Don’t Blame the Medium, Blame the Parents

Don’t Blame the Medium, Blame the Parents

In almost every situation across the board, parents will try to shift the blame from themselves. Almost yearly, you hear a multitude of new indignant voices from whiny mums trying to defame some form of media, which seems to have become a routine because this started all the way back in the 1930s. People hated the cinema, thought it would bring in debauchery and sin. And the same was true for alcohol, which was what brought in the failed idea of prohibition. Then the comic book scare from the 50s to 60s, rock and roll in the 70s and after that, in the 80s and 90s videogames. People will always see it as their moral way to stand up for some injustice and find a way to get it banned for whatever reason or the other. They cry that damages our morality and spoils are kids, while, being absolutely fair, beating a child only became a crime in the past century. Everyone thinks they have a monopoly on what should be right, but the truth is, that it is the collective that should be listened to. Videogames, alcohol, comic books, music, movies. All these things have become a part of our society, for better or for worse, and banning them only leads to more problems. Lack of expression, lack of art, and most importantly, lack of a voice from where we can explore more complex ideas.

So I’m here to break down some of the many reasons why a lot of people, especially, in my humble opinions, parents, view a lot of kid’s media as violent and ban-worthy. And why they in particular, should just sod off.

We’ve Come a Long Way

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I am a big advocate of free speech. I feel that if you have an idea you feel is important enough to be hears, you should say it, and that people who oppose it should be able to for whatever their reasons are. And at the end of the end of the day, the best ideas will win out by merit of having better ideas. This prevents an ideological echo chamber akin to Ingsoc from 1984. However, indignant parents, and I say parents because they are usually the loudest voice, tend to want a straight up ban to these type of things, and they usually go way too far. We have had various forms of entertainment for over 100 years now. One of the first films was in the late 1800s, and since then, we’ve come up with standards, regulations, guidelines and ethics. We respect free speech, but we also have to set limits for our industries. There was a time when Hollywood was so rampant in its depiction of sex that there was a Christian and Catholic boycott that changed the face of the movie industry for 20 years. It reflected the outrage of the people at the time, and we’ve seen that many times throughout history. Since then we now have boards that review games before they release and then assign a rating to them. And I think those ratings are fair and well. At the end of the day I’ll enjoy playing a game like GTA V because even though it is an open world sandbox filled with violence, the rules still exist. There are police, and consequences to your actions. It also has three interesting and well written characters, which helps a lot. Anyone who says otherwise is full of trash. You can’t compare this to a game like Postal 2 which was banned in a few countries, I think rightfully, because that was a game about utterly pointless violence. If there was anyone willing to play such a mindless game, then they could get it straight from the developer. Every retailer had a right to ban the sale of this game.

And that’s one of the problems at the end of the day. The people that attempt to ban music, games and all that have never even, not once attempted to understand them. They hate them for no reason, which makes them look stupid and sheltered to say the least. If the medium is bad, I think people will react anyways. Postal 2 got generally negative reviews across the board. Even though there were many attempts by parents to ban rock music, and later on hip-hop, they never strived to understand the meaning in the music. The concepts and the lives of artists, and how kids related to that. If a rapper raps about guns and drugs, it might be because that’s where he’s coming from. If a rockstar screams about torn heartstrings and an escape to hell, it might be because his love has been taken from him. In more ways than none, people relate to these things, a chance to rebel and express themselves and revel in the unabashedly loud and uncaring music.  Music, and almost any other media for that matter, doesn’t judge. It doesn’t care how you look or act or dress, because it’s there to let you be yourself and help you get through it. And parents fear that. Because every parent tries as hard as they can to mould their children into what they want them to be.

Where Were the Parents?

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Kids, especially kids with siblings, will fight. I remember I once had a fight with my older brother so vicious that I was left dizzy with a bloody nose. Kids are generally nasty to each other, deal with it. It’s a learning process to teach them manners and good habits, even at the most basic levels. Therefore, I think shifting the blame for bad behaviour, or any potential bad behaviour is lazy at best. What happened to parents spending family time with their kids and getting to know what they’re interested in? Even when it comes to teenagers, who are as angsty as they come, they still have a higher level of intelligence than kids. They don’t need to be mollycoddled and can understand much more complex situations. Would it kill you to simply sit with them and try to understand them, not simply control them? It may be hard, but you didn’t have a baby so you could live an easy, carefree life.
For example, my mum never wanted me to read Harry Potter. She’d have none of it because there was “witchcraft” in it. A big no-no for Christians. which sucked ’cause my dad had no problem with it and my sisters had read every book and watched every movie. It wouldn’t have hurt her to read it and understand that it was a fun book that showed the power of friendship, loyalty, trust, parental love and the triumph of good vs evil all without mindless violence or rotting your brain. It makes no sense to blame all your problems on one thing or medium when the news portrays so much negativity, when our world is fucked up, when problems arise at every turn and when one wrong move can fuck up a child’s life. Ultimately, it’s a parent that chooses how to raise their child, and a careful approach is needed. I would not let my 3 or 4 year touch Call of Duty, but when they’re 9 or 10 I would sit down with them and play it. Explain some simple moral concepts, talk about the history of war and educate them. I wouldn’t allow my 9-year-old to touch GTA, but once they’re a teenager, they can explore the game. All it takes is some semi-awkward social interaction and some behaviour monitoring. Fairly certain they won’t just steal the neighbour’s car and go on a crime spree.

Parents control a lot of what their kids are allowed to watch and experience. I understand the fear that parents have over losing their children to the cultural boogeyman. But all it takes is a bit of effort to allow your kids to have fun while monitoring them and guiding them through whatever. If you put too much of a yoke on kids, or completely leave them to their own devices, you have a recipe for disaster. A lot of people blamed Marilyn Manson for the Columbine Massacre, forgetting that the US was going through a particularly brutal time. Sending troops to the gulf with racial inequality and gun violence rampant and the news on a fear-mongering campaign. But it was Marilyn Manson a lot of kids were turning to in order to escape all that along with everything else teenager’s deal with. Constrict kids too much and they turn out worse for it, having no personality and living a sheltered life, or rebelling to the max simply to spite everyone and everything.

I’m no expert on parenting, but I’ve been raised by parents who were both understanding and firm. They didn’t allow me every freedom, but they allowed me a lot, all while instilling good morals, values and a knack for exploration. I may have made a bunch of mistakes growing up, but I learnt quickly from them, because perfection is extremely overrated. And I have great friends whose parents gave them similar treatment and allowed them to explore. Would it make a difference if we were raised different? Maybe, maybe not. I’ll leave you with this amazing quote by Marilyn Manson. “Is adult entertainment killing our children? or is killing our children entertaining our adults?”

 

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How the East gets Horror Right

How the East gets Horror Right

The featured image above is from Kentaro Miura’s renowned Berserk manga. In the scene, a mercenary band encounters corpses hung from the tree. Underneath one of the corpses lies a baby Guts, our main protagonist, literally birthed from his dead mother and waiting to die. It is only by the mercy of the mercenary leader’s wife that he is saved, only to be handed a lifetime of misery and uncountable horrors. And while we’re not going to look into the masterpiece that is Berserk just yet, I wanted to turn you to this particularly disturbing manga page. The heavy cross-hatched shading, the contrasting black and whites, the barren landscape, and the multitudes of corpses. Everything is extremely unnerving in this panel, and it is done with an unnerving level of detail. And this is far from his most disturbing page.
You see, Eastern media has a particularly terrifying way of showing horror. The pure undiluted stuff. I badly wanted to put a panel from Junji Ito as the feature image, or a particularly disturbing Silent Hill image, but that would probably just get me reported and banned. Ultimately, Eastern media has substance rarely seen in the West for more than one reason, and that’s why the West is so fixated on it, constantly adapting Eastern concepts for Western audiences. However, it is this focus on adaptation that ultimately makes most Holywood grabs bland in the end. So let’s take a moment to look at Eastern horror, and what makes it so damn good.

Medium

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Medium is something which greatly enhances the quality of horror. It is quite a different thing to watch horror than it is to play it, and reading a horror novel is vastly different from reading a comic. Japan, besides having films, books and games have manga, a very different experience from what most people are used to. The black and white images on the page create a very stunning contrast, and good manga authors use this, plus the nature of flipping a page to their advantage. With manga, you’re creating a visual representation of something scary, not just describing it in words. So now, the readers have to force themselves to turn the page, leading to a glimpse of something horrifying. Tension has been built up, but you never expect what you’ll see, and because of this, manga authors, like Junji Ito have drawn some pretty disturbing shit. Take the image above for example, straight out of one of Junji Ito’s most famous manga, Uzumaki, literally meaning spiral. Imagine turning the page to see something as uncanny, visually striking and yet horrifying as that. All his skill has led him to draw an unforgettably terrifying image. One that is so visually unappealing in a way that Western readers, who are used to more violence, blood and gore, find disturbing.

But there are other mediums besides that which the Japanese have taken advantage of, most notably being video games. Playing a video game feels fundamentally different from watching a horror film. Now the player is in control, he has a chance to fight back…or die. And that makes his experience much more personal. The Japanese understood early on that it is this hope for survival that made horror games so frightening, which is why games like Resident Evil by survival horror legend Shinji Makami and Silent Hill by Konami’s Team Silent set so many lofty bars. The player, who usually feels like a demigod, is now put at the mercy of the game and has to use not only his intellect but quick thinking to stop from dying a horrible death. Take the first Evil Within for example. A more recent example, it displays the ingenuity of placing players in truly tense situations. Limited ammunition, enemies that can’t be killed, horrifying bosses and puzzles that kill you in brutal fashion leave the player in constant terror with their guard constantly raised.

And while I haven’t watched many Japanese horror films, I have heard very good things about South Korean horror films. A Tale of Two Sisters is a mortifying psychological thriller/horror with an emphasis on the supernatural and a twisted family, sure to give a few nightmares despite its age. And Death Bell is a movie that does well as gore fest, but ups the ante by making it a death carnival between high school students. The East has a good grasp of the medium, and that translates well into their work.

 

Culture

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Eastern horror falls into slightly different veins than Western horror due to the many cultural influences of both societies. While the West was doused in gory spectacle, the East focused more on cultural issues, social problems, the psychological and supernatural. Urban horror stories are a big part of Asian culture, like the above pictured kuchisake-onna, and the South Korean Red Ink belief. And this shows within all the different mediums, with Asian writers and creatives much more willing to adapt popular urban tales of horror into something more relatable with everyday life, compared to, say, a chain wielding maniac in the American outback. Comparatively, I doubt we’ll ever see a Hollywood adaptation of the Slenderman, or Jeff the Killer.
And boy, are Asian urban legends terrifying. Asian culture is focused on discipline, respect, honour and other things besides. It can be rigid compared to what Westerners are so used to. Therefore, it stands to reason then that the East would focus on things like mental health, snapping minds and the downs of living in urban metropolises with millions of other people. Claustrophobia and urban internet myths and hauntings, as well as creepy things that not only haunt old homes, but forums as well.

And all this terror is wrapped up in a veil of finality. Ordinarily in Asian horror movies, there is no “survivor” at the end of the gory tale. If it is a curse, it is indiscriminate and final, affecting not just the adults, but children and even pets. And that’s something Western audiences cannot stomach or appreciate most of the times. They expect a “win” at the end. A small victory. Look at 2002’s The Ring. Despite the main character and her child being put into the most immediate danger, they escape unscathed, albeit a little scarred, with the solution to their problem seeming cheap. A famous scene from the Ju-On: The Grudge, which was faithfully put into the Western adaptation, shows a girl in bed. She raises the sheets to be the greeted with the face of Kayako, the ghost who plagues everyone in the film, and she drags our hapless victim down in after her, another casualty of Kayako’s curse. There is a sense of sacredness to being in the bedroom, and a sort of sacredness to hiding under the sheets, and this sacredness is utterly torn apart by the directors.

Exploration

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This scene is from Audition, a 1999 Japanese film by director Takashi Miike. One night, my mate Tinashe and I had a horror night, being huge horror fans ourselves. We were astounded by the tension of the movie, moving from just unsettling to full blown horrifying by the final act of the movie. We see the girl, Asami’s true nature, and the gore that follows, which is sometimes way too hard to watch. The movie is a stunning example of psychological horror done right. No over the top madness, and nothing supernatural. Just the sad victim and the depraved psycho. But I only saw this modern horror classic last year, and I wouldn’t have seen it at all unless I decided to break out of my comfort zone and explore. There is an abundance of amazing horror all around the world, and the East is no exception. Watching media is a good way to glimpse a small bit of other people’s culture, and horror is a part of that. The orient has produced some truly stellar horror, and it’d be a shame if you went your whole life without seeing any of it.
As Shinji Mikami said, “Whoever first thought of killing someone with a chainsaw was a genius!”

Bloodborne: A Primal Fear

Bloodborne: A Primal Fear

Bloodborne was one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2015, arriving exclusively on PS4 and setting the internet ablaze.  From Software, the same studio behind the infamous Souls franchise, decided to go all out in developing a new, but familiar take on the genre so annoyingly named “Souls-Like“. And it is this familiarity, mixed with its Lovecraftian influence and new gameplay switch-ups that make the game so memorable, action packed, and harrowing. I managed to buy it in the summer release, it being my first experience with a Souls-Likehowever it took me literally the whole summer to finish the game. And I promise you it wasn’t because I suck at videogames (I really don’t, honest), but because I was instilled with fear. Two primal fears, to be exact. The fear of death, and the fear of the unknown. And I think it’s just about time I get over my PTSD and begin to tell the tale of how Bloodborne straight fucked me up.

In the Beginning…

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I admit freely that growing up I had a major fear of the dark. It may have been a product of my over active imagination but even reaching my teen years, I could freeze up in abject horror when alone in a room and thinking of how something sinister could be just about to wrap its claws around my neck. Needless to say, I was a wreck for a long time, and I couldn’t get over it until I realised something important. That I wasn’t afraid of the dark itself, but that I was afraid of what might be lurking within it. It was imposing to say the least, and it scared the hell out of me. And within time I got over the fear, but Bloodborne brought that fear back. See, Bloodborne was developed by From Software, the crazy guys behind the Dark Souls Franchise. A franchise known for its punishing difficulty and imposing enemies. The series had, by the time Bloodborne was developed, achieved notoriety for its no hand-holding policy. You’ll probably die within the first 15 minutes of playing and be introduced to the despair, pure and unadalterated. People played Dark Souls on the defensive, biding their time and extending encounters with enemies and bosses. Essentially, playing it very very safe. So From Software decided to switch a few things up when developing Bloodborne, and that was the best decision they could make for the project. Enter game director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the person behind the first two Souls games and someone who has been with the company since 2004. Miyazaki is one of those Japanese directors who gains a lot of inspiration from Western works, such as Dracula, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Its also clear to see how European Architecture inspired him, and this shines through in the level design of the Souls games, with high towers and the harsh facades of medieval castles. More on that later, however one influence on Miyazaki that he had never used in his games. The works of H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of Cosmicism, and The Unknown, and this as we will soon discover, created an unforgettable atmosphere.

 

The Hunter’s Tale

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Bloodborne does a great job of introducing its plot and setting before plunging you into a world of mystery and malevolence, and while I won’t be discussing all of its points, I sincerely suggest you watch VaatiVidya,Souls Series lore master. You are a Hunter from out of town. A slayer of beasts and monsters, and you arrive in the fictional town of Yharnam. A not so subtle nod to, most notably, 19th Century London with it’s Gothic atchitecure and cathedrals. Your character arrives on the night of the hunt, where the inhabitants band together to purge the city of everything evil and unhuman, and after receiving a blood transfusion from a local, you are plunged into a neverending nightmare. After this point, Bloodborne does very little to actively tell a story. It presents hints and links to the lore of Yharnam itself, the role of the hunters, the Church, and the people themselves, as well as the hunts and beasts. And the truly observant will begin to piece together a small semblance of a story, even though there is no official ending or plot line, so to speak. The game merely gives you the pieces and allows you to craft your own story, which is a brilliant way to tell a story while allowing the player to put just enough of themselves into the character.

And the various characters the player encounters on his or her journey definitely contribute to the feel of the world of Bloodborne. They offer insight into what is going on, what the people think of you (they hate you), and what you might expect. And the fact that they offer information sparsely and in intervals or after you reach a plot point, making you even more interested to hunt for information. Some characters, like Father Gascoigne, make you feel the feels, while others, like Queen Annalise only appear randomly after doing something not directly related to the main quest. However, many of them can just as easily be antagonised or killed for items or to unlock another plot point, meaning that being the “good guy” means you miss out on plot points or items. My favourite NPC function however, is how they each tell their own tales from their own perspectives. Whether it be a hunter watching over Old Yharnam, to a Healing Church cleric, to a prostitute. All of it can be considered incredibly important, or meaningless, depending on the player.

If it wasn’t made obvious by now, Bloodborne has a morbid obsession with blood. In fact, blood is the main driving force and currency of Yharnam, and at the end of the game, the blood will be all you think about. As you progress through the game, you discover story details that paint Yharnam as even more sinister than its creepy architecture suggests. The blood in Yharnam, distributed by the Healing Church, contained special properties. The ability to cure sickness and plague through blood ministration, essentially the letting of blood and blood transfusion became very useful, and the church restricted the knowledge of the different types of blood and how they were used. And in time, the inhabitants of Yharnam became addicted to the high the blood afforded them. But as the city became addicted, a plague hit the town, and turned the men to beasts who became less and less human. Of course, this was most likely all because of the Healing Church, but they conveniently came to the rescue, setting up the scene for modern hunting and continuing the use of blood ministration. This was of course, due to the knowledge that they guarded. That the secrets of blood ministration came from the Old OnesLovecraftian aliens who had visited Yharnam long ago and brought with them many secrets. So basically you, and everyone in the town is hunting things that were once human all because of their addiction to something that is, by all means, not normal, and this is brilliant.

It gives a certain element of repugnance to the player, especially knowing when the player realises just how much they rely on the blood. To heal themselves, to replenish their ammo when they have nothing, to upgrade skills and weapons and to buy items. Therefore, by the end of the game, just like the poor inhabitants of Yharnam, the player is just as reliant of the blood.

Yharnam, Sweet Yharnam

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Ah, the setting of Yharnam, dark, imposing and infintely frightening, Hidetaka Miyazaki really outdid himself on this one. While previous Souls games were centred around medieval architecture, with quiet barrows, decrepit castles and lofty towers, Bloodborne went forward in time. Bloodborne’s architecture heavily revolves around Victorian-era architecture, with Gothic facades and elaborate masonry. Stairs rise for many a step, and doors to new areas of the game are heavy and slow to open, creating an atmospheric reveal.

As far as level design goes, not only is the world stunning, but it has the effect of weighing down on the player. There are few open areas where one can see the horizon. It is instead dominated by towers and steeples. You must run through courtyards and narrow corridors, be assailed on stairs and prowl through gaols. And lurking within these frightening locations, sometimes silent, sometimes causing a ruckus, are the various enemies you will encounter. Despite being coined as an action game; the game certainly does its best to throw the most terrifying enemies it can at you. Whether you have a fear of spiders, snakes, slimy things or hags, Bloodborne will take those fears, twist them into something worse, and throw them back at you. And the cramped and dark environment of Yharnam does its best to either keep you from running away, or trying to find an advantage.
It should be noted that Bloodborne does well in relaying religious imagery with its level design, the heavy orchestra found in the soundtrack replete with organs. And the locations are both varied and true enough to themselves, that each one feels rich with a long forgotten culture despite usually not being filled with a sane populace. There is always indication of worship to some terrible and unseen force, and it is only in the end do you see what exactly everyone reveres.

Some areas can only be found after a loss, such as being kidnapped by the watchers and being taken to the Hypogean Gaol, which unfortunately results in the permanent loss off your blood echoes. I think such choices in regards to level design are both risky, but exciting, because once the player experiences, they realise how screwed they are. The developers are a bunch of sadistic pricks who are not above using death to advance the story, and this id only heightens the players level of unease considering death is such a significant element in the game. One could even say that, story wise, the game revolves around it.

 

A Fear Oh So Lovecraftian

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Even though Bloodborne is penned as an action-RPG game, it is obvious that it has not-so-subtle elements of horror within it. And this horror, despite not being specifically labeled a horror game, is so palpable for multiple reasons. The first, being rather obvious in that it is a Souls game. Dying is easy and every victory is hard earned, with the risk of losing all your precious blood echoes (the currency), or having to face the same enemy that initially killed you, only know that it is supercharged and tougher. In a sense, Bloodborne very early on fills the player with the fear of death. The prospect of having to face the same enemies, with less resources and the risk of losing all your hard earned money is no doubt, fear-inducing. The fear of death is primal and perfectly normal, but the fear of having to die horrifically at the hands of beasts multiple times simply to achieve a task, sometimes minor? Now that is panic-inducing, and a fear that most people will never have to deal with.  And coupled with the fact that Bloodborne is much more aggressive than Dark Souls means that players will constantly be in a state of panic, trying their hardest not to die.

The second obvious fear, is the typical fear seen when we see something scary or disturbing. Think Resident Evil or Dead Space, if you need something to envision initially. The enemy designs in Bloodborne are horrifying consisting of normal horror tropes like witches and, to more creative takes on classic characters, like the fishing village inhabitants with writhing snakes for heads. And every seemingly “normal” enemy is warped in some way, like the feral and decaying dogs, or the slowly transforming townsfolk with their elongated limbs, fur covered faces and torches. It’s the cosmic enemies that really stand out however, slimy, icky, and with all sense of humanity long gone. Ebrietas comes to mind with his outlandish character design and otherworldly appearance. And for all this we have Ryo Fujimaki to thank for the twisted and sinister character designs. And the more you delve into the game and explore the lore, the more the character design feels relevant. The character’s strange changes from raving humans to true beasts has great relevance the more you play, and those like the Healing Church bosses grow to extreme sizes due to their adherence to the blood.

And the final and perhaps most disturbing part of Bloodborne’s horror is the Lovecraftian cosmicism that seeps into every aspect of the Bloodborne’s world. Lovecraft delved into veins of horror that were both outlandish and unexplored. And Bloodborne has enough of that to keep the Player both intrigued and fascinated. The idea that we as humans are but specks of dust in the grand scheme of the universe, and that there are no gods or beings above that love us or treat us as special. We are infants, and nothing more, and that makes us insignificant. This and many more revelations such us the true nature of the Hunter’s Dream, a game mechanic that has you travel to a safe area to heal and buy items and weapons, which is revealed to be far more sinister. There also exist Nightmare Realms, areas in the game that hold the consciousness of a Great One, or a baby Great One, and these realms are truly nightmares in themselves. However, one truly interesting mechanic is “insight”, something that allows you to see through the veil that separates the “normal” world from its maddening reality. And as the game progresses, and your insight reaches new level, the true world is shown and although it is the same old Yharnam, it is given a new, evil light and old levels are filled with new and terrifying enemies as well as new paths and new areas to explore.

 

Journey’s End

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So with that we come to the end of Bloodborne, a terrifying but exciting game. One that, I think, everyone should play at least once. Not only for the mystery and combat, but for the lore and the hidden frights you might encounter. Yharnam is big and full of enemies and hidden treasures, and you might craft your own story at the end of it.
As usual, to end the post with an insightful quote from the game from a doll who serves the hunters in the hunter’s dream. She says, almost nonchalantly, “hunters have told me about the church. About the gods, and their love. But… do the gods love their creations? I am a doll, created by you humans. Would you ever think to love me? Of course… I do love you. Isn’t that how you made me?”

How the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Perfected Fantasy in Games

How the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Perfected Fantasy in Games

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt initially came out in 2015, followed by two large expansions, Hearts of Stone and finally Blood and Wine, along with multiple free DLCs. I am more than embarrassed to say that I am 2 years late to the party, finishing it only recently, however, I am not embarrassed to say that I enjoyed the experience immensely. I might even be so bold as to place it in my ever shifting gaming hall of fame due to not only the game’s profound effect on me, but the work ethos displayed by the Polish developers and publishers CD Projekt S.A. that no doubt contributed greatly to the success of The Witcher franchise. And while I may go more into depth on why developers usually need publishers to be successful, and the rare but inspiring examples that exist, I think it would be best to devote the majority of this particular blog to The Witcher 3, and how it set the standard for future “AAA Games”.

I’ll begin with a solid foundation so some of you may grasp this much more easily. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an open world action role-playing-game developed by CD Projekt Red, a Polish game development studio under CD Projekt S.A. The games themselves are based on the series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, a very talented author well versed in fantasy writing and whose books have been translated into nineteen languages.  I can’t speak much on the actual novels as I’ve only read the first one-The Last Wish, however I have pieced together quite a bit of lore from the games, and as such, I’ll be focusing on the games. However, credit where credit is due, because one of reasons the games are so amazing, is because of the source material. CD Projekt S.A. have specific company philosophies, one of them being working on lesser known franchises that they can bring to a wider audience. However, they also focus on the player, and rather than focusing on normal game rhetoric such as making game worlds bigger, they decided to put more life into the games themselves, encouraging players to explore the game more and become attached to the world, the lore, and the characters.

And it shows in the Witcher 3 more than most other games. The game cost $81M to make, half of which went into marketing, which was handled by CD Projekt S.A. However, devs like Bioware quite possibly spent much more than that with a much bigger team and most likely, a higher budget to come up with something that was not at all what was advertised. This not only shows the failing of the devs and the publishers, but shows the great amount of effort, time and commitment that The Witcher’s developers put into it. Motion capture, coherent facial animations, interesting characters, well written plots and subplots, engaging side quests, a gorgeous open world, and physics that aren’t god-awful all contribute towards its success. Each character is voiced with an air of care for their character, and each NPC that you can have a conversation with has enough quirk that they are remembered even later on in the game. When we look at development, The Witcher 3 got so many things right, and in an industry like gaming where so many people are privy to the process of making a game, the fans could appreciate the efforts of the dev team.

As for plot, that’s where The Witcher 3 has its highs and lows, although this is just me nitpicking for the most part. In this particular adventure, we follow our main character, the fame Geralt of Rivia, also known as The White Wolf and The Butcher of Blaviken on a journey to find his surrogate daughter, Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon who is being pursued by the Wild Hunt. As far as RPGs go, this is part and parcel of a standard main quest. Something that will span hours and stretch across the map. However even before you take control of Geralt, you can see how much he loves Ciri despite not having seen her for many years. He dreams of her, has premonitions involving her and talks about with concern despite usually having a cocky. slightly sarcastic demeanor. And as the game progresses, it is this single minded search for Ciri that helps and hurts the plot. From an emotional angle, we can understand why Geralt is searching for his daughter. It is immensely important that he keeps her safe and it is this care for her that makes us relate to him as well as sympathise with him. This unfortunately has the effect of streamlining the plot, making it rather simple and without much diversity. Few questions are asked and that robs the intrigue out of the story, making it seem boring, and making Geralt himself seem very one dimensional. However, that is remedied almost entirely by the abundance of side quests, many of which are optional, but extremely interesting. They contain one-of-a-kind characters with their own backstories, motives and personalities. If you do a side quest, the more you progress, the more you will feel that you’re missing out afterwards if you don’t do the side quests. Besides building Geralt’s character and revealing areas of his past and motives, they also give the player freedom to make their own choices and give Geralt his own ending. The player gets to live out their gritty medieval fantasy through him best in the side quests, whether by helping villagers with petty issues, solving murders, appeasing spirits, lifting curses, and slaying monsters.

But The Witcher doesn’t get by solely on its plot. The world of The Witcher is filled with interest, living or dead. Lore wise, it contains a huge bestiary of beasts terrible and strange, and on top of this, it has a large index of characters that you meet. Part of the core gameplay is visiting the bestiary to see what category of monster you’re fighting, and the best way to defeat it. Doing this gives you a certain sixth-sense when facing monsters and increases your cautiousness, however it makes you dive deeper into the world of The Witcher, because if you not you’ll die in horrible,and often pitiful ways. But luckily, the monsters exist everywhere, and by creating this system you can be surprised and pleased depending on the situation. For example, if you ride in the forest on your faithful horse Roach, expect to find a pack of wolves, or if you’re especially unlucky, a Leshen. If you go into a swamp or ride by a beach, you’ll be greeted by the pleasant moan of a Water Hag or a drowner. But all is not lost because the nastier monsters, like Lycanthropes griffins, wyverns and noonwraiths are usually only encountered on Witcher Quests. However, it is possible to run into one by accident, at which point it is probably best to turn tail and conduct a flawless tactical retreat. And all of this never get old due to the inspiration of these monsters coming from Slavic mythology, which has been untouched by many authors despite having a wide range of legends and tales. However, at the end of the day, preparation is usually key, and the Witcher who is prepared, is victorious.
The designs of the monsters are visually striking, and one can see this without even glimpsing the concept art. The attention to detail is immense, from the rotting decaying flesh of the undead, to the graceful and sharp movements of vampires. Ogroids are lumbering, and relicts are unique and different. Unless species are related in some way or another, most monsters do not look alike. Which is great character design as it keeps players highly interested in the game as well as showing that the creators cared enough.
And it’s not just the design of monsters and the human characters. The whole world is gorgeous, featuring 4 distinct locations-Velen, Novigrad, Oxenfurt and Skellige-before Toussaint was added to the Blood and Wine expansion. The cities are bustling and full of life, and the countrysides sprawl for leagues in every direction, littered with forests, swamps, highlands and fields. It’s a straight treat to the eye, and the changing weather and travel options such as boat and horse make the world feel so much more alive.

But enough about design, because the gameplay mechanics take into play so many things from the lore and design and turn them into fully functional elements. One such example, which gave me enough incentive to run about for hours completely ignoring the main quest, is the crafting system. Not as extensive as some RPGs, and fairly straightforward, the ability to dismantle any common item for materials in order to build new and powerful weapons and weapon sets is an exciting one, and is extremely practical in the long run. Besides, getting a full witcher gear set is an exciting quest in itself, exploring long forgotten caverns and haunts. And while one can get money from hunting monsters on quests for people, the fully fleshed out world means that even repairing weapons at a blacksmith requires money, making it very impractical to hoard money to save up for that fancy sword. And that brings us to the alchemy system. A Witcher has many enemies, supernatural and human, and having the right tools on hand might make the hunt more exciting than nerve-wracking. Lathering your sword in necrophage oil can make dispatching a group of rotfiends much more enjoyable than tedious, and chucking a dimeritium bomb robs spectres of much of their annoying invulnerability to normal attacks. All of this can be achieved by obtaining ingredients rather easily from plants as well as monster corpses. And the stronger the enemy, the more potent the oil or potion will be, making the game progression much more balanced as you progress.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will undoubtedly be remembered as a pinnacle of gaming for years to go, backed by an amazing development team and an enthusiastic fanbase. The more you delve into the game, the more you realise how much the different elements fit into the game, from the easy loot system, to the more advanced potion and mutagen creation systems. And it is this in-depth RPG system, mixed with a unique world and interesting characters that make the game so appealing. There is so much substance that it is so hard to lose interest. It’s hard to find a franchise that has existed for so long and with such success. However, it is not a fluke and the reasons for its success can be listed down and analysed clear as day. So for the casual gamer you have a whole new and amazing experience, for the avid gamer, you have a game that surpasses all expectations and can be explored wholeheartedly, and to the industry-man, you have a benchmark for “AAA Games” that can be followed for the next few years. As Geralt of Rivia said so effortlessly, “you don’t need mutations to strip men of their humanity. I’ve seen plenty of examples.”

 

Gaming, the Universal Medium

Gaming, the Universal Medium

 

I’ve probably said that gaming stands to be the most altruistic form of media around today. There are far more creative properties than I can think of, and for the non-gamer, that can be incredibly overwhelming. Where to begin? What to play? In it’s nearly half century of existence, videogames have challenged ideas, created new stories, breathed new life into old franchises and driven multi-console narratives that have left people in awe for over 12 years. People often wonder why some people can obsess so madly over videogames, often spending a large amount of time playing a single game. I am definitely not above this since I have easily put in more than 60+ hours into my favourite games, easily going back for more and more playthroughs either out of boredom or in order to find out more key elements of the story. Games, unlike movies or books are experienced on a more personal level. More often than not, you are placed into the shoes of the main protagonist and it is your actions that affect whether your character lives or dies, and in more choice centred games, whether the outcome is good, or bad. However, this only works because of the high level of variety within the gaming world. It’s easy to be blinded by the massive yearly spectacles like Call of Duty, FIFA and for a time, Assassin’s Creed. However, it is just as easy to remember that amazing gaming experiences are being released that cater to so many other demographics, and that there is no shame in being attracted to such games.

Using myself as an example, I am utter shit at FIFA, couldn’t score a goal for my life. However, I am an excellent real time strategist, in love with RPG worlds, and also have an immense love for story driven games. I know people that can’t hold a controller and can still play PC MOBAs with startling skill, and others who have an abject talent for simulations and the precise are of fighting games. But besides that, there are so many other genres that even those who are not into “conventional videogames” can fall into its subtle grasp. Why, not even three years ago, I became enamoured by rhythm games which are primarily made for mobile or handheld devices, and Rayark easily became one of my favourite studios for their original scores and striking art. And this isn’t even close to half of the games available for everyone, and I really do mean everyone.  Of course, part of the reason for this is that gaming is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Even if it’s a small percentage, it makes sense that companies would want to cash in on each person who feels drawn to a certain genre. And so, companies will try to exploit as many genres as they can, whether or not some people think that this is in the best interests of consumers has yet to be seen. However, it definitely opens the door for more exploration into viable games, which opens the door for even more opportunity, and far more creativity.

However, if the gaming industry itself is full of cashgrabbing executives, as has been the case for so many games that have turned out horribly in the past. However, there are still many indie developers who don’t let the cash get in the way of the development of video games. They focus on the artistic and thematic elements of gaming, more designed to highlight certain aspects, be it a satire of society, or analysis of certain phenomena within culture. Silent Hill, which while becoming a horror franchise and sensation, started off as something as an experiment from an underperforming staff in Konami tasked with creating a rival to Capcom’s Resident Evil series. It became a highly disturbing exploration into the human psyche, exploring themes of hopelessness, despair and fragility, considering the fact that you are extremely weak compared to every other enemy. If you don’t believe me, watch the video WhatCulture made on the enemies in the Silent Hill franchise at the end of the post.
My point is, when not constrained by budget, or social norms, or even current trends, the Silent Hill team created something amazing without the extreme power afforded to gamers today. And a lot of teams are like this, creating breath-taking indie games like Inside, to majestically haunting games like Hellblade, and even untested (and highly controversial) games like No Man’s Sky. And the stage is still set for many great ideas to come out, because yearly we are getting games that both exceed expectations, match up with them, or hit with the force of an unexpected typhoon. It stands to reason therefore, that there’s always going to be something on the horizon.

That being said, it is very important to note that gaming has more liberty to explore due to its unique nature. It has multiple audiences, both young and old, male and female with many different tastes. There’s no clear cut separation of genres and the like for gamers as there can be an action adventure game with very stealth heavy elements, showcasing the variety. And, this is just from my own personal observations, but gamers are generally less sensitive to topics that might raise controversy. You only need to look at games like Grand Theft Auto, Ninja Gaiden and more, featuring elements of violence, gore, sex and drugs. However, this means that more mature themes can be explored, and this allows developers to put in more coherent ideas with much more weight in them. That and the fact that games can easily have hours upon hours of gameplay, not counting cutscenes or interactive scenes where players need to make choices, this gives the player much more time to digest all the information as well as discovering many more things. Take a game like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, released 2012 I think. Within minutes of starting the game, a major story point has occurred, setting the tone of the main character, Joel. Therefore, as the game progresses, we can understand his motives and actions, whilst feeling genuine emotion at his slow and steady change of character, ultimately leading too one of the most emotional and heart-breaking endings in the last 10 years of gaming.

Games also spend a lot of time bringing in many other elements to provide relevance an enhanced experience, and the best developers use these to the greatest of effects. In Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the song The Man Who Sold the World by Midge Ure plays both at the beginning and the end. While in the beginning its meaning is lost, by the end, the title and its significance is highlighted as we find out just what Big Boss has done, and why the song foreshadows so much. Many developers decide in original scores to highlight the themes of their games, one has to look no further than the Halo series. But they also use very distinct artistic choices as well. Minecraft’s world is made of blocks to highlight the building nature of the game, while making it easy to render and run on multiple platforms. Borderlands by 2K studio has a distinct watercolour-esque art style that is far from traditional and Bioshock’s dark heavily contrasted world, just to name one more.

I think it’s important to highlight the importance of gaming, not just as an industry, but a massively underappreciated form of art as well. In it, there is something for everyone, and perhaps more than one might think, but of course jumping into new territory s absolutely frightening, but perhaps it is worth it.

As Warren Spector said, “for me, the cool thing is doing things that could only be done in gaming.”

 

 

Avatar-An Underappreciated Gem :Part 2

Avatar-An Underappreciated Gem :Part 2

The Legend of Korra. Contrary to popular belief, The Last Airbender is not my favourite animated TV show. Well, neither is The Legend of Korra, but it comes pretty damn close considering it ran for four seasons and had high production values as well as very lofty aspirations. And I’m saying this very cautiously due to the fact that The Legend of Korra finished airing while I was still in high school. Most of the people I know who watched The Last Airbender disliked The Legend of Korra for their own personal reasons, though I suspect it’s because of the personal relationship and relatability that Aang had. But in my teenage years, more than ever, I found I could relate with Korra more than I could do with Aang which was one of the main selling points for me at the time. And growing up to take English Literature, Language, History and Latin, it only became natural for me to begin critically analysing everything I came across. Now I’m going to step in hot water right now and make my own personal claim, being that The Legend of Korra as a whole was probably the best cartoon to air in the past 10 years before its release, outshining even The Last Airbender. However, I will go out on a limb and justify my reasons so that all shit talking will be secondary.

The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender occurring 70 years after the end of the first year. And one of the formula elements that gave The Legend of Korra a noticeable edge was the direction the creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, also known as “Bryke” by avid fans, took. Now riding on the very helpful wings of success, the recurring showrunners of the Legend of Korra had a big budget and Nickelodeon’s support regarding the creative choices the showrunners took, including who to hire and who to retain. For that purpose, Jeremy Zuckerman retained his position as lead composer, already having shown how capable he was in constructing the definitive music for the The Last Airbender, whilst Korean Studio Mir animated the first season, leaving the remaining three seasons to the reputable Japanese Studio Pierrot of Bleach, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Tokyo Ghoul fame, just to name a few. With the main creative team on board and the storyboard for later seasons already in production Bryke had the wheels in motion to create one of the most influential, controversial, and one could argue even inspirational children’s animations that the Western World had thus seen. It was all these things that ended up giving The Legend of Korra its notoriety. At some point, very early on in the show, the creators decided to stop mollycoddling its audience and began throwing in incredibly mature scenes and concepts. Even more visible than in The Last Airbender, leading to some gripping and emotional storytelling. But there are many worthwhile points to discuss in the The Legend of Korra, and so without further ado, let us discuss the appeal of the Legend of Korra.

The premise of The Legend of Korra is extremely simple. Seventy years after Sozin’s comet passes, the new Avatar, Korra arrives in Republic City, both to fulfil her role as the Avatar, peacekeeper and bringer of balance, but also to complete her training and master the element of air from Aang’s son. The show’s premise is straight forward, but the interest is drawn both from the new setting as well as the different socio-political environment the show presents us with. We’re no longer faced with the stereotypical “one nation, one people” atmosphere virtually every nation had. Republic City is a free state, and as far as we know, the first, where benders of any background live together. It is a democrat republic, meaning there are no monarchs, but an elected president, which is a new concept for kids to actually grasp, having mostly only ventured onto fantasy and none of the intricacies of politics. That being said, however, the real surprise, is the futuristic setting of Republic City. With a surprisingly large populace, Republic City is taken right out of the history books, with the same cultural and historical references that made Avatar: The Last Airbender so familiar. Republic City is a pleasant mixture of colonial era China in the early 90s, Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the American musical renaissance filled with jazz and swing music along with the rising film industry. The traditional times of leisure were being replaced by spectator sports, moving pictures and operas, and it’s this sense of familiarity that not only show us that time has moved in a relevant fashion, but has come much closer to our own time. From factory workers, to organised street gangs, things are much more familiar. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we did have advanced military technology such as tanks and Airships, but The Legend of Korra contains other commercial pleasures such as automobiles and radios that the average American citizen was enjoying in the years before the Great Depression.

And as much as I enjoy drawing parallels between the Avatar universe and our real world, I think it’s high time we explore the other major concepts that made The Legend of Korra great. One of them being, the bending. Bending has always been an integral part of the Avatar universe, as it is not only used for war, but for leisure, healing, construction. Your worth as a human being rises exponentially if you are born a bender, and one of the major plot points in the first season is the rising levels of animosity between benders and non-benders, spearheaded by revolutionary leader, Amon. While I’ll go into this it should be important to note how much bending has actually changed since we were with Aang and co. No longer do we have earth shattering bending which relies on large companies of soldiers to achieve more powerful attacks. Much like boxing, bending quickly evolved to become more streamlined and efficient. The Legend of Korra’s bending is fast and furious, using cover as a major element, even outside of the new and competitive pro-bending arenas. Earthbenders no longer just hurl huge rocks at each other, but instead compact disks to heighten the speed and power of earthbending attacks, even outside of the Arena. Firebending instead of overwhelming power now consists of quick strikes to lay down cover, while water can be used to pressure people behind barricades. However, the limited amount of “ammo” means that every shot must count or else you’ll be at a severe disadvantage. And that evolution of bending is what gives the fights such an edge. Now, abilities like lightning bending and bloodbending are much more widespread but not practiced by everyone. And in later seasons, we see a host of all new bending abilities and improvements, such as lavabending and the ability to fly. One of my favourite fights has to be in the third episode of season one, where Korra and Mako, a firebender, face off against two chi blockers. It was the first exciting bender vs non bender fight where two powerful benders, the Avatar herself no less, were utterly dominated. The camera angles moved with the fight, showing real speed and the level of martial prowess both fighters possessed. The fight was physical, with blows traded like in a real fight, and that’s one of the strong points that The Legend of Korra has, the fights are high impact and the blows look painful, and that leaves the viewer filled with excitement and worry. Your heart rises when you see the protagonist block a powerful attack and you feel anxious watching someone take a hit that left them bruised. And while it’s good to analyse the fights and abilities, it would be much better for you to watch it yourself.

Now, for a controversial topic, that being the character of Korra. Initially, Nickelodeon didn’t like the idea of Korra as the main character due to the stereotype of “girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls”. However, it turned out boys didn’t care if she was a girl, she was just awesome, plain and simple. And it’s clear to see exactly why they thought that. Korra is very different from Aang, being loud, impulsive and reckless. Aang had trouble learning both earth and firebending due to his status as an airbender, his beliefs and spirituality, whereas Korra was immensely talented, already displaying the ability to earthbend, firebend and waterbend from 4 years old. Fire was the final element Aang learnt while Korra gravitates towards it despite being born to waterbenders. But aside from their differences, their philosophies were extremely different as well. Korra was a wildcard who preferred actions to words. Aang only viewed violence as a last resort, not as a means to an end. Furthermore, Korra shied away from the spiritual aspects of her position. Due to their heightened spirituality, all Air nomads are born airbenders, however, Korra had trouble mastering airbending, even having trouble entering the Avatar State.

But another part of Korra’s appeal comes from the fact that she is, in fact, a teenager. Aang was a child with the weight of the world on his back, having to fulfil an impossible task after his whole world was shattered. Korra on the other hand is the motherfucking Avatar! She lives in an era of peace, she’s already mastered 4 elements and there’s no threat of imminent war looming above her head, or an evil overlord who wants to torch the world. She’s a teenager with teen responsibilities struggles. Feelings of helplessness, rebellion against authority, and responsibility are bottled up within Korra making her extremely relatable. And it’s the setting of an everyday life that makes those feelings all the more poignant. And throughout the series, Korra’s growth from young lady to woman make The Legend of Korra a wonderful coming of age story as well. Throughout her journey she not only deals with threats from villains, but she has love interests, a rival, she experiences heartbreak and at times even inadequacy despite being the Avatar. Her most interesting character arc must come in the third and fourth seasons as she realises not everyone is evil and that some people simply have differing ideals. For example, Amon the equalist simply wanted equality between non-benders and benders, but used violence and terrorism to achieve it. Zahir, while misguided believed in the idea that the Avatar was holding the world back, and that humanity needed to stop being coddled and go back to the days where survival of the fittest was the only law. Unalaq felt that the humans had forgotten and disrespected the spirits and wished to restore that connection, albeit forcefully. A fact that Korra later acknowledged. Finally, Kuvira set out to help unite the Earth Kingdom territories but later became self-righteous and despotic, but she also did do actual good. All of this made Korra question whether she was really right despite being the almighty Avatar, and this added weight to each one of her conflicts.

But I digress, because during the third season’s finale, Avatar Korra is poisoned, and after the fight she is left crippled and confined to a wheelchair due to mercury poisoning. Her long and arduous two-year recovery was wrought with pain, suffering and the possibility that she may never fully recover, and that the age of the Avatar truly was over. And even after she had improved tremendously, she ended up afflicted with visions, a form of PTSD. She suffered from forms of depression and suicidal thoughts, all while having to deal with an immensely powerful ideological threat from Kuvira, who was now more powerful than her. All of this contributed to her growth as an individual and her realisation that the world was changing and that she would need to change as well. It is this long and emotional journey with Korra that makes the ending so meaningful. Not because the baddie has been defeated, but because we feel like we have grown just as much as Korra, but without all the murder and rage.

And that leaves us with the final point, which is the way that The Legend of Korra deals with complex and mature issues without a hint of shame. In the first season, the first onscreen deaths caused The Legend of Korraairing time to be moved to the evening, for more mature audiences. And after season 2, it switched from cable to online streaming. And perhaps for good reasons, because young viewers would explore mature concepts and themes that no other show was exploring at the time. To name a few, in season 4, we are faced with a self-righteous fascist building a military dictatorship in control of a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction). In the first, an equalist, and in the third, a flat out anarchist. Each villain has a very strong ideology that isn’t totally wrong, but that is taken too far by their adherents. There is no irredeemable villain as they each have their own merits. The world changes ever so slightly after each season according to each villain’s belief. Benders and non-benders unite, the spirit world and human world are once again connected, the Avatar loses relevance, and a monarchy phases out of existence. And Korra is forced to accept that change, and accept that a small part of the ideologies she fought against should be accepted, and that’s what allowed to grown not only as an Avatar, but as a person. Furthermore, each character goes through emotions that kids have yet to understand. Bolin feels betrayed by his bother for dating Korra when he had strong feelings for her, while Korra goes through intense depression and PTSD from her ordeals, and Asami has to forgive her father for all the crimes he committed, and then deal with his selfless death shortly after reconciling.

You see, LoK takes us on a wild and eventful journey, not just through the main character’s lives but through the changing world. The clashing of ideals, and the toppling of kingdoms. The destruction of class systems and the return of spiritual harmony. So while The Legend of Korra does not have the fights of Avatar the Last Airbender that reached epic proportions, or the amount of personal growth each and every character had, or the humour and lightheartedness, it did have something different. Something different, but not worse, and just as valuable, taught to us over 4 seasons. That if we always hid from different opinions and thoughts, how many amazing ideas would we be missing out on? As Zaheer once said, quoting the wise Guru Laghima, “new growth cannot exist without first the destruction of the old”.

 

Avatar-An Underappreciated Gem: Part 1

Avatar-An Underappreciated Gem: Part 1

Like many other kids born in the 90s, I got to experience a myriad of amazing cartoons all the way up to my mid-teens. Samurai Jack was one of my favourite, and perhaps something that I’ll revisit along with Courage the Cowardly Dog which was a horrific but amazing kids show along with the likes of Megas XLR, Kim Possible and even Danny Phantom. All of these were forays into the usual structured, and time tested formula for conducting a kids show. A formula that I don’t hate as far as things go. The formula being a non-linear show with new adventures every episode and at most, a 5 episode linear plot that would include some interesting plot devices to keep the story going. But apart from interesting art or the occasional intriguing characters, nothing could keep fans coming back except the length of the show or how much it conformed to trends (Teen Titans Go).
Enter, Avatar: The Last Airbender. A bit of personal history to set up grounds for a potential future blog post, but I was actually banned from watching Avatar the Last Airbender growing up. Not that it stopped me, but it was an annoyance to say the least. That was probably because of the late timing of the Satanic Panic in Malawi, and while it didn’t have as much of an influence as it did in the US and other parts of the Western world. It was still annoying being told I couldn’t watch something for the simple reason that it was “satanic” but oh well. Avatar was one of those shows that made me give fuckall about my parents opinion on what I should watch or not. By the age of 8 I already had my own basic grasp of wrong or right, “good and evil”. Simple statements didn’t faze me, and even the threat of the whip did nothing to stop me. It seemed odd to me that a bald kid who could manipulate air and flew around on a giant bison gave my mum and uncle the shivers. Of course, later on, I realised it was because of the religous, cultural and spiritual connotations the show took from Asian civilisations.

But now, onto some show history and the premise of the show. Avatar the Last Airbender was an animated television show created by  Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko which aired from 2005 to 2008 for the duration of three seasons. The show, besides being highly popular, becoming one of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows, became a cult hit garnering a large adult following despite catering for 6 to 11 year olds. The show follows Aang, the titular Last Airbender and Avatar, destined to bring balance to the world after a century of war and oppression from the imperialistic Fire Nation who also wiped out his people, the Air Nomads. Aang, who was already talented, was told he was the Avatar, the one to master all 4 elements and bring balance to the world, 4 years early, at only 12. Because of this, and other reasons, he encased himself in a sphere of ice for 100 years, and without an Avatar, the world drifted into chaos, war raged and the Air Nomads, who mind you were not necessarily the good guys, were utterly wiped out. After being found by two Southern Water tribe kids, a newly awakened Aang has to truly face his destiny and bring balance to a world teetering on the edge of all out war, and defeat a dictatorial figure who is basically cartoon Hitler.

There are many plot elements that I have gone over, but just from reading that brief summary of the show’s premise, one can tell that this is not a stereotypical kids show. it is nuanced and contains a high level of world building, history and law, taking place in a completely different world with completely new concepts that have been executed incredibly well. But before we dive in, Avatar draws in from many influences to achieve both its emotional and dramatic storyline which is simply peppered with exciting and thrilling fight scenes. The first influence I want to speak of, is the anime FLCL, a rollercoaster action sci-fi amalgamation of chaos created by the lauded studio Gainax. The director of Avatar forced the entire team to watch the full thing to prepare them for the hectic battles. The creators also took pages out of “Legend and Lore” titles like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, inspiring them to make a highly intricate world. This is very different compared to many other series airing at the time in the sense that viewers are going to be immersed in a world completely new to them. This was further reinforced from the fact that the show took many real world influences from Asian history, culture and spirituality. This achieves two distinctly, seemingly opposing effects that work incredibly well when mixed together. Because it is a new world, it is interesting and exciting enough to explore, but because of the clear real world influences spun to enhance the show, it is vaguely recognisable by the audience. Kind of like that word that’s on the tip of your tongue.

People tend to overlook that feature instead favouring characterisation, which is in no means inferior. However, it is important to see just how big of an effect the real world influences have on the show and the lore it crafts, essentially making it very relatable and mystical to kids watching it. Especially kids born in the Western World. For me, seeing the four nations represent their real world counterparts so well intrigued the hell out of me. The Air Nomads were clearly inspired by Tibetan monks, with their philosophies and stances on vegetarianism and non-violence. The Earth Kingdom was a bit more complex, being an obvious nod to ancient China, but more specifically, a pre-Mao imperialist China which still had a monarchy in place at the time. The Fire Nation is a little less obvious as a pre-World War II Japan, as imperialist and war bound as ever. Which is interesting because in the show we’ve got the Fire Nation (Japan) invading the Earth Kingdom (China) which is what happened during World War II. Finally, probably the most interesting was the Water Nation which was represented by the real world Inuit tribes. All of the nations have cultures that clearly permeate throughout the show as well as their own grievances and quirks. Not everyone loves each other, some people straight up hate each other, and some people have the saddest backstories. It’s incredibly interesting to see how the chemistry between each nation works out as the story progresses and events unfold. With all of this being pumped through your screen, you’ll think it might brainwash your kids. I mean, I’m fairly certain that’s one of the reasons my Mum was so against it, becasue she was worried that the “religous” connotations of the show might have an influence on me. But that’s the thing, Avatar: The Last Airbender can be so alien to Western audiences, but it is capable of teaching kids about multiple diverse cultures. About the fact that people can be very different, have incredibly differing views and can both live harmoniously and in conflict with one another.

All of these are points that I think are important for children to be taught, especially if their parents have skimped on those simple at home lessons. I was lucky to have been exposed to that kind of media considering that all things aside, Malawi is rather sheltered from the world, with diversity only in a few spheres. However, cultural influences aside, I think Avatar really shines on two other points, which are its action, and characterisation. For anyone who has ever watched Avatar, the action scenes can be heavy with tension, or lighthearted and playful. A good episode to analyse is episode 3 of season 1 where our protagonists traveled to the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu. The king of Omashu, despite being a slightly mad, but immensely old man is incredibly powerful, filling the stereotypical “old men are strong” trope from anime. And even though it is plain to see that he holds back, the stage is set, and the fight progresses, with Aang, our main character utilising the whole arena, and Bumi straining his muscles to put Aang to the test. Throughout the episode we get a good measure of speed, velocity and the impacts of blows from the rocks Bumi hurls around. One of my other favourite fight scenes amongst many occurs in Season 2 episode 21 when Zuko, our antagonist until this point is betrayed by his psychopathic sister, they engage in a furious battle. Zuko brandishes knifes of flames while his sister twirls around him effortlessly. It’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that she’s that much better than him and ends the duel with a frightening display of her power. A shot of lightning directed at her own brother. One that would have surely killed him. This does multiple things, including setting up a big story point, building up tension between the two characters that is played upon, developing a great story arc and finally, adding stakes to the battle. The battle itself is brief, but the impact it has is monumental. And this isn’t even a season finale.
Another characteristic the fight scenes share in common is both the scope and atmosphere, mostly due to the way that battles work in the Avatar universe. Each bending art is based on a specific martial art, and thus it actually feels like a physical fight despite few blows being thrown by actual benders. Also, each bending style is so intricately different that bending duels or battles feel varied and balanced. Earth benders usually carry heavy but powerful blows. Airbending is precise and quick while waterbending flows quickly and fire is explosive and carries the intent to harm. This means that every fight has personality, making sure that the viewer is glued to the screen watching a highly complex and well thought out battle play out.

Perhaps I’ll talk about the fight scenes more in another post, but many fans might argue that only the character development and individual story arcs overshadow the fantastic action. The character development in the show is not only superb, but moves forward at a good pace which ultimately contributes to the high quality of the plot especially for a kid’s show. There are initially three main characters, however by the final season there are 7, one of whom is a former antagonist. The show sets up things about each character from the very beginning by giving them their own quirks and personality traits, and short but personal story arcs. Just to show you how in depth they went with the character development, even the pet and steed of our group have their own story arcs. and while it would be a great disservice to briefly touch on some of the main character’s personalities and their development arcs, there is one worthwhile supporting character who has a profound impact on the show as a whole, and that is General Iroh.

Iroh, the uncle to the crown prince and former crown prince himself is a renowned general of the fire lord and an incredibly powerful firebender, holding the title ” The Dragon of the West”. Despite his weighty positions and glory however, he is a jovial character who constantly takes the piss, cracks dad jokes indulges in self-deprecating humour and serves as a moral compass to the antagonist Zuko. He is introduced in the beginning of the show, and while his character is well established, it is carried out well throughout the show while small trickles of his history are given to us. That he laid siege to Ba Sing Se for 600 days and breached the outer wall, a previously unheard of accomplishment, that he himself developed the technique to redirect lightning, a seemingly invincible ability. Moreover, he could breathe fire, which just added points to the badass meter. However, in the season 2 episode 15 episode “Tales of Iroh”, Iroh goes around Ba Sing Se spreading his usual good vibes and in a generally good mood, even offering life advice to someone who attempted to rob him with a knife. However, at the end of the episode we learn that it is his dead son’s birthday. He travels to a hilltop overlooking Ba Sing Se, the same city he besieged years before and the same city his son died in and makes a small shrine, lighting incense and lamenting the fact that he can help everyone but couldn’t help his son. He begins to cry while singing a requiem, and it is in this moment that we see the entirety of his character. That he’s not just the one dimensional “funny guy” of the show, but a wise and deeply changed person. One who is able to forgive and love even towards the people who cost him so much, including his son. This is A1 writing, especially when considering that this episode is considered “filler” as it does not majorly advance the plot.

And while this is but a small fraction of the greatness that constitutes the Avatar series, I have hopefully enlightened you on what made the series great, or at least some of the things. And while I hope I can cover more Avatar in due time, hopefully that will be when I start my own Youtube channel which will invariably make things much much easier for me. So to end this post with an infinitely wise quote from Aang, “Anyone’s capable of great good and great evil. Everyone, even the Firelord and the Fire Nation, have to be treated like they’re worth giving a chance.”