Strangely Familiar Things

There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things on Netflix.  If you haven’t seen it, don’t read this.  This is full of spoilers.  Don’t worry, you can go watch it and come back; the internet isn’t going anywhere.

 

Seriously, major spoilers here.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

Okay, fine.

Like many other children of the 80’s, the show hits my nostalgia buttons, from the language to the clothes to the references, it does a great job of calling back to that era, with just a few stand-out anachronisms.  The performances are also really good, and at all levels.  In fact, I love that it has three parallel levels, just like a Shakespeare play, each dealing with the same issues and themes, but from different perspectives.  The audio is fantastic; the editing is excellent; the directing is spot-on.  I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t like the show, or appreciate it; I did and I do.

However, WTF is with Eleven sacrificing herself to defeat the demogorgon?  Sacrifice is heroic, sure, but couldn’t they have expelled the monster without destroying her?  Yes, there’s a circularity to it; she brought the monster into our world, so she takes it out again.  But, if she was powerful enough to bridge that gap without destroying herself, why does she have to be eliminated to destroy the link?  Narratively, there are any number of options available for resolving this (and yes, I know they can bring her back in season 2), but symbolically, what this says is that we should celebrate the sacrifices our precocious, talented, special young girls make to save our boys.

We really need to stop that.

Especially in kids this age, when they’re just starting to come out of childhood and start that journey through adolescence to adulthood, when we lose so many bright, talented girls because of the social stigma of being smart, confident, capable – all things we celebrate in our boys – we need to stop putting the burden on the girls to make way for the boys, to stand aside so that others can excel.  Girls are taught about self-sacrifice and maintaining the good of the group from a very young age, and apparently that applies even to girls who have been raised in brutal, laboratory conditions.

Slight side note – I nearly stopped watching the show in episodes 3 & 4.  The presentation of the brutality that Eleven experienced was so strongly coded in child abuse and neglect that emotionally, I could barely stand to continue watching.  I know kids who have been locked in closets by their parents; I know kids who have been left, isolated and cold and alone, exposed to the elements with no escape.  At some level, the treatment of Eleven has to justify her killing people to get out of the lab and again in resisting going back, but that really could have been done without such strong troping of child abuse.  That’s a kind of horror I have no interest in seeing in any format.

That’s not the only place that the show runs afoul of gender structures.  There’s the brains vs. sex troping of Nancy from the very beginning, followed through with the slut-shaming, and the “who will she choose”, as though her partner choices were the most interesting thing about her.  Barb apparently doesn’t merit a funeral or a family who is bereft at her loss – no journey to the upside-down to save good girls; no frantic search for clues when you’re the less-attractive friend.

The show has a similar blindness around race, it seems.  Lucas at least gets a home space represented (Dustin doesn’t even get that), but what does that house look like?  The show is constantly re-visiting the establishing shots of the Wheeler and Byers houses, and the class markers between them are crystal clear, but the secondary, non-white characters don’t even have a place in this space.  You could argue that this is self-aware irony, that the show presents a token Black character as a critique of the tokenism of the time, except that doesn’t actually advance anything.  That puts us back in the 80’s at best (ironic self-detachment is hardly new), but surely we can ask more meaningful questions about what it meant to be one of a handful of Black kids in the midwest; how being a geek inflects differently; what that Vietnam experience means beyond having military hardware available.

The show sails past all of this.  It tells a compelling story, and it does it well, don’t get me wrong, but we should be careful about nostalgia for privilege and erasure.  “Remember how nice everything was back when we could be as sexist and racist as we wanted to be” is a dangerous politics to enable.  When you venture through the veil, be careful what you bring back with you.

 

Size Matters

There’s a narrative going around the game development community.  Games are getting shorter, it goes; people are busy, they don’t have time.  As the average age of active gamers, and particularly paying gamers, continues to rise, game makers feel justified in making smaller, more polished, often cinematic games.  Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they make games with very short session times; what can you do in the time it takes to get coffee at Starbucks?  Simpler games are better, games with easy to understand mechanics.  Gaming is both maturing and mainstream, colonizing other media, like Japan’s Prime Minister as Mario at the Rio Olympics, a little grey around the temples, but still playful.

Lately, though, I’m starting to feel like it’s not games or gaming, it’s game developers who are getting old, who only have a few minutes to devote to something here or there.  It’s not just No Man’s Sky; lots of people have forgotten the peculiar joy of figuring out a game’s behaviors through trial and error, experimentation and exploration.  But that game is just the latest of what I suppose you could call the world-exploration genre.  Fallout 4, for example, has many of the same elements – procedural battles, resource gathering, crafting, upgrades – and at a base level, you spend most of your time wandering around the world, looking for things.  Or Shadow of Mordor; while more combat-focused thematically, it was still largely a game that was driven by exploration of its world, whether literally its geometry or the back-story in the little collectibles.

What these games all have in common is that they take a very long time to play.  The grind for upgrades in No Man’s Sky is very similar to the grind in any MMO (yet another kind of world-exploration game); covering all of the ground in post-war Boston or Mordor takes a lot of time.  On top of that, there’s extensive replayability.  In Fallout 4, there are the various storylines and factions (one of the many excellent implementations being the warning before taking a story-altering action) in addition to the world-simulation elements.  Shadow of Mordor has the revenge and fealty systems to constantly shuffle the deck for as long as you feel like playing.  It goes back to one of the early arguments for gaming – that on a per-dollar basis, it is one of the most effective forms of entertainment.

Yes, we used to play endless hours of Quake 3 or Counterstrike or Civilization or whatever your particular flavor was, but when you divided that $50 (assuming you actually paid for something) by the number of hours you played, you got some infinitesimal number of pennies, whereas you were paying $5+ per hour at the movies.  With arcades, you were paying $0.25 every 3-5 minutes, so about $4 per hour.  Hell, with early internet connections, some people were paying $2 per minute or $120 per hour to play their favorite games, or check their e-mail for that matter.  When we were young and poor, students or just starting out, the value you got from gaming was tangible.  It was better than television (the next best thing to free), but affordable in the long run precisely because we had so much energy to burn and they kept us occupied for so many hours.

For a lot of gamers, nothing has changed.  League of Legends, one of the most popular games in the world, has an average session length of 30-35 minutes, and gamers sit down expecting to play multiple sessions.  Raids in World of Warcraft are still multi-hour affairs, albeit not the insane grinds they used to be.  In terms of value per dollar spent, they still eclipse everything else in terms of media.  If you have a lot of time to kill, these are great ways to kill it.  So are free-to-play games, don’t get me wrong.  They are huge in their own ways, constantly growing, constantly evolving.  It is terrifying to think of the collective amount of time spent tapping the screen to move gems or candies or barbarians or cartoon houses.

So, both ends continue to expand.  Tentpole games aren’t going anywhere.  Yes, they cost tens of millions of dollars to make, but each one returns hundreds of millions.  Services will live as long as their player base supports them.  The high-risk areas remain the unproven and the middle ground, and indies are happily throwing themselves on as many grenades as they can find.  At the moment, we’re still in a growth market.  More people are playing electronic games today than at any point in history.  People are finding more ways to play, dedicating larger amounts of their time and resources to playing.  There’s VR/AR, location-based gaming, and so many other avenues that are ripe for development.  Surely, that can’t hold true forever.  At some point, there will be a saturation of the audience – young and old, poor and wealthy, the time-rich and the time-starved, the twitchy and the cerebral.

But, for now, surely these are the salad days.  It seems odd to say after decades of experience playing and making games, but we are still at the beginning.  There is more to invent in front of us than there are established models behind.  And yet, one thing, I would caution, remains true.  Players want time-consuming games, deep, rich, long, rewarding engagements that can last weeks and months, not just days or hours.  It’s great to create experiences, but worlds will win, nine times out of ten.