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January 11, 2018

The 6th Anniversary Post: Do Stories Matter Anymore?

So is this just gonna be a thing now?  Me wanting to write about Kamen Rider, but getting waylaid by cultural juggernauts and entertainment industry shifts of infinitely greater weight?  Probably, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be salty about it.  How can I get people to like the things I like if I can’t shill the things I like?

…I mean, granted, the next post on Ex-Aid would inevitably have me tearing it several new ones.  But it was gonna be so much fun.  Alas, now I have to do this first.  Just as well, though; it’s the blog’s sixth anniversary, so I should write something special instead of the same old, same old.

Blame the Porgs.

I can’t help but think about Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  I still haven’t seen it, and the way things are going?  I probably won’t -- in theaters, at least.  But videos for it keep popping up in my “Recommended for You” slot on YouTube, and it’s typically the Red Letter Media take on it.  I’m tempted to rewatch it each time it shows up, but I’ve relented.  Is there any point in it?  I know their stance.  I know that there are people that like the movie, and people that hate it.  Will they ever be able to reconcile their differences?  Sure, but battle lines have been drawn, and I’d imagine that opinions won’t change too drastically from here on.

What I’m really interested in is the aftermath of The Last Jedi.  Disney, Lucasfilm, and the film crews (past, present, and future) have got to be keeping a pulse on the reactions to the movie.  If they’re really committed to keeping Star Wars alive, then they have to prove that their movies are worth the price of admission.  The Force Awakens was the start, but I’m guessing part of that came from the curiosity and novelty of it.  “Yo, there’s a new Star Wars movie!  Gotta see what’s up!”  Every movie going forward won’t have that luxury.  People are paying attention.  They’re demanding more, and won’t let anyone get away with doing the bare minimum or relying on cheap tricks.

Well, I say as much.  But I have an optimistic outlook on things.

The ones in power…uh…they, uh…don’t.

How much of a course correction does SW need in the wake of TLJ (and to a lesser extent Rogue One)?  That answer is probably going to vary from person to person.  But if we must be cynical about the situation -- and we probably should, because it also means being realistic -- then it probably won’t change much.  TFA made infinite dollars at the box office, with TLJ doing its best to creep up on it.  Is there a need to change when there’s so much money coming in?  Is there really, though?  I mean, who cares about customer satisfaction as long as you get paid and shareholders stay happy and well-fed?

Like I’ve said before, that’s the misfortune of the situation.  In order to judge the quality of a piece of art -- a video game, a book, a movie, and everything else in the entertainment industry -- you have to buy in.  Slap down cash to decide if a work is good or bad.  If you like something, then that’s cool; you can say you enjoyed a work, become a fan, and buy in next time something related to it comes out.  If you loathe something so much that your skeleton rattles out of your body from the sheer rage, then guess what?  You’re out of luck.  You still gave the work -- or rather, the creator/company behind it -- your money.  At a base level, they win as long as they get people to play the proverbial game.  And sure, they can and should course correct if fans had a violent reaction, because otherwise it means a lowered return of investment in the future.  But in terms of immediate, short-term benefits?  Grab ‘em early, grab their cash, and laugh as the dollars rain down.

That’s the system.  That’s how it’s always been -- but lately, it’s been getting easier and easier for me to resent it.  To be bitter.  To want the whole system to burn down.  What does it take to make a world-renowned work these days?  A strong creative vision?  Unrivaled technique and wisdom?  Unforgettable casts, worlds, and adventures?  NAH, SON.  NAH.  Imma break it down for ya.

1) Have a recognizable name.
2) Make it look good.  And new.  Especially new.
3) Play it safe.  Take no chances and play to audience expectations.
3) Marketing!

I’m not just picking on SW here.  This is an issue that’s not only well-worn territory, but also a problem that’s plagued the entertainment industry as a whole.  I mean, would you just look at the state of AAA gaming?  We’re still getting Call of Duty and Battlefield games because…hey, it’s a new one to buy.  Assassin’s Creed is at it again, even though it should’ve crawled under the bed and stayed there after Unity.  Actually, Ubisoft in general deserves a black spot next to its name, because even when it “tries” to do something new, it’s still borderline generic gruel that withers on the vine once the hype train peels out.  I know they have their fans, but when was the last time The Division and For Honor had a lasting impact on the gaming populace? 

That’s not even the worst of it.  How many remakes and reboots are we going to get, no matter how much they miss the point of -- and end up being inferior to -- the original?  (That’s a twofer, because video games and movies commit the same sins there.)  Like, would DmC have gotten anywhere -- besides unrelenting infamy and shame -- if it didn’t piggyback on the Devil May Cry name?  How long are companies going to coast on nostalgia and remnants of the past to lure people back in?  To me, Final Fantasy 15 is bland and inoffensive at best (which, paradoxically, makes it more offensive).  But it sold a bunch of copies because…hey, it’s a new Final Fantasy.  And now it’s being used as a vehicle for DLC with edits that A) actively transform the game into something else, and B) should have been in the game announced more than a decade ago.

The lurching behemoths in the entertainment industry are only gaining more rolls of fat on their misshapen, boil-riddled forms.  If not financially, then certainly spiritually; AAA gaming has been scampering to find new monetization methods for years now before they’re crushed under their own weight like beached whales.  (Ah, the schadenfreude of a self-inflicted hell.)  Hollywood is a goddamn mess for a litany of reasons, the lack of originality being one of themDon’t even get me started on anime.  And now things might get worse before they get better, because Disney’s buyout of 21st Century Fox means that it might as well own everything you know and/or love.

Look, I get it.  Works of fiction and entertainment are part of an industry.  They need to make money, because the people behind those works have to survive.  As do the companies that fund and produce the works; the price tag for making some of this stuff is enough to give a cheetah in its prime a heart attack.  But at some point, you have to say “Hey, I appreciate the money you put in and will get out of this venture, but do you think that maybe you could work on improving the quality of your work instead of just dumping more on us?  That’d be swell.  What?  What do you mean you’re sending in hired goons to break my kneecaps?  All I did was raise a legitimate compla-OW, MY KNEECAPS!”

And let’s be fair here: just because a company is big or powerful or money-grubbing doesn’t inherently mean they’ll put out trash or just want money.  Even if they expect a return of investment, the bigwigs put their faith in creators and teams that’ll do their product or license right.  It’s the reason why I’m still willing to put trust in and vouch for the Marvel movies.  They might as well be rolling down a conveyor belt at this point, but at least they’re solid films.  You can rely on them for good entertainment.  The MCU is one of the few umbrellas that’s getting superheroes right -- though to be fair, it’s not as if there are a ton of other umbrellas right now.

There might be a reason for that.

I like the Marvel movies, but there are caveats.  One: though I’d argue there’s at least an effort to try and mix things up with each successive movie, boy, the seams are starting to show the strainTwo: as much as I love superheroes (ask me about Kamen Rider, I dare you), I don’t want every movie I see to be about them or try and maintain that set-in-stone aesthetic.  More importantly?  Three: the line between “doing it for the art” and “doing it for the cash” is getting increasingly blurry, if it wasn’t already.  And it probably was -- so imagine what this means, coming from an admitted MCU fanboy/shill.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Baby Groot went from a one-off joke at the end of one movie to a main character in the sequel.  And by “probably” I mean “definitely”.

But the most damning part of all is that the MCU -- for all its efforts to at least try, or pretend to try, to produce good work -- is emblematic of the problem with…well, every major player in the entertainment industry.  It’s not just Disney and Marvel gunning for bank-busting paychecks; it seems like a huge number of players are doing their best to make money first.  Everything else -- including making a competent story -- is a distant second.   You’d think that a good story would come first, because it’s not as if you need a phalanx of computer animators to build a three-act plot.  Then again, I guess having common sense is why I don’t have a cocaine-spewing wind tunnel in my mansion in Malibu.

I mean, jeez.  How many people, studios, and companies are going to chase after the pot of gold until they realize the vast majority of them will run straight off of a cliff?  Remember when everybody was trying to copy Call of Duty, not realizing that it was unnecessary because people could just buy Call of Duty instead?  Remember when it seemed like everybody got cinematic universe fever, but to date only one of them has managed to survive (and the only other one is on life support)?  Remember when it seemed like we could get anything, in any genre, from anybody -- and now the potential’s been filed down to a nub for the sake of safe income for suits that will never, ever have to worry about landing on the streets?  Remember when stories were good?

Okay, that last one you can throw out.  It’s not as if we haven’t gotten shit -- of the money-grubbing, irreparably-flawed, or creatively-bankrupt type -- before.  It’s not as if we’ll suddenly stop getting shit, be it in the immediate present or the distant future, even if we enter some sort of utopian age.  There will always be products, works, pieces, and stories of varying quality.  Some will be good.  Some will be bad.  Some will be in the middle.  But in the current climate, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve reached a point where the actual quality of a work doesn’t matter strictly because of all the other factors that orbit it.  The name, the familiarity, the marketing, the bells and whistles, the slate of attributes, and everything in between -- have we reached a point where that takes precedence over what’s actually important to a work, especially if it’s narrative-driven?  Which, last I checked, was a metric crapton of them?  Have we reached a point where nothing matters except making sure people buy in immediately so executives can line their pockets with gold?

In a world where Star Wars will keep breaking box office records and get more sequels no matter what fans think, I have to ask: do stories matter anymore?

…Let me answer that for you.


I’m not just saying that as an optimist.  Remember: even if I act all high and mighty -- like the font of wisdom, delivered from the heavens -- I’m down here in the trenches with the rest of you.  I know that things can get pretty bad, and will continue to be bad in a lot of cases.  But let’s not pretend like there’s no light or goodness in the world.  There is.  Remember, as of writing we’re hot off the heels of 2017; that one year saw a deluge of games so massive that there are literally hundreds of hours of fresh content for anyone to endure and survive.  I speak from experience; between Tales of Berseria and Persona 5 alone, I clocked in about 177 hours.

Both of those games are amazing as hell -- yet they had to share the spotlight with plenty of other amazing releases in that year.  Arguably, they had to share the spotlight with plenty of other amazing releases in that quarter.  And you know what the common thread was between plenty of those games?  A slavish commitment to telling the best stories possible, either from a narrative angle or from the luxuries of the audiovisual medium.  To wit: Tales of Berseria came out more than a year ago.  Not only am I still thinking about it, but I’m fighting the urge to replay it ASAP.  That might be a battle I’m destined to lose.

Stories are going to stay important, no matter what the flow of money says.  EA notoriously declared that single-player games aren’t as popular or worthwhile as they used to be, and argued that there’s plenty of justification to pivot away from them for the sake of multiplayer focus.  Not only did gamers up and down the industry disagree (and passionately), but plenty of games in 2017 and beyond -- before and inevitably after -- proved otherwise.  You might not make as much money off of a one-off experience that demands a lot of work and talent, but at least you can maintain some semblance of artistic integrity.  At least you’ll be trying to do something more besides put paying customers on leashes and treadmills.

Yes, the world can seem cruel and unfair at times, especially when those with power and money can use that power and money to gain even more power and money.  That’s a fact of life that won’t change anytime soon.  If anything, it’ll get worse before it gets better; the landscape is in such a form that there are people out there -- the bigwigs who pull the strings, and the subservient audience willing to have their limbs tugged every which way -- who really do believe that stories don’t matter as long as they’re satisfied on a shallow, base level.  “Well, as long as we do X, Y, and Z with our product, we’ll succeed.  We can iron out the -- pfft -- quality later.”  Or “I don’t care about any of that nerd shit.  I just wanna see A, B, and C.”  They’re out there.  But so are the heroes.  So are the ones with the courage and skill to realize their visions -- and those who welcome new, bold art with open arms.

Do stories still matter anymore?  Yes -- simply because they’re stories.  They never stopped mattering, nor will they ever stop mattering.  It’s about more than just baseline entertainment value.  It’s about giving the people incredible characters, locales, and journeys that’ll prove infinitely more precious than money.  It’s as important to the human race as eating, sleeping, and breathing.  Whether it’s the dawn of recorded history, oral traditions, or just drawings of animals on cave walls, storytelling has been an endemic, intrinsic part of who we are.  Why should that stop just because of a couple of franchises and companies?

The correct answer is that it shouldn’t.  And it won’t.  Yes, we’re going to have to endure a lot.  Yes, the rich will probably only get richer, and in ways that are sure to have us tearing out every last strand of hair.  But it’s not over, damn it.  Stories will only stop mattering when we as a collective society make them stop mattering -- and that’s not going to happen.  The outcries against EA have proven that.  The onslaught of great single player games throughout 2017 has proven that.  The differences of opinion on TLJ have proven that.  The course correction for the DC Extended Universe has proven that.  The widespread disdain for the Transformers movies has proven that.  There aren’t just faceless corporations pumping slurry into the trough.  There aren’t just unwashed masses ramming their faces into piles of slop.  There are heroes on all sides.  And as long as we have heroes, we’ll have more than stories.

We’ll always have hope.  Always.

Here’s to a new year.  Let’s make it the best yet.

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