Let’s get on with it. We’ll have a look at issues #13 to #30.
Ever since first watching 1994’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series, I have liked Spider-Man. This is not a unique predilection. He is, after all, one of the more enduring comic book characters around, and comprised at his inception a rather unique approach to superhero characters. Not being an all-powerful alien or insane playboy, Spider-Man and his civilian alter ego Peter Parker had to battle teenage angst, mundane inconveniences and adverserial weather alongside crazed superhumans and well-armed bank robbers. He was more pedestrian than most preceding characters – he had actual, relatable problems to deal with.
Like most popular comic book characters, especially in this age of Mouse-powered superhuman overindulgence, I got to know Spider-Man through tertiary material, just like I did Batman and all the others: Through animated cartoons, toys, and later, films. Spider-Man had permeated the cultural membrane and existed as an Idea rather than solely as a comic book character. I knew about Venom and Shocker and Mysterio as though it was through Biblical canon – these things had been acknowledged before and they would be in the future – they were.
Which is why I decided I should probably read all of the Spider-Men some time. All 80 billion of them. I hope to glean some insight into shifting perspectives, creative choices and the creation of a lasting legendarium – however convoluted and frail – and how much design and how much catastrophe figured into this process.
The Amazing Spider-Man’s original run alone features 700 issues, so I’ll be at this for a while. So for this first instalment, we have a look at Amazing Fantasy #15, and The Amazing Spider-Man numbers 1 through 12.
I won’t be doing this issue by issue, because that means 700 reviews and I hope to do something with my life before getting there. So for now, abide with this more lateral approach.
A lot of this comic is about Fox News, basically. Almost immediately the comic serves up one of the most familiar elements of Spider-Man mythology – the constant character assassination by Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, who goes out of his way to convince the reading public that Spider-Man is a crook, usually the same person as the one he happens to be chasing at the time. We spend a fair amount of moments with the reading public, allowing us to wallow in the shallow opinions of a public that largely assumes that whatever a paper prints is probably true. It is bonehead satire, or at least it would have been then. I’m afraid it might actually be more relevant now than it was then. Jameson is a Bill O’Reilly before his time, and almost immediately the more amusing character of the bunch.
The comic almost immediately introduces most familiar tropes of the mythos. Peter Parker is a morally conflicted neurotic who is constantly hassled by his classmates. He sticks to walls, swings on webs and has eerie prescience re Bad Things. Evil and/or insane and/or unlucky individuals adopt weird monickers and gimmicks and do crimes and Spider-Man stops them from doing said crimes. He makes money by selling photographs of himself.
Interestingly, loads of staple villains are almost immediately introduced. Chameleon, Vulture, Electro, the Lizard, Sandman and Doctor Octopus turn up one after the other, though most don’t get an explanatory aside about why or how they are actually doing this.
Strangely, I notice these stories do seem contextually grander because I have foreknowledge of hos culturally significant they become. Though occasionally sharp and sometimes even clever, much of this comic is stupidly asinine – but it is difficulty to objectively find it so. It’s as though the comic’s hapless attempts at interpersonal drama are someow validated by the fact that in a few decade’s time, these attempt will work slightly better.
An example: Peter’s first romance here is Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant, who has Something She Can’t Possibly Tell Him. Almost immediately you’re not particularly interested in finding out, mostly due to Betty’s complete lack of distinctive character features, save for being female, not hating Peter Parker and not being his Aunt. It’s not as if any other character is particularly more developed, but Betty is particularly underserved. In the end, Spider-Man is present when her brother gets shot by Doc Ock and somehow this furthers the drama.
It is clearly a prototype of his future relationships – most of which won’t be better thought out, but by virtue of history and longevity will feel somehow more rounded. Or at least I assume so.
More of this later as we continue our journey through sequential art history. Until then, some more choice picks from these first 12 issues:
Since graduating on it, I have made some abortive attempts to expand upon the game’s current form, trying to somehow divine where it’s headed, or where it should be headed. The game’s original incarnation was built around a necessary minimum of content, both conceptually as well as practically. While this worked reasonably well, I’ve since concluded that this represents a bare essentials state for the game, rather than an ideal one. It is a proving ground for some of the mechanics, and has some novelty value in its lack of content, but future versions should at least feature some things, if only to re-engage returning players.
As Death appeared to be a prominent element in the .1 initial phase of EPBAB, I thought perhaps to expand on this. If every level, vignette or scenario was a small meditation of certain death, a small play of acceptance or reluctance in the face of inevitable extinction would that somehow provide a guiding theme? Would there be a bear? Is death a bear?
It wasn’t a particularly fruitful period.
Regardless, I set about extrapolating from this theme, distilling more exact scenes of gradual decay like the prototype, eventually landing at one where a bear god kills both of the characters, and one where an idol of a bear god drowns them both.
In the end, because I was working against a very short deadline, I chose the Water Chamber both for reasons of attainability and irrational preference. I turned the level around in a little less than a week, roughly functional and just barely in time for a deadline that has since turned out to have not been as important as I thought back then.
The Water Chamber, again, allows a short space of time for players to acclimatise to one another and establish a rudimentray relationship. Then, the water begins to rise, and they can attempt to survive by hopping onto gradually disappearing platforms. A timed sequence of Cameras attempts to package the whole as a cinematic, semi-playable whole.
I haven’t added this to my itch.io page yet, but I might shortly, after splicing a few more things in. From there on out, more iterations and more desperate stabs at cohesion, until we arrive at a semblance of a ‘game’.
Bowie’s dead. Enough has been said about the resident alien’s unparalleled ability to reinvent himself, his influence on science fiction, fashion and aesthetics in general, his ambassadorial representation of the other, the differently inclined. To me, at first, he was neither Bowie the musician nor any of the other. He was a god in a video game first.
Omikron: The Nomad Soul is probably my favourite video game. It is not, by any rational qualifier, necessarily a good one. It frivolously hops between adventure game, fighting game, FPS, weak puzzle game, somestimes driving simulator, and a few other half-executed ideas. It bears all the red flags of creator David Cage’s future haphazard design principles. But, it was also one of the first games featuring a living, breathing, fully exploreable 3D city, which at the time seemed more or less completely real and almost unfathomably complex.
And it had Bowie in it. Before I’d ever consciously listened to Ziggy Stardust or saw The Man who fell to Earth, I experienced Bowie as the computer god Boz and the lead singer of the illegal, extradimensional band The Dreamers. Even without being aware of Bowie’s body of work at that time, you could feel the fact he was involved in this, and his involvement itself, was something special, a numinous presence in the otherwise garish world of video games.
Boz was someone you’d mostly hear about, a rumour among the populace you were part of. You don’t meet him until much later, and when I did, it was almost profound – not something that happens much in video games, especially not at that time. Bowie was a good actor – something not many musicians are.
Throughout the games, you’d find folders advertising a secret concert by The Dreamers, a band outlawed by the game’s totalitarian government – a time, a seedy dive in the less well-kept quarters of the city. You need to time your visit fairly well to get there. This, here, was David Bowie, in the first and thus far only illegal concert I’ve visited inside a video game. The animation doesn’t hold up well, but the unicity of the experience should still be apparent. This wasn’t video game music – this was a real musician, real music, and still, hauntingly different, congruent with the Blade Runnerish game world, and yet, transcendent. Even in low-poly, ill-animated form, Bowie permeated.
I sometimes fear Omikron: The Nomad Soul may have been the most influential game in my life. It’s not particularly the game you’d want to have at the back of your mind when trying when trying to design substantive content. Design-wise, it’s a disaster. Directorially, a catastrophe. But it is nonetheless beatutiful and unique. Like some of Alan Moore’s more heady and perhaps tone-deaf comics or Terry Gilliam’s barely kept-together films, it is a wonderfully constructed wreck whose beautiful individual components sometimes validate the greater whole.
Bowie, I think, was much the same. Particularly in his oft-disregarded 90s phases, which of course include Hours… which was largely the Nomad Soul record. Many of these records cannot necessarily be regarded as his consistenly best efforts, but even the weakest and weirdest among them become unjustifiably and irrationally more due small, well-observed, ineffable components. Things that someone else wouldn’t and couldn’t have contributed. Theory and linear qualifiers start to falter here. Language is not always completely suited to defend the art you actually enjoy.
Bowie was unparalleled in music and most other things he chose to do. The Nomad Soul is far from unparalleled, but the very fact he chose to involve himself in things like this reveals the kind of pioneering nomad soul we’ve lost.
Wednesday last I spoke at an event organised by Nieuwe Filmers about Exit, Pursued By A Bear and mutually beneficial lessons that interactive media and film can teach one another. The long and short of my point boiled down to the gradual shift in user expectations, where increasing interactive empowerment leads users to expect a certain amount of control that film cannot (and, usually, should not) give them. However, their is an increasingly large area of overlap for interactive video and cinema to exploit, as evidenced by companies such as Submarine (present that night in spirit, showing their interactive documentary Last Hijack). This area of filmmaking is virgin territory, barely explored in any meaningful sense, and should provide an exciting opportunity for any ambitious filmmaker with a hankering for expanding the medium.
However, this did not seem to come across as such. There was in the audience, comprised of various filmmakers or people otherwise involved in the industry, a certain palpable reticence on the subject. Some objection was raised, mostly some variation of ‘But I’m a filmmaker, what does this have to do with me?’
There were some substantial arguments, although none of them unadressed in my speech. Chiefmost of fears seems to be the lack of directorial vision in interactive works. The objection is understandable – film is a despotic medium in which the director funnels every impression and morsel of information in a highly specific sequence down the viewer’s throat, dictating an experience wholly, or at least largely, unaffected by the viewer’s presence or actions. This is not in itself bad – it allows visionary creators to project a highly specific and finely crafted whole directly unto the viewer, in its most optimal state.
There is no lack of directorial vision in interactive works. Ot at least, there needn’t be. I posit that the direction, however should be aimed at the environment the user moves through and interacts with, rather than directing the actual interaction. To direct a player/user is despotic in a purportedly interactive environment. A user must experience a degree of freedom, actual or feigned, and should have a sense of propriety over his/her actions. However, it is preferable that directorial vision is not wholly sacrificed. We can achieve this by directing the totality of experiences, regardless of what way, what amount and in what order they are experienced. Environmental storytelling is part of this, Portal 2 tackles it very well. But it amounts to more than that. Holistic, perhaps. Solve and direct the entirety of the experience and the sequence and quantity shouldn’t have to matter. More on this, later.
New Luddism, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh. Still, filmmakers would do well to invest themselves in the interactive sphere, because someone will, and it might as well be them.
On a related note, another speaker, Cas Ketel, demoed his virtual reality installation A Breathtaking Journey. The installation places you in the role of a Syrian refugee stuffed in a box aboard a truck outbound from Syria. There is a tiny slit you can peek through. A sensor-modified paint mask measures your inhalation/exhalation, which enables it to check whether you’re making noise once guards show up. On top of that, you’re in an actual box, which does much to solve the experiential disconnect most of us have when donning the Rift or one of its compatriots. Recommended.
In roughly 36 hours, this will all be over, at least in as far as a graduation requirement is concerned. So here is a conclusion, for now, to the project and its findings (or lack thereof).
I set out to research performative elements in relatively orthodox video game frameworks and, if possible, extrapolate a video game out of all that, and in this I have succeeded. There is a game and sufficient research to support it. The initial question was “How can I induce players to interact dramatically with one another inside a virtual space?” and this appears to have been answered to some degree. There is no absolute guarantee to ‘inducing people to do X’ but the prototype seems to be able to perform it well enough for the most part.
The game, for now, is called Exit, Pursued by a Bear, mostly because a local paper picked up on the working title and is going ahead with publishing it so there seems little point in altering the name for now. Besides, I rather like it.
I feel as though I have finished the game rather too recently to cast any sort of objective aspersions on it, but I suppose I could give it a stab. Firstly, I feel I should utter the baseless but persistent feeling that the prototype does not achieve the totality of what I vaguely wished for, even though the actual boxes are all more or less ticked. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who seemed to ‘get’ what I was going for here. Often, it was the Head controls that immediately communicated the objective of the game. This very simple act of digital puppeteering seemed to draw most of the test subjects immediately into the theatrical aspect of the game, and often managed to keep them engrossed for five whole minutes or so.
I have seen some interesting sketches (stopping short of calling them ‘stories’ for now) developing in the game. Most edged towards either ‘mimicking movements to achieve some sort of synchronicity’ while a lot of the other tended towards ‘jump on each others’ heads on push them off things’. The cubes and cylinders added to the empty world seemed to enagge most hesitant players enough to keep them into the game for The Turn.
The Turn is the bit where the entire world fragments and the established relationship is tested. Again, after a lot of animation length wrangling I feel that this development brings just enough diversion to impress upon the players the urgency of the situation but leaves sufficient room for them to express themselves on this subject.
Most interesting, perhaps, is the replayability loop that emerged more or less by accident. I more or less assumed from the outset that for most individuals this would be a game best played once, not in the least because the core environmental effect is ‘on rails’. However, it takes a fair bit to acclimatize to the controls, especially for players new to a controller. What followed was that many players, after having experienced the game the first time, wanted to have another go, now knowing that the world would split and having an inkling of how they wanted to react to that. Basically, they now ‘knew the script’ and went back into the game with an intention to perform. While wholly unexpected, this revelation implies a much larger replay value than originally envisioned. Which possibly shows bad foresight on my part.
In conclusion, this game can be considered a solid first step in a form digital theatre, one which warrants much more research and experimentation, but for the purposes of the research I set out to do, is for now sufficient.
This is the level setup I’m going with, at least for the duration of the exam, which is next Monday. It borrows from/is a natural result of some of my previous concepts, namely the large chasms and the floaty islands, as well as the very first ‘Void’ prototype. The level will open in a similar manner as the first prototype, introducing the characters to one another in a largely featureless void, leaving them with each other to interact without any mechanical distractions. There will be one or two simple objects in this scene, like the fake tree, but even more basic – a cube, or a sphere, or maybe even a cylinder if we’re feeling exotic. This gives them something to engage with after the initial interaction may have ceased, although nothing prevents them from perpetuating the first.
Slowly, however, they will begin to realize that the level is shifting, ever so slightly, and their world is falling apart. Here, their mode of interaction will, presumably, shift from initially interpersonal, through willfully environmental, to forcefully environmental – they are not only engaging with the environment, the environment is engaging with them, forcing them to react in order to survive – a videogame imperative, not a theatrical one. Soon, their living space will probably be too small to share. Now the relationship established in Phase 1 is put to the test, and phase 1 ensures that there is something to test.
Finally, only a tiny sliver of land will remain. If the players reacted well and cooperated, using their respective masses and sizes, they may find themselves on top of this thing. Possibly not. The game ends when they both survive, or when they both die. What does this mean? This is wholly dependent on how the players shaped the content through their performance.
Next step, building the level. And making some sort of decision on the music or lack thereof. Character controllers are finished or have at least reached minimum acceptable status. Quod erat demonstrandum: