundamental fan backlash, the sort usually reserved for pop culture phenomena like Lost, The Prisoner, and especially Star Wars.

“That’s not the way my favorite character would act! This is bad writing with poor character arcs! These people have ruined the franchise!”

Yeah yeah yeah. Well, sometimes artists have different things to say than what we might want to hear. Get used to it.

Now, I can’t say I’m not guilty of impugning a video game for taking its story in a direction I didn’t care for. I was appalled at Metroid Other M when I saw how it perceived the character of Samus Aran. In every Metroid game before it, Samus was a bounty-hunting badass, cool as a cucumber, all business and tough as nails. There were moments when rays of pain or empathy shone through her icy shell, but they were brief and restrained. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good Terminators, or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Samus was a killing machine with a good heart, and I loved her for it.

But no, Yoshio Sakamoto had a different idea. He decided it was time to knock Samus down a peg, and present her as as typical anime heroine: self-absorbed, bratty, and due to be subjugated. Now, I know that it’s anime tradition that the tough female character must be brought low at some point, so when I heard that a story-heavy Metroid was being developed by Team Ninja (makers of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball no less), I should have expected this. I also reminded myself that this was an origin story, meant to reveal how a distrustful war orphan became the alien-slayer I admired. It didn’t work, though. I just couldn’t stomach it. The treatment of the character was too off-putting, and to this day, I haven’t played a minute of Other M.

This isn’t fair to the game or its creators, of course. Why should my preconceptions about a fictional character enter into my judgment of the product? For all I know, the game might actually be a lot of fun. What I have to realize is that all heroes, fictional or not, are flawed, and have said or done things that would damage their mystique. That’s why we should never meet them, as they say.

So, if this is who Nintendo says Samus is, all I can do is grow up and accept it.

Yeah. Grow up. Right.

A coda: Annoyed as I was about Samus, the truth is that I actually kinda like it when my favorite characters break down. I’m totally serious. Whenever a Peak TV protagonist, following hours of rational, controlled behavior, just flips out and does something completely off-the-wall, I get a big smile on my face.

I smile because I see these moments as sober reminders that these are not statuesque idols holding the world together, but little human beings flailing to make sense of it. There’s more to them than the heroism that the story requires. Being the rock wears on them, just as it would anyone we know, and at some unexpected point, the death drive spills free, to the consternation of everyone who depends on them — their fans most of all. It’s provocative, thrilling, and it sounds a note that most of us, in our grasping, success-driven culture, are hesitant to acknowledge. To espy the Unspoken Desire is, I feel, the purpose of all drama.

And that’s the success of The Last of Us Part II, really: that it brought believable adult drama into the realm of video games. Its material may be derivative, but by banking on realism, it moved people, shocked people, and hurt people nonetheless. It also got them talking, though maybe not about the things Naughty Dog was expecting. Most impressively, the game revealed some of the ugliness we face in reality, an unpleasant but necessary deed that only the greatest entertainers can pull off. In accomplishing this, video games have truly turned a corner as a medium, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of hardware is due to bring. They have a hell of a standard to live up to.

Polite Society Strikes Back

What a great time to be alive! I don’t care what anyone says about surveillance, the nanny state, or the “cancel culture” — and just what the fuck is that, anyway? A culture that says, “You know, your behavior reflects poorly on the rest of us, so we don’t want you around?” Weren’t we always like that? I swear, these people only give names to stuff when it doesn’t help them — the ability to call out and shout down the assholes is exactly what’s been missing from life for centuries.

How long have decent people shoved their bile down while morons, douchebags, and jackoffs have thrown their weight around, acted like children, and expected everyone else to eat shit and like it? Unlike these walking scraps of semi-sentient garbage, the rest of us were taught that a civilization must remain civil to survive. We had parents who took us to the car and smacked us when we screamed in the store. We had people tell us “no” on occasion. We managed our emotions in positive ways, such as in the gym, or on the track. Most importantly, we learned that we couldn’t always get what we wanted, and that sometimes life sucks, and the reason that life sucks is that there are so many morons, douchebags, and jackoffs in it.

And by God, we can only turn the other cheek for so long.

I’ve come to realize that there are two major types of people: those who take responsibility for their own behavior, and those who blame everyone else for calling them out for it. Well, with the glorious new hashtags of #karensgonewild and #kevinsgonewild, the latter folks are finally starting to understand that it’s not just the people calling them out who have a problem with them, it’s the rest of the fucking world.

It amuses me that the Karens and Kevins of the world are so mad at the camera-holders. They don’t like being held responsible for their bullying. The way they see it, they’ve been allowed to shit on anyone they like all their lives, so why is everyone getting on their cases now? It’s not fair!

Now I know that the punishments we’re seeing, such as lost jobs and ruined reputations, might seem a little extreme. Let’s get real, though: how hard is it, seriously, to not make a selfish, racist tirade in public, especially when cameras are rolling? If these people had just kept their mouths shut and walked away, they could’ve gone right back to their high-paying jobs, their prefab homes, and their 1.5 children, all while maintaining their fitter, happier veneers.

But no: these spoiled filth need to yap. They need to remind us — and themselves — that they are the superior class of person. They need to feel that their particular position in life has earned them some unwritten privilege to step over and intimidate the peasantry.

So I can’t help but smile when I read about another Karen losing her job, or another Kevin issuing a public apology, because of some “But I’m special!” tantrum that he or she threw. I have no sympathy for these people. None whatsoever. They needed to learn a lesson, a lesson that they should have learned when the consequences for failure were not so dire as they are now. I can only hope that these trending hashtags will remain more than just trends; otherwise the assholes will come crawling back, and all opportunities for the growth of our species will be lost.

Ah, Back to Normal

There, now; isn’t this more like it? I sure was getting tired of all that peace and quiet we had during the lockdown. Decreased pollution, family togetherness, resurgent wildlife — I just couldn’t stand it, man. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who felt that way. Thousands of Americans, in defiance of the tyrannical order of “Let’s just try not get each other sick, people,” have burst from their oppressive living rooms to get back to what they do best: good old-fashioned violence.

Okay, seriously. What the hell, man? Can’t you morons do anything right? Can’t you go a week without fucking with someone? Come on, look at some of this bullshit, will you?

Loser in Love Throws a Fit: So twenty-year-old Armando Hernandez Jr. couldn’t get a date, so instead of getting a job, joining a gym, and making new friends, he decided to shoot up a mall with an assault rifle. Makes sense. Even better, he decided to livestream the whole thing because nothing on Earth is worth doing unless it has an audience, or else can be used as evidence. Good man. Surely the chicks will come running now.

Apparently this kid spent his life in online “incel” groups, where young men bitch and whine about how superficial women are, how phony relationships are, how stupid society is, and generally blame everyone but themselves for their continuing virginity.

Well, you know what, Lonely Boy? Maybe it’s time you took some advice from a former “hopeless romantic.” Relationships are a game. Society is a game, and you can’t win a game if you don’t play by the rules. Now, if you want to win the relationship game, one of the first rules you need to follow is: GET OFF THE FUCKING INTERNET. There’s a reason the rest of the world has to be told what an incel even is. It’s that they go outside once in a while, and do positive things with their lives.

Idiot Cop Forgets Sixty Years of Riots: Remember Michael Griffith? Eleanor Bumpurs? Rodney King? Trayvon freaking Martin? Well, here’s a guy who doesn’t. Yep, police killing unarmed black people is just another motif in the American symphony, and even the coronavirus couldn’t stop it from cropping up again.

On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police arrested Bouncer George Floyd for using a fake twenty to buy some cigarettes. That all seemed to go okay, but when the cops tried to get him into their vehicle, Floyd said he felt claustrophobic and resisted. In response, former officer Derek Chauvin decided to take charge of the situation and pulled him to the ground. We all saw what happened next.

I know, I’m simplifying things. Maybe things happened differently from this. Maybe they didn’t. People still argue about whether the aforementioned killings of black people by police officers are justified or not. No matter how vague the stories are, however, the deaths are crystal-clear, and they tend to piss a lot of people off. Burning and pillaging are never far behind.

I don’t know what Chauvin was thinking as he choked the life out of Floyd. Maybe he was got a manly thrill out of making someone his bitch. Maybe he felt proud about putting a piece of “criminal scum” to bed. Maybe he felt excited about putting his training to what he felt was “good use.” Or maybe he really believed that he was doing the right thing, and that his badged brothers at the MPD would hail his actions as heroic and proper. But he should have known better. He should have realized that he was repeating an inflammatory event. He should have known that he would be hated for it. And, more than anything, he should have known that, instead of standing beside him, his image-conscious superiors would turn on him, brand him a rogue, and wash their hands of him.

And so the wheel has turned. Once again, a man’s desire to look like a badass has only made him look like a dope. Hell, I guess I shouldn’t expect a higher virtue, like, say, wisdom or compassion, from a guy like Chauvin. At the very least, though, I expect self-preservation: that he might stop and ask himself how this whole thing is going to look. Because from where I stand, it looks pretty bad.

Rioters Misdirect Anger, Alienate Rest of Country: Look, protesters, I know. “Motherfuck a window; Radio Raheem is dead.” My problem here has nothing to do with the value of a black man’s life as compared to the value of white property. My problem is about showing how stupid you look in punishing the wrong people. How the hell is burning some random stranger’s business or car going to teach the police anything? It only reinforces the idea — to onlookers as well — that you’re a horde of errant children what needs a good thumpin’ in order to behave.

Besides, if you’re going to make any kind of difference in this world, you need as many people on your side as possible. Now, I can guarantee to you that the person whose livelihood you just destroyed is not going to aid you in furthering a political cause. You might as well try to take revenge on the bully who broke your arm by going to your friend’s house and breaking his arm. Wouldn’t it make more sense to enlist your friend to help stop the bully?

If nothing else, can’t you at least show more sense than Mr. Chauvin up there by stopping and thinking about how this all might look? I don’t know. Call me an idealist.

President Reassures a Troubled Nation, “Don’t Worry, I Feel Fine!”: With disease, mass shootings, police brutality, and riots weighing on their minds, citizens turned to their good president for guidance, understanding, and just maybe, a little uplift. In return, our fearless leader found the strength to remind us about what’s really important: his own safety.

Great job last night at the White House by the U.S. @SecretService. They were not only totally professional, but very cool. I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe. They let the “protesters” scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard – didn’t know what hit them. The front line was replaced with fresh agents, like magic. Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action. “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and good practice.” As you saw last night, they were very cool & very professional. Never let it get out of hand. Thank you! On the bad side, the D.C. Mayor, @MurielBowser, who is always looking for money & help, wouldn’t let the D.C. Police get involved. “Not their job.” Nice!

Donald Trump

Thank goodness! The system works.

Facebook Friends Vie for Moral Superiority: I understand the need to feel like a voice in the struggle. That’s why I have this blog, after all. The question is: what’s your struggle?

To a lot people on Facebook, any struggle is good enough to be a part of, even if they have nothing to do with it. It makes them feel important and involved, even if it’s in a minor, tenuous way that doesn’t require a real commitment.

So now you have indignant teenagers shrieking about issues they don’t understand, and friends fighting each other because over issues they think they understand, but don’t. In fact, unless you’ve been mistreated by police because of the color of your skin, you can’t understand that issue. But that doesn’t stop people from taking sides on it, and waving that side’s flag proudly, unapologetically, and unshakably. And on social media, nobody knows when to shut up, so now, everyday, a different person rants to me about how they’ve lost respect for another friend on Facebook, and how they have to snooze everyone they know.

I don’t know what people expect. Hell, I don’t know what I expect. We’re all just dopey little creatures who want to have a good time, and who don’t really know what they’re doing. The events we’re dealing with are nothing new. They were only delayed because we had to stay inside for a while, which kept us from causing trouble. I like think that we learn from our mistakes, but history is not a line shooting heavenward, it’s a circle that loops from the dark to the light and back, for all eternity. The same lessons must be learned over and over by each generation. I suppose that’s why Hindu historians emphasize events over names and dates: names and dates are interchangeable; the events are all basically the same.

You know what? If that’s the case, then maybe I’ve been looking at American life in the wrong way. Since it’s clear that Americans can’t handle the serious issues that are bound to recur in a revolving history, then maybe it’s better that they not think about those issues.

I often complain about all the stupid bullshit floating around our culture, but I’m starting to realize that bullshit is what keeps the knots loose around here. What’s needed right now is a pointless distraction that’s proven to soothe the savage American in the face of fearful times. Let’s see…what kinds of activities can do that? Hey, professional sports leap to mind! So, come on, Mr. Goodell! I appeal to you now: forget the pandemic and get broadcasting again! Who cares if it isn’t the right season? Our great nation needs the NFL’s special brand of opiates to get it back in the headspace it works best in: drunken frivolity!

Hmm…well, maybe not. I’ll get back to you on that.

What Literally Grinds My Gears

1. taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory. “dreadful in its literal sense, full of dread”
2. (of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text.

Any freaking dictionary

Okay, this is getting out of control, people. Everywhere you (figuratively) turn, there’s a thousand (figurative) morons misusing the word “literally,” and it’s (figuratively) making my head explode. I’d say we’re due for a refresher course, but don’t (figuratively) come at me for being pompous: I didn’t make these rules, you know.

The first problem we face lies in the mistaking of the word “literally” for a means of emphasis. People are using it as a denial of exaggeration or embellishment, the way they once used the words “really,” or “truly,” or “seriously.”

“Seriously, brah, I totally banged my sister’s ass in my dad’s bed last night” would be a correct (or least acceptable) use of these terms

Of course, using “literally” as a way to communicate that “I’m totes not joking, guys” is almost right, but still completely wrong. Please direct your attention to the most important phrase in the above definition of the word “literal,” which is, “without metaphor or allegory.” This phrase is key to the correct function of the word “literally,” which is to mark that whatever is being said is not, in fact, a figure of speech.

For example: if you become attracted to the gal in the house beside yours, then you are right to say that you have “literally fallen in love with the girl next door.” “Girl next door” being an age-old metaphor, the word “literally” correctly points out that, in this particular case, the metaphor isn’t necessary. The words of the sentence express its meaning without approximation.

Here’s another one: Say you’re doing some work in the yard, and you tear one of your gluteal muscles while reaching for the hedge trimmers. In this case, you’d be correct in saying, “I’m literally busting my ass out here!”

Next: suppose you get in an argument, and the other guy gets so angry that he swings a sledgehammer at you and crushes both of your testicles. Even the most anal diction-nazi couldn’t stand up to you if you said, “He’s literally breaking my balls over this!”

Finally, say you’ve just been in a firefight, and you discover that your car won’t start because there’s a bullet in the engine. You can feel safe in knowing that you now have full rights to say,

“The alternator’s shot. Literally.”

Leave it to Mike to show us the way. I hope what I’m saying is (figuratively) sinking in, because there’s still more to talk about.

You see, the other big “literal” problem arises when people use the word for its opposite purpose, i.e., to enhance a figure of speech instead of to neutralize it. You should never, ever do this, unless your aim is to sound like a character from Idiocracy. Observe:

  • Unless you live in the slums of Ethiopia, odds are you’re not “literally starving to death.”
  • The phrase “he literally said that with his eyes” sounds like something out of a Clive Barker novel.
  • If you “literally never spend time at home,” then you are, in effect, homeless.
  • It is impossible to say that you’re “literally dying of laughter” because you’d be gasping too hard to speak.
  • For your head to be “literally killing” you, it would have to have separated from your body, taken hold of a weapon, and then found the leverage to wield it so as to perform a lethal blow. Of course, by this point, the separation would have already killed both you and the head.

So come on, folks: the next time you want to tell the story of how your online waifu literally broke your heart, think a little before you speak. Otherwise, your friends might mistake you for a zombie with a hole in its chest, and blow your brains out with a .32 special. The only good news there is that you’d then be correct in saying that your friends literally ghosted you.

A Dead Whale of a Tale

Hey guys, guess what? Yeah, it’s my turn to talk about this thing.

After playing Death Stranding on the PlayStation 4, I’m convinced that the gulf between American and Japanese cultures, as well as that between video games and movies, are still vast, and might not be crossed for several generations. I’m not sure if Hideo Kojima was trying to bridge those gaps in writing and designing this game, but if he was, I’m sorry to say that he failed.

The reason I’m sorry about that is because Death Stranding is an uncompromised venture. I can see that it was made with a sincere and unquestioned enthusiasm, but I think that a little questioning might have done it some good. I find its gameplay engrossing, but it’s not for everyone, and its cinematics and backstory — impressive though they are — are certainly not for most gaming audiences.

Death Stranding is a game about delivering things, not just hiking or walking as some folks like to complain. It’s about plotting routes, packing materials, and maintaining equipment (artificial and natural). It’s about setting up signs and services to facilitate trips for oneself as well as for others. It’s about making a plan and watching it come together. It’s also highly physical: balance and momentum are always at odds in this game, so one must consider each step carefully to avoid damaging tumbles.

What I’m saying is that Death Stranding is the sequel to Solar Jetman that I’ve been waiting for.

I’ve always loved games like Solar Jetman and The Oregon Trail, in which the details and decisions of travel actually matter. It bugs me when the challenges of roughing it are abstracted down to random monster encounters. I don’t want to just slide my characters around a world map; I want to experience it. I want to decide how to deal with a fallen tree, how to cross a rocky gorge, or how to scale a cliff. I want to see my characters heft themselves over logs, trudge through muddy fields, and fall over in the dirt. We’ve recently seen some rugged, outdoorsy adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption II, and I think Death Stranding took a lot of inspiration from them. Still, Stranding, with its harsh, ghost-ridden world, leaves them far behind.

Death Stranding asks me to do all those things I talked about, from finding ways up mountains to finding ways around pirate camps. It gives me a big map, some basic tools, and a whole mountain of deliveries, and says, “Get to it.” It lets me explore, it lets me experiment. It lets me fall over, and then figure out the best way to avoid falling again. Some players jeer at this, saying that the protagonist’s flailing and flopping makes him look pathetic. I say, as I make Sam trundle across a barren, seemingly endless plain, bowed under hundreds of pounds of cargo, that feeling pathetic is part of the point. This game is as much about isolation as it is about delivering. It’s about trying to make a difference in an indifferent world.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing just isn’t all that popular. People don’t want to pretend that they’re small, or that they’re part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel powerful, important, better than what they already are. Of course, “better” is a subjective term, and only indicates what a person values, not the value of that person.

I admit that Death Stranding is simply not the sort of game that most gamers want to play, and I can’t say I blame them for their sniggering. This is a AAA, big-budget release, brought to us by the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, so expectations for the next big thing in action games were high. A ponderous meditation on loneliness and logistics was not what these people were looking for. I’d like to say that this was an intentional, large-scale joke committed by one of gaming’s best-known pranksters, but I’ve given up on analyzing Kojima’s motivations.

What I do know is that Hideo Kojima loves to spin stories. Big stories. Big, anime, sci-fi stories about world-ending catastrophes, the dangers of technology, and all manner of other social issues. He tends to be a little overzealous about it, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the Ed Wood of video games, as he’s actually pretty damn talented, but I do fear that he shares some of Wood’s delusional verve.

You see, Kojima tries really, really hard to ape his favorite Hollywood movies, but oftentimes his efforts are misplaced. In Snatcher, one of his first games, there’s an early scene in which a character separates from his wife in a flying car. As the car ascends, the character says something, but the engine roar drowns it out. The wife says that she can’t hear him, but then he flies off, and we never know what was said. I take it that this was meant to be some sort of tearful parting, not unlike the Train-Station Goodbye of Since You Went Away, but this is not the last time the two characters ever see each other. In fact, since this scene occurs right at the beginning of the game, the two are bound to interact quite often. The mystery of the drowned-out line is never brought up again. It feels like Kojima just put it there to put it there. Without a fitting subtext, the drama falls on its face.

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game Kojima made many years into his career, there’s a love scene between two awkward scientists. The man’s an anime nerd who’s falls in love with any pretty girl he sees, and the woman’s a treacherous reptile who injects people with grey goo. There’s so little to like about these characters that the tender, heartfelt music that plays as they surrender to ardor only made me shake my head. Later, the woman commits suicide, while her new lover, witnessing the act through a computer screen, bawls likes a baby. I’m not even a fan of Shakespeare, and I was embarrassed at this overblown attempt to emulate him.

To put it simply, Kojima is very much in love with being a director, although I don’t think he knows what being a director really means.

Sadly, this lesson continues to elude him in Death Stranding, whose delightful kernel of gameplay is surrounded by an absurd, Lynchian melodrama. Although I just spoke about the profound melancholy that I feel when playing this game, I can’t say that’s what was intended, because the tone is all over the place.

The apocalyptic setting for the game is lovingly crafted, but its explanation is so complicated that it employs a whole glossary of jargon. There’s some dark symbolism with frightening implications, but there’s also a whole lot of ham-fisted silliness about ropes, knots, and strands that gets tiresome quickly. There’s also that unique preoccupation with marine life that could only have sprung from a culture of islanders. It’s striking, but it feels out of place in a story that won’t stop reminding us of how American it is.

I’d say the biggest problem, though, is in the game’s characters. They’re all modeled after real actors (and comedians and film directors), and they look amazing. Seriously, Death Stranding in action makes even non-gamers turn their heads with its up-to-the-minute cast and presentation. But then these fabulously rendered beings start talking, and we find that they’re given names that sound like Mega Man villains, and dialogue worse than anything Anakin Skywalker ever said.

“It’s all the truth, except for the lies.”
“We run together…like Mario and Princess ‘Beach.'”
“Take the first step, Sam, and deliver the president’s body to the incinerator.”

They say these things with tremendous gravity, and I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to react. I suppose this is the fault of poor translation. For all I know, the original Japanese script could have sounded downright poetic. National differences, however, can’t explain the indulgent visuals. When you play this game, expect lots of long, lingering shots on Lea Seydoux’s pouty face and panty-model’s butt.

I’m sure there are a lot of apologists who’ll say that I’m not supposed to take Kojima’s games very seriously. In fact, the first song that plays in Death Stranding — and there are a lot of songs — is titled “Don’t Be So Serious.” That would fall in line with the idea that Kojima is really a master troll, but I suspect it’s more of a copout, and a coverup for the man’s wanting skill as a storyteller.

I can get past this, though, because I love playing the game so much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m even thinking about it when I’m at work, or getting out of bed in the morning. I keep thinking about how I want to thread my route so as to complete the most deliveries in one swoop. I keep thinking about how I need to truck some metals from the distro center so I can finally finish that highway I’ve been working on. I keep thinking about the new bola gun I just got, and which MULE outpost I should try it out at. I keep thinking about BB, and how difficult being a parent really must be. In these manifold regards, the game really has its hooks in me.

My concern is that most others won’t agree with me, and as a result, we may never see another Death Stranding again. It was too much risk for too many eye-rolls. The thing is: I respect the risks that Kojima took with this game. I like that he left his fingerprints all over it. Any creative person should look to this game and be inspired by it. To the end of my days, I will gladly argue that big-budget entertainment is in sore need of that wondrous, childlike love of creation that Kojima is in touch with, cringeworthy or not.

Concerning Creepshow: The Series

Well, I’m glad it’s back, anyway.

The internet adores Shudder’s new Creepshow series. It seems to have set new ratings records for AMC’s horror streaming service, and its success has seen it renewed for a second season. I’m oh-so-glad for this, because I’ve loved Creepshow, the movie, for most of my life. To see it rise from the grave to warm adulation just jolts my jaded little heart.

So why do I feel that it’s lacking somewhere? What’s wrong with me? I want to enjoy it, and there are parts of it that I truly do, but when I watch it, I can’t help but pick it apart.

Part of it is in the direction. The show makes many missteps, even in its very first episode. Gray Matter, the short story by Stephen King, is a small-town suspense tale on the lines of Weeds, and it’s extremely simple. There are some terrific actors in it, including Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito, but they don’t have much to work with. They have no time to develop as characters, and so they feel wasted. In The Crate and The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, there are some actual dynamics going on. Henry Northrup changes from milquetoast to confident killer. Jordy turns from happy hick to suicidal alien food. There’s a change of some kind happening in Gray Matter, but it’s really just a jerk becoming a different kind of jerk.

Gray Matter also suffers from a poor ending. Where the short story ends on a note of uneasy dread, the show goes for exaggerated panic, and it doesn’t work very well.

The follow-up act, House of the Head, shares this problem. It’s a neat little story about a dollhouse that becomes the site of a figurine murder mystery. The premise is intriguing, and Cailey Fleming, who plays the little girl watching the weirdness unfold, gives an endearing performance. The suspense builds beautifully, setting us up for a shocking surprise ending…and then it just stops. Boo. Boo, I say!

Many times, it feels like the makers tried to cram too much story into too little space. The worst offender here is Times is Tough in Musky Holler, which really needed a whole forty minutes to itself. It’s basically one long execution scene, with its setup told in comic-book flashbacks. We’re supposed to relish the suffering of the assholes being condemned to death, but it’s not all that satisfying when we only have glimpses of their crimes.

It’s also very predictable. Most horror fans are familiar with the EC formula by now, so nothing Creepshow throws at us is capable of surprising. We know that someone innocent will suffer. We know that the asshole responsible will be punished for it, and we know that the creature/supernatural element is going to do the job. What we’re waiting to see is how it happens. The sad thing is that it often plays out exactly as we expected it to (The Silver Water of Lake Champlain), or else the show is frustratingly vague about it (Bad Wolf Down). Then there are times when the ending doesn’t make any sense at all! I’m looking at you, Night of the Paw.

What’s more, we don’t get a whole lot of that Creepshow feel. The vibrant, comic-book styling of the movie is rare, though sometimes it’s used to cover up sequences where actual visual effects would have been too expensive. It sure would have been nice to see those werewolf transformations, instead of a cheap flip book effect!

The music is weak, too. Where the score in the movie was haunting and thematic, the music in in the series is painful in its mediocrity. None of the stories has a theme of its own, and there’s no synth! What the hell, man?

Then there’s something else that bothers me. Now, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel like the series doesn’t take itself seriously enough. Heh, crazy, right? I’ve been of the mind that modern television is far too grim these days, and needed some lightening up, and now I’m turning on myself. Maybe that’s why people love this series so much: they, too, are tired of all the self-serious bullshit on the tube, and are ready for something mature, but irreverent.

I can dig that, but I don’t think that pure irreverence works for Creepshow. It was great for the Tales of the Crypt series, which this new Creepshow seems nearer to than anything else. The movie, though, for all its silliness, still had an edge. It picked up on primal human frights, and forced us to look at them. Creepshow had people buried to their necks, struggling to keep their breath as relentless ocean waves battered their faces. Tales from the Crypt usually had people getting hit in the head with axes.

The two standout episodes of the series, The Finger and Skincrawlers, don’t lean on simple shock imagery. They present situations that are freaky, and yet relatable. What would you do if you discovered that your beloved pet started doing horrible things? What would you do if you had the opportunity to shed the body you’ve always hated, and become skinny in an instant?

I should note that these two stories also work so well because they feature run-down shlubs who hate their lives. These characters don’t need a lot of time, or deep, rich performances to make us feel for them. Not that DJ Qualls or Dana Gould do a poor job; they’re both great. There are wells of real emotion in them, and we want them to make it out of their situations alive. Still, they’re no match for the late Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook. Those two guys took a crazy story like The Crate and made magic out of it, simply by playing it straight. Most of the lesser actors in the Creepshow series don’t have the skill or experience to provide such effortless depth, and the whole show suffers for it.

Creepshow, the movie, succeeded because it found the spirit of the old EC comics: it slugged us in the gut before it gave us a hug. It hurt us because it loved us, and we couldn’t help but love it back, even though it left a bruise. Creepshow, the series, never quite hits that chord. It’s a little too playful, and it meanders around too much. It comes close, though, and I’m glad it’s going to be around to keep trying.