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June 12, 2013

Kid's Game 2: Electric Boogaloo

You know, I’ve been thinking.  (Cue the screeches of a million feral kittens.)

I really don’t think there’s any other way for me to explain the issues I have with “gritty” stories.  I’ve gone on, and on, and on about them, and I’ve tried to justify my issues as best I could.  Some -- myself included -- might say I’m being unreasonable, and that’s probably true.  Some might agree with me.  And of course, there are some who probably disagree because, hey, maybe that grit is something genuinely attractive to people.  That’s fine.  I’m not going to tell anyone that they’re wrong for liking the things that they do…even if I don’t.

I know what I like, and I’ll gladly gravitate toward it.  And given the chance, I’ll defend it, and explain why I feel the way that I do.  Simple, yes?  I sure hope so.  Because I’m about to do it again.

Here’s the question at hand: are children’s shows the ultimate medium?

Okay, that’s not entirely fair.  When I say “children’s shows” I should probably expand that to include things like, say, children’s games.  I’m not talking about stuff like one of those edutainment games, or Barney’s Hide and Seek, or just Barney in general.  So for the purpose of this post, let’s just go ahead and use the blanket term “kid’s stuff.”  Things like what I’ve talked about in the past -- stuff that looks like it’s for children, but…well, I’ll get into that in a bit.

I’ve talked at length about what a gritty story should offer (at least to me) in the past, but for convenience’s sake, I’ll go ahead and reproduce it here in a healthy shade of green.

I’m of the opinion that people consume stories -- wherever they may appear -- to have a good time.  To be entertained.  Why cry when you can laugh, after all?  I know that’s not always the case (the concept of “catharsis” goes a long way), but I would think that it’s a general idea.  We’re hardwired to seek out happiness.  That’s why we have things like The Simpsons, The Avengers, and even My Little Pony.

But things are different with -- to use a blanket term -- gritty stories.  Considering that they can (and regularly do) feature less-than-ideal environments with less-than-ideal-heroes in less-than-ideal situations, one would think that the aesthetics and goings-on would be an immediate turn-off.  But I know that’s not the case.  In fact, I can see the appeal.  If gritty stories are going to refuse to offer us immediate good times, then the expectation is that they’ll offer up something in exchange.  In other words, they need to offer up merit -- intellectual merit, ideally. 

The expectation is that the characters, world, events, and themes can come together to explore ideas that a brighter story can’t.  The grit should be in place to surpass limits.  Leave no stone unturned.  Demand and reward deeper thought instead of guttural, instinctual delight.  A story shouldn’t be boxed in by its nature, gritty or otherwise, and ideally a gritty story should be the FIRST to try and break the mold. It should NOT just be a chance to revel in pessimism porn and have everyone become assholes while they bathe in blood, sweat, grime, and bad decisions.

I stand by that.  But I typed that -- and this, by extension -- with certain recent experiences in mind.  I consider Ratchet and Clank and LittleBigPlanet to be overwhelming successes because of their nature, even to this day -- but I’ve been finding merit in some unusual places as of late.  And lots of it.

When it comes to TV, I’m what you’d call “behind the times”.  At least if you’re the charitable sort; my brother often used to call me “time hobo” for not being up-to-date with the latest and greatest music.  So while I know about shows like The Walking Dead fairly well, there is a LOT that I’ve never even begun to watch or understand.  Mad Men?  I really want to get into that, but I always get sidetracked before jumping into season one, episode one.  Breaking Bad?  Wait, that’s on its last season?  How long has it been on?  Community?  Crap, I keep forgetting to watch that -- it’s just that my TV never gets good reception on NBC!  Hulu?  Netflix?  What are those, ancient demons?

So yeah, video games are the one medium I know intimately.  But it’s not like I haven’t tried branching out -- and I have a sudden desire to now more than ever. 

I know there’s an argument to be made by people all across…well, time itself that “things were better in the old days!” and “kids today have got nothing but junk!  WE had the classics!”  I’m not going to invalidate anyone’s opinion, but turning one’s back to what kids have today is a HUGE disservice to everyone, old fans and new.  Case in point: I’m 100% convinced that the 2011 version of ThunderCats, while not exactly perfect, is superior to the original version.  Genuine effort went into the proceedings, there were some good action scenes, there was palpable depth, character relations, and everybody talked at a normal speed with normal inflections.  (I swear to God there was always something about the way people talked in the old series that pissed me off -- and that’s pretty much confirmed, considering that the first episode of the new version featured the old Lion-O playing new Lion-O’s father.)  The new version’s biggest error was denying viewers of a genuine theme song, but on the plus side, it stripped Snarf of a speaking role.  Good on them for doing that, because fuck Snarf.

But really, I think animation is doing remarkably well for itself.  If ever I happen to come across an episode of Adventure Time while channel-surfing, you can bet that I’ll watch through an episode with a smile.  Same goes for Regular Show.  I haven’t seen much of the new, 3D-animated Ninja Turtles series, but I can see the merit behind it and would like to see more.  I would personally like to build a time machine so I could travel back and boot my younger self in the teeth for not giving Avatar: The Last Airbender a fair shake just because it wasn’t a “true” anime.  And of course, I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the enduring successes and entertainment of animated shows like Futurama, Bob’s Burgers, King of the Hill, and -- haters be damned -- The Simpsons.  (Not Family Guy, though.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

You would think that, ostensibly, a bunch of cartoons wouldn’t offer much in the way of merit.  But imagine my surprise, then, when I find myself not only being intrigued by a show like Adventure Time, but thoroughly rewarded for engaging with its canon, understanding the implications of its world,  getting to know its characters, and -- obviously -- sitting through an eleven-minute episode.  Some people may be able to get guttural laughs out of meme-tastic characters like Lemongrab and the Tart Toter (I was one of them, to the point where I could recite the latter’s speech if asked), but those that sit down with the show and give it a good hard look may walk away with overwhelming satisfaction.  Or, alternatively, fear.  There’s this Lich guy that seems to be a real mover and shaker…

I would go so far as to say that maybe kids are more grown up than they were back in the day -- and those with control over creative outlets are well aware of that.  Think about it; the spread of the internet and the easy access via any number of handheld devices makes it more than possible for any given tween -- or younger -- to start speeding their way across the world wide web.  Inevitably, that means they’re getting exposed to things that their parents would probably prefer to discuss in a controlled environment (“the talk” comes to mind). 

So in one regard, they understand certain concepts early…but in another regard, it’s possible that they’re getting quick and easy access to entertainment of all kinds for all demographics.  Even then, I’d say there’s some cross-pollination of -- for lack of a better term -- maturity levels when it comes to entertainment; Iron Man 3 could, and likely has, appealed to people of all ages and provided content to match.  So you could argue that respect is being paid to younger audiences without necessarily talking down to them entirely.  (Then again, Disney movies have been peppering in grisly content for ages now, and I’d like to think that no one raised an eyebrow when children were being taken to see movies like Jurassic Park or Independence Day, so I could be blowing smoke here.)

Content aside -- and the fact that I’m convinced Regular Show is NOT for children no matter what channel it shows up on -- it’s the quality that’s consistently astounded me.  When Adventure Time isn’t offering its unique brand of hilariously balls-out insanity, it’s offering character development, examinations of its characters and world, and views of the aspirations therein.  Avatar: The Last Airbender may not be a full-on anime, but I’d say that it’s not only high-quality regardless, but in many respects it does anime better than most anime these days.  And arguably, it’s not just a matter of new stuff that’s entertained me; I just saw D3: The Mighty Ducks for the first time in years the other day, and I’m about ready to name it as one of my favorite movies ever…or if not that, then I’ll at least get in deep with the other two movies.

It’s hard to say if kid’s stuff from the past and present are high-quality (or not), and we never noticed it until now.  Channel Awesome fans may be looking at shows from the past, like Power Rangers and Digimon in a new light thanks to retrospectives by Linkara and JesuOtaku, respectively.  But regardless, the fact that those shows -- and others -- even HAVE something worth discussing only goes to prove something that I’ve glossed over until now.  Remember:

If gritty stories are going to refuse to offer us immediate good times, then the expectation is that they’ll offer up something in exchange.  In other words, they need to offer up merit -- intellectual merit, ideally.  The expectation is that the characters, world, events, and themes can come together to explore ideas that a brighter story can’t.  The grit should be in place to surpass limits.  Leave no stone un-turned.  Demand and reward deeper thought instead of guttural, instinctual delight.

That’s the expectation, but it’s one that isn’t met on every occasion.  Even if it is, the design philosophy behind a gritty story -- if not by its nature, then by its proliferation in the public conscious/media zeitgeist -- is a limit in and of itself.  In order to have that grit, certain elements have to be forgone in order to have tonal consistency.  That’s fine to an extent, but after a while -- or at least, in my personal experience -- those elements end up being missed.  The tradeoff for dealing with worlds and scenarios that are unpleasant by design is being rewarded and challenged intellectually -- to say that you’ve walked away with a new understanding of yourself and the world.

But here’s the thing: if kid’s stuff is doing that already -- and possibly better -- then what’s the point of making gritty stories?

I’m not trying to be facetious here (well, not extensively).  Just try to understand where I’m coming from on this.  I’m not going to be so bold as to declare that every gritty story has the exact same environment and tropes, because that’s obviously not the case.  There are similarities across the board, sure -- but unless the work in question is really bad, a sense of familiarity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.  That said, kid’s stuff has the advantage in my eyes.  It also carries with it expectations, but on a different axis; success may very well come from realizing imaginative worlds, and characters, and scenarios. 

Themes and messages have their place (especially in a high-quality production), but so is giving a creator’s imagination form.  So is making the world of Ooo as marvelous as possible, or having a blue jay and a raccoon go toe-to-toe with space babies to save their immortal yeti friend, or having a cowardly joker become an ace swordsman so he can keep up with his nature-slinging friends.  The unpredictability, the creativity, and the satisfaction therein are things that we thrive on, and things that can appeal to us no matter the age.  As long as the story is competently told and explored, I don’t think there needs to be so rigid a divide between certain classes of storytelling.  Nor should there be an assumption that mature = good -- especially if that “maturity” is as shallow as it gets. 

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that kid’s stuff is not only of high quality (or at least more than one would expect), but that the people behind the stories know what they’re doing, AND are dedicated to dishing out their tales to whoever will give them a chance.  I suspect that as you’re reading this, you’ve already got your Pixar movie of choice in mind -- I would name Toy Story 3, for obvious, incinerator-related reasons -- but whatever the case, they are indeed an example to follow.  We can learn something from their movies as well as their strategies; if there are others that hold up similar philosophies, it can go a long way toward explaining why so many cartoons, of all things, have leveled up. 

It’s easy to get cynical and assume that a lot of what’s out there only exists to peddle merchandise.  And that may very well be true; good intentions and quality aside, a part of me suspects Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony have made resurgences to cash in on a new generation…and I’d guess they’re doing a pretty good job of it.  And I’m not going to assume that every bit of kid’s stuff out there is top-of-the-line material.  Even beyond that, I can’t help but wonder if children are actually appreciating the shows (and movies, and games) that are on now, or if they’re just blithely looking at the sights and sounds, as I did once upon a time.  Who’s to say, really? 

But even if there are some inherent flaws, I still think that kid’s stuff is a resource that’s appreciable and worthy of being tapped by parties across the board.  Style.  Merit.  Creativity.  Thought.  Ambition.  Depth.  Freedom.  Practicality.  And most of all, fun.  All those things and more are possible, if not outright required from what one would dismissively call “kiddie”.  It’s why Mario and Zelda has endured for nearly three decades.  It’s why there are people who burst out laughing at Shadow the Hedgehog, but willingly welcomed Sonic Colors into their hearts.  And I’d bet it’s why Pokémon fans can’t divorce the franchise from the infamous theme song.  Or the renditions that have resulted.

Let the records show that, in spite of all I’ve said, there’s room for gritty stories and adult stuff.  There are just certain areas that they can go that no other type of story can.  Then again, the same can be said of kid’s stuff -- and in some cases, putting restrictions on the topics they can explore allow exploration of other themes and ideas.  As they say, when God closes a door, He opens a window.  And if the creators are going in all-guns-blazing, they can put out a product that rewards and entertains, challenges and hypes.  In the end, the divisions become arbitrary in the face of genuinely good content.  A good story is a good story, no matter where it appears.

There’s one last topic I want to touch on before I wrap things up.  I may be speaking solely for myself here, but I’d like to think that it’s the mission of any creator -- regardless of medium, and regardless of demographic -- to try and capture the hearts and minds of an audience.  That’s what I want to do, at least.  Somehow, someway, I’ll do it.  But you know what?  If you ask me, that’s the one major advantage kid’s stuff has over everything else.  There’s a level of intimacy that can be bred from a well-crafted story, and it’s an intimacy anyone’s familiar with.  It’s that ability to go gaga over a character, or world, or event, and reduce its audience/fans into sparkly-eyed children (however temporarily) that’s worth admiring.  It’s valuable.  It’s what can help breed loyalty, and true respect for a creation.  Can you do that with other stories?  Of course.  But if you ask me, it’s easier with kid’s stuff.  That ability to deliver something potentially unreal, but through skill and intuition make it relatable to any given viewer…THAT’S the key to victory.  And those that can crack the code are the ones destined to become the greats.  That, I can guarantee.

And that’ll do it for now.  As for me…well, I think I need to get in touch with my inner child.

I...probably shouldn't follow Sundowner's example, though.


  1. I actually kind of agree with you on this argument: children's stories and shows may not be THE greatest and most potent examples of narrative, but they are surely the most potent and play the most important role in shaping the opinions and sensibilities of each generation.

    I don't want to go into the '80's superiority' argument, which, we both know, is shit. But optimistic, happy stories are necessary and far harder to maneuver and innovate in, considering how they are very easy to botch up, via say, lazy writing. Children's shows are chief among them, because let's face it: children are nothing if not brutally honest. A show that fails to catch their eye and maintain their interest with its quality and storytelling will remain unwatched.

    But I honestly think that you are being too harsh on gritty stories. Then again, I cannot blame you, seeing as to how you have been exposed to some of their WORST examples (with the possible exception of Spec-Opes: The Line). But you should understand that gritty stories, with their terror and harshness and violence, serve the purpose of presenting a different version of a struggle. The key ingredient to a good gritty story is to also be able to carry across a certain point, which most writers and creators fail to take in mind, lately.

    Despite your bias in the article, I'd love to see more of your happy-optimistic-colorful view on shows and to see this in your writing, as well. With that said, fight on, nerd-brother!

  2. Truth be told, since starting Cross-Up I've seriously contemplated writing a story that takes all the stuff I've learned/argued for in the blog and applying it to my work. My buddy's always joking that my stories are just about "seven kids fighting a greater evil" -- word-for-word -- but I'm starting to think that's not such a bad thing. As long as I can explore the possibilities, weave in some interesting themes, and infuse the story with some real spirit, I might be able to pull something off.

    Buuuuuuuuuuuut if there's one thing that I've noticed, it's that I have this habit of taking things to really dark places. I daydream about my ideal story pretty often, and each instance offers up more chances for grief, despair, and suffering. Basic concepts -- even ones with children -- inevitably lead to death and the aftershocks of war. And I Hraet You? Lloyd's backstory may (or will) be BRUTAL. By the by, if you see a chapter entitled "Problem Solving" somewhere down the line, you can bet that shit will get real.

    Well, I was once told that my mind was like a steel trap -- rusty and illegal in thirty-seven states. I'm assuming that was a compliment, because that's usually how I interpret it for others.

    But back on topic. Gritty stories are problematic in a lot of ways, but even a jaded loon like me can admit that when it's done right, it offers up something that even the most colorful adventure can't. But you know what? I think that one of my biggest problems is that recently, that's what people default to when it comes to telling a story, as if that's all that matters and all people want/need. Dead Rising 3 just got announced this week, and the first thing that ANYONE noticed about it is...well, just read this. If you want to be depressed, at least.


    We are reaching complete global saturation levels of grit here, and it's pissing me off. They're not just doing it because it's best for their creative vision or the sake of the story; they're doing it because they want to sell more copies and reel in new customers. Hard to say if they'll succeed, but just the fact that they'd do this -- AGAIN -- makes me suspect that somehow, this game is going to be less mature than an episode of Sesame Street. And anyone who so haphazardly goes for grit will probably end up having the same results.

    This makes me sad and tired. I need to go play Wind Waker or something.