Incidental Insights: Embracing Dissent

Incidental Insights: Embracing Dissent

By Allen

I remember my first anxiety attack.

          It was late in the evening, probably around midnight sometime in the spring of 2013. I had been up for hours trying to study for a General Chemistry final, and my brain was refusing to retain any information. I even remember where I was sitting; nestled in the corner of a couch that seated many but was almost exclusively occupied by me most nights as I try to relax. I’m there, eyes throbbing and red with stress. Notes are everywhere because that felt right at the time, like maybe if I could look at it all at once, I could have some sort of Beautiful Mind moment where it all suddenly made sense. I stopped trying to listen to music several hours earlier, so it was dead quiet. This was my first major final of college, an event I knew to expect and prepared to be challenged by, but I didn’t anticipate how my body wanted to react. The knotting sense in my stomach that I can still feel, the scenario playing out in front of me over and over again, all of these sensory moments in time were what was being written to my long-term memory, with no room left for stoichiometry or alkene reactions.

        It was specifically the moment where I realized that I was potentially going to fail a course in my second semester of college that things got serious. I started sweating, my hands were shaking, and I dropped my notes. I picked up the nearest pillow and screamed as loudly as I could into it. Usually, that helps. But then, I couldn’t help but start crying. Crying and screaming, and not the type of crying that comes from passion or strong emotions. I was crying because I realized where I was, and who I had become. No longer was I the “smart when he tries” kid in high school who only did well when he prioritized working over the incomprehensible time-consuming nonsense that occupies one’s free time at that age. I wasn’t the excited freshman being reassured by my orientation leaders that things are going to be fine, you’re going to make it through these four years. Right there, sitting cross-legged in the corner of that big, expansive couch that nobody else sits on anymore. This was just the first of many times where anxiety tried to get in the way of my success.

        That evening taught me a lot about my limits and how I cope with stress. I know how anxiety manifests itself in me whenever it feels like it, I know that I cannot naturally pass any class by simply studying for a few days and skimming material last minute. Most importantly, almost failing a course that important to my future is just how things go. That’s probably the most universal takeaway that most people I ask mention after finishing college. Those four years are often misconstrued as the time where you come to accept your insignificance, but I think that’s misleading. College teaches you that life is hard and you can’t get by on minimum effort alone, sure. But so does dating, so does working, so does everything you do in between classes and studying. It pushes you to the edge of what you think is easy and comfortable, and tantalizes you with what’s beyond it. It makes you re-assess what’s important to you personally, and allows you to construct your own existence and define your own goals.

        The end of high school wasn’t sad for me. I knew what I wanted to go to college for and I knew that I had the support of my family to get through it. I saw so many people use the presumed sadness that they thought everyone was feeling in the summer after high school to bond with others. Misery seeks company, but it doesn’t work when I’m not particularly miserable to be moving on to newer things. I’d listen and say “Yeah, I’m really gonna miss this” to everyone who would ask, but I was lying. The people who matter to you, the ones who text you at 2 am to apologize for not getting back to you, or who say yes to any plans and challenge you to follow through are the people who you can’t escape. That adage has proved itself true time and time again, even as I’ve been certain that friends I knew in high school would fade from my sphere of concern.

        Orientation day, summer 2012. I’m scared because I’m living at home and not at school, and I feel like I’ve stumbled on the first step. It’s almost embarrassing to look back now at how concerned I was that I lived at home in college, like I was somehow robbing myself of a better experience. That’s not to say I liked living at home; the burden of your parents helping you is magnified tenfold, the commute wore me out day after day, and frankly nothing is more isolating and painful than being 18, lonely, and miles and miles away from anyone your age when you need them the most. I’m so happy I stayed at home though! Oh my goodness, no rent, fewer monetary worries, and most importantly, that loneliness actually cultivated a thirst for exciting social experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Now, any conversation with another human being is a blessing to me, and I’ve come to appreciate my family exponentially more because they supported this joy of others. I leap to almost any chance to stay out late or see other people now because I lived at home, and that made freshman year a slog worth living through.

        Sophomore year exists in this strange but beautiful place between the exciting frontier that is freshmen year, and the comfort in a pattern that comes with being more than halfway done with undergrad. The only course I remember from this time was Organic Chemistry, and even that is only because it is infamously a challenging subject. What most non-medical students don’t understand about Orgo is that it’s difficult not because there is so much material, but because it doesn’t work like any other class. You’re telling me I need to make flashcards, take notes in class, AND develop a study plan that I can stick to, and this is all for one course? Needless to say, I retook Orgo the following summer.

        Difficult science courses are not what I remember most about sophomore year, though. I already knew chemistry was hard from that aforementioned anxiety attack, so this was not the year-defining, soul-crushing experience for me that it was for my peers; It was just another one of those. The moment that defines that year is when I came to accept the invigorating nature of rejection. I asked three different people out on dates my sophomore year, a feat that was beyond even a pipe dream to High School Allen. I hesitate to even call it a feat, because that gives off the message that the process of asking another individual out on a date is somehow impressive or worthy of merit. Sure, it seems scary because everything on the periphery of a daily routine is scary. Ordering a different flavor of coffee is scary in a way. Taking a different route home can be scary. Hell, skipping a class (which I coincidentally did for the first time that year, and am glad I did) is scary. But once you get past that fear that the other person will say no to you, it’s just a matter of following through. If you think about it, why are people afraid of asking each other out on dates? Everyone spends boring classes eyeing attractive people in the classroom, imagining a relationship (be it romantic or sexual, but usually the latter) with whoever catches their eye. If you can keep in mind that these other human beings are just as sexually wound-up and existentially bored as you are, then asking someone else out feels like nothing.

Next, junior year. Late 2013/early 2014 is such a haze for me, in part because of that comfort that comes from a routine. Naturally, the most successful year for me academically was also my least memorable. Just to give a decent sample size of my experiences, highlights of junior year that immediately jump to mind are: reading comic books in Boston Common, late-night Biochemistry group study Skype calls, visiting a classmate’s apartment in Southie to film a group video project, getting to put on a suit for a fake talk show, and the numerous long hikes through Blue Hills with some buddies. Junior year is when you start to see the end, mysterious as it may be.

        We arrive in the present, as I’m writing this a few days before graduating. Senior year was definitely a good time, I can say that for certain. By this point, the friends that I cared about stuck around, and we developed our own corner of the school as an inclusive, friendly space where we met new people and bonded over shared experiences. The student lounge became a place for us to exist between life events. It occupied the interludes in the narrative, somewhere adjacent to exam week and vacation time, where you don’t necessarily want to go home, but you’re fresh off of a challenging test. Everyone that came to the student lounge was coming from something, going somewhere, or trying to avoid going somewhere. In a way, the lounge was like friendships, always there but ready to get out of the way when it needed to. Classes were light enough by this point that our eyes were to the future. The two month period in there where I hurriedly applied to dental schools was certainly hectic, and I still remember both times I asked for letters of recommendation and was denied. Being face to face with someone who couldn’t possibly be bothered with your feeble request to take hours out of their time to help you is not only humbling, but almost gratifying in that it prepares you for so much more denial. Finishing applications, learning to not regret the resources I never utilized or the people I never spoke to, senior year felt like an outward admittance that yes, I did do this.

        As I begin what will hopefully be a productive year of working and learning while I re-apply to dental school, I spend most of my time thinking back to what I’ve done. I met some incredible people, developed social and academic skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and most importantly, I learned to value myself. I know now that waiting for motivation is fruitless, and success comes from consistency and effort, not some unfathomable sense that you’re inspired to work. That first anxiety attack was my first glimpse at how scary getting older can be, and prompted a lot of late night thoughts about my anxiety and how I would slowly learn to live with it. Sit down, open up your textbook, and learn. College was the first time that I came to value learning for my own personal growth and mental health. I worried for a while that not having assigned work would lead to me not reading anymore, which has happened to plenty of people that I know. It’s times like that where I remember the greatest lesson of the last four years: inspiration, productivity, and fulfillment all come exclusively from feeling challenged and rebuffed by information. Accepting, processing, and adapting that information into something that defines you is how we keep from becoming ignorant and close-minded, and seeking those challenging opinions and facts out is something to live for.

           

 

Epitosodes: Hey Arnold!

thanksgiving

By Allen

The Episode

Season: 3

Episode: 14

Title: “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”

The Review

It’s sometimes easier to see our lives fitting into a template than allowing the randomness of life to take control. We seek that uniformity because it lets us feel connected in a time where connection is severely lacking. This is especially true for young adults, who crave the validation provided by assigning their identity to one particular stereotype or niche. This manifests itself usually through tastes and brand loyalty, but more commonly in the United States, society’s need to fit into a category comes out during the holiday season.

As the son of two Syrian immigrants, I always felt a little bit left out of the traditional American childhood. I didn’t visit or have friends over my house in any meaningful way until high school, I didn’t have many outdoor adventures with the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t have anything resembling the Wonder Years-esque experience of young love whatsoever. I don’t regret these things not being part of my life, because I made up for them with meaningful, character-buildling experiences of my own. Sometimes, it’s nice to imagine what could have been.

I did watch a lot of cartoons though. When my family and I were still living in a lower middle class duplex, my sister and I watched a whole lot of Hey Arnold! It fit into Nickelodeon’s block of cartoons that bridged the gap between serious adult drama and slapstick kid’s show. Nickelodeon was doing what Pixar is today, essentially. For those that don’t know, Hey Arnold! was a show about a young nine year old boy living with his grandparents and various tenants in a boarding house located in some nebulous amalgamation of New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The general formula for an episode of Hey Arnold! was: Arnold sees something wrong with the world, tries to fix it, fails, learns something, and accepts that he can’t fix everything. The show was about disappointment, and realizing how little power we have to change the world. It’s a message that resonated deeply with me as a young kid, filled with optimism and hope that all of the world’s problems could be fixed with friendliness and a helping hand. That’s not to say the show was nihilistic or cynical; rather, Arnold’s accepting that he couldn’t change things led to him being a better person, and adjusting his world view to fix the world in small ways.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is the episode that I frequently reference as an essential part of understanding why the show resonated with so many people. The episode starts with Arnold biking down a facsimile of the Brooklyn Bridge, when he stops to watch the christening of The Mayflower II as a city landmark. As the credits fade in, he looks on wistfully, as he so often does at history and culture. Craig Bartlett, the show’s creator and lead writer, has said that his original pitch for Hey Arnold! was that Arnold would start every episode dreaming of some fantastic scenario, then be woken up in class by his bully and secret admirer, Helga Pataki, shouting the show’s title. It’s clear that they kept the skeleton of this idea in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, where you can tell Arnold is dreaming of big ideas before heading back to reality.

The next scene takes place at Arnold’s school, PS 118. The students put on a play telling the story of the first Thanksgiving, and everything immediately falls apart. The hastily-made set collapses, the audience laughs, but the kids keep going. As every scene is ruined in some way, the students never stop the show. Arnold and his friend Gerald are backstage, and as Gerald espouses his love for the holiday, Arnold reveals why he looked on at the Mayflower II so hopefully; he doesn’t get to have a “real” Thanksgiving in the boarding home. His grandmother “gets mixed up”, and confuses Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, meaning they have to go along with it and cook hot dogs on the roof in November year after year. Arnold’s grandmother’s identity confusion is clearly a sign of advanced dementia, and although the show plays it for comedy most of the time, they treat it with just the right amount of weight for it to feel real. The tenants accept her disability, and work around it.

Helga, the other half of this show, goes on a rant backstage about how her Thanksgiving’s aren’t very typical either; between her overbearingly perfect older sister Olga coming home, her alcoholic mother (don’t worry, the show plays this off as her mom just being a goofball who ‘likes smoothies’), and her father who can’t be bothered to do anything but eat and watch football. The irony of both of these scenes is that Arnold and Helga are playing lead characters in the final scene of the play; a re-enactment of a modern day Thanksgiving amongst a happy family. Both of them get to play the part, but once the curtain goes down, they feel left out again.

The next few scenes really highlight how much the creators cared equally about Helga and Arnold, with each scene bouncing between the two of them as their nontraditional Thanksgivings are shown. They both try to nudge their families into more traditional Thanksgiving celebration, but nobody listens to the nine year olds. These scenes hit home with me the most. I made efforts as a kid to fit into more stereotypes; wearing “cooler” clothes, having a messier room, asking to eat more “American food”. I just assumed that was all right, and fitting in would make me feel like less of an outsider.

Arnold and Helga eventually give up trying to fix their own Thanksgivings, and they both leave their homes for the afternoon. I always found the freedom of Hey Arnold!‘s young cast to come and go as they please fascinating, but it makes so much sense when you consider how truly little their guardians cared about their well-being, be it because of old age or neglect. They both cross paths outside of a store displaying models of a traditional American Thanksgiving, looking inside but always separated by glass. In a beautifully directed scene, they go for a friendly walk on the pier and pass by the Mayflower II, still cruising around the bay. As they look on, it crashes into a bridge and collapses. This is actually the funniest scene in the episode despite sounding so tragic, because it really highlights how willing the creators were to go for a visual gag if it also had a solid symbolic undercurrent. The image of the Mayflower crashing in front of two depressed and jaded young children says everything about this episode.

The kids decide to go join what they think is a “real Thanksgiving” at the home of their teacher and writer of the school play, Mr. Simmons. When they (yet again) look through glass to see Simmons’s house and witness a family dinner almost perfectly resembling the characters in his play, they long to go inside. This time, they pass through the barrier and ask Mr. Simmons if they can join him for dinner. He politely obliges, and the dramatic turn of the episode becomes clear. Mr. Simmons’s Thanksgiving is anything from idyllic; his mother is overbearingly judgemental, his two friends are miserable thirty-somethings that take joy in ridiculing others, and his uncle is an oafishly loud eater (who is also inexplicably Canadian). The whole scene ends in a shouting contest, which Arnold and Helga take as their cue to leave. They realize as they converse in Mr. Simmons’s kitchen that he wrote the play as an idealized version of his own family, and that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a perfect Thanksgiving. Simmons comforts them, saying: “This may not make much sense to you now, but I’m truly thankful for them”. Family gatherings are messy and loud, people don’t get along well, but happiness comes from accepting each other’s flaws and being together. The kids realize this, and head home to their families.

The world does pay you back for being a good person, according to Hey Arnold! Helga comes home to a family that misses her, and they put her handmade centerpiece on the table as they eat together. Arnold comes home to an abandoned rooftop grill, but it turns out the tenants and his grandparents decided to meet him halfway and throw him a surprise party that mixes both Fourth of July and Thanksgiving celebrations.

This episode holds a special place in my heart not just because it echoes many of the same things I worried about as a young child, but it’s also hopeful and honest in a way most cartoons are not. The credits roll as we cut back to the Mayflower II. All of its passengers are safe, and the hull of the ship rises back to the surface. Everything is okay, just a few buffs and scratches. And that’s how family can be; rough and constantly on the verge of sinking, but always capable of rising back to a healthy medium.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Random Encounters: The Abnormal Heart

cosplay

By Allen

I’m at an odd impasse with video games culture right now. The last year has been a nonstop bombardment of outright harassment of women, misrepresentation of games in mainstream media, and an overall sense of shame to be part of what should be our most unifying interactive medium. Friends of mine online have since turned against each other ideologically, tweets are being submitted to local authorities, and death threats come to so many voices in gaming like the morning weather. It’s a really awful, sobering time to care so much about games.

We have the potential to fix this though. The negative voices are still a vocal minority, despite how incredibly vocal they are. Friendships are formed online every day, and it is in times like this that I feel the most empathy and camaraderie with the misrepresented voices screaming to be heard. Women, people of color, transgendered individuals, disabled individuals; they all deserve better online and in gaming. Strides are being made in the altgames genre, a specific, very personal type of game that directly and intimately reflects the creator’s beliefs and feelings. These are the games that need attention, because clearly the AAA titles being released in the last few years aren’t pushing many boundaries.

With all this in mind, I went to PAX East 2015 this year utterly afraid; Afraid that I would see the worst of the Internet in human form, afraid that my fears would be confirmed that “gamers” are all anti-social and vitriolic. And, in some ways, I wasn’t wrong. After demoing a fascinating little multiplayer game called Capsule Force with a friend and two strangers, one of the other men decided it would be appropriate to list out point by point what the woman demoing the game (clearly the developer in some capacity) should “Tell the actual maker of the game…” to “fix” and “tweak”. It left me so soured, I had to just outright leave before saying thank you and getting a business card from the devs.

If that sounds gross and unappealing to you, it’s because it is. The PAX show floor is this fascinating, diverse blend of personal conversations with independent developers full of insight and meaning, followed by the worst of the worst rubbing elbows with each other to critique, berate, and consume. Why then, do I love PAX? Is it because online games culture is constantly full of bickering and disagreeing, and so seeing it come to light is weirdly cathartic? Or is it the self-parody, deconstructive nature of what exactly we’re all doing here that makes PAX worth going to at least once? The moment where I decided it was the latter was approximately 9:00 PM on Friday. As a friend and I prepared to play some games in the classic arcade area, we walked by several Princess Peach cosplayers at once. This is standard fare at a convention like this, so I thought nothing of it. But I looked closer, and saw everything that is gaming layed out in front of me: One was a slender woman, hiking up her stockings on a bench as a clearly intoxicated man who she seemed to be with leaned on her, one was a hefty adult male opening a carton of cigarettes while furiously scratching himself, and one was an adorable little girl, holding her mother’s hand as they prepared to go home to a safer place.

That’s most of PAX in a nutshell. It’s dirty, it’s raw, and it is, above all else, starkly real. It represents everything that gaming is right this second. All ages, all groups, all types of beautiful and terrible people flock to this convention center for a weekend, and they all highlight where we’re at. A few hours before that encounter, I spent a few minutes in the “Roll For Diversity” lounge, which is a safe space specifically designed to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed between trips to the show floor. It was there that  I hung out on a beanbag next to a nice person, and we talked about games, the refreshing nature of sleep, and things that just make us happy. And after that, while lining up for a panel, a kind fellow struck up a conversation with me about where we were from and why we were at the show. These are the moments that make it all worth it, too.

Before I conclude, I just want to mention New York City. All my life, it was shown to be this beautiful utopia of art and culture coming together to form a meaningful experience for anyone who visits. I finally went to NYC for the first time in August 2014 for an afternoon with my family. Five minutes in Times Square will shatter this illusion for you. Between poor workers begging you for money in torn Spider-Man costumes, and a nude women with the American flag painted on her being groped by someone’s dad, you really get to see what the grimiest of New York really is. These two experiences echoed each other almost perfectly, and it shows just how much PAX echoes real life social dynamics.

So all of that is why PAX is important to me. Too many people approach it in a way that minimizes this experience though, and I implore you to heed my word if you’re reading this: don’t go just for your favorite website’s panels and meetups, don’t go just for free stuff, and for the love of God, don’t go just to watch livestreams on a big TV or to meet YouTube stars. Go to play Mortal Kombat on an arcade machine with a European man in a trench coat who beats you without hesitation and then thanks you for challenging him. Hell, go just to meet Internet friends and explore the city.  Go to take our pulse as a community. We are united by our desire to change as people and grow, and that’s what we’ll be doing forever. This is the human condition. This is PAX.

Pop Modern Interviews: Dan Marshall from Size Five Games

Dan Marshall, founder of Size Five Games, has been in the games industry for quite a while. After the indie adventure game series Ben There, Dan That and the 2D multiplayer game Gun Monkeys, he began work on a new project. After canceling and remaking The Swindle, it is now on its way to being a hit. We discussed the game, going from adventure games to stealth, and why steampunk designers are idiots in this interview from the PAX East 2015 showfloor.

Epitosodes: Game Grumps

S'Grep

By Allen

The Episode

Series: Wind Waker HD

Episode: 19

Title: “Fresh Air”

The Review

I implore you to watch the episode of the YouTube show Game Grumps in question before reading this article. It’s about 16 minutes long, and even if you hate YouTube shows and the culture surrounding them, trust me when I say this episode is nothing like what you’d expect from a “Let’s Play” channel.

Friendship. It’s the third most powerful relationship between living things after family and love. It is also my favorite thing about Game Grumps, a tri-daily video series on YouTube where two hosts play video games and shoot the shit. Traditionally, this format appeals to adolescent teens coming home after school to watch their crazy Internet shows filled with memes and people screaming into cameras. However, Game Grumps one-ups its contemporaries by not only putting real discussion over the games in question, but by consistently feeling like a window into the hosts’ personal lives.

In November, the Game Grumps, animator Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson and Daniel Avidan began a series on the HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Having never played the game after hearing so many good things, I was excited to watch along with this playthrough. Episode 19 specifically, entitled “Fresh Air”, exemplifies exactly what I find so captivating about the show.

Arin begins the episode with a typical recurring joke, replacing the “game” in the show’s title with something off the top of his head (in this case, “Psychology Grumps”.) In-game, he controls Link in the Forbidden Forest, immediately impeding his own progress by dropping an essential platform out of reach. As he fixes his mistake, co-host Dan jumps in to thank the viewers for sending them emails about how the show helps them deal with depression. Right off the bat, this is something I love about Game Grumps. You feel like you’re watching with a community of diverse, unique people. Dan then opens up about his own personal story, which dictates the tone of the rest of the episode. Essentially, after becoming very ill in his late teens, he developed early stages of depression and anxiety. This leads to both him and Arin discussing topics like OCD and how it affects creativity and relationships, loneliness, and finding comfort online. This loops back to why I love this episode, which is that it makes you feel like you’re part of something immense. Dan was relieved to realize that OCD is a treatable disease, and the viewers are taking comfort in the fact that someone else can share  their most personal issues. Few things make people feel happier than a sense of togetherness and validation.

From there, Dan offers advice to the viewer while Arin guides Link over muddy forest water. Halfway through the episode comes the kicker, where Dan describes how he threw his Prozac medication into a river, and learned to solve his own problems internally. It’s practically a Lifetime movie ending, but it clearly comes from such a place of honesty that it doesn’t feel false or exaggerated whatsoever. Arin thanks Dan for sharing in such a public forum, to which Dan responds that he’s “just returning the favor”. Once again, from someone else, these words would sound so cheesy and useless, but Dan seems to be a mature enough person to just open up to people. This is where Game Grumps separates itself from the target demographic and its less thoughtful contemporaries; not once did I mention in this recap what happens in-game in detail. When two close friends sit on a couch and open up to each other over games, what’s on the screen doesn’t matter. It’s the emotions, confessions, jokes, and observations that make those moments memorable.

The hosts spend the rest of the episode espousing inspirational quotations from literature, separating this episode yet again from other Let’s Play shows. And like any great bit of pop culture, this episode opens up the possibility for so much more exploration of the topics discussed. Dan and Arin recommend books and videos for people to watch related to self-actualization and creativity, all of which educate the viewers in ways that one video can not. At the end of the day, Game Grumps does still fall under the category of “YouTube shows aimed at a young demographic.” But this made it all the more exciting to see an episode like “Fresh Air” pop up in my subscriptions feed, knowing that thousands of young people are taking these lessons into the real world and improving their own lives. That’s Game Grumps in a nutshell. It’s occasionally crass, the games aren’t always good, and the discussion isn’t always entertaining, but like with real life conversations with the ones you love, it’s the important moments and episodes that stick with you when the video ends.

Television Tribune: In Defense of Character-Based Storytelling

futurama silhouettes tv tribune

By Allen

One of the core tenets of graphic design is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a simple truism at face value, but when viewed as a way of writing television, it’s surprising how much some shows benefit from it as a method of writing character interactions. I’ve noticed that most of my favorite shows of the last few years show exactly who each character is supposed to be early on, with changes and eccentricities being introduced slowly over time. Also, viewing your characters as pieces of a larger puzzle is the best way to strengthen the viewer’s connection to them because it directly encourages empathy.

Take Futurama for example. As shown by the header of this very article, each member of the main cast can be easily identified from a silhouette. You’ve got Leela with the poofy hair and efficient bun, Zoidberg’s creepy eyes and mouth, Bender’s eye and head shape, Fry’s hair swirl and upper lip, and the Professor’s…posture/creepy head. These silhouettes actually tell you quite a bit about the characters that they represent, and how they would interact with one another. Fry and Leela both seem fairly young and relatively normal-looking, so they’re probably friends. Zoidberg and Bender look clearly alien or at least inhuman, so one could assume this is some sort of sci-fi show. And just a few more leaps of logic from there, and you can extrapolate that maybe the robot and the human male are friends based on so many films from the 80s depicting this exact idea, and that the Professor is probably a crazy person. It’s these little guesses and stories where we fill in backstory that form the basis of a good cast. From there, the show sets about to defy those expectations. Fry and Bender fight all the time, Leela has the tendency to be a little unhinged, and the Professor shows genuine pathos when some of his experiments go awry. By the end of the show, we’re attracted more to what the characters have become, and less of what they started as.

This concept doesn’t just apply to drawn animation. Lost was another show that spends most of its first season introducing and slowly fleshing out characters. Each character had a stereotypical role, and the later seasons were, at the best, all about everyone trying to defy these roles. Unfortunately, Lost started to fall apart when the story was less about the characters and more about the stories happening to them. Which of the following plots from Lost sounds more interesting to you: Locke engages in faux military training and lives in a fantasy world all his adult life before finally taking on a leadership role on the Island, or Jack got Chinese tattoos from an Asian woman? You need to write from the bottom up, with characters and their motivations coming before what happens to them. Build the silhouettes before you fill them in.

A related writing technique for television characters is the “puzzle pieces” method. The idea here is that each character is a vivid, specific piece of a puzzle. Some pieces fit in with several others, and you can make something resembling an image by arranging them randomly, but there is only one absolute configuration of characters. The many television projects of Joss Whedon are classic examples of this: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, everyone is dating someone else at some point. The good relationships stay because they fit, but the bad ones slowly show themselves to be ugly and messy (ahem, Buffy and Riley ahem.) That doesn’t mean that Buffy can only be with the people who she fits with; it’s all about experimenting with different interactions until you see what works (Buffy and Willow, Willow and Xander, Spike and Xander, Xander and Anya, Xander and anyone). Viewing TV writing in this way makes bad episodes and pairings make much more sense, since it argues that the writers were just trying something new.

Shows that blend both of these writing methods are one in a million, and they almost always received universal praise when it works. So next time you’re watching your favorite television show, stop and think about what exactly you find so appealing about it.

Take Our Word: Kingdoms

robert-baratheon-1024

The Word

There are plenty of kingdoms in pop culture these days. With Game of Thrones‘s fourth season now long done, there’s been a severe lack of good royalty portrayed in television this year. On the games front, Shovel Knight has been the new hotness, and all the pomp and circumstance of a good medieval royalty story is there (King Knight and Enchantress Queen, I’m looking at y’all.) We’re going to be doing a little stretching to fit three diverse, quality pieces of media under the header of Kingdoms, so be prepared for some regal regaling of royalty.

The Recommendations

Allen

Queens of the Stone Age: I just couldn’t pick one thing to recommend from this California-based rock group. Their frontman, Josh Homme, is one of the most personable musicians based on his many public interviews and concerts, and QOTSA’s work is pretty consistently fantastic. I’d specifically recommend you go down at least one of two rabbit holes to get a full appreciation of their work: Listen to, in order: Songs For The Deaf, Lullabies To Paralyze, and …Like Clockwork. If you don’t have time to jam out to some of the best rock music of the last decade, at least poke around YouTube to find all of their music videos, particularly the ones for …Like Clockwork. Any good kingdom needs some Queens.

Here’s where you can buy …Like Clockwork on Amazon, which you absolutely should: http://www.amazon.com/Like-Clockwork-Queens-Stone-

Age/dp/B00CY1JUW2/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_mus?ie=UTF8&qid=1405475485&sr=8-1&keywords=like+clockwork

And if you hate long links, here’s one for their YouTube VEVO channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/QueensStoneAgeVEVO/

Magellan

Dungeons & Dragons Next Basic Rules: Although I haven’t had the fortune of playing pen and paper role playing games on any sort of a regular basis, I do love to collect books and look at the different ways that game designers choose to represent and implement certain concepts. D&D is a great case study of that, having gone through several generations of rules changes, all under the scrutiny of thousands of fans. This year will see the release of the franchise’s 5th Edition, and Wizards of the Coast has kindly put out a stripped-down version of the game for us fans to pick apart. It’s a free PDF that outlines a few core classes and other essential rules. From what I’ve read of it so far, it looks like Wizards has learned the lesson of 4th Edition and scaled back the combat focus, making the game less like an MMO and more like DnD. It has also learned the lesson of 3rd Edition and made the game much less complicated. Of course, it’ll take the full set of core books to see a complete picture of this new edition, but as it stands now this PDF makes me excited at the prospect of reading through and collecting DnD books again.

Here’s a direct link to the PDF if you’d like to take a look: http://media.wizards.com/downloads/dnd/DnDBasicRules.pdf

James

Demon Knights: When I think Kingdoms, the first thing that comes to mind is Moonrise Kingdom, which is a fantastic movie, but utterly too banal for Take Our Word. Instead, I am going to write about the demon Etrigan. With the release of the New 52 reboot of DC Comics came a somewhat surprising entry about the demon Etrigan. In the series, titled Demon Knights, Etrigan’s origins are explained. Etrigan is a demon bound to the immortal human Jason Blood, by Merlin. After Merlin’s death and Camelot’s fall, Jason discovers the poem that turns him into Etrigan. Oh, did I not mention? Etrigan spits out fat rhymes, in iambic pentameter. This brawling demon who rhymes every word he says is one of the most bizarre comic creations I have ever seen. And what’s absurdly funnier is the fact that it actually works. The character is interesting, with compelling stories, with Demon Knights set in a Medieval Europe ravaged by war and magic. There are many King Arthur references, as Jason Blood served at the court of Arthur, which further heightens the cool Medieval atmosphere. The plots are great and even though it was cancelled, it’s still one of my favorite New 52 reboots.

You can buy the first volume of this fantastic comic book here: http://www.amazon.com/Demon-Knights-Vol-Seven-Against/dp/1401234720
The Round-Up
My kingdom for some good Round-Up ideas! Ugh, even I hated that. Anyways, the first game that I think of when I hear Kingdoms is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. (Sorry, Kingdom Hearts fans. Go enjoy your metaphysical anime Disney nonsense and get back to me later.) The developers at 38 Studios ran into some economic troubles after the game’s launch, and the pushback from the Rhode Island government itself proved more interesting than the game itself.
The story of the company’s bankruptcy itself is recounted in the Giant Bomb wiki entry for the company: http://www.giantbomb.com/38-studios/3010-6332/
Kevin Dent also recounted the story more eloquently on Kotaku two years ago: http://kotaku.com/5913492/curt-schillings-big-huge-38-studios-debacle
And just the fact that it made local Rhode Island news shows just how serious this case got. It’s not fun to highlight game industry troubles, but it’s a reality of the business that people need to take into consideration: http://wpri.com/2014/02/11/sony-exec-blames-ri-pols-for-38-studios-debacle/