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Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in our trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

The films I feature in Trilogy of Terror could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. This year I’m covering Christian horror. Which, evidently, exists.

Part of the reason I chose this theme was that I wanted to watch Harmless.

Okay, let me take that back, because that’s a lie, and we know where liars go. What I wanted to watch was “that movie about the haunted box of pornography.” That’s all I remembered…that unforgettable and thoroughly ridiculous concept for a film that really, truly couldn’t be anything short of hilarious in execution.

For a while, this movie seemed to be everywhere. Sites I frequented were writing about it and friends were sharing the trailer on Facebook. It looked like a riot. It was, so far as I could tell, a found-footage horror film about a man whose family is terrorized by the monster he let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a box full of pornographic magazines.

I couldn’t remember its title, and I didn’t even know if it had come out…but I knew I’d seen the trailer making the rounds years ago, and surely it couldn’t take that long to make.

And, to be fair, while I had no faith (haha) in the film being good, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the outset. Yes, it would be low budget. Yes, it would be preachy. Yes, it would be overacted.

But pornography addiction is a very real thing. It’s an actual problem, like any addiction is. And there could possibly be some twisted mileage to get out of turning it into a horror film, with the demon of addiction personified. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can imagine it working. It would need to be self-aware and at least periodically humorous, but I can see the concept being conducive to exploring addiction — and the way it can tear families apart — in a memorable and interesting way.

After all, isn’t fighting addiction a lot like fighting demons? (The answer is “yes” because that’s exactly the idiom people use to describe that situation.) A movie can bring a demon to life and force the characters (and us) to look it in the eye. The fact that a spiritual filmmaker might see that demon as real and a secular one might see it as a useful metaphor is a big difference, but that shouldn’t in itself dictate how believable or enjoyable the film is.

Unfortunately, it looks like Harmless was never actually made. The trailer lives on, but evidently Rich Praytor — the film’s director — shot footage just for this purpose. They weren’t clips from a film he was making, but rather proofs of concept. I have to give him credit for that. It was a labor of love, and he edited this trailer hoping people would buy in.

I mean that literally. Harmless was a Kickstarter project that failed to meet its paltry goal of $12,500. It pulled in just under $600 in pledges before Praytor saw the writing on the wall and cancelled the campaign.

Of course, as someone who has his own failed Kickstarter behind him, I don’t see that as a specific reason for mockery. Praytor had an idea and he asked the world if it was interested. The world collectively replied, “Nah,” and he moved on with his life. All in all, that’s admirable.

That was in 2012, and as much as I scoured the internet in the hopes that Harmless eventually materialized in some other form, I found nothing. There are sites (including IMDB) that claim it was released, but there’s no evidence of it, the Kickstarter was cancelled, and there are other sources that indeed say the film never happened. The world is poorer for it.

And yet, in 2014, another Richard Praytor film appeared. This one was called The Lock In. And it was a found-footage horror film about teens who are terrorized by the monster they let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a pornographic magazine.

Harmless may have died, but its spirit rose again in The Lock In. And thus we have this year’s Trilogy of Terror.

Unless it’s relevant to the film — or my reading thereof — I wouldn’t usually bring up outside details of a director’s life. But in this case, looking for Harmless, I came across a lot of information about Praytor. Not as a filmmaker, but as a stand-up comedian. You can watch the nearest thing to a highlight reel here. To his credit, he received an endorsement of his talents from Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series. To his larger discredit, the Left Behind series is by no means known for its quality and completely lacks a sense of humor, so these words of praise are exactly as relevant to his craft as they would be coming from his local butcher.

I’m mentioning this because…well, Christian entertainers gonna entertain Christians. I get it. But what was this tepid, family-friendly chuckle-slinger doing investing himself into two different horror movie projects? If Praytor’s gift is comedy, and that’s the talent he’s honed for over a decade now, and what he uses to speak what he considers to be the language of Christ, then why wasn’t he making comedy films instead? Especially as the premise of a spooky porno book would have to work far less hard to succeed as farce than it would as horror?

I honestly have no idea, and I’m baffled. Praytor’s comedy in that compilation isn’t the sort of thing that appeals to me directly, but there’s clearly room for it. I don’t find it especially smart or clever, but I can’t imagine there are many church-appropriate stand-up comedians jostling for the space he occupies. I’d be willing to believe he’s filling a niche. But having watched The Lock In, I’d be unwilling to believe it was directed by anyone with a single funny bone in his body.

The Lock In is terrible, but that’s not its crime. Many movies are terrible and yet compulsively, deliriously watchable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 launched a widespread appreciation of cheesy movies, and the genuine financial success of things like The Room and Sharknado proves that people don’t always need a movie to be good before they’ll devote their time to it…they just need to get some kind of pleasure out of it. Watching the wheels fall off an inept production does bring along with it a kind of thrill, and it’s one that sticks with us. We could watch hundreds of competent ballet performances, but we’re always going to remember the one in which the lead dancer tripped and fell over.

The Lock In, though, is neither competent nor is it humorously awful. It’s just a bad movie. It’s one that does nothing right, but also fails to do anything wrong in any interesting ways. It’s the kind of movie that might have been made by somebody who spent a few hours reading about what movies were, but had never actually seen one.

Praytor doesn’t seem to know enough about film to even attempt anything interesting, and so nothing in the film is. And when the central threat of your film is a pornography ghost, that’s both a real problem and a big missed opportunity.

The plot is simple enough. (Beware of spoilers for a movie you’ve never heard of and which isn’t available for purchase anywhere.)

On their way to a church lock-in, three friends stop to clean out their car. Justin is the one holding the camera, Nick is the nice one who has a crush on a girl named Jessica, and Blake is a prankster. Blake finds a dirty magazine in a dumpster, and thinks it would be funny to smuggle it into church.

He does, and strange things start happening, such as a garbage can falling over, and somebody off camera turning on a faucet. All of the other lock-in participants vanish, leaving the three teenaged idiots to be mildly inconvenienced in the least inventive ways imaginable. At one point they find another of the participants, but then she vanishes again, so there was really no point. The kids scream a lot, and eventually Praytor hits the 90-minute mark and the film ends.

If that sounds impressively unfun for a movie about a pornography demon, that’s because it is. At every opportunity, Praytor chooses the least interesting way forward. But he does — stopped clock that he is — hit upon a strong concept for the film’s presentation right out of the gate. It’s not original, but it’s appropriate, and it sets the film into a kind of identifiable logic that, sadly, falls apart the longer you look at it.

It begins with what should be a brief interview of Chris, a former youth pastor. I say it should be brief because it actually runs to nearly five minutes, which is a Hell of a long time for a character we don’t know to speak dead-eyed to the camera before the movie even starts.

Chris mentions that footage exists of the lock-in that made him resign from his position as youth pastor, and they’ve edited it down to just the highlights so that the church elders could see what happened. Then there’s a static title card that says:

The following footage is intended for review only by the church board. Any duplication or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

That’s good. It tells us immediately what kind of film we’re going to see (found footage), it explains why this footage happens to be the same length as a movie (it was edited to give a specific audience a beat-by-beat overview of what happened), and it makes us feel as though we’re going to see something important (we’re breaking the strict prohibition by not being a church elder / member of the church board).

That single slide does a lot of work setting the film into motion. Sadly, it’s about the only thing that works, but Praytor at least plays into the kinds of things you can do with the concept. By allowing some unknown editor within the world of his film to “edit” what we’re seeing, we aren’t subject to an hour and a half of unbroken footage directly from the perspective of Justin’s camcorder.

Instead, this was assembled after the fact, with the ostensible goal of providing as full a view of that night’s events as possible, Praytor lets his phantom editor splice in security camera footage, Chris’s interview, and, at one point, footage from a separate recording that has nothing to do with the lock-in but does provide further insight into what’s happening.

That’s all fine. In theory.

In practice, these aspects all fall short. The spliced-in separate recording (which we’ll discuss in greater detail later) doesn’t offer as much insight (or horror) as Praytor thinks it does. The security camera footage could provide a valuable outsider’s perspective, but all it really shows us is a second angle of kids walking down hallways. And nearly all of the film — and certainly all of the important moments — are seen through Justin’s camcorder anyway, usually in extraordinarily (and unwisely) long scenes that positively cry out for editing.

The fact that Chris opens the film telling us it has been edited to just the most important information becomes an unintentional retroactive joke; if you’re editing this down to show the elders that a pornography ghost stomped around their church when nobody was looking, why didn’t we cut out the long scenes of the kids waiting for each other to get ready, making small talk with parents, and sitting at traffic lights?

Admittedly, those are the things that can help with world building in film, particularly at the beginning, when audiences are still getting their bearings. But this footage doesn’t need to build a world; it occupies the same world as the elders who are meant to be viewing it. They know these places, know these people, and know these issues. All they have to see is what happened. Introducing this film as a piece of evidence for church investigation is smart, but incompatible with the actual content of the film.

Praytor seems to want to have it both ways. The scary Blair Witch Project / Paranormal Activity hybrid that traces a tragedy as it unfolds, and a believably mundane buddy film about three youngsters who meddle with things they shouldn’t. But the two approaches are at odds; The Lock In explicitly claims to be one thing, and then relentlessly positions itself as the other.

It’s strange, and the fact that there’s a didactic core to the film that insists viewers never look at pornography at any point in their lives doesn’t do it any favors. It can’t be too scary, because a wide audience needs to see this and be cautioned against the scourge of women who expose their nipples. The boys can’t be too realistic, because teenage boys curse and make crass jokes and do other family-inappropriate things. The Lock In works so hard to make sure it can appeal to everyone that it appeals to precisely no-one.

That’s a gap that all overtly Christian movies struggle to cross. (No pun intended.) Horror movies can’t be too scary, comedies can’t be irreverent, and tragic tales can only be so tragic. These are films pitched directly to the choir, which has always amused me. They aim to teach, but they’re written for those who are already taught. The final product has to be clean and acceptable enough to those who have already learned the lesson, preventing the lesson from reaching the wider audience that actually needs to hear it.

But…who needs to hear it?

In the case of The Lock In, I’m not entirely sure. People who like pornography, I guess. Or at least people who don’t actively hate it so much that they’ll dedicate months of their lives to making a film to convince others that they should hate it, too.

Which is…an odd lesson. If you are going to reach sinners and convince them not to sin, why is this specific sin the one you’re cautioning them against? Why a modern-day parable about the importance of masturbating less? A good number of the Ten Commandments are still pressing concerns for society…do we really need to focus on a deep-cut lesson like this that Jesus himself couldn’t have cared less about?

Once again, though, pornography addiction is a serious problem for those who struggle with it. But I’d argue — with confidence — that the problem is the “addiction” half of that phrase, and not the “pornography” one. Addiction to anything is inherently bad. Even relatively benign addictions sap us of our focus, our money, our time, and drive wedges between us and the people we love. Then, of course, you get into addictions to drugs and alcohol, which additionally sap us of our health and our lives. Further, addictive behaviors involving violence or non-consensual sex acts add direct consequences for others, beyond the addicted individual.

Addiction is absolutely a problem for many people. There’s certainly a scale upon which addictions can be ranked from bad to worse, but addiction to anything should be addressed.

The problem is that The Lock In isn’t about the evils of pornography addiction…it’s about the evils of pornography.

The kids with the dirty magazine don’t struggle with addiction. They just find some pictures of ladies with staples through their stomachs and barely look at any of it. Blake hides it in Nick’s bag as a joke. Nick’s crush Jessica finds it when riffling through his bag for cookies. They immediately get rid of it.

That’s not addiction.

And while the slippery slope possibility is in play — and largely born out by the separate footage we’ll discuss shortly — I don’t buy it. Yes, addiction often has roots in behavior that seems frivolous. It’s just a cigarette. One more beer won’t hurt. Yeah, I’ll pop a pill…everyone else is popping them and they seem fine.

But here, the kids don’t even demonstrate an interest in the magazine. And that’s the interference from the choir again. For these three modern-day Onans to show interest in pornography would be…well, that would be unseemly. And if we want to show this in church, or watch it with grandma, we can’t have that. So even if the kids are meant to represent the first stage of addiction, it doesn’t work. This is even sillier than a movie that shows alcoholism starting with one sip of wine…this is a movie that shows alcoholism starting with an accidental glimpse of the liquor aisle in a supermarket.

In fact, we don’t even get a glimpse of the pornography here, which breaks the reality significantly. Early in the film, the ‘Baters Three find the haunted pornography in a dumpster. Justin, the documentarian, films Blake and Nick as they look at it, but he never attempts to get into an angle that shows the material. Granted, I don’t expect a Christian film to include clear shots of Hustler spreads, but why is Justin filming anything if he’s not even interested in showing his subject?

Instead we see Blake and Nick poring over the magazine and making necessarily vague comments about it. (“Nice little magazine,” says one, referring to the pornography. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” replies the other, referring to the great advances in vagina manufacturing that had been made since the pornography was published.)

But Justin never shows us what it is, which is odd for someone who is meant to be documenting the experience. It’s like someone making a nature documentary by filming some scientists talking about their findings without ever turning the camera slightly so that they could actually film the findings. It goes against every creative and human impulse, and it makes the film feel unnatural. That’s a problem that’s even worse for found-footage films, when the entire thing relies on a feeling of worrying familiarity.

Of course, we could assume that Justin is a bit prudish himself, and wouldn’t want to personally see — let alone film — a dirty magazine. But we know this isn’t true, because at the very beginning and the very end of the movie, we see that he possesses pornography of his own. (Quite why he filmed himself flipping through skinmags at the start of the same tape he’d use to film the lock-in is beyond me.)

The fact that we don’t even get context for what the magazine contains, specifically, means it could be a Victoria’s Secret catalog for all we know. Which is a shame, because periodically The Lock In does bump up against some legitimate concerns.

For instance, Pastor Chris — upon discovering the magazine in the church — chides the boys for looking at something that degrades women, and there’s an actual discussion to be had there. The film doesn’t have it, but people are entitled to that opinion. I personally don’t have an issue with pornography as long as the participants know what they’re doing, are willing to do it, and have the right to say no at any point. If that’s how somebody chooses to makes his or her living, so be it. But I can understand the perspective of somebody who thinks it’s inherently demeaning. I don’t agree, but I understand, and they have every right to express their concern.

The fact that we don’t know what the magazine contains, though, works against that concern. Are we talking about some truly appalling smut? Or are we talking about the lingerie section of a Target flier? I keep referring to the magazine as pornographic, and that’s clearly the film’s intention as well, but its actual nature is never revealed. Pastor Chris could either be making a fair point about being respectful enough of other humans to look away from their bad choices, or he could be a Helen Lovejoy, howling with dismay that somebody modeled a swimsuit.

We don’t know, and without knowing, it’s difficult to invest. There’s clearly a vast spectrum between those two extremes, and without defining the specific point on that spectrum Pastor Chris and the Three Jacks are referring to, we can’t share in either their response or their concern. The underpants catalog can’t be met with the same degree of indignation as the snuff film. So where do we start reacting? Where do we start pushing back? To what degree do we fight to keep it out of our lives?

Whatever the nature of the porn, the kids have to speak with Pastor Chris. He lectures them for a while about how looking at these things is like driving to somebody’s house and spying on his wife through the window, which is objectively wrong in every possible way.

Then he teaches them a lesson by rolling it and making them smoke every last bit of pornography.

Frankly, I think Harmless was the smarter idea for a film. It still would have been terrible, but I can see it making some kind of point. The demon that terrorizes that protagonist’s family could function as a metaphor for the way pornography addiction could (figuratively) tear his family apart. The Lock In doesn’t have those kinds of consequences at its core. Nobody’s in danger, aside from the kids who broke the rules in the first place.

With Harmless, you’d have a family of innocents paying for the sins of the father. The stakes are naturally higher, because they don’t deserve whatever evil or turmoil the patriarch brought into their home. On some default level, you want him to atone for what he’s done and for everyone else to make it out unscathed. Here, in The Lock In, once things go wrong, literally everyone else is whisked away somewhere safe. The three boys are left alone in the church, and anyone who isn’t involved is sealed away somewhere that the bad things can’t get them.

That’s a serious miscalculation. Without innocence, there is no horror. There’s nothing at stake. The kids who walked into the meat grinder get ground into meat. That isn’t scary…that’s just a process.

Of course, this opens up a further discussion of its own: horror films are often morality tales, which you’d think would lead them to fit quite well with a didactic, Christian approach.

But innocence is relative. In a horror film, a character may be killed because he or she is guilty of a number of infractions. Having sex, disturbing a spirit, or even just walking into a room they were told not to enter. A knife comes down, fake blood spurts up, and we’re on to our next victim. The specific morality changes from film to film (and from villain to villain), but nearly always the punishment comes as a direct result of something the victims did. The killer didn’t like that they did it, and so he or she exacts revenge.

Rarely, though, will those in the audience agree with the killer’s sense of morality. I’m having trouble thinking of an example of a horror film in which the audience is morally aligned with the killer’s perspective. We may well agree that the teenagers shouldn’t have snuck into the woods to have sex. We may well agree that the shifty guy shouldn’t have stolen the idol. We may well agree that the moron shouldn’t have gone into the basement. But in each case, the brutal reprisal is likely far beyond what we would consider fair. These characters aren’t chided for their perceived misdeeds; they’re decapitated, disemboweled, flayed alive.

The horror lies in that moral gulf. If the punishments were fair, they wouldn’t be scary. They’d be just.

Therefore it’s important that however the villain’s moral compass is calibrated, it’s not in alignment with a representative member of the audience. If it were, well…they wouldn’t be a villain. (And even less would they be a monster.)

Do you see the discrepancy? In a Christian film — one which operates under the rule of the Christian God — we don’t have a crazed man in a hockey mask. We have The Lord Above. There’s still a moral code by which the characters are judged and punished, but those punishments can’t be unjust, because they’re meted out by God Almighty.

The Christian God is fair, the Christian God is loving, and the Christian God forgives. If the Christian God punishes you, it’s because you deserve punishment. Exactly that punishment. There’s no room for discussion, because the Christian God is perfect. When Jason hacks you apart, you don’t deserve it. When God does it, you definitively do.

As with the meat grinder, it’s just a process. Horror films nearly always feature a psychopathic presence or force carving its way through people who don’t deserve to die. God — from the perspective of a Christian director and Christian audience — can’t possibly be viewed through that lens. That’s not what He is, and a film meant to bring others to Him can’t — and by no means should — portray Him as a crazed, vindictive killer.

Which means that there is no innocence here. The sinners get exactly the punishment in line with the degree of their sin. That’s not my personal opinion or reading of the film; that’s what it has to be, because the punishment comes directly from God. It must be right. It must be fair. Therefore it must not be horror.

It’s interesting, the fact that two kinds of morality tales turn out to be entirely incompatible. I’d honestly have expected horror to be a fairly useful vehicle for proselytizing before The Lock In convinced me otherwise.

In fact, injecting the actual Christian God into the film — as opposed to, say, some undefined force of goodness — becomes more problematic the longer you think about it. Perhaps the most amusing wrinkle is that of Pastor Chris, whose interview at the beginning of the film occurs at some point after the night of the lock-in, and Chris talks about how shaken up he was by everything Justin captures on film.

Of course, those words turn out to reveal Chris as one hell of a wimp, as the scariest thing in the footage was a garbage can falling over. But before we get to any of that, Chris spells out the fact that what happened was so horrifying, so soul shattering, so disturbing that he had to retire from the church immediately.

Which is the sort of thing that would be fine in a normal horror film. A docent quits his job at a museum after a night of being tormented by ghosts. A gravedigger flees and becomes a shattered hobo after seeing a skeleton claw its way up from the ground. A nurse can no longer bring herself to work with sick people after barely living through a zombie epidemic.

Fine. Your life is one way. Secure, stable, and predictable. A night of terror throws everything out of whack, and you’re unable to find balance again. That’s okay. That’s human.

But it doesn’t work in a Christian film, with a pastor, because you don’t get to run from spiritual warfare. You are called and commanded to fight. That’s why it’s called spiritual warfare, and not a spiritual scuffle happening across the street that you should probably just ignore. It’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” not “Quick, Out the Back Door, While Satan’s Not Looking.”

The Christian God commands us to stand firm in the face of the devil. Of temptation. Of evil itself. Both testaments of the Bible are littered with the corpses of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of their faith. They were taunted. Tortured. Killed. They are presented not as fools for clinging to their faith even when it meant their lives, but as heroes. As martyrs. As examples to be followed. Instead, Pastor Chris followed the example laid out in this classic hymn: “When danger reared its ugly head / he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

I know he might have been afraid of dying, but that’s literally what you’re supposed to do for your faith. You can’t even make the argument that by surviving he is able to reach more people, because he stopped being a pastor!

Pastor Chris, from a narrative standpoint, is meant to frame what we’re about to see. He’s a much more easily shaken Rod Serling. Praytor needs him to be so frightened that he quit his job to sell insurance — and cut off all contact with the kids he used to mentor…the children who relied on him…including those who had nothing to do with what unfolded that night — because we in the audience need to grasp the severity of just what went down.

But, from a Christian standpoint, Pastor Chris doesn’t get to do that. He isn’t allowed to see the fiery eyes of the dark lord and flee for his life. He must fight. Must stare the devil down. Must protect his charges. That’s what he’s there for, specifically. Instead, we are left with the mental image of Pastor Chris scampering away to the tune of “Yakety Sax.”

Pastor Chris’s response means he can only function as a comic character, but this isn’t a comedy, and nothing is funny. It also means that he can’t be the wise and honest man of great integrity that the film needs him to be. If he is, then he was a shitty youth pastor. And if he’s not, then his film-opening cautions against what we are about to see are meaningless.

And, again, please remember that what he was shaken up about was footage of a trash can falling over.

I don’t mean to keep harping on that, but for a horror movie, in which a demon is awakened, in which teenagers ostensibly fend for their lives, in which evil itself is on the prowl, and which lasts an hour and a half, you’d expect something more to happen. You really would. And it doesn’t. It’s a movie about haunted pornography, and a trash can falling over is its moneyshot. If that’s not a missed opportunity, I don’t know what is.

In fairness to the film, other theoretically spooky things do happen. Everyone vanishing, for instance. Doors locking of their own accord. The church being thrust into literal darkness. Though Satan, terrified of being cited for yet another OSHA violation, makes sure to keep the fire exit signs lit.

But those things are more for atmosphere (darkness is scary) and logistics (there isn’t a movie if the kids can open a door and escape). In short, those aren’t the scares…they set the stage for scares to come.

And come they don’t.

A few attempts at scares are made, such as when the kids find an irrelevant little boy crouched alone in a room. They go up to him, he makes a demon face, and that’s that. He factors into nothing, let alone any conceivable theme in the film, and doesn’t have anything to do with what came before or what follows.

Strangely — but not surprisingly — the other scare pulls the exact same trick. This time it’s a man in some interview footage the kids find in Pastor Chris’s office. The man speaks about his addiction to pornography, and we get as close as we’ll ever get to the film addressing a real-world consequence of looking at too much porn. In fact, it almost sounds as though this guy is reciting the elevator pitch for Harmless. Might as well stick it somewhere, I guess.

The guy tells his sad tale of addiction and of a sense of creeping horror in his home that he feels while cranking one out to www.actualphotosoffemaleshoulders.com. At some point during the recording, Pastor Chris gets up and leaves the room. (Which seems to be his way of dealing with any spiritual struggle.) The guy makes his own demon face at the camera.

Boo!

It’s not scary — it’s pretty funny — but all the scene did was make me wonder why Pastor Chris filmed this to begin with. What’s he going to do with footage of a parishoner describing his sad masturbation sessions? It’s strange. And didn’t Pastor Chris look at the footage later and see the demon? I don’t get it. What was it for if not for reviewing later? The demon face wasn’t even an illusion that the kids saw; it was actually in Pastor Chris’s film, as evidenced by the fact that we don’t see it through Justin’s viewfinder…it’s spliced in from the original source.

At one point the boys find Jessica shrieking in a closet, which comes as some kind of relief to them, but then she gets abducted by an unseen pornography goblin, or something, and none of them bat an eye. In fact, they later perform some kind of strange puppet show with paper cups to amuse themselves (a cuppet show?), which certainly goes a long way toward convincing me they can’t possibly be in any danger at all. I wouldn’t put on a puppet show after finding out I lost a $20 bill, let alone after I saw my girlfriend get dragged screaming into Hell.

It’s easy to figure out that Jessica is there (“left behind,” to use a term I just invented) because she also touched the magazine. But that’s more than a little unfair. She pulled a paper bag out of Nick’s backpack because she thought there were snacks in there. The moment she noticed it contained pornography, she shrieked and reared back, as all soldiers of Christ are commanded to do. She even got on the phone to complain to some unrelated peer that a guy she knows has gazed upon a woman’s flesh.

So why is she being punished? That…doesn’t seem just. Does God (as viewed by Praytor) insist that you don’t gaze upon pornography with lust in your heart? Or does He insist that you don’t even accidentally touch it with the back of your hand? Poor Jessica.

The three boys are then picked off one by one, with the exception of Justin, who stumbles around alone for a while, and then finds himself back at the beginning of the night, as the lock-in begins. Everybody is safe and accounted for, Pastor Chris is giving the same little “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” speech he gave at the start of the event, and nobody believes Justin when he starts describing the crazy things that happened.

Which in turn makes him regret that never thought to film the entire thing hey waitaminute…

Justin never gets the idea to grab Pastor Chris by the neck and say, “Look, Bozo,” and replay the footage — the evidence — that he’s literally holding in his hand. He doesn’t do anything with it.

Think about that. He has an actual, physical recording that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the God they are told to worship and the demons they are told to fear are real. He has proof. He can save every soul in that room just by pressing “play.” He can save every soul in the world by uploading this to the internet. Hell, at the very least, he can claim his one million dollars from The Amazing Randi.

At this point, Justin is an actual prophet. He should be coming down from the mountain with his hair white, preaching the word of God. He should be the modern-day Moses…one who’s actually in a better position, because he was allowed to bring his GoPro up Mount Sinai.

Instead he just shrugs and goes home, amazed nobody else remembers what happened.

And, again, this wasn’t an illusion; it did happen, which is why the footage is being submitted to the church elders and Pastor Chris is selling insurance out of the trunk of his car. This is real. God and Satan revealed themselves to Justin in turn, and allowed him to film their arm-wrestling match. Mere moments later, he rides silently in the back of his friend’s car, on the way home to throw out his pornography.

The ultimate cosmic truth was revealed to him, and him alone. He also has it documented. The fact that he uses this profound, urgent knowledge to give up wanking would be comical if The Lock In had any degree of self-awareness whatsoever. Instead it’s like a man developing super powers, but only using them to warm up his coffee.

The Lock In doesn’t just fail at making its point…I think it unmakes other points. It’s a damp squib when it should be a sensational blast. It’s a can’t-miss premise for a legendarily bad movie that misses the mark of fun entirely. It’s the anti-masturbation screed the world never needed, told through an illogical format and unwatchable clumsiness.

It’s difficult to fault the actors. They’re asked to scream and run in circles far more often than they’re asked to recite lines, and the lines they do recite are clearly not of their own making. (The teenagers all speak like what a 40-something Christian humorist assumes teenagers must speak like.) Their hearts aren’t in this, and I’m proud of them for that. They don’t even get credited in the film, and I’d be shocked if they got paid for it.

Whoever they are, I hope they make to Heaven. The ridicule they’ll receive from their peers until the day they die for starring in Don’t Touch Willy: The Horror Movie is punishment enough.

Note: Due to the nature of this year’s theme, please keep comments relevant. Discussing the ways in which these films handle theology is appropriate, but bashing or preaching outside of that context is not. Let’s talk about what the films get wrong. Let’s talk about what I get wrong. Let’s not talk about what Christianity, or any religion, gets wrong. There are places to do that, but this is a place where I say bad words at movies.

Post-revival Red Dwarf has been pretty uneven. I think it’s safe to say that. Fans may not agree on the particular high points and low points, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say that Dave-era Red Dwarf is unilaterally good. We can disagree about where it stumbles, but at the same time we can all agree that it does stumble.

I had no idea what to expect from series XII. And, well, one episode in, I still don’t. I feel a mix of optimism and trepidation. Optimism because series XI was, I felt, the strongest the show has been since series VI. And trepidation because…well, series X and “Back to Earth.”

The show could go either way at this point, but that arguably represents progress. From series VII through X, the show felt pretty stuck. Which is an odd thing to say, I admit, as every one of the series in that group feels completely different from the others. When I say “stuck,” though, I mean stuck in terms of quality. The show had trouble shifting out of low gear, no matter what the vehicle itself might have looked like, or who was in it.

It probably sounds like I’m being dismissive of Doug Naylor’s solo work on Red Dwarf. And I am, but not because Rob Grant left after series VI or because I don’t think Naylor is capable. I just feel that it took him a very long time to find his footing after Grant’s departure. That doesn’t mean he’s lazy, untalented, or any number of other clearly false accusations I could throw at him. It just means the machine worked a lot better when there were two people manning the controls.

Red Dwarf was still alive, which could be seen as a good thing. But the lows were much lower and the highs nowhere near as high or frequent as they had been. That’s a pretty heavy counterweight.

But then we had series XI. Specifically, we had “Twentica,” the first episode of that batch.

And it felt right. It felt like Red Dwarf. It felt like the past few series hadn’t happened at all. And it wasn’t just good…it felt effortless.

It made me laugh, it made great use of a solid concept, and it told its story in a really fun and unexpected way. It was the best episode I’d seen since the original run, and it proved that Naylor’s solo version of Red Dwarf really could recapture the magic of the show at its best.

The rest of the series, I’d argue, proved that that episode wasn’t a fluke. I didn’t love all of series XI, but I sure as hell appreciated it. Even the weaker episodes (“Samsara,” “Officer Rimmer”) had a lot to recommend them, and the strongest (“Twentica,” “Krysis”) absolutely deserve their placements pretty near the all-time best. In other words, when series XI misfired, it still worked. And when it was good…well, it made VII through X feel even stranger.

So we’ve proven it. Naylor crafted for us his first sustained run of episodes worthy of the Red Dwarf name. And, of course, we turn to XII to see if that can last.

I don’t think “Cured” answers the question, but I do think I’m being a bit harsh on it simply because the previous series was so good. “Cured” feels, at times, an awful lot like classic Red Dwarf. But series XI already proved that Naylor could do classic Red Dwarf. That’s no longer the pleasant surprise that it was…it’s the expected baseline. And I don’t really think “Cured” rises above it.

The central concept, it has to be said, is great, and feels absolutely ripped from the classic years. If I was told this was an idea from the show’s heyday that they never got around to making, I’d believe it. The crew finds a research station that has developed a cure for evil. Proof of the cure’s success struts around in the forms of harmless versions of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Messalina, and Vlad the Impaler.

It’s a classic-feeling idea, and it mainly brings to mind the waxdroids of “Meltdown.” (Even moreso when it’s revealed that these figures are indeed robots.) There are a lot of possibilities for this to play out, but the important thing is to explore the idea in interesting ways and have some fun with it.

“Cured” does that. But it still feels rather…empty.

I think part of that feeling comes from the fact that the show’s two strongest characters — Rimmer and Kryten — don’t get much to do. The Cat and Messalina have a dynamic, Lister and Hitler have a dynamic…and the other two just disappear for a while. Even when they are on camera, they just sort of take up space. The opening scene — in which The Cat develops his poker face — has a few token lines from Rimmer and Kryten, but otherwise they just wait quietly while Lister and The Cat have their fun.

It’s a little weird. We’ve had plenty of scenes in which two characters play off of each other alone. (Such as Lister and Kryten at the beginning of “Camille,” or Lister and The Cat stuck together in “Samsara.”) But we don’t usually have other characters present, doing nothing, and it feels a bit off. Scenes like this would have been a perfect opportunity to give Rimmer and Kryten some business if they weren’t much involved with the main plot, but it didn’t happen. Couldn’t Rimmer have taught The Cat about a poker face instead?

To be frank, though, I liked the scene. I liked it a lot, and I thought it was genuinely funny. Danny John-Jules has been a consistent highpoint of Naylor episodes, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. I just wonder why Rimmer and Kryten got so clearly sidelined.

I will, of course, contradict myself right now, because I liked the fact that Rimmer was sidelined toward the end. As Kryten is reading the results of the psychopathy test, I can’t have been the only one who expected the psycho to be Rimmer. That’s the way jokes like this have been structured in the past (“Justice” being perhaps the most obvious example), and those jokes work. Rimmer is a deeply flawed human being, and earlier in this episode he both suggests leaving five people behind to die and carps about potentially having a wheelchair-bound scientist aboard Red Dwarf. All signs point to Rimmer.

And yet it’s The Cat. Which is the more surprising outcome, and yet totally believable. It’s funnier. It’s smarter. And it sets up a great conclusion in which The Cat is the hero of the day. Not, of course, because he behaves in any heroic manner at all, which makes it even better.

I liked so much about “Cured.” I liked far more than I disliked. The guest actors were all very good, with probably the most adorable Hitler we’ll ever see in any form of media. There were good laughs sprinkled throughout, even if I didn’t see the extended guitar duet as the highlight the episode clearly thought it was.

My main problem with it, though, is the reveal that the scientist himself is a villain. So many great episodes of Red Dwarf explore a concept — and/or introduce danger — without there being a clear villain. “Meltdown,” again, is a good example; there are warring factions, but the episode doesn’t give us a big bad, and so allows Rimmer to become one. Or “Legion,” in which the title character is in no way a bad guy, and yet must be overcome in order for the crew to escape. Or “Better Than Life.” Would that episode have improved if Rimmer had a rival other than himself?

Episodes with distinct bad guys can work fine. (“The Last Day,” “Quarantine,” “Out of Time”) But “Cured” didn’t feel like an episode that needed one. It had a strong enough central concept that some kind of episode-ending decision (as opposed to defeating a bad guy) could been spun out of it. In fact, we toy with one such decision: do we leave them behind to die or take them with us?

As written, the “right” answer is clearly the latter, but with some tweaking, it could have posed an interesting ethical dilemma. Maybe Starbug with its busted thruster can’t hold the weight of five more people. It can only hold three more, say. Evil’s been cured, so these folks won’t fight and argue and backstab to get the spot. What do they do instead to curry favor? It would be interesting to find out.

Instead, though, the point is abruptly rendered moot. The historical figures are only robots, and the only actual living human is a bad guy.

That’s not interesting. It gives The Cat a great moment, but it deflates so much of the episode’s potential.

I liked “Cured.” I have a feeling that watching it again will make me laugh instead of think, though, and that’s a shame, because there’s a really strong concept here. And while the episode by no means fails, I think it does shirk the opportunity to explore it the way the best episodes have done.

Red Dwarf is back. It feels like itself again. It’s justifying its existence.

Now I’m just waiting to see if it can — or wishes to — do a little more.

Happy October! I know, it’s weird, I didn’t expect to live this long, either.

October is one of the months I look forward to most on Noiseless Chatter, and I really hope you do, too. We’ve got a lot coming up, and so I wanted to take a moment to let you know how the coming weeks will unfold.

– Trilogy of Terror: Oh yes. Trilogy of Terror is one of my favorite features to write, and though we’re only into its third year of existence, the feedback and traffic I get from it tells me you enjoy it, too. Each year I write longform essays about three related horror films in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I’ve got some truly memorable ones for you this time around, along with a theme I very much hope you’ll find as fascinating as I do. I have the first two posts drafted already, and just need to take screenshots to finish them off. I’m thrilled to get to share these with you. What films will they be? You’ll have to tune in and find out. The first installment goes live on Oct. 17, the second on Oct. 24, and the third on Oct. 31. I hope you’ll join me.

Red Dwarf: Red Dwarf is coming back again! Since I’ve reviewed the previous two series on this blog, I figure I might as well do this one, too. I’m not exactly sure when it starts — evidently the online premiere dates still aren’t determined? — but I’ll be here, reviewin’ and stuff. Series X was pretty awful with moments of greatness and series XI was pretty great with moments of awfulness, so I have genuinely no idea what to expect from series XII. Maybe the vending machines will have sex.

– Fight, Megaman!: Another of my favorite features is Fight, Megaman!, but that has a rapidly expiring shelflife. I’ve already covered eight of the 10 games I’m going to look at, and I actually just have the final review left to write. We’re almost to the end of the journey…except that I’ve decided to do something a bit more than I’d originally planned. After Fight, Megaman! is complete, I’m going to flesh out my analyses even further, correct a few things, elaborate on a few other things…and publish it as a book. The book will even feature many games I am not covering here, such as Mega Man & Bass, the Game Boy titles, and various spinoffs. I’ll keep you posted as this progresses, but I hope this is something that satisfies everyone. If you don’t want to buy anything, you still get the entire feature, as promised, here for free. If you do want to buy a book, you get some nice bonuses for your money, and hopefully some cool artwork. Stay tuned.

– Fight, Megaman X!: And, hey, speaking of spinoffs…a number of you have asked if I’ll cover the Mega Man X series next. The answer has to be no; I’m not as familiar with or in love with that series as I am with the classic style games. But we will be covering them here after all! Friend of the website Samurai Karasu will pick up when Fight, Megaman! leaves off. I’m very much looking forward to reading those along with you.

– 5th Annual Xmas Bash!: We’re talking about all my favorite Noiseless Chatter things today. The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is coming soon. I’ll post details as soon as I have them, but you can expect another five hours of forgotten Xmas specials, holiday commercials, bizarre Christmas music videos, the best live chat on the internet, and so much more. I’ve made a lot of progress putting the stream together already, and after I finish Trilogy of Terror, work will start on that in earnest. If you’ve joined us before, I hope you can make it out again. And if you haven’t…really, come on now. It’s a live stream of vintage Xmas dreck, commentated in real time by people much funnier than me. (Such as you!) Be there!

– Choose Your Own Advent: Last year I debuted a Choose Your Own Advent feature, in which I published an essay about a different novel every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 24. I have an idea for bringing the feature back this year…but it will really come down to how much time I have. My fingers are crossed, but obviously my priority will be the Xmas Bash! Therefore, if this is a feature you really want to see again…speak now!

Anyway, that’s just a taste of what to expect, and an excuse for me to gush a bit early about Trilogy of Terror. It’s going to be great, and I’m excited to hear your thoughts on what I’ve chosen to exhume this year.

I’ll see you soon!

Boy, I hate Mega Man 8.

I’ve played worse games, of course. Plenty of them. In fact, if I made a list of the 50 worst games I’ve played, Mega Man 8 probably wouldn’t be on it. But I do truly hate it.

I don’t hate bad games, usually. As I’ve discussed before, I like junk. I like trash. I like watching the wheels fall off. There’s a giddy thrill to that which holds genuine appeal for me.

Mega Man 8, though, I hate. It’s not “fun” bad. It’s “tedious, irritating, pointless” bad. In fact, if it didn’t have the Mega Man name attached, I don’t believe there’s any chance at all that it would be remembered today. It doesn’t stand on its own merits, it isn’t entertaining, and it absolutely is not worth playing.

I honestly expected that the game would grow in my estimation this time around. I’d played it a handful of times before, at least once to completion, but here, now, for this series, I’m opening myself up. I’m digging deeper. I’m finding things I’ve never found before and, as I’m forced to articulate my opinions, I’m learning that I sometimes feel differently than I thought I did.

But Mega Man 8 is the same old game I’ve hated for years. If it’s grown in my estimation it’s only done so by some negligible amount. The one thing I can say for sure is that I’m reminded of all the reasons I pushed it away in the first place.

This is probably the right time to mention that I never had a PlayStation. That console hit its peak when I was firmly in the Nintendo camp, and its superior successor arrived when I had more or less stopped playing video games altogether.

Is that the reason I missed out on Mega Man 8? I’m going to say no, since I also missed the two previous Mega Man games the first time around. The series had lost its grip on me. Perhaps if I had owned a PlayStation I would have gotten Mega Man 8 as a gift at some point. But I doubt I would have sought it out. And if I had…man, I would have wished I hadn’t.

I grew up with Nintendo. For me, it wasn’t a company…it was a promise. The video games they made — and the games released for their systems — were escapes for me. Many years later, literature would scratch that same itch, and far more deeply. But when I was young, when I had little to look forward to and a lot to run away from, video games were an important coping mechanism. I could pick up a controller and have a say in what happened. I could try again and again to beat the same level, and eventually triumph. I could start out weak, and end up strong. The Mega Man games were probably the perfect distillation of that mindset, and I believe that’s why they resonated with me so strongly.

And, of course, I didn’t think of “video games” as being my escape; I thought of “Nintendo.” It’s a name that still, to me, sounds like the name of a friend. I had an Atari, but it didn’t grab me the way the NES did. Or the Game Boy did. Or the Super Nintendo did. I got a Nintendo 64 as well, and I loved it, but at some point during its lifespan I found myself with less time to play and less interest in what I was missing. I didn’t turn my back on Nintendo…I just lost touch with my friend.

I was aware of the PlayStation, but, to be frank, it never impressed me. Not back then. That’s an opinion I’ve been fortunate enough to revisit much more recently, and I like the console now. Back then, though…I didn’t really see the appeal.

I remember the controller feeling awkward to use, which is something I’m sure I was not alone in; it was redesigned relatively quickly. I remember the offputting fact that the games came on CDs. I was used to playing CD-based games on my computer, and was already well familiar with how easily they got scratched and how temperamental the reader could be. I remember those early PS1 graphics looking…well terrible. The colorful worlds I expected in video games were replaced with darker, murkier textures that looked neither realistic nor inviting. And so I played some PlayStation games with friends, and I had fun, but I never felt as though I was missing out by not having one.

Until I played one game: Resident Evil.

Playing Resident Evil the first time was one of my formative gaming moments. I remember my friend Mike bringing it over. I remember passing the controller back and forth with him and my other friend Dave. I remember the thick, visceral tension we felt as soon as we booted it up.

While this doesn’t sum up all of the feelings about Resident Evil I had that night, it’s worth emphasizing one thing: it scared the living crap out of me.

It’s silly to look back at it now that its cutscenes and writing and voice acting have been eviscerated mercilessly, but back then…I guess we just didn’t care. I still remember thinking those things were terrible — we were already in the habit of watching bad horror movies, and Barry’s delivery of the word “blood” alone had us rolling as hard as any of those films did — but somehow that wasn’t important. Maybe the acting was terrible, but was that really what mattered? We’re trapped in a mansion full of zombies and intricate death traps. Any laughing relief we get from that is bound to be fleeting; around the next corner we might have to use our last two bullets against a monster that will kill us anyway.

Resident Evil is the game that convinced me the PlayStation had merit, simply because it did something no other game had been able to do. No, being frightened wasn’t high on my list of priorities while gaming, but the fact that Resident Evil could elicit that response from me…could trouble and upset me psychologically…could tap into a part of my brain I had never truly had tapped by a game before…that meant something.

Of course, Resident Evil was developed be Capcom. And I’m currently playing through The Disney Afternoon Collection on my PS4, which is reminding me of just how important Capcom was to my experience of the NES. More than any other developer, I think, Capcom defined video games for me. It defined my expectations. It defined my sense of level design and progression. It defined my taste in game soundtracks. It defined what it meant to play. And then, years later, with Resident Evil, it defined so much all over again.

I love Capcom. Whatever silliness and shenanigans they may get up to today, they’ve earned a permanent place in my heart by creating a huge percentage of the games I remember fondly.

All of which is to say, if anyone could have given the world a great Mega Man away from Nintendo’s consoles, it was them. They understood the formula. They proved with Mega Man 7 that the aging series had life in it yet, and they proved with Resident Evil — in the same year as Mega Man 8! — that they could provide compelling, defining, important games for that generation’s unexpectedly successful new console.

What they produced instead was a game I hate.

And nobody’s more disappointed by that than I am.

Funnily enough, the one thing I really enjoy about this game is the one thing for which it’s most often reviled: the animated cutscenes.

I’m not saying they’re good. In fact, let’s clear that up right now: they’re absolutely terrible and they deserve the mockery they’re destined to receive through the end of time.

Having said that, though, I enjoy them. They’re silly, cheesy, cheap, and poorly acted. Which is…pretty much exactly what I hope for whenever I crack open a movie that looks terrible. There’s an appeal to genuine garbage, and Mega Man 8‘s animated sequences occupy an incredible sweet spot that only the truly best of bad entertainment can achieve.

Despite the fact that I didn’t play this game upon release, those cutscenes still hold nostalgic value for me. In late high school, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was cancelled by Comedy Central. The Science Fiction Network bought up the rights, and aired it early on Sunday mornings.

I’d wake up, turn the television on, and enjoy one of my favorite shows. Then, after that, they’d show an anime film. And, here’s the thing: it wasn’t good anime.

I don’t remember any specific films they showed, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much in the way of context. Suffice it to say this was years before Adult Swim used Cowboy Bebop to teach Americans that anime might be worth watching. The Science Fiction Network was, I’m sure, just plopping something cheap into a timeslot before the bulk of its audience woke up. And so we got poorly dubbed, poorly animated, slapdash wastes of time instead.

And I loved them. My friend Nate and I both enjoyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 and found ourselves transfixed by whatever silly, forgettable anime garbage followed. We’d talk about it the next day in school. And watching the cutscenes in Mega Man 8 reminds me of that. It reminds me of watching those films and mentally preparing notes to share with Nate. It reminds me of laughing with him in the hallway. Had either of us played this game back then, I’m sure we would have tracked the other down as quickly as possible and forced them to play it. It was just the right kind of bad when it came to those sequences.

Replaying it for this review, I think I laughed harder than ever. It’s truly incredible stuff. The legendary speech impediment of Dr. Light is topped only by the same actor’s inability to get any of his lines right, resulting in stumbles that are, for some reason, left in the final edit. There’s Mega Man’s idiotic mispronunciation of Bass’s name. (As well as Bass’s masterful rejoinder: “Shut up.”) There’s Duo, whose voice actor seems to have recorded his lines in the middle of the night while trying not to wake his sleeping grandmother.

It’s gloriously bad.

The story this time around is fairly involved, by Mega Man standards. There’s some kind of unexplained intergalactic clash between opposing forces of good and evil. Good wins — which is nice — but the conflict sends a batch of “evil energy” to Earth, where Dr. Wily finds it before Mega Man does. From there it’s eight bad robots and a fortress…the same melody as ever…but at least it’s not Wily in cataract glasses being handed the keys to the Death-mo-tron 2000 by an increasingly moronic Dr. Light.

Introducing the conflict as an external force that Mega Man must then fend off from his home turf is a smart move, and it makes the stakes feel somewhat higher. We know Mega Man can topple Wily. He’s done it how many times now? But the dark energy from beyond the stars is an unknown quantity. The fact that the game does nothing with that (you can remove it entirely from the plot and nothing would change) is a bit disappointing, but it still makes your task in the game feel larger and more important than it actually is.

Thinking about the story reminds me that there is one other thing I like: THE END CREDITS.

…I’m actually not saying that as a punchline. I really do like the end credits. They include scans of the artwork submitted for the Robot Master design contest that was held for almost all of the original Mega Man games. Fans would send in their creations, and the developers would choose the winners, redesign them, and include them in the game. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I’m pretty sure the competitions were Japan-only, with the exception of the one for Mega Man 6, which — in nice keeping with the theme of the game — allowed Robot Master submissions from all around the world.

The competition for this game, from what little I’ve read, included some guidelines. They wanted one Robot Master to have long arms, another to have two heads, and so on. Fans came up with their ideas, sent them in, and we see a bunch of those actual submissions as the credits roll. It’s pretty adorable and the one true touch of personality to be found anywhere in the game. It’s also a nice use of the CD format; including actual scanned picture files isn’t something you could do on a cartridge.

And that’s…it. Amusingly bad cutscenes and charming fanart. Mega Man 8 offers little of value beyond that, and it’s one I rarely feel compelled to return to. When I do, I am reminded quickly of why that is.

Part of the problem, to me, is that only around half of the stages feel like Mega Man stages. (This is the same problem that plagues some of the Mega Man X entries as well.)

A Mega Man stage is built around a few things: platforming, fighting/avoiding enemies, and experimenting with special weapons. A truly great stage makes all of those things feel natural and fun, as well as challenging. In fact, when you think about Mega Man title — any game, any stage that comes to mind — you’re probably picturing something that’s right in line with that basic framework.

You’re probably not picturing stages like we get here, with shoot-em-up sequences, endlessly scrolling cyber mazes, and memory-based rocket sled segments.

Those things aren’t Mega Man, and I think it’s important to note that the one time we did have a stage-based genre bend prior to this (Wave Man’s wave bike in Mega Man 5) it functioned almost identically to what we know of the Mega Man formula. The vehicle was a kind of ingenious illusion. You were still jumping and shooting. You were still playing a Mega Man stage. The presentation tricked your mind into believing it was something else. Granted, you couldn’t use special weapons in that section, but it was basically a single autoscrolling room that in no way worked against your understanding of what Mega Man is or what it expects from you.

I know it sounds like I’m complaining about variety, but I’m really not. What I’m complaining about is the implementation of that variety.

When a game in one genre crosses temporarily into another, it should by and large remain true to what the core experience of the game is. We can — and should — expect variety in our games, but it needs to be a natural and organic variety, rather than a cumbersome, forced Frankensteining.

A few examples may help. In the final stretch of Kid Icarus, protagonist Pit sprouts wings and the game goes from being a (fairly) standard platformer to something more like a shoot-’em’-up. But the principles of the core experience remain. You’ve been trained by the previous levels to understand the patterns with which enemies swoop across the screen, the action of your projectile remains comfortable and familiar, and in practice the only true difference is that you no longer have to worry about slipping into a bottomless (and lowercase) pit. It feels like a genre shift, and it is a genre shift, but it’s one that’s so natural all it does is remove one of your previous mortal concerns so that you can focus more directly on the final battle. It’s a genre shift that is also an empowering and effective narrowing of focus.

There are also the turret sequences in any number of action games. Half-Life 2, The Last of Us, and pretty much any 3D action shooter at some point. These moments find your character behind a powerful, heavily armored, stationary firearm, and they turn the game, temporarily, into a classic-style arcade shooter. Again, though, it’s a natural shift and it narrows the focus. You no longer have to worry about taking cover, about health, about navigating the environment, about looking for secrets, about managing inventory, or anything else. After however many hours of doing those things, you get to hunker down behind some heavy artillery and mindlessly mow down the very same enemies that have been making your life miserable. Joel or Gordon Freemen or whomever else you happen to be playing as gets a bit of a rest, you as a player get some important catharsis, and then you’re back on the road.

On the less organic side of the coin, you have things like the street race in Chrono Trigger, or the various shooting galleries in the Legend of Zelda’s 3D era. Those are shifts that, quite simply, aren’t integrated. One kind of game stops, and another, completely different, kind of game begins. The steady grind and increasingly bleak atmosphere of a profound, complex RPG gives way to an underwhelming echo of Excitebike. The careful combat of Link’s adventure — in which every swipe of the sword and raise of the shield matters — gives way to a sudden requirement for speed and accuracy. In each of these examples, the shift is something for which the game has not prepared you and which will prepare you in no way for the rest of the game to come.

It goes without saying that Mega Man 8 falls into the latter category. And, as with the examples listed above, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the genre shifts themselves are bad or unenjoyable. Rather, all it suggests is that they’re poorly and gracelessly implemented.

Then again, they are bad and unejoyable, so nevermind.

The best of them is easily the Rush Jet section in Tengu Man’s stage, probably because it’s the most straightforward and intuitive. It’s not miles removed from the wave bike, so while it may take a few seconds to adjust to having vertical movement, your instincts as a Mega Man player will serve you decently well as you gun down waves of flying enemies. It still doesn’t feel right or much like a Mega Man game, but it’s simple and inoffensive enough. Additionally, the integration of assist characters leads to some fun cameos, giving Auto and Eddie a chance to fight for the first time ever, and letting Beat get aggressive one last time after his demotion to pit-rescue utility in Mega Man 7.

The worst of them, just as easily, are the rocket sled sections. We’re introduced to them in Frost Man’s stage, and beaten mercilessly by one in the first Wily stage. These turn Mega Man — a careful, experimentation-based platformer — into a frantic, twitchy, perfection-demanding chore. It’s essentially a version of the Turbo Tunnel from Battletoads that barks instructions for each upcoming obstacle instead of showing them to you ahead of time. (Battletoads. Now there was a game that could hop genres.)

Often, Mega Man fans will impose upon themselves additional limitations to find new ways of enjoying the game and increasing the challenge. This can take the form of speed runs, no-damage runs, Buster-only runs, Kirby runs (which see players using only the most recent special weapon they obtained) and more. I’ve done a few of these myself, and, in fact, I’ve been thinking for years about attempting a run through Mega Man 10 without using the Buster at all. (Which is only possible there due to the inclusion of the bonus weapons* you get from DLC stages.)

In a way, the rocket sled sections feel a bit like one of those challenges. It’s a speed run married to a Buster-only run…and while you can take damage, you sure as hell don’t have much room for error. The sections scroll quickly and if you miss a jump or end up pinned against a wall, you’re starting over. But the difference, of course, is that those kinds of challenges are optional. They don’t appeal to everybody, and that’s for good reason; they’re artificially difficult. The artificial difficulty of the rocket sled sections — with the infamous, interminable, and completely unhelpful JUMP JUMP SLIDE SLIDE narration — is mandatory, and it makes Mega Man 8 feel a lot less fun.

Mastering a game to the point that you can play it perfectly is a satisfying journey that unfolds over a long period of time. Mega Man 8 demands it out of the gate. That’s not satisfying; it’s obstinate.

And while the argument could be made that the rocket sled in Frost Man’s stage prepares you for the one in the first Wily stage, the fact is that it doesn’t. Wily stages have always abided by the philosophy of testing what the player has learned. Nearly always, that has to do with platform and enemy behavior; it’s up to you to remember how these things work from your earlier encounters, and failing to prove that you do remember will have a stiff penalty. In other words, you see a platform or an enemy, and you don’t get to “learn” how to handle them; you already should have learned, and now it’s do or die.

The rocket sled, though, doesn’t work the same way. A player can’t see it the second time and understand how to handle it, because “handling” it boils down to obeying a rapid series of barked commands. That’s it. There’s no amount of preparation that can help, and the window between each command and the moment you should execute it varies just enough that you can’t develop a reliable rhythm. You just need to listen, attempt, and fail every single second of the segment. Eventually you’ll make it through, if you even want to, but that won’t be because you mastered anything. It will be because you memorized or lucked into the right pattern. Then there’s the fact that jumping seems to have an odd delay in these sections, which means you actually have to hit the button just before you need to jump…

It’s awful. I can’t say enough about that.

Two other stages have less obtrusive gimmicks. One of which I basically hate, but the other I like a lot. In the former category, we have Astro Man’s stage. And, to be honest, it’s kind of a cool idea.

The stage is broken into three smaller types of stages, which themselves are each repeated in the same sequence. We start with a straight platforming section, then there’s an endlessly looping maze, then there’s a race up through a collapsing tower. After that, we get more difficult reprises of the platforming, maze, and tower sections.

In theory, I like that quite a bit. Teach us a few things, then test us on what we’ve learned. That’s good. Break down a long stage into a series of memorable setpieces. That’s good. Use three gimmicks in compact ways instead of padding each of them out into their own stages. That’s good.

Which means it must be the execution where it falls down.

None of these sections are especially fun, and the maze is irritating and out of place. Once again, it’s not the same genre as Mega Man. Players aren’t used to large, complex rooms without a clear path forward.

No aspect of it is fun, and nothing is communicated well. Colored switches control similarly colored gates, which is fine, but a green switch may control one green gate and not another green gate, making what should be a clear cause-and-effect relationship feel needlessly hazy. Gates can open up passages that can only be accessed by looping through the maze again, but players may stumble mindlessly around for an extremely long time before they realize the maze loops at all. And throughout the entire segment, there’s no clear indication of what you’re even looking for. Eventually you’ll find a skull-shaped indentation in the floor, and the maze is over. But if you don’t know that that’s what you’re seeking, it’s impossible to feel like you’re making any progress; you’re just wandering until the game lets you stop. That isn’t any fun.

I will give credit to Astro Man for introducing a new stage type, though. Once you get complacent with air, water, fire, and ice stages, it’s refreshing to toss cyberspace into the mix. It’s not a stage I enjoy, but it does lay the groundwork for more successful implementations of the theme, such as Sheep Man’s in Mega Man 10 and Cyber Peacock’s in Mega Man X4.

The other gimmick that works much better comes in Sword Man’s stage, which quizzes you on (and helps you develop) your knowledge of the first four weapons you’ve collected: the Ice Wave, the Flash Bomb, the Tornado Hold, and the Thunder Claw.

This is a concept that wouldn’t have been possible prior to Mega Man 7. While I don’t personally like the idea of separating the eight Robot Masters into two groups of four (which would never happen again after this, though Mega Man & Bass somehow came up with a worse idea), it does allow stage designers to rely on the player having certain items in their inventory. Here, they turn the first half of Sword Man’s stage into a test of your worthiness, as though Sword Man won’t deign to face a nobody.

The stage begins with four rooms that are each themed around a special weapon, which is nice for two reasons. The first is that this encourages players to actually use special weapons. I gave up on using them somewhere around Mega Man 4, as they simply didn’t feel very fun anymore. As a result, I’m sure I’ve missed out on some good times and fun moments playing around with them. Thanks to Sword Man, I actually do tool around with half of Mega Man 8‘s arsenal. As a bonus, Sword Man’s weapon — the Flame Sword, with a hilariously pronounced W — is worth using on its own, which means I actually get at least some mileage out of five weapons. That’s a pretty good ratio.

The second is that it helps players to feel empowered in ways beyond strength. Typically special weapons are worth using because they’re powerful, and can therefore take enemies out more quickly. Here, their power is irrelevant; you’re using them to light rooms, remove obstacles, steer objects, and throw switches. It’s rare that a Mega Man weapon feels like something more than a weapon, but in this stage that happens four times over. It provides ways to solve problems that aren’t reliant upon wholesale robot slaughter, and that’s admirable.

Sword Man is overall a highlight of the game. I love the concept of his stage, I love the weapon he gives you, and I love his battle, which feels as much like a duel as any of the best fights in the series ever have. (His fight is right up there with Ring Man and Freeze Man, as far as I’m concerned.) He also seems to have personality, which is something oddly lacking from a game with voice acting and more complex animations.

In fact, they seem to me to have less personality than the Robot Masters from any previous game. This might be an illusion, but it’s an instructive one. See, in the 8-bit era especially, gamers were required to do more than take what was presented to them; they had to fill in the gaps. The graphics were fairly crude, and often blocky and undetailed. Creating appealing visuals under these restrictions was a genuine art (and a number of games achieved it), but it was up to the player to look beyond the representation to the concept of what was being represented. The same goes for the aural presentation. There were no real instruments involved in any NES soundtracks, but if you ever “heard” a drum, a guitar, or a piano, you were meeting the game halfway.

This applies to less obvious aspects of the games as well. Beyond what we see and hear, it’s what we expect to see and hear. What does a character sound like? How does his mind work? Is he brave or reluctant? Is he learning his craft or has he mastered it? These things matter, because they change the story and therefore the experience. Playing as a professional and playing as a gradually smarter amateur lead to completely different game experiences. It’s why Maniac Mansion felt different from Sweet Home. It’s why Darkwing Duck felt different from Batman.

Those games left a lot of blanks for players to fill, and they left them largely out of necessity. There’s no room on an NES cart for voice acting, orchestrated soundtracks, and elaborate cutscenes. These were games in which “jump” and “shoot” constituted the lion’s share of interactivity throughout the entire library.

Eventually, though, we made it to the PlayStation era, with its CD-based media that did allow these things. Gamers respond well to them, and developers were, almost overnight, keen to include them. Now we can hear Mega Man’s nemeses as well as see them. Now we can watch them move with greater detail, which should give us a stronger idea of who they are. Now they can do more than launch projectiles and hop around getting shot to death.

But that ends up being a new problem rather than a solution. Because without those blanks left for players to fill in, they’re exposed as being hollow and without personality. They may look and sound better (both of which are debatable, but they may) than their NES counterparts, but they don’t look and sound better than what we saw in our minds as kids. It’s a step down. It removes the ability to use your imagination and fills in the gap with concrete rather than anything of creative merit.

Leaving little or no room for imagination isn’t always a bad thing, but it depends on what the developer wants to do. I don’t get to argue with my friends about what I think Nathan Drake looks like and sounds like…because there’s a definitive answer, and that definitive answer in no way cheapens the game or makes it more disappointing. But Uncharted — and the developers behind it — understand Nathan Drake well enough that we don’t wish we were filling in the blanks ourselves. In fact, we prefer being in the game’s hands, letting it unspool personal history at its own pace, letting it provide us with better jokes and more clever setpieces than we could imagine, letting it take us on a fully scripted, fully prescribed adventure with almost no detail left unprovided. That’s what Uncharted wants to do, and it does it well.

Mega Man 8 just provides a standard Mega Man experience, though. The fun of the series isn’t seeing where things go, because they don’t go anywhere. The fun of the series has always been the adventure we have in our minds. Mega Man 8 removes it from our minds, and places it instead on the screen, where it feels unexpectedly dull and lifeless. The characters talk, but they have nothing to say. Long animations play out, but they show us nothing of interest. The characters move more realistically, but we’re never given a reason to care about them or be interested in them. Even the winking, sweet comedy of Mega Man 7 is gone. Mega Man 8 is a game that carries itself with deathly seriousness, but without any sense of purpose.

Sword Man, again, is an exception, and possibly an accidental one. Capcom never fleshed out their ideas for who these Robot Masters are beyond extremely broad strokes, so they gave them some vague lines and hoped that would be enough. The bosses announce their attacks. They taunt. They express dismay when they’re defeated. None of which adds to the game in any way at all.

Except that Sword Man actually got some lines and animations that made him feel different. He bows to you before the fight, which is an unexpectedly honorable thing for a Robot Master to do. He compliments you on your skills if you avoid his attacks. And his entire stage, again, feels like a test of your mettle. In short, he doesn’t just fight a doomed battle the way most Robot Masters do. He engages with you as a player. He responds to your actions. He makes you feels as though what you’re doing makes a difference. That’s something the new technology of the PlayStation allowed for the first time in the series…and yet it’s only on display in one fight. That’s deeply disappointing.

There are some attempts made to spice up the formula, and that’s a good impulse, but I don’t think any of them work. The first and probably most obvious is the introduction of the Mega Ball.

In a very general sense, it’s a great idea. Dr. Light gives Mega Man a new weapon right out of the gate, meaning the player has two things to play around with before defeating any Robot Masters. This does, in theory, keep things fresh; by now we’ve had seven numbered games that familiarized us with the Mega Buster. Surely people playing Mega Man 8 know it inside and out, and can afford to direct their attention to a new gadget instead.

The problem with it is that the Mega Ball just isn’t fun to use. It plops a little sphere in front of Mega Man, which he can then kick upward at an angle. If it hits a wall or ceiling, it will bounce. And that’s…not really exciting. For a series that’s given us massive amounts of spinning blades, exploding bombs, waves of fire, powerful electric arcs and God knows what else, “here’s a soccer ball” doesn’t really spark enthusiasm. It’s an awkward and cumbersome addition to Mega Man’s arsenal that I never bother using…and I’m sure I’m not alone.

If that were that, it would be easily enough forgotten about, meriting a footnote at best. Instead, though, Mega Man 8 seems to believe that players will love the Mega Ball so much that they’ll spend entire sessions learning how to use it, exactly how it behaves on rebounds, how to predict several angles of trajectory into the future. As a result, the first Wily boss can only** be damaged by it, forcing its usage. What’s more, though, the boss descends temporarily down one of four very narrow chutes, meaning you’ll need expert aim and speed to hit it. It’s a test of mastery with a weapon the game never previously encourages you to play with.

That’s a real problem. The Mega Ball should be implemented throughout Mega Man 8 if it’s a mandatory key to escape the first Dr. Wily level. The game should be teaching you regularly to use it, to understand it, and to rely upon it. Enemies should be placed in positions that immediately suggest it as the best possible tool to take them out. Switches that release goodies should be placed in tight passages so that the player learns the angles at which the ball will travel to reach them. At the very least, a Robot Master or two should have the Mega Ball as a secondary weakness. Instead, it does only one unit of damage to all of them, actively discouraging players from learning how to use it during tense and frantic boss fights.

This is inexcusable, as the game clearly knows that it has opportunities to test players on weapon knowledge. Sword Man’s stage, once again, does exactly that four times over. But the Mega Ball never gets a workout, and then, suddenly, needs to be the most familiar weapon in your arsenal. That’s absurd and idiotic design.

Oh, also, if you lose all of your lives to that boss, there’s no checkpoint anywhere in the level for the first time in the game. Which means you need to do that maddening rocket sled segment again. So, have fun replaying the worst stage in Mega Man history.

Rush’s role is reimagined for the first time in the series, which, again, should keep things fresh. Rush Coil is gone completely, for the first time since the character’s introduction, and Rush Jet can’t be summoned at will, being usable only in two stages. These aren’t inherently bad things, but the replacement transformations are underwhelming to say the least.

The only Rush transformation that assists with mobility is the Rush Bike. But there’s very little cause to use it and no areas that encourage it, apart from it being necessary to reach a single bolt in Clown Man’s stage. Rush Bike*** is unwieldy and unuseful. It allows Mega Man to traverse long, straight stretches of road quickly, but those barely exist at all throughout the game. You can conceivably use it when navigating platforms, but why would you want to be on a clunky motorcycle in those situations anyway? It’s easier and infinitely more convenient to not use it.

The other transformations are even worse. There’s Special Rush, which sees Rush sometimes giving you an item at random, and sometimes standing there doing nothing. It’s literally never worth bothering with, as the odds of you getting an item you actually need are very slim, and killing any given enemy can generate an item at random anyway. Then there’s Rush Bomber, which carpet bombs an area for you, but since you can’t control where the bombs land it’s far from a reliable way to clear a screen. Finally there’s Rush Charger, which operates the same way but drops healing items. That, sadly, is this game’s replacement for E-Tanks. If you ever wished you could trade a full and easy heal for the opportunity to watch a dog dump small energy pellets over spike pits and into inaccessible crannies, Mega Man 8 is sure the game for you.

The game also attempts to redefine the shop concept from Mega Man 7. That game allowed you to collect bolts from defeated enemies and in caches throughout the stages to redeem at Auto’s shop for useful items, such as E-Tanks or extra lives. Here, the concept is much different. Enemies no longer drop bolts; rather there are a small, fixed number of them scattered throughout the game, and grabbing them often involves miniature environmental puzzles. This isn’t a bad idea, but there are actually fewer bolts in the game than are necessary to buy all items in the shop. And this time, those items are unique upgrades for Mega Man that affect his Mega Buster, his knockback, and his…erm…ladder climbing speed. That means that Mega Man 8 is the only Mega Man game that is actually impossible to complete 100%. You can collect all the bolts, but there will always be some upgrades left on the shelf when you redeem them.

There’s also the moronic fact that the Exit Module — which allows you to leave completed stages — costs bolts…and the only purpose to revisiting stages in this game at all is to find bolts. Why in the world would you scour the world for bolts just to buy an Exit Module that allows you to go back and find more bolts to replace the ones you just spent on that piece of crap? There’s no other purpose for it!

Mega Man 8 also treats checkpoints in a way that I don’t especially like. In previous games, you’d simply, silently, unknowingly cross some invisible line in the stage. If you died beyond that line (and had another life, natch), you’d restart at the checkpoint. Easy enough. Lose all your lives and you’ll have to start again from scratch.

This game, however, throws up a loading screen letting you know that you’ve hit a checkpoint, which breaks the flow. It also fully refills your energy, which means there’s less incentive to play carefully, as you can count on a full mid-level recharge. This makes the miniboss fights that precede many of these checkpoints feel like mindless button mashing. There’s little point in learning their patterns and reacting gracefully if you can just brainlessly tank damage and end up with full health anyway.

Also, why does the game have to take a break to load the second half of the level? To be brutally honest, there’s no way in hell Mega Man 8 pushes the limits of the PlayStation in any way. The previous games all load lightning fast, and pushed their respective hardware far more than this game does. I understand that CD-based media will take longer to load, but there’s no reason a level can’t load in its entirety from the stage select. Stopping the level partway through so that Mega Man 8 can try to remember what comes next is embarrassing.

The worst part, though, is the fact that if you lose all of your lives, you can restart at that checkpoint. That discourages mastering the stages, making the experience feel much different from what the previous seven games provided. In those games, it was important to learn the placements of every enemy and obstacle, because it was a long way to the boss doors. In Mega Man 8 you just have to limp past a checkpoint, and then you’ll never have to worry about them again. It cuts the player far too much slack in a series built around gradual mastery.

In previous games, you could certainly get lucky enough to navigate a stage without learning it. But then if you lose your last life to the boss, you’ll have to start over, and luck won’t serve you as well the next time. You still have to learn. For Mega Man 8, being lucky is enough. You never actually have to learn a damned thing if you’re patient enough to force your progress.

How empowering.

In the end, though, Mega Man 8 falls down simply because it isn’t any fun. It doesn’t lean into its camp value, and indeed seems utterly unaware**** of it. It’s a game that doesn’t seem to care whether or not you play it, and certainly doesn’t go out of its way to help you like it. It’s a game whose few innovations are halfhearted and misguided, and which didn’t convince anyone — including Capcom — that the series had much reason to continue.

Mega Man 8 was ported a year later to the ill-fated Sega Saturn — with some different music and nostalgic visits from Cut Man and Wood Man — making it the first multiplatform Mega Man game…but that was it for the numbered games. Mega Man & Bass, one more classic-style platformer, was released in 1998 for the Super Famicom in Japan only. It wouldn’t be localized until 2002 — as a port to the Gameboy Advance — so small was the demand for another entry in the series. Reports are that it sold well, but evidently not well enough for Capcom to invest resources in another sequel.

The classic series was essentially dead. Mega Man X was still going strong — 1997 would see the first PlayStation installment with Mega Man X4, a game that did far better at demonstrating the ability of its own series to survive another generation — but the eternal clash between Doctors Light and Wily was brought to an unceremonious, unmourned non-conclusion.

Once Capcom’s cash cow, Mega Man was quietly retired. Yesterday’s hero saw the world move on without him. And the children and gamers that grew up with him, loving him, helping him…probably didn’t even realize he was gone.

Mega Man 8 sure didn’t give anyone much reason to miss him.

Best Robot Master: Sword Man
Best Stage: Sword Man
Best Weapon: Flame Sword
Best Theme: Tengu Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

(All screenshots courtesy of this wonderful man.)

—–
* I do wonder now if it’s theoretically possible here, thanks to the inclusion of the Mega Ball. I’ll never, ever attempt such a horrific undertaking, but I am curious.

** Not strictly true, as I’ve heard that the Ice Wave can also deal minimal damage, but that’s clearly not a feasible way to fight the boss, and I’m not sure there’s enough ammunition to kill it.

*** Online sources don’t seem to agree on what these transformations are called. I’m using the names from the original manual. I assume part of the reason for the confusion is that the items are never named in the game. I also assume that many players don’t even know they’ve collected Rush upgrades, as they aren’t told and would have to accidentally notice that they’ve been added to the inventory screen.

**** Much like Resident Evil, which was similarly unaware of its own silliness, but which made up for it in spades with incredible atmosphere and genuine scares.

Fallout is a game series I think about a lot. Even when I’m not playing it. Which, obviously, is most of the time.

There’s something about the series that keeps me enthralled. I love wandering the Wasteland, I love interacting with characters, I love deciding who to help and who to hinder. But I also love reading about the games. I love thinking about the games. I love watching others experience the games in ways I didn’t, not necessarily because their choices were different but because their perspectives were different.

When Fallout 4 came out, there was a bit of fan backlash. With the benefit of hindsight, I can largely agree with that backlash, even though I think the game did a lot of things very well. A friend of mine shared some of his frustration with the game pretty soon after release on Facebook. It was one of the first true criticisms of the game I saw.

Largely his complaint was with the way the game opened, which botched the necessary stage setting for the rest of the experience, he felt. Spoilers for this game (and Fallout 3) beyond this point. I’d consider them to be very minor, but you’ve been warned.

Anyway, very soon into Fallout 4, you witness the murder of your spouse and the kidnapping of your son. This sets the main story into motion, as you chase down the culprits through post-apocalyptic Boston.

My friend’s complaint was that as soon as he regained control of his character, he started gathering up loot, talking to new characters about unrelated things, building crazy weapons…in short, doing exactly what no human being could possibly do after witnessing the murder of his spouse and kidnapping of his child.

Fair enough, but I didn’t share that concern.

Yes, you can start collecting garbage and, as he put it, go adventuring with your new pals from the future…but you don’t have to, and the game doesn’t actively or immediately encourage you to do so. Someone brought up The Last of Us as a point of comparison, as that’s another game that opens with personal family trauma in the face of apocalypse, and handles it much better. And…well, yes, it does. That game is a masterpiece, with a deeply affecting opening sequence. Period.

…except that you can actually work against the intended emotional impact there, too, spinning in circles and acting like an idiot when your main character is supposed to be experiencing profound personal trauma.

That’s just an inherent gap of the medium. The character is meant to do or to feel something, but the player is not obligated to do or feel anything. Great games draw players in and encourage them to bridge that gap themselves, but the gap is always there at the start. You’re the one required to cross it, and you’re the one who can choose not to.

Fallout 4 makes it easier for a player to work against it than The Last of Us does; that much is absolutely true. There’s more to do in Fallout 4 for a start, meaning a player has more to experiment with and — therefore — more to distract him. And, frankly, the pre-war world we briefly occupy at the start of Fallout 4 is a bit cartoony and detached from reality compared to the deeply true-to-life single-parent home of The Last of Us, so we are at a relative emotional remove.

But, again, the fact is that any game that offers interactivity* allows the player to do things that aren’t in service of the game’s end. Mario is supposed to grab the flagpole, but he can walk endlessly into the side of a pipe if he wants. Link is supposed to collect the triforce pieces, but he can smash pots and play minigames until the player loses interest. And you’re supposed to mourn the collapse of your family in Fallout 4…but you can find a laser gun and play Buck Rogers if you prefer to do that instead.

I’m not shifting the blame away from any particular game. If the game fails to keep a player engaged, that’s on it. But the fact is that you can detach from the main goal at any point, whether or not there’s in-game incentive to do so.

My friend taught me something about myself as we had this conversation. He said that I probably have a greater willingness to “play along” than he does. And I’ve been stewing on that ever since. I don’t just suspend disbelief…I actively invest belief in whatever a game would like me to.

And why not? As with novels, films, television shows and even some music, the appeal to me is an opportunity to inhabit a world that an artist has created. I don’t have to give myself over emotionally to these things, but I find it both easy and rewarding to do so. I like playing along. Give me a hackneyed setup. Give me an idiotic twist. Give me a predictable arc. I’ll go along with anything if I expect it will pay off in some interesting or satisfying way.

Obviously, it doesn’t always. And if a game (or novel, or film…) loses me, I tend to stay lost. But I’m willing to give things the benefit of the doubt as long as I possibly can. Which is why I didn’t have an issue with Fallout 4‘s hamfisted emotional opening; I was absorbing it with the belief and understanding that it wasn’t an end in itself…it would lead to something else that would excuse whatever flaws it displayed up front.

Did it? Well, I won’t get into that, because it would distract from the point of this piece. The important thing is that I’m not only willing to engage with games on their own terms…I do so actively. And once my friend pointed this out about me, it felt important for me to know. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I have another friend who will reload his Persona game over and over again until the conversations he has with other characters go exactly right. When I play, I let the conversations happen more or less naturally. Yes, that means I lose out on the chance to connect with certain characters before the game ends, but if my natural interaction with those characters isn’t something they enjoy, then why am I trying to connect with them at all?

The answer, of course, is that I can unlock gameplay perks by completing these connections (or, as the game calls them, Social Links). But it must be more important to me to be true — to “play along” within the fiction of the game — than it is to treat these interactions from the perspective of a player sitting on the couch who, really, has no reason to go through any of this except for the in-game perks. I treat the characters as people, and surround myself with the ones I would surround myself with in reality, rather than as digital means to an end. Even though, strictly speaking, that’s exactly what they are.

Heck, just today I was playing Wasteland 2 — my love of Fallout extends to related games easily — and I was low on supplies in a difficult area. I found a locked door and was able to force it open, revealing a small room. Inside were some containers, which were almost guaranteed to have the health and ammo I needed desperately, among some other nice treats. But one of my companions figured out my intentions. She said, “This is Kathy’s office. We shouldn’t be in here.”

…and I left the boxes unopened.

She was right. It was Kathy’s office. And they were Kathy’s things.

Why did that matter? It probably didn’t. My digital avatar could have used those digital goods…but I wanted to play along. My character wasn’t a thief, so he wasn’t about to thieve. My character makes friends and helps good people, so that’s how I’ll play…even if deviating from that self-imposed rule would make my experience easier.

And, yes, it would make the game easier, but would it make it more satisfying? Is playing games about getting to the end, or about the experience along the way? If you think it’s the former, you aren’t wrong, and you’re entitled to that belief. But I fall firmly into the latter camp.

I like opening myself up emotionally to art, when I can. Speaking only about video games, it would be difficult to get emotionally invested in Mega Man, for instance, as much as I love it. But as story and characterization become more important seemingly by the hour, I find myself rewarded for giving myself over to games like Limbo. Or The Last of Us. Or the single best example of unexpected consequence I’ve yet seen, Braid.

And, certainly, the Fallout games.

Opening myself up emotionally — playing along — isn’t just a way to feel what the developers want me to feel. It’s a way to feel what the character would actually feel. It’s a way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. In somebody else’s situation. In somebody else’s dilemma. And that’s valuable. Studies have shown that readers of literary fiction develop a stronger sense of empathy, while readers in general (those who read popular fiction or non-fiction) aren’t much different in that regard from non-readers.

Likewise, not all video games have the same empathetic value, and I think the difference is similar to the split between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction pulls you along through an experience, but literary fiction encourages you to think about the consequences or implications of that experience. It’s another layer, and it’s the defining one. Video games haven’t been around long enough to earn equivalent labels, but I do think there’s a difference between playing Call of Duty and playing Fallout 3. They each hand you guns and tell you to shoot the bad guys, but only one of them will haunt you for years with the choices you made. Or failed to make.

I’ve written about post-apocalyptic ethics a few times (such as here and here), but I wanted to share another memory with you now. One in which my willingness to give myself over to the game actually resulted a deep ethical shock to my system.

For all of the settlements I failed to save, for all of the people I failed to help, for all of the tragic outcomes I failed to avoid, there was a situation in Fallout 3 in which simply exploring one area — and the consequence of exploring that area — felt more meaningful to me than almost anything I’d done in video games before, or have since. By playing along with the game, I expected to feel consequences. But I never expected to feel monstrous.

Why would I? I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

My favorite parts of any Fallout game are the Vaults. Within the universe of the series, Vaults were designed as (largely) effective fallout shelters to protect humanity through nuclear war. Of course, they also functioned as contained social experiments, with different (and often cruel) variables inflicted upon the unprepared occupants to see how they would cope. By the time you as a player get to experience any of the Vaults, the experiments have almost uniformly come to an end, and you get to explore the wreckage, reading terminal entries and assembling the unseen Twilight Zone episode that was these occupants’ lives.

May favorite Vault experience was Fallout 3‘s Vault 106. I stumbled across it on my own. No character in the game had mentioned it, and I had no specific reason (apart from curiosity) to climb inside. It’s a game, after all. I might as well check out this new area and see what cool items I can dig up.

I had seen several Vaults in the game already (you begin the game in one, find an important character in another, and — in a truly brilliant sequence — tour a promotional model in a bombed-out museum), so the design was familiar, but it was immediately apparent, once I entered, that this was not going to be a safe experience. Tables and chairs were overturned, trash was everywhere, and the lights didn’t seem to be entirely functional. I was on guard for enemies at this point, but I couldn’t find any.

I explored the Vault deeper. There wasn’t much food or anything to scavenge. Before long I met an occupant…who ran at me, babbling incoherently, and brandishing a lead pipe.

I holstered my weapon, which is a cue in this game for not wanting to fight, but the occupant kept coming. I backed up, giving him time to reconsider, but before long he was attacking me, screaming, not letting me speak to him. I didn’t really have a choice, so I targeted him and shot him dead. The game named this attacker “Insane Survivor.”

Well, there was my answer. At least one occupant had gone insane, and that’s why Vault 106 was trashed. It’s also why I couldn’t reason with him in the same way that one can reason with many other individuals: he had no sense of reason. His mind was gone. He was insane.

Further into the Vault I encountered a few other enemies marked as Insane Survivors. At first I still tried to get them to drop their weapons. After all, my character lived in a Vault once, too. My friends lived in Vaults. I’m not here to cause trouble. But they were indeed insane, and I had no choice but to kill them if I wanted to survive. It really was me or them. And if they were truly crazed, beyond any kind of understanding, lost entirely to brainless, unending violence…isn’t ending their lives a kind of mercy?

Being attacked by humans was nothing new. Fallout 3 contains a lot of people in enclosed spaces who want you dead. Killing Vault dwellers indeed felt wrong, at first, but after enough of them swarm you with weapons, you make a decision. And each time it happens, you make that decision a little bit faster.

What really set this experience apart, though, was something that happened as I was walking through a corridor. I heard some bizarre mumbling ahead of me, and proceeded with caution. After a few steps the entire screen went blue, and the mumbling stopped. I thought it was a glitch in the game, especially when, a few steps later, the color was properly restored, and the babbling started up again. An Insane Survivor was up ahead. I chased him down and killed him.

These “blue-out” moments kept happening, though. I went from assuming it was a glitch to assuming that there was some kind of unreliable blue lighting in the vault (a night-time simulator?) that was kicking on spasmodically. I then assumed the Insane Survivors were trying to disorient me by flicking the lights on and off. It was creepy enough as it was, and it became even moreso once I realized, after several more times, that the vault looked a lot…cleaner when it was blue.

The tables were upright. The papers were stacked neatly. No more grime and greasy (bloody?) handprints. The computer monitors were not smashed. In fact, they were functional. And if I activated them, I could read notes that changed each time I called them up. They asked me to soak in the blue. It was safer here. It was nice…

Eventually I was able to piece together that these blue-outs were caused by gas leaking through the vents. It was causing hallucinations. It was causing colors to change, characters to vanish and reappear, items to rearrange, exits to relocate or disappear entirely. Someone, somewhere, according to a computer terminal, had decided to test a psychoactive chemical on the residents of Vault 106. It was still being pumped into the rooms when I entered, long after everybody was driven mad by these hallucinations. Was it intended to continue indefinitely? Or was it meant to be temporary, with those conducting the experiment either going mad themselves, or being killed by those who did, before they could discontinue it?

The blue-outs kept happening. Then going away. Then happening again. I was in two versions of Vault 106 at once. One safe and cool…one treacherous and full of murderers. At one point I was attacked before the hallucination (as that was now, clearly, what this was) kicked in, and the attacker turned into a character I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the game…one of my childhood tormentors. I tried not to fight, but I lashed out at last, just in case my hallucination was more powerful than reality. He disappeared when I struck him, became somebody else, eventually turned back into the real-life attacker in the properly-colored world.

It was disorienting, overwhelming, and frightening. It’s one thing to know the odds are against you. It’s another to not know where you are, how to get back out, or what’s waiting around the next corner.

Ultimately I made it as deep into the Vault as it was possible to go. There was a small room. A storage cupboard. I opened it and I found one last occupant there, sealed off from the rest of the Vault dwellers. When I opened the door, she attacked me, but something was different. The game didn’t mark her as an Insane Survivor. She was marked instead as Survivor. The absence of the modifier (the qualifier) gave her an entire history.

She had not been driven mad by the hallucinations. Instead, she saw what was happening to the others and, unable to interfere without getting herself killed, gathered up as many supplies as she could and isolated herself from the chaos. The occupants originally entered Vault 106 to escape the war on the surface, and she entered this storage cupboard to escape the war in Vault 106.

But I killed her. She fought me, and I killed her.

Because I couldn’t reason with her. Because I was on edge. Survival was not the issue. She didn’t have much of a weapon. (Did she even have a weapon?) She was not insane; she just knew she had no reason to trust me. Why would she approach me in peace? For all she knew, I would shoot her in the head, loot her supplies, and leave again. That’s what anyone else would do, including her fellow residents, lost to their madness.

I wouldn’t have done that, given the choice. I wouldn’t have killed a sane survivor. And yet that’s just what I did.

I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

Vault 106 successfully messed with my mind enough that it culminated with me murdering an innocent woman. A woman who took steps to avoid the Insane Survivors all around her lost her life to a reasonable, pragmatic guy who had just gradually gotten used enough to gunning down Vault dwellers that he didn’t think twice. Was I any better than the Insane Survivors? Or did I just have better equipment?

All I know is that there was a sane woman locked safely away in a Vault somewhere. And sanity in the Wasteland is a precious resource. Now she’s dead, because I thought it would be fun to do a little exploring.

And that’s what demonstrates Fallout 4‘s biggest weakness to me. Ultimately I don’t share the same concern as my friend, but he helped me to understand what I felt was lacking. In that game, I made my biggest decision — to destroy the Institute — and never looked back. No, I don’t think it was a perfect solution to Boston’s problems, but before doing it I was convinced that I was making the right decision for me. Afterward…no additional information or ramifications made me reconsider that. The decision was large, but ultimately hollow. I decided to do something and did it, and had no more afterthought than I would after having flipped a light switch.

Fallout 3, however, haunts me years later…and all it had to do was give me a Vault to explore.

I never expected such a small thing to have such a big impact.

And, of course, small things don’t always.

But any time they do, I’m reminded of the importance of playing along.

—–
* The exception here might be visual novels, with the only true opportunity for deviation coming from withholding input. But, honestly, I’d think that counts. When the game is waiting for your response and you choose to provide none, ever, at any point, that is still a method of playing.

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