Incidental Insights: A Universe of One’s Own

A Universe of One's OwnBy James

Over the summer, I played short games. Bastion took me less than 15 hours, I beat Rogue Legacy in 20 hours, and spent 23 hours to get an “A” license in Burnout Paradise. And though I may not have collected every collectible, I felt fine with my progress, completing seven games to my satisfaction. It was a relaxing experience as I could just sit back and listen to podcasts in the background. When I tried playing Fallout: New Vegas, I couldn’t quite sink into it. My attention span just couldn’t cope with missions that demanded several minutes of walking between action, and the barren wasteland felt even more barren because I encountered few enemies in my 20-minute playthroughs. I started to think that maybe I had grown out of all major label games in favor of smaller indie games. It turns out that I had just forgotten what it is that I like about large-scale RPGs.

Then, as I was researching fictional religions for this week’s Three By Three, I fell down the rabbit hole. When I went to look up the Elder Scrolls mythology, I planned to just look for information on the Daedric Lords. I wound up finding so much more. Within the games Oblivion and Skyrim, the only two that I have played, the gods are mentioned infrequently. Sure, you do a few tasks for the Daedric Lords, mainly killing their enemies, but the “Nine Divines” are not mentioned very much. Even though each god has a different temple within each city, they are simply referred to as the gods. The only backstory the player ever hears is the fact that Talos used to be Tiber Septim, a former emperor. In reality, there are different religions for the Kahjiit, the Bosmer, the Dunmer and the Nords. The Argonians don’t even believe in the gods, rather choosing to believe in reincarnation through the sap of the Hist tree. And as I started to read about these religions and the history behind the world, I began to become engrossed. I sat in front of my computer, reading about the creation of Nirn, the planet where Tamriel is found. The complexity of these stories are amazing, with the details hidden within games and quests. After the creation, I began looking towards the stories of the Daedric lords. Then the origin of the races of Tamriel. Then the disappearance of the Dwarves. Four hours later, I emerged from my room.

There is something about intricacy in a fantasy world that excites me. I suppose that in a way, my love for fantasy universes stems from the fact that I enjoy complexity and wasted intellect. The sheer number of hours needed to create the backstory behind a fabricated universe and to tie together events with new mythology is breathtaking. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien created a list of the kings of Gondor that went back 50 generations before Aragorn. The historical tapestry that Tolkien wove was enormously impressive, yet paled in comparison to his linguistics. Tolkien was by nature a linguist, and he loved creating new languages. In fact, for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien crafted twenty-four languages, each with its own set of grammar rules. These languages added little to the real world, yet the effort that Tolkien put in and the enthusiasm that he felt for his own work was and still is contagious. Not only did Tolkien create languages replete with grammar, he also created alphabets that used completely foreign characters. Though absolutely nobody would have noticed or cared if he had taken a shortcut, Tolkien went about things the hard way, choosing perfection over ease. As a result, his universe does not contain mere stories, but carries history within the language and the writing. He sacrificed his time and effort for fictional characters in a fictional realm, and we notice because he worked with such a passion, a passion that few of us could hope to achieve.

Whenever I look at a universe, I always look for the depth of the background elements. When I read Game of Thrones, I memorized the houses. When I played Mass Effect, I spent most of my time navigating the codex. I like big-budget worlds and RPGs because they give me a history and set of rules with which I can explore. Even though interactions with NPCs are limited to scripted dialogue, when the world is fully fleshed out, I feel more fully immersed in the game in a way that I cannot by just interacting with the landscape using my character, a feeling that is reaffirmed with the knowledge of history. The universe feels more culturally significant when it is given a history and a language, allowing me to gain some insight into the mind of the people. And the thing is, the amount of work necessary usually denotes the sort of money associated with large-budget games. But most of all, I want the makers to be as excited to make the game as I am to play it.

 

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Three By Three: Fictional Deities

Fictional DeitiesThe Category

Bow down before us, for we are Pop Modern, and we have brought this world’s reckoning! Your doom has come in the form of this week’s Three By Three, a list, etched in stone (and then typed, of course, we do all our drafts on granite slabs) and brought down from the mount to list for you the greatest fictional deities to grace the pop cultural landscape. So kneel, mortals, kneel and pray that this article drops the whole religious zealot thing, since it’s really not working for anybody.

The Choices

Allen

Russell Hammond from Almost FamousI’ll take any opportunity to talk about Almost Famous, even if it means stretching the definition of a deity. True, Crudup’s run-down rocker character only refers to himself as a golden god in one scene, but he gives off the aura of a man who sees beyond his peers. This is especially true because of how he addresses the protagonist, William Miller. Talking down to him just because he’s young and part of the “evil press monster” that constantly hound rockstars and their ilk, Hammond’s initial buffer zone of anger and pretentiousness quickly comes down as he gets to know William, and the true musician inside is laid to bare.

Raiden from the Mortal Kombat series: My favorite thing about Raiden isn’t his crazy lightning eyes, or his razor-sharp hat, or his awesome fatalities. No, it’s his willingness to stoop down to the very battlefield from which souls are offered to him, and duke it out as a mortal with the rest of the fighters, that makes him such a great god. Without reading up on his backstory or playing through the single player modes, one could go their entire life without realizing that they’ve been playing as a god among men (and women!). Raiden’s the whole package; chaotically good, magically-endowed, humble, and his ability to make limbs fly apart with lightning from his fingers makes him a huge hit with the ladies.

R’hllor from A Song of Ice and Fire: Now here’s a fictional deity that is properly worshipped and sacrificed to. Something about the blind obedience characters like Melisandre have to this mysterious lord is fascinating, like how listening to a friend talk about their Canadian girlfriend is really silly until she shows up and is super hot. While the endless conflict between R’hllor and his counterpart god of darkness are referenced frequently in the first few books, it isn’t until readers learn just what his powers can do that he truly becomes a threat. Without going into too many spoilers, worshiping the Lord of Light (who I’ll now call “R Dawg”) can allow people to cheat the rules of the real world. But it’s all handled with such a deft touch that marks the entire series, and it goes a long way to making readers feel like the actions taken by his sworn followers are justified. And seeing characters like Thoros of Myr change their entire lifestyle to better serve his holy hotness is both terrifying and incredible.

James

Arceus from the Pokémon series: For those of you who don’t have a degree in fictional theology, Arceus is the creator of the Pokémon universe. He manipulated the cosmos to give rise to life, starting with the gods of time, space, knowledge, emotion, and willpower. Having finished his work, he went into a deep sleep to last forever. Until you capture him of course. True to the Pokémon spirit, Arceus, who is technically a Pokémon, can be captured in a Pokéball and subjugated to your will, as you battle other people who don’t have gods on their side.

Anoia from the Discworld series: In the Discworld series, gods are a product of beliefs. When people truly believe in a god, a god will appear, and the more people who believe, the stronger the god is. Anoia used to be one of the many gods of volcanoes, but after a publicized incident, she became the Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers, and offerings to her can unstick even the most unholy of drawers.

Sheogorath from the Elder Scrolls series: Sheogorath is the Daedric Lord of madness. An older man with a grey goatee, he is prone to mania and dementia, teetering between psychopathic rage, and inane ramblings. The most mercurial of the Daedric lords, Sheogorath is also the Daedric Lord of order Jyggalag. His witty banter and randomness makes him an intentionally hilarious character, with a thick Gaelic accent to add a sense of charm.

Magellan

Galactus from the Marvel Universe: Now, if you want to pull hairs, Galactus is more of an incredibly powerful alien than a deity, but anybody who devours worlds for a living deserves to be on this list. I’m not saying that I particularly like Galactus stories, or the ones where he comes to Earth anyway. In fact, I think it’s lazy and convenient to say “Uh-oh, it’s that planet-eating guy that’s gonna eat our planet!” and have that be the driving force of the story. What I do like about him, though, is that he represents the crazier, outer-space side of Marvel continuity, which is equal parts weird and awesome. Also, Galactus is easily the purplest, best-dressed deity out there.

Cthulhu from The Call of CthulhuThis monstrous poster boy of Lovecraftian horror has inspired countless stories and games, and for good reason. Sure, it may seem like Cthulhu is up there with Galactus in the category of world-eating plot devices, but whereas Galactus plots often end with heroes triumphing over insurmountable odds, Cthulhu plots usually end with someone being driven mad by the thought of their insignificance and imminent death. Cthulhu is a world-destroying badass, and in stories like The Call of Cthulhu, readers see what it would actually be like to have one of those poised to devour everything.

The Robot Devil from FuturamaA lighter choice, but still just as terrifying and evil. Futurama deserves recognition for the way it handles the Christian faith: God is some kind of space computer and the Devil is a wacky robot voiced by Hank Azaria. The Robot Devil is one of the more hilarious Futurama side characters, and he’s been heavily featured in some of the best episodes of the series, like “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” where Fry and the Robot Devil trade hands and hilarity ensues.

The Conclusion

Is our ramshackle pantheon unfit for your worship? Irreverent rage slowly bubbling in your guts? Insane with frustration that your chosen deity has not received its due? Instead of seething and conducting secret rituals in your underground shrine, insert yourself into the comments section. Inspire us all with the benedictions of your favorite fictional deity.

Three By Three: Video Game Companions

Video Game CompanionsThe Category

Wednesdays are always rough, but luckily we have those special somebodies to get us through. Those people who are always by our side, who stay with us through thick and thin, who listen to our problems, who help us mow down hoard after hoard of robots, zombies, and whatever other wacky road blocks life throws at us. That’s right, this week we’re talking about our favorite video game companion characters (sorry, Mom, the squiggly Tetris block doesn’t count). Take a look at our right-hand people, our real friends.

The Choices

Allen

Garrus from the Mass Effect series: One of my favorite things about the Mass Effect series is how you can tell every major character has an entire life story written out for them that led them to Commander Shepard. Garrus Vakarian, the Turian cop on the Citadel who joins your crew in the first game, is no exception. His armor, stride, and just the general badass aura that surrounds him pretty much guaranteed that I brought him on every mission with me. Whether you’re fighting Saren, listening to him talk of endless calibrations, shooting targets off of a bridge for fun, or even comically trying to copulate with him as a female, the relationship between Shepard and Garrus feels the most grounded in a game series about fighting evil apocalypse aliens.

Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins: I wouldn’t argue that Bioware creates some of the best companions in gaming, but they’re definitely making big strides since the days of generic servants and faceless companions from older PC RPGs. I’m mostly just a fan of mature male characters that don’t feel overly macho or boring. Alistair’s homosexuality is handled with such a deft hand that it’s almost hard to notice it until he flat out tries to flirt with the main male player character, but he’s also more than just a sexual preference. He’s endlessly loyal, incredibly useful as the main tank in combat, and witty in a way that is neither grating or pretentious in this massive RPG.

Agro from Shadow of the ColossusI hope I’m not the only one that realized that we’re not necessary limited to RPG companions, right? Amongst the million other things that Shadow of the Colossus does that both pushed the action genre forward and flipped it on its head, it also manages to make you care about your silent equine travel companion. Agro and the player learn together, they travel the verdant fields together, and they work together to slay the hulking beasts that have cursed the princess. It’s a classic animal friendship, but the fact that nobody speaks a single real word in the game enhances the feeling that Agro and the player are observers to the massive beasts that lay before them. Agro shows that a good companion doesn’t have to be chatty or witty, they just have to be there.

James

The dog from Fable II: One of the best companions I have ever had in a video game. True the dog rarely interacted directly with the character, but the interactions were fantastic. Throughout the entirety of the game, the one constant in the world was this companion, and losing the dog at the end of the story was the most heart-wrenching loss I have ever felt in a game.

Serena from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: A character added in the Dawnguard expansion, Serena is one of my favorite NPCs. Serena has a great backstory with plenty of depth to it, a backstory that not only makes sense, but also allows for the use of her special powers. As a companion she proves witty and capable, a suitable match for the Dragonborn.

Dog from Half-Life 2: The perfect companion for the silent Gordon Freeman. This lovable silent giant provides the brawn to Freeman’s brain. From playing fetch to destroying Combine drop ships, the colossal robot tags along with the best of companions, blindly and faithfully destroying Combine property. Truly there can be no better friend.

Magellan

Bastila Shan from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Let’s get this out now: I’m a Star Wars fan. Hard-core. I’m also a big fan of role-playing games. Imagine my glee at the prospect of a Star Wars RPG where you control one of the most powerful Jedi in history (stick with me, here), where one of the companions you run around with is a brunette Jedi prodigy with a British accent and a double-bladed lightsaber. Enter Knights of the Old Republic and Bastila Shan. Sure, this choice is me giving into my old fourteen-year-old crushes and biases, but Bastila’s relationship with the protagonist and her character arc is still one of the most compelling parts of my favorite video game of all time.

Yoshi from the Mario series: First appearing in Super Mario World in 1990 and serving as Mario’s loyal steed on numerous occasions since then, Yoshi has steadily established himself as an inextricable fixture of the Mario universe. The defining characteristic of any good companion should be reliability, and Yoshi has that in spades. Beyond that, unlike most video game sidekicks, Yoshi has been able to turn that good will into games of his own and cameo appearances in all variety of silly Mario sports spin-offs, from Mario Tennis to Mario Curling (probably).

Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: The annoying fairy from Ocarina of Time? The one that keeps shouting “Hey!” at me and telling me to “Listen!”? Yes. That annoying fairy. Calm down, I know, I gripped the weird side-prongs of my N64 controller in pre-pubescent frustration too. But looking back now, being annoyed at Navi is one of my favorite video game-related jokes. I’ll do the voice, I’ll shout “Link!” and “Watch Out!” at Allen and James to get them to chuckle (or punch me, as the case may be). Navi may not have been a great companion at the time, but she’s like some crazy ex that you can’t help but tell horror stories about. That, and Navi paved the way for future Legend of Zelda companions to come (like Midna from Twilight Princess) that were much more developed and interesting.

The Conclusion

Enjoy our choices? Enraged that you didn’t see your favorite? Ever hear “You Raise Me Up” playing in your head while Tails flies you around in the Angel Island Zone? Explain why you agree or disagree below, and let us know what your favorite video game companions are. (Expecting a lonely afternoon? Entertainment and company: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrlMgejvcfE).