There are various ways of controlling anxiety or stress: sitting down with a good book, taking a walk outside, or even enjoying a cup of tea with one’s current activity. Video games tend to be overlooked in this area. They are better known for being loud or fast-paced—not what someone would turn to if they were searching for calm, or emotional investment.
This is the obstacle Jenova Chen set out to overcome in Journey, the final game of a three-part contract between Thatgamecompany and Sony that came out on PlayStation in March of 2012. It eliminates the goal-driven structure most video games follow, instead allowing one to get lost in the surroundings and music. The atmosphere makes it easy for a player to feel small.
The story is told without any verbal narrative and uses cut scenes that are, at times, ominous. It was only after finishing the game that I decided to go back and read about the storyline, picking up on details that enhance one’s understanding but don’t hinder the gameplay if missed. Journey is the story of a now-ruined civilization. The player travels through the remnants, past floating centipede-like mechanical automatons that are on the lookout for intruders.
The premise itself is fairly straightforward: the player assumes the role of a strange robed figure standing in an endless desert. A large mountain looms overhead, with a light shining upwards from its split peak. The goal is to slowly make one’s way through the game in order to reach the summit. But putting it that way eliminates all of the things that are important in Journey. Here, the focal point is in the things that people tend to overlook when playing a game.
The music sets the tone from the very beginning. As the player guides the cloaked figure through the remnants of a destroyed civilization, there is already something meditative about the game. This is particularly evident when the figure’s scarf comes into play. Rune-decorated scarves and red ribbons are probably the central imagery of the game. The scarf lights up when fully charged by magical ribbons scattered throughout the environment. The charge is then slowly expended when you hold down the O button to fly. Later on, these ribbons form bridges, or make up huge floating jellyfish and serpent-like creatures. The player has to charge up at one creature before gliding on to the next one.
Large, white-cloaked figures reminiscent of Tibetan monks appear at occasional checkpoints to further elaborate on the story. The meditative quality of the gameplay is heightened by encounters with anonymous figures at various stages of the journey. These are controlled by other players somewhere in the world who happen to be at the same stage in the game. Players can communicate via a series of chiming tones, and can choose to work together by charging up each other’s scarves. These encounters build a sense of companionship that is strengthened by the anonymity and lack of competition between players.
Yet all of the above is still focused on the minute details of the game. The reality is that one must play the game in order to fully understand the effect Chen was going for. Despite how short it is—taking only a couple hours or so to complete—playing it feels like one has wandered into a tiny time loop. It’s a game that elicits melancholy and longing, as well as joy and relief, taking you from a vast desert into dark underground caverns guarded by Matrix-like automatons, then up the mountain and through a blizzard. There is one particular moment, at the end of the underground cavern before one has finally broken out, that I would gladly replay over and over again, flying from one ribbon jellyfish to another through a sea of golden mist as it rises higher and higher, until it finally bursts into a warm glow. It was a moment that sent a tingling sensation through me, making me understand what all the praise and near-perfect reviews were talking about.
At the end of the game, after reaching the summit, there is a beautiful cut scene of the player’s figure dissolving into an expanse of white light. A shooting star crosses the sky from the summit and follows the journey backwards, illuminating the other players who are on the same path. Once it fades beyond the sand dunes and the sun rises again, one has the option of starting the journey over again. Regardless of how cliché or predictable it may sound, Journey feels like an entire lifetime shrunken down into a few hours, at the end of which there is such an overwhelming spectrum of emotions that it is difficult to leave it behind. It’s a few hours of pure, unfiltered magic that has been skillfully woven into a narrative that doesn’t care about overloading the player with details or imposing criteria, instead it seeks to comfort and move, and does both in the most unique way possible.
While I should have been studying for exams, I finally gave in to the hype and watched the first episode of Jessica Jones… and then the second episode, quickly followed by the third. Several days later, I found myself finishing the entire first season and dealing with that strange post-series depression; the kind of ache that arises only after you know you have finished a great show.
I know I’m late to the party since Jessica Jones aired on Netflix in November 2015, but this empty, void-like feeling after finishing this great show has got me thinking—why do we feel this way only when we have finished something that we really enjoy? After mulling over this for quite some time, I decided to do what I always do when I do not know the answer to something: write about it. I have decided that the answer to this question lies within Jessica Jones itself, or more specifically, its treatment of human psychology.
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, Jessica Jones is a Netflix series produced by Marvel that follows the titular character’s quest to stop a mind-controlling psychopath named Kilgrave. Kilgrave himself is fixated on Jessica, and will stop at nothing to possess her. The show is one of the few television programs that accurately depicts a psychologically-tormented protagonist with an equally psychologically-complex villain. Characters on both sides of the good/evil spectrum suffer from mental illness. This is one of the reasons that Jessica Jones is so complex and compelling—it shows that people with mental illness are neither inherently bad nor good. Illness has no direct causal effect on a person’s morality, and thus we must examine the other, deeper reasons behind a character’s actions.
Everything about Jessica Jones is phenomenal, except for one glaring aspect that I find myself somewhat troubled with: Kilgrave’s death. There were so many interesting avenues to develop—Kilgrave was obsessed with gaining power and in one of his last scenes, his father warned him that the serum to expand his abilities might kill him. It was the perfect set-up for his death: in trying to develop his powers, his quest to become more powerful would end up killing him. Jessica’s ethical conundrum of having to kill someone would be avoided because Kilgrave’s own mad desire for control would do it for her.
So imagine my disappointment when Kilgrave falls for Jessica’s trap and gets himself killed in what felt like the most anti-climactic death in the entire series. I was so upset at this seeming cop-out of an ending. I ranted to all my friends about it, wrote this angry blog post about it… until I started thinking about why I was really so distraught by Kilgrave’s death.
I missed him.
I missed Kilgrave, the psychopathic, mind-controlling, cold-blooded murderer who rapes women and makes people commit suicide with his voice alone—but let me explain. I did not miss the unspeakable acts that Kilgrave committed. Rather, I missed Tennant’s chilling yet incredibly entertaining performance of him. I missed seeing what Kilgrave was up to next, and guessing at how he was going to carry out his next grand plan. Most of all, I lamented the potential to explore the possibilities of Kilgrave’s powers as a villain.
It is here that we come back to that empty feeling, that “post-series depression” we all get when we finish a great show. I would like to examine the effects of post-series depression first through the series’ most captivating (albeit disturbing) character, Kilgrave. He is a textbook psychopath, cunning and manipulative with an aura of superficial charm, and a complete lack of guilt for the atrocious acts he has committed. He does not see people as individuals, but rather as tools for his entertainment; characters in a play of which he is the director. We see this in the way he treats and imagines Jessica—although he claims to love her, he has no problem in trying to kill both her and the people she loves. What Kilgrave loves about Jessica is his ability to control her, to possess her, and it is this control that Kilgrave misses about Jessica when she is gone.
On a less extreme level, we miss our shows in the same manner. We miss our everyday interactions with them, seeing the characters we love, and the degree of control in what we choose to watch and when. Once the show finishes, we do our best to find other shows similar to the one we have just finished, but it is never really quite the same. Kilgrave’s character demonstrates the darker implications of this emptiness, since he tries to replace Jessica with Hope Schlottman (with the hope of filling the void), but this ultimately fails. Kilgrave’s behaviour demonstrates that possessiveness towards the things we love is not by any means the kind of relationship we should strive for.
Jessica is the offered solution to this problem in the show. Although she suffers from depression and PTSD, she does not let these illnesses define her, nor is she isolated by them. On the contrary, Jessica has people she cares about and people who care about her. Despite her repeated attempts to “not give a shit,” she finds herself caring about people anyway, and in the end she chooses to accept these friendships rather than reject them.
It is worth noting that all of Jessica’s plans to defeat Kilgrave fail, and it is not until she starts including her friends in her plans that they start making progress. She includes her best friend, Trish, in her plan to take down Kilgrave. In addition, the very last scene shows Malcolm, one of Jessica’s allies, answering Jessica’s phone at her apartment, and viewers are left with the hopeful assumption that Jessica and Malcolm are to run Alias Investigations together.
Maybe the right way to love our shows is not to find another one to replace them with, nor to let post-series depression keep us from discovering new things, but to share our experiences with the people we care about. Having a good relationship with art means having a good relationship with people; we should want to share the things we love with others, not keep them exclusively to ourselves. It’s the reason we always want our friends to watch the same shows that we do, so that we can talk about the shows with them and have a shared experience. In a way, it is like we are keeping our experience of the show alive in our everyday conversations so that, technically, a show is never really over if we keep talking about it—and that, I think, is a comforting thought.
While I was growing up, the Chinese realm of my life was wholly separate from the English one. The two only overlapped when I struggled to find the Chinese word for an object I knew in English. In one memorable instance in fifth grade, I pointed to a plug and struggled for ten minutes, failing to conjure up the proper Chinese noun.
Ken Liu’s original fiction shares some of that same disconnection.
As a Chinese person, I am used to reading about the Chinese experience in Chinese. When read in English, the natural experience turns into a cultural performance put on for the Western audience. Reading Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” feels as if the entire story was tinged with the sort of mysticism associated with the ‘Far East’. The fantasy elements seemed like unnatural, deliberate uses of ethnicity, intended to provoke a specific reaction from an audience that looks upon Chinese culture as if it were something to be gawked at in a zoo.
The addition of Chinese words and sentences in the piece may make it seem more authentic, but to me, it was simply awkward. I would constantly try to switch to the convention and flow of the Chinese language, attempting to read the few parts written in Chinese the way I would read a typical Chinese sentence. The English context simply doesn’t afford the leisure of doing so, however, and the smattering of Romanized Chinese plopped starkly into the middle of a completely English piece is ineffective and jarring.
A much smoother and more entertaining read is Liu’s translation of “Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Since Chen had been writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience, the reading experience seems much more natural and lacks the discomfort of cultural performance. Despite this, the translation did bring me out of the story at times. Certain words and phrases stand out (“joss sticks”; “it was like discussing music theory with a cud-chewing cow”), as these nouns and expressions are idiosyncratic to the Chinese written language. At these points, I couldn’t help but re-translate the English text and imagine what the original Chinese would have sounded like.
Personal feelings regarding the mechanics of language and translation aside, Liu’s writing in his original fiction is plain and straightforward. Even at the most emotional moments in the story, his descriptions are precise statements of fact intended to provoke feeling as an afterthought. Emotions aren’t described by Liu; they manifest in the actions of the characters. While he is the director that sets everything in motion, the quality of experience depends entirely on the interpretation of the reader. We are given the reins to characterize each of his figures throughout his story.
In contrast to Liu’s own directness, Chen’s fiction is descriptive to the point of scientific precision. In a sense, Chen’s words read as Chinese. I cannot say that I have read as many Chinese works as I have English, but in my limited scope I have found vivid descriptions of colour and other sensory details to be more common in Chinese writing. Liu’s translation therefore seems clinically faithful to Chen’s original writing, and he seems to have preserved a lot of Chen’s authorial voice.
Yet Liu’s presence as translator is acutely felt. The traces of his sentence style and spacing act like a gloss of varnish over the short story. He favours short sentences and statement-like descriptions, again leaving the reader to make independent judgments that are guided only by snapshots of the scene. Not having read Chen’s original text, I cannot tell if these choices are Liu’s own preferences coming out in his translation, or aspects already existent in the original.
Reading Ken Liu’s original and translated works has been a puzzling experience, as I reconcile my culture with my education. It has made me realize that many beloved genres, such as fantasy, can take on a completely other dimension when presented in a different language. While I do not anticipate reading more Ken Liu anytime soon, I will most definitely be looking into Chen Qiufan’s original works in Chinese.
There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.
Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.
I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.
The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.
Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.
1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.
In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.
Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.
A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.
Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)
See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.
Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.
In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.
None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.
The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.
In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.
If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?
2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds!
Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer?
I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.
This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?
Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.
The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.
And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.
So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.
I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.
3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire
Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.
Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.
That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).
So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!
The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.
In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.
So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.
We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.
We can handle it.
Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.
The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.
Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.
Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.