Wednesday, January 23, 2013

But Why Can't I Save the World?

Courtesy of Santi Slade
After watching Zero Dark Thirty for a second time and binging on both 12-episode, 12-hour seasons of Homeland in just three days, I was struck by a pang of melancholy. For reasons that don’t trouble me nearly as much as they should, this realization had little to do with my supine disregard of exercise or summer internship applications. Instead, I felt insignificant and small, humbled by the extraordinary acts that both Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Carrie (Claire Danes) of Homeland achieve, the latter on a serialized basis.

Granted, these two heroines are among the most flawed protagonists in film and television history; Carrie spends significant screen time crying, screaming, panicking, bugging her eyes out or — and this is how Claire Danes wins all the Emmys — colliding her many bipolar symptoms at once, while Maya sits on the opposite end of the clinical spectrum, possessing more of a psychopathic coldness that I consider to be the film’s apparently-too-subtle critique of America’s callous, post-9/11 foreign policy. Regardless, as I emerged, bleary-eyed, from the couch and the cinema, I could not resist the superficial allure of such “heroic” work. I want to join the CIA!

Even after admiring the gray tones of counter-terrorism in Homeland anddefending Zero Dark Thirty’s anti-war message to anyone who will listen, I find myself at the most base and opportunistic of temptations. As damaged as Carrie and borderline sadistic as Maya may be, they pull off peerless feats of deduction and investigation that are based on hunches only they believe. And that’s pretty cool. In the vacuum of fiction, a writer (or, in the case of Homeland, a room of them) can prescribe witty retorts and enviable bravery to a character and, with a mental breakdown here and a sobbing fit there, still pass off the creation as human. It is when we believe that these superhumans could even possibly be real that the aforementioned sadness, the most unwarranted of phenomena, creeps in.

Let us take a more agreeable example, especially as I remember the more unsavory details of Maya’s character. For me, Harry Potter embodied this saintly, yet still powerfully empathetic, protagonist. Here is a teenager, just slightly older than me when I first read The Deathly Hallows in 2007, vanquishing the greatest evil his world has ever seen. How does he do it? (*Spoilers, I guess*) He walks into a dark forest, guided by the souls of all the family and friends who have perished in the decades-long war he is about to end and accepts that, to fulfill his destiny, he must die. Harry follows through every step without curling into the fetal position or crapping his pants — he approaches his certain demise with maturity and grace. And, after flatlining right there in the Forbidden Forest, he returns to life to kill Voldemort in front of all his peers. Rowling likely intended Harry’s defiant victory to strike the reader as inspirational and comforting, yet I found myself plummeting into an existential crisis as I examined my own life and found my worst struggles woefully pathetic compared to Harry’s. Gee, I haven’t levitated a feather, no less slayed anything close in size or strength to a basilisk or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!

Am I alone in finding some of our culture’s most popular and satiating movies, TV shows and books inherently depressing? That I expect an answer from a rhetorical question may hold an answer. Moving away from the morally questionable heroines of Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, the hagiographic elevation of protagonists in more crowd-pleasing works like Harry Potter, Star Wars or Les Misérables may very well provoke an unintended moment of self-reflection. The Sopranos knows this well: In a very meta scene, gangster Christopher Moltisanti freaks out after reading in screenwriting books about how every character has an arc. “Where’s my arc?” he asks.

Of course, the only way to cast off this pall of self-deprecation is to build your own character — in a video game, that is. Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty don’t cut it, as they focus only on objectives within a predetermined playing style, leaving no other options for the player but to master the mechanics. Bioware’s sci-fi trilogy Mass Effect, rightly considered a masterpiece of the medium, still falls short in granting the player complete control of his or her destiny. Although the player must make a plethora of in-game choices, the core narrative still follows one of three — good, bad or neutral — pre-determined paths that all funnel into basically the same ending. The storywriter has more authority over the narrative than the player, which is no different than non-interactive media like film and literature.

This brings me to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the black hole that annihilated the rest of my free time over winter break, and then some. This game makes no attempt to emulate cinema through shot reverse shot dialogue exchanges, “cutscenes” or “quick time events,” a la Mass Effect. Rather, Skyrim throws the player into a massive world of high fantasy, borrowing names and creatures from Norse and Camelot folklore and severing all other ties from the world of our own. Sure, there is an epic story involving a prophecy and a mythical villain, but like Fallout 3, the other popular game by Bethesda Studios, the plot serves as a vehicle for gameplay and not the other way around.

A game like Skyrim offers an oddly empowering experience. Why stick to a sword, bow or fire spell when you can wield them all simultaneously? The citizens of nine cities and countless villages, forts and dungeons depend on your agency to decide a Civil War, reconcile warring factions and kill a plague of dragons, in whatever order you choose. Or you can forget about all that and buy a house, collect potions and assist the local business owner in finding his lost family relic. But be wary about investing too much into your character: The humbling heroics of Harry Potter and Homeland have nothing on realizing that your video game character is living a more listless life than your own.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

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