Games Journalism and You

The subculture surrounding video games has become a tricky beast in the last two years. More accurately, it’s been a mess since around 2009-2010, but finally reached a head in 2014 and has shown no signs of stopping since. Sexism, racism, politics, academia, social jockeying and posturing, lines drawn in the sand, reputations attacked and ruined, actual conspiracies, wide-reaching madness about “the place of video games in society”, and so on. As someone who spends far, far too much time, money, and thought on video games, I feel like I have a little better handle on it than most people, especially people outside of the subculture itself. But that said, it’s still a labyrinthine thing that can’t easily be reduced or talked about without a great deal of background knowledge, much less something that can be split into simple categories of right and wrong.

So I intend to only talk about one problem within the gaming subculture, but one that I believe is very prominently at the heart of a lot of these issues. That being the gargantuan disconnect that exists between games journalists, those who review video games and write about them and news related to them for a living, and the gaming public at large, those who make up the most significant portion of consumers who buy and play video games, whether casually, as a dedicated hobbyist, or in some semi-professional capacity. Now there’s no clean binary split between these two groups. Plenty of games journalists buy and play games on their own time outside of their work, simply as a hobby with no intention of writing about or reviewing that particular game. Conversely, while most of us might consider Youtube Let’s Players to be journalists after a fashion, particularly those who get early access to games at a developer’s behest to show it off to the wider public and possibly drum up interest in it or even review it, most games journalists tend to not only consider these people outside of their profession, but even look down on them. All this is simply to illustrate that I don’t want to generalize, but I might have to in order to get my point across. Not all games journalists are Satan’s Onions, but a large number of them are.

So let’s talk about No Man’s Sky:

Released in August of 2016, No Man’s Sky is an open-world survival game with some space flight and a bare bones story thrown in for good measure. And if you watched the video (which you should have, go back and do it for full credit), you may get the sense that people were just ever so slightly disappointed in the finished product that is No Man’s Sky. Just a smidgen. Just a tad. Just a wee bit. 

You see, the first public announcement and footage of NMS was presented at 2013’s VGX, Spike TV’s annual video game awards show that is now ended. People were excited almost immediately, but the game was still years away. This meant there was room for people to build up their hopes and expectations about what seemed to be an exciting and novel game with some real heart and imagination behind it. This is more or less what is known as “hype culture”.

Now, I’m a simple man who shuns sunlight and contact with the outside world, so let me take a brief moment to describe what hype culture is on the off chance it’s not a term heard outside of video games. Hype culture has come to describe the period between a game’s announcement and release wherein a great deal is made of the unreleased product by those excitedly anticipating it. It’s very easy to get swept up in the elation among so many people that can come with the announcement of a game. Video games can take a great deal of time and money to produce, not to mention that it may be a new entry in a franchise you dearly love, or a revival or reboot of something you remember fondly that seems to hold a lot of promise, or maybe a game with a lead designer whose previous works you’ve loved, or, as in the case of NMS, something that seems so utterly unique and ambitious. And while this is almost always a purely emotional reaction, lacking in critical thought, and can lead to deep disappointment if the game happens to not live up to the promise that has been built up in the collective imagination of the fans, based off of what they’ve seen in trailers or screenshots or developer interviews, it shouldn’t be considered a fault in one’s moral fiber to give in to hype over something that excites you. Especially not by games journalists, who not only participate in hype culture, but play a rather large role in creating it in the first place.

When I say “people were excited almost immediately” with regards to NMS, I’m not simply talking about people on reddit or in gaming forums, or sitting at home watching the VGX. No, I’m talking about games journalists as well. The breathless and heedless anticipation for NMS was built up by games journalists to an incredible degree with article titles like, Wow. No Man’s Sky Just Stole the Show at the VGX, No Man’s Sky, You Win E3, ForeverE3: How No Man’s Sky took on the games industry – and won, ‘No Man’s Sky’: the game that ‘won’ E3 2014, Stephen Colbert Suitably Awed By No Man’s Sky, and Inside ‘No Man’s Sky’, The Most Innovative Game in Years.

This is a trend that continued well into 2016, until some games journalists began to backpedal a bit about the game as it neared release and it seemed as though there might be some issues with the game, especially after it was delayed for a few weeks from the original launch date. They began to make vague hints and allusions that perhaps too much had been made of this unreleased game that the public had seen so little of. Wasn’t it maybe possible that people were just getting far, far too excited about the whole thing? One can only wonder how such a trend could’ve happened.

The real issue, the one that wakes me up in the night, drenched in cold sweat, screaming, blood shooting from my eyeballs, is games journalists denying their complicity in building up hype around NMS as well as their elitist attitude towards people who bought into that hype and found themselves let down. At this point, it’s become a moral issue for these people also, a way to separate themselves from the unwashed gaming masses they all hold a barely concealed contempt for. This also goes to the disconnect between the two groups, as games journalists as of late have adopted an attitude of pseudo-intellectualism, insisting on peppering videos and articles with references to academics and philosophers and books they’ve read, demanding that some games focus more on real world political and social issues, and generally decrying concepts like “fun” and “escapism” as so much nonexistent bourgeois degeneracy that is beneath them anyway. Here’s probably the best possible example of what I’m talking about:

BOY, is there a lot to talk about in that 7 minutes. I’ll start by saying that this is supposed to be a general satire of popular Youtubers, specifically Angry Joe in this case, who hated No Man’s Sky and made a rather lengthy review video about it. Personally, I think it falls flat, especially given the moralizing about the character and personality of those who don’t like or were disappointed in NMS, but that’s not the point. No, I’m more interested in the content of his little rant. To pull a few quotes from the video:

“For me personally this generates a sense of ennui and humility previously consigned only to obscure, poorly translated games from Russia, and is an experience so rare for video games that I fear many players may not have the capacity to even appreciate the attempt.”

“And ultimately this small indie team has created a truly honest recreation of the intense vastness of space by showing that everything is ultimately very similar…There are doubtless many critics who will see this as a bad thing, as an objective mistake, or as proof that they’ve been lied to by an evil developer, out to deprive them of the mythical prelapsarian concept of fun.”

“But I feel I must politely disagree with that perspective, because as someone who distanced themselves from the inevitable marketing hype and therefore managed to experience the game for what it actually is, I found myself falling in love with its particular kind of calm, methodical pacing, the kind that doesn’t lend well to obnoxious, over-the-top, angry, cynical, platitude-ridden videos that get that sweet, sweet Youtube ad revenue money flowing.”

“I felt lonely and adrift in an endless sea of stars and made to appreciate my smallness in the face of the unending, nihilistic darkness of the cosmos. It reminded me of the year I spent dealing with insomnia by binge-reading Nietzsche and Cormac McCarthy novels. NMS forced me to meditate on the nature of my own existence in a way I’ve never done with any video game. And it does this with its very precise use of simple mechanics and relative emptiness other game critics are complaining about. I have a sneaking suspicion that No Man’s Sky is so perfectly designed to force moments of introspection that gamers will be angry about it for forcing them to confront the darkness within their own souls, what Hegel referred to as ‘The Night of the World.'”

“It’s at once straightforward, massive, tiny, daunting, and enriching in a manner one might be inclined to describe a spiritual. However, the current expectations of space games is to be all-singing, all-dancing experiences of being an epic cyber-marine who makes #importantdecisions. So I highly doubt too many people will approach this game with the good faith required to make this game’s interesting facets truly blossom forth.”

Arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and a placing of himself as both separate from and superior to the average gamer. After all, he’s read Nietzsche and Hegel and can appreciate the deep, unsatisfying emptiness of a game with missing content and broken promises in a way that we poor, uneducated plebeians will never be able to comprehend. No, his time with NMS has been unfettered from the terrible, soul ravaging sin of hype, his experience of the game as pure as a unicorn laying its head in a virgin’s lap. Where others might approach a game expecting a decent story or engaging gameplay or something as banal as “fun”, or, God (who is dead) forbid something like a point, he’s found the deeper truth of the meaninglessness of existence staring back at him from his PS4. Now, he must spend his days bemoaning the fact that he is surrounded on all sides by such dullards who cannot see the nobility in paying $60 to be metaphorically kicked in the junk by an indie team that made promises they couldn’t keep, without ever correcting the built up hype along the way. No educated or sensible person would ever dream of disagreeing with his belief that life is empty and meaningless. It is the truly thoughtful position, after all, and in no way a convoluted mess of intellectual posturing combined with projecting one’s own insecurities onto others, declaring one’s self to be “polite” and “humble” while casting aspersions on the moral character of others and demanding that your interpretation of a game is not only the only correct one, but the only one that an educated, well-read, moral, or honest person could ever possibly reach. Just lay back and let No Man’s Sky fill you with its ennui.

It’s a shame Tom Wolfe only wrote about the art scene in 1975, because he’d have a field day with this sort of bullshit. See? I can reference stuff, too.

I’ll end with this: whereas a glut of people are now using NMS to portray themselves as deep or artistic or intellectual in a way that the average gamer could never be, or declaring that the fallout from the disappointing reality of the game shows how entitled, thoughtless, and lacking in empathy gamers are, and how all of this could’ve been avoided if they’d just not once more fallen into the trap of hype that they created all on their own (no, don’t look at all those Kotaku articles, those aren’t real, shut up), the average gamer just wanted a game. A game that was promised and hyped by a bunch of people who quickly turned defensive and contrarian once said game ended up kind of sucking and missing features that had been promised along the way. If you can play NMS and find something to enjoy about it, good on you. But if you believe that this somehow makes you an ubermensch, maybe it’s time to stop and consider why you had no friends in middle school. And if you think that the fault of hype lies solely with the player base for the game, then you’re probably a games journalist. A bad one, too.

Next time, I’ll ramble about good stuff in video games. And for now, I’m gonna go play good video games. Because video games.

 

And have some supplementary stuff on NMS, if you’re so inclined:

  1. No Man’s Sky is Elite for the 21st century. Pointless? Maybe – but also sublime
  2. Rock, Paper, Shot Takes: Hype, Bullshots & No Man’s Sky
  3. The Broken Promise Of No Man’s Sky And Why It Matters
  4. No Man’s Sky is a fine example of one type of game (but many people were expecting another)
  5. http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/08/how-sky-high-hype-formed-a-storm-cloud-over-no-mans-skys-release/
  6. A simple explanation of No Man’s Sky and its internet-fueled controversy
  7. No Man’s Sky Doesn’t Need To Be ‘The Ultimate Video Game’
  8. No Man’s Sky Proves Games Don’t Have To Be About Winning
  9. No Man’s Sky’s greatest resource is isolation
  10. http://www.vice.com/read/inside-the-nasty-no-mans-sky-backlash
  11. The No Man’s Sky Hype Disaster
  12. No, Steam Isn’t Offering ‘Special Exemptions’ For No Man’s Sky Refunds
  13. http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/1/5861704/best-games-of-e3-2014
  14. Just Played: No Man’s Sky – E3 2015 (youtube video, and I’d recommend this one if you look at nothing else in this list)
  15. Everything We Know So Far About The Impressive-Looking No Man’s Sky
  16. Why I’m Excited for No Man’s Sky
  17. How A Seemingly Impossible Game Is Possible
  18. What No Man’s Sky Is
  19. Before It Was Revealed, No Man’s Sky Had Some Skeptics
  20. No Man’s Sky Still Looks Spectacular
  21. I Played 15 Minutes Of No Man’s Sky
  22. 18 Minutes of No Man’s Sky In Action
  23. Guy Starts Leaking No Man’s Sky Videos, Changes His Mind Because He Doesn’t Want To Spoil People
  24. The No Man’s Sky Review Copy Debacle
  25. ‘No Man’s Sky’ Is Like 18 Quintillion Bowls of Oatmeal
  26. ‘No Man’s Sky’ Designer Sean Murray on New Gaming Horizons and Never Giving Up
  27. No Man’s Sky Review
  28. No Man’s Sky Lets You Explore a Universe-Sized Universe
  29. Here’s What the Most Jaw-Dropping Game of 2015 Looks Like Up Close
  30. This Is the Most Beautiful Game You’ll See All Year
  31. Here’s Hoping No Man’s Sky Isn’t the Next Elder Scrolls: Arena
  32. WATCH: Latest No Man’s Sky Trailer May Literally Blow Your Mind
  33. http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1193350
  34. Where’s the NMS we were sold on? Here’s a big list of things that are missing from the game, complete with source links for everything and quotes. Also, an unpleasant revelation concerning how the game is being advertised. (LONG post)
  35. No Man’s Sky’s biggest thematic problem, explained in four tweets
  36. Sony Issues Manual Copyright Strikes Against YouTubers Just For Discussing No Man’s Sky
  37. I will now talk about No Man’s Sky hype for about 40 minutes (youtube video)
  38. Disgruntled No Man’s Sky players thrust Sony’s PS4 refund policy back into the spotlight
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Western Animation and Being an Obtuse Tool

Sausage Party is the dumbest, most obnoxious, most nihilistic, most self-important trash that has ever had $30 million and eight years of people’s lives wasted on it. It’s a monument to how stupid Hollywood thinks you are and how intellectually superior many celebrities, movie executives, and critics believe themselves to be even though they haven’t read an actual book since college. It’s also coming out on August 12th of this year.

serveimage
My feelings exactly

But I’ve already ranted about this before, elsewhere. Instead, I want to briefly tackle the idea being bandied about, especially by film critics, that Sausage Party, if successful, will help to “legitimize” animation for adult audiences in the West. After I was done breaking all of my worldly possessions in outrage over this sentiment, I thought it might be an okay idea to talk about why this thinking is dumber than hell and shows a complete disregard and condescension towards animation in general.

To start with, this is an incredibly modern idea. El Apóstol, an Argentinian political satire created in 1917, is largely considered to be the first animated feature film in history, making animated movies almost a century old. A CENTURY. If you’re the sort of person who thinks that in that time no animation has been produced that can appeal to an adult audience, I suggest you stop drinking lead-based paint. The idea that animation is meant almost exclusively for children is a largely American idea that appeared around the 1950s-1960s, when big budget movie studio animation started dropping off, in favor of much cheaper and simpler animation produced for TV, and geared towards children rather than audiences composed of a wide age range. This continued up through the 1980s, with cartoons that are largely extended toy advertisements: Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, etc. Around the beginning of the 1990s, animation made a resurgence as studios like Disney came back into their own, producing some of their more popular and successful films, as well as cable television leading to better produced and wildly popular animated shows. All of this eventually leading us to where we are now, where animation is big business, but still largely considered “kid’s stuff” unless it’s grossly crass or meaninglessly dark or both. A more in-depth rundown of all of this would be gigantic and I’m too lazy to spend much more time on it, but TV Tropes has a pretty decent take. Have a gander at that, if you’re so inclined.

  1. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AnimationAgeGhetto
  2. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheGoldenAgeOfAnimation
  3. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheDarkAgeOfAnimation
  4. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheRenaissanceAgeOfAnimation?from=Main.TheRenaissanceAgeOfAnimation
  5. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheMillenniumAgeOfAnimation

To be very brief about my second point, the South Park movie released in 1999 made around $83 million worldwide, and the Simpsons movie released in 2007 made around $527 million. So to even begin to suggest that Sausage Party is somehow unique or special for being a widescreen, blockbuster release of an animated film in which “adult” means 90 minutes of dick and fart jokes is to have the most selective memory imaginable.

And that segues into my final complaint, which is that Sausage Party is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. So that was sort of my very first point, but sssssssshhhhh… Beneath the attempts at stoner and shock humor layered over innuendo, including an eight-minute long food orgy (because Seth Rogen wanted to see what he could get away with), Sausage Party does have a point. It’s just a point so juvenile and thoughtless that it continues to disturb me that any adult can take it seriously or find it meaningful in any way. The CGI food living in the supermarket believe that the humans shopping there are gods who’ve come to take them to their paradise, called The Great Beyond. Of course, if you’ve seen any of the trailers, that’s quickly revealed to not be the case. The food is “murdered” as people prepare and eat it. This leads to all sorts of unanswerable questions if you think too hard about it (why are meat products alive? weren’t they already alive? and why are some toiletries alive, but not other products?). But the ultimate message of this is a sophomoric Epicureanism I never thought I’d see outside of a high school or a freshman-level philosophy course. “God is dead, so let’s just smoke pot and have sex until we die.” The movie takes this to the level of suggesting that if Israelis and Palestinians would just stop being SO superstitious and abandon their silly religions and traditions and hold hands, it would all work out okay. Because no conflict in the history of the world has ever been over money or land or resources or politics. No, religion is responsible for all the world’s ills, and the great philosopher Seth Rogen has come to show us the way. With talking CGI hot dogs having sex and pontificating. For thirty million dollars.

So that’s what makes it “adult.” Not any real exploration of the human condition, not any sort of high drama or beautiful artwork, but endless sex jokes and the same sort of nihilism that adult-oriented animation has been clinging to on this side of the world for at least a decade. Oh, but I forgot about shows like Rick & Morty and Bojack Horseman! So much DEPTH! After all, animation can only ever really be mature when it declares that life is meaningless as loudly and as long as possible, so that a bunch of miserable twenty and thirty-somethings can feel better about their empty lives, because at least they’re not the only ones. GO OUTSIDE. PET A DOG. GET A HOBBY. TALK TO A FRIEND. READ AN ACTUAL BOOK. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?

The script for Sausage Party was leaked during the 2014 Sony hack, and I’ll link it here if you have any interest. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it. I found myself depressed for a couple of days afterwards, just thinking about all the waste of the thing and how there were people who already love it.

https://wikileaks.org/sony/docs/03_03/Mktrsch/Market%20Research/Scripts/Sausage%20Party.pdf

God have mercy on your soul.

But to end on a not-miserable note, I’m also going to suggest what I think are some far better animations that you could watch instead of Seth Rogen’s greatest crime against humanity. Many (but not all) of which are more adult in tone than what people in this country tend to associate with animated work. Of course, I’ll also be sticking to strictly Western animation, just to prove my point. No anime. My apologies to otaku everywhere.

Heart String Marionette1a

I already talked about this one in my previous post, and surprisingly it’s still good. Shocking, I know. Here’s the link to the movie again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJp0jIZNPhk

The Adventures of Prince Achmedachmed

A 1926 German silent movie, this is the oldest surviving animated film, its two predecessors sadly having been lost or destroyed. It was produced with a style of shadow puppetry, using cardboard and lead cutouts, and it’s gorgeous to behold in motion, especially alongside the orchestral score. The plot is largely taken from a story from the One Thousand and One Nights, but the real draw here is the animation itself. TCM runs this every now and then, so catch it there if you can. Here’s some clips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXG71sTbRgE

Anomalisaanomalisa.jpg

I’m not really a fan of this one. While the stop-motion animation itself is technically impressive, the story and characters kill me. I just find it all so self-absorbed and pathetic. Michael Stone, a customer service expert, finds himself socially and emotionally isolated from all the people around him, to the point that they all appear to have the same face and voice. But then at a business conference, he meets a young woman who appears distinct to him from everyone else, and starts a romance with her. It’s written by Charlie Kaufman, the same guy behind Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York. Both of which I also didn’t like. Still, there’s a germ of something there far more worthwhile than anything you’d ever find in Sausage Party. Trailer for your perusal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQkHA3fHk_0

The Separationseparation

The Separation is a 9 minute short film by a British filmmaker named Robert Morgan. It’s about a pair of conjoined twins separated in childhood who later try and reattach themselves as adults. This one’s a little bloody and disturbing, but the most graphic moment happens offscreen. That doesn’t stop it from being a pretty horrible moment, though. It’s rather heartbreaking and very much worth a watch if you don’t find yourself turned off by Morgan’s style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltIG3v_ySuU

Dante’s Infernodante

This one may not technically count as animation, but my blog, my rules. A modernized version of the first part of The Divine Comedy done entirely with paper puppets on a small stage. Set in an urban Hell, full of lots of social and political commentary, and pretty damn funny, too. Have a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whHDbGeJcts

Mary and Maxmary and max

Mary and Max is one of my favorite movies, as well as the funniest movie I think I’ve watched in years. A lonely eight-year old Australian girl and an overweight, shut-in New Yorker become pen pals and lifelong friends. That may not sound like much, but it’s a genuinely engaging movie, as well as touching and hilarious. Here you go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVdivjF-9nw

Fantastic Planetfantastic planet

Fantastic Planet is a 1973 animated French science-fiction film and BOY DOES IT SHOW. You thought Zardoz was trippy 70s scifi nonsense? You have seen nothing. In the distant future a giant blue race of humanoids have enslaved humanity and brought them to their planet, using some of them like lapdogs while the rest are left to fend for themselves in the wild. Until one of the humans breaks out of captivity and learns some of their secrets and starts a rebellion against them. So it’s basically Battlefield Earth, but French and on more drugs. Not a great movie, but worth watching at least once just for the strangeness of it all. Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgCxCZNkQ9E

The Maxxmaxx

This one is not a movie, but an animated miniseries that aired on MTV back in 1995. A homeless man, who thinks he’s a superhero known as The Maxx, has a mysterious connection to a freelance social worker named Julie Winters, and both of them are being stalked by a serial rapist and murderer with strange powers known as Mr. Gone. Honestly, The Maxx is a tricky show to talk about because there’s so much going on. There’s themes of trauma, repression, escapism, feminism, subconscious desires, the nature of justice, depression, suicide, and on and on. The animation can also vary wildly in style from scene to scene, which is kind of nice. Everything from CGI to a very flat, cartoony style, to the highly exaggerated and detailed style in the picture above. Excellent show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGw0-gLZaMA

It’s Such a Beautiful Daydon

Don Hertzfeldt is a legendary independent filmmaker and animator, who you’ll know from the short film Rejected, if you know him at all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yH4h73RDeE

Released over the course of three years as three separate short films and then compiled together as one in 2011, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is his most critically successful work, and arguably his best as well. An ordinary man named Bill discovers that he has some form of inherited degenerative brain disease, slowly driving him crazy and possibly killing him. As Bill struggles to hold on to his sanity as the disease progresses, he ponders on mortality, family, modern society, love, existence, and the meaning of life. The first third of the movie is up for viewing on Hertzfeldt’s Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IUX0Qy-IDM

The Secret of KellsKells

Secret of Kells is the kind of movie I imagine the sort of person who would like Sausage Party would either dismiss outright or hate on principle. It might be because the two protagonists are children, because it’s fairly supportive of religion, or because it’s generally optimistic in tone. Or maybe just the bright colors. It’s the story of a boy named Brendan, living under the care of several monks and his uncle, Abbot Cellach, in an abbey in northern Ireland. A wandering monk named Aidan visits the abbey, carrying an illuminated manuscript he’s spent his life working on. He befriends Brendan and sees in him the potential to become an apt pupil, so he enlists Brendan’s help to finish the manuscript. Another one of my favorite movies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw2_HZTuQBE

The Lost Thinglost thing

And finally, The Lost Thing. This is the second shortest one in the bunch, clocking in at around 15 minutes. A boy named Shaun finds a Thing on the beach that everyone else seems to ignore, befriends it, and tries to find where it belongs in the world. This one is mostly here because Shaun Tan, the creator, is one of my favorite artists, and if I can introduce more people to his work, then I’m gonna. Ultimately, I’d say it’s a movie about trying to find wonder in the mundane and the everyday. And luckily, there’s a version up online. It’s in a pretty low resolution, though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1JoliFXH74

 

So that’s all I’ve got. For now, anyway. And if you think my taste sucks or I’m just being a snob, I still urge you to not watch Sausage Party. As someone who loves animation and all the creative and artistic potential it has, I’d really like to see the trend of it being used as little more than a soapbox for miserable Hollywood types and their ill-conceived opinions end. So please don’t go watch this soulless garbage, or any of the other soulless garbage that passes for “adult animation” in this country. No Rick & Morty, no Bojack Horseman, no Family Guy, no whatever new flavor-of-the-month is airing on adult swim. We can do better. Much, much better.

Heart String Marionette

1a

The Intro

Heart String Marionette is an independent animated film released in 2012 by a man who goes by the name of M dot Strange. It’s about a mime/samurai wandering across a quasi-Japanese world inhabited entirely by masked puppets, searching for his lost memories, using the power of his own despair to battle demons and seek out a vague vengeance that isn’t properly detailed until the very end of the film. Go ahead and take a second to absorb all of that.

Rather than dive straight in, I should give you the chance to avoid my rambling and mention that the entire movie is up for viewing on the creator’s Youtube channel. But there’s a catch in that there’s two versions of the movie, and the better one is harder to find. The Original Cut features music composed by a guy who goes by Endika. Unfortunately, at some point Endika and M dot Strange had a bit of a falling out, and this led to Strange releasing an “Uberector’s Cut” that cuts out the opening credits sequence, cuts some scenes of exposition, moves the actual ending behind the end credits, and most important of all, features an entirely new soundtrack created by Strange himself that is not very good. Largely ambient and techno/industrial, it’s not terrible, but it feels like generic video game music. It makes some of the dialogue a little easier to hear in spots, lacking the blaring horns of some of Endika’s tracks, but it also shifts the tone of the movie wildly. Whereas the original is melancholy and odd and sometimes marvelously melodramatic, Strange’s soundtrack seems to be trying too hard to creep you out or make you think the stuff going on onscreen is more badass than it actually is.

Endika and Strange eventually made up, and Strange uploaded the Original Cut again. But for some reason, it’s unlisted, meaning you can’t find it in Youtube’s search bar or by poking around in the channel. You can only access it if you have a direct link to the video. Luckily for all of us, I’m an obsessive weirdo and eventually tracked it down.

So here’s the original, with Endika’s soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJp0jIZNPhk

And here’s Strange’s Uberector’s Cut for the sake of comparison: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4Y5jUqBm8k

The Story

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After some opening shots to establish that we know what marionettes are, we open on an island seemingly made of giant stone hands. In the center is a stage, with a large wooden box. A weak voice cries out for help, revealed to be a boy inside the box, accosted by strange laughing statues with clown faces. Eventually, someone shows up to open the door for him and we’re introduced to our hero, Samhaine Tsuke. Sam-hane-skay. Samanosuke. YA GET IT? Don’t worry, the punny names don’t stop there.

Here we get our first bit of plot, rather than visual, weirdness. The boy claims that he wasn’t looking for someone to let him out of the box, but rather he was in need of an actor, and Samhaine fits the bill perfectly. Samhaine is hesitant, saying he lacks a face, but the boy encourages him, saying that at least he has a voice. The boy commands him to be a hero and tasks Samhaine with hunting down a clown who stole his brother and locked him up in the box, while simultaneously referring to Samhaine as his brother. Samhaine accepts, saying he’ll cut down all the people trying to hurt the boy, “even if I have to kill the Devil himself.” Samhaine leaves and the boy cries out to him, reminding him that style counts for a lot and he should remember to dance.

After that, we’re treated to a few minutes of establishing shots, music, and opening credits as Samhaine makes his way to the local warlord’s mansion. A group of armed men are waiting in the entrance hall as Samhaine enters and presents a picture of the clown given to him by the boy. But there’s no clown present, and the leader of the armed men mocks Samhaine as he struggles to remember who his brother is and what happened to him. Eventually, the men shoot Samhaine in the heart and drag his body off. Movie over. Don’t worry about that remaining hour and forty-five minutes or so.

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Meanwhile, a woman named SiouXsie (Susie) Silen is traveling in a palanquin. She makes conversation with one of the palanquin bearers, asking what the difference is between a marionette and a puppet. He tells her that puppets are controlled from below while marionettes are controlled from above, but that marionettes don’t actually exist. This bit of common sense and exposition ends up being slightly important later on. There’s a short musical interlude where Samhaine is implored to “reach for the sword in his heart,” which he uses to escape from the afterlife. We then get a brief introduction to a wandering archer named Tatsuya, who is pretty much here just for comic relief, a simple man with simple desires: to become a hero so he can pick up chicks.

SiouXsie’s palanquin is attacked by a demon, which kills both of the bearers. As the monster descends on her, Samhaine reappears, wielding the same sword that allowed him to return to life and wearing a different mask from what he had on before. Here we also get our first taste of Samhaine monologuing about his despair and his identity, or lack thereof. This is something that’s going to keep happening for the rest of the movie, and also seems to signal Samhaine having come to embody the “role” he was given by the boy at the beginning. He also claims that to face him is to face his “higher power”, indicating that Samhaine seems to believe he’s a marionette.

Samhaine makes quick work of the demon, and SiouXsie, who believes him to be the Prince of Marionettes, eventually convinces Samhaine to come with her, saying that she has some bodyguard work for him and that she can help him find the clown he’s after. The two set off and encounter numerous bandits and monsters along the way, as well as a couple of children by the riverside singing a song about a little boy born without a face, his father having traded it to the Devil in exchange for immortality. We also learn that the reason all of the puppets wear masks is because it’s believed that the Devil himself is roaming the land, and will steal your soul if he sees your face. Obviously this is all tangential and has nothing to do with what we’re watching. Obviously. Also the warlord’s name is Lord Wor. Drink it in, people.

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Eventually, SiouXsie and Samhaine arrive in SiouXsie’s village, and most of this scene just seems confusing and out of left field. Yes, even by this movie’s standards. The two walk up to the front of a building called “Salvation Saloon” and are soon confronted by a group of men bedecked in crosses who claim that SiouXsie is marked for death and they intend to punish both her and Samhaine for their sins. Samhaine easily wins and SiouXsie takes him to the other side of town to confront the creature these people seem to worship, called The Body. The Body makes his appearance and makes a lot of noise about “the body of Christ” and “the Lord of Lords.” The whole thing seems like it’s set up to be a pretty obvious middle finger to Christianity, except within the context of the movie it doesn’t really make much sense. The Body is just another demon, and the “Lord of Lords” he claims to represent is Lord Wor, a man who works for the Devil. So it’s…technically supportive of Christianity? Trying to say something about people who use religion to mask their hypocrisy? Simply trying to be offensive? I really can’t figure this one out.

Anyway, as Samhaine fights The Body, SiouXsie is kidnapped by the Waspwoman, another one of Lord Wor’s demons. Luckily, Tatsuya has been stalking SiouXsie for quite some time and manages to save her. After releasing her from her cage, he asks her about the man she’s traveling with and she reveals that he’s Samhaine Tsuke. Tatsuya releases his inner fanboy upon hearing this, relating the story of an old play known as “The Silent Form,” written by Samhaine Tsuke. Found a long time ago in a cave, the author is unknown apart from the signature on the cover. However, the events of the play mirror the events of the movie. So that’s a thing.

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Having defeated The Body, Samhaine realizes that SiouXsie is missing. He wanders along the road, searching for her, eventually finding her in another village after dispatching some more of Lord Wor’s demons. Samhaine has some kind of breakdown, wondering if he’s real. SiouXsie flirts with him/tries to steal his sword, but Samhaine rejects her advances, saying he’s not a man, but a monster. Samhaine wanders off alone into the countryside, bemoaning his fate as a puppet destined to follow the script of the play. SiouXsie also wanders off and encounters the Waspwoman in a graveyard, revealed to be Samhaine’s mother, having been turned into a monster by Lord Wor. The two talk for a while before Waspwoman takes SiouXsie to Lord Wor.

Tatsuya tracks down Samhaine and they both make their way to stately Wor Manor to save SiouXsie and face off against Lord Wor. Samhaine cuts a bloody swathe through Wor’s men, monologuing through most of the battle, before making his way into the mansion. Tatsuya ends up locked out because the time for funny ha-ha is over.

Samhaine confronts Lord Wor, his father, who apologizes for having wronged him in the past. Samhaine surrenders to Lord Wor, and they make their way to the conveniently placed Hell portal in the back of the mansion. Lord Wor calls out to the Devil, saying that they’ve come to release him. The Devil, speaking in what sounds like German or French to my uncultured Murican ears, declares that his physical form has deteriorated and he requires a new vessel. He wants Samhaine’s body.

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The Devil, who resembles a brine shrimp, asks Samhaine to remove his mask to complete the process. But as he does, the Devil stares into Samhaine’s faceless…face, declaring that he does have a face and is something monstrous. Lord Wor doesn’t understand why Samhaine has a face as he, “made sure he died inside.” Samhaine proceeds to beat the Devil to death with his bare hands as Wor approaches him, and we get a silent scene of Samhaine’s childhood, abused and beaten by Wor, who is revealed to be the clown from the picture given to Samhaine by the boy. After this, Wor retreats back through the portal as Hell collapses around Samhaine. Another demon appears, and Samhaine gives a monologue about hate before cutting it down, his sword now having his heart prominently displayed on the blade.

Samhaine comes back through the portal, declaring himself to be a monster of his father’s own creation. Wor agrees, and apologizes, saying that he’ll atone by burning down his mansion and abandoning the machines that give him eternal life. But as Samhaine approaches Wor, his heart ceases beating on the sword and he collapses. Wor transforms into the clown and stomps Samhaine’s motionless heart into dust.

What follows is an emotional musical scene where the boy offers up his heart to replace the one Samhaine has lost. Samhaine cuts down Wor, who thanks him for freeing him as he dies, happy that Samhaine has ended the cycle and will never become his father. The life flows from Wor, reviving all those he’d stolen life from across the land. Samhaine cries over his father’s remains before turning to bow to the people assembled behind him, and the astonishingly short credits roll. Interestingly enough, the musical part of this scene is missing from the Uberector’s Cut. In that version, Wor destroying Samhaine’s heart leads directly into the credits, which then cuts straight to Samhaine killing Wor, with no sort of explanation given.

The Analysis

To start, here’s a comment from Strange himself pulled from the upload of the Uberector’s Cut:

“Ok well I want people to have their own interpretation but I’ll share some of my thoughts on it- the main character was the kid in the box- though he wasn’t a real boy- he was an inner child- he was a dead inner child that drove his adult form Samhaine to get revenge on his real father Lord Wor for killing him- Lord Wor abused him so he ran away and died inside in the forest- The clown was the abuser inside of Lord Wor- Wor served the devil and he didn’t plan for him to be killed but was glad when he was dead- and that he himself had been killed by his son so his son would not become him- if he did then Wor would be become the new devil and the cycle would repeat- so another theme is cycles of trauma- lightning/thunder/rain/fire represented that….”

Most of which seems pretty obvious. All of the stuff revolving around the theme of child abuse is pretty straightforward and easy to pick up on. It’s everything else that’s harder to figure out.

What is Samhaine’s “higher power”? His anger and despair over the abuse at the hands of his father? It’s certainly justified, but why does it separate him from the rest of the puppets? Puppets are controlled from below, while marionettes are controlled from above. The distinction would seem to be that the rest of the puppets are driven by base desires, while Samhaine has something far more grand or virtuous pushing him forward. But is his anger and thirst for vengeance really all that different from anything that could be considered more base? He’s certainly not the only person in this world to have suffered at the hands of Lord Wor, so then why does Samhaine seem to be the only marionette? Is it God or something divine? That seems unlikely, as the only time divinity ever really seems to be invoked is during the sequence with The Body, and that certainly seems to suggest that the creator has a dim view of religion, or at least Christianity.

And why include that scene in the first place? Of everything else that happens, that scene seems the most disconnected from the rest of the film. And why is the Devil the only character who speaks in something other than English? Simply for spook factor?

And what about The Silent Form? All the events we witness have been laid out beforehand in a play written by Samhaine himself, suggesting that none of the characters involved have any real say in anything that happens. Samhaine laments his lack of free will and his nature as a puppet around the middle of the movie, but he’s also the author of the play. So he regrets that he’s an instrument of…himself? He’s playing a part that he doesn’t want, but it’s one that he quite literally gives to himself? He worries that he’s not real and just acting out the play, yet it’s a play of his own making? Wut.

Also why is he a mime?

The Conclusion

I very clearly do not understand Heart String Marionette, but I certainly like it. It’s visually striking and the music is excellent (in the right version). I’m tempted to call it a two hour music video, but that seems a little reductive and insulting. Especially for something that took four years to make and clearly had a lot of love put into it. If nothing else, it’s creative and wholly unique. And in a world of reboots and remakes, that’s always a small blessing. Give it a look if you’re after something novel or interesting, or if you think you’ll have a better understanding of it than me, which is very likely. Just watch the right version. Seriously.

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