The Dark Souls Effect

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Dark Souls is a 2011 role-playing video game developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. The game continues the design and gameplay of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It is specifically known for its difficulty, vague instructions, and complex storytelling that must be pieced together through the environment and through objects and descriptions within the game. Due to the design, style, and especially the intense difficulty, there has been a recent trend in gaming where a game is referred to as “Souls-like” or “The Dark Souls of…”. For example, Cuphead is “The Dark Souls of two-dimensional side-scroller platforming games” or Thumper is “The Dark Souls of rhythm games”. It’s obvious that these comparisons are rather exaggerated, and Dark Souls, as well as the other Souls games developed by FromSoftware, are unique. The only “Dark Souls of” anything is Dark Souls itself, however, due to the breakout popularity of the Souls franchise, game developers and journalists have resorted to drawing comparisons between their properties and the Souls games. It’s not a foreign concept, as movies pitched to studios have often been described as “it’s Die Hard meets Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars meets Titanic”. Drawing comparison to a more popular property makes it easier for companies to convey what they want people to think of their properties. In the case of Dark Souls though, the comparisons have been blown out of proportion to the point where anything even remotely difficult will be compared to Dark Souls. This is all related to something I like to call, “The Dark Souls Effect”. I’m going to be discussing what exactly “The Dark Souls Effect” is, its upsides and drawbacks, and how it will impact the future of gaming.

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The Souls games consist of Demon’s Souls (2009), Dark Souls (2011), Dark Souls II (2014), Bloodborne (2015), and Dark Souls III (2016).

I first picked up the original Dark Souls in 2014, and after struggling through only the first fourth of the game, I quit in a fit of rage. The game was simply too hard for me. Each enemy felt like a major threat, and the bosses were massively intimidating. I had also convinced myself that the game was simply unstylish and had clunky mechanics that made the difficulty artificial (I still think the game is a little clunky even now). I didn’t touch another Souls game until 2016 when Dark Souls 3 was released. Though I was still hesitant, under peer pressure and some considerable hype, I caved and bought the game. After some learning, I quickly fell in love with Dark Souls 3, and it is now in my top 5 greatest games of all time. Hungry for more Souls, I went back and played the original Dark Souls, this time playing through the whole thing and beating it faster than I did Dark Souls 3. I then played Dark Souls 2, and then Dark Souls 1 and 3 again multiple times. In the past two years, I’ve invested at least 300 hours in the Souls games, and I recently bought a PlayStation 4 primarily so that I could play the PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, which is also a Souls game but with a different setting and story. I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty experienced when it comes to the Souls games. What sets them apart from other games isn’t just the difficulty, but rather the minimalistic approach to guiding the player, and the vastness of the detailed worlds in which the games take place. When you first play the original Dark Souls, the world is interconnected and massive, crawling with enemies and teaming with areas to explore and items to discover. The world is also bleak, harsh, and dangerous. As the player, you don’t feel powerful, you feel insignificant. Everything in this world is bigger than you and can crush you in an instant. Because of this, it feels immensely rewarding when you overcome such overwhelming odds. It feels as if you triumphed over something that you weren’t meant to, like David against Goliath. There’s also the exploration aspect of discovering hidden areas and new helpful items. The fact that the player has to piece together the story and also figure out themselves what they have to do in the game makes it more active rather than passive. There’s also no pause button so you really have to be engaged and focus in. Then there’s the boss battles, exciting action set pieces against a single foe with a large health pool and high damage output where dodging and understanding their move set is key. These boss battles invoke something that transcends passivity in gaming. I can describe in detail the way I feel in many boss encounters in the Souls game: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and eyes glued to the screen. Then there’s beating the boss, a feeling of complete joy and triumph swells inside me as I either take a deep sigh of relief, jump for joy, and in some cases, cry tears (Yes I literally cried tears of joy when I beat the hardest boss in the Souls series). These moments created within me an obsession with these games, where the only thing I wanted to play was another Souls game, or something similar. When I ran out of Souls games to play, I played them again, and when I was done with that, I searched for other games that had the same kind of difficulty. Dark Souls and anything similar became like a drug for me, I just had to have my fix.  It’s likely that other gamers felt this way too, and so the industry responded by pushing out “Souls-like” games. This push for higher difficulty, more RPG elements, and intricate level design in games is what I call “The Dark Souls Effect”.

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Dark Souls thrusts players into a massive, interconnected world with dangerous foes.

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Intense boss battles take place throughout the game.

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The benefit of “The Dark Souls Effect” is that it’s a counterbalance to games like Call of Duty and movie-based “handholding” games where every aspect of the game is told to you through visual cues and arrow signs. The lack of in-game microtransactions, longer story, and greater emphasis on fluid gameplay also benefits the gaming industry. Games like Nioh and the new God of War have been successful in creating a variant of the Souls style of combat. Not every game is successful in copying the Souls formula, however, and games like Lords of the Fallen or The Surge came off more as imitations rather than their own experiences. Many developers in the industry have misunderstood the true greatness of Dark Souls, and have instead tacked on difficulty to their games. The thing is that Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne are unique in their overall package, through design and gameplay just as much as difficulty. It’s perfectly fine for other games to take inspiration from the series and try and improve their level design, gameplay, and world-building, but games coming off as lazy Dark Souls clones like Lords of the Fallen are happening more and more. It’s the same issue with Battle Royale modes from Fortnite and PUBG being copied. Call of Duty Black Ops 4 doesn’t need a Battle Royale mode but it’s doing it instead of a campaign mode to exploit the popularity of the Battle Royale mode.

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Games like The Surge, Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and God of War have borrowed some elements from the Souls games, though God of War doesn’t simply copy them and has its own franchise to draw inspiration from.

Now, E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo for major game developers is right around the corner. Amongst the lineup, FromSoftware is teasing a new game called “Shadows Die Twice” which some have speculated to be a sequel to Bloodborne. The Souls formula hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, and we will likely get more games similar to Dark Souls. This is all fine and good, if there will be more Souls-like games, odds are some of them will be good and some won’t. I myself am conflicted on the continuation of the Souls series. Many have argued, and it is believed to be so, that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki never meant for a sequel to Dark Souls itself, and instead wanted to continue making passion projects with the same style of gameplay and level design like Bloodborne was, but the studio pushed forward with a Dark Souls sequel after the popularity of the original game. To that end, I hope the Souls formula continues but with new creative stories and periods. Demon Souls was clearly a medieval dungeon/castle crawler whereas Dark Souls was an open world, full-scale dark fantasy, and Bloodborne was Victorian Gothic. Though I’d be more than happy to play a Bloodborne 2, I would be just as thrilled or even more thrilled to play something fresh and new that adapts the Souls formula in new and innovative ways.

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The Souls games are some of the best games ever made. They have shown that video games can be challenging, thought-provoking, adaptive, mature, and still be extremely fun. There’s a true sense of engagement and accomplishment when playing through these games, and the impact they’ve made on the video game industry should hopefully continue with a greater focus on fair and rewarding difficulty. Challenge is one of the most important features of a video game. Much like a story needs the characters to overcome obstacles, the gamer needs obstacles to overcome in the game. Dark Souls boldly challenged players to take control of their characters and learn and discover how to play through a dark and formidable world. Though none of the games are perfect, they are all masterpieces in their own right for furthering the formula. The importance of “The Dark Souls Effect”, is that regardless of its quality, it highlights the need for detail and passion in creating challenging and fluid gameplay, complex world building and level design, and greater player interactivity and control. “The Dark Souls Effect” stirs up attention for a debate in gaming that is necessary and vital to the industry as a means of combating the rising corporatization of games. It presents the promising prospect of the gaming community asking for more games like Dark Souls that will improve gaming as an art form.

Video Games: The Art of the Future

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There has been a certain social stigma against video games for as long as I can remember. Many people consider video games to be a lesser form of art and even more refuse to consider video games as an art form art at all. Of course, most of these people have either never seen a video game, or never played a video game and are only basing their conclusions off of viewing other people play games. What I’m saying now isn’t an opinion. Video games cannot and will not be denied the right to be considered a form of art. Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power”. By this definition, which I would say is a pretty holistic definition, video games qualify as works of art without question. Yet, in our current society, video games are seen more as mind-numbing forms of entertainment meant to distract kids and sedate teenagers. It’s funny because there was a time when other forms of entertainment such as movies and comic books were considered distractors and sideshows that wouldn’t qualify as art. Over time, these mediums eventually became accepted into the prestigious world of high art, complete with their own prestigious awards and snooty critics. Art is about immersion, reflection, connection, and appreciation. How is admiring a landscape painting by Frederic Remington different from appreciating the painstakingly crafted digital atmosphere of the new God of War? Actually, there is a difference…the art presented in video games is more immersive and advanced in regards to interactivity than many other mediums. That’s why I believe video games are not only a rich medium of art but also the medium of the future. There are more and more people buying and playing games each year, and I believe that as time goes on, public perception will change about video games and they will join the pantheon of high art. There are, however, some roadblocks that need addressing that will hinder the progress of games becoming recognized by the general populace as art. I’ll touch on these as we move along assessing what makes video games so incredible as artworks.

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The first thing to recognize is that like movies, video games are an amalgamation of multiple mediums. Just like a movie has music, acting, cinematography, set design, and much more, video games have writing, music, voice acting, motion capture work, digitally rendered environments, interactive gameplay, and much much more. A game like Cuphead has beautiful animation and an incredible big band score. Games like The Witcher series, Uncharted, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are praised for their gorgeous visuals and environments. If you’ve ever seen a collection of cutscenes in video games, you’d see how cinematic they truly are. I’ve seen some counterarguments stating that the things surrounding the video game such as art design, visuals, and music are components that could be considered art, but the gameplay and the full product itself can’t be considered art, but quite frankly that’s ridiculous. When you play a game, the immersion depends upon whether or not the decisions of the player are accurately translated by the game. Multiple people dedicate time to making sure the movements of the game avatar precisely match the commands given by the gamer. There has to be a flow to the gameplay, effectively serving as an extension of the gamer’s own being. A game with bad gameplay is like a poorly made sculpture. In a game, you not only soak in the music, visuals, story, acting, and dialogue, you also soak in the gameplay. Another reason that the full product of a game is art, is the underlying primary objective of any work of art. The elements of any medium, be it visual or aural or sensory, is to tell a story.

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Everything a video game does is to tell a story. It can be a tale of adventure and excitement, fire and fury, survival and horror, etc. Everything, including multiplayer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, requires a narrative that can either be told by the creators of the game or presented as a blank canvas to the player to create their own stories. When it comes to the traditional linear narrative, video games happen to have some of the best contemporary works of our time. The Halo series crafted an expansive epic filled with additional literature and lore that mirror the literary works of Tolkien. Games like The Last of Us take the player on an emotional journey where they grow with the characters. And my personal favorite game, BioShock, is a reflection of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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Like I said, there is that special factor to games that makes it the art of the future: immersion. A video game is controlled by the player, therefore the direction the narrative takes is determined by the player, or at the very least the connection that between the player and the narrative runs deeper than other forms of art. If you think about a game like Halo, there’s a silent protagonist, the Master Chief, that is always behind a suit of armor so that the player can project themselves into the game as that character. The Master Chief is given little development so that the player feels like they are him when they go through the events of the game. When you watch a movie, you see the protagonist overcome the challenges, but in a game, you overcome the challenges yourself. You earn the moments by overcoming the challenge. You don’t just remember passively being there, you remember the experience of you doing those things. Challenge and immersion are the golden tools from which a game gets its power. Players want to feel more immersed in the game, they want to feel the intensity. A video game with no challenge can be bland, repetitive, and uninteresting. A challenging game like Dark Souls gets a player’s heart rate up and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve victory. To add to the immersion factor of games, choice can often be a key component of a game. Role-playing-games like Skyrim present the player with a whole world to explore and engage in storylines on their own and at their own pace. In Mass Effect, how you talk to a character determines your relationship with them throughout the game. Because of these interactive games, the experience is different each time. Characters can change and adapt to how you play, and the story adapts to the choices you make. In this way, games are adapting pieces of reality and embedding them into their art more so than other mediums. Entire worlds can be built in games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet.  Art often mirrors reality, and games are becoming more and more like real life. With the advent of virtual reality, video games will only continue to become more life-like. Through this increased immersion, video games are transcending other mediums and doing things that no other mediums can do.

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This renaissance of gaming and its movement towards greater recognition should continue to develop as long as story and immersion continue to shine over the commercial aspects of games. As long as games are treated like works of art by their distributors, and not capitalized by shady monetary tactics, then games should be well on their way to high art status. Unfortunately, companies like EA are treating the consumers like dirt and commercializing the art of gaming by introducing said shady tactics. These tactics came in the form of in-game microtransactions. Microtransactions were originally used in free to play and mobile games as a way for them to make money, but of course AAA game developers thought why not add them to $60 games. High priced DLC (downloadable content) already served as a way to get extra money from consumers, and with games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront the $60 product ended up being completely bare bones and unfinished in every way while the $50 season pass was marketed front and center. Microtransactions were an added bonus for games to make more money, and for good reason. Microtransactions make video game companies massive amounts of money, sometimes even more than digital sales for the games. The biggest form of microtransactions is randomized loot boxes. This means that players can purchase in-game content that is given completely at random. So you might be asking, what’s the big deal? So what if games have microtransactions it’s not like the gamer has to buy them? It’s not like not buying them affects your ability to play the game right? Well, that’s where the controversy lies. In some games, microtransactions are just annoying. It used to be that you had to unlock certain things in a game like more playable characters or skins. It felt like an accomplishment to get more in-game content. Now, everything is randomized, so even if you get a thousand loot boxes, you may still not get the content you actually want. In games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, however, loot boxes are tied to progression, and purchasing microtransactions in the game allows you to unlock content much faster than people who don’t (for example, you can buy a hero for $10 or spend 40 hours unlocking them). Another unfortunate fact is that microtransactions are nearly in every major game, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, to even single player titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions are something that the gaming community may just have to live with for some time.

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The ever-expanding world of video games is facing some of its biggest challenges while it brings in an increasing audience. Companies like Activision and EA have prioritized earning money over providing a quality product and treating their customers with respect. The harmful strategies of these companies do not have to be the norm in the gaming industry. As long as games like God of War, Cuphead, and Dark Souls continue to be made, the high art that is video games should triumph over corporate greed. I know I got off on a bit of a tangent with the microtransactions rant, but the truth is that video games are very near and dear to my heart. Video games inspire me to soak in new worlds, learn new music, and engage in new and interesting narratives. The beauty of video games is under attack by these corporate models, and so I wanted to highlight the issue facing the industry as it continues to gain more recognition.

 

Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.

 

 

Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb”

It has come to my attention that I have not written about any novels. Though I love the visual splendor of movies and video games, I am still a fan of the printed word. However, since reading a book requires more time commitment than watching a two-hour movie, I have only managed to read a short story.

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Many quandaries are spinning through my head after having read “The Tomb”, by HP Lovecraft, one of the most well-renowned and brilliant writers of the twentieth century. What initially hooked me was the way the first paragraph was established. It began with the words “In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weight with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal;that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them, but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism”. What is fascinating about this premise is that before even telling the story, the narrator gives a reason for deniability in his account. Often times in stories we are presented with an unreliable narrator, but one that is always unraveled by the reader at some point during the story. It is rare to see a story in which from the beginning we as readers have reason to doubt the narrator’s account. This statement, however, is followed by the narrator’s declaration that the “bulk of humanity” is often too easily dismissive, due to its limited scope and understanding of its environment, of phenomenon that would be deemed supernatural or out of the ordinary. He goes on to state that individuals of greater understanding are aware that there is no true distinction between what is real and what isn’t, and that which is tangible to the individual can be viewed as reality. Everything that the individual sees is only a combination of the physical senses and its perception by the human mind. The tragedy highlighted by the narrator is that in a society of matter and “obvious empiricism” where only seeing is believing, the “flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil” are condemned as madness. The premise introduces the reader to the narrator and his mentality. The narrator believes himself to be of heightened intellect and understands that everything that he sees he can acknowledge to himself to be real, and that the rest of humanity is misguided in its attempt to deem him insane.

    The narrator introduces himself as Jervas Dudley, an unnecessarily wealthy daydreamer who would spend his childhood “apart from the visible world” and instead buried in books and ponderings. Dudley considers his company to be among the non-living and spent his time by a wilted and haunting hollow tree. By the tree, in the darkest of the hillside thickets lies a tomb of a great and exalted family whose last descendant died long ago, the Hydes. The door to the tomb was rusted shut with the door slightly “ajar”. The family’s mansion was burnt in a fire and only one man perished and the ashes were brought to the tomb. Jervas forms a bower by the tomb where he would spend time sleeping and thinking. He eventually discovers that he is linked to the Hydes family on his maternal side. This stirs the notion that the tomb is for him. One night he finds an old chest in his attic containing the key to the tomb. He unlocks the tomb and finds a grave marked with one word, Jervas. He feels a sense of belonging in the tomb and a realization that his peace and final resting can be found only within the tomb. On one particular visit, he is seen by an unknown observer, but Jervas continues to the tomb anyway. However, upon visiting the dark hillside thickets, Jervas comes across an astonishing sight, the old Hydes mansion was rebuilt and brimming with light and reveling guests. Jervas enters with comfort and familiarity and takes part in the revelries, however at some point, a bolt of lightning strikes the ceiling and the house is set ablaze. Jervas attempts to escape but is burnt to ash. He suddenly finds himself struggling in the arms of two villagers and sees his father looking disdainfully at him. Before being whisked away, Jervas notices a chest containing a statue of a mirror image with an inscription “ J.H” Jervas is taken to an asylum where his father tells him that his visits to the bower were familiar to everyone and that the lock to the tomb was rusted shut and had been for ages. Jervas concludes that he would have resigned to being mad had it not been for his trusty servant within the asylum who broke the lock to the tomb and found within a grave marked with only one word, “Jervas”.

    An easy explanation is that Jervas is clearly insane. On the surface, this story can be seen as a depiction of a troubled mind driven mad by an unsightly tomb. Or it can be seen as the classic story of the person who may be crazy but may be telling the truth, but if we recall the first paragraph of this story, we would be falling in line with the bulk of humanity, dismissing the phenomena that exist outside the common experience, and declaring the perpetrator of the super-sight to be mad. The truth of the story is that whether the events are supernatural is irrelevant, because the story is about only one individual, Jervas. Jervas is the sole pair of eyes by which we witness the events, and from his perspective, everything he has seen exists. If we step back from his view and observe as a skeptic of society, he is crazy. However what Jervas sees is what we see, and what he sees is real to his senses, therefore by the transitive property what Jervas sees is the truth. “The Tomb” is an exploration of thought and perspective as it pertains to the existence of the individual and the faith in society that we uphold. It begs the question of what real truly is. Perhaps there is no real. An individual cannot live in the body of another individual, therefore cannot know if the other individual truly exists. All he knows is that he himself is conscious and him alone. Therefore, on account of his consciousness and existence, everything that he sees and feels can be deemed real to him.

 

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Responsible for such works as The Call of Cthulu, and At the Mountain of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft is known as one of the greatest horror-fiction writers of all time.

 

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Spoiler Heavy!!!!) A Lesson in Moral Complexity

 

 

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Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, standing with the billboards

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s latest home run film. It follows up the masterpiece that is In Bruges by deftly blending dark comedy and dark drama. Featuring one of the most outstanding ensemble casts in recent memory, Three Billboards educates the viewer on how hate can affect one’s life.

The story follows Mildred Hayes, a mother who is dead-set on finding the men who raped and killed her daughter, Angela Hayes. To rile up attention for the case, which has gone on for seven months, Mildred rents three billboards on an unfrequented road and prints the messages: “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”, “And Still No Arrests?”, and “Raped While Dying”. The billboards serve as powerful iconography, especially since they’re really all the information we have about what happened to Mildred’s daughter. We never see the violent act of her death actually happen, and her presence is rarely felt throughout the film. McDonagh conveys the horrific nature of the crime through the ominous presence of the billboards. The camera pans out of order to show the first billboard “Raped While Dying” last in order to create a bigger shock value amongst the audience. Though the boards aren’t very high or very large, they are first seen through low angle shots which gives them a monumental perspective. The backgrounds of the boards are bright red with black text, which are not only eye-catching but also splash the film early with the color of blood. And so, the limited information combined with a showcase of how determined she is to find her daughter’s killer creates an immediate understanding and sympathy for Mildred. Despite all of the harsh or misguided actions she carries out in the film, there is always an element of forgiveness at play for the audience in knowing her pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are factors associated with many of the characters in the film.

 

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Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby has a conversation with Mildred

 

The billboards draw negative attention toward Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who is a respected officer within the community. Willoughby happens to also be dying of cancer. His relationship with Mildred isn’t antagonistic, and the viewer is made aware that he hasn’t been intentionally neglecting the case, however, Mildred is unflinching in her decision to keep the billboards. In a conversation with Willoughby, Mildred claims that all the men in the country should be put in a database and investigated whenever they’ve committed a crime. It’s clearly preposterous, yet you understand that Mildred wants to see more action from the police department. Her position stands unaltered even with Willoughby’s condition in consideration. To add another piece to the puzzle, Willoughby’s fellow officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is an apparent racist and all-around douchebag. He consistently tries to find ways to pressure Mildred into taking down the billboards. The first half of the film serves as an effective look at conflict where both sides have sympathy. There is sympathy for Mildred, played wonderfully by Francis McDormand, as she stands her ground on her daughter’s case. There is also sympathy for Chief Willoughby, who is conscious that his time with his wife and kids is dwindling. Woody Harrelson captures the pain, compassion, and love that embodies Chief Willoughby. In fact, as he appears to be the only one of the three central characters living without hate, his role transitions from an active character to more of an arbiter of wisdom. In a shocking twist, Chief Willoughby shoots himself in the head after spending one last day with his wife and children. In a letter, he explains that he would rather avoid his family having to see him slowly suffer and wither away in a hospital bed. His suicide is advocated by him as an act of bravery, and it shifts the film’s focus towards the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character.

 

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Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, confronts Mildred

 

Upon Willoughby’s death, Dixon initially reacts by senselessly beating Red Welby-who rented Mildred the billboards-and throwing him out of a window. When Dixon gets fired for his actions by the new chief, his character seems to be headed towards a downward spiral of potential villainy. When the billboards are burned down, he seems to be a likely suspect. However, when Mildred retaliates by burning down the police station with, Dixon unbeknownst to her, still inside, it creates a symbolic moment where Dixon reads a letter from Willoughby while oblivious of the fires burning behind him. Willoughby’s letter urges him to let go of his anger and the pain in his past and instead work towards becoming a good police officer. When Dixon plunges through the flames with Angela Hayes’s case file, it’s as if the singes and burns on his body become a literal embodiment of his bad self, which he will always carry with him. In one of the best moments of the film, Dixon ends up in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the same guy he threw out of a window. He apologizes, and in a poignant scene, the initially upset Welby pours a glass of orange juice for Dixon, providing him with a token of forgiveness. From then on, Dixon tracks down a suspected rapist, gets beaten within an inch of his life in order to get the suspect’s DNA, and notifies Mildred that the suspect may be “the guy”.  When word comes in that the suspect, though a rapist, is not the same man as Angela’s killer, Mildred assures Dixon that the hope that he had given her was more than she had had in a month. She concludes that it was better to have that feeling of hope-however fleeting it is-than have nothing. The efforts that Dixon had made to find her daughter’s killer were the kind of efforts that she wanted out of the police. In the film’s resolution, when Dixon and Mildred decide to go after the confirmed racist, they debate whether it is worth it to take his life and ultimately agree to decide on the way to confront him.

 

The film ends ambiguously as to whether Dixon and Mildred decide to kill the rapist. In the end, it’s not about justice, or vengeance, or even finding the killer. It’s not even a story about learning to let go of hate and embrace love.  It’s learning to live with hate, learning to temper it and not let it consume you. Mildred will always carry hate in her heart, what happened to her daughter will always stay with her and keep the coals burning in the furnace of her heart. She’s unhinged, aggressive, and a danger to everyone around her. Dixon is still that racist asshole, just a more focused asshole, with a clear perspective on his goals of being a detective. Feelings of racism don’t just magically go away. Neither of them are heroes, neither of them are villains. They simply have more clarity in their goals, they are aware of their hatred, aware that they will always carry it with them. They’ve developed moral codes. Keep in mind, moral codes don’t necessarily mean righteous codes, they mean codes that a character follows and doesn’t break, good or bad. Their codes are also still developing much like everyone’s are, as they haven’t decided whether to take the life of the scapegoat racist. Even characters like Willoughby aren’t necessarily martyrs, since the act of suicide is generally considered a coward’s way out rather than the brave act that Willoughby feels it is.

 

The morals of each character are identified by the actions they undertake in the film: Willoughby’s suicide, Mildred’s arson, Dixon’s “redemption” (All Oscar-worthy performances by the way). Each character no matter how small has a moment of sympathy or relatability. Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones has his moment when he hands Dixon the orange juice, and Peter Dinklage has a small surprise role as James, a car salesman attracted to Mildred. When Mildred botches the dinner with James, he goes into a rant of how he knows his position as a dwarf and how he’ll never be a “huge catch”, yet his stature and demeanor still outshine Mildred’s rage and foul temperament. Three Billboards, like In Bruges, is a character study. It doesn’t focus on finding mysteries or on Mildred finding inner peace. Three Billboards is about the effect of an unforgettable tragedy, and one mother’s response to that tragedy, on the lives of our characters. The story teaches that people are not perfect, and no matter how righteous the cause or effort, everyone has a point of darkness in their heart, or a different perspective that goes against the generally expected code of society. Even after being burnt down, the billboards are put up again. They stand just as the hatred in Mildred’s heart still stands.

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Director Martin McDonagh

 

When asked by Variety about the character of Dixon, McDonagh claims, “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the South, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kong: Skull Island-What Makes A Better Movie, Visual Elements or Literary Elements?

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I just saw Kong: Skull Island, a very entertaining and interesting movie. The action scenes are on point. The visual style is attention-grabbing and the cinematography is splendid. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does an admirable job of recreating the 70’s Vietnam Era aesthetic, and he exceeds in his ability to depict human characters in sweeping long shots that indicate their vulnerability. However, where the visual elements of the film soar, the literary elements fall flat. The characters are almost nonexistent, the narrative is kind of all over the place and the dialogue is just TERRIBLE in some scenes. Now, keep in mind, this is a monster movie. We came to see King Kong fight a bunch of dinosaurs and attack some soldiers, so why should the film’s success be measured by a good story and characters? Furthermore, is a film with superior visuals, sound, and direction a better film; or is a film with superior writing, story, and characters better?

To go back to Kong, the story is straightforward, a team of scientists and soldiers go to Skull Island, damage the ecosystem, get attacked by Kong, and have to survive a rough landscape of monsters and dinosaurs. The characters are either one dimensional like Samuel L Jackson (a hardened veteran), Tom Hiddleston(a generic badass), and Brie Larson(a photographer…that’s basically all there is to her character); or the characters are plot points used to move along the story like John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, and Cory Hawkins. By the way, I’m using the actors’ names because of course, I don’t remember any of the names of the characters. I’m even good with names so it’s not like I wasn’t trying (I know literally every character’s name in Game of Thrones just try me).  In fact, what happens with these characters is something that I wrote about recently where the actors are so good they make you think the characters are better than they are. When John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson are talking to each other, the dialogue isn’t good, there’s little insight into their characters, yet it still sounds intense. That’s because the actors are intense, and they can make terrible dialogue like “I am the cavalry” sound somewhat plausible. If you just look at the cast for the film: Brie Larson recently won an Oscar, John Goodman should win an Oscar, and Samuel L Jackson is…well, Samuel L Jackson. These are all amazing actors, and the only reason I wasn’t falling asleep watching these characters is because of who they were played by.

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But again, we don’t need the characters to be Shakespearean good, it’s a monster movie, so why be overly critical? Well, just because a film’s purpose is to scare people with monsters, it doesn’t mean it’s a good movie even if it succeeds in its purpose. I’d like to compare this film to the 2005 Peter Jackson directed King Kong movie. In my opinion, Jackson made a better film, with a better story. You actually cared about Kong as the film did its best to establish a true connection between Kong and the female lead. However, to the film’s detriment, the third act isn’t as good as the rest of the movie and it often becomes too slow and sappy. The action is good, but the film tends to drag and is overly long. With Kong: Skull Island, the action is unrelenting. It seems like every few minutes there’s a new scary creature leaping out at its victims. The story is barebones but the pace is intense and focuses on the visual creativity and scope of the creatures rather than the struggles of the characters. Kong is an unstoppable, overpowered death machine and it’s awesome. Rather than get bogged down in the third act, we get treated to an awesome action scene between Kong and a giant dinosaur-lizard thing. With the Peter Jackson Kong movie, you have a thoughtful, more character driven film that wants to shed light on the gentle nature of the giant ape. With the new movie, you have a pretty straightforward monster movie with epic action scenes.

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So what does make a better film? Is it the visual elements, or the literary elements (story and screenwriting, etc.)? I think it varies from person to person. If you’re like me, and you can’t appreciate a film as much if it doesn’t have a strong narrative and well-written relatable characters, then you probably swing more towards literary elements defining films. If you’re more interested in the art and the crafting of a scene, the cinematography, the visual effects, the music, the production design (I love all these elements too, don’t get me wrong), but you might then define a film through that lens rather than overanalyzing the story and narrative. This would also apply to Kong: Skull Island, which I wouldn’t even consider a bad film. I would consider Kong an ok film from a story point-of-view and a very enjoyable one from a visual point of view. The purpose of many films is to entertain, and if that is the case, then Kong: Skull Island passes with flying colors. If you as an audience member are looking for something more in a monster movie, I would suggest looking elsewhere; but for all you monster movie lovers, Kong: Skull Island is another good addition to the pantheon of monster films, and I can’t wait for this version of Kong to fight Godzilla.

The Dream by Shahrez Anjum

 

I wake to the sound of my last alarm. I turn over slightly to grab my phone. It is 9 A.M, I know I need to get up. However, the soft pillow massaging the back of my head and the warm blankets enveloping my body keep me constricted in a cozy cushiony confine. My linens coax me into staying in bed, so I relent and let my eyelids sink as I drift back into the comforting darkness.

 

My eyes are flooded with bright white lights,

My vision begins to make sense of the shapes and definitions-

I am in an arena.

The seats decline in the vast area like an upside-down plateau,

The floor below is polished and waxed and as big as a ballroom,

Crowds of people are moving out of the structure,

But I remain seated staring at the empty seats,

The ground is far from where I sit,

Someone sits next to me-

My friend.

He motions to me to exit the premises,

I accompany my friend out of the arena,

We enter the streets of a small town that I still call home,

As we walk down the street that leads to our neighborhood,

It begins to drizzle and the sky becomes dark grey,

The four-lane street that is bordered by wooden fences begins to change,

 

For now, it is a narrow one-way road,

Its ground becoming, rough and torn and worn,

Torrential rain upon us in great load,

The sound of thunder, like a battle horn,

We grip an umbrella very tightly,

It does little to shield us from downpour,

Still, we hide under it desperately,

Avoiding speeding cars whose engines roar,

 

The road that wishes to swallow us whole,

We barely escape its narrow clutches,

The rain becomes less harsh but still frequent,

The dark grey sky now becomes a light grey,

My friend and I part ways and he goes home,

The neighborhood is not as it once was,

The streets are the same, the ground is unchanged,

Even the houses inside look the same,

But it is not as I remember it,

Along the periphery are mansions,

Houses that are much taller and larger,

Four stories high and covered in oak trees,

Gilded lampposts adorn their entrances,

As if I was in the home of Gatsby,

Yet it is peaceful and still inviting,

 

I am in an assembly line,

Along with me, others are being shuffled towards a functionary,

The functionary reports our schedules, but I can’t find my schedule in my pocket-

It must be online.

I pull out my phone to search for it but have difficulty finding it,

In desperation, I dodge the functionary and head through a familiar hallway,

I try to find my schedule but it escapes me,

I tell myself I can’t wake up without my schedule,

A man approaches me and asks me what I am doing,

I try for an answer but the words never come out,

I am confused, stressed, and longing for a way out-

 

I wake to the sound of silence. I turn over slightly to grab my phone. It is 10 A.M. Bright light shines from my windows. I breathe a sigh of relief. It is summer, I don’t need my schedule, I am free. I know I need to get up, I am late. I have to meet with my friend. In a hurry, I quickly and effortlessly break free of the once constricting confines of linens and drift forward into the comforting light.