Day 6: “The Constant,” LOST (2008)

On the sixth day of Christmas, Jacob Crites gave to us…

The Ending of LOST is still one of the more controversial television events of the past decade. Maybe you thought it was beautiful (like me), maybe you thought it was painfully heavy-handed (like most people), and maybe you thought they were dead the whole time (which they weren’t, you dope. Go watch it again). But if there’s one thing every LOST fan can agree on, it’s that “The Constant” marked a creative and emotionally resonant peak for the show, and is perhaps one of the finest hours of television ever produced. It also happens to be a sort-of-kind-of Christmas episode. But perhaps it’s fitting that LOST‘s only Christmas episode isn’t really a Christmas episode, because “The Constant” is a LOST episode that isn’t really a LOST episode, or perhaps it is the perfect example of what a LOST episode should be.

I really don’t know. LOST was always confusing like that.

Now, LOST was such a spectacular show in part because of how unpredictable it was, and not just from a plot-twist standpoint, but from a structural standpoint. Throughout its six season run, there were many wonderful episodes, several weak episodes, but never a formulaic one, in part because there was never a formula established in the first place. Just as we were settling into a groove with flash-backs, the series would throw in a clip episode, except with clips from another part of the island featuring new characters which we had not previously seen (“The Other 48 Days”), or an episode that takes place entirely in the past (“Flashes Before Your Eyes”), or introduce the concept of a flash-forward (“Through the Looking Glass” and all of season four), or a flash-sideways (most of season six…sort of). But what could always be predicted about an episode of LOST is that it could not be predicted, that the episode would not in the least be self-contained, and that characters would generally end up in a much worse place than when they started. And this is where “The Constant” becomes rather special.

The Constant is one of perhaps only two episodes of LOST that succeed as self-contained works (the other being the pilot, which remains one of the best pilots in the history of such things). One does not need to see the previous half-billion episodes and be up to date on their backgammon visual allusions and Dharma mythlogy to understand what is going on (though it helps); this is an episode with its own unique narrative structure, a single character arc, and one of the show’s most satisfying emotional resolutions. Also, it’s Christmas, and the episode’s lead character is often portrayed in the show as a Christ-like metaphor. So there’s that.

That Christ-like metaphor in question is Desmond Hume (to reveal why he’s Christ-like metaphor would spoil much of LOST, and also, who cares?) and Desmond Hume has become unstuck in time. Only not his body, so much, but his consciousness. Desmond has recently been exposed to an inordinate amount of electromagnetic energy, and in LOST, that generally means (as Daniel Faraday will tell us) “side effects.” The side effects in this case being consciousness-time-travel, which would not be all that bad were it his present consciousness doing the traveling, and not his 1996 consciousness. But it is the latter, and in 1996, Desmond is in the Queen’s Army. This is inconvenient.

And thus begins a great deal of madness. The episode follows Desmond’s consciousness as it jumps back and forth through time with increasing frequency. It is the sort of thing that would drive anyone crazy, and that, as we find, is the trouble. What Desmond needs to keep from losing his mind completely is a Constant—something that exists in both his present (1996) and the show’s present (2004) to help his mind from collapsing with disorienting confusion. The Constant, it would turn out, is his one true love. Penny.

To save himself (and, in effect, their relationship *BOOM*) he must find Penny in 1996 and get her to call him (he’s on a freighter off the Island with access to the phone…it’s a long story) eight years in the future to the day and hour. Which is 2004. Christmas Eve.

Now, I, like many other of the show’s characters, do not celebrate Christmas; but I also, like most people with a beating heart, do always enjoy a good “Christmas Episode.” The Christmas Spirit, in actuality, is more of a nice thought than a really nice thing; during Christmastime, people are generally quite stressed about the difficulty finding parking spaces, the annoyance of hanging elaborate decorations that are only really fashionable for about three weeks, and being forced to buy presents for people they may not very much like.

But in Christmas Episodes, The Christmas Spirit is a wonderful thing, wherein faith is rewarded, relationships are rekindled and true love is often found. This is why “The Constant” is sort-of-kind-of a Christmas Episode.

LOST was always a show that attracted people of all kinds of faiths and all levels of cynicism (which is why a good deal of people were put off by the fact that one of its final scenes took place in a Church), and this is why it does not beat its Christmas setting into the ground; but even non-Christmas-Celebrators usually are fond of the things that Christmas is supposed to bring (indeed very few people despise gifts and bright colors and good will among men), and this is why everyone, regardless of personal beliefs, loves “The Constant.”

I will not ruin the ending of the episode, because I think you should watch it, but suffice it to say it is a happy one. It is about losing your mind only to find it in a better place, about resparking relationships that were once doomed to fail, about finding true love when it is at its most needed, and being rewarded in the faith that sometimes people will do the right thing. Basically, it is an episode in which good things happen to good people, a thing for which LOST was not, until its final season, very well known. That it is a Christmas Episode is not important, or perhaps it is incredibly important. I really don’t know. LOST was always confusing like that.

Tomorrow: Come on, get merry!

Reflections From the Middle of The Last Story

I haven’t finished The Last Story; in a way, I hope I never do. This isn’t necessarily a rare thing for me to feel when playing a great game, but it is a rare thing for me to feel about a game’s narrative. It’s even more rare to feel that way toward a game that features, for lack of a better term, “conventional gamey storytelling,” a phrase which here means “a game where one plays for a bit, puts the controller down to watch a cutscene, then plays some more.”

And yet this is the real magic of The Last Story — the effortless way in which it cements the importance and, indeed, nobility of things we thought we outgrew, or at the very least were sick of. Things like cutscenes, yes, but also things like stories about destiny and forbidden romance; things like pirate ships and castles and wicked kings and noble knights; things like princesses who are fed up with their boring lives of royalty, and hidden caves filled with frightening creatures; things like mystical forests and fiery volcanoes and villages full of simple folk who want nothing more than to sell you shields and potions. Things that have been slightly rehashed and moderately relabeled ad nauseum in every Final Fantasy game you’ve played in the past seven years, but which are presented here in The Last Story with an essential ingredient that has been missing in nearly all of them: sincerity. Never mind that the storytelling present here is genuinely good, the performances are genuinely dedicated and the art direction is genuinely some of the best you’ll see this year.

The comparisons to Final Fantasy are inevitable seeing as the game was directed by the man who invented the series, but Hironobu Sakaguchi (who has now left the series to work on original games with his new company, Mistwalker) should be proud to be one of mainstream gaming’s few creators who possess a truly distinctive style. We see his hand in the art direction, which is a perfect expression of Sakaguchi’s love of Medieval architecture, here mostly unmarred by the tired trope of steampunk; we see his hand in the characters, whose personalities are immediately apparent, yet whose motives are ambiguous enough that we want to get to know them better; and we see his hand in the story itself, which (again, in contrast to the current, Sakaguchi-less Final Fantasy) thankfully cares more about charming us with its characters and astounding us with its imagination that it does boring us with pointless mythology that we will forget by the end of the game.

Yes, The Last Story spins a good old-fashioned yarn about a band of mercenaries who go on spectacular adventures in which mysterious islands are explored, pirates are fought, treasures are plundered, sick children are cured, and princesses are saved; but even if you didn’t grow up obsessed with Treasure Island and The Legend of Zelda and therefore aren’t a total sucker for fantastical adventure stories like I am, it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed by the sheer innovation of the gameplay itself. RPGs have long featured team-based battles, but rarely have they actually felt like teamwork, so much as they often feel like I press a bunch of buttons on a bunch of menus to make a bunch of people do a bunch of stuff.

In The Last Story, you only control one member of your party (Zael–yes, silly names are present and accounted for) yet you must rely on everyone in it. You are just a…well, a role player in this team, but as a result of actually having to rely that team instead of directly controlling their every move, you end up caring about them, even respecting them more ; in effect, the times where you are in fact able to give orders to your team-mates are more exciting due to their relative rarity.

This is an accomplishment. I’ve often felt a disconnect in RPGs in which the story tells me I’m supposedly an innocent underdog, yet behind the controller I’m a godlike presence controlling the decisions of not only my avatar but everyone around him. It just doesn’t feel true. It’s like in Grant Theft Auto IV where Niko’s cousin tells him “We’re broke!” and yet we look up at the top of the screen and see we’ve amassed several hundred thousand dollars from our dirty work. In The Last Story I have found no such disconnects, and if they’re there, I’ll happily ignore them. There is no such thing as a perfect game; it’s just that some are better at distracting us from their flaws.

I’ve set the game on the shelf for now, but not for a lack of interest or boredom; I’m savoring the experience. I’m waiting for a rainy day to come along, or a sleepless night, where I can curl up on the couch and be swept up in more of the gang’s adventures; reminded of the times when I’d stay up all night with my favorite book, immersed in the escapades of pirates or knights. The Last Story, of course, is not the last story, but it is the first game story in a very long time that I’ve cared about.

Watching the Minutemen Part 1: Eight Minutes

“For the sake of honor I did sacrifice my soul
For the sake of vengeance I did struggle to regain it.”
–The Crimson Corsair: Minutemen #1

Join Jacob Crites as he reads too deeply into every issue of Before Watchmen: Minutemen. The following is part one of a six part series.

There are people who will never like Before Watchmen simply because it exists. If you’ve ever read Watchmen, you know that this viewpoint is not entirely unreasonable. There was no more story to be told by the end of Alan Moore’s masterwork; he, along with artist David Gibbons, had challenged and redefined an entire art form with their unparalleled mastery of the comic medium. And it also, even stripped of its technical brilliance, is still a really incredible story with characters that leave a lasting imprint somewhere in the deep pit of your being.

But you know all this already. You know why it shouldn’t be done. And you know why DC did it anyway. What none of us knew is just how incredibly well such a seemingly horrific idea could turn out.

Things immediately feel different than the original Watchmen, both in tone and in style, and this is important. For one, consider the contrast in entry points: we were introduced to Watchmen‘s world through Rorschach, an enigmatic, mentally unstable masked vigilante who was unmistakably and tragically the result of the dark, corrupted world around him. In Minutemen, the story is told through the eyes of Hollis Mason, by all accounts the most good-hearted man we know of in the Watchmen universe, and one of the world’s original masked vigilantes: Night Owl. We know Hollis a little from reading excerpts from his tell-all book, Under the Hood, in the original Watchmen series, but here we see his unabashedly old-school idealism and optimism first hand.

But, of course, it’s not that simple. With Watchmen it never is. Through flashbacks, he looks back on his crime-fighting years with nostalgia, and he regrets that he can’t take the rose-tinted glasses off. For despite the good he sees in what the Minutemen did, who the Minutemen were, he understands with overwhelming clarity that the actions that he and his fellow masked “heroes” had made had helped shape a corrupt and twisted present with a future almost certainly doomed to implosion.

“Over the months it took me to complete [Under the Hood], I found the act of writing seemed to purge me of the darker aspects of my secret life,” he says, “as if I trapped all of it in a bottle I could now toss into the surf. Lately, when I think of those times, the dark parts fall farther and farther away from my limited line of sight. From down here on earth, I can only see what I want to see. From here in my empty apartment I can only see the good.

But he doesn’t mean it. Not entirely. Least of all when referring to himself. He speaks of his former comrades Byron (Moth Man) and Ursula (The Silhouette) with love and admiration, even after the tabloids had trampled their reputations and left them to die; but he speaks of himself with a level of skepticism and unease he reserves for no one else but The Comedian. For Mason is unconvinced that his own heroics should be labeled as such. In a way, despite his nostalgia, he speaks of his years as Nite Owl with a tinge of regret:

“I knew I wanted to do good, and I’m pretty sure that, on a community level, that’s just what I did. But that didn’t explain what I was doing. There are all kinds of sane ways to help your community that don’t involve a mask and short pants. When it came right down to it, I did it for the thrills. For the excitement of putting myself on the line.”

And so through this conflicted character Minutemen becomes a fascinating book: one in which we watch a good man become a part of a thing we know he has no chance of stopping from inevitably spiraling out of control; and in which we see that same man, now, wondering whether or not it would have been worth stopping anyway.

If you didn’t already consider Darwyn Cooke to be one of the most talented artists in modern comics, start paying attention. The man, in addition to his expressive and beautiful artwork, effortlessly deepens and humanizes these characters within mere pages of a single issue. Throughout the piece he has the unenviable task of introducing no less than eight masked vigilantes, and still manages to imbue them each with a level of depth unseen in most series.

Yet although containing the unmistakable undercurrent of tragedy that Watchmen is known for, as mentioned earlier, there is a palpable sense that something is different. Part of what that something is, in addition to our entry into the comic’s world, is enthusiasm. Color. Joy, however fleeting.

Watchmen has been called, amongst many things, a comic about comics, so it’s appropriate that its prequel should highlight the colorful exuberance and optimism of the Golden Age of Comics. In the costumes, framing of action and dialogue, Cooke captures the bright-eyed innocence of early super hero tales, best of all during a depiction of a pre-picture advertisement about the “superhero” Dollar Bill, a corporate mascot of the National Bank Company.

But Cooke wisely never veers into the territory of pure comic-book silliness. Even at its most colorful, thanks to Hollis, the Minutemen are always viewed with the not-so-slight air of cynicism. Dollar Bill, despite his colorful costume, is a corporate sham. The Silk Spectre, with the help of her acting agent, fakes elaborate crimes for her to “fight” for the sake of publicity.

But for a minute in time, it didn’t matter. They had fun, were adored, had toy lines, starred in movies. They had a sort of vigor and cheeriness about their crime-fighting that their eventual replacements, the Watchmen, never had a shot at attaining. Maybe that’s what feels different: in the world of Watchmen, it was already too late; the world was a dark place through and through and there was no turning back. Minutemen takes place during a blip in time where masked vigilantes could fight crime, be celebrities and inspire their country without fearing the consequences.

It wouldn’t last long.

Video Games as Video Games: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Philip’s Note: Please welcome Jacob Crites to the Noiseless Chatter team. He’s going to provide some great articles to carry you through the times when I’m not posting meandering, unfocused bullshit. I hope you don’t mind.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World. I’d say it was better, but my nostalgia won’t let me. That’s the thing when it comes to comparing and contrasting Mario games — nostalgia. The ones that mean the most to us are typically the ones that came during formative years in our lives.

Super Mario World, for example, was the first video game I ever played; not surprisingly, it’s also my favorite. Because, for a lot of us, Mario was our Mickey Mouse — Mario was the embodiment of youthful optimism and sprightliness that was missing from our cynical, assembly-line cartoons; as a result, the thought of any game being “better” than those formative, child-hood-defining games, be it Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or Super Mario 64, is ridiculous.

But take those childhood favorites off the pedestals we’ve placed them on and look at them for what they really are — brilliant, creative platformers with hearts of solid gold — and it’s plain to see that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is every bit as good, if not quite able to overtake those special corners of our heart.

Where most major franchises are striving to imitate Hollywood and take notes from the language of film, Mario’s games feel more like ballet. There is less a story here than there is the suggestion of one; our emotional attachment to the character springs not from dialogue but from the grace of movement, form and balance in association with vivid musical compositions. The music informs the movement, the movement informs the level design, and so on; each individual element crafted with what must be exhaustive meticulousness to tie into a larger whole. When combined with brightly colored, vivid stereoscopic visuals that make you feel like you’re staring at a magical shoebox diorama come to life, New Super Mario Bros. 2 becomes something quite special: a video game that knows it’s a video game, that likes the fact that it’s a video game, that joyfully uses and expands upon the language of video games. When one attempts to explain what makes pressing a series of buttons that causes a virtual Italian man to jump on fishes with bright, golden trails of coins trailing from their butts fun, one has realized how indescribably different this medium can be from any other when it rejects Hollywood and embraces its gamey-ness.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 also has fully embraced its formula, which may not be as bad a thing as you think. The game has been accused as being formulaic, which I find to be an odd thing to accuse a Mario game of being. It is the universal familiarity with the Mario formula that allows the game to play with our expectations and surprise us just when we think we’ve slipped into a groove — the surprise, this time around, being that coins actually matter. A lot.

Your unofficial goal is to collect a million of the things, and this idea alone brings with it a myriad of potential issues that Nintendo masterfully sidesteps. Namely: how do you create a game based on collecting things without it turning into a collect-a-thon? The trick, Nintendo shows us, is to make the collecting a natural extension of the platforming experience, rather than a bland, Easter-egg-hunt-like distraction.

A new fire-flower variation, for example, causes Mario to shoot a projectile that turns whatever it hits into a sparkling explosion of coins; passing through bright, golden rings will cause every enemy on the screen to leave a shiny golden trail of coins behind them. All of this could have ended up looking disastrous and chaotic, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but what elevates the game into something of a masterpiece is how gorgeously fluid and downright symmetrical Nintendo makes it all look. Seeing a sea of fish leaping out of the water in perfectly synchronized alternating patterns with shimmering strings of gold trailing behind them is was of the more astonishingly surreal sights I’ve seen in a game all year…until I got to the next level and Nintendo found an even more wonderful way to surprise me.

A screenshot or Youtube video can’t do these moments justice; in fact, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a strong argument against antiquated reviewing systems that assign individual scores to Gameplay, Graphics and Sound. Because here, once again, each element relies on and informs the other, and it is only by working in tandem that the game is able to achieve such visceral pleasure.

It would have been easy, I think, with this goal of collecting one million coins, to inadvertently turn Mario into a greedy punk like his brother(?) Wario; and yet this, too, Nintendo has sidestepped. Mario isn’t tasked with collecting a million big ones to buy something, or to unlock some expensive reward; but rather because…well, collecting all those sparkly coins is kinda fun. And that’s the real accomplishment of this game: Fun.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a game full of artistry and masterful craftsmanship, but the only thing it really wants to do is entertain us. To put a smile on our face.

When I play these games, I’m reminded of classic Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons; Walt would construct these stories on big moving steamboats or massive clocks that required insanely complicated animation…and that was the point. Walt Disney understood that animation worked best when it concentrated on, well, animating — which is to say, movement. The more complicated it was, as long as it contained charming, loveable characters, the more fun it was to watch. The physical humor found in early Mickey Mouse cartoons is still second to none, and it could have only be done in that medium.

Mario has been likened to the Mickey Mouse of the video game world, and it’s a comparison he’s earned. Mario’s games come from a good place; they encompass a child-like sense of wonder that no other developer has been able to surpass, because no other developer is willing to try quite so hard to make us smile.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn’t try to redefine the medium, and it shouldn’t have to; it’s perfectly content to remind us of why it makes it so great.