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Games

Playing to Suffer, Suffering to Play

Don't Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013)

I have found myself struck with admiration recently by games that I have played that have put me in less than empowering positions, games that celebrate difficulty and hardship, struggling and deprivation, rather than empowerment and excess.

Kitschy though it might be, I have to admit that there is something I have come to admire in the lyrics of Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer. It's the fact that the song celebrates a difficult economic lifestyle with its introduction of Gina working the diner all day and Tommy having once worked on the docks. It's that romantic notion that “We've gotta hold on to what we've got / It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not / We've got each other and that's a lot” that I kind of miss from media from several decades ago.

I've grown sick of scoffing while peeping in the windows of the Real Housewives, while at the same time living in a culture that seems to suggest that everyone should aspire to an OC lifestyle, as if money and cars and vacations to Cancun are the goal of every American. Whatever happened to the romance of survival itself? Isn't Jon in some way right that “For love” we should “give it a shot”, even if that means experiencing deprivation and hardship?

In particular, it has been the downturn in the American and global economies that has found me pining for the wisdom of Bon Jovi. I've kind of been waiting for someone in music or any part of pop and media culture to thumb their nose at the notion of “making it” economically as the only measure of success in the United States.

Having begun my marriage, almost 20 years ago, in a trailer furnished with items from Goodwill, I have to say that I breathed a sigh of relief on first hearing Macklemore's ode to lower class shopping. My wife -- who grew up the daughter of a single mother who had to turn the heat off in the winter and frequently had to figure out how to get her kids invited to dinner at friends' houses, so that they could eat that week -- said with some disbelief upon hearing the song, “Finally, the place where I shopped my entire life is cool?” Whether Macklemore is just slumming or not, the message that the thrift shop is a satisfying way to itch the scratch of picking up some reasonably decent goods on the cheap seems like one that more Americans need to hear and begin to believe in. Plus, someone needed to speak the plain truth that so much of American retail pricing is very simply “being tricked by business.”

Now, of course, I'm no music critic. (“Thank God,” many of you are probably saying right now. Dude thinks Bon Jovi is a profound lyricist!) Instead, my neck of the woods of pop culture is in the landscape of video games, and frankly, it isn't a medium that obviously lends itself to down-to-earth representations of reality or reasonable ideas about what is an achievable goal. Saving worlds and princesses is the stock-and-trade of most video game protagonists. The video game industry sells "power fantasies" to its consumers. Most games are all about not being satisfied with who and what you are at the start, instead they are about amassing power, amassing loot, while growing ever more capable in your capacity to shape the outcomes of a game world. From the rise to wealth of gangsters off the streets of a Grand Theft Auto title to the enlargement of a portly plumber into a Super Mario that can hook up with a princess, video games are rarely about subsistence. They are about playing a avatar that can more than “make it”, and they are about feeling powerful enough to “take it”.

In other words, most games are empowering to the point of absurdity. While players might need to learn how to play, the power and wealth that trickles, then rushes, into their hands over the course of a 20 or 40 hour gaming experience parallels in my mind the bullshit mythology of inevitable yuppie apotheosis that seems as if it was sold to anyone that grew up in the '80s, Bon Jovi and Springsteen notwithstanding. The promise of the ideal American life, then, is that you will get there. Most games don't reflect that some lives (most lives?) are lived, economically at least, in terms of the maintenance of basic needs, not in a shangri la of overwhelming financial abundance. And I feel like the last decade or so has done nothing to debunk the myth of making it -- despite the reality of shrinking salaries and global financial meltdowns.

Thus, I have found myself struck with admiration recently by games that I have played that have put me (or the characters that I play in those games) in less than empowering positions, games that celebrate difficulty and hardship, struggling and deprivation, rather than empowerment and excess.

I feel like I started to notice the tendency towards making the player aware of his own limitations with the recent mini-revival of roguelike-style games. The roguelike is, of course, a genre that is predicated in some way on punishing the player. Typically, these titles are role playing games, games very much about acquiring new skills, abilities, and items that empower players. However, the roguelike puts a finger in the eye of “character development” by stripping one or all of those things from the player on death. You have to start over in these games, losing forward progress with death, often only taking with you lessons learned from failure in an effort to help you only succeed when you try again. But when you try again, you will be starting from ground zero more or less.

The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen, 2012)

Not everyone likes the punishing nature of the roguelike, and these games are admittedly niche titles. Nevertheless, the surprising successes of bringing games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls to the attention of the mainstream says something about players who are willing to experience struggle In a game and who are willing to lose it all for the sake of learning from failure or just are willing to fail at all. Mini-roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac or FTL don't often seem fair (though they do offer the experience of a roguelike in an abbreviated and less time consuming form than the aforementioned games), and indeed, I have spent far more games of both Isaac and FTL losing than I have in winning. However, one comes to appreciate playing for the sake of playing when experiencing these titles, not playing for the sake of achievement. Yes, I curse my failures, but I “give it a shot” because doing it in and of itself seems valuable in and of itself.

Now ultimately there's probably something slightly disingenuous about me bringing up these titles as examples of games based solely on deprivation and hardship. From the Souls games to The Binding of Isaac to FTL, ultimately these are games not based solely on subsisting. Victory is usually achieved by Isaac or a bridge crew in FTL because on a particular run through of the game, you happened to get some really good items, some really good powers, and managed to not only make it through, but make it through as a power house. Indeed, if successful, you will feel achievement probably in addition to the fact that you just survived a pretty difficult experience. However, as I said, this recent spate of games has gotten me feeling like games are considering how difficulty and suffering are important experiences. They set the tone for this type of idea, but they maybe haven't soldered down the experience of deprivation entirely.

Though the idea of deprivation and survival does bring me to begin thinking about the reintroduction of Lara Croft on the gaming scene as a slightly less competent, considerably more vulnerable version of one of the most iconically competent and successful video game characters. That the game's central theme seems to be about endurance, rather than treasure hunting and “powering up” (at least in the traditional sense of that idea in video games), sets it apart from most video game power fantasies. Heck, even the idea that Lara Croft should be brought down to earth is a novel one in a medium filled with space marines and plumbers who will eventually bag a princess.

Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013)

Tomb Raider is a game that constantly reminds the player that Croft is just making it by, as her clothing and face are smeared with dirt and blood. She is forced to forage for food and look for shelter from the weather, as she limps or finds herself unable to jump or cling to those cliffs and ledges that in the past she has always been able to so nimbly and effortlessly scale.

Now, in a sense, Tomb Raider might be deemed an empowering game, as the player is able to unlock new abilities and the like as Croft levels up. However, the game speaks to the idea that the cost of getting stronger is uncomfortable and difficult. Deprivation is a necessity for eventual success. “Success” itself, though, is not so clearly defined in Tomb Raider in any case, though. Croft begins the game as a rather “normal girl” surrounded by friends and colleagues supporting her education and development. Tomb Raider ends with the image of a steely-eyed woman isolated from her fellow survivors (literally, Lara stands at a distance from everyone in the final scene, staring off into the empty ocean, not back towards home or friends). Deprivation has made her stronger, but also transformed her into something harder. This may not be an accomplishment.

However, the game that has most brought to my attention the idea that subsistence and maintenance might become the central tenet of a game itself is Don't Starve.

Instructions for Don't Starve are simple: don't starve. That is also the goal, meaning there is no end goal. It doesn't make a difference if you make it or not in Don't Starve. The object of the game is to survive and maintain, until you no longer can.

If you have played any economic simulators before, you're probably fairly familiar with what I like to call the “bust to boom” trajectory of such games. Most economically based video games (and board games for that matter) begin with a player in possession of a little cash or meager resources or both. Usually such games allow you to transform money and resources into farms or factories or mines that in turn produce some profit, some more resources that allow you to build factories and processing plants and other businesses that will eventually make even more profits that can be sunk into greater engines of financial progress. Don't Starve has elements like that, but resources are limited throughout the game. Meters like health, hunger, and sanity require constant maintenance, and resources are replenished if you put effort into replanting, reorganizing, and the like. The game is about subsisting for as long as you can for the sake of subsisting.

Then winter comes and things get harder.

Admittedly, I have to say that I find the lessons in Don't Starve to be fairly bitter ones. The game is sometimes cruel, sometimes monotonous. The player takes on the role of an inexplicably abandoned individual on a largely deserted island. Spending the day gathering enough carrots to make ratatouille for one in order to slake just a bit of hunger can be downright disheartening. I played the game for a couple of days before abandoning it for a time. So, maybe there is an element of romanticism, of some kind of goal driven play necessary to make this kind of gaming palatable. Maybe I need to do it “for love” to make it worth “giving it a shot”.

But maybe “love” shouldn't be represented as it has in gaming's past with princess saved and all right with the world. Maybe maintaining love or something like it, some other noble or ennobling value, alongside “things” like money and resources is something that could help make it feel worth it. Just please don't make it even more money or even more power. I think that's the lesson that I am learning most from my recent gaming experience and that explains my pining for a culture that doesn't see those things as the end goal of a life well lived.

I am just as happy to go to the thrift shop with my wife as I was 20 years ago. I know that there are some perpetual goals that require maintenance that make playing on in the face of struggle or deprivation or discomfort worth still “giving it a shot”.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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.


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