In 2001, the world became, for a short time, a much closer community. Marked by former enemies uniting in a shared cause, this era saw old enemies accepting each other's culture and humanity. I'm referring not to the events of 9/11, but the release of the long awaited Fellowship of the Ring. We who had read the books growing up flocked in asthmatic droves to the theaters and noticed, to our bewilderment, that there were other, Tolkien-abstaining people in attendance. The cool kids from high-school, the jocks, the frat boys, the little kids with the Galdalf Burger King cups... they were all there to see this thing we'd been waiting for decades to see. It was an odd moment where we all came together to enjoy this fiction that had meant so much to me. My first experience with the books was reading The Hobbit during recess in 4th grade, sitting alone on the macadam. Now I was sitting in a theater full of regular people at a sold-out opening night. Weird.
In 2003 I was discussing comic books with my former band mate Spencer Myers. I've never really liked super hero comics at all. I found then to be vapid, idealized universes with which I could never identify. Once you took Superman out of the stylized, progress-oriented 30's world of Metropolis, he ceased to be relevant to me. Batman was one of the only ones that worked for me, as he was just a regular super-athletic genius billionaire who was partly insane. But Captain America? Please. The only superhero comic I'd ever read and enjoyed was Alex Ross'sKingdom Come, and that was only for the amazing artistry on display. Spencer responded by lending me his copies of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen, and I can't begin to tell you what a great couple weeks of reading followed. I'll talk about The Dark Knight Returns another time, but The Watchmen gave me not only one of the greatest stories I'd ever read but also introduced me to the bizarre genius of Alan Moore. You may be fortunate enough to know Alan Moore from his books. Most likely, though, you are in the unfortunate majority who have only seen the movies based off of them. V for Vendetta? From Hell? The League of Extraordinary Gentleman? All great, great books with mediocre to awful movie translations. V for Vendetta contained a complex, ambiguous and entertaining take on Bakunin-inspired anarchist ideals and the nature of personal and culture freedom. The Wachowskis turned it into a Bush-era parable, one that had a definite expiration date. From Hell was simply OK, and to be fair the source material is one of Moore's weirder popular works. But the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was just awful. This is especially disappointing as the book had such a great look and vibe that so easily could have made a stylish, clever, literate film. Alas and alack. I don't know that I should go into a full explanation of what The Watchmen is or what it meant to comics or what it meant to me, because that would take a very, very long time. Suffice it to say, The Watchmen is one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time. It may well represent the zenith of the entire superhero genre. It may be the boundary marker, the end of all other superhero narratives. It's certainly way out on the edge of their potential. Beyond being a great visual piece (the structure of the book, such as one issue that is almost perfectly symmetrical, is astounding), the themes of the book are still timely. Moore's script brings superheros right down to earth with all the messy details that would bring. Who would actually dress up and go fight crime? What are these people like? What is their responsibility to the world? To each other? To their personal values? Can the world be saved at all? Is it better to be an idealized being with godlike powers or an impotent, but still very human, everyman? How far can you go to save humanity and not become a monster? Which is better, a merciful lie or the horrible truth? These questions and many others and explored with a depth not generally seen in any medium, and they are answered in the only way they can be - ambiguously. You simply must read this book. It was with this baggage that we arrived early to grab seats for The Watchmen last night. Zach Snyder, the director of The Watchmen, also made another graphic novel adaptation - Frank Miller's 300. I found that movie vapid but entertaining, bot no more. It certainly had too much slow motion and a rather odd fixation on the orgasmic nature of extreme violence. As The Watchmen began, both of these proclivities were an full display and I settled in for what would surely be the absolute ruining of a great book.
When I left the theatre back in 2001, I was gushing about Fellowship of the Ring. I loved the movie. I thought that it was a fantastic film that really took the source material seriously. It changed some things and left out entire threads and characters but overall it was amazing. Over the years, that initialnerdgasm faded and I faced the mundane truth that the Peter Jackson Ring trilogy is simply ok. Not awful, but certainly not great. I was responding more to the intense excitement of seeing a reasonable screen translation of a book I adored. Back in the present, I suspect that is currently what I am experiencing. Almost three hours after taking my seat, I emerged invigorated and excited. I loved it! I loved the cast! The look! How closely (with exceptions) that they adhered to the source material! They shoehorned so many of the themes from the book into so few hours! They even had that weird mutant cat! It was awesome! That having been said, I may simply be experienced the afterglow of the aforementioned nerdgasm. Would I have liked it so much if I hadn't read the book? Most definitely not. Would I had liked it so much if I was expecting it to be just as good and deep as the book? Probably not. But I also enjoyed this shallower, more violent, sexier celluloid version. As we walked out I said to Bethany "I don't know what it says about me, but I really really liked it". It's not nearly as good as the book. Not even close. But it's not bad at all. My feelings for the movie are represented nicely by an amusing bit of synecdoche (FINALLY I get to use that word). In the final frames of the film, the final plotpoint hits almost like a punchline and we're taken out by, of all things, a Bob Dylan song as covered by My Chemical Romance. And you know what? It was awesome. I don't like My Chemical Romance very much at all, and to those who love Bob Dylan it must have seemed like a shallow, punchy, silly blasphemy... but it just worked.
What a strange time it is to be of the nerd persuasion. The highest grossing movies of the past several years have more often than not involved superheroes, wizards and Hobbits. Walking out of the theater last night I noticed that the vast majority of viewers were not especially geeky (at least not obviously so). I can't imagine that many of them had slogged through the denseness that is the graphic novel. They didn't bear the tell-tale nerd cultural identifiers. Perhaps that old distinction is becoming more and more obsolete. Perhaps my future kid will be able to sit with someone else on the macadam and read The Hobbit with a friend... or two! Or one of the opposite sex! I remember when it was a very small group of kids that were really into video games, nerd-lit and comic books. Now these things are cornerstones of our shared culture. Maybe my kid will have a much easier time growing up in an era where our numerous micro-cultures can appreciate the best each other has to offer. But seriously, probably not.
Goths are funny. I remember back in my high school days in the mid 90s, goths comprised a sizable wedge of the teen subculture pie-chart. I dated more than one girl who un-ironically painted her nails black everyday and listened to Type O Negative. The Crow was a big huge movie then and Hot Topic was just that cool new store in the mall that sold The Smashing Pumpkins "Zero" shirt. Interview With A Vampire was made into a movie and Anne Rice was actually pretty huge. Even manically goofy punk 15 year old me found the whole thing intriguing. So it was this latent enthusiasm that steered me recently to tracking down a copy of Trioka's 2004 PC action RPG, Vampire The Masquerade : Bloodlines. There's a huge amount to say about the game's source material, but I'll keep it short. Vampire - The Masquerade is a pen & paper RPG with an adjoining card game. Players are vampires attempting to blend in with the world of mortals and navigate the turbulent political waters of Vampirdom. For you true crime show fans, the name may ring a bell.
When first you boot the game, you are tasked with a creating a character from one of several clans, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Will you belong to clan Ventrue - the aristocracy of the vampire world or clan Nosferatu - vile-looking beings shunned even by other vampires? Will you be Malkavian - a clan whose every member inherits a unique and severe lunacy? I chose clan Brujah, based upon the fact that they were anarchist idealists. Anarchist vampires! I couldn't even imagine what kind of bizarre conflicts that might lead to! I even narrowed my character's focus by choosing a specific back story - mine was "True Brujah". A True Brujah apparently is not so much a knee-jerk rabble-rouser, but a studied intellectual who thought much and acted in measured doses. Sadly, the game doesn't allow one to debate the finer points when a group of vampire ne'er-do-wells has one cornered in a diner and are unloading round upon round in one's direction. In fact, all stats relating to debate, persuasion, intelligence and perception are able to be individually raised upon gaining XP. This left me, many hours in, wishing I had picked a clan with special features more flashy than, say, having read Bakunin. Also, the anarchs are all bikers. Bikers are lame.
Also, my character looked like an idiot.
The main conflict of Bloodlines is the battle between the Anarchs (the name is self-explanatory) and the Camarilla (a kind of vampire government ruled by a council of clan leaders and a handful of Ventrue). California had been a vampire free state and the intrusion of this kind of order is upsetting the intricate rivalries and fiefdoms.
Call me a purist, but vampires shouldn't use guns. They should use their vampire wiles and hyper-extended canines.
Soldiering on into my unlife, I quickly found Bloodlines to be a wildly uneven mix of truly inspired moments and long stretches during which it became obvious that Troika had attempted something a bit beyond their means and abilities. In fact, the last half of the game is barely worth playing as it lacks the brilliance of some of the early segments... but good lord are those early moments great.
An early quest line puts you in negotiations with a pair of sisters who (giggle) own a goth night club. The skanky younger sister hangs out down on the dance floor and flirts hilariously with patrons (though I think her advances are supposed to be alluring). The older sister can be found in her apartment upstairs and is quite the power player, leading her to be named the Baron of Santa Monica by the Camarilla. The two sisters are locked into some kind of severe sibling rivalry, a fight between the rebellious younger sister and the ambitious older sister. You need some info from the older sister, so she sends you to a haunted hotel she would like to redevelop to retrieve an item of sentimental importance to the ghost that has been raising hell and stopping renovation efforts. Thus begins one of the most delightfully terrifying levels I've ever played. The hotel is filled with every haunted house cliche you can imagine, with distant figures, unexplained noises, flying objects and whatever else you can think of. I was playing this late at night, after Bethany had gone to bed. My exploratory tip-toeing around the ground floor of the hotel was going fine and then THIS happened. (Skip to the 3:00 mark and watch till 4:00 with the sound on and preferably in high quality).
I jumped. My cat jumped. I quit playing for the night.
Upon returning from the hotel, you find that the sibling rivalry has taken a sour turn and now the older sister is holding the younger at gunpoint. You find them in her office... and see that they are the same person. You see, the sisters are a single Malkavian vampire and her unique madness is a split personality that masks the guilt of murdering her father who may or may not have molested her over a period of years. It's a tired film trope, but it's handled in a way that is strikingly sophisticated for games and I honestly didn't see it coming even though I had never seen them in the same room together... that should have seemed suspicious. It was a high point in a game full of great characters.
What's great about the sisters and their hotel mission is that you never fire one bullet or swing one sword - it's all investigation, survival and dialogue. This is the strong suit of the game - drawing on it's extensive source lore and mostly great writing. It paints such an interesting picture and drives home this notion that even after death, people long for structure, belonging, identity and community. They can also be just as petty, political, selfish and conniving as their still-breathing counterparts. I haven't even mentioned some of the other great moments of the game, such as the moral ambiguity of how you treat a human who is devoted to you or whether you will kill to keep the general public unaware of vampires. It's sad then, when the game devolves in the latter half into a corridor-running action game. The combat is terrible and the enemies are bland. The few boss encounters are memorable, but not for the actual fights. The final two segments are just god-awful. The wheels come right off of the plot cart as the game invents reasons to spend a few hours in dull sewers, another posh and vaguely gothic mansion or, unbelievably enough, fighting SWAT cops in a high rise under construction.
This game came out right in the heart of Matrix-chic, and it is poorer for it.
Overall, the feeling that I take from this game is one of fond sadness. It would be amazing to see someone like Bethesda take this franchise, bring on some of the original writers and make an open-world Masquerade game. That may happen at some point in the future, but for now we can only dream.