On video games, consequence, and playing along

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.

Vintage Sesame Place swag and memories

This is a story I meant to share a while back, but I didn’t have the time to actually write it up. Now, with the big kerfuffle between Steve Whitmire and seemingly everyone else Steve Whitmire has ever met, it seems like a good time to actually post it. Hopefully this reminds folks that while the people operating the Muppets may be flawed and sometimes shitty human beings, what the characters teach us still makes a difference.

A few weekends ago, I spent some time at Denver Comic Con. I enjoy conventions for one major reason: vendors.

I’ve had conversations about this. About the fact that I’m paying admission just to go buy things…and about the fact that anything I’ll find there will be available — in some way — online anyway. And, really, I can’t argue with that. But I keep going, every year. Sometimes I’ll hit other conventions as well. I think part of the appeal for me is the feeling that comes with being part of an event, but there’s also the more logistical appeal: seeing the vendors in person, with their inventories spread out before them, allows me to browse.

Sure, whatever books or DVDs or figurines I pick up at Comic Con are exactly what I could find online later. But would I find them online? As much as I love Amazon (and I do love Amazon), I still like spending hour after hour in physical book stores. That’s because Amazon is a great service when I know what book I want, but bookstores are great for browsing…for when I have some approximate concept of what I’ll enjoy, but am otherwise open to new titles, new authors, new experiences I can’t even imagine yet.

Comic Con, to me, offers a vast array of great experiences I might never find it I didn’t have the chance to browse. And every year I come home with a bag of stuff I didn’t know existed. Rarely am I disappointed with my haul; not everything I find there will change my life, of course, but I always feel at least a little more enriched for having read, seen, or listened to whatever it is I discovered.

This year I did my normal thing of walking around the various booths, seeing what was on offer before I spent any money. You can count on seeing largely the same kinds of products from year to year, but sometimes there’s a surprise. And fairly quickly I found my first and favorite surprise of the year.

What caught my eye was a big banner with the Sesame Place logo on it. One guy sat behind the table, and there were stacks of books in front of him. Just seeing that banner brought back a lot of memories I don’t often think about. They’re from my childhood, so they get excluded along with much of what I actively try to forget.

For those of you who don’t know, Sesame Place is a Sesame Street theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I’ll always remember the name of that town, because I grew up in Southern New Jersey and remember seeing the commercials constantly. Here’s one I remember quite well. It was my first experience of the song “Short People,” by the way, and if you watch this video maybe you’ll understand just a bit of my shock the first time I heard the actual song on the radio.

Langhorne, Pennsylvania seemed like a special place. Had Sesame Place existed in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the town name wouldn’t have registered the same way. We knew those cities already. They were just places on a map that contained things. But Langhorne wasn’t a name I ever heard in any other context. Langhorne was Sesame Place. And that was magical.

At some point, I got to go. I’d guess I was around 10 years old. I could have been 8. It was me, my brother, and my mother. We were joined by our neighbor and her two kids, Jennifer and Brian. According to Google Maps, Langhorne was a drive of an hour and a half from where I grew up. As kids it felt like much longer, or maybe that was the anticipation magnifying everything. I remember playing a game in the car that I don’t think I played at any other point in my life. We’d take turns using our fingertips to “draw” on somebody else’s back, and they’d have to guess what we drew. These were definitely the days before I had a Game Boy.

By this time, I’d been to Disney World, which is unquestionably the larger and more significant family theme park. But…I didn’t love Disney. I had nothing against it, and of course I could recognize Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck easily enough, but I wasn’t actually a fan of any of their films. To be honest, I’m still not. It wasn’t until the Disney Afternoon introduced me to Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that I became an active fan of anything Disney. The Muppets, on the other hand…I loved those guys. And I was excited about the trip.

So, of course, I went over to the table and talked to the man selling books. He introduced himself as Guy Hutchinson, one of the authors of Images of Modern America: Sesame Place.

If you’ve traveled around America, you’ve probably seen books with this identical cover design everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever picked one up prior to this, let alone purchased one, but they’re out there. Visit a decent-sized town or city and there will be some equivalent of this book with photos of old railroad bridges, buildings that are no longer there, significant construction projects…you get the picture.

I always figured they were more souvenir than anything. You’d pick one up as a memento, the same way you would a refrigerator magnet. I didn’t really care. Then again, I didn’t really care about railroad bridges or construction projects in general. The Muppets, on the other hand…

Guy — who shares his name with a Sesame Street Muppet — started to tell me about Sesame Place. Not specific facts or trivia about the park, but rather a very basic introduction to the fact that it exists. He likely wasn’t expecting many people in Denver to know about it. He’d have to start with Sesame Steet‘s familiarity and move on from there.

But I told him that I knew about it, and that I’d been there. He was clearly enthusiastic, and I wasn’t trying to deflate him as much as I was trying to let him know that he could skip the introduction and get right to the really exciting stuff.

And he showed me his book. Which was, I admit, really exciting.

Again, I haven’t picked up other books in this series, but this seems to support my assumptions about them. There’s very little straight writing…in keeping with the Images of Modern America theme, they’re almost entirely visual, with very informative cutlines.

To be frank, I think I could have read and loved a 500 page book about the history of Sesame Place whether or not it contained photos at all…but I understand that I’m mentally ill and other people might prefer pictures of the rides.

I immediately knew I’d buy the book, but we talked for a while longer. He talked about how cooperative everybody was at the park, how they provided photos and information for him, how they described attractions that were planned but never made it to the public.

This book might be a souvenir, but it was also a fascinating one…and just talking about it transported me back to that trip I took as a child…one of which no photos exist. But the book — broken down into eras in the park’s history — provides the next best thing to me.

One of the things the park provided to Guy was master artwork of Buford T. Higgenbottom, a Muppet who was created specifically to serve as the park’s mascot. Guy used this to have stickers made — among other things — and he very kindly gave me one.

That might not sound too interesting on its own, but while Buford has a page on the Muppet Wiki, there’s no image of him there. And a Google image search turns up completely dry as well. The park was really his only hope for getting that art, as it doesn’t seem to exist in any quality anywhere on the internet.

Of course, now Noiseless Chatter will show up in a search for it, which WAS MY PLAN ALL ALONG.

I told him about my few memories of the park. About a clear little rubber ball with Big Bird and the Sesame Place logo inside that I had for many years and finally lost. And mainly about one particular attraction, which I’ve always wondered about.

Remember, I was a kid, so my memory is not reliable. But I recall some kind of attraction in which you had to cross a long, narrow platform, suspended a terrifying height in the air. I remember there was water below, and I think more was falling down like a fountain. I remember the platforms being yellow and, for some reason, I remember it being themed after Count Von Count. In my mind, it was a very dangerous activity and I was afraid I’d fall and die. That’s not the work of excited imagination, mind you…that’s the work of actual fear. I was scared while navigating that attraction and still retain an image of what it looks like in my memory.

He wasn’t sure what attraction I was remembering, but he did tell me about a Count-themed Halloween show that evidently was scary enough to earn the park some complaints.

I told him I’d buy a copy of the book, and he smiled and said, “I’ve got some swag to share with you, too.”

One bit of that swag was another, more general, Sesame Place sticker:

Then he gave me some really cool things.

Evidently when the park launched, there was — for lack of a better term — an arcade. There may still be one, I don’t know, but it was less of a traditional arcade than it was a computing area, where kids could learn and work at computer stations. Something like that would be much less of a novelty today than it was in the late 80s, but it was apparently pretty cutting edge at the time.

Guy gave me four tokens from that computing area. While doing his research, the park revealed that they had buckets of them collecting dust. That was a lucky find for him, and then again for me.

Those are really great. They’re all the same design; I just flipped two of them over to show off both sides. But even better were these season pass badges:

These are two different designs: Big Bird and Super Grover. They are slightly different sizes and colors in addition to the different character, so I don’t know if one entitled the wearer to more perks than the other, or if you just got to choose which one you liked best when you bought a season pass. I don’t know if Sesame Place even has season passes anymore, but if they do I’m sure they’re just little cards you keep in your wallet.

But…man. These things are incredible. They’re beautiful. I love these.

When he gave me these, I laughed. Grover was my favorite character as a kid, and I loved his Super Grover persona. In fact, when I was little I had a Grover doll that was almost as big as I was. Here’s a photo of that and proof that I used to have hair:

Guy told me that Grover was the one everybody liked, and nobody involved with the park or the show seemed to realize it. I’d believe him. He said that the park wanted the badges to feature Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as they were assumed to be the two most popular characters. But somebody had the idea to actually ask people which character they liked best…and we ended up with Grover.

I didn’t want to eat up Guy’s entire morning, but I thanked him for his kindness, and for some really incredible vintage goodies I never would have expected to have in my entire life. It was like getting a chance to visit the park again in 1986 or whenever I went and having the foresight to keep all these little things you never would have thought would matter to you. It actually meant a lot to me, and I told him he made my day.

He signed my book before I left, and drew Cookie Monster. Why Cookie Monster? Because, according to Guy, he’s the only character you can draw without worrying about his pupils. If you draw Big Bird or Bert or Elmo or somebody and their pupils are slightly off, they look wrong. But with Cookie Monster, who has crazed eyes that wander constantly and asynchronously whenever the puppeteer moves, you can put the pupils anywhere and they’ll look right.

I felt really lucky to meet Guy that day. Not only was he a friendly and interesting person, but he clearly loved the work he had done. And he relished the chance to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I hope he met a lot of those someones over the course of the weekend.

What I do know is that he reminded me of a positive childhood memory, and gave me vintage trinkets that, miraculously, survived the decades that passed since the park was founded.

I hope he enjoyed speaking with me as well…if only because I could then feel like I repaid the favor somewhat.

I have a friend who is pretty busted up about the whole Steve Whitmire thing. About the negativity that’s been passed around among people he admires. About the ugly underside to what are supposed to be comforting and reassuring productions. About the fact that it’s impossible to know who’s in the wrong…Steve Whitmire, or everybody else who’s ever lived?

But meeting Guy…interacting with him…listening to him talk and watching him get excited about an amusement park…this is what the Muppets are all about. Someone who grew up loving them so much he wrote a book about them, and someone else who grew up loving them buying that book. The two of them meeting and sharing memories. Two strangers who may have nothing else in common in the entire world sharing a moment over something that’s given them both so much joy. That’s offered such valuable escape. That’s guided them through difficult times and helped shape them into who they are today.

The Muppets have allowed me to connect with and bond with more people than I can probably count. (Ah, ah, ah!) Those of us who grew up with them remember them not as characters on some shows we used to watch, but as early friends who helped us understand that however different we are, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, however small we might feel at times, we each had something unique to bring to the world.

Guy reminded me of that.

He could have sold me his book and moved on. I wouldn’t have blamed him. That’s what vendors do.

Instead he showed me great kindness long before I expressed interest in buying anything.

That’s more valuable than the book could have been to me or the money could have been to him. In scary, uncertain times, it’s important to remember that there are still little rafts of sunlight out there to find. I credit the Muppets. And no amount of behind-the-scenes idiocy will change that.

The book is available for purchase from Amazon here, if you’re interested.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 24: The Hotel New Hampshire

The Hotel New Hampshire, John IrvingChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Hotel New Hampshire
Author: John Irving
Year: 1981

I’m closing this series the way I opened it: with a book I read on a whim, and which affected me deeply. In both cases I had no expectations going in. In both cases, I just felt compelled to pick up the novel. In both cases, I came away a different person.

This is why I read. This is why everybody should read.

The difference between those experiences, though, is that Catch-22 turned me into a writer. I was younger then. I wasn’t…me. I was somebody, for sure, but Catch-22 hit me at the right time. It gave me direction I didn’t know I needed. It said, “Look. Look at all of the amazing things literature can do.”

And I never looked back. I’ve been reading and writing ever since. The number of days on which I’ve done neither is very low indeed.

That’s a great trick, but as Daffy Duck so eloquently put it, you can only do it once.

Because I’ve been a reader and writer ever since, books can’t affect me that way anymore. One of them had to do it, and one did. Now, sure, I may read a book that I end up loving, but it can’t be transformational. Can it? How many times can a human being be reinvented?

The Hotel New Hampshire didn’t reinvent me, but it could have. Maybe if I had found it earlier. Certainly reading it for the first time was like hearing echos from a past I never lived through. It felt familiar. It felt like an unburied memory. It felt like I was revisiting a book I loved long ago and finding that it was every bit as important as I thought it was then.

With one difference, of course: I’d never read it before.

It was too late to change me. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t improve me.

I worry, probably too often, that there are a finite number of books I’ll be able to read before I die. I worry because…well, I love books. I want to surround myself with them. I want to get lost in them. They mean something to me in a way that so much else…doesn’t. They’re important. They’re enriching. I keep reading, experiencing, falling in love dozens of times over…

And one day I will die.

And when I do, literal mountains of books will be left unread.

That’s sad enough.

It’s worse to realize that some of those books could have become favorites as well…and I’d just never gotten around to them. Life was too short. Some alternate version of who I could have been is locked away forever in a book on some shelf that I never had time to pick up.

I think you can guess which episode of The Twilight Zone hits me hardest.

That’s the whole reason I’ve done these writeups at all. Somewhere out there, there’s a book that can affect you. A book that can change you. A book that can teach you things about yourself and about the world and about people you never meet, and that’s a more valuable gift than most of us realize.

Read. Grab a book and read. Ask for recommendations, or don’t. Follow your gut, follow the reviews, follow something that leads you to a book, because literature is important. Literacy is important. Opening your mind to the numberless volumes of great works that have already been written is important.

The Hotel New Hampshire called to me from a shelf just a few short years ago, the same way Catch-22 did a lifetime ago. I didn’t recognize its voice, but it still sounded familiar. And I ended up loving a book so immediately, so deeply, so urgently, in ways I hadn’t felt since Catch-22. Old feelings came back. Something was rekindled. Something that I thought I was privileged to feel once I was downright blessed to feel twice.

The Hotel New Hampshire is the story of the Berry family, and the relentless unfolding of their continuous tragedy. Except…get this…it’s actually pretty comforting. And inspiring. And funny.

Their lives seem to be cursed. No sooner does one misfortune pass than another–usually larger and more devastating–takes its place. We follow the Berrys over the course of many years…watching them grow up, grow older, push along through sorrow after sorrow…

…but not mournfully. Because they have each other.

And that’s something I’ve never actually witnessed in a great work of literature before.

I’ve seen happy families. I’ve seen sad families. I’ve seen families pull together and families fall apart.

But I’ve never seen a family stay so consistently loyal, so open and dedicated to each other, through so much unimaginable darkness…and I never thought it could be so convincing.

A lot happens in The Hotel New Hampshire, and different scenes and sequences will stay with different readers to different degrees. But I think it’s impossible to come away from the book without a deep admiration for just how real the Berry family is. John Irving tapped into what makes a modern American family so sad, so stifled, so stuck…and reminded us that we can all find hope in our own way. Together, and yet as individuals. Doomed to face a darker tomorrow, and yet able if not to stare it down than at least to keep going. Or, as Irving himself puts it in this context, to keep passing the open windows.

The Berrys don’t ignore tragedy; they process it. They reshape it into something they can cope with. After all…don’t they sort of have to? Even when the tragedy is so large that it takes one of them (or two…) they understand that they need to keep going. What else is there?

And so The Hotel New Hampshire becomes, gradually, a chronicle of sadness that never quite feels sad. Because the sun does rise again. Maybe on a new and different tragedy, but there’s also a kind of richness to that. So much so that our narrator, John Berry, ends the book, yes, with a lot of sadness in his past, but with a personal history of exploration and understanding that he could not have had otherwise.

The Berrys keeps finding ways to move forward. And as upsetting as some of their experiences can be (there is one sequence that takes place during Halloween that I find tremendously difficult to read, though I deeply respect how affecting it is), they don’t get to choose what does and does not befall them. All they can choose is what they do next.

And, in that sense, the Berrys are heroes. They keep going not because they ever succeed…but because they don’t. In other hands, the Berrys would have starred in a cautionary tale. In other hands, so would all of us. But here, in The Hotel New Hampshire, they remind us that we’re all flawed, that we’re all groping along our own seemingly unending chain of miseries…

…and that that’s okay.

We can still choose what we do next.

The Hotel New Hampshire didn’t get to change who I was, the way Catch-22 did.

It just taught me something important about sadness, and how to process it.

It taught me that, no, you can’t reach into your life and pull out all of the things you wish you never experienced.

But you can keep going.

And you should.

Because there’s still something ahead that you’ll be glad you’ve seen. Even if it is, right now, just some book on a shelf.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 23: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George OrwellChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Author: George Orwell
Year: 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the few books my father ever recommended to me. He’s never been much of a reader. He likes true crime, and he’s read a few biographies and autobiographies of musicians. But there haven’t been many novels he’s read, let alone recommended.

It’s always been difficult for my father and I to bond. We don’t share many of the same interests, or desires. He lives a life very different from the one I’d like to lead. I think he was expecting to have a different kind of son in his life, and it’s hard for me to believe that he wasn’t (and isn’t) disappointed by the one he actually got.

And so we’ve lived our own separate lives. We both got older, and found our own ways forward…whatever “forward” might have meant for either of us. Not as father and son, but as two adults who know each other, and probably don’t approve of many things the other has chosen to do with himself.

But he recommended Nineteen Eighty-Four. He may even have given me his old copy. (I can’t remember for sure, but I do recall that the copy I had was quite old, with a cover on the verge of falling off. Knowing that handling it too roughly would likely break the spine, I developed my lifelong habit of always treating books with delicacy.)

Back then I may have liked it then more than I appreciated it. In my early teens, it was easy to overlook (to some extent) the novel’s message, and to focus more on what did–or did not–happen. Big Brother is a dick, authoritarian regimes suck, and nobody will find escape or happiness. I got all that, but I wasn’t yet a reader who latched on to themes. I was raised on film and television. I wanted events.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has those as well, and I had a few friends who also had read the book. So we talked about those scenes. The torture. The Two Minutes Hate. The infamous (within my circle) sex scene. In fact, if you want to ensure that sex scenes in novels will fail to turn you on as long as you live, start with the one in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There were two kinds of horrors in the book that legitimately got to me, though. The first was Newspeak, which the novel describes as being the only language that gets smaller and smaller. It’s a simplified variant of English, largely devoid of metaphor, very precise, and (by design) without room for artistry or even grace. I remember having dinner at a friend’s house, and discussing Nineteen Eighty-Four with him. When we talked about Newspeak, his mother laughed, as though the concept was a very good joke.

I’ll always remember that laugh. I guess it is a very good joke. But it’s far too frightening for me to laugh at.

The other horror was the simple truth behind O’Brien, poor Winston Smith’s false confidant. As Winston rebels (in small ways, yearning for larger freedoms), he finds what he believes to be a powerful friend in O’Brien. In reality, O’Brien is the enemy. It was painful and unexpected enough for me as a reader back then, but the sheer cruelty Orwell allows him…having him, specifically him, torture Winston until our protagonist is “cured” of his independent thinking…

…I’ll just say that it’s still one of literature’s great betrayals, as far as I’m concerned. It managed to hit me hard–and hit me in the correct way–before I was even able to appreciate much of the novel’s warnings. “I’ll bet you’re paying attention now,” that moment seemed to say.

I’ve read the book several times since, and I still think it’s great. I’ve heard some pushback from others, claiming, for instance, that Orwell was a better moralist than he was a novelist. And, well, maybe he was. But Nineteen Eighty-Four stands on its own merits as a piece of solid and important writing, I feel. I don’t make concessions for it; I don’t excuse its weaker moments or sloppy constructions on the grounds that it represents something larger.

No…I just don’t see weak moments and sloppiness. I see a powerful, brutal fist of a novel that exists in precisely the correct form. I see a story that genuinely could not be told any better, and the large number of works inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four that fail to live up to it seem to be evidence of that.

What’s mainly interesting to me now–and where I think a lot of Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired works fall down–is that Orwell doesn’t actually give any advice. He doesn’t tell you how to avoid the situation. He doesn’t tell you how to cope with it. He doesn’t tell you how to improve it. (In fact, he tells you you can’t improve it.)

What he tells you is that by the time you’re there, it’s already too late.

You don’t live under Big Brother and think, “Okay, now what?”

You rage against Big Brother ruthlessly, constantly, without pause, because the moment he takes power, there is no more hope.

You fight now. Now. As you read the book, as you’re allowed to read the book, you fight. You don’t wait until you recognize Big Brother…you fight to keep Big Brother from ever appearing.

Yes, of course, there’s a temptation to liken it to certain things happening in the world today. But there always is. That’s why a book written in the mid-40s about a “distant future” that itself is already far behind us still resonates. It still matters. Because things are always bad, always terrifying, and we can’t get complacent. We need to fight to keep them from getting worse.

My father and I never bonded much. I’m fairly sure I can use my fingers to count the number of times.

But one time we definitively did bond was with Nineteen Eighty-Four. We bonded over the eventual, inevitable, hopeless end of civilization.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 22: The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury, William FaulknerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1929

It’s a fairly universal feeling to want to escape who you are. Of course, we can put a more positive spin on that: we want to do better, we want to improve ourselves, we want to achieve some level of comfort and satisfaction.

But make no mistake; we all, to varying degrees, feel the desire to escape who we are.

The Sound and the Fury is William Faulkner’s masterpiece. It’s also a masterpiece of American fiction, and one of the funniest, saddest, most astute studies anyone’s written about mankind’s driving need–and ultimate inability–to move on.

It centers on the Compson family, which, through the generations, has fallen on hard times. Mainly it centers on one group of siblings–Benjy, Caddie, Jason, and Quentin–that we watch grow up and struggle in their own ways through their own problems. But they are always stuck being themselves, always stuck being Compsons, always stuck in a world that (understandably) doesn’t quite have a place for them.

It’s a difficult novel. I need to make that clear, and it can’t be overstated. Before I left my job at the college, the senior provost and I would sometimes talk about books. He saw that I was re-reading The Sound and the Fury, and he told me he found a really nice edition and picked it up…but couldn’t finish the book. He tried multiple times but kept getting lost, putting it down, and moving on to something else.

That’s the senior provost of a major state university. An intelligent, educated, deeply patient man. He couldn’t make it through more than a few pages of The Sound and the Fury before he realized he wasn’t absorbing any of it.

I can’t blame him for setting it aside, if that’s how he felt. Nor can I blame the thousands of other readers who no doubt did–and will do–the same thing. But I can give some advice:

You won’t understand it.

Keep reading anyway.

See, The Sound and the Fury begins as a massively difficult narrative…yet slowly, gradually, gracefully resolves into a straight-forward one. It’s a modernist nightmare of clashing timelines and disconnected symbols that, perhaps without you even realizing it, literally becomes a much easier, much more familiar, much more simple book the further you go.

The novel is split into four sections, the first three of which are narrated by Compson siblings. The three narrators are successively more focused (or less unfocused) on the story they are telling, which means the most difficult passages come early, and the orientation comes much later. The fourth section is relayed in the third person, which makes it the easiest to read, as the action is no longer filtered through the very specific viewpoint of a very flawed character.

It’s actually the only novel I’ve read that becomes less complicated as you progress through it. (I’d love to hear of other examples, though, so please do share them.) Often books hover at some degree of difficulty throughout, or they become more difficult as you progress. Sometimes the difficulty fluctuates section to section, training the reader to keep going through the confusing parts with the tacit promise that clarity will return soon.

The Sound and the Fury, though, fights coherence on the first page, and embraces it on the last. It’s an odd experience, as though Faulkner was indeed weeding out readers who wouldn’t be willing to engage, to work, to struggle to understand what the characters themselves struggle to understand. Even in the easiest, final section of the book, Faulkner spells out very little. He simply presents. What you do with the information presented is up to you.

To be fair, Faulkner himself considered using some uncommon formatting that would make the text easier to parse, if not exactly understand: he toyed with the idea of using differently colored inks to identify which parts of the book were occurring in which time period.

The problem–in addition to the fact that this would be a pretty superficial gimmick that would artistically cheapen the near-perfect novel Faulkner produced–was that this would really only be helpful to the novel’s very first section, which is narrated by Benjy, a developmentally disabled adult who has difficulty keeping himself oriented.

Once the reader progressed past that section, there’d be very little use for the differently colored text. Section two, narrated by the depressed and hopeless Quentin, also drifts through time, but is far easier to keep track of, as Quentin himself is both well-read and well-spoken. What’s more, even if one does get lost a bit in Quentin’s jumbled chronology, the emotional arc of his section–his doomed pining for his sister Caddie–comes through clearly. There’s more than enough to Quentin’s section for it to register, even if certain passages slip by.

And then…that’s it. The third section is narrated by the cruel, self-important, manipulative Jason, but he’s also the most straight-forward of the Compson clan and his narrative requires almost no unraveling. After that we detach from first-person narration altogether, and we’re squarely in traditional Southern novel territory. The Sound and the Fury isn’t easy, but it definitely gets easier.

This is a I’ve wanted to cover for Fiction into Film as long as I’ve been doing the series, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get around to it. It’s a novel worth gushing about, and there’s at least one interesting adaptation floating around to cover. (I can only vouch for one, in other words; I haven’t seen the others.)

But really it’s because I want an excuse to talk about it. I want to talk about how the Compsons–major and minor–each rebel against what their family is, what their family has been, or what their family is becoming. They yearn to be both rooted and rootless. They push and pull and struggle and fight without really quite knowing what they want.

There are great conversations to be had about those things.

Unfortunately, almost everyone I know stops reading in section one.

I don’t blame them.

But I’d sure enjoy having someone else to talk to. The topic of escaping who you are could lead to some truly important conversations.