The Death of Aeris, or Roger Ebert Can Kiss My Shiny Metal Butt, Part II

Once again, I must begin by referencing the post I wrote a few weeks ago on why I don’t like watching movies. You may recall that that post had a fairly random title. That title was actually a vague reference to a somewhat controversial issue within the video game community; namely, whether or not video games can be considered a form of art. As you might have guessed, Roger Ebert believes that video games cannot in any way be considered art, whereas I do. (I also threw in a reference to Futurama, cause it’s a great show.)

I’m not really that interested in directly engaging with Ebert’s arguments for why video games aren’t art (with one exception). I’d rather talk about a key experience in my gaming “career” and how it has influenced my views of video games as art. I’m also not particularly interested in coming up with a specific definition of “art”. Art is such a subjective thing that I feel like any attempt to define it is thoroughly foolhardy. So for the purposes of this discussion, art is simply any form of human expression that elicits an emotion of some sort.

“The Death of Aeris” refers to a scene from a video game, Final Fantasy VII, which is perhaps one of the most famous and most controversial scenes in video game history. First, a little background. Final Fantasy games are entirely independent of each other in terms of plot, although they do have certain elements in common. For example, most Final Fantasy games include large, yellow birds that people ride called Chocobos. Also almost every Final Fantasy game has a character named Cid. Finally, these games almost always involve an epic battle between good and evil.

In FFVII, the plot centers around a young man named Cloud, who is part of a rebel organization known as AVALANCHE. This group is fighting against an evil corporation, the Shinra Electric Power Company, who has used their monopoly of something called “Mako power” to take over the world. AVALANCHE is fighting Shinra because the use of Mako energy is actually killing the planet, and Cloud and his friends don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to take the time to explain the entire plot, so suffice it to say that the true villain turns out to be a man named Sephiroth, who wants to seize the planet’s energy and use it to become a god. Cloud’s love interest, a young woman called Aeris, is the only person who has the power to stop Sephiroth’s schemes.

About halfway through the plot of the game, Cloud and his friends have just recovered something called the Black Materia, which is crucial to Sephiroth’s plan. However, as soon as they get it, Sephiroth shows up and Cloud gives it to him. Cloud is shocked at his own action, but when Aeris tries to calm him down, he attacks her. He then freaks out and collapses. When he comes to, he discovers that Aeris has gone off on her own to a place called the City of the Ancients. Cloud and his friends follow after her, but when they find her, Cloud draws his sword and tries to kill her, stopping himself at the last second. Disaster seems averted, until Sephiroth himself descends from the sky and runs his sword through Aeris, killing her.

This may have been the first time in a video game that a major protagonist was killed. (I don’t know that for a fact, but I can’t think of any games that came before FFVII where this happens.) There were several minor characters who died in Final Fantasy IV, but one of them was old, and the rest come back to life in the end. Aeris was young and vibrant, and she doesn’t come back.

This scene caused a great deal of controversy among the video game community at the time. Many gamers were angry that Squaresoft (the company that made FFVII) would kill off a character that they had gotten to know so well. Even now, I would imagine that just saying the name Aeris to someone who has been playing games for at least 15 years would elicit some sort of strong reaction.

So, some of you may be asking, what is my point with all of this? My point is that, if art is a form of human expression that is designed to evoke some sort of emotion, then the death of Aeris proves that video games can be, and in fact are, art. No one can play through the first half of Final Fantasy VII and not feel anything when Sephiroth’s sword pierces Aeris’s body. Whether you are shocked, surprised, angry, sad, or horrified, it is a moment that is almost guaranteed to provoke an emotional reaction. And how could something that causes such a reaction be dismissed as incapable of being art?

Now, one aspect of Ebert’s argument is that he claims that he is not focusing on the story or the graphics or the sound or anything like that, but rather the actual mechanics of playing a game. This seems to me to be a bit too narrow of a focus. There is more to playing a game than pushing buttons and following rules. I, personally, play very few games that don’t have a deep and complex story. So for me, and many people like me, the story is an integral portion of the experience. As are graphics and sound. So to dismiss these elements as invalid to the argument of whether or not video games are art is akin to saying that color and line are irrelevant to whether or not paintings can be considered art.

In the end, none of this really matters. Video games are video games, whether or not they are considered art. Some people like them, other people don’t, and for most people, the question of art never enters the equation. So excuse me, but I need to go play Final Fantasy VII.

I’m Bored

So I wanted to revisit a topic that I alluded to a few weeks ago when I wrote about why I don’t watch movies. I mentioned in that post how I seem to have a pathological fear of boredom. I’ve been thinking about that a lot more lately, and I decided I’d delve into that topic a little deeper.

The concept of boredom fascinates me for a number of reasons. First of all, why am I so terrified of being bored? Secondly, why does our society as a whole vilify boredom and bombard us with ways to stave off boredom? Is boredom a bad thing? Should it be?

I’ve actually been experimenting slightly with embracing boredom lately. For example, I don’t necessarily feel the need to have music playing in my ears at all times. I’m finding that I actually enjoy music more if I only listen to it when I can really appreciate it, rather than listening to at all times, such as when I’m blogging, or surrounded by my wife and children, or what have you. On the other hand, there’s a lot of music out there, and by listening to music less often, I’m inevitably going to miss out on some. But, there are advantages and disadvantages to everything, I suppose.

The real question, though, is why do we as a society fear boredom so greatly and do everything we can to eradicate it? It seems like we are constantly surrounded by entertainment in all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties. It’s impossible to look anywhere without seeing something that somebody has come up with as an activity to counteract boredom. Multi-billion dollar industries exist whose main goal is to make sure that people don’t ever have to be bored. Books, movies, television, music, video games…all of these things are there, at least partially, so that people can have something to do. Why? What is so bad about boredom?

The cynical answer is that the elites of our society don’t want us to think too much about our lives and/or situations. It’s sort of the modern day equivalent of the Roman concept of “bread & circuses”. Entertain people and keep them full and then they don’t think too hard or start to question the way things are. I do tend to think that there’s something to this idea, but I think it’s somewhat paranoid to think this is the sole explanation. After all, much if not most entertainment is pretty mind-numbing. There isn’t a lot out there, especially that has mass appeal, that makes people really think and that challenges their perceptions of life and reality. However, I feel that it ascribes too much power to “elites” to assume that there’s some sort of conspiracy to keep people fat and complacent. After all, there’s plenty of books, movies, music, etc. out there that’s thought-provoking and challenging. People just tend to not be interested. That makes me think that the real explanation for the problem of boredom lies within people, not with any sort of conspiracy theory.

So why do people gravitate to mind-numbing forms of entertainment? Why do we obsess over them and attempt to fill our lives with these things so that we might never have to worry about ever being bored? Well, I suspect that, in our sinful condition, living in a broken world, we fear boredom because we don’t want to have to think. I know, this sounds just like what I was saying in the previous paragraph. But I’m not saying that there’s some sort of powerful and shadowy elite that doesn’t want us to think. I’m saying that we don’t want to think. Because really, life is awful. Life is painful, sad, horrifying, full of discomfort and agony and heartbreak. And we don’t want to have to face this reality. So we hide ourselves away in our reality TV shows and trashy movies and celebrity gossip and various other less savory pursuits, because we don’t want to think about how horrible this world really is.

So is that all there is to it? Fear of boredom is really just fear of having time to reflect on the sinful condition of the world? Maybe. I have another theory though, one that applies specifically to small towns. I feel sometimes that small towns, like the one I live in, are especially susceptible to boredom and to the unhealthy activities that people engage in to eliminate boredom. I think that people living in small towns (especially kids) watch TV and movies, and look at stuff on the internet, and they see the way that big cities are portrayed in these media: full of glitz and glamour and lots of stuff to do. And then they look at their own lives, and at the lack of things to do where they live, and they get bored. And so people in these small towns turn to things such as drugs and alcohol in an attempt to have something to do to deal with the boredom they feel. And boredom must be a bad thing, because it reflects the fact that they’re poor and live in the middle of nowhere. After all, if they were rich and lived in a big city, they wouldn’t be bored, because there’s tons of stuff to do in big cities.

In the end, I don’t know that I’m any closer now to solving the problem of boredom. Pure speculation, after all, can only get one so far. I would love to know more about the history of boredom. If anybody out there knows of any good books on boredom, let me know. I find this whole topic fascinating. I’m especially interested in perceptions of boredom in pre-industrial times. Did peasants working on small farms 500 years ago ever get bored? Or were they too busy trying to survive? Is boredom a luxury that only the relatively well-off can indulge in? Or has boredom been an issue at all times and places? These are some of the questions I want answers to.

Lost in the Sound of Separation

One of my greatest passions in life (aside from God and my family) is music. I love music. So this week, I thought I’d take some time and talk about some of my most-loved bands. I’m going to pick my favorite albums by some of my favorite bands and talk about what it is I like about that band and that particular album.

First up is Lost in the Sound of Separation by Underoath, which I think is appropriate considering I stole that name for the title of this blog post. Underoath is a Christian band that started off playing fairly standard metalcore, but have since morphed into something much more indefinable. (Metalcore is the name given to a sub-genre of music that combines the blistering heaviness of metal with the crunch and chug of hardcore. If you’re intrigued, some examples of good metalcore bands are Converge, Killswitch Engage, Earth Crisis, and so on.) Separation is Underoath’s most recent album, released in 2008. Lyrically, the album is inspired by frontman Spencer Chamberlain’s battle with drug addiction. Musically, Separation is an intense and powerful evocation of a sinner’s struggle to return to God’s grace. It’s not a pleasant album. It’s not an album you listen to if you want to cheerfully hum along and tap your foot. It’s more of an album for those times when you feel surrounded by darkness and it seems like God is far away.

The next album I’d like to highlight is Everyone Is Out to Get Us by Far-Less. This band was known for mixing a wide variety of disparate influences into their sound, which resulted, at least on this particular album, in a potent cocktail of grooving melodic alternative rock, blistering metal breakdowns, raging hardcore stomp, and enough time signature switches and complex rhythms to make a jazz musician nod in approval. Everyone is the rare album where you never know quite what to expect from the next song, yet it all ties together and makes sense within the context of the album. It’s truly one of the great albums of the 00’s. Unfortunately, Far-Less dropped the ball on their tepid follow-up, A Toast to Bad Taste, and then they broke up. But at least they left one great album behind.

Album number three is Quintessence by Borknagar. Borknagar is a Norwegian black metal band that’s been around since at least the mid-90s. They started off as sort of a “super group” of notable members of the Norwegian black metal scene, but members have come and gone over the years, and now they’re more or less just a regular band. Their best album is probably 2001’s Empiricism, but my favorite will always be the previous album. Quintessence is a truly epic affair. Soaring melodies, crushing guitar tones, inhumanly fast drumming, majestic keyboards… if you know anything about Norwegian black metal, you realize I just described three-fourths of the albums that have come out of that scene. But there’s something special about Quintessence – some indefinable quality that it has that no other black metal album does.

The fourth album I want to mention is actually two albums: Red For Fire: An Icelandic Odyssey, Vol. 1 and Black For Death: An Icelandic Odyssey, Vol. 2 by Solefald. Although these are packaged and sold as two separate albums, they really are two parts of a complete work. Solefald, like Borknagar, is a Norwegian black metal band. In fact, one of the two guys who makes up Solefald is also the keyboard player for Borknagar. But aside from that, the two bands really don’t have much in common. Solefald is much more experimental, and they tend to cast their net much wider in terms of incorporating a wide variety of musical genres into their sound. Icelandic Odyssey is actually more traditional than anything else they’ve done. It’s basically a fusion of black metal and Scandinavian folk music, and the results are nothing short of divine. It is an epic in every sense of the word.

The next album is Riot! by Paramore. Riot! is a considerably poppier album than any of the other albums I’ve described so far, but Paramore’s biggest hook for me is that their singer is female. I have a soft spot in my heart for rock bands with female singers, and there just aren’t nearly enough good ones out there! But Paramore is one of them. Hayley Williams is a tiny little girl with a big, beautiful voice, and the rest of the band punches out pop punk songs with plenty of hooks and lots of crunch. I’m generally not a huge fan of pop rock, but that’s mostly because there are too many bands playing that sort of music, and they all sort of sound like each other. Paramore is one of my favorite bands because they don’t sound like everybody else. They actually do pop rock well. That’s just too rare nowadays.

The final album I want to talk about is my all-time favorite album by my all-time favorite band. The album is If_Then_Else by The Gathering. The Gathering are a band from the Netherlands whose sound and membership has varied considerably over the last 20 years. They began as a doom metal band with a male singer, and are currently an alternative rock band with a female singer. If_Then_Else was released in 2000, when the band were at the height of their sonic adventurism. Their singer at the time was Anneke van Giersbergen, who is similar to Hayley Williams in that she’s a fairly diminutive woman with a big, powerful voice. She was The Gathering’s frontwoman for most of their career, but unfortunately she left in 2007 to pursue a solo career. In any case, If_Then_Else was the sixth album released by The Gathering, and the fourth album they recorded with Anneke. It is a stunning fusion of a myriad of musical styles, heavy yet melodic, direct yet pensive, crushing yet gentle. It is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of my musical tastes. I encourage you to check out any or all of the albums and bands that I mentioned. Let me know if you do and if you like what you hear!

Violence

As you may know, I’m an avid fan of video games. I’ve been playing them since I was 6 or 7 years old. I’ve owned (at one time or another) at least 16 different video game consoles. I currently own well over 100 games. I’ve played many, many games over the years, and I would consider myself a bit of an authority on video game history and gaming culture.

One theme that crops up time and time again in the gaming world is violence. Many video games involve some sort of combat, and as there has always been a trend in gaming to make games look and/or feel as realistic as possible, this has meant that violence in video games also has become more realistic. There was a time when games like Mortal Kombat and Doom presented violence in what was then seen as a ridiculously over-the-top fashion, with blood spurting everywhere, limbs and heads being ripped off, and so forth. These games seem almost family-friendly compared to violence found in modern day video games.

Violence in video games has never bothered me all that much. I played Doom and Mortal Kombat in my early teen years, and I managed to avoid going on a killing spree at my school (or anywhere else, for that matter). As games have gotten more violent, my attitude toward that violence really hasn’t changed. Obviously I don‘t play violent video games around my children, but after my kids are in bed, I’ll happily spend time blowing aliens and mutants apart in games like Gears of War or Fallout 3. I don’t play games for the violence, but I never thought that a game could be too violent for me either. Frankly, I’ve always been somewhat indifferent to it. Until a couple of weeks ago.

There is a game franchise known as God of War. From what I know about this franchise, it’s loosely based on ancient Greek mythology, and involves an angry man named Kratos whose goal is to kill everything in sight until he wreaks vengeance on all the gods of Olympus for some wrong that they did to him. Pretty standard stuff, really. These games never really seemed like they were my cup of tea, but they’ve all gotten rave reviews from various gaming media outlets, and so when the opportunity to try one came along, I took it.

That opportunity came in the form of a downloadable demo for the newest game in the series, God of War III. I had actually, at one point, decided that I should buy God of War III, since it had gotten such good reviews. Then I happened to come across a certain article on IGN.com, my favorite source of information on video games. This article consisted of various editors giving their opinion on GOWIII. They all seemed to like it quite a bit, but one thing that struck me was how disturbed they were at the level of violence in the game. Now, these are not Christian gamers. These people are thoroughly secular, and clearly are not concerned with adhering to any sort of concept of Christian morality whatsoever. And yet, even they were expressing revulsion at the violence in this game. “I may not actually want to play this game after all,” I thought to myself.

But, I am the sort of person who likes to see things for myself. So, I downloaded the demo and I saw for myself. And for the first time in my life, I will not buy a game because it is too violent.

Now, the demo didn’t start off too badly. It was bloody, sure, but no more so than 15,000 other games I’ve played. But as I went along, it got worse and worse. By the time I got to the point where Kratos was ripping a man’s head off with his bare hands, I threw down the controller in disgust and turned it off. The thing is, aside from the violence, it’s a good game. Controls well, fun to play, visually awesome….it’s the complete package. But I can’t do it.

The first question I take away from this experience is, why does a game need to be this violent? Why do the creators of the game need to create such violence, and why do players of the game need to see it?

Unfortunately, on further reflection, it’s obvious what the answer to this question is. Humans are sinful creatures, and without God’s help and correction, we feel the need to indulge that sinful nature in the most depraved ways we can think of. Simple enough. A better question might be, why is GOWIII too violent for me and other games aren’t?

Clearly, I’m not opposed to violence in video games. I can blast the limbs off a Super Mutant in bloody slow-motion in Fallout 3 without batting an eye. And yet, GOWIII made me feel almost nauseous. Am I perhaps being hypocritical? Pointing out the speck in my brother’s eye without first removing the log from my own eye? Maybe. But maybe not.

I think the difference is that, in most games, no matter how bloody or gory, the violence is stylized enough and vague enough that I can detach myself from it. For example, when I go into slow-motion mode in Fallout 3 and blow the head off of an enemy with a shotgun, there’s lots of blood, but that’s about it. There’s no sense of realism, no thoughts of, “What if this really happened?” But in God of War III, the violence is much more detailed and specific. In the example I mentioned earlier, you can see the enemy strain as he tries to resist his head being torn from his body. You can also see clearly how much of an effort your character is exerting in order to separate said head from said body. The whole experience was deeply disturbing, and is very difficult for me to write about even now, two weeks after I witnessed it. I couldn’t help but think, “What if somebody was trying to tear my head from my body with their bare hands?” What a horrible way to die!

In the end, nothing I say will prevent such games from being made. But I can certainly vote with my wallet and not give any money to developers that make such things. And the next time IGN says that a game is almost too violent, I think I’ll take their word for it.