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January 23, 2012

So Epic, Bro

“Epic” is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days.  Surely you’ve noticed.  People will use it as an adjective all the time, often as a synonym for “awesome” or something of the sort.  There’s even a game developer called Epic Games -- but for the most part, I suppose this is a fair evolution.  In a world where CG in movies and graphics engines in games can make worlds come alive and explosions several dozen times more fiery, it’s probably going to get even harder to find a good description for that sweet action scene from that one movie.  Or any given guitar solo from the metal band of your choice.

Okay, I admit I just mentioned that to have an excuse to post some metal.  Can you blame me?

But I can’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, we should make better use of the word.  If we label everything as “epic” so haphazardly, then we might end up losing more than just a battle to preserve such sacred semantics.

Let’s be real here -- you could argue pretty successfully that the meaning of epic has already been lost.  Considering that it use to refer to poetry popularized by works like The Odyssey and featuring formal verses, I can’t help but wonder what Homer would say if people used the word so casually today.  But like I was saying earlier, you could ALSO argue that epic is the best way to describe things nowadays.   We’re hot off the heels of a completed Harry Potter movie franchise, and before that hot off the heels of a completed HP book series and completed Lord of the Rings movie franchise.  We know what epic is, even if the definition may shift a bit. 

 Here are a few qualifiers for the genre (as seen here):

·    --The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance, usually the ideal man of his culture. He often has superhuman or divine traits.  He has an imposing physical stature and is greater in all ways than the common man.

--The setting is vast in scope. It covers great geographical distances, perhaps even visiting the underworld, other worlds, and other times.

--The action consists of deeds of valor or superhuman courage (especially in battle).

--Narrative opens in media res. This means "in the middle of things," usually with the hero at his lowest point.  Earlier portions of the story appear later as flashbacks.

True, there are plenty of other points out there, like invoking a muse and the aforementioned formality.  But on a certain level, maybe using “epic” is justified…provided we’re talking about something in a story and not just being lucky enough to flip over a bunch of cars while riding a unicycle.  Though I recognize the amount of skill (and testicular fortitude) it takes to sit atop a one-wheeled engine of murder and bruised shins.

If you’ll allow me to shift gears, I’d like to make my preference known -- that while using epic as an adjective to describe things is fine (used with moderation, as with any word), trying to make things epic to suit one’s particulars is just as bad.  Because as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’d rather talk about writing and video games than write an English paper on the consequences of language misuse.  We live in a world where “Y U NO (action)” is a standard phrase and “bromance” is now a legitimate word in the dictionary.  Just accept that Noah Webster is trying to claw his way out of the grave to kill us all and move on.

Massacre (verb): What I'm going to do to anyone who says "badonkadonk."

I know that “epicness” is subjective.  One man’s epic is another man’s fail.  I get that.  But I think that artists -- writers, game developers, directors, what have you -- need to remember that there’s such a thing as going overboard.  We shouldn’t be wasteful in our application of epicness; using it every now and then to punctuate an event or scene is fine, but we can’t cram a lot of junk in there.  It’s kind of like how people who capitalize every word in a sentence when talking online sound like shouting idiots, while people who only capitalize one or two words get their point across with more style, subtlety, and success.  Or how it’s okay to end a sentence in a period every now and then instead of ensuring that you’ll earn the world record for the most exclamation marks in a single book!

I think this is a problem that a lot of people have with movies like Transformers or games like Call of Duty (other than the idea that only single-celled bottom-feeders like that sort of thing).  They seem to have a problem with -- to put it metaphorically -- shutting up and sitting quietly for any length of time, and when they do it’s to beg for more explosion-flavored candy.  There’s no time for plot, character development, or exploration of themes; the heroes need to get to the next collapsing pyramid or imploding baseball field.  Viewers/players came for spectacle.  Spectacle, blast you!  And they plan to make audiences the world over OD on it all!

From my personal experience, this is one of the great failings of Gears of War 3.  I played the other two games in the series.  I enjoyed the other two games in the series.  Sure, they weren’t exactly deep or comprehensive, but the plots were serviceable, the action was bombastic yet measured, and there were some genuinely affecting moments in the mix.  Gears of War 3 -- incidentally, the brainchild of Epic Games -- turned the franchise into a bad caricature.

Though with a neck that thick, it's not like they needed it.

“You want explosions?” Epic Games asked.  “Okay, sure.  Have a smorgasbord of these guys called Lambent -- they’re a bunch of shouting glowy guys who EXPLODE all over the damn place when you shoot ‘em!  Check it!”   

“Four-player co-op?” Epic Games asked, albeit with a quizzically raised eyebrow.  “Well, we had two-player co-op for a reason…but hey, it’s the last game in the trilogy.  If you guys want less focus on the characters and combat that turns into a mindless free-for all, then have at it?”

“Want to put those speakers to good use?” Epic Games asked, laughing nervously.  “Okay, okay.  We won’t just have explosions -- we’ll have LOUD explosions!   And a sawed-off shotgun that’ll blow your damn ears off!  And…and guns that shoot missiles that burrow underground!”

“Drama?  Well, we handled that kinda well last time,” Epic Games’ collective said, stroking their communal beard.  “Crap, how do we top that?  Oh, hey!  How about we kill the second most important character in the game while drastically downplaying his involvement in the action beforehand, so we can devote an entire chapter to his last hurrah before killing him off!  Oh, but don’t worry.  We’ll leave plenty of hints for you!”

“Plot threads that need answering?” Epic Games asked, its members now simultaneously diving into a pool of beer and money.  “Gotta save something for the sequel.  Here, have some more explosions -- oh, and shaky-cam, too.”

Maybe that’s a bit too dramatic, but the fact remains that Gears 3 featured “epic in excess.”  Explosions and violence and rumbling set pieces and monsters the size of Mars and soldiers shouting “Go, go, go!” and set pieces and lasers and shrieking monsters and gunfire and regular fire and reckless swearing and all of that just contributes to the fact that Gears 3 never learned how to SHUT THE HELL UP.  Okay, that’s not entirely true; in the minute-long interims between firefights the characters get to walk around and talk a bit…and spend it either telling the player their next objective, reminding us how hopeless the situation is (but we gotta do this anyway, guys, ‘cause that’s what we gotta do), or -- my personal favorite -- trading “witty” sarcasm that only serves to make every character one-note.  It all makes the game smear into a blur, with no real defining characteristics besides guns with chainsaws on them and lots of walls to hide behind.


But blurs like that make money.  The Transformers movies made money.  Uncharted 3 made money.  Gears of War 3 made money.  Battle: Los Angeles made (some) money in spite of piddling reviews.  Why?  “Bottom-feeders,” some might say.  But I say that it’s because in our climate, that’s what “epic” is nowadays.  Action and violence and explosions and spectacle -- the sights that make people swoon.

Maybe that’s just where we’re heading.  Maybe that’s evolution for you, or adaption, or something something something Darwinism.  For now, all I can say is that -- even if the storytelling climate becomes an epic blur -- not everything has to be epic.  Creativity allows for art and tales in plenty of wild forms and plenty of diverging topics; they can go as far as the 99th dimension, or they can be adventures that don’t even have its characters leaving town.  Flash and spectacle and grit are fine by themselves (though I’d argue that grittiness is a threat in itself), but there’s so much more that can be done that you don’t need to fall back on those things for success.  Inspiration doesn’t have to be -- or even should be -- derived from what everyone else is doing; it’s something you have to find for yourself, whether you’re a creator or just a guy or gal who likes a nice little yarn.

So, bottom line?  “Epic” is changing.  What it becomes remains to be seen, but for now I’d just like to remind everyone that there are plenty of alternatives and plenty of avenues.  In the end, you can define what that word means better than anyone else.  Find your own meaning.  Enjoy -- and maybe even create -- your own stories.   Who knows?  Maybe you’ve got a real epic on your hands…

Seriously, though, what is this guy even looking at?

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