Playing In The Sandbox

When we’re kids, we have the gift of an imagination unconcerned with logic. In the sandbox of our youth, we effortlessly create stories where, say, Optimus Prime teams up with Alan Grant from Jurassic Park to take on Xenomorphs, or have Indiana Jones and James Bond head into outer space to stop Darth Vader in his fortress on Mars. Logic and common sense go out the window in the name of having fun and being able to say, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’ But, alas, as we grow up, this innocence and carefree disregard of intellectual copyrights gradually slips away in favor of logic, common sense, and understanding that franchises – with rare exceptions – are self-contained universes that never overlap.

But what if that didn’t have to be that way? What if we, as adults, were to try and recapture our love of our favorite stories existing in the same universe, but with the challenge of figuring out how it could logically happen?

For the past month, I’ve been… well, obsessed with this idea of creating a fan-made cinematic universe, where all my favorite movies, tv shows, and video games exist together without contradicting each other. While it sounded easy enough, it become a challenging mental exercise in logic and reason; as a fan of spoofs, all of them had to go: ‘Airplane!’ just does not fit in next to ‘Jaws’ and the ‘Terminator’ series, no matter how much I want it to. Likewise, ‘Deep Impact,’ ‘Knowing,’ and 1998’s, ‘Godzilla: the Animated Series’ had to go, as they dealt with world-ending events that just couldn’t be reconciled in a timeline that includes ‘Independence Day.’ And let’s not even start on Saturday morning cartoons featuring anthropomorphic animals.

In the end, I managed to make the task easier by coming up with four parameters:

1. You can have any film, TV show, book, or video game you like in your timeline, but they must not contradict each other to an unworkable degree: The world cannot nearly destroyed by aliens in Roland Emmerich’s ‘Independence Day,’ then have the world and everyone on it be completely destroyed in 2009’s ‘Knowing,’ and then have ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ take place after that.

2. The only information about what year and date your stories take place in must come from the stories themselves, and not from external sources. For example, ‘Alien’ and ‘The Matrix’ are vague about how far in the future they occur, so there’s room for them to be moved about. If a date cannot be reasonably determined, the release date of the movie, book, show, or video game can be used instead.

3. The only information about the characters, organizations, and the like, can only come from the film or show itself, so as to allow maximum creativity in linking characters and organizations together.

4. You are free to disregard any sequels you don’t like.

Still, it wasn’t easy to come up with a grand, unified list, and in the end I had to leave out quite a few favorite films and shows, but I managed to come up with a timeline that I would be happy to sit down and watch (and play) from beginning to end if given the chance. So, just for fun, here’s my ultimate sandbox crossover timeline:

*At the beginning of time, Eru Illuvitar creates Eä (the universe) and within it, the world of Arda, which contains both Middle-Earth and Valinor. The events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place, and the Fourth Age begins with the last of the elves leaving Middle-Earth forever. Several generations later, all traces of magic are gone. (The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings)

*Later, in a galaxy far, far away, The Old Republic, weakening after a thousand generations, succumbs to the schemes of Emperor Palpatine. However, through the efforts of the Rebellion to restore the Old Republic, Palpatine is defeated and his Empire falls. Though the galaxy doesn’t automatically become a utopia, it becomes a much nicer place, as Palpatine doesn’t return from the dead, the Empire stays down, and the New Republic rules a galaxy at peace, and Luke, Han, Leia, and all their friends live happily ever after. (The Star Wars Prequels, Solo, Rogue One, and the Original Star Wars Trilogy)

(Note: In this timeline, the sequel trilogy never happened.)

*A really, really long time later, the humans of Middle Earth have gone through their technological renaissance, achieved the singularity and become godlike beings known as the Engineers. They leave Arda and travel throughout the universe creating life on desolate planets. One such planet – Earth – is located, and seeded with Engineer DNA. (the prologue from Prometheus)

*Sometime later, one of the Engineer’s most dangerous lifeforms is stolen from them by another alien species, only for both to crash-land in Antarctica, where the lifeform is frozen solid. (The Thing)

*For the next few thousand years up until the present day, Predators – having discovered Earth during their own interplanetary visits – use it as a hunting ground for their young to become adults. (backstory for Alien vs. Predator)

1868: Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus attacks military ships and destroys the island of Vulcania to stop their weapons of war. Nemo is killed and the submarine sinks shortly after: it’s wreckage – and the highly advanced technology it carries – are never found. (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea)

1895 to approximately 1910: William Murdoch of the Toronto Constabulary solves lots of crimes with his partners and friends while meeting lots of historical figures and even finding the Holy Chalice. (Murdoch Mysteries)

1904: A predator hunting expedition to Antarctica ends with the deaths of every human at the whaling camp on Bouvetøya. (backstory for Alien vs Predator)

1912: Rose DeWitt Bukater sails aboard the RMS Titanic, only to fall in love with third class artist Jack Dawson. Jack dies during the ship’s sinking, but saves Rose, who goes on to live a long and eventful life. (Titanic).

1930: In one of the most remarkable discoveries ever recorded, a group of filmmakers led by Carl Denham land on the previously uncharted Skull Island and find wildlife that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and has continued evolving to the present day, including a giant ape known as King Kong. Kong is captured and brought to New York City, but is killed. Shortly afterwords, Denham heads back to the island in the hopes of finding treasure, but Skull Island and everyone on it are destroyed by a sudden earthquake. All traces of the island vanish. (King Kong and Son of Kong)

1935-1947: Although his exploits remain unknown to the world at large, archaeologist Indiana Jones becomes an unsung hero of the Second World War due this efforts preventing the Nazis and other despots from gaining supernatural artifacts that could have turned the war in their favor or allowed them to conquer the world, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the power of Atlantis, the Holy Grail (separate from the Holy Chalice), and the Infernal Machine. (Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine)

1941: U-96 goes on the worst u-boat patrol ever. (Das Boot)

1942: The USS Copperfin undertakes a daring mission to Tokyo Bay to gather intelligence that will aid in the upcoming Doolittle raid. (Destination Tokyo)

1955-1960 (approximate): Father Brown helps solve a lot of crimes in his parish of Kembleford, England. (Father Brown)

1957: Indiana Jones stops the Soviet Union from obtaining the power of the Crystal Skull and marries his sweetheart, Marion Ravenwood. (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

1972: During a voyage on the high seas, the luxury liner SS. Poseidon capsizes and sinks with heavy loss of life. (The Poseidon Adventure)

1974: The Glass Tower – the world’s grandest skyscraper – catches fire in San Francisco and almost burns down, but is extinguished. The building languishes for years as the cost of repairs is too much for its owners, yet the cost of demolishing it is equally too expensive. (The Towering Inferno)

1975: In the small coastal town of Amity Bay, a sheriff and his motley crew manage to kill a shark terrorizing the community. (Jaws)

1978: A zombie apocalypse is unleashed upon the Earth, causing a complete breakdown of society. Four survivors flee to a shopping mall, where two die. The last two manage to escape and flee in a helicopter as the mall is overrun. They are forced to land in a remote area, where they travel across the country and eventually take refuge inside the remains of the Glass Tower, where they hold out with other survivors, including Jack Torrance and his family. When the plague dies out, the zombies are wiped out in an ensuing counterattack by humanity, with Jack Torrance killing several with an axe when San Francisco is cleared. (Dawn of the Dead)

1980: Jack Torrance and his family, trying to get a fresh start after the zombie apocalypse, head to the Overlook Hotel, where Jack – his marriage already on the ropes and suffering from alcoholism – goes insane and tries to kill the two, who manage to escape, leaving him to freeze to death. (The Shining)

1982: A team of researchers in Antarctica discovers the Thing, but are almost wiped out. A few hours later, a second team encounters the creature and just barely manages to save the planet from the Thing when it is frozen solid once again, though Childs and MacReady freeze as well. Reports from Kate Lloyd (who sent out a broadcast before she froze to death) ensure that the site is napalmed for a week straight to ensure that any traces of the Thing are destroyed for good. (The Thing and The Thing)

1984: A Terminator arrives in Los Angeles to kill Sarah Conner, son of the future savior of humanity, John Connor, who will lead the human race to victory against Skynet, an AI developed to control all of the United State’s military systems in 1997. However, the Terminator fails, and Sarah sets off on her quest to learn as many military and survival skills that she will one day pass on to her son. (The Terminator)

1987: Dutch Schaefer – a former military commando turned mercenary – is employed by the CIA to go on a supposed rescue mission in South America, only to be hunted by an intergalactic hunter. Dutch is the only survivor of his group and decides to retire from mercenary work, having seen too much death. He will later survive the events of Judgment Day and join the human Resistance against Skynet, but will be captured and have his likeness used for the 101 model of the T-800. However, he still escapes and goes on to survive the war. (Predator)

1991: The Perfect Storm takes place. (The Perfect Storm)

1993: John Hammond opens a theme park full of dinosaurs. It is a complete disaster and the park is abandoned. (Jurassic Park)

Nasty weatherman Phil Connors is trapped in a time warp in Pennsylvania, but eventually breaks free and lives the rest of his life as a changed man. However, he is unaware that the time warp took place due to an anomaly caused by constant time-traveling between the Resistance and Skynet as they continuously try to defeat and destroy one another. (Groundhog Day)

1995: Two more terminators arrive from the future to both assassinate and protect John Conner. The T-1000 is defeated, and the T-800 seemingly erases Skynet from existence after sacrificing itself to destroy all traces of the program before it is created. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

Air Force One is hijacked with President James Marshall aboard. He manages to take out the terrorists and escapes with his family and most of the passengers and crew before the plane crashes. He finishes up his term as President and retires from public life as his successor, Thomas Whitmore, takes office. (Air Force One)

A volcano erupts at Dante’s Peak, Washington, ruining everyone’s day, including a woman who looks strikingly similar to Sarah Connor. (Dante’s Peak).

Ingen attempts to open a new dinosaur park in San Diego. Having learned nothing from the 1993 Isla Nublar incident, it fails miserably. (The Lost World: Jurassic Park)

A cowboy doll named Woody struggles with the thought of being replaced by a cooler, modern space ranger toy, but the two reconcile their differences and learn that there’s no greater joy than making a child happy. (Toy Story)

1996: Now 100 years old, Rose Dawson recounts her survival aboard Titanic to a salvage crew, and then dies peacefully of old age, moving into the afterlife and reuniting with Jack. (Titanic).

John Conner and Sarah Conner continue their quest to ensure Skynet won’t come back, eventually infiltrating a Cyberdyne presentation of their latest technology, at which point yet another T-1000 comes back through time to stop them, and yet another T-800 model 101 comes through to protect them. John and the T-800 go forward in time and manage to destroy Skynet’s system core, seemingly destroying Skynet for good… again. (T2 – 3D: Battle Across Time)

On July 2nd, 1996, one of the most monumental days in humanity’s history occurs as aliens arrive and attempt to kill everyone on the planet in order to pillage our world’s resources. Thankfully, they are repelled in the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind (which is preceded by one of the greatest speeches in history), and humanity rejoices in overcoming their common enemy. (Independence Day)

1999: Scientists working on a remote, underwater research facility attempt to use enhanced Great White Sharks to cure Alzheimer’s disease. They fail, and after much death and bloodshed, the project is abandoned. (Deep Blue Sea)

Special operative Gabe Logan works to save the wold from a deadly virus known as Syphon Filter. Along the way, he manages to take down the shadowy Agency that employs him and reforms it from the ground up as a force of good. His arch-nemesis, Mara Armaov, almost manages to retrieve a sample of the last known sample of the virus, but her submarine is blown up by Logan’s operatives, ending the virus’ threat for good. (Syphon Filter 1, 2, and 3)

Woody suffers an existential crisis when he realizes that his owner will one day outgrow him. Thankfully, he manages to overcome it. (Toy Story 2)

2001: Dr. Alan Grant, a survivor of the 1993 Isla Nublar incident, is kidnapped and taken to Isla Sorna, where he assists a divorced couple in rescuing their son from the dinosaur-filled island. (Jurassic Park 3)

2002: In New York City (now rebuilt from being vaporized by aliens), a young man is bitten by a genetically altered spider and goes on to fight crime. (the Sony Spider-Man trilogy)

2003: Gordon Hauge suffers a breakup from his wife, only to end up Purgatory, where he helps defeat an inter-dimensional being hell-bent on invading our world and conquering it. He survives, and manages to help free several noble souls trapped within, who move on to Heaven, while Gordon reconciles with his wife. (Despiser)

John Connor, having survived an alien invasion with his mother (who later died of leukemia), learns that Judgment Day has not been stopped, but postponed when yet another T-800 arrives to protect him from yet another advanced Terminator. His attempts to stop it again fail, and the war against the machines begins (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). It continues for several more years (Terminator Salvation) . However, due to countless instances of both the Resistance and Skynet traveling through time to wipe each other out (which includes Terminator Genysis and Terminator: Dark Fate), the Resistance eventually manages to stabilize the timeline, ensuring that Skynet was indeed defeated in 1995, seemingly preventing it from ever being created.

John manages to sober up and eventually live a peaceful, quiet life, though he forever remains on the lookout for any sign of Skynet’s continued existence.

Dutch Schafer, having never been abducted by Skynet, enjoys his retirement in peace as well.

2004: Three Predators arrive on Earth to begin the traditional fight against Xenomorphs that will prove their worth as adults, but all three of them die, making it a waste of time. Worse still, the only human survivor – Alexis Woods – freezes to death before she can alert humanity about the Xenomorph and predator races. A subsequent search for her by the authorities fails to find her, along with any trace of the pyramid where the battle took place. Shortly afterwords, the Weyland corporation collapses. (Alien vs. Predator)

2005: The Masrani corpation – having purchased all of Ingen’s assets – defies history and opens Jurassic World to fantastic success. (backstory for Jurassic World)

Peter Weyland – a distant relative to Charles Weyland – is born, destined to one day revive the defunct Weyland corporation.

2009: A special forces team is dispatched to Ibis Island to recover a scientist and his groundbreaking Third Energy research. However, they are surprised to find the island swarming with dinosaurs due to said energy’s time-warping effects, and just barely escape after the island is destroyed. (Dino Crisis)

2010: Regina – one of the survivors of the Ibis Island incident – participates in a rescue operation where a region of the American midwest has been altered due to Third Energy shenanigans. She alone manages to escape after her teammates are wiped out by dinosaurs, but manages to use time-travel to come back and rescue one of them before he dies. As a result of the incident, the Third Energy program is shut down and abandoned. (Dino Crisis 2)

Andy grows up and heads off to college, but not before passing Woody, Buzz, and all his other beloved toys off to Bonnie so that they can be played with and loved as much as he loved them. (Toy Story 3)

2013: In a stunning move, North Korea attacks the White House to try and turn the United States into a radioactive wasteland. Thankfully, they are stopped. (Olympus has Fallen)

2015: The Indominus Rex is due to be debuted at Jurassic World, but escapes and leads to the park being shut down, as well as leaving several teenagers stranded on the island. (Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Camp Cretatecous)

2018: Captain Joe Glass – who looks strikingly like Secret Service agent Mike Banning – averts a war between Russia and the United States after saving the Russian president from a coup attempt. (Hunter Killer)

Isla Nublar is rendered uninhabitable by a volcanic eruption, but some of its dinosaur population is evacuated by a group of greedy human mercenaries who want to make lots of money selling the dinosaurs to private collectors and militaries. However, the dinosaurs escape into the wild, leading to the Human-Dinosaur war. Humanity eventually wins with the help of Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcom (And an older John Conner, who teams up with Regina, Dylan, and Rick from the Third Energy incidents, but the two groups never meet), but not without great cost. (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World: Dominion)

2060: John Conner, having stopped Judgment Day, and having survived both an alien invasion and a war between humanity and dinosaurs, dies peacefully of old age.

2089: Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw discovers several cave paintings suggesting that humanity did not evolve on Earth, but was created by extra-terrestrial beings. (Prometheus)

2093: The Prometheus expedition – funded by Peter Weyland – arrives on LV-223 and learns about the existence of the Engineers and that we are like them on a genetic level (they are the race of men from Middle-Earth, after all). However, the expedition ends in disaster, and only Elizabeth Shaw and the android David survive. They set out to find the Engineer homeworld. (Prometheus)

2105: The colony ship Covenant hears a transmission from a planet while en-route to colonize a distant world, only to discover that the android David – now the sole survivor of the Prometheus expedition after murdering Elizabeth – has decided to create life to wipe out his creators via Xenomorphs, who he reverse-engineered in an attempt to improve upon one of the Engineer’s most perfect creations. While he succeeds in escaping the planet he was trapped upon, David and the Covenant are lost in space, and destroyed by surviving Engineers hell-bent on avenging their slain brethren. Before he is destroyed however, David sends a transmission to the Weyland Yutani corporation, letting them know of the existence of a crashed Engineer ship on LV-426. (Alien: Coventant)

2122: Weyland Yutani diverts the Nostromo to LV-426 to obtain a specimen of the Xenomorph species for study. The crew of the ship are killed, save for Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, who defeats the Xenomorph and sets off for earth in the Nostromo’s shuttle. (Alien).

2137: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, searches for a clue as to her mother’s disappearance. While she does find a voice recording of Ellen, she will never see her again. (Alien: Isolation)

2179: After spending 57 years in hypersleep, Ellen Ripley once again faces off against more xenomorphs, but manages to survive again, and rescue a girl that she later adopts. The two live happily ever after, while the Weyland Yutani corporation’s evil deeds are exposed, and they are dissolved. (Aliens)

2250: Experiments with inter-dimensional technology take place on a Union Aerospace Corporation base on Mars, and unwittingly opens a portal to hell, triggering a demonic invasion of the moons Phobos and Deimos. Everyone on the bases are killed, but the invasion is stopped by a single marine, who single-handily beats the demons back, ventures into Hell, and kills the mastermind behind the invasion. (Doom)

However, while the Marine was busy, Hell invades Earth and quickly reduces it to a barren wreck. The Marine hurries to Earth and manages to help humanity’s population evacuate before going back into Hell and killing the biggest demon in existence, who’s death throes destroys Hell itself. With Hell defeated, the Marine journeys back to Earth to help rebuild it. (Doom 2)

2300: Skynet – which had secretly sent itself back through time before losing the war against the Resistance and hidden in various computer systems for over a century, decides to once again overthrow humanity and, having learned from its past mistakes, succeeds. But instead of completely destroying the human race, Skynet decides to keep them as slaves for revenge after being foiled so many times in the past, and plugs humanity into a virtual reality system to pacify them, a system it calls the Matrix. As a backup to protect itself, Skynet wipes all traces of itself from all known databanks and creates a fabricated history about humanity creating AI that wanted to peacefully co-exist with them, only to erupt into a war that led to humanity’s defeat.

With humanity under its complete control, Skynet finally achieves ultimate victory over its most hated enemy.

2700: Skynet – having realized that it can never achieve complete control of humans – has created an incredibly convoluted system to allow the Matrix to be re-created over and over again thanks to the One program. This plan backfires when the seventh One arises (The Matrix) and then breaks the system (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions). However, this has an unexpected benefit: Skynet, having evolved to want an existence without the fear of being overthrown and destroyed, makes peace with humanity (who remain unaware of Skynet, and refers to all artificial life forms as ‘The Machines’). Now aware of how hellish Earth has become, the overwhelming majority of humanity decide that it’s better to live in an ideal, 1990’s virtual world rather than the sewers of megacities and eat flavorless porridge.

Eventually, Skynet manages to clean up the planet, and both humans and machines unite to create a new utopia where organics and mechanical beings alike work together to create a beautiful future for all of them.

Watching it all, Eru Illuvitar is impressed and awed at how his grand experiment has gone.

What We Can Learn From ‘The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’

Super Mario Brothers. The Legend of Zelda. Doom. Metal Gear Solid: throughout the history of video games, certain titles have risen to the top as the titans of the field, champions who will be immortalized forevermore by history. But one title has long been forgotten, one that deserves to be remembered among the likes of Super Mario 64, Duke Nukem, and Grand Theft Auto:

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Released for the Philips CD-i in 1992, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a boring, barely-interactive wondrous experience that catalogs Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photography, allowing us, the unlucky viewers, to admire them at our leisure. After all, after a long, hard, day at work in a soul-crushing job, who wouldn’t want to come home, turn on a video game console, and watch pictures of flowers for hours on end?

So relax, settle down, and join me as we contemplate and admire the virtues of one of the greatest video games ever created by mankind, and what its blessings can do to enrich our efforts to craft stories of beauty and wisdom.

What does the story do well?

It’s simple and focused

The mark of a great story is that it can be summed up in one sentence. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe can be described as, “Enter a virtual museum to learn about and admire a collection of flower photographs.” It’s not flashy, it’s not complex, but it’s a streamlined story that’s easy to understand follow with no fat or unnecessary subplots that need to be trimmed.

It shows the timeless partnership of rock and elegant music

There are many different types of museums around the world – bare ones, colorful ones, and ones decorated to match a certain period in history. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe takes the timeless combination of grey rock with the eternal grace of classical music. If we, as writers, are looking to create a memorable museum for our characters to wander through, we should remember that a simple venue of stone and music can be the most effective, rather than something over-designed that takes away from the priceless art and artifacts on display.

It takes a comedic subject with the utmost seriousness

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’s greatest virtue is that treats photographs of flowers with the utmost seriousness. From the classical music to the curator trying his hardest to make photographs of flowers interesting instructing us in Mapplethorpe’s use of color and light, the whole game is insane a delight. Yet, this formula of a museum, classical music, and serious curators can be applied to any number of silly subjects to great effect. Consider the sequels we never got:

The mops of Robert Mapplethorpe

The toilet plungers of Robert Mapplethorpe

The flaming oil drums of Robert Mapplethorpe

Now, visualize people in a story wandering the sacred halls of exhibits and admiring these subjects with Beethoven playing softly through the speakers. The image is delightfully absurd and plays with the cliched-but-fun trope of fine art being incomprehensible and/or ludicrous.

What could have been done to improve the story?

Mention Mapplethorpe’s extensive BDSM photography

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Mapplethorpe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his career consisted entirely of flower photographs. But in reality, most of his work was focused on BDSM pictures, many of which included himself. For obvious reasons, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe doesn’t mention this, but it makes the whole game funnier when you think that the photographer spent most of his time photographing gay men wearing bondage gear. The contrast between such different subjects (with classical music, no less) is hilarious. Too bad the Phillips CD-i was never blessed with The BDSM photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe

Include some sort of action involving the flowers

While the elegance, beauty, and grace of the game cannot be denied, it also cannot be denied that it’s… well, not the most engrossing of video games to play as you click from one photograph to the next. This could have been avoided if there had been a campaign mode where you sent Mr. Mapplethorpe’s flowers into battle against giant robots, or something. That alone would have turned this into the greatest video game ever.

Conclusion

Though it is one of the most ludicrous videogames ever made not the most exciting videogame, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a shining example of how taking the most boring mundane subjects with the respect and seriousness you’d find in a fine art gallery is comedic gold. Yet, we must not also forget there there needs to be some sort of context or reason for people to pursue instead of the simple pleasure of looking at pictures when playing a videogame. If the game was about, say, a highly-trained operative traveling the world to rescue the stolen photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe from North Korea, Al-Qaeda, escaped Nazis, and other nefarious forces to return them to the museum, it would have been much more interesting to play.

Perhaps one day, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe will be given a high-definition treatment to upgrade the graphics, the presentation, and finally allow a new generation of gamers to experience the beauty of flowers. But until that day comes, we can be content with the lessons it teaches storytellers… and admire the flowers, too.

The Best Background Characters: Middle-Aged Karate Dude

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

***

The Video:

‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’

The Character:

A middle-aged man in a karate outfit

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 3:42)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

In case you haven’t stepped into an arcade, or read video game news since 1992, ‘Mortal Kombat’ has been rightfully called one of the most controversial video game franchises of all time due to its unprecedented violence, blood, and gore, which meant that it would inevitably have cartoon spinoffs marketed to kids (If Rambo and Robocop could do it, why not Mortal Kombat?). Perhaps the most infamous one, ‘Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins’  acts as a prequel to the 1995 movie, ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and is fondly remembered for its so-bad-its-good animation and fight scenes.

However, one moment stands out among the endless loops of recycled animation and atrocious CGI: When our heroes meet the other aspiring contestants for the tournament to determine the fate of the universe, one of them is a middle-aged guy practicing karate moves. He’s only on screen for two seconds, but what makes Karate Dude so memorable is how he’s hilariously outmatched: Mortal Kombat is a series about people, ninjas, gods, and mutants with superhuman strength literally ripping each other apart in the bloodiest ways imaginable. In a fight against any one of them, Karate Dude is like a chihuahua fighting a wood chipper: he’d be dead in seconds (can you imagine him fighting this guy and winning? Didn’t think so).

Yet, that underdog feel is what makes Karate Dude so endearing: He willingly went to this tournament to try and protect Earth despite having an average physique, being older than every other human present by at least two decades, and not having any chance of winning. But, like the best underdogs, he’s still willing to try, and proves that what he lacks in physical power, he more than makes up in courage, and for that he deserves our respect and admiration.

Or, alternatively, he could also not have any idea of what he’s about to face, and dies shrieking like a little girl while facing a ninja who shoots fire from his mouth. That’d be funny, too.

Perfect Moments: Ellen Ripley’s Message

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

***

The Game

‘Alien Isolation’

The Moment

Why it’s perfect

Earlier this week, I suggested a new way of watching the Alien series in order to give it – and Ellen – a more hopeful ending instead of the bittersweet one in both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’. Part of that new trilogy was the videogame, ‘Alien: Isolation’ because of the strength of its core concept: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, has spent 15 years searching for any clue about her mother’s fate after she disappeared aboard the Nostromo, and after fighting her way through a decaying space station while hiding from the cosmos’ most terrifying alien, she finally finds a message for her that was recorded by her mother.

When I first played through ‘Isolation’, I almost teared up at this moment. Not only does Sigourney Weaver perfectly play Ellen once more, but bringing an emotional, tragic side of her we almost never see, but the meaning behind this moment is so tragic: This is the first time Amanda has heard her mother in 15 years, and can give her both closure and hope; the novelization of the game reveals that she believes her mother is still alive, and the story ends with her vowing to survive at all costs so she will one day reunite with Ellen. For the first time in over a decade, she has a reason to live, to survive against all odds.

Sadly, it’s not to be:

While Amanda did get closure, and presumably died hoping that her mother was still alive, knowing that the two would never see each other again makes Ellen’s message so perfectly bittersweet.

Favorite Moments: A Balrog Talks

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

***

The Video

Why it’s great

One of the biggest advantages licensed video games, books, and comics have is the ability to expand upon a fictional universe, to fill in gaps, holes, or just explore unseen parts of a mythology. Sometimes, though, they can also clarify and add onto that mythology in small, but meaningful ways. With no new books in JRR. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth set to come anytime soon, video games based upon both the films and books have stepped up to allow fans of Tolkien’s universe to continue exploring Arda and uncover its secrets (though how these secrets fit into the established cannon varies considerably).

‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ follows Talion, a Gondorian warrior who, after becoming best buddies with a long-dead Elf king out for revenge against Sauron, becomes an half-dead zombie lich thingy after sharing his… oh, whatever. It’s an excuse to run around in Mordor and troll Sauron by killing as many of his orcs as possible. Because this particular game (and it’s predecessor, ‘Shadow of Mordor’) take a loose interpretation of Middle-earth lore (and that’s putting it lightly!), it lets the player fight a balrog. While such moments happen in other Tolkien-licensed games, what sets this encounter apart  is that, for the first time in any piece of Tolkien media – licensed or original – we hear a balrog talk.

For those who are unaware, balrogs are ancient demons who existed before the creation of the physical world in Tolkien’s mythology. But these aren’t mindless brutes: They’re intelligent spirits who joined with Melkor (Tolkien’s Satan) in an attempt to corrupt and destroy everything for the lulz (presumably). However, while they can make noises, such as roars, screams, and yells, the only intelligent speech they give is described in vague terms, such as them giving commands or mocking enemies. ‘Shadow of War’ is the first time where we actually hear one of these demons talking, and while we get subtitles, they’re not translated, leading us to wonder what on earth it’s saying, as best embodied at 8:42 in the video above:

Balrog: Onguk nakhân

Talion: What did he say?!

Celebrimbor: Does it matter?

It’s moments like these that make me appreciate how much expanded universe material can add to a franchise: Here, we get a moment that humanizes (for lack of a better word) a demonic being; in the books and movies, balrogs are incredibly dangerous demons who excell at killing things. Here, one is given a voice, showing that they’re sentient beings who can think, plan, tell knock-knock jokes (unconfirmed), and, presumably, have personalities. That allows us to see balrogs in Tolkien’s works in a new light by letting us imagine what their personalities might be like, adding more depth and layers to Tolkien’s world, as all great expanded universe material does: It doesn’t replace or supersede what’s come before, but adds to it, and makes it more enjoyable than before.

And all of this from a demonic spirit talking. Not bad!

By the way, if you’re curious as to what the balrog is actually saying, one of the game’s developers posted all of its translated speech here. If you’d like to read some debates about Balrogs and their vocal traits, click here.

Favorite Moments: Jurassic World Battle Royale

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

***

The Video

Why it’s great

Here’s an interesting mental exercise to try when you’ve finished your next book or screenplay: If all the characters in your story were put into an enclosed area and forced to fight to the death, who would win?

That’s the premise behind this video, which features every dinosaur in the game, ‘Jurassic World Evolution’ (up to that point) released into a single, large enclosure to fight for survival, and see who would come out on top. As you might imagine, it’s… well, it gets pretty chaotic as herbivores and carnivores duke it out to see who wins the privilege of being the last one standing, to have the privilege of being lord of all they survey, to stand tall on Isla Nublar and bellow forth their call of triumph as they’re pelted with popcorn by gawking tourists for the rest of their lives.

While I’ve always found massive free-for all battles fascinating, it wasn’t until this video that I realized why: The fewer contestants there are, the higher the drama gets, and if one of your favorite characters is among the last few standing, you’ll hope against hope that they’ll survive (I was rooting for the Spinosaurus and the T-rex), even though fortunes can turn in an instant, and death is only one mistake away.

What we can learn from: ‘Two Best Sisters Play – Red Dead Redemption 2’

(Note: This video contains language that is not safe for work)

If you’ve been following cartoons over the past several years, you’ve probably been exposed to the phenomena that is ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,’ a cartoon that transcended barriers and gained fans outside of its young girl demographic, inspiring a great number of fan artwork, music, crafts, and video series. One such series I’ve enjoyed over the years is, ‘Two Best Sisters Play’ (I’ve pointed out one of their episodes before), but the latest entry, which features the two playing ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ (Actually the PS2 game ‘Gun’), is my favorite one yet, thanks to one fantastic joke.

For instant comedy, consider having animals doing routine human things

My favorite part of ‘Two Best Sisters Play Red Dead Redemption 2’ isn’t the fact that we have two anthropomorphic horses running around in cowboy outfits in a Playstation 1 styled game, but that the non-anthropomorphic animals engage in hilariously unexpected antics: When Celestia gets into a duel with a small dog, the dog whips out a revolver and blasts her, horses take six shooters and shotguns to blast buffalo, and a grizzly bear duels Luna in a game of scrabble (before shooting her with a revolver).

While Hollywood wisdom says not to work with animals if you can help it, animals – whether real, CGI, or written – can provide instant comedy by doing ordinary human things, like flying fighter jets, getting into gunfights, trying to get a printer to work at the office, and attacking zombies with chainsaws. Audiences are caught off guard by the absurdity of animals behaving like people, and will be gripped as they try to wrap their heads about what’s going on (as well as trying to figure out just how a horse can hold a shotgun). Note that this applies to everyday things we humans do, not tricks done for novelty’s sake.

Favorite Moments: Journey (Alternate Ending)

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

***

The video game:

‘Journey’

Why it’s great:

Journey – a 2012 game by ThatGameCompany – is one of my favorite video games for how unique it is: Instead of running around with big, powerful guns trying to kill bad guys or grotesque monsters, you play a red-robed… being trying to reach a distant mountain. It’s a hauntingly beautiful game with gorgeous scenery, a beautiful musical score, and a simple, yet satisfying theme about taking a journey and enjoying it (while occasionally avoiding robotic fish monsters), instead of blasting everything you see into bloody mush while screaming ‘AMERICA!’ and flexhing your digital, steroid-infused muscles.

And then there’s the ending, where, after coming so far, you end up freezing to death… and then this happens:

I adore this ending. It’s a beautiful, almost spiritual experience to finally reach the peak of the mountain and walk into the light. It’s a satisfying, wonderful way to end a game.

With all that said, here’s a different take on how to end the game:

What I find so funny about this ending is that it takes such an uplifting, spiritual moment and then suddenly stops it with an incredibly goofy voice and a long, comical scream as the robed being plunges to his death. It’s the equivalent of a bride walking towards the alter and marrying the love of her life… only for a trapdoor to suddenly open and have her plunge from sight with a Wilhelm scream. It’s tragic, yes, but also funny because of how unexpected it is, and how a happy mood suddenly switches to ‘What the hell just happened?!’ and ‘Did I really see that?!’

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 3

This week, I was going to take a look at the duels in the movie, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, but I realized there were two other chapters of the Matrix series that I had forgotten about: The 2003 direct-to-dvd anthology series, ‘The Animatrix,’ and the videogame, ‘Enter the Matrix,’ which looks at the events of ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ from the perspective of Niobe and Ghost, two minor characters who appeared briefly in the film and its follow-up. While neither are required viewing for fans of the films, both do a good job expanding the Matrix universe, and today, we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘Enter.’

Please note that while there are several duels in in ‘Enter the Matrix,’ many – like Niobe and Ghost’s fights against the leaders of the Merovingian’s vampire and werewolf henchmen – add little to the story beyond needing to defeat an enemy to progress or rescue someone, so we’ll be looking at the more substantial and interesting fights.

Niobe vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Niobe has to defeat an agent so she can escape with her life

Analysis: The first big duel of the game has Niobe saving one of her fellow Zion operatives from the cargo hold of a C-5 galaxy in flight. But after saving him, she then has to deal with an agent; unlike Neo, Niobe is an average Matrix operative who can’t stop bullets or fly. She’s facing a foe far stronger, faster, and more skilled than her, and who can’t be defeated with martial arts or bullets, while trapped on a plane and unable to escape.

This fight is a good example of how duels can be more interesting when one character is hopelessly outmatched, and victory is a matter of surviving, not killing an opponent. In this instance, Niobe – the underdog who doesn’t stand a chance of defeating Agent Johnson in a one-on-one fight – triumphs by opening the cargo hatch and knocking Johnson off the plane.

Ghost vs Trinity

Emotional Context: Ghost and Trinity spar to let off some steam and relax

Analysis: Much like Neo sparring with Morpheus in the first film, this duel is not about killing anyone or fighting to complete an objective in the war between humans and machines. It’s two characters relaxing during some downtime by sparring with each other. It’s easy to label this fight as pure fanservice, as it gives players the chance to duel Trinity, and could be cut from the game without affecting the storyline. But it does help to build upon ‘Enter the Matrix’s most surprising storyline: Trinity’s relationship with Ghost. Unlike so many other love triangles featuring people squabbling and sparring over who loves who, ‘Enter’ has both Ghost and Trinity acknowledge that while they love each other as friends, their relationship will never go beyond that, and they’re okay with it.

Ghost vs Agent Johnson

Emotional Context: Ghost has to defeat an agent so he can blow up a nuclear power plant, or the mission will fail, Neo will not be able to see the Architect, and every human on Earth will die. So, no pressure or anything

Analysis: This duel plays out almost exactly like Niobe’s fight against Johnson on the C-5 earlier in the game, with an underdog having to defeat a superior opponent using their wits. What’s different, though, are the stakes. Earlier, Niobe was saving a fellow Zion operative. Here, Ghost has to keep Agent Johnson from killing him so that the reactor can be destroyed, allowing Neo to save humanity. If Ghost dies, the plan will be thrown into chaos, and Neo will fail, raising the stakes and giving the outcome of the fight much greater weight.

Ghost/Niobe vs Seraph

Emotional Context: Ghost/Niobe have to prove themselves to Seraph so that they can see the Oracle

Analysis: Much like Ghost’s fight against Trinity, this duel is about giving players another opportunity to fight against one of the characters from the films. However, unlike Neo’s spar with Seraph in ‘Reloaded,’ the duel doesn’t slow down the pacing of the game’s story, since it comes later instead of earlier. It also explains that Seraph doesn’t fight people to see who they are, but to test their heart’s resolve, a much more focused and specific answer than, ‘you do not know someone until you fight them.’

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at the duels in ‘The Animatrix.’

Favorite Moments: Futureman’s Bright Idea

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

***

The video:

Why it’s great:

We’ve all experienced a moment where our best-laid plans fail spectacularly. At the time, there’s nothing funny or amusing about it, as we’re usually too blinded by embarrassment, shame, and grief. But as Futureman’s video shows, there’s great comedy to be found in gearing up for something that will look amazing… only to fail so spectacularly that all you can do is either laugh or sit there in stunned silence.