A Hesitant Hero or the Pause Before the Precipice: Alan Moore’s Miracleman and Virgil’s Aeneid

I always find it amazing when you set out to write one simple thing and then not only does it become more complex than you thought it was going to be, but the implications of what it might say can be very difficult to gauge as well.

When I first started reading Alan Moore’s run of Miracleman a while ago, I made a whole lot of notes on the margins of a piece of paper as strange literary parallels occurred to me. One of these, a comparison between the Moore Miracleman’s world, the Platonic World of Being and Aristophanes’ myth of love, made it into an article.

My comparison of the character of Miracleman to the protagonist of Virgil’s Aeneid did not.

Aeneas is depicted by the Roman writer Virgil as not only a demi-god and a high-ranking survivor of Troy after its Sacking by the Achaians, but also as the founder of another greater Empire: Rome. He has a son named Ascanius from his wife who dies during the end of the Trojan War, and has a few adventures dealing with the gods plans for him. In fact, he leads his son and the survivors of Troy to a new life: carrying his father Anchises with him out of the lost city. His father is also notable for having been a mortal man who had been chosen by and ultimately impregnated the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite): who is also the mother of Aeneas himself.

File:Aeneas' Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci.jpg

Later, Anchises dies but due to his intimate association with divine leaves him a whole other legacy: so in a way it is more than fitting that the hero carries his father on his back and ultimately later lays him to rest.

But while he is ultimately loyal to the gods–to their plan to make him the creator of a new Empire–he has his doubts: about himself and about how successful he will be. From what I remember, he mourns his old life and some of the decisions that his destiny forces him to make: such as leaving Queen Dido of Carthage whom he had fallen in love and had a relationship. Much later, he marries Lavinia of the Latins in what will one day become the city-state of Rome while his son becomes his heir.

But before this, Aeneas descends into the Underworld to see the future of the Empire that the gods decreed that he would help build: learning about the future of his people and descendants in immense detail from the spirit of his now deceased father Anchises. This is obviously a transformative experience for him–making him see that reality is far different than he had always known–but what strikes me is that the doubt never really leaves him in Virgil’s depiction. I will go more into that later.

Miracleman, or Marvelman–also known as Mike Moran–is depicted by Alan Moore as a genetically altered human being that survives the destruction of his super-hero team with few of his memories intact. He was engineered with advanced alien organic matter and technology to fulfill a purpose that was ultimately taken away from him when the authorities that made him and his Marvel or Miracle Family believed them to be too dangerous: and sought to destroy them. Despite this, Miracleman and his Family were created by Project Zarathustra to help “save” the world: or at least the status quo version of it at the time.

Miracleman has a wife named Liz while he still believes he is a human being and eventually reawakens his power and many of his lost memories. At first he believes he is a superhero, but after a trip to the Spook Show bunker that created him and his Family, he realizes that he is the result of a physical and psychological weapons experiment: his first trip to the “Underworld,” if you will. Eventually, he meets his creator–and nemesis–Dr. Gargunza who reveals more about his true nature before trying to kill him.

Gargunza himself is a mortal human man that has also–in a way–delved into the divine by adapting crashed alien technology to create Miracleman and his Family. Miracleman also carries him: though in a somewhat different fashion than Aeneas and Anchises.


He both honours his nemesis creator and sends him directly into the Underworld where, at least in Neil Gaiman’s run of the comic, he remains in another Underworld … in a sense. 😉

The hero ends up having a child named Winter with Liz, who eventually leaves him when she can no longer relate to either him or his superhuman and intellectually advanced child. He also gains a new lover in the form of Miraclewoman. In the end after a time in his original base of operations–the Silence–to mourn his old life, he, the remainder of his Family, and other heroes he has assembled take it upon themselves to create a utopia on Earth: whether ordinary humans like it or not. This also ushers in the creation of a new race of humans created from his DNA: of which Winter is the first. At the same time, even though he discovers what he truly is and that he seemingly made his own destiny upon the world, Miracleman never loses his sense of doubt in his own motivations or what he has wrought.

So we have two demi-gods that survived the destruction of their way of life, losing loved ones and finding new ones, creating heirs to the Empires that they leave behind, finding knowledge and terrible enlightenment in the Underworld, and reshaping the status quo while always questioning their motivations in doing so. These are the superficial similarities and differences between the two figures, and you can definitely see some eerie parallels at work. I’m not saying that Alan Moore attempted to copy Virgil, or was even consciously inspired by this epic. In fact, I’d venture to say that it is more the case of the hero archetype that functions similarly in both an ancient novel and an early 1980s comics form.

But the implications, for me at least, go deeper than that.

I’m mainly thinking about how both stories end: especially how they end.

Aeneas is told that there are are two kinds of dreams that leave the Underworld from two different gates: prophecies from the Gate of Horn, and false dreams from the Gate of Ivory. After being shown Rome’s future history, Aeneas is shown the way out of the Elysian Fields and the Underworld: specifically through the Gate of Ivory. This act says a lot of things right off the bat and perhaps foreshadows the very end of The Aeneid itself.

It is a strange ending: almost a very abrupt one. Aeneas confronts Turnus, the King of the Rituli and former suitor of Lavinia, on the battlefield. The latter instigates a war with the Trojan survivors with his own subjects after he loses the hand of Lavinia to Aeneas. At the very end of their personal duel, Aeneas gains the upper-hand and Turnus begs for his life. Aeneas actually pauses for a few moments, and as a reader I can almost picture him looking right at the reader somehow, before he lets anger consume him and strike his enemy down. The last obstacle to Aeneas’ destiny over the Latin people and Rome is removed: but it is a troublesome and problematic ending in that Aeneas, despite fulfilling the will of the gods and having seen the future of his actions–or because he saw the future before he left through the Gate of Ivory–hesitated for that one moment of possible doubt.

File:Aeneas and Turnus.jpg

That is one possible reading of The Aeneid in any case. I mean, what could it possibly mean if you saw a glorious future and legacy before leaving it through a Gate of false dreams: of lies?

Then we have the way Alan Moore ended his run of Miracleman. Miracleman’s entire existence, despite his extraordinary powers and advantages, has been a layer of dreams and lies. People have constantly manipulated him in some way or form with either maliciousness, expectations, or even good intentions. Finally, he makes his own decisions: not merely for himself but for the species of fallible beings that created him.

He does this after killing his former friend, Family member, sidekick and now nemesis and mass-murderer Kid Miracleman–or Bates–having him return to his child form, promising to save him, and snapping his neck.


The beginning of a new utopia in Miracleman’s version of a 1980s world starts with him cradling the half naked brutalized child alter-ego of a friend that he failed to save and who he himself kills for the “greater good.” And even after he eliminates capitalism, ends world hunger, encourages the advancement of medical science, creates an Earth alliance with advanced aliens, as well as creating a process of giving normal human beings powers like his own, where he and his heroes have essentially taken rulership of the Earth for themselves in a benevolent dictatorship– they have become the embodiment of the human need to have gods to aspire to and worship–that he stares from a balcony at the very end of the story … and he ponders again, in his garden of horrors and wonders, if he actually did right.

This is the main reason why I see Miracleman as an Aeneas figure within Alan Moore’s and–to some extent–Neil Gaiman’s run of the comic. I was also willing to end it at this point as well: to merely show the parallel between these two heroes with problematic issues to the destinies they’ve taken on themselves. But there is something else that I find interesting.

In one of my courses at University, when I first read The Aeneid, there was this implication presented to us that Virgil may have had some other motivations when he wrote his book. Virgil was around during the time when the princeps Augustus of Rome reigned. Before Augustus, Rome had been a Republic with two consuls in governance, and sometimes a triumvirate after periods of civil unrest. There were many accusations that Augustus had, once becoming ruler of Rome, made it into a monarchy again or controlled it as a tyrant. Some scholars have seen Virgil’s act of writing the glory of Rome and Augustus through the Gate of Ivory and Aeneas’ supposed doubts of the future as a subversive criticism of Augustus’ regime and the way that Rome was heading. It may have been coincidence or premature death that left The Aeneid unfinished after the death of Turnus at the hands of Aeneas, or it may not have.

So what does any of this have to do with Miracleman? Aside from creating a narrative that uses a superhero to criticize and end the late-Cold War politics and social orders of the early 80s? Or Moore himself being an integral force in re-innovating the medium of comics? Well, this is where the theme of prescience–of seeing the future–becomes ironic. I’ve read somewhere that Alan Moore believed that the comics medium–at least that sponsored by the industry–has become stagnant and that it uses techniques and themes that were created about twenty-five or so years ago. He especially goes into this when he talks about DC’s decision to create the Watchmen prequel series: another work of his from the 1980s era. I think about this. Then I think about Miracleman. It was one of the earliest 1980s revisions of the superhero genre, and the comics medium, that Alan Moore ever undertook.

And then I wonder if the iconic Miracleman–Moore’s Aeneas–looked out over the balcony surveying the dark and yet promising structure his writer created around and before him … and found himself afraid.

What is FV Disco?

Disko FV

All right, so it’s been a while since I have really challenged myself to do something different. This challenge, however, has been a long time in the making and I’ve been trying to find the best way to go about it. It won’t be perfect and I’m sure that there is scholarship and writing out that is far more accurate and well-written on the topic, but really this is just a possible answer to something that’s been nagging at me for a while now.

Anyway, two years ago I read a really cool graphic novel called Kenk: a comics biography of the infamous Torontonian bicycle thief Igor Kenk. It deals with his possible psychological motivations for his actions, his own personal philosophies, and how his background may have influenced the man he has become. The comic was actually conceived and produced by Alex Jansen, written by Richard Poplak, the photographs and filming it was based from–along with its design–created by Jason Gilmore, and Nick Marinkovich was integral in illustrating and creating its aesthetic. I wrote a review on this at Amazon: with very little understanding of the choice of art-style at the time.

I didn’t think much about Nick Marinkovich’s unique art at the time, aside from its strange sharpened and accentuated angles, the occasional blurry lines, the really incredible contrast of the white stark outlines of people and objects containing an inner gritty grey and black, and the pastiche feeling of it until I watched this interview: conducted by QTV on CBC1 Radio with both Richard Poplak and Alex Jansen. Poplak himself talked a little more about the aesthetics of the graphic novel. First he stated that he and the graphic artist Nick Marinkovich used the fumetti comics medium form: which is basically comic book that uses photos or arrangements of altered photos to tell a story. There is a wikipedia entry and other information on the fumetti form.

However, Poplak also mentioned that he traveled to Slovenia–Igor Kenk’s home country where he grew up–and found another form of art: which the Pop Sandbox team ended up using for their creation. When I first heard him say the name, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I actually missed the word several times before rewinding the video and hearing it again. Now, I pride myself on finding out as much about the comics medium and associated art forms as I can and this bothered me: the fact that I didn’t know what this word was.

Finally, I made out the word “Faeve” or “Fauve.” But then after some more online digging I came across the Kenk book site and I found out that it was FV Disco that Poplak had been talking about. It was in fact the definition that Poplak provided here and on 12:17 of his QTV Interview that I used when describing the style of Fotonixe’s artwork in my entry on TweakerRay’s Collector Chapter 02: the idea of a gritty-collage like arrangement of photos and images with a dark punk-like atmosphere. As I said in my previous entry, Fotonixe’s style reminded me of this and wasn’t necessarily derived from it. But this did get me thinking.

Because I can tell you that I have tried to google FV Disco several times–specifically as an art form–and I didn’t get very much. It also took me ages–in fact very recently–to realize that FV was in fact pronounced as “fauve” or some equivalent and wasn’t an acronym or a pair of letters. A little while ago, I figured out that the term FV Disco seems to have come from an influential Slovenian alternate theatre turned counter-cultural group or club called Theatre FV 112/15: a group that turned into a movement in Ljubljana–the capital of Slovenia–in the changing former Yugoslavia of the 1980s: where Poplak says that FV Disco itself came from. I found out the name of the group by finding an article on a Goth Rock and Electronic Body Music group called Borghesia: that was apparently formed from some of Theatre FV’s original members.

It was greatly involved with video art as well as music and as it transitioned from an amateur theatre group into an alternative club that made a space for sexual, social, and artistic differences: or so this article here claims.

But very recently I found out what “FV” or “Faeve” is might mean. I found–or perhaps–rediscovered an article by Katja Praznik called Theatre, Emancipation and Political Power: Two Cases From the Past in which she explains that FV “refers to France Verbinc’s (FV) local, frequently used Dictionary of Foreign Terms, page 112, entry 15, where we find the following: C’est la guerre – This is war, that’s how it is in war.” In other words, the group’s name seems to have been derived from a citation or a quote that is appropriate given the climate in which the group was created. This was during the time after Tito’s death where Yugoslavia was beginning to change–to separate–and there were great artistic expressions of socialism and capitalism occurring.

Richard Poplak himself argues that this was what was occurring in Igor Kenk’s formative years in Slovenia and it affected him. There is one element of this movement that Poplak pays great attention to when he discusses it in the above synopsis. He states that the primary medium of FV Disco–what seems to be the artistic as opposed to musical and performative aspects of it–was the photocopy machine: “an agent of democracy because it put publishing – which was until then state-run – in the hands of the people.” It is interesting to note that when I’ve looked at Kenk, the images did seem almost like propaganda posters and pictures rearranged into a different collage form entirely. I can see how–as advertisements for FV Disco’s musical and social scenes and as art in itself–just how subversive it was in that changing environment. Add to the fact that there was a “a gritty punk” element alongside it makes for a really interesting aesthetic and atmosphere.

I think what I find most fascinating about it, at least from what Poplak describes, is how FV Disco takes old ideas and objects and rearranges them: in fact recycles them.  But it’s more complex than that. Praznik in her article likes to state that Theatre FV wanted to create “spaces” or alternative realities in a rapidly changing socialist environment where people could express themselves. She also mentions that one objective of this movement, and those like it, were to blur the line between the performance and the viewer: or art and reality.

In a way, Theatre FV was one of those responsible for creating new wombs of artistic culture and reality and I can see–in that sense–just how all the above might have affected Igor Kenk’s philosophies. He liked to recycle and “hoard” things that North Americans apparently take for granted. The man was also aware of how economic and political systems can change rapidly and the crafting of his own world-view and indeed his life, seems like a haphazard collage of grittiness and innovation. Even Kenk’s own “performance stage”–a Bicycle Clinic filled with so many bikes that he had to spill them from the space of his shop into the streets just to open the door–did not separate itself from the rest of Queen Street West Toronto or the sphere of people it brought in.

Customers, and pedestrians alike were brought into his world of bikes and junk. I never saw it like this until I did some of my own amateurish haphazard research into the matter. It really made me look at the aesthetic of the Kenk graphic novel even more closely. In his article Portrait of a Serial Stealer, Richard Poplak goes into a little more detail on FV and even talks about how his artistic collaborator Nick Marinkovich creates the style of the piece: detailing some of the work that he did. It also hits home the fact that Poplak and the rest of the team that made the book adapted it from actual photo and video footage produced by Jansen and Gilmore: the latter of which are the most references I’ve been able to find on the FV movement aside from those from Poplak.

What I think is a real shame though, in all honesty, is that FV Disco–or Theatre FV 112/15–doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page or a more indepth English language entry of some kind: because it is a really fascinating social and artistic phenomenon to come from a socialist nation that no longer exists and I never put much thought about it at the time. It makes me wonder just how much it might have influenced other forms of art: not just in Eastern Europe but the rest of the world as well.

One more interesting of note is that there is a 1997 documentary called Staro in Novo or The Old and The New created by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegovic: who were, according to the site Zank, apparently leading members of the old FV Theatre group and then of Borghesia. They made something called FV Video where they created this documentary: of which I could only find excerpts on Youtube. Copies of the video cassette do exist in some Universities even in North America but I’m not sure if there are any DVD versions, but apparently you can download it here. But it would be an interesting thing to look at.

One thing that I also find interesting is on the site VideoDokument, Korda and Alajbegovic not only talk about the creation of video art, they mention that “Although the images move and we can hear them, video takes much more from comics than it does from film. It was comics that encouraged sequencing and the combination and movement of images, sounds and stories.” I find that a really nice parallel to how Kenk was influenced as a comics form by video and other media from the FV movement. I should also point out that Kenk is also being adapted into an animated film: perhaps making the journey between FV-influenced film and comics come full circle.

I’ll tell you now that I’m not up to the task of making a Wikipedia article on this matter. I’ve said before that I am no musical expert or even an artistic one. I am certainly no expert in Slovenia or Eastern European culture, but it would be nice if someone did this: because I think it’s important. It’s also a shame I can’t find any FV Disco art online as well and I will probably post a picture from Kenk. It seems that the scholar in me doesn’t die so easily, but I just like to write about things that interest me and go on an adventure to see what I can uncover from them when they are being too stubborn to be found.

Some special notes and thanks: the really awesome and emblematic “Disko FV” image seen above this post is actually a hand-made security ribbon taken from the collection of Dario Seraval: one of the former members of the Theatre FV-112/15 group and current member and drummer for Borghesia. The images from the graphic novel Kenk were very generously lent to this post by Alex Jansen and Jason Gilmore. Believe or not I underestimated how much time and effort making this post and finding images for it would take, but in the end thanks to correspondence with Aldo Ivancic (another former member of Theatre FV and current member of Borghesia whom I talked with about using said ribbon) and Alex Jansen, as well as Richard Poplak, Neven Korda, and museum counsellor Breda Skrjanec of the MGLC (the Mednarodni Grafični Likovni Center), it was all worth it.

Addendum: If you are particularly interested in FV Disco, you can try to track down the MGLC’s art catalogue from its FV Alternative Scene of the Eighties 2008 Exhibit. It has a Slovene and an English language translation as well. The book is composed of photographs, art samples, an introduction, three essays, and a chronology of events and developments in FV Disco.

Peering at the Plumbing of a Classic: Super Mario RPG

From what I could remember, I’d never played a video game RPG. It was the mid-nineties and I’d played a few adventure games, but I never really thought of them at all. Whenever I did, I heard mostly about Secret of Evermore, Legend of Mana, or the Final Fantasy games. But it was still the era of Nintendo Power Magazine and I really loved its Epic Center section: a place where they discussed new and upcoming RPGs.

I actually loved the descriptions of these games and the wonderful illustrations that found their way into the magazines more than anything. It was just a pleasure to read through these hints and images of games. So in a way my game voyeurism–of watching or seeing games as opposed to playing them–started around that time. And then, one day, two years after Nintendo and Rare’s Donkey Kong Country and its very exciting “32-bit graphics” (I’d got a video cassette with previews of said game), another game came out for the Super Nintendo.

It was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

I don’t even know where to begin with this game. You might wonder why I would be talking about it on this Blog and what it has to do with the spirit of Mythic Bios until you realize that until this point I’d never played a video game RPG. So my brother and I rented it from Hollywood Movies–an old store that used to exist in the plaza closest to us–and we kept it in our possession for a while.

What can I tell you? Mario RPG–as Nintendo and Square’s baby–had the same graphics as Donkey Kong Country, except instead of being a two-dimensional side-scroller venture–or a 2D game–it attempted to simulate a 3D environment. But it was more like having a bird’s view of a well painted clay animated demented doll’s house diorama that was always on an angle. I can’t begin to tell you how that strange perspective both awed and pissed me the hell off.

If you’ve ever played this game, and you have hand-eye coordination issues you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The endless times I would fall through the gaps of floating platforms, or had to manoeuvre the platforms by jumping properly, or just missing something by inches but the perspective or parallax didn’t register properly in my brain. Also, like I may have intimated, my hand-eye-coordination was not that good in those days and it led to swearing. A lot of swearing.

However, once these hurdles were passed, it was a brilliant game. Now that I have my complaining out of the way, I want to talk about what really struck me. First, you start off playing as Mario as a distant third-person character. You go to rescue the Princess from the bad guy as per usual and then …

Shit goes down.

A giant Sword plunges into Bowser’s Keep and throws Mario, Princess Peach, and Bowser in all different directions as the Mushroom Kingdom and the world face a whole new danger … and a whole new game.

That is how Mario RPG begins. Then it gets helpful. There are mushroom-headed Toads and various other beings that are more than willing to give you tutorials as to how to navigate in a RPG. I mean think about it: Mario has always been in a side-scrolling platform world and now he finds himself in a turn-based role-playing world with a fairly structured story. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that his world had changed, and so has your playing experience with him.

You also begin to realize that the Mushroom Kingdom is only a small part of a much greater world of weirdness and old enemies, and new ones come into the fore. You also get new allies as you realize that Mario can’t fight this new enemy and undertake his new quest on its own.

Remember when I said that Mario RPG reminds me of a weird angled doll-house? I think it would be more appropriate to compare it to a interactive reality bento-box. Yes, that’s right. A bento box. Not an Italian plumber’s feast. I went there. 🙂 At first the jumping and angling can be as awkward as learning how to use chopsticks for the first time (and in my case you never learn how to use them properly), but when you learn the basics you realize that the contents of the open-lidded box are compact, well-organized, elegant, and heart-warming.

This seemingly simple game is complex. There are so many in-jokes and easter-eggs–hidden secrets–it is positively ridiculous. And when actually sit down and take the time to think about Mario RPG, it influences me to add another criterion to what I think defines a classic game. This criterion is replay value and a different experience each time you play it. I can tell you now, if I replayed this game, and I have seen others replay it, my knowledge of some of its secrets now as an adult would change how I played it when I was much younger. Hidden chests, and puzzles, and knowing how to fulfill certain tasks changes a lot of things. You can tell, just by watching someone interact with this strange little world, just how skilled and experienced a gamer they truly are. I feel like was–and is–one of those litmus tests.

When you get past the awkwardness of navigation, you have something really compact and very dynamic. You are not attacked randomly. You either run into enemies, or you don’t: which is awesome because while Final Fantasy VI is an awesome game, the random enemy encounters got annoying fast: just yanking you rudely and obnoxiously out of the immersion of this world you find yourself in. Mario RPG doesn’t have this as much. Moreover, if you press a button– and you time it just right–in combat, you can double hit your opponents, block damage, and even get extra items.

The timed hit mechanism made it seem like the characters have actual reflexes: which was a brilliant piece of innovation in what can become an almost robotic and boring turn-based fight of dealing damage. And then there is also a very personal touch in healing your characters–like Mario–with an item in battle and having him turn to the screen with a dialogue bubble of “Thank you” coming out of his mouth. There is just something really nice about your character thanking you for helping them: especially some you’ve known since childhood.

As the Mario games have continued, they seem a lot like interactive slapstick comedy and this was definitely in Mario RPG: especially with the hilarious dialogue, the Mario-pantomiming that would occur from time-to-time, and the game’s often lighthearted and alternatively epic carnival-toned music box soundtrack.

This game influenced me a lot in more ways than I care to admit, or even know. I was very disappointed when the other Mario RPG games were not direct sequels, but–while really good in their own rights (having played Paper Mario and–even more enthusiastically– Super Paper Mario)–were their own standalone worlds. I mean, they brought all these new characters into play: Croco (who was the humanoid alligator equivalent of the octopus Ultros from FF VI who pissed me to no end in those early days), the sentimental marsh-mellow weather-controlling Mallow (who I didn’t mind), Smithy (who was a bad-ass villain) and his minions, and–of course–Geno: the animated wooden walking puppet guardian seeking to restore the Star Road so that people could have their wishes granted again. I guess at the very least, the game was not going to cop out by stating that it was “just a dream” like another Mario game we all know. ;P *Cough*Mario 2*cough*

I loved to play with Geno and Bowser in my team: Geno because of his powers, and Bowser because he was strong and scary. But they were all awesome and especially Mario. You know, Mario RPG really hit home just how unlikely Mario is as a hero. A plumber that finds himself in a weird world almost defying Alice’s Wonderland who turns into a giant from eating mushrooms, throws fire after finding a flower, and becomes invincible for a brief time with a star and jumps so high. This plumber goes to save a princess and fight a monster. He is quiet and he looks one of the least menacing figures ever. He never speaks but he has a definite affable personality.

In fact, aside from Kirby from Kirby’s Dreamland, the only other heroic figure who is so unlikely is The Doctor from his own television series. But he has that same heart-warming quality and care along with his enemies–even Bowser–and they have continued throughout the years to the point of having their own epic role-playing game. I would have once laughed and found this silly–which it is–but there is just so much packed in just this one little game that it is simply incredible.

So yes, tangents aside I give this awesome classic a five out of five. It was well-made and a joy. As Boltage McGammar in his own “Let’s Play” of this same game liked to say, “later plumbers.”

Tattoos and Swordplay: Or Musings on a Watcher-Immortal War in Highlander the Series

Now for another geek moment and an old television show.


So after my post on Who Watches the Watchers, I was thinking mainly about the Watchers from the series Highlander. If Immortal sword battles and decapitations are The Game, then the Watchers have always been its shadowy audience of spectators. Be warned, I am going to be making a lot of references to this show as this post goes on.

Essentially, the Watchers were a secret society created in about the time of ancient Sumeria to observe Immortals–human beings with eternal lifespans who can only be killed by beheading–and record all knowledge of them. They have a code that forbids them to reveal information about Immortals to the public, and also of their own existence to Immortals. They recruit from a variety of fields and are essentially a glorified and ancient intelligence service of field agents and researchers.

For a spectator-sport of Immortal-watching, this would obviously take a lot of resources to accomplish. Now, here is the thing. In Highlander, the Watchers have three challenges. The first is to make sure they are never, ever discovered by Immortals or the rest of the mortal public. As such, they do not want any of their lore or information falling in hands beyond their own network. The second is to never interfere with Immortal battles or conflicts, but to merely observe them and never get detected. All right, fair enough. Then there is the third task that they have: to make sure that others not only never find out about their group, but also the very Immortals that they are studying.

But how do you explain the bodies?

Yes. There are natural causalities from The Game: mainly the decapitated bodies of the Immortals that lost against their opponents.

So what happens with that?

In ancient times, when wars were fought almost all the time with swords and sharp blades, and when there were much wider and unobserved spaces either no one gave a thought to a beheaded corpse, or there was a more than a likely chance that they would never find it. Also add to the fact that little conventions like democracy didn’t always exist and people would turn blind-eyes to vigilante mobs, and government pogroms and executions alike.

Unfortunately for both Watchers and Immortals, things have changed. The media now exists, forensics has developed to the point of being able to identify tiny fibres of material and DNA, there are much more extensive public records kept and so on. One thing that was always mentioned in Highlander was how the ability of the Watchers’ resources towards secrecy has dwindled down considerably in the last century or so of information technology.

So what about those dead, decapitated bodies? Because nowadays, not only would they be found but there would be investigations. Pretty soon forensics specialists and police, as well as Interpol would find a pattern developing: some kind of ritualistic killing that seems to span across the world. I can also more than imagine that–say the Watchers have agents on the inside of law-enforcement to discourage such investigations–that someone would eventually ask questions.

All they would need is to find someone, or several someones with a purple almost cult-like Watcher’s tattoo on their wrists, order searches onto their properties, analyze their computers, find evidence carefully collected by said Watchers–who not only sat back and did nothing when these killings happened, but actually recorded them for some unknown purpose–and then go into the homes of Immortals–who they would probably think are “champion serial-killers” in a Watcher-sponsored arena of death for entertainment purposes–and start DNA-testing their swords. It would go downhill from there.

So why didn’t this happen at all in the show? Well, I think it’s very simple. You see, I think that not only did the Watcher network have agents in the media, law-enforcement, politics, medicine, education, and business, but I think they were directly involved in disposing of the bodies.

That’s right. The very organization in the show that went on about non-interference in Immortal battles and mere observation most likely were the ones to get rid of the defeated Immortal corpses. That is the only thing that makes sense, because otherwise there would have been a massively historical international hunt going on.

This also means that the Watchers have a lot of power and they aren’t exactly neutral. They would know that if those bodies were discovered, or the documentation on them weren’t doctored in some way, and Quickenings weren’t played down in the media as strange electrical weather disturbances, their Watching days–and their freedom–would be pretty much over.

So really, in a lot of ways the Watchers are pretty complicit with The Game of Immortals and they know that if the Immortals were ever discovered, chances are they would be too. Now, in Highlander itself, there have been occasional times when some Watchers rebelled against their own code and became Hunters: actually killing Immortals themselves. In a lot of ways, if the whole organization became Hunters it’s argued that they would pretty much fuck up all known Immortals everywhere. They know a lot about their pasts, their assumed identities, their properties, what they had to eat for breakfast that morning, their strengths, their weaknesses and all of that. Intelligence-wise, all the Watchers would have to do is put the right information in the right places and arguably let the governments do their work for them.

There would be complications however. For instance, Immortals like Duncan MacLeod and Darius have figured out–on their own–about the existence of the Watchers. It stands to reason that beings that are always being hunted by their own kind for their Quickenings–or essences–or by people in the past that liked to kill “witches and demons,” that they would have developed sixth senses about being followed, or if one of their mortal companions had … other affiliations that might concern them. And these are the nice Immortals.

I’m not even going to go into Immortals–like Kalas who found out on his own that there were Watchers–that wouldn’t hesitate to use torture and murder as their tools to get more information. And a lot of really old Immortals have their own resources and contacts: along with some alliances with each other. In addition to that, not all Immortals are documented or discovered yet. Some are very young and haven’t even died for the first time yet. The Watchers would need a seriously sophisticated network to keep up with that last fact. But there is more: because if a few Immortals could have discovered the Watchers, they might have been pretty circumspect about what they themselves know and deliberately planted false information of their own. Some, like Methos, might have even go as far as to infiltrate their ranks.

At the very least, it’s also been known in the show that some Watchers might have even been approached by the people they were told to observe and they might have their biases. It’s not been unknown for a Watcher to give out classified information to an Immortal that they like: and I am not just talking about Joe Dawson and Duncan MacLeod.

So really, I guess I’m talking less about the nature of the Watchers’ “neutrality,” and more about what would actually happen in a Watcher-Immortal War: an idea I got during one episode of Highlander when Duncan MacLeod was almost seriously facing down that prospect. It didn’t happen, but it easily could have.

Originally, I would have been tempted to say there would be an even split between the two, and for the most part there would be. I also think there would be factions. There would be Watchers that would withdraw from the whole conflict and preserve what they can: mostly dedicated Researchers. There would be Hunters attempting to use their own skills and governmental resources to create pogroms. There would be Immortals using their resources and bounty-hunters to hunt down anyone with a purple Watcher’s tattoo. While one faction wants heads, the other might want severed forearms as proof of jobs well done.

There would also be Watcher and Immortal alliances: some wanting to help an Immortal win The Game for power and glory, and others just trying to help each other survive. The young Immortals would be alternatively tools for various factions, and even their own agencies: seeing as most of them would not be documented during the chaos of such a War and can take advantage of the conflict as well.

It’s also possible that the governments and corporations would turn on both and both secretive kinds of beings–Immortals and Watchers–would be on the run from scientists, overzealous military and paramilitary organizations, terrorists, religious fanatics, and mobs. A shadow war would quickly become an overt and very nasty mass-conflict with the nature of what humanity is itself as the ultimate prize.

But when this is all said and done, I would just like to state that I would definitely have watched a film or a television show based on the concept of a Watcher-Immortal War. In fact, I would even read a book or fanfic based on this idea. Anyway, that is my major and one of my most long-standing geeky thoughts at the moment.

Who Watches the Watchers?

I suppose the title of this post is really rhetorical in that the question already has an answer. We do.

In case you were wondering, this article isn’t about Watchmen. Instead, it’s about Watchers. You can find the idea of them in comics, film, television, and various other media. They are depicted as either very powerful enlightened beings, or hidden organizations with more knowledge than most people. You can find them as a race of cosmic beings with large craniums within Marvel Comics, a secret society of men and women that observe Immortals in the Highlander television series, and even the Ascended in the StarGate series.

Aside from their great power and knowledge, Watchers generally have one more thing in common: they have some sort of code that permits them to observe but rarely–if ever–interfere with the existences of those either “beneath” them, or unaware of certain facts of life. This idea can also be found in Star Trek‘s Prime Directive: where by law the Federation cannot interfere with the development of civilizations that are not as advanced or as cognizant as those of their member worlds.

This means that this agreement of “non-interference” not only prevents these powers from abusing their abilities, but also helping others with them as well. Of course, as I’m sure something like TV Tropes will point out, there is always a conflict of some kind with regards to said beings following these codes and also certain “bending” and “tweaking” of the rules from time to time. Certainly, there have been instances in Star Trek itself where more powerful beings have more than interfered with “lower planes of sentience” … and I’m not just talking about Q either. I mean, you could argue that the Enterprise and the Federation it represents have evolved to the point where certain advanced beings can safely–to some degree–interact with them without causing permanent harm, but there is a really fine line there. It’s also not really what I want to talk about.

No, I think this trope of non-interference has always bothered me on a creative geeky level to some degree and I’m going to try to explain why.

Basically, these advanced beings or secret organizations–who dedicate themselves to observation–do not want to harm anyone intentionally or otherwise, or endanger themselves and existence as they understand it by “interfering.” But my issue is three-fold. First of all, if you follow Einstein’s theory that an observer of an event is also a participant–that an experiment is affected by the mere presence of an observer–then these beings “interfere” all the time simply by existing. If you have a certain amount of power–of any kind–or a presence somewhere it will affect your surroundings. I mean, yes, there is a big difference between sitting and doing nothing, and acting in said space but your mere presence changes things just by you existing.

So perhaps, in these various forms of fiction, said beings are aware of the fact that by existing they do change matters so they try to minimize the effects as much as they consciously can. Maybe some of them make a point of not observing: claiming that the material no longer interests them, or is somehow inferior to them but in reality knowing that the temptation to act would be too great or, again, by simply looking they affect matters. Add telepathy and psycho-kinetic powers along with spatial-temporal manipulation to the mix and you can more or less figure out where it can go from there.

Of course, there is the other side of the weird coin which is that perhaps perception itself by these beings determines the material plane’s very existence or, to quote George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.” Imagine if said watchers started perceiving a thing in a different way, or began ignoring it entirely. In essence, they could make something cease to exist by diminishing or denying it. Changing someone’s perceptions or having them ignore a thing can definitely change the world as human beings have proved many times in fiction and in reality.

Essentially, you can also say that by actively not looking or paying attention to the rest of the “normal world,” they also affect reality. In the case of the Highlander Watchers, if they stopped observing and went away, a lot of the historical lore and information on the Immortals that pop up among humanity would be lost. I suppose it could said that this wouldn’t hurt anyone–I mean no one would really ever know what was lost or not–but as these plots unfold it is never really as simple as all that. Imagine, for instance, an evil Immortal is gaining power and you know as a Watcher that if he or she continues at this rate, they will rule the world. You have the knowledge to stop them or at least help someone indirectly in doing so. Of course, the rules exist for a reason and the idea of possibly making things worse or revealing your presence to those who don’t understand you or your work are definitely barriers to overcome right there.

This is not the only series where such a moral conundrum happens. In StarGate, there have been Ascended Ancients and even the character of Daniel Jackson that have realized that if they let events continue unimpeded in the material plane, villains like Anubis or Adria will not only cause damage to that plane but potentially their own as well. Yet the argument is that the code exists for a reason. As a result, they can interfere, but only in small plausible ways in that reality: as though they are playing some sort of game or helping to write a novel where continuity has to be maintained (I really like that word, continuity), but then they aren’t really just watchers anymore are they?

There is also another saying, which only recently I realized was created by the philosopher Edmund Burke, he which he states: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I know that this is a moral argument and that in the case of actual cosmological beings in fiction, they may have a greater understanding of reality and morality than flesh-based beings do. In fact, we can even go as far as to say they would understand the way of things far more than Einstein ever could. It feels like a cop-out to state, but we are also talking about fiction and imagination.

Yet with our limited understanding of things, you can see why it is very hard for an observer to remain perfectly neutral and not affect the reality around them. These beings and orders are still part of the world and the universe. They may be on a different level, but that doesn’t mean they are removed from everything. In fact, the idea that they have limitations–even and especially self-imposed ones–illustrates that they are not all-knowing, all-powerful, or perfect themselves. Is enlightenment recognizing your own limitations along with those of others and acting, or not acting appropriately?

Is not acting a sign of wisdom or a kind of paralysis: a fear of making things worse than they are when–by not interfering–you could be making a situation dire in any case? Also, if an observer is a part of life, then by not acting are they really living?

How many cultures and civilizations in our world would have reached the places they are at now if they did not bother to even meet each other? I mean, yes, there has been a whole history of colonization and imperialism and destroyed ways of life, but there has also been trade, and innovation, and new knowledge. And what is “higher” or “lesser?” Is it that observers are any better than physical beings, or that they are just different and have different constraints?

I guess, as these things go, this is a whole lot of armchair philosophy, but it is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. So in terms of fiction, who watches the watchers? Well, I will say again that we do.

And it can be very entertaining.


Here’s Johnny: An Introspective Look at a Life in Kan Gao’s To the Moon

All right, there will be Spoilers, so if you haven’t played To the Moon and you want to, please do so and don’t read this yet. As always, you have been warned.

So in my previous article, Going to the Moon with Kan Gao, I basically reviewed the game, its graphics, some of its game-play and story, and also talked about the Workshop I did with Gao himself as well as a little bit about the nature of video games. In that same post, I went a little bit into my personal reaction towards the game, but not as much as I would have liked. Actually, aside from getting to some of the basics, I was a little dissatisfied with what I wrote and felt that there could be more that I had to say.

I logged onto Steam and came across this Kotaku Gamer’s Guide article Steam Users Can Now Buy To The Moon, A Game About Marriage, Memories, And So Much More by Kate Cox: where she writes her interpretation of the events that occur in Kan Gao’s game. And here is where I stop talking about video games and media and go into the matter that I am really interested in: storytelling and character development.

The game itself has you and your player characters–Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts–going back through Johnny’s mindscape in order to find a place to create new memories for him so that you can fulfill his dying wish: to go to the moon. But why does Johnny want to go to the moon?

When you find Johnny to do your job in fulfilling his wish, he is an old man on his deathbed. You end up having to go through his mind, and his home, to find out more about him. You are told by his housekeeper that he has always been a very quiet man that keeps to himself. Then when you get into his mindscape, you do find out a lot more about him.

You follow him backwards through his life. You see him as a sad old man mourning his wife–River’s–passing, as a middle-aged man getting increasingly frustrated with fulfilling his wife’s dream and taking care of her while being deeply afraid of losing her, as a young man that is ignorant of his wife’s condition and yet still wants to help her, as a sullen and scared adolescent who wants to feel like he is different, and finally as a child who has hopes for the future.

It is easy–very easy–to get to the point where you start to think that the story is about River and not Johnny. Even the Doctors Rosalene and Watts sometimes get distracted by these memories to that point. But this isn’t about River. It’s about Johnny.

So here’s Johnny.


As we go back further and farther into his past to implant the new memories that will fulfill his dying wish in his mind, we look at Johnny’s life: the good and the bad.

We see a young boy watching his mother accidentally hit his twin brother with her car as she backs out of the driveway. As the investigation of Rosalene and Watts goes on, we find out Johnny was given beta-blockers to take the edge off of that traumatic memory. In fact, if it weren’t for this discovery, their own work with Johnny would never have been completed: those memories being cut off from Johnny and from their own access.

Johnny is a boy who started off with a twin brother named Joey and dreams: who’s life is shattered before it even begins. What’s worse is that he met River as a child then and they promised to meet in a place once a year to watch the “lighthouses in the sky” and by watching them, making sure they will not ever be lonely. He even gives her a stuffed platypus that she carries with her for the rest of her life. They actually promise to meet on the “the rabbit’s tummy” which is–essentially–the Moon surrounded by a star shape they created themselves. Johnny throws a hackey sack down on the spot they stand in to signify this.

But then he loses his brother Joey and the beta-blockers block or severely blunt all of those memories. In other words, he doesn’t even remember meeting River then.

Johnny gets older and he has friends. He finds himself attracted to River, also in the same high school as they are, and seeks to make a date with her. He tells his friend Nick that he only wants to be with her because she is “strange” and he doesn’t want to be “another typical kid in a sea of typical people.” He wants her strangeness–her Otherness–regardless of what she wants, to fill that … need in him: that emptiness that has probably existed since he lost his brother. On a deep and intrinsic level, Johnny knows he isn’t normal–that everything isn’t all right–and he uses the idea of River and wanting her to somehow fill that need created out of hurt and suppressed memories. Of course, perhaps on some subconscious level, there is a part of him that still feels that kinship with her from that forgotten night all those years ago when they were children, and alone, and they looked at the sky together.

Some people have intimated that River probably has Asperger’s Syndrome, but I am not so sure about that. I know that this condition manifests in different ways and there is a spectrum. I do know that River does not perceive reality in the same way as other people and is often very literal in some ways: while highly figurative in others. As time goes on, Johnny discovers that she thinks of merely being in the same room together, and being close together bodily, as pretty much the same thing. And she always asks him questions about what something means to him and what he sees in that thing. For all River is sometimes quiet, she is also very intuitive in a way that Johnny and most other people are not.

Sadly, Johnny has the ignorance of a lot of young men his age. Combined with the trauma and repressed memories of his early life, there is a disconnect between him and River that–at least initially–limits his empathy. He doesn’t understand River’s condition and he doesn’t want to: which is horrible and even more hypocritical considering how–at least consciously–this was the trait that attracted him to her to begin with. It is also clear that this decision is motivated by fear and perhaps even the guilt of seemingly being attracted to her solely because of her difference: as though he is afraid of actually further reducing his sense of her to the “illness” that her doctor wants him to read about.

At the same time, he also coddles her–even going as far as to say that marriage means having responsibility for her–and ignores statements of hers in which she tells him some very clear things about what she wants. When they do marry, he seems to even think of it as more of a responsibility than a joy while River doesn’t feel anything about it at all. At one point, Johnny admits to her the secret of why he had asked her out to begin with: revealing the shame that he felt. They are in the spot where they first met years ago as children. River ends up taking a hackey sack and throwing it on the ground. After that, she starts making origami rabbits: a lot of origami rabbits.

Maybe Johnny didn’t think she understood, or even worse, was angry and resentful at him for the “initial reason” he liked her. Finally, after a while, River begins to get sick. But before this, Johnny promises her to create a house near the lighthouse Anya–named so by River–so that “this star” that was the lighthouse would never be alone. Unfortunately, River begins to get sick and Johnny finds himself in the situation where he has to choose between spending their money on finishing the house (River’s wish), or saving River’s life.

At this point, Johnny breaks down and almost gives up on finishing the house: just to save River. But this is where River puts her foot down and reiterates her wish. Johnny doesn’t understand why this lighthouse or the house is more important than River’s own sense of health. He creates a song for River that even she can see isn’t really about her, and it is incomplete and fragmentary: a cycle that symbolizes what is going on in Johnny’s mind.

Yet, in the end, he fulfills her wish and continues with the house. And two years before the events of To the Moon begin, River dies.

It’s very easy to judge Johnny for what he did, or didn’t do until you remember and realize a few things. River was not the one who was broken. Johnny was. River seems to have a highly metaphorical mind. She threw that hackey sack down on the hill that night to remind him of the real reason he sought her out all those years ago: mirroring what he did as a boy. She always carried the stuffed platypus toy he gave her: even though he didn’t remember that either. And each origami rabbit she made was her way of trying to remind Johnny that they had promised to meet on “the rabbit’s tummy”: on the moon.


Although these actions were non-verbal, River showed that her mind didn’t seem to be bound by linear time. She even hated the sound of clocks: of a construct of time. Everything he told her about his selfish reason in pursuing her, in be willingly ignorant of her condition–whatever it was–didn’t matter a damn to her. All that mattered to River was the boy that Johnny was promising to meet her so that neither of them would be alone.

Then there is Johnny again. He went from being someone with dreams, to being in a haze, to having friends, to finding someone he loved and didn’t understand–and having the answers right in front of him the whole time–to living the rest of his life in the house that he built for his wife: alone. Another thing to also consider is that even though the beta-blockers made Johnny’s childhood hard to remember, he could ruminate on the rest of it: on every mistake that he ever made with River. It is no coincidence that most of the memories Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts travelled through circled around Johnny’s regrets. It also makes you if–when the two doctors gave him the scent of roadkill to reawaken his earlier memories of his brother’s death–if on some level of consciousness it made him remember everything. Absolutely everything.

In any case, when he was conscious Johnny had two years after his wife died to think about everything, to regret everything he had done, and make sense of it all.


At the same time, the mechanism of travelling through his memories only chose particular memories of his. The thing to remember is though certain memories of Johnny–powerful ones–came to the fore in this game, he and River probably had many more and they weren’t all bad. Even the prominent memories weren’t all awful. Johnny and River undertook equestrian therapy and actually had fun despite Johnny’s initial misgivings. They went to the movies. They danced in the lighthouse that Anya made. They spent time with their mutual friends Nick and Isabelle.

After River was gone, Johnny kept everything of hers: rabbits and platypus. And he fulfilled his promise to her: even after his own death by giving his house to his housekeeper and her family so that the star of Anya would never be alone. They spent practically their whole lives together and though there was tragedy and misunderstanding, they still had a life, and it was very clear to me that despite their differences they loved each other. Or, as Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman might put it, they got what everyone got. They got a lifetime.

In a strange way, what Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts do for Johnny at the end of his lifetime lets him meet River on her own terms: in a figurative reality that specifically bridges the gap between them. Dr. Rosalene herself even states somewhere along the line that what she is creating for Johnny in his memories is what River would have wanted. In essence, they–particularly Dr. Rosalene–write a plausible story based on memories and the emotions that were involved. Johnny doesn’t consciously know why he wants to go to the moon because of trauma, but he does on a very integral level. It is the same reason why River made the rabbits and threw down that hackey sack on the hill. River wanted to meet on the moon because Johnny would be there. And Johnny wanted to go to the moon because River would be there: at that meeting that he never made it to again in life.

Johnny’s story in To the Moon was a heartbreaking story about a very fallible but well-meaning man who had a life that despite misunderstanding, moments of ignorance, selfishness, and loss actually meant something. The last scene where Johnny is in his new memories and River takes his hand as they travel to the moon on their NASA rocket-ship–in retrospect–is a tremendously satisfying moment of completion and understanding beyond words.

It’s a story that really makes you look at the intricacies of a life with people. I know it made me look at mine. And, as I’ve said before, it is a story totally worth playing through.

Artistic Progress Goes Boink!: The Refinement of a Heroine, the Formation of an Antagonist

When we last left off, our intrepid heroes were continuing to work on the formative phase of a silent comic. Much of Angela O’Hara’s pictures in the previous Project entry are of our female protagonist and as you can see here, she has been busy with her.

Notice the eyes. They are not only how I thought of them–pure blue–but Angela even went one further by giving them the detail of actual sclera and pupils while also keeping them the same colour. Angela has also been playing with facial expressions, some dimples, and conveying certain kinds of emotion with every facial image that you can see here. There is something very serene, sometimes sad, but ultimately determined in this heroine who is questioning herself as she continues on her path through the strange little world that we are making for her.

While our heroine is getting more detailed, we are also working on fleshing out our antagonist as well.

Like our heroine, I provided and talked with Angela about certain details. He is supposed to be an older man and he is obviously different from our main character. It’s been a challenge to figure out what he’s supposed to look like as of yet. What I find works for me is looking at these conceptual drawings with Angela and picking certain details from these already made illustrations that can be incorporated into a figure closer to what we both want to work with.

For instance, I really like the idea of an X-like scar on his cheek: an aesthetic very reminiscent of the protagonist in the manga Rurouni Kenshin. In fact, as we talked about this online, I figured out exactly how he got that scar even though I didn’t originally plan on having this “X” on his skin. I was more thinking of having it on his costume, but Angela’s initiative worked out well.

So basically I decided he would look older, but not grizzled or ancient. The mask has also been a challenge too because I had been thinking of having it cover his whole face and making him look more mysterious as he watches our protagonist at work. Of course, the advantage to the half-mask–aside from the fact that it plays with our theme–is that it shows more facial expression and therefore more humanity. There is a part of me that does wince at it seeming too much like a stereotypical comic book hero or villain’s mask, but at the same time this is definitely something that want to play with as well.

We are still  working on what the suit should look like. I do like some of these designs in these latter pictures. I like, for instance, how Angela puts the “Zero” symbol at the lower-hand corner of each costume. That was one issue I was having when I was envisioning how to fit the “X” and “Zero” symbols together on his person. I mean, he’d not be very intimidating if his sigil was something derived from a  “Tick-Tack-Toe” game. In terms of the clothing in the latter set of pictures, I can definitely see at least the lab coat becoming a basis for another costume. In fact, we’ve talked about giving him different costumes depending on what environment he’s in and what he is doing. I mean, he has the resources. He has the technology. 😉 We just need to see where he goes from here.

And now to the Boink! part of our creative progress.

This Calvin and Hobbes reference aside, when I was much younger I fancied myself something of a graphic artist as well. The thing is, I had difficulty imitating basic shapes. At the same time, I liked to create monsters. To this day, it’s safe to say that I create better monsters than I do humanoids. I knew that in addition to the heroine and antagonist, we needed to have some other creatures and enemies in our developing environment. Now I could have simply described these, and to some extent I did describe them to Angela on email but pictures speak louder than words and so I unearthed these images.

(No, my blurred face is not one of the monsters … I think.)

See, those three pod-constructs were robot minions that I created for a primitive high school comic about a stick-man from a cartoon dimension who gets crippled and reconstructed into the Styx Demon by aliens. These were supposed to be the aliens. I used to have drawings of these with ink pen and pencil crayon colouring, but they are sadly lost to time. When I sent these to Angela, it was like an archaeology of my drawings: taking pictures of and documenting glyphs from my old high school art kit.

There is more.

These two kinds of beings in particular, from what I remember, were created as creatures for an old RPG game I had planned: something that people could scroll through a Paint Program to interact with. To this day, I still love that Cairn Grass. These drawings sat in my closet for years, just as the ideas that made them have rested in my mind. The idea is for Angela and myself to use some of these as templates to … make things that our heroine can interact with.

Sometimes, I feel like my part in our creative process is very ad hoc. I don’t have a script ready as of yet though I have created a rough outline of the events that I want to depict along with some notes on character personality and a little bit about how their abilities work. A lot of the interaction between Angela and myself has been exchanging ideas. I admit that sometimes I feel bad for not having a detailed enough script as of yet, but there are still some decisions that need to be made and I’m glad that it is not a case of me dictating to another person. Much of our creative decisions so far have been the result of a mutually creative exchange of ideas, shared enthusiasm, and just throwing stuff out there. I’m given to understand that each comics–and creative–collaboration works differently and so far, our works just fine. 🙂

Angela has just told me that she has some special pictures planned for next time: something that may or may not have been influenced by talking about old video games. I look forward to seeing where this goes from here.

Going to the Moon With Kan Gao

“To the Moon, Alice! To the Moon!”

The obligatory Honeymooners reference aside– a bit of humour which Doctor Neil Watts, one of the game’s protagonists, would truly appreciate–I would like to talk a bit about Kan Gao’s video game To the Moon.

Before  last Saturday, I’d heard of neither Kan Gao nor his creation. I actually saw him at the Writing for Video Games Workshop organized by Gamer Camp and the Toronto Public Library. I am interested in writing for video games and so I attended both that Workshop and the Journalism for Games Workshop as facilitated by Jamie Woo, Perry Jackson, and Emily Claire Afan: all writers for the online geeky magazine Dork Shelf.

Both Workshops were very important to me: if only to create this review. I’ve made a lot of ad hoc video game reviews–mostly with regards to Super Nintendo classics–but there was one comment that was made in the Journalism Workshop that really hit something home for me. I believe it was Jamie Woo that stated that whenever video games are written about or reviewed, a lot of the history behind the creation of them or the culture surrounding them is almost never mentioned.

I myself find that really unfortunate and makes me look at some of the reviews I’ve made as a result. I’m not going to claim that this review will be any different but, like my others, I will give you a bit of background: if only to my own introduction to this game.

I came to the Writing for Video Games Workshop thinking that Kan Gao would talk about script formats and precise ways to segment your world for potential game company evaluators. Instead, in a soft-spoken but very direct voice he talked about how to tell stories. More specifically, he talked about finding that balance between game-play–actual interaction–and a coherent story-line balancing serious emotional gravitas and the levity of humour. This preview is best symbolizes the spirit of this game.

And this is exactly what he did in To the Moon. He showed us some scenes from the game: where the 16-bit pixel characters and background immediately reminded me of Chrono Trigger: of the graphics in the last days of the Super Nintendo before the push to 3D. You’ll find that happened a lot. Older consoles would continue to coexist with newer ones and improve on the design of some of their game graphics. Look at Kirby’s Dreamland 2 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and all the variety and sharply defined colourful sprites as another example. Gao’s work seems to borrow from that last bit of graphic grandeur and expand on it into something else and new. This, however, will be the extent of my tangential parallels and where To the Moon is completely different from even the 16-bit reference I used.

To the Moon is an interactive psychological adventure RPG story created by the Independent company Freebird Games. It is about two scientists, the empathic and grouchy Dr. Eva Rosalene and mischievous slacker Dr. Neil Watts, who enter the mind of a dying old man named Johnny to “grant his wish” before he dies. They attempt to do so through using an advanced technology that allows for altering memory from childhood. Essentially, altering memories this way is fatal and that is why it is only used on terminally-ill patients who want to have a wish granted: to do something in their life over again if only in their mind.

Johnny’s wish is to go to the moon: but he doesn’t remember why. A few days after the Workshops, I downloaded the game for Steam and played it all the way through. If I had to sum up this game, I would say it has 16-bit graphics reminiscent of the Super NES’ last days, a lot of mystery, puzzles, a very intricate pattern of linked objects and events, a whole lot of incredibly poignant tear-jerking moments, and occasional interludes of hilarity.

Kan Gao is a masterful storyteller and musician. He and Laura Shigihara–the lead composer of Plants Vs. Zombies–created a soundtrack of haunting melancholic and heart-warming musical themes that represent memory and the past. What I really like about Kan Gao’s work here is how he integrates all of it together: to find that balance that he was talking about in our Workshop. In addition to combining a fine mixture of pathos and comedy, he interlaces his narrative with a whole lot of popular cultural references from the mid-nineties and beyond, and then even goes as far as to parody aspects of the video game RPG medium. If you have played the game, I am only going to mention two words: squirrel battle.

Gao doesn’t stop there however. He also really loves meta-narrative: placing moments where you can tell the video game creator or writer is winking at you through the characters. Essentially, as far as I consider it, one of the main criteria of a classic or a masterpiece is something that comments on the medium that depicts it. In other words, there is a very self-aware element to the storytelling of this game and it is very poignant.

I will say that it took me a while to get the hang of the puzzles. Essentially, most of them were Mementos: physical representations of way-points to travel farther back into Johnny’s memories. You have to decode them and take blocks away from them. I did figure it out after decoding the first Memento. Then there was the latter part of the game where suddenly there was combat and it confused me to the point of being very uncoordinated. It felt a bit like a break in the spirit that Gao was trying to make, yet at the same time it makes sense.

If someone were to ask me what my favourite part in this game was, I would say it is the place where things started to become fragmented and cyclical. If you have played this game, you will understand. Another thing I liked was the various ways that Gao graphically depicted memory. Sometimes you would see sprites interacting, and other times you would see duplicates of them frozen in sequential order. In a way, this game is also reminiscent of Chrono Trigger in that there is “time-travel” of a sort, but you are travelling through one man’s memories and not actual time: whatever that is.

But my favourite thing about To the Moon is how it really makes you think. I know very little about Game Theory, but I am intrigued by the idea of perspective in a video game. What perspective is this story being told from? I know that I said that Drs. Rosalene and Watts were the protagonists of To the Moon, but you could also argue that Johnny is as well: or that his character becomes the mindscape they traverse. You can even say that the game is a third-person limited narrative: a kind of sustained consciousness where we don’t see into the Doctors’ intimate perspectives, but we do see and determine what they discover about Johnny. Looking at perspective in a video game narrative always an intriguing thing to consider.

It also makes me wonder, if I were like Johnny–an old man on my deathbed–what kind of new memories I would like Rosalene and Watts to place in my mind and how I would feel if they had to go throughout my original memories to place that “seed” of a new one. If I really had to pick what my favourite element about Kan Gao’s storytelling in this game is, I would say that it is the characters and how he depicts human nature. I mean, he takes 16-bit sprites and he uses them as the litmus of human behaviour: as both flawed and incredibly beautiful. The relationship between Johnny and his late wife River–in how at times they don’t relate and yet at the same time actually do–and thinking about Johnny dying alone after a life of all these good, bad, awkward, regretful, joyful, and ultimately human choices he makes is just … humbling. I can’t think of any other word to describe that.

I will also add another comment that doesn’t make sense without context: Kan Gao is such a great storyteller that he made me cry over a platypus. A freaking platypus.

I will add a concluding note. In retrospect, I think it’s no coincidence that Kan Gao gave us the assignment he did in the Workshop. It was funny actually: here I was thinking the Workshop would be like a seminar with questions and references to new Indie games I had no idea about because I’m “out of the loop” (of which there were several references anyway) and that was it. Instead, Gao challenged us. He challenged us to take a memory of ours and make it into the last scene of a video game.

It was hard. I pride myself on being a writer and I had this challenge sprung at me. The trained perfectionist in me wanted it to be good. Gao also told us that when he created To the Moon, the last scene was the one that he wrote first and the rest of the story came from it. The Workshop and the game actually makes me want to do something. I’m not sure what yet–because I have a few projects already in the works–but we shall see.

To say that I would give this interactive story a five out of five is a foregone conclusion if you’ve read this article up to this point. Its atmosphere also makes for an excellent autumn game: something you can play on your desktop or laptop computer at home with a cup of tea at your side as the leaves change colour, the air outside turns cold, and the light of the sky becomes a faded gold. I would suggest that anyone that likes games with a powerful story-line should totally download this game: if only to play through Part One of what promises to be a transcendent epic story cycle.

So To the Moon, my friends. To the Moon.

When You Wish Upon a Star, Far, Far Away …

So this is an unplanned post. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing these posts in advance so that I could have a block of time to deal with my creative collaboration and other writings. But this is something that I feel I have to address in some way.

Anyway, a day or so ago I was in the middle of playing Kan Gao’s To the Moon–an excellent game which I will talk about in more detail at another time–about the day after Hurricane Sandy when my Dad starts talking to me about something. He had been listening to the news and he told me that not only did Disney buy out LucasFilm, but there are going to be three more Star Wars films starting in 2015 and onward.

At the time, I thought was some kind of joke. It just didn’t make sense. Then after I finished off To the Moon, I went online to see what was going on and I find out that George Lucas has retired, apparently made some script outlines for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, and that Disney is going to help make these happen.

So. Here’s the thing.

What do I think about this?

The answer to this question, as of right now, but it may change as I continue writing this post is that I honestly don’t know.

You know, once, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that was the last dregs of my childhood, this would have made me fucking ecstatic. I always wanted to see what happened after Return of the Jedi. I wanted there to be more. In fact, I was so attached to the characters to the point of them feeling like friends to me that I really wanted to see them again. When I first heard that there would be more films, I thought this might be it and, hell, they might even incorporate things from the books: of which I am mainly talking about Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy.

Instead, after buying those Special Edition video cassettes and listening to interviews with George Lucas, I found out that the new films would be Prequels: the story of how the Star Wars universe as we knew it became what it was. I was a little startled, but I was still very enthusiastic. Mainly, I was kind of scared to wonder what happened to Luke and Leia’s mother: which was a source of great mystery in those days.

Then the Prequels happened.

Yeah. I wrote a post on here which pretty much sums up what I think happened creatively with the Prequels, but I would just like to add that I think a few fanatics like myself were spoiled by two things: that we were no longer children and things like Ewoks (though I would never compare Jar Jar Binks to an Ewok, because Ewoks are awesome) just didn’t really relate to us anymore, and that what we saw in the films didn’t match up with the spirit of the Expanded Universe. I’m talking about the books, comics, and video games. Yes, I know it’s nerdy and also anal to focus on continuity and that it says something about  person when they wince–painfully wince–at every preconceived notion of a creative work becoming no longer … consistent.

But then I look at some aspects of the EU, and realize that there were inconsistencies and painful moments of chagrin even then, but I think I–for one–was so hungry for extra Star Wars then that I just didn’t care. I wanted to see my friends again. Nowadays, I still like seeing them but, wow, I would tell them to lay off the ridiculousness.

I think a lot of my own issues with the Prequels are due to my own idea of what I thought the Expanded Universe was like, and my own sense of continuity (I will not link to ItsJustSomeRandomGuy right now with his “Continuity song,” I will not), but at the same time sometimes you just need to take something as it is: right there, and right in front of you.

So when I hear that there will be more films … I really don’t know what to say. Oh, I will be watching them. I’m not even going to delude myself. I remember my friends and I were talking and some of them thought that a Star Wars “reboot” would do wonders for that universe. But this isn’t a complete reboot: this is a continuation. At the same time though, it’s a new film narrative that can be written and depicted differently. I’m not very familiar with legal and directing processes, or how a corporation manages creative property and, really, the creative process, but Disney bought Marvel and we have The Avengers film. I may be propagating some sort of logical fallacy by writing this, but I felt like I definitely had to mention that.

The truth is, when this is all said and done, I still don’t know what to think. But I guess if I absolutely had to say something, I would say that as long as I am entertained, I am willing to see just how far this can go if only to see more John Williams’ Star Wars music get created … and just to watch the Internet go insane.

And who knows: maybe we will finally know what Yoda is … or something.

So I am going to be evil and wrap this up with these closing statements. When these movies happen, all I can say is may the Force be with you … and let your conscience be your guide. 😉