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.

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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.

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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.

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.

Favorite moments: ‘Stick to the shadows, Master Frodo’

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.

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The video:

(Skip to 5:40)

Why it’s great:

In most kids movies, there sometimes comes a moment where the young star of the show has to embark on a dangerous mission to save the day, and sometimes those missions involve sneaking around without being seen. Looking past the obvious question of why it’d be sensible to send a pre-adolescent out on a solo sneaking mission up against dangerous, competent, and trained adults, those missions usually end with the youngster managing to embrace the spirit of the ninja and succeeding in saving the day.

But what if they didn’t?

As seen in the video above, Frodo Baggins bravely attempts to – in the words of reviewer OhhhMarmalade – become one with the shadows and escape from the Shire, complete with the theme music from Metal Gear Solid… only to instantly fail, be caught by the Ringwraiths, and plunge Middle Earth into a never ending age of darkness and hellish suffering.

Whoops.

What amuses me most about the segment above is showing what would really happen if Frodo, or any unqualified person, tried to become a ninja and become one with the shadows as they tried to sneak out of a heavily patrolled area: They would probably be caught almost instantly. It doesn’t matter how pure of heart they are, how noble their quest is, or that they love their family very much: They’re not trained, they’re not qualified, and they’re doomed from the moment they set out.

While there’s far, far too many instances of people failing at trying to do something they can’t in real life, having someone fail immediately at the big, important task/quest they set out to achieve seconds after starting can make for some great comedy, as poor Frodo demonstrates. It gets even funnier if they’re The Chosen One who have to save the world, which can then lead to all sorts of interesting situations: What do the other characters do now that the Chosen One has failed/is dead? Do they try to fulfill the quest? Realize that it was a terrible idea to send a child out to do an adult’s job? And if they do try to pick up the quest, do they have any chance at all at succeeding, since they weren’t chosen by fate/prophecy/God?

Failure can be funny, but it can also open up new avenues and scenarios in storytelling that are otherwise underutilized.

What we can learn from my favorite videogame commercial

In tales, myths, and legends told throughout the centuries, one constant rule is that the characters in our stories are unaware that they’re fictional. It’s only been in the past few decades that writers have played with this idea by occasionally having these characters realize that they’re characters in a book, a movie, or a video game, existing only to give pleasure and enjoyment to their observers. Naturally, it’s logical for these characters don’t react well then they realize that they don’t exist beyond the confines of the medium they’re in, that they’re little more than playthings of the author. And who can blame them? If I found out I was a background character in a sitcom, I’d probably go crazy, too.

But what we rarely see is when the fourth wall is broken is characters who are okay with their situation. Even rarer is the work where the characters are grateful to their author, player, or audience, which is shown so beautifully in the Sony PS3 ad, ‘Long Live Play’:

When doing a fourth-wall breaking story, consider having your characters be grateful to their creator/audience.

‘Long Live Play’, my favorite video game commercial of all time, is perhaps the best example I’ve found of fictional characters being grateful to their audience. Aside from the coolness of seeing numerous characters from different video game franchises coming together (and just hanging out instead of fighting), it runs with the idea of the player (in this instance, Michael) being a sort of god who helps all of them accomplish great things, which they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, ending with all of them cheering Michael’s name in gratitude for everything he’s done for them.

For writers, ‘Long Live Play’ shows that when the fourth wall is broken, it can lead to fascinating story concepts. We aren’t confined to tales of fictional characters fighting off suicidal depression at realizing that they’re not real, or raging against all the hardships and sufferings they’ve been forced to go through; why not try a story where those characters look at their creator, audience, or player with gratitude and reverence for all the good things they’ve been given? Even better, explore how would self-aware fictional characters interact with their creator? Do they try to have a face-to-face meeting with him/her/it? Do they start a religion? Do they ask for certain things to happen to them, in hopes that the author will grant them that request?

Breaking the fourth wall can be a good source of comedy and tragedy, but it also gives the author a chance to explore what it means to be a god, and the relationship that god has between themselves and their creations. And in doing so, it also invites the reader to rethink our relationships with our favorite characters from books, films, comics, and games. How would they react if they learned about you, or the reasons why you enjoy following them? Such questions invites us to expand our thinking and see fictional characters in a whole new way. And while it was meant in the context of videogames, consider what Youtube user Tia Shok said:

“This was the commercial who showed us that game companies can give characters souls, but it’s the players who give them heart and morality and nobility. Players can make characters into heroes. Thank Sony for understanding the power gamers give their characters.”

What we can learn from ‘Spider-Man’ (2000 video game)

Everyone who ever grew up playing video games has a favorite, a treasure that they enjoy coming back to year after year, even when the game is outdated and forgotten by the gaming public at large. Having gone from playing The Oregon Trail’ on black and green apple computers in grade school, to experiencing the power of the PS3, there are many games I count as personal favorites, but when it comes to superhero games, there’s only one choice for me: ‘Spider-Man’ for the Playstation 1. In the 19 years since it came out, I continue to pop it into whatever Sony console I have at the time (hooray for backwards compatibility!) and give it a go every now and then, and every time I’m delighted that it still holds up. Yes, the graphics are outdated, the camera and controls a little wonky, but it’s a fun, colorful, light-hearted game that offers so much for Spidey fans, including an often hilarious ‘What if?’ mode that tweaks little things in the game, including giving having one of the bosses be voiced by a little kid.

If I had to take only one superhero game with me to a deserted island for the rest of my life, ‘Spider-Man’ would be the one packed inside my bags. But enough nostalgia-gushing. Let’s see what writers can learn from Spidey’s successful leap into the third dimension.

If the situation is right, consider bringing all your A-list characters together in one story

Doc Ock. Venom. Carnage, Mysterio. Scorpion. The Rhino. Captain America. The Punisher. Daredevil, Black Cat. ‘Spider-Man’ didn’t hold anything back when it came to filling out the roster of Spidey’s foes and friends, giving each one at least a satisfying cameo, or a pivotal role in the game. The sheer weight of all these characters – with their backstories, history, and personal grudges against Spider-Man – shows that that Activision and Neversoft held nothing back when it came to bringing in familiar faces for fans and newcomers alike.

In our own stories, it’s tempting to hold back when starting out with multi-part epics, and not put all our most prominent, heavy-hitting villains and allies in the first story, either from a desire not to have the plot be overstuffed, or not wanting to use up all our best characters at once. Both are valid concerns, but ‘Spider-Man’ proves that you can have multiple A-list characters: Only a few (Doctor Octopus, Venom, and Carnage) have prominent roles, but everyone else still has their moment to shine, even if only just a cameo – the important part being that those one-off appearances does impact the plot, and Spidey’s journey, and aren’t just there for fan-service.

Have both the villains and the good guys come after your hero

Like all good stories, ‘Spider-Man’ raises the stakes for our hero by having not only all the bad guys of New York City going after him, but the good guys as well: The police, thinking that Spidey’s the one behind the heist that starts the game, unleash everything they have to catch him (including the world’s most relentless helicopter). Even heroes like The Punisher and Daredevil aren’t sure if Spidey is innocent or not. Thus, not only does Spider-Man have to stop Doc Ock’s diabolical plan to rule the world, but also have to clear his name at the same time.

In our own stories, it’s typical for the hero to have to take on more powerful villains, but having him or her have to take on the good guys adds an extra layer of danger and moral complication. As the hero, our protagonist can’t just kill the forces of good, as this would make his or her situation even worse, forcing them to be creative when it comes to incapacitating good guys without killing or harming them. Our audiences enjoy seeing that creativity at work.

For extra points, this trope can also apply to villain protagonists. If your protagonist isn’t trying to redeem themselves, they can go to war with both good and bad guys; if they’re trying to redeem themselves, they have to struggle against their corrupt nature to try and do what’s right, ensuring even more drama.

Consider giving your villain a code of honor

Of all of Spidey’s villains to appear in-game, it’s Venom – in my opinion – who fares the best. Unlike Doc Ock, Carnage, Rhino, or Mysterio, who just want to get Spider-Man out of the way so he won’t interfere with their plan, Venom isn’t out to conquer the world, but to bring Spidey to justice for (supposedly) stealing Doc Ock’s machine. Yet, after Venom learns that Spidey is innocent, he immediately joins forces with him to find out who really caused the heist.

In our own stories, villains with a sense of honor – and even a willingness to team up with protagonists if the need arises – are far more compelling and interesting than those who are just cruel, evil, and have no redeeming traits. While he’s clearly not a nice guy, Venom’s contrasts make him fascinating to follow, especially his sense of humor: I never fail to chuckle at seeing him surfing the internet and asking for Captain America’s autograph.

Consider a sudden genre change at the climax of your story

Compared to many superhero games of the past nineteen years, ‘Spider-Man’ is a lighthearted tale. Yes, it has the occasional serious moment (Black Cat being impaled by Rhino’s horn certainly takes the cake), but by and large it’s a kid-friendly game that anyone can enjoy.

That is, until the final level.

Back when I first played ‘Spider-Man’, I was wondering who the inevitable final boss would be. Doc Ock was an obvious choice. If not him, then Carnage. To my surprise, both were defeated, but the game wasn’t over. Then I saw who the real final boss was: Monster-Ock, a combination of Doctor Octopus and the bloodthirsty personality of the Carnage symboite, who chases after you in darkened tunnels while howling at the top of its lungs.

Like any kid of the late 90’s, I did what any other kid in that situation would do: Have crippling nightmares for life.

Okay, not really. But the final level of ‘Spider-Man’ is such a radical departure from the rest of the game. There’s no jokes from Spidey, no quippy one-liners, and no humor. It’s a segment out of a horror game where you have to outrun an unbeatable foe. There’s no one to help you, no one coming to save you as you fight to outrun this screaming, multi-toothed, skinless-looking monster that will cave your face in if it catches you, and all the while trying to escape an underwater base before it explodes.

Awesome, right? And what makes it so memorable is because it’s so unexpected. First-time players expect an epic boss fight against one of Spidey’s legendary villains, with him finally winning the day and swinging off into the sunset with a witty joke. Instead, he has to run for his life, so scared that he doesn’t even try to be humorous. In our own stories, such shifts in tone shows the audience that things have gotten serious; the stakes are at their highest, the danger has never been more immense, and failure will bring catastrophic consequences. Doing such a shift can be difficult, and if done wrong, it can ruin the immersion. But when pulled off correctly, it can create moments our audience will remember for years to come. To this day, the ‘fight’ against Monster-Ock remains one of my favorite boss encounters in any video game, and is a great ending to a great game.

The Takeaway:

If the conditions are right, putting in all your A-list characters in one story is a surefire way to please fans who want to see their favorite characters team up, and having your hero having to not only face off against their most powerful villains, but against other good guys, will make the stakes higher than ever, especially if one of those villains has a code of honor that they follow religiously. And to cap off such a story, consider making a genre shift at the very end to catch your audience off guard and surprise them with something they didn’t expect, like horror.