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Playing the bar-tending simulator VA-11 Hall-A was like looking into a shattered mirror. Every time I booted up the game I noticed the way its setting—the cyberpunk dystopia of Glitch City—reflected my own. Although the issues Glitch citizens face are greatly exaggerated in comparison to our own (we don’t have to deal with alcoholic talking dogs), they likewise struggle with alarmingly fast technological progress. The symptoms of this struggle revolve around a sense of fragmentation.
With the increasing importance of the virtual world, many people are spending less time in touch with the real world. We are being mentally and physically split between the two, and VA-11 Hall-A portrays the extreme result of that schism. As the game’s protagonist Jill, I served drinks to a variety of customers who were either physically or emotionally fragmented in some way. These characters included a 24/7 live-streamer who was constantly split between her present reality and entertaining over 6000 viewers, an android prostitute who surgically modified her body to suit her clients’ tastes, and an online news editor who seemed emotionally detached from his harsh treatment of his over-worked staff. This theme of fragmentation is consistent throughout the game, and is even shown in its setting.
The Augmented Eye is Glitch City’s number one news source, and is a good example of how this game utilizes what I like to call ‘micro-narratives’. These stories are more or less the length of a Tweet, often begin in medias res, and end without a conclusion. The fragmentary news articles of The Augmented Eye weave together a patchwork image of the world beyond Jill’s room. I encountered even more micro-narratives that contributed to this impression at Jill’s workplace. Every drink that Jill serves has its own unique naming-story, making each one a small piece of history that reflects the preferences and personalities of Glitch citizens. Then there’s the jukebox. Many of the song titles end in ellipses, emphasizing their fragmentary nature by suggesting incompleteness.
While I could go on about the many other micro-narratives I encountered in-game (like an online forum, or a pop idol’s blog), I think it’s clear that fragmentation is not just an aesthetic theme for VA-11 Hall-A, but one that is deeply intertwined with its mode of storytelling. Even though the game rarely ever goes beyond Jill’s room or the confines of her bar, its use of micro-narratives provided me with a richer understanding of Glitch City as a setting. The most important micro-narratives are the ones told by the characters who chat with Jill at the bar. Each of these encounters is a break from the game’s virtual world, providing a growing intimacy rooted in its real world.
Despite that the most complex gameplay element is the mixing and serving of drinks, I would say that the main goal I had as a player was to learn more about the characters on the other side of the bar counter. Each character was intriguing because none of them were completely fleshed out. Whether they stop by the bar once during an entire playthrough or come by nearly every in-game day, each character has their own life outside of the bar from which Jill—and therefore the player—is always excluded.
Each character brings their own experiences to the counter. When Kimberly La Vallete mentioned she was a journalist for The Augmented Eye, I ended up looking for her articles on the app to see what she wrote. And when Sei Asagiri, the “White Knight”, explained that she does search and rescue operations, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was involved with a news story about a person who was rescued from a burning building. By interacting with these characters, I was beginning to draw connections between the micro-narratives I had uncovered, turning the various bits of information into an interconnected web of names, songs, stories, rumours, and most importantly: people.
VA-11 Hall-A offers a solution to the fragmentation that we encounter in a world that is becoming more virtual and less real. It showed me that the mirror could still be pieced together no matter how small, or how disparate, the shards were. The game’s titular bar is a place where people come to tell their stories, to connect with other human beings in a world that is often disconnected, to understand one another through conversation and a good drink. However, nobody calls it by its official name “VA-11 Hall-A”; customers and workers alike call it Valhalla, the name of an eternal feasting hall in Norse mythology’s after-life for brave warriors who died in battle. It is the yearning to understand and empathize that turns the fragmented VA-11 Hall-A into the complete Valhalla. Like us, the people in Glitch City’s Valhalla live in a world as fraught and chaotic as any battlefield, and after a day of fragmented life, they come by for a drink in their night-lives – their after-lives – that brings them all together.
Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?
Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).
When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.
After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.
The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.
I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.
“Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.
And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:
Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.
Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.
But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”
So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).
As for King Lear:Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.
What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.
All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.
Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.
“How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.
I love Stranger Things. And apparently, so does everyone else.
Despite its popularity, the rampant critical acclaim of Netflix’s Stranger Things was unprecedented upon its release. The initial script produced by the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, had been repeatedly rejected by a string of cable networks. It was simply uncategorizable. The ensemble of children at the heart of the TV show—Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will—made producers question: was Stranger Things a children’s show? Would adults enjoy it? And if it was geared towards children, shouldn’t the tone be lighter?
Thankfully, the Duffer brothers never changed their stride, and neither did the show. It was picked up by Netflix in early 2015 and here we are: a homage of 80’s synth pop, jean jackets, and sci-fi movies later, Stranger Things now sits atop Netflix’s most-watched series list, and boasts a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
So what was it that pushed Stranger Things over the edge of indie film territory and into pop culture appeal? Was it the soundtrack? The stellar casting? Steve Harrington’s hair? Maybe, but the response might also have something to do with nostalgia, and Stranger Things certainly had plenty of that.
You might have caught some of them, but here are 10 references you may have missed in Netflix’s monstrous hit.
No surprise here; thematic shades of E.T. are all over Stranger Things. We see it in the cinematic shots of the series—kids on bicycles, anyone?—but it’s also stunningly prominent in the parallels between Eleven and E.T. As an “alien,” so to speak, Eleven and E.T. share a fixation on one type of food (leggo my eggo), have both dressed up in blonde wigs to blend in, and are both in hiding from shadowy government figures.
2. Dungeons and Dragons
I think we all caught this one. After all, the series opens with a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, in which Will fails to kill a popular a mythical creature in D&D lore. This scene does two things: first, it foreshadows Will’s capture, which happens immediately after and drives the entire season one plot; and second, it contextualizes the creature in terms that the kids (and us as the audience) can identify. For the rest of the series, the unknown creature from the Upside Down is known as the demogorgon.
The demogorgon in Stranger Things has a few nods to Ridley Scott’s aliens. It leaves a lot of goo in its wake, and (spoilers!) it likes to incubate its victims with smaller creatures by forcing its victims to swallow them.
They’re kind of like…worms. Or snakes. It’s gross.
4. Stephen King
I’ve listed Stephen King as a category in a vague sense, because Stranger Things has multiple horror motifs typified by King during his prolific career as a writer. Mainly, Stranger Things takes its cues from King’s novels Firestarter and Carrie. In both cases, Eleven’s telepathic and occasionally erratic powers, along with her abusive and watchful upbringing, align her with Carrie White and Charlie McGee.
5. Star Wars
This one is a bit more obvious, as the characters often voice the references directly instead of the Duffer brothers hiding them under cinematic quality. Eleven has “jedi powers,” Mike owns a Yoda action-figure and talks about the Force, and when Lucas thinks Eleven has betrayed the group he calls her “Lando,” after the Star Wars character who betrays Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
6. Nightmare on Elm Street
Episode 8 of Stranger Things has Nancy and Jonathan trying to go head-to-head with the monster, luring it into Jonathan’s house with a brigade of traps and eventually setting it on fire. Sound familiar? It should—the climax of the 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street played out in a similar way.
7. The Goonies
Everyone loves a good ragtag group of misfit kids. And we see a lot of similarities in the playful and mischievous behaviour of the Goonies squad to the Stranger Things crew. The main rule: no adults allowed. (But as a lover of Stranger Things, I’m willing to point out that we do have Joyce and Hopper involved, but they act pretty autonomously for the majority of the show and are in their own separate ‘clique’).
X-men also has misfits, yes, but we’ll give that to The Goonies instead. A trickier reference to the Marvel comics actually happens in the first episode, when Dustin and Will are talking about an X-Men comic; the specific issue they argue about is volume 134, in which “Jean Grey mentally snaps…and inadvertently unleashes the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond her control,” which is a tip of the hat to Eleven later in the series.
9. The Thing
The 80’s horror movie The Thing makes a few appearances in Stranger Things. This one is a bit like Star Wars, in that there are a couple of casual mentions you can spot if you’re looking for them. In Mike’s basement there’s a poster for the movie on one of the walls, and when Dustin calls Mr. Clarke for information on how to build a sensory deprivation tank (which is the most awkward and amusing thing on the show), guess what Mr. Clarke is watching? That’s right: The Thing.
10. Minority Report/Fringe
Last but not least, I’m going to throw in a debatable one. When the characters on Stranger Things make a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to heighten her telepathy and enter the Upside Down, some people got flashes of the 2002 movie Minority Report. Specifically, the scene when Spielberg’s pre-cogs lay in their own sensory deprivation tanks to get flashes of the future.
Now, as it’s Spielberg we’re talking about here (whose other movies are a big influence on the show), it’s probably a homage to him. But! For anyone who watched the hit TV series Fringe—did you not get flashbacks of psychic Olivia Dunham concentrating in a sensory deprivation tank? I did. I really did.
So, did we miss anything? Let us know if you caught something strange that we missed, and bonus points for the more obscure the reference is!
Speculative settings are known to enchant and exhilarate. Whether you’re flying through space and time, or surrounded by magicians and dragons, speculative works create an overpowering sense of adrenaline and excitement. What proves fascinating is the way in which these worlds and characters are also capable of lulling the audience into a peaceful, sometimes trance-like state; and all with the help of a little science.
Many people mention feeling a tingling, goosebump-like sensation when they’re asked to describe a state of relaxation or calm. Frequently this feeling arises from seemingly insignificant things: whispering barely above a murmur, the sound of water droplets, or thunder. Over the past decade or so, science has come to classify this sensation as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. A person can enter a euphoric state upon hearing sounds or seeing things that stimulate a tingling sensation, which starts at the scalp and moves down throughout the body.
For insomniacs or anxious people like myself, there is a large and growing ASMR community on YouTube. Users called ASMRtists make videos where they do anything from playing with crinkly tissue paper and tapping on various surfaces to roleplays and personal attention/positive affirmation videos that engage the viewer. While most videos are rather mundane, using everyday objects or referring to regular scenarios such as a trip to the spa, some users have decided to get creative and refer to the speculative realm for help.
One of the first ASMR videos I’ve ever watched was a simple whispering video by a user called Whisper Crystal, in which she layered the reading of Tolkien’s elvish poetry, in Elvish and in English, with music from the movie. Though the video has since, sadly, had its settings changed to private, I still remember the way in which the breathy pronunciation and laments for the evening star made me feel safe and lulled me to sleep, once again sobbing at the unfortunate twist of fate of not having been born an elf.
These videos have only gotten more popular over the years. There are those like Heather Feather’s “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!” roleplay, in which the viewer feels like a character in the beginning of a video game. The viewer is presented with a variety of weapons from well-known games like the dagger of time from The Prince of Persia. These videos play with pop culture and incorporate existing details or languages, like one read in Valyrian, a language from Game of Thrones.
One channel in particular has become a personal favourite of mine, a channel by the user ASMR Rooms. Each of her YouTube videos is called a “room” because of the way in which it incorporates sounds that one would hear at a specific location. One can listen to the low humming and tinkering of the dwarves of Erebor, or the sounds of the waterfalls of Rivendell with the gentle singing of the elves. Many of her videos focus on the world of Harry Potter, capturing locations such as the Three Broomsticks. The best by far are the four videos dedicated to each of the four houses, among which Hufflepuff is the best. Situated near the Hogwarts kitchens, the Hufflepuff common room is sunny and breezy, with the sound of birds chirping and a pleasant spring breeze blowing through the windows, while the occasional chatter of students or the shadow of a stranger pass by.
Though the sounds used in these videos are simple, and similar to what one might hear on a regular basis, they are successful in stimulating the imagination by creating a sense of setting and atmosphere. It becomes easy to choose your appropriate House video and imagine oneself as a student in Hogwarts, sitting and studying for your O.W.L.s or simply taking a nap between classes. While other videos can include speculative characters or props, they focus much more on calming the viewer down—though some, like the few roleplays of Nurse Joy, are worthwhile to watch/listen to because of their cuteness.
One of the greatest pains for an avid reader is being unable to slip into the pages of the book and exist in whatever world one is reading about. While movies are capable of bringing these stories and characters to life, they do so in a way that makes one want to run headfirst into battle or do something reckless, like ride a dragon. ASMR videos offer a different side to these beloved characters and places, letting them become something each person visualizes and understands differently in a vivid, sensory fashion. It becomes much easier to make the experience personal and enjoyable, a “mundane day” in a fantastical world.
Like most survival video-games, Subnautica’s main premise is straightforward: you have crash-landed your spaceship on an alien planet. You have naught but your wits and the equipment on your landing pod to help you survive (think Robinson Crusoe in a futuristic alien world). Your main goal is to find food, fresh water, and shelter until you can find a way to get back home. Simple, right? Well, maybe not so much. I don’t mean that the gameplay is harder than it looks, but that the seemingly basic premise of the game is actually more complex than it seems. Right from the start, Subnautica presents you with two fundamental points about human survival: what you need to do vs. what you can do.
In the beginning of the game, this seems like a fairly easy choice. You need to find food and water to survive, so you craft a little hunting knife out of natural materials and go hunting. This action is clearly necessary, seeing as you would starve and die in the game if you didn’t hunt. However, as Subnautica progresses, the necessity of your actions becomes more and more questionable. Once you have your bare necessities covered, you can start acting arbitrarily, first crafting small things to make life easier (like the Seaglide which helps you swim faster), and then moving onto larger vehicles such as the Seamoth, and eventually gargantuan vehicles such as the Cyclops. What’s interesting about Subnautica is the subtlety with which it offers the player these options: it starts with little convenient tools that make surviving easier, and then moves onto larger, completely arbitrary structures. We as players are slowly conditioned to think in a way that goes from “A Seaglide will make swimming easier, surely I am justified in making that,” to “Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome having a giant submarine all to myself?”
YouTuber jacksepticeye says in one of his Subnautica videos that humans don’t just kill the thing that’s in our way; we go the long way around and make it go extinct. It’s a joke, but it’s one that rings painfully true given our history of colonialism, imperialism, and eco-terrorism. The game thus gives you the choice to either become a person who takes from the environment with no regard for the consequences, or someone who lives comfortably while being conscious of their impact. Take jacksepticeye’s playthrough, for instance. At first, he just makes a small base for himself, even saying himself that he doesn’t want to change the environment too much. Later on, however, he essentially builds himself a small underwater city, complete with empty skyscrapers and an aquarium. He even makes a little amusement park on one of the islands in the game—and if that isn’t claiming a space as your own, nothing is.
The game developers themselves show an awareness of the player’s impact on the environment. When you first land in your starting area in the ocean, there are plenty of fish around that you can catch and eat. However, as the game progresses and you go fishing for food more and more often, the amount of fish available in that area dramatically decreases, and you end up having to go to new areas to find food. Now, this might just be the game increasing in difficulty to prompt the player to explore more, but in a game so detailed that the developers programmed your landing pod to gradually float away from its original position, it isn’t too far fetched to think they would also show the impact of your fishing on the marine ecosystem.
It’s also clear that humans are not at the top of the food chain in this ecosystem, nor are we meant to be. In fact, the only thing in the game that can cause any actual direct harm is a small hunting knife; almost every other handheld tool is either used for everyday convenience, or to affect the way something moves towards or away from you. Clearly, you are not meant to harm every creature you see. Subnautica is primarily a survival game, not a fighting one, and the developers stick to this principle.
By making it so difficult to harm anything larger than a medium sized fish, the game suggests that you are only supposed to kill that which you need to survive, leaving the larger creatures well enough alone—which of course doesn’t stop any of us from trying to kill a large Stalker or Reaper Leviathan. That’s kind of the point though; going after creatures bigger than you is an illogical yet conscious decision. It requires that you want to kill not for survival, but for sport. More importantly, it demands that you take personal responsibility for harming another organism purely out of enjoyment.
This is why I think Subnautica has a much deeper meaning than what people might initially see: it shows how easy it can be, even for a decent, ordinary person, to let a conquest for personal gain or enjoyment cloud their judgment. Humanity has a tendency to claim any space we come across as our own, and we do so with little regard as to how we might affect the environment around us. As a result, humans are not the ones struggling to survive anymore; it’s everything else on the planet. We see examples of this everywhere we go: condos built where parks used to be, increasingly hot summers breaking a new record every year, invasive species choking out our indigenous ones. We see the detrimental impact our consumption has had on the environment, yet most of us still carry on with our usual lives. This passivity may be the most harmful thing of all. In doing nothing, we are forgetting one fundamental truth about human existence on this planet: our ability to thrive on Earth comes at the cost of the Earth itself.
So, yes: Subnautica is just a game. But it’s a game that says a lot about how easily humans can claim spaces as their own, and how our choices impact the world. It’s the choices we make as the player that show how aware we are of the environment. The game itself doesn’t force players to build a gigantic base to progress, nor do we need to go kill larger creatures to survive. It merely presents these options to us, and we, the players, decide what we build and how we use it. While many of us might be quick to claim that we would never willingly do anything to harm the environment, the fact is that we already have. Anyone can play this game, anyone can impact the environment, and anyone can move on without a second thought. The only question is, will you?