Digital Angeles

I beat Grand Theft Auto V a couple of weeks ago. It took a while. I push pencils full time, for myself and for a living, and I found one hour windows to play once a week. Twice if I really wanted to fuck up my deadlines. The game takes place in Los Santos, a satirized & compressed but otherwise stunningly accurate rendition of Los Angeles.

The game came out in mid-September, exactly one month after moving to Los Angeles.

I mean, I was born and raised in "Los Angeles" but any true Angeleno knows that LA is less of a city and more of a bunch of spread out disparate parts. LA County, my turf south of Greater LA, is where I spent most of my life thus far. It's a world of difference from the big city out-of-towners imagine when I tell them that I'm from LA: everything has a parking lot, everything is built flat and long, everyone lives an elliptical life disconnected from the center. It may as well be Reno, or Odessa, or Camden. Los Angeles, from Santa Monica to Highland Park, is the sun. Everything else, from the Valley to the South Bay, is its own planet in orbit. Life never really has to leave it, or even care much for the sun other than know it is there.

I have loved LA since I was a teenager, the way kids in the 70s loved space. I looked at it from a distance and felt an urge to explore and touch a bigger universe. You can tell by that metaphor that I'm one of those people, the ones that define the value of their life by its proximity to something that feels culturally important. I might toss around the phrase "center of the world" if I were brave enough. After college, I knew that was the goal. I began interning in LA, then working in LA, then driving there every day. It was a pain of a commute, a slow depressing trudge for over an hour every early morning, but it brought mere here to a studio apartment in the middle of it all.

By the time I got to live here, I was already well versed in the city's ways. I knew the landmarks, some history, a lot of the spots. I knew that you're better off taking Fountain over Sunset. So, when GTA V came out and I was tasked with exploring a digital Los Angeles, I was prepared to see a lot of my newfound life in the big city.

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Beads on a String

Ryan Davis died last week. For people that aren't immersed in video game journalism culture, let's just say this: he wasn an entertainer. I'm someone who does more reading about games culture than actual game playing, and I have been pretty familiar with his work for the last 4 or so years. I primarily knew him as a really funny commentator, purposely abrasive, but completely charismatic. He died last week, 5 days after his wedding.

"Some day, someone will write the book on grieving in the age of social media," said his colleague Jeff Gerstmann the day after the news broke. He was aware of the weirdness of the situation, and how it was this strange confluence of celebrity, internet accessibility and the ease of emotional connectedness that the internet can develop when used correctly. Thousands of comments poured in, he got written up in Reuters, virtually every major games news site put up a tribute or fond anecdote. Complete strangers were reaching out to his widow and his father. You might expect this if it were James Gandolfini or some other mainstream media star, but to most people, in most circles, this was just a guy that worked at a website.

Whenever I think about the impact these subculture figureheads make, an impact that far exceeds what you would reasonably expect, my mind always recalls a line from Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie's PHONOGRAM: "They're never going to be Big big. But they're going to be big to some people."

I was a fan of Ryan Davis and his website Giant Bomb, but I wasn't a dedicated fan. I didn't listen in every week or watch every video or read every article. I tuned in when I was bored and got 10 to 20 minutes of entertainment before convincing myself to do something productive. For a fan like me, there's a wealth of undiscovered Davis material in the archives that I can explore. I did, and it was like nothing had ever happened. I was laughing at jokes and learning about whatever they were talking about.

Superfans that ate up everything he put out felt his passing more acutely. His absence was marked in a lack of new content, the media stream would no longer produce things with his name on it. But because I had only known him and his life in a specific context -- video, audio, articles -- i'm capable of achieving a temporary amnesia. This context that I know about him hasn't gone away.

In that way, the internet, when used by producers and all-media creatives, has achieved Kurt Vonnegut's vision of death in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

It's different from an Elliott Smith or a Heath Ledger passing. Their death marks their work, so that even if you got into their work post-mortem, the tragedy suddenly rears its head in everything they've done. It colors and flavors it. It's not so with Davis, partially because he worked in comedy, and it's hard to be reflect on death when you're laughing. But also because Davis was locked into multiple intimate online mediums: weekly, lengthy podcasts that were played in-your-ear and in-your-head, hundreds of quick bursts of video where he talks directly to the camera, conversational writing with clarity. These were one-on-one experiences, distributed online, to hundreds of thousands of people. They don't lose that potency even when the guy is gone.

I'm not attempting to make a grand statement like Davis will live forever, or that online we are all immortal. Just that the wonderful thing about today and now is that if you produce, if you make things and they're personal and true, it's the closest we can get to a kind of spacetime vision. We see life as a single point, but if we take a step to the side we can see that it stretches into the distance -- an elongated line, made up of many points.

Injustice: Gods Among Us Demo Is Stupid But Exciting?

There are two types of superhero comics fans: those who like them because they're action-packed power fantasies, and those who like them because they're vehicles for exploring metaphors and archetypes. The former are the people who get Superman tattoos on their bicep because they like him as a symbol of invincible power, not as a symbol of relentless optimism and compassion. They like the X-Men as Wolverine's gratuitous violence team, not as a metaphor for oppressed minorities in a superheroic context.

The game INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US is clearly aimed at those types of fans. I'm really trying my best not to sound elitist, becaus I understand the art form thrives on both types of fans, but everything about the upcoming fighting game seems aimed at Not Me. Still, I downloaded the demo that came out today, and I couldn't help but observe a few things:  

  1. Fighting games are awful for stories. Not just the overarching plot that gives you reason for The Flash to punch Green Lantern, but the tropes of fighting games require some truly awful writing. For example: because it's a fighting game, everyone has to have a quick 3 second entrance and a one liner. From what I've seen in this demo, they are dumb nonsense. Batman appears from a cloud of bats (?), Doomsday breaks out of containment (??) and Wonder Woman is being blesse with her magic lasso from Athena (???). Before every fight. Because it's forced characterization.
  2. I don't know what it is with video game companies and shit costumes. Why is Batman covered in random plates armor plates? Why does someone think this is a good costume? Why does someone think this looks less ridiculous than underwear outside the pants?
  3. The whole game plays like they wanted to makea  Dragon Ball Z game but ended up with the DC license.
  4. I'm sure this is a great fighting game in terms of mechanics and gameplay because the people behind it aren't dumb. Approaching this as a non-fighting game fan, I just need to understand that this is not a game about DC Comics, it simply wears a DC skin.
  5. That split-second prediction rock-paper-scissors mechanic where they both say a one liner is pretty bomb.
  6. I said, "this is so fucking stupid" with a grin on my face three times: Batman hitting Lex Luthor with the Batmobile, Lex Luthor hitting Batman with a fucking satellite and Batman kick Luthor through a gas tanker, pinballing between buildings, and finally precision aimed through a water tower.
  7. This game is so dumb, a weird fit for DC, but at least it's exciting in its ridiculousness.

Saving the Galaxy

Video gaming is something I've done my entire life. When I think of the most thrilling moments of my childhood, many of them involve gaming. Zelda II on the NES, which I watched my uncles play in our crowded 3-bedroom condo. Playing Shinobi on the Sega Game Gear with my Mom. Even playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis with my sister. It was purely a social and familial activity, but over time as games got more complicated, they all dropped out in favor of real responsibilities or other hobbies. I stuck through it, despite always being an entire console generation behind the other kids at school. I remained current on the internet and hooked up to last year's glowing machine at home.

Despite this connection, gaming isn't something I've really written about. For something that has been such a consistent hobby through the years, I haven't really made it an apparent part of my identity. The reason for this is that gaming is usually what I do to turn off. There will always come a time when my head is too full of something heavy and toxic, and the best thing I can do is escape for an hour or two. It's always been this way. As a child, I would daydream for fun, inventing new lives and adventures in my head until I didn't need to because video games caught up with what I had always pictured.

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