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November 21, 2016

Art, the Great Equalizer


There’s an episode of Kamen Rider Drive where --

Hey, wait!  Don’t close the page yet!  I’m going somewhere with this.

There’s an episode of Kamen Rider Drive where leading man Shinnosuke -- an ace cop whose bungles dropped him into the bottom rungs of the police force -- has to figure out whom among his coworkers is actually a killer android in disguise.  Granted he’s narrowed it down a bit by virtue of said android becoming a double of the resident informant/otaku, but it’s still the sort of situation that begs for the infamous “which one do I shoot” scenario.  Luckily it doesn’t come down to that, because the killer android is actually a pretty cool guy.

At first he was willing to go on a murder spree, but the otaku asks the android to indulge a final request: to watch one more episode of his favorite, obscure series.  The android does more than allow it; he watches it too, and ends up so overwhelmed with emotion that he spares the otaku and starts thinking “Gee, maybe humans aren’t so bad.”  Shinnosuke’s still suspicious (because most of the androids up to that point have tried to kill him), but along the way he ends up watching the same show.  He doesn’t just become a fan of the show; he also forms a bond with the android over it, and starts to think “Gee, maybe killer androids aren’t so bad.”  Then said android gets killed by one of the main baddies, which fuels and inspires a Rider-powered beat down by our hero.  As is the custom.


It wasn’t just a fluke of an episode, or filler to pad out a season.  It helped Kamen Rider Drive push some of its bigger thematic goals and ideas into the limelight.  Plenty of care was given to make the villains more pronounced, dynamic, and even likeable, which I’m sure anyone can appreciate.  At the same time, the series put a big emphasis on trust in a number of ways.  It showed that there were good androids and bad humans -- but there were also good humans and bad androids.  By virtue of gearing most episodes as a mystery to be solved, it asked viewers to preemptively guess whodunit (i.e. who the culprit was, and/or who was secretly an android in disguise), which made them question who to trust in the story.  And of course, Shinnosuke has to learn who and how to trust again -- because even if he is a hotshot cop, he needs a lot of help to overcome his foibles.  Like the depression, for one.

Still, I can’t help but think back to that one episode.  It seems flippant, but the ideas within still stick with me.  As wonderful as it would be to befriend anyone and everyone, sometimes there are walls as high as skyscrapers in the way.  How do you get over them?  How do you break them down?  I don’t have a perfect, infallible answer.  As an idealist, though, I’d like to think that it’s not impossible.  And I’d like to think that Kamen Rider has offered up a solution -- or at least shown us a truth that’s easy to forget.  Art -- especially good art -- can bring people together in a way that nothing else can.


That little thesis statement comes from a biased place, of course.  You know me by now, I hope; I put a lot of stock into art, whether it’s a video game, a movie, a TV show, or anything of the sort.  I expect the best, and tend to not forgive the worst.  And of course, it’s my hope -- my dream -- to one day put art out there that puts smiles on the faces of people all over the world.  I have a personal stake in the matter that clouds my words and actions alike, but I’m not about to apologize for it.  Why?  Because it’s true.  Art brings people together, leveling the playing field so that we can all enjoy something special together.  So we can share it with others.  So we can experience something that touches us, and know that others have been touched in turn.

Once upon a time, the late Roger Ebert famously derided video games as incapable of being art.  He ended up walking that statement back, but he already did the damage -- and because of that, people from all over stood up and shouted “NO, THAT’S WRONG!”  And it is wrong, without question.  As games continue to spread their influence and evolve technologically, they’re going to become capable of so much more.  Yet we don’t have to look to some far-off point in the future to see the Promised Land.  We’ve already had Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to show us something majestic.  2013 saw the release of two serious heavy-hitters in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us.  Indie games are, have, and will continue to do the lord’s work, with stuff like Journey offering a shining example.


And it’s not even a case of “Oh, games have to be serious or thematically dense to be art.”  2013 also saw the release of Metal Gear Rising -- hardly a candidate for academic analysis, but artistic nonetheless for the craft and creativity packed into its run (seriously, the first five or ten minutes would’ve been the final boss fight of any normal game).  The release of Street Fighter IV breathed new life into the fighting game genre, which brought with it games that mixed technical wizardry with bone-breaking forms of expression. 

Mass Effect may be a shooter at heart, but it gained fame by virtue of extensive conversations and space misadventures.  Overwatch has gone on to become the best-selling PC game of all time by riding on the shoulders of its irrepressibly-charming heroes.  And Nintendo?  Even though its performance in the console industry crests and falls, it’s still going after thirty years -- or more than a hundred, depending on when you start counting. 

Whether it’s an entry from the old guard or a new kid on the block, a good game is a good game -- something that people will strive to experience and enjoy for themselves.  Just look at Super Smash Bros. as an example; it got its start as a plucky N64 newcomer way back when, but became a hit (and a million-seller) in no time.  Smash Bros. Melee is still played competitively today, despite nearly being old enough to legally drive.  Brawl brought the world a story featuring dozens of Nintendo characters, even though its legacy -- one more flattering than damning, I’d say -- will probably be an onslaught of memes.  I’m pretty sure I don’t have to say much about Smash 4, because this one video says plenty.


So one of the reasons why I take art so seriously -- even if it’s something as seemingly irreverent as video games, as an example -- is because art itself is serious.  Its impact on the hearts and minds of people can’t be understated; when done well, it can make people laugh, cry, cower in fear, or tremble in awe.  That’s on top of its natural power to inspire joy, of course.  I’ve felt all of those emotions and more across the games I’ve played, and I know I’m not the only one.

And because I know I’m not the only one, I feel like I’m connected to others.  It’s as if I’m a part of something more -- bonded with others who’ve cleared the same jumps, or carved up the same bosses, or uncovered the same secret items.  What I pull from games might not be exactly the same as others (because I’m needlessly obsessive to the point of near self-destruction), but there is something pulled each time, whether we know it or not.  The better the art, the more we can pull from it.  The more we can share.  The more we can learn.  The more we can evolve.


But like I said, that’s just one of the reasons I take art seriously.  This may come as a surprise to you guys reading this (the words of someone who basically wrote novellas on why the modern Final Fantasy games are utter tripe), but I’m not exactly the most popular guy.  I never have been, and I never will be.  Social interaction in the real world wasn’t my forte, so I was pretty much on my own whenever stuff like lunch or recess rolled around.  And yeah, I’m pretty sure you don’t need to film a documentary about me to figure out that the same applies today.  My default, comfortable state is to be quiet and away from others.  I’m not completely helpless in social situations, but my preferences are pretty obvious.

Part of the problem was (and still is, arguably) that I always felt like exposing parts of myself was (and still is) a mistake.  It’s the sense -- the imagined self-persecution -- that if I try and reach out to others, I’ll get rejected or shoved aside.  Why?  Because of the person I was, and/or the things I liked, I wasn’t allowed to be a part of anything.  “Oh, you like X?  You’re such a Y -- now get out of here!”  Or “What?  You don’t like Z?  Then what are you doing here with us Ws?”  If I was smart, I would’ve sought out like-minded individuals who I could bond with over mutual interest in X or V or BYOB, but…well, when have I ever said that I’m smart?


There were times when I felt alone, and hated, and incapable of being loved.  But art was there for me to help move past that, or at least offer a distraction from it.  These days, though?  And the days well before them?  The advent of the internet has helped me realize, and remember, that I’m not alone.  There are people out there that are willing to accept me, no matter what I like, or what I think, or what I say.  I’m not some detestable freak because I like Kamen Rider; I’m a fan who specializes in the Heisei era and knows a wealth of henshin poses by heart.  I’m not a loser because I like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure; I’m a watcher of the anime who understands with each new episode that there’s more to it than hyper-exposed memes.

And I’m not just some doofus who pisses away dozens of hours mashing his thumbs against buttons and staring at screens.  I mean, yeah, I do that with a keyboard and monitor, but when it comes to video games, there’s more to it than that.  I’m someone who can bear witness to the hard work of dozens, if not hundreds, of sweat-soaked workers.  Someone who can traverse virtual worlds and take in their aesthetics.  Someone who can greet all sorts of dazzling, stunning characters from all walks of life.  Someone who can perform dizzying feats of strength, intelligence, or courage with mere motions of the hand.  Someone who gets to see more, do more, be more.

I’m someone who gets to live through all of that.  And I’m not the only one.  Gamers can come together in an instant via online play to duke it out or fight together.  They don’t have to do it in person, but merely the fact that eSports are on the rise -- with humble events hosted by the fighting game community, or major tournaments that can draw the eye of major networks -- means that the outreach is real.  Sites like Destructoid, Eurogamer, USGamer, Siliconera, Gematsu, and more act as gathering grounds for information, interaction, and expression.  That’s ignoring the presence of places like Reddit, a fountain for media and the people who enjoy it.  It’s all made possible by art -- by the effect it has on us, and the bonds born because of it.  We’re impacted, and thus become intertwined. 

But is that enough anymore? 


My answer to that is yes.  Still, I’m not so naïve as to think ideals and well-wishes completely override reality.  Recent political events -- whose side you can easily guess had my vote -- have left a lot of people feeling scared, confused, depressed, or angry.  Maybe all of them.  Probably more.  From what I can gather, though, the anger is real, and spreading.  It doesn’t take much to guess what one person or group that anger is directed toward (and justifiably so), but it feels like it’s spilling all over the place.

The optimist in me would like to think that the anger is just something I’m imagining or blowing out of proportion -- like I’m only pulling from a couple of instances scattered across a couple of news outlets.  I’d say the realist in me knows better, but the realist has been rocking back and forth in a corner in the fetal position since early November.  I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t know if things are going to get better.  I’m inclined to believe that they will, because -- well, I’m the Eternal Optimist, and it’s kind of my thing.  With that said, I can’t believe things have gotten to this point.


Many, many, many, many, many issues are entangled in this situation, so just thinking about them leaves my brain in knots.  If you’re looking for straight answers or solutions as to why this happened, you’re asking the wrong guy.  In fact, what I’m about to write next may be as wrong as it gets -- but since things are already off the rails, I hope you’ll indulge a crazy theory for a moment.

Based on what I’ve read, there’s a lot of tension between dissenting groups right now.  Dissention, disagreements, mistrust, suspicion, derision, hatred, whatever you want to call it -- there are people out there who are loyal to certain ideas and comrades, but it’s at the expense of others.  It’s the self-persecution I fear, only it’s real and turned into a weapon by anyone with the fervor to wield it -- and when that happens, it just becomes straight-up persecution.  “Oh, you like X?  You’re such a Y -- now get out of here!”  “What?  You don’t like Z?  Then what are you doing here with us Ws?”  Or, alternatively: “You’re a Q, and I hate you.”


I’ve been lucky enough to dodge that stuff in my life…except for this one teacher in my middle school’s computer lab, who seemed to resent the existence of me, the one guy in there who actually did work on a regular basis.  But anyway, the point is that there are a lot of divides in our world, whether we like it or not.  How do you reverse that?  How do you reverse ironclad opinions, forged over the course of days, weeks, months, years, or even generations?  How do you change minds when people aren’t even remotely willing to listen?

One thing’s for sure: constantly shouting others down, or disrespecting their opinions, or persecuting them just ‘cause probably isn’t the best solution.  Push against others, and they’re likely to push back -- and that’s got to be the case if you’re questioning something they believe with all their hearts.  So maybe the solution isn’t to push.  Maybe it’s not about trying to break down their logic, or prove a point, or do them a service like some angel from on high.  Maybe the solution is to equalize everyone as much as possible with suggestions.  With ideas.  With art.


There’s a common saying in the writing world: “Show, don’t tell.”  Instead of telling an audience that it’s raining really hard, for example, there are techniques that can suggest, imply, or prove that it’s raining really hard -- and as a result, the overall execution becomes much more effective.  I’d imagine that mindset applies to more than just writing, but it also extends to our world at large.  Instead of telling people what they should believe in, good art can show them that there’s more to believe in.  No matter the medium, it can be a tool to show that there are more paths worth walking, and more ideals worth upholding.  Whether it’s to inspire us to be better people or espousing a worthwhile belief, art can be a better teacher than most teachers -- because you won’t even notice you’ve learned something until it’s much too late.

And failing that?  Even if art in its myriad forms doesn’t inspire someone to do a mental or spiritual U-turn, there’s still the basic, inherent benefit: it brings us together.  It becomes a fixture of our culture -- something that we can share and bond over.  Even if it’s abstract, even if it’s flippant, even if it’s as unreal as it gets, we need art in our lives to connect.  We can use it to leap over all sorts of boundaries; age, race, class, orientation, loyalty, occupation, religion, education, location, and more become far less rigid in the face of a story worthy of our time.  When something truly special -- or even something that’s at least “good enough”, in some cases -- touches down, we can put aside our differences.  The differences don’t even matter, because we’re pulled from our world into theirs.  We may have screens or pages between our worlds, but we’re all still pulled from our normal lives into something truly, routinely fantastic.


As someone who wants to be a writing hero -- as someone who’ll get there one day or die trying -- that’s what I choose to believe in.  Because I’ve been touched before by art, I want to do the same for others on the biggest scale possible.  But until that day comes, I know that there are countless other creators who are willing to make their strides -- if they haven’t already.  It’s true that not everything out there is a winner, but there’s still more than enough to give the people comfort.  Ideas.  Hope.  And, maybe most crucially, a haven.

There are a lot of things we have trouble agreeing on in this world.  That’s going to be true for a while yet.  But even if reality is cruel and seemingly incompatible with frivolities like “peace” and “love” and “tolerance”, we can still strive toward it on a personal level.  We can still bond over the things we love, and recognize that there are those who care passionately about the things we like and dislike.  We can walk away from art with fresh new perspectives, and pass them on to others -- and even if they aren’t realistic, or cheesy, or childish, they still matter.  Because of art, they can make the world a better place.

Because of art -- because of the bonds that unite us all -- we can make the world a better place.

Every last one of us.

All we need is drive.



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