Monthly Archives: September 2016

September 16, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 15. I Shot an Arrow Into the Air


directed by Stuart Rosenberg
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the story by Madelon Champion
starring Dewey Martin and Edward Binns
with Ted Otis, Harry Bartell, and Leslie Barrett

Friday, January 15, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Hey, this one breaks the pattern! It has a progressive twist, rather than a retrograde one.

“It was Earth all along” is the exact opposite of “it was all a dream.” Instead of giving us a convenient excuse for forgetting where we’ve been, it reminds us that there’s no excuse, because we never went anywhere.

It’s a brilliant twist, and it would go on to be the most famous twist of all time, when Serling reused it in his screenplay for Planet of the Apes.

I’m defining a “progressive” twist as one that confirms the subtext of the preceding fantasy instead of brushing it under the rug. It draws the audience’s emotions forward toward the light, in the direction of catharsis. “Turns out you’re home,” it says, “where feelings live. So admit what these feelings have been.”

The feelings at the end are not new feelings about the twist; they’re pre-existing feelings set free by the twist. Charlton Heston falls to his knees for the same reason that Corey does: because, having lost everything that ever mattered to him, he’s been in agony all along. But he needs to realize that he’s home for those feelings to finally be unleashed as feelings. As long as he believes he’s far away, in a land of action and danger, the adventure of manly resilience will continue. The fact that this has all happened at home is not why it hurts in the first place, but it is why it’s allowed to be recognized as hurting.

This goes for the audience too. Fantasy is a playground set off at a safe distance, in which our subconscious has special permission to run around and burn off steam, freed from the burden of believing that the feelings we’re having are really ours; it’s all “just” fantasy. A story that ends with “it was all a dream” tells us to double down on that kind of compartmentalization; it gives us a further exemption within the exemption. Whereas “it was Earth all along” pulls us in the opposite direction; it collapses the safe distance. By reminding us that the characters’ feelings were really theirs, it impels us toward recognizing that ours are too. After all, the only person actually generating the emotions you felt in this fantasy story has been you, the viewer — on Earth all along.

While there are infinite variations to be played on “it was all a dream” — I count at least four in this series so far — there are far fewer ways to deliver the effect of “it was Earth all along.” The difficulty is to contrive a situation where recognition of the familiar can be delayed until the end without being disguised. This is a crucial caveat, because if what we experience turns out to have been a mirage, then the emotions associated with it become mirages as well. To get the full Heston, we need to be able to carry our entire burden intact through the door of revelation.

You may now ask: So, does Soylent Green qualify as a progressive twist? Do, say, The Sixth Sense and The Others? What about “Third From the Sun,” for that matter?

The answer is no, not in the very particular psychological sense I’m talking about. Yes, those are all “it was [X] all along” twists, and yes, they’re not preceded by overt mirages. But the thing we’re looking for, the thing that sets this episode apart, is an ending that suddenly moves everything closer to home — closer to the safety of the familiar, closer to the seat of the emotions. Those other twists all place the action further from normalcy.

In “Third From the Sun,” things weren’t as straightforward as we had thought. In “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” they are more straightforward than we thought. That is: it’s just people fighting and killing each other, exactly what it looks like, and not a “space survival adventure” version of the same, a more fantastical thing, to which we’re inclined to apply a more fantastical sense of morality.

In this way, the meaning of the episode is identical for the audience and for Corey. Corey thinks he’s been operating under a moral exemption appropriate to sci-fi and hopeless cases, but then is forced to acknowledge that he’s just been operating as himself, a human being. Like Lord of the Flies.

That you the viewer might be capable of murder, simply because you’re a human being, is a pretty bitter pill for prime time. And as I’ve been saying, this episode doesn’t take the standard tack of using its ending to hedge its bets and smooth things over. But the trademark Twilight Zone ambivalence still makes itself known in other ways. It has to; it’s like an air bubble that’s pushed down in one place only to pop up in another. The ambivalence is simply part of the package deal, as negotiated among Rod, the network, and the audience — not to mention Rod’s superego, the subculture of the science fiction magazines, Dwight D. Eisenhower, etc. etc.

The strongest-pill version of this episode’s story would portray Corey as a sympathetic everyman, and coax the audience into embracing his cold survivalist logic. Movies rope the audience into signing on for “tough-hearted mercy-killing” all the time, so this is clearly doable. Twisting the exemption out from under that would send a real clear message. Probably a painful one, for many viewers.

[I must briefly digress here. As it happens, there is a movie out there that has a full-fledged progressive twist ending and throws it directly in the face of “tough-hearted mercy-killing.” It seems duly to be remembered as having been exceptionally emotionally shocking — well, by those who saw it. You probably didn’t, and I certainly didn’t, and probably never will, because it doesn’t sound like it’s a very good movie.

That movie is Stephen King’s The Mist (2007), and I know about this ending — which was written not by King but by director Frank Darabont — solely from reading about it (and then watching the clip) on the internet. (You can just read the plot summary on the Wikipedia page.) Darabont has described the ending as “an angry cry from the heart from a humanist,” which, as you can imagine, I find fascinating, as an artistic and a social phenomenon. But for present purposes that’s enough digression.]

Instead of luring the audience over to Corey’s logic, the show goes in the opposite direction: Corey is depicted from the outset as a dangerous, untrustworthy lout. Unlike prior sleazeball antiheroes — like the amoral jerks in What You Need and The Four of Us Are Dying — Corey doesn’t even get the formal endorsement of being followed around by the camera like a proper protagonist. That distinction goes to Donlin, a classic “good stern dad” who ultimately gets shot down by the feckless youth that he never stopped nobly trying to keep in line. After only a few minutes of the episode we’re firmly oriented within the masculine-tragic worldview of the John Wayne contingent; we know exactly who we’re better than, what we’re tougher than.

And then as if that’s not all safety enough, the episode goes a step further:

DONLIN: Pierson, you were with Corey during the crash. What happened to him?
PIERSON: Nothing that I know of, sir. I can’t understand it either.

These lines, never followed up, imply that even for Corey, Corey’s current loutishness is an aberration, possibly attributable to some kind of personality injury intangibly linked to space accidents. Deliberately vague stuff, designed to be a moral loophole through which an audience member can squeeze a camel if need be. Now when the end comes you have not just one excuse but two:

1) Corey’s case doesn’t apply to me because Corey was a congenital bad guy, the type who doesn’t even love and fear his good stern dad
2) Corey’s case doesn’t apply to me because Corey wasn’t himself; he went crazy, got hit on the head by outer space or something

And then there’s even a third buffer put in place to protect the delicate audience from the direct shock of this ending: Rod’s narration makes an extremely rare mid-show appearance, contemptuously egging Corey on as he treks toward self-recognition. By the time Corey sees the highway, we’ve already written him off as a philosophical dead man. This is a fairly drastic intervention against the impact of the ending — not to mention the established format for the show — for no other reason than that it is made necessary by the principle of the conservation of ambivalence. It’s all a conservative counterweight to the final twist.

When it comes time for the catharsis of recognition, the audience is primed to have the exciting experience of getting to take it at full force. There’s no risk of anyone getting really knocked down, because the show has taken such care to insulate us, whether or not we knew that’s what was happening. Safety first.

I will grant him this, though: Corey certainly looks the most like Rod Serling of any of the characters. And I’d wager he’s 36. (Dewey Martin was.) Your mileage may vary — from Rod’s — as to whether that complicates your sympathies.

Okay wait, you say, I have one more question: what about Citizen Kane? Do you count that a progressive twist?

Well, sure, that’s a progressive ending — it tells us that things were more emotionally on-the-nose, less obscure than we thought — but does it really count as a twist? It’s just the answer to the question posed at the beginning, like in any mystery story.

Well then, you say, how about Fight Club? And what about Vertigo?

Right, good, those are both interesting cases, but guys, I’m sorry — for the sake of time I’m going to have to move on. If you really need to ask more about specific twists I’ll be holding office hours in the comments.

I’m not going to read too much into it, but I do think it’s worth making a note in our Rod Serling psych file that this episode’s twist, which, as I’ve been saying, stands out so distinctly from most of Serling’s work, was not the product of his own imagination.

Apparently he was at a Hollywood dinner party and a non-writer — Madelon Champion, wife of writer/producer John C. Champion — came up with this twist in conversation, and Serling immediately recognized it as a winner. He reportedly paid her $500 for the idea when he decided to use it, and gave her the generous credit seen above, “based on the story by Madelon Champion.”

Well, in the long run maybe not actually that generous, considering Planet of the Apes. I guess really it was the least he could do.

Loose bullets that I couldn’t fit into the flow:

• The expression “who’s he when he’s at home?” embodies the premises of the discussion above. It’s essentially a psychological idiom.

• The opening rocket launch sequence is fabulously cutting-edge: the “first manned aircraft into space” being fantasized about less than a year and a half before the real thing. I tried to identify the launch footage — which seems to include glimpses of a real control room and possibly real audio chatter, too — but couldn’t. Versimilitude goes a long way in this game; to us now, the real 1960 seen in the stock footage and the imaginary one of The Twilight Zone seem pretty closely related, so I can only imagine the impact it would have had at the time. Putting cardboard Zuckerbergs in your Bourne movie doesn’t come close to how excellently topical this is. I wonder how much of this kind of NASA footage the average audience member had even had the opportunity to see, by January 1960. Maybe not that much.

• Once we switch to the make-believe control room set, the first thing we see is a huge vertical glass map, as seen in Star Wars etc. Is that a real thing in real life? Does it have a name? The guy in the episode has to write on it backward, which seems like a problem with the whole system.

• After the full-bodied intro — with documentary footage no less — to be dropped into such an intensely minimal situation gives a sense of dreamy transport. I suspect the director had the opposite intention in mind: the intro was to ground what followed in reality. But the effect is actually that the intro throws into relief just how blank the stage is on which this little dream is playing out.

• There’s more than a whiff of Cain and Abel in the middle of the episode, something biblical and allegorical, both in the story and in the way the desert landscape is used. There’s also a conspicuous cribbing of the famous Seventh Seal shot of figures on a skyline ridge. I’m not sure whether this stuff counts for or against taking the material more seriously; maybe neither. In any case it gave the episode a quiet sense of style and I liked it. (Stuart Rosenberg went on to be a real high-profile film director, responsible for Cool Hand Luke and The Amityville Horror, among others.)

• Reshoots are apparent: suddenly they’re acting on a tiny set with an obvious painted drop about three feet away. It’s reported of this episode that shooting in the desert was frustrating and there were tensions. Well, naturally.

• This is the second episode (out of only fifteen so far; that’s 13% of the series) about a guy named Corey/Corry stranded on an asteroid that looks exactly like Death Valley. Maybe mix it up a little more than that, Rod.

• This episode’s title is yet another stab at imparting weight and legitimacy with a literary reference — this time a bit more successful than previously. This whole Bartlett’s compulsion is a habit that Rod picked up from the world of sci-fi and fantasy writing at large, where it served a defensive, compensatory function. The vital signifier is not so much the content of the reference as it is the stilted syntax of the “high” idiom. In this case the phrase with the cachet is “I knew not where,” which is too many words into the poem to fit in the title, so to get full credit, a character needs to speak two whole lines of the poem in the course of the episode. Musingly, at a window.

Of course even this fairly unassuming quote has been abused for convenience, to correct the tense and cut out the spoiler — the character says “it landed I know not where.” Then, to pre-empt any accusation of having mangled the reference, he asserts that in the fictional context this is in fact to be understood not as a quoting of Wordsworth per se but as a “nursery rhyme for the age of space.” Not the greatest way to showcase your affinity for fine literature… but weep not, for clearly made your point is, all the same. And lo they wept not.

• At the time of the shoot, Edward Binns, who played Donlin, had just recently been seen by audiences as Captain Junket in North By Northwest! You know, Captain Junket. You know! The one who said the famous line, “Mrs. Townsend, I’m Captain Junket of the Nassau County Detectives.” Yeah! Download the clip to make it your ringtone.

Here is $1353.89 in unclaimed life insurance benefits belonging to John and Madelon Champion. Good luck.

It’s the part I was born to play, baby! I thought that would be a pretty funny line & link to slip organically into the discussion. It seemed doable; I figured I could have Rod Serling’s subconscious saying it. But that didn’t work out and now it’s just sitting here. Maybe you can see where it should have gone.

More stock music but the editing is much better in this one. Some snippets of Herrmann but most of this is library music by Lucien Moraweck and René Garriguenc — both French-born, but unlike the Parisians mentioned last time (Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts), Moraweck and Garriguenc were both LA residents and lifelong CBS staff composers, with a scoring style and approach not so different from Herrmann’s. I’m not sure whether there’s a traceable chain of influence there or whether there were just basic stylistic ideas common throughout the industry. The world of radio and television music is not widely discussed or studied and mostly opaque to simple Google dabbling. The Twilight Zone is actually one of the very few cases where interest in the music has been widespread enough to churn some of this information to the surface of the web.

And yet who among us hasn’t been deeply influenced by subliminally hearing hours upon hours television music? Listen up!

September 8, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 14. Third from the Sun


directed by Richard L. Bare
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the short story by Richard Matheson
starring Fritz Weaver, Edward Andrews, Joe Maross, Denise Alexander, Lori March, and Jeanne Evans

Friday, January 8, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Third From the Sun‘s final surprise — that the titular planet is a destination rather than a point of departure — is so irrelevant to the preceding action that it hardly even qualifies as a “twist.” The only thing it twists is our assumption that we’re watching an “us” rather than a “them,” which has not been a distinctive feature of this particular story; it’s just a basic assumption made about any fiction. Memorable though it may be on first encounter, this ending is an all-purpose gimmick that can be grafted on to any story. (“If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended / That you have but chanced to view / The far-off orb of Zorbulon Two.”)

It’s a stark illustration of my thesis that the twists on The Twilight Zone serve to stanch uneasiness, not intensify it. The uneasiness that this episode stirs up — or tries to, anyway — has absolutely nothing to do with people from outer space. But you’ll come away having had the real subject matter wiped from your mind by the last 30 seconds.

What you’ve been watching up until that point is a story about the burden of having to completely jettison your nice suburban life because of The Looming Cataclysm… which is to say it’s about trying to reconcile the simultaneous complacency and terror of Cold War America… which is to say it’s about the nauseating gap between the private, emotional self and the public, rational self. Just like every other episode. Here’s Rod helpfully laying it all out for us:

Quitting time at the plant. Time for supper now. Time for families. Time for a cool drink on a porch. Time for the quiet rustle of leaf-laden trees that screen out the moon. And underneath it all… behind the eyes of the men… hanging invisible over the summer night… is a horror without words. For this is the stillness before storm. This is the eve of the end.

Take away the last two sentences (the ones that start trying to assign words to the “horror without words”) and you’ve got the heart of the Twilight Zone: only the part of the self that knows peace and comfort is free to have the nightmares accrued by the other part.

To the private self, forever yearning for leafy Binghamton, the public sphere of business and politics can feel not just cold and oppressive but genuinely unnatural, uncanny. The anti-humanism of the arms race, which serves as the motivating threat in this story, is just an extreme case of a more general bewilderment: how can this experience of reality — the sensuous immediacy of a cool drink on a porch — be the same world as that — the grim abstractions of politics? How can a newspaper’s talk about “the enemy” — not to mention “mutually assured destruction” — possibly qualify as a reference to the same reality that also contains the delicious actuality of lemonade? All those manly “big words” feel like they can’t begin to touch the physical truth of things: supper, families. Not just because of geographical distance but because of an essential difference of type: it seems like it all exists in a separate category, in a parallel mental sphere.

The story of this episode is that the one sphere encroaches on the other — lives in the physical world are upended by a threat from the world of talk. The crucial thing about the episode is that from the audience’s perspective it remains just talk all the way to the end; we’re never shown any actual attack or destruction, and our protagonists don’t witness any. It makes for lame TV, yes, but if we’re taking it seriously that’s also precisely what’s disturbing; these people have to abandon everything they’ve ever known without ever feeling the necessity with their senses. They have to act on the merely conceptual, in defiance of the soothing suburban setting, the comforts of home and family. This is the essence of anxiety: the impulse to overrule your own physical intuition that you are safe, and commit yourself bodily, by an act of willpower, to a world of danger that you know only through words.

The gradual subjugation of physical reality to apocalyptic thinking is represented by the tilted camera angles. Things are no longer themselves, in this household. They’re now part of the world of concepts.

“This world as we know it won’t exist much longer. It’s about to blow itself up,” says dad. Those big words are the full extent of the threat, but they’ve already poisoned everything. Maybe it’s that poison itself that they’re really escaping. In a sense, there’s no difference.

(After knowing the ending, you might argue that the crooked camera was actually a signal that this wasn’t Earth — but that’s effectively a denial of the intuitive sense it made all along: that the world of comfort has been denatured by anxiety.)

The tough question at the end of the episode, which the feint about Earth serves to push aside, is really: have these people done a sensible and necessary thing? Or have they just thrown away their lives out of sheer crazy anxiety, sacrificing everything on the altar of would-be rationalism? We have no way of knowing.

For me, and I imagine for many others, the greatest wound left by witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center was thinking “well, I have been hearing on the news for years about the threat of terrorism, so I have only myself to blame for being surprised by this. I always filed that kind of talk away as conceptual rather than actual, and let lemonade etc. predominate in my sense of the world. But I won’t make that mistake again.” As though being my caught off guard were an unforgivable error.

Of course, trying to take reported concepts as deeply to heart as you take your own physical reality is a terribly destructive intention — far, far more disruptive to one’s life and well-being than whatever damage I might have suffered from being “surprised” by 9/11 — which was, after all, widely attested to have been surprising.

I’ve come back around since. I see now that the grains of salt that keep rational abstractions confined to their proper sphere — and keep “a cool drink on a porch” front and center while you’re having it — are a vital talisman for well-being. Yet one more bit of advice I wish I could pass back to Rod.

Besides the tilted camera, some additional clues that the Sturka family is from another planet: they listen to art music, have modernist, surrealist and ethnic painting and sculpture throughout their house, and have what looks like a shamisen on the living room wall. The signs of being cultured on Earth serve nicely as the signs of being an alien on TV. The average audience member’s ambivalence on this point serves the episode’s purposes: if I’m into stuff that’s a little off the beaten path — like, say, science fiction — does that make me an “us” or a “them”? “A little of both,” says TV.

The Sturkas also have rather loud curtains.

My first reaction to this episode was that it was painfully thin stuff, a précis instead of a script, with leaden execution. A second viewing didn’t exactly redeem it, but it did make clearer to me that it’s more dependent on its historical moment than any other episode we’ve seen. To our eyes it plays as duller and hokier than usual because it relies on very specific real-world anxieties that we no longer share. Other episodes, for all their period aesthetics and attitudes, still tend to be about psychological universals.

I for one still fear nuclear weapons themselves — they’re terrifying! — but I don’t have the specific period fear, the Dr. Strangelove fear, the one being played to here: that the petty men who run the world are right now caught up in an unstoppable march toward total destruction. In 1960, the audience had it buzzing in their bones. When the boss, Carling, sneers “You a defeatist, Sturka?” at the beginning of the episode, it doesn’t push my buttons and make me feel defensive. In 1960 it probably would have. And it needs to for the episode to work. Carling has no discernible motivation as written; he simply represents a voice the audience is expected to already have in their heads, abusing them.

It’s worth noting that the news in 1960 was not of nuclear tests themselves — none had not taken place since 1958 — but of the ongoing contentious efforts to negotiate some form of test ban treaty, which wouldn’t come to pass until 1963. I imagine that being exposed to constant political chest-thumping about nuclear policy would be more anxiety-inducing than hearing about actual bomb tests; it’s hubris and obliviousness that are truly scary. These days we don’t say that we’re worried about “the bomb,” we we say we’re worried about who has “the nuclear codes.” Weapons are just inert things; vast explosions may be devastating, but they are, in a sense, simple. Whereas the threat posed by people and their delusions, the threat posed by an untrustworthy society, is endlessly complex and harrowing.

(That’s the appeal of post-apocalyptic fantasies, in a nutshell: having to fight zombies to survive is a small price to pay for the profound relief that comes from the destruction of society and all its infinite menace.)

Serling’s adaptation of the bare-bones Richard Matheson source adds half of the characters and most of the details, but remains otherwise pretty much faithful. And yet tone and emphasis are different just by virtue of its being on film, since film is naturally allied to the sensual outlook, and prose to the rational. In Matheson’s terse, pulpy style, which uses almost no descriptive language, ideas seem to be playing out in the abstract, flattened space of the imagination, so the philosophical tension between the world of the real and the world of talk doesn’t really come across as central. Though we do get:

“For the future of life itself,” he finished weakly. He was sorry he said it. Early on a prosaic morning, over everyday food, that kind of talk didn’t sound right. Even if it was true.

On the other hand, in Matheson’s version the twist ending actually feels significant, much more like the point of the story, since we never get to really see or meet these characters — they all remain nameless the whole time — so finding out that they’re actually a “them” feels like essential information finally revealed, rather than arbitrary pin-the-tail-on-the-episode information.

I’ll grant that, superficial though it may be, that is the ending, and to most people it will be the only thing this episode has going for it, so maybe it seems perverse of me to refuse to take it more seriously. Certainly I agree that there’s plenty worth saying about the notion of saucermen being “so much more like us than we imagine!” I just choose to save such a discussion for an episode where the script is actually about that notion. (I haven’t checked, but chances seem good that there will be one.)

My intention here is to talk about how the episodes feel and function while they’re onscreen. The saucermen topic is more like something this episode encourages us to ponder on our own time — like the patronizing “questions for book groups” in the back of trade paperbacks.

Jeanne Evans (Mrs. Riden) was director Richard Bare’s wife at the time. Bare went on to direct “virtually every episode of the 1960s–1970s CBS television series Green Acres” and died only last year, at the age of 101.

Fritz Weaver is 90 and still alive.

Music is from stock: a lot of “time passes” water-treading cues, which don’t help the drama at all. It’s mostly taken from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” sets of library cues, plus a couple of similar items by Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts, composed and recorded at the same time as Herrmann’s.

How did these highbrow Parisians end up writing American TV music? I believe I read somewhere — I can’t find it anywhere right now, but I’ll return and edit this if it turns out to be terribly wrong — that during a long musician’s strike in 1957, CBS decided to spend its music budget on overseas sessions, recording general-purpose library music, and music department head Lud Gluskin thought it would be interesting (and convenient) to commission a bunch of local composers to write cues for the Paris sessions. More on this when we get to the famous second season theme, which was assembled from a couple of those pieces.

September 1, 2016

Game log 8/16

The project of working chronologically through my amassed game purchases was interrupted this month by the sudden acquisition of a Raspberry Pi for playing “retro” games. But what games to put on it? I started working from this list of “best games.” I didn’t get very far with it (surprise!) but I did end up playing some of the games along the way.

The games I played for more than a few minutes:

WarioWare, Inc. (2003, for Game Boy Advance): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 1.5 hrs]

I feel reasonably well-informed about what the Nintendo corporation has wrought over the years, but I haven’t actually played very many of their games. Here for example are a few famous ones that I had never touched before.

WarioWare, Inc. is a daring experiment in tone and tempo; it translates the signature style of Japanese TV — the barrage of hyperactive wackiness, wocka wocka wocka! — into gameplay. Hundreds of rudimentary challenges (steer around the obstacle; jump at the right moment; etc.) are thrown on the screen in succession, for about 3 seconds apiece. There’s not enough time to make a conscious assessment of what’s required or how it’s to be controlled, so your reflexes just kick in and take a stab at it. Thrillingly, they are often correct, thanks to all kinds of subtle design choices that were secretly communicating directly with your intuition.

This game comes up a lot as a point of reference in design discussions, and now I understand why; it’s like game design broken down to the molecular level. It also caters to the mindset of game designers, by being framed as a clown show wherein Wario decides to strike it rich by producing video games. Meta. Furthermore, many of the minigames are smirking allusions to classic games of 20 years earlier: grist being pulverized right before your eyes by the postmodern mill. I found the game inspiring — as an example of unabashed weirdness, a remarkably bold production for a major corporation like Nintendo — yet also dispiriting in its plunge toward the era of slurried “retro” chaos. Prescient! But dispiriting.

The ad embedded above (actually several ads in a row) is from Japan because this game doesn’t seem to have gotten a US TV commercial.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 5 or 6 hrs?]

In the case of Yoshi’s Island, the ad embedded above is from Japan because it is attractive and sensibly put together and represents the game, whereas the revolting American TV spot is a piece of senseless filth that has nothing to do with the game and everything to do with the depraved and cynical mind of some cretinous cigar-chomping ad executive who obviously lacks a human soul.

The generosity of the designers is apparent in every level of Yoshi’s Island; they want the player to be delighted anew as often as possible. No design idea outlives its welcome; something unpredictable is always around the corner. Nintendo’s Mario games were such monster hits because they were every kid’s fantasy of how a toy should be: a horn of plenty. And in this one there’s a splendid breadth and balance to the offering: you can just focus on driving forward to the end, or you can slow way down and look for all the hidden truffles, and either way you’ll feel like you’re playing exactly the way it was meant to be played. The sequence of beats works at either tempo.

Despite my affection for platforming games like this, I am very bad at them. I fall and fall and fall while trying to execute basic jumps. The need to bring the character to a stop by “braking” gives me the subconscious sensation of constantly having overshot my mark (even when I haven’t), which erodes my confidence. Even after many hours of play I was still losing life after life in dumb ways.

But improvement is always a possibility if you let it be. Maybe after many more hours of play — in an unjudgmental frame of mind — my instincts would start to sharpen after all.

In any case, my self-frustration mostly stayed at a manageable level, in part because Yoshi’s Island has an innovative system for giving the player an incentive to avoid errors while reducing the amount of disruption caused by actually “dying.” Every time Yoshi takes a hit, he drops infant Mario, and then has to scramble to pick him up again before a timer runs out. In other words, making an error means you have to do busywork; once you do it, you’re basically back to where you were. Like the hint system in Machinarium, which cordoned off the spoilers behind a blockade of deliberate tedium, this seems to me a fine solution to the perpetual problem of creating in-game disincentives that don’t interrupt the flow of play. And as with Machinarium, I’m not aware of any other game having taken up the idea. It’s still there, for anyone who wants it.

EarthBound (1994, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 1 hr]

The EarthBound ad embedded above is the American version because, despite being terrible, it at least shows the game. In Japan (where the game is known as “Mother 2”), the ad campaign didn’t give any hint of what the game was like. Nonetheless, and I say this in all seriousness, this may be the best commercial I’ve ever seen.

The game is an RPG in the post-E.T. “suburban kids save the day when the adults are clueless” genre that was central to the movie business in the 80s and 90s but was surprisingly underrepresented in video games. I’m not really a player of RPGs but I gather that when this game was released stateside it was absolutely unprecedented in this respect. I also gather that further down the line — I only played through the introductory scenes and some of the first area — it becomes more and more quirky and sentimental in unexpected ways. I was mostly playing to get a taste of a much ballyhooed cult favorite, for my literacy. And sure, I could immediately see the charm. Which, I suppose, is not unrelated to the charm of that commercial; I bet the designer wrote the ad campaign too.

Perhaps someday I’ll return for the rest. Then again, as I said, I’ve never really gotten into RPGs, and the reason is mostly that stat-on-stat subtraction-offs are, to me, an intolerably drab and tedious mechanic on which to base a game, especially a 50-hour epic. And unfortunately this game seems like it’s pretty committed to constant stat battles as a way of life. So perhaps not.

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993, for PC Engine): Konami (Tokyo, Japan) [played 1 hr?]

This is viciously hard. In a Mario game, the abilities you’re given and the demands placed upon you tend to line up; you’re good at jumping, so jump up here. In Castlevania games (at least the older ones) it’s the opposite; the enemies move and attack in ways that are designed around your character’s shortcomings. You’re bad at attacking anything that’s not directly in front of you, so this enemy’s going to swoop above and below you. You’re not very fast, so this enemy’s going to be fast. In gaming I want to always be frustrated with myself, not with the damn character and his stupid slow jumping, so this kind of thing breaks the magic of immersion. On the other hand, the game is what it is and is known to be winnable as such; the true objective is to become so versatile with the abilities you do have that you can apply them to any situation. If a vampire hunter had wheels he’d be a bicycle. Well, this guy has no wheels.

The real “hard” in a “hard” game is “hard to find a reason to keep at it, since it is after all just a game, and there are after all thousands and thousands of games out there.” This is unfortunate, because the experience of sticking with “hard” until it cracks open, weeks or months later, is ultimately a wonderful and valuable one — because it builds up one’s core confidence that there is no “hard,” just “slow,” and that everything is achievable in time. But that experience has to arise organically from one’s real motivations in the real world, and right now my sense of entitlement to gratification from entertainment has a shorter fuse than “weeks or months.”

But who knows. Maybe I’ll return to Castlevania for another whipping sooner than I think. In a “Rondo,” the same refrain comes back again and again.

The video trailer above is just a clumsy fan-assembled thing. The game was released only in Japan and no commercial has been uploaded to Youtube that I can find.

Heart of Darkness (1998, for PlayStation): Amazing Studio (Paris, France) [7 hrs?]

This one I played to completion. Eric Chahi’s previous game, the classic Another World (1991), had been one of my favorites as a teenager, but by the time his next game came out I was in college and less tuned in, so I managed not to have known about it at all until now.

As is frequently the case with games incorporating elaborate traditional animation, much of the gameplay is location-specific and heavily dependent on trial and error. But beyond that, even the more fully-realized systems — for shooting and jumping — are here applied to extraordinarily punishing scenarios. The most infuriating of them (the one at the end of the game) I had to attempt maybe 40 times before executing it successfully. Or more. Nonetheless the crazy, impossible ambition of this game to be a full-fledged Spielberg/Henson/Disney rollercoaster, and the truly excellent in-game animation, cast some kind of spell over me. Somehow it managed to be a gratifying experience despite its cruelties (and infelicities).

Heart of Darkness was purportedly the first game to record a soundtrack with full orchestra (though, because of its many years in development, not the first game to be released with one) and from the first moments I was taken aback by its quality. It’s by Bruce Broughton, a legitimate major Hollywood composer, and his genuine sure-footed mastery of the 80s/90s fantasy-adventure idiom immediately marks this game as something special. I’m not aware of any other game that sounds remotely like this, which means I’m not sure there’s a game that feels remotely like this.

This game goes on the shelf of bold and intriguing one-offs, alongside The Last Express.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played for 10 hrs?]

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is right up near the top of most “best games ever” lists.

I get it. It’s maximally delectable, a living kingdom of marzipan, and it’s cleverly constructed to draw the player spiralling ever inward. First you have to save the princess, which takes about five minutes. Hooray! — but uh-oh, now you have to save the kingdom, which takes a few hours. Hooray! — but uh-oh, now you have to save the dimension (more or less), which is going to take you a long, long time. The gameplay itself is clean and strong — most of it carried over from the original NES Legend of Zelda — but the real brilliance here is in the way the game subliminally ramps up the player’s ambition, starting as a reassuringly linear taskmaster (“go here and get this, now go there and do that, now go here…”) but giving ample opportunity to notice other stuff along the way, until very gradually that other stuff begins to be mandatory. It’s a bit like a foreign language course; the only thing that’s ever directly asked of you is to repeat what you hear, but beneath that surface a broader fluency is bit by bit called into play. Many games since have tried to replicate this progression — it’s pretty much de rigueur these days for games to start out as their own tutorials — but there’s something particularly disarming and confident about this one.

After about 10 hours, well into the fluent free-roam portion of the game, I found myself hitting the point of exhaustion. I get it; I got it.

The trailer above is, as you can see, from the recent Wii U re-release. I find two original 1992 US TV spots with no game footage: the fancy one and the less fancy one. Meanwhile the Japanese commercial gets at things in its own way. Chances seem good that this will be the 2020 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Back to my present-day list, but not yet back to the chronological grind.

Tomb Raider (2013): Crystal Dynamics (Redwood City, CA) [24 hrs]

Tomb Raider was offered on March 29 of this year by GameChanger, a video-games-for-hospitalized-kids charity, for a $1 donation. I proposed it to a friend as a game we could both play and then discuss, but he had some other stuff he wanted to get through first. Then this month he gave the signal, so we played it.

Top flight triple-A polish is its own reward. Setting aside gameplay, I was quite happy to be prancing around in beautiful island scenery — jungles, caverns, cliffs, and of course abandoned buildings up the wazoo, all of it heavy with that special sense of preternatural dimensionality that makes 3D game worlds so mesmerizing.

I just wish it had been in service of a game that emphasized exploration and traversal more than combat, since that’s what these lush environments are crying out for. But this Tomb Raider hardly raided any tombs; mostly she just “headshot”ted and “stealth kill”ed and “collect”ed and “upgrade”d her way through a paramilitary world, to earn niblets of animated story. Maybe I’m an idiot but I was actually kind of curious where the plot might go; turned out “going” wasn’t really its intention. Lara Croft is shipwrecked on a cursed island full of bad guys so she kills the bad guys and lifts the curse. SPOILER ALERT!

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014): The Astronauts (Warsaw, Poland) [5 hrs]

I bought this on June 9 of this year when it was a special for $4.99 during the GOG Summer Sale, because I had had my eye on it for a while and because thanks one of the many gimmicks of the sale, buying any game would also unlock a free one that I also wanted. I played it now because, as you’ll see below, my next-on-the-list game was not entirely to my taste and I wanted to counterprogram with something short that I felt sure I’d enjoy.

I did enjoy this, very much. As a luxurious environmental immersion this manages to put Tomb Raider and its ilk to shame. For sense-of-place photorealist atmosphere this game is second to none; it has a lot in common with Dear Esther (and, in places, with Amnesia) — but in addition to having even more impeccable graphics, Ethan Carter has far better and more restrained writing than those games. In this place, I cared almost as much about what was going on as I did about what it was like to be there. That’s meant as high praise. (Albeit handicapped for a medium that still struggles mightily to have any real literary value. The script of Ethan Carter is no masterpiece; it’s just competent, and god bless it for that.)

I’ve seen people online complaining that the geography of the game is too big for what it contains, but I feel like the emphasis on long, slow, quiet strolls through the woods is what affords the work its occasional feeling of having transcended mere gamehood. Transcended into where? Into a new, dimly lit formal territory, still being explored. The opening screen announces that this is a “narrative experience,” which seems about right, although I feel like even “narrative” is unnecessarily leading. Is Pirates of the Carribbean a narrative experience, or just an experience? I came away with that feeling that the best games can provide: that I’d just been somewhere else for a while, somewhere as real as my own dreams.

There’s actually a really good detective gameplay idea tucked in here — tag locations within a crime scene in chronological sequence to demonstrate that you’ve deduced the events that took place there — but it’s used so sparingly that it feels like its potential has hardly been tapped.

The ambient sound and music had a strong effect on me, evoking moody 70s horror movies, which by association instilled me with a spirit of trust in the experience and its intentions.

So: do I take issue with the single brutal, BRUTAL jump-scare in the middle of an otherwise melancholic and dreamy game? Hell yes. Would the game be better without it? Hm. I don’t know. Strictly speaking it may have been gratuitous, but I can’t deny that it contributed to my emotional experience, by retroactively radiating its threat to all the hovering eeriness in the rest of the game. But do I resent it nonetheless? Hell yes! How dare you! I got goosebumps all over my body and had to sit still for a minute while I came down. They got me good.

They’re gonna get you good too. I’m not offering any spoilers to help out. You’ll be okay. Fine, here’s the one thing I’ll say: it’s not in the first couple hours of play. I promise.

Okay, and with that I return to my list. Still working my way through the “Humble Origin Bundle,” purchased 8/27/13.

Crysis 2: Maximum Edition (2011–12): Crytek (Frankfurt, Germany) / Crytek UK (Nottingham, England) [played for 5 hrs]

Crysis 2 is the videogame equivalent of the Marvel movies that have taken over Hollywood. It’s glossy and impressive, it’s eager to please, it’s beyond soulless, it’s sort of fun. The storytelling stays firmly within the bounds of the testosteronal zeitgeist so that your brain doesn’t need to process it at all: aliens and a plague and paramilitary troops have all ravaged Manhattan, evoking 9/11 — and in other news, the pope is Catholic. Just in case you weren’t getting the message, they got the actual Hans Zimmer (“Han’s room”) to write the theme. We clear now?

The game — not just the action but the plot itself — is all about your cyber-suit of dominating power, specifically all the power it gives you with which to dominate. After you dominate enough guys with your power you can earn more power for your suit, thereby increasing your power to dominate. And you’d better dominate them with your power, if you don’t want them to steal your power suit from you, because naturally they want it, for its power to dominate. Which must never fall into the wrong hands.

After I had duly dominated my way through five levels with increasing power but decreasing patience, I realized that my ability to briefly turn invisible, combined with the ease with which I recovered from damage, meant I could probably run straight through a level without actually shooting anyone, and sure enough this proved to be true. This left me with a choice to make: should I zip through the game unsportsmanlike just to get to see the snazzy locations and special effects, and watch the story play out? Or should I take my temptation to do this as an indication that I shouldn’t be playing this game at all, and dump it?

I dumped it. It wasn’t for me.