Games

The Realities of Aging in Video Game Characters

Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.

Max Payne is looking pretty bad lately.

Of course, Max hasn't lead the easiest life, but Rockstar's latest screen shots of the two-fisted gunman indicate that some of that hard living is legitimately beginning to show. Max is getting balder, bigger, and less beautiful by the moment.

It isn't as if Max needs to be pretty. What hard boiled hero has ever been able to lay claim to that particular attribute? But, given that Max's image is one that could at least theoretically be saved from the ravages of time (since rendered images don't tend to suffer the ill effects of wrinkeles and weight gain), Rockstar's choice to go ahead and allow time to leave its mark on their anti-hero is an interesting one. It is also a choice that lacks a great many precedents in the medium of video games.

Certainly, Hideo Kojima also chose to age the hero of the Metal Gear Solid series. Like Max, Snake in his last foray into the stealth action genre looked much the worse for wear as he confronted both a new global threat but also had to contend with his own mortality.

These couple of examples, though, tend to fly in the face of conventional serializing in the video game industry. Most heroes and anti-heroes that get the opportunity to appear in multiple titles have a tendency to perhaps “evolve” in appearance, but they rarely do more than receive an update to their look rather than begin to look their age. Instead, characters like Lara Croft and Mario are treated as icons, images that are recognizable and emblematic of whatever they are intended to heroically represent -- be that sexy, empowered femininity or working class sticktuitiveness.

In considering the aging of characters in serial formats, it occurred to me that this same tendency to age some characters and to leave timelessly iconic other kinds of characters is also a tendency in comic books. While I am being gravely reductionist in this observation, there has always seemed to me to be a general tendency to approach the handling of the aging super hero in two different ways by the two major comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

The staple DC characters, who generally are much older than those belonging to Marvel, are usually represented in a timeless fashion. Bruce Wayne, while having existed since 1939, remains (barring out of continuity material, like Frank Miller's Dark Knight) seemingly forever trapped in some late-30s to late 40s version of himself. Superman and Wonder Woman, who resemble minor deities in some way anyway, likewise remain perpetually beautiful despite similar post-World War II origins and despite their stories in serial form running regularly every month for nearly 70 years.

Many Marvel characters (at least around their point of origin, the early 1960s) tend to have experienced slightly different relationships to Father Time. Spider-Man's stories began with a Peter Parker still awkwardly attempting to navigate the hallways of his high school. But Spidey's continued adventures over the next couple of decades are backgrounded by a clear progression in time: Peter's graduation, his entry into college, and even his eventual marriage (which, as I understand it was annulled through the intervention of a demonic deus ex machina, which may undermine my point a bit -- Spidey seems to have stabilized like Bruce Wayne at some perpetual near middle age at some point fairly recently). In other words, though, generally speaking following Spider-Man's progress as a character over the decades also allowed readers to watch the effects of time on his alter ego, leaving Spidey less like an immortal icon and something more like a relatable human being.

It seems to me that DC's lack of the representation of aging in their characters and Marvel's tendency to allow characters like the Fantastic Four to age at least a bit (the marriage of Reed and Sue Richards and the eventual transformation of the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman are likewise emblematic of a maturation process in their characters) are related in some sense to the philosophies that each company has in regards to their characters. DC Comics is generally interested in a romantic vision of a hero that is indeed iconic and timeless, representing larger principles like truth, justice, and the American Way, while Marvel is generally interested in more realistic and flawed characters that struggle with life in ways recognizable and comprehensible (once again, I realize that this is a broad characterization, and I can certainly think of exceptions in both comic book lines to these ideas, but my claim is one that I think is generally reasonable in considering the two companies' approaches but simply not one without exception).

Returning to video game characters then, one might consider in this context the interests of game designers in keeping Lara and Mario ageless while allowing other characters like Max and Snake to indicate noticeable changes in their appearance as time and their series move forward. Certainly, Lara Croft, like many larger than life representations of femininity in the arts, is almost unable to be aged. Sex symbols are ruined in a culture that views “women of a certain age” as undesirable. Lara, however, is in part intended to represent an iconic form of beauty that parallels this ideal notion of youthful beauty. Likewise, Mario as a working class hero would suffer from being rendered in a geriatric form. No one wants an arthritic plumber to look at that busted sink, we need someone strong and vital to do such dirty jobs (oh, and to kick turtles). In that sense games in the Tomb Raider series and the countless titles bearing Mario's names are ones interested in ideal heroes that represent ideals big, broad, and timeless.

However, Max and Snake occupy game worlds eminently more wed to time as they deal with personal, social, and political issues bound to the periods that they emerge from. Unlike the explorer interested in antiquities whose adventures give nods to history but stand outside those actual historical events or the plumber who explores completely fantastical settings that are bound to no recognizable time, like mushroom kingdoms and even outer space, Max and Snake find themselves in much grimmer, grimier, and decaying worlds that clearly cannot escape the history crumbling around them. As a result, characters like Max and Snake, despite their often extraordinary circumstance, still come off as characters that are a little bit more familiar and understandable to us, who as mortals and not gods likewise have to come to grips with time and history.

Rockstar has generally been good at creating these sorts of realistic mythologies (which sounds like an oxymoron, but I think a still reasonable description of the kind of fantastic but still historically and politically grounded worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series). Recurring minor characters in the Grand Theft Auto games have allowed Rockstar to show that time operates in the worlds that they build. From the balder and paunchier Ken Rosenberg appearing in the 1990s in San Andreas formerly as a slightly more vital, if completely neurotic coke head in the 1980s in Vice City to witnessing the dismemberment of Phil Cassidy in Vice City having only known him as an armless vet in the later decade represented in GTA III, GTA characters bear witness to the consequences of time on their characters and create a more realistic sense of who characters are as people, not emblems, than, perhaps, other gaming worlds often do.

This generally bodes well for Rockstar's approach to a well seasoned Max Payne as he is a character that seems well suited to a more realistic sensibility. Despite the bullet time balletics that are the hallmark of the series, Max is a character evocative of both sympathy and disdain. He is not a character that represents or allows for simplistic and one dimensioanl analysis. Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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