Before I do anything else, I need to ask you Star Wars fans out there a question: what do you think of Darth Vader?
I’m curious, because I don’t have a leg to stand on. I’ve seen the Star Wars movies (save for Rogue One, for now at least), but I can’t say they’ve ever occupied a major space in my mind, or formed a crucial part of my nerd identity. They were just movies I could watch, enjoy, and move on from. More to the point, they were movies that -- by a twist of fate -- were almost completely absent from my childhood, and even then I saw them in an imperfect form (The Empire Strikes Back was my first, and it would be years before I even thought about watching Return of the Jedi). So even if I know the key talking points and the details, I don’t have the bond with them that others likely do.
That’s part of the reason why I’m starting with a question about Darth Vader. I know who he is and what he’s about -- more or less -- but it’s surface-level stuff compared to the true fans. Smarter writers than me could probably go on at length about why he’s “badass”, or the thematic heft behind his presence in the canon, or why his stint in Soulcalibur IV was such a pivotal moment. I don’t have the understanding of the character, so that’s why I need others to explain the appeal.
Of course, the other part of the reason I’m starting with a question is this: I recently learned that there’s a Darth Vader RC car.
If you’ll let me pull from the product description, the Hot Wheels RC Star Wars Darth Vader Vehicle has “authentic sound effects” that are activated when the car “rolls or when button on hood is pressed”. Fair enough. Likewise, “The fully functional vehicle is designed in 1:18 scale with glowing light sabers on the sides”. Now, is that 1:18 scale implying that it’s with respect to Vader’s helmet? To an actual car? Or to some hidden element of the canon tucked away behind George Lucas’ armoire? I guess that doesn’t matter, because “the power of the dark side is in your hands with this Hot Wheels RC car, perfect for any Star Wars fan!” And with it, you can “explore your empire and conquer the galaxy!”
Okay. Soooooooooooooooooo…someone’s going to have to help me with this.
A Vader-themed RC car. Is that what the fans have always clamored for? Is it the missing link that’s been found after all these years? I get it, sure; if Vader belongs in any vehicle, it’s his modified TIE Fighter -- and I suspect that’s not as practical, convenient, or cheap as an RC car. But still…what? I won’t challenge the idea that Vader is an iconic character, but is this how people choose to represent that iconography? By tugging it over an RC car like saran wrap? Or am I overthinking this and trying to sidestep the obvious reason why this exists?
I don’t know Vader, but I figured that he was an enforcer that was damn good at his job. Granted you could argue that he was cheating by using the Force, but that’s more of the fault of everyone else who let the art become ancient history. Either way, I thought that Vader was caught up in a role that wasn’t of his own choosing, at least not entirely. He served Sidious and went on the offensive to crush the opposition -- yet he did so because he got seduced by the dark side’s siren call.
He committed atrocities and acted as an accomplice (and enabler) to an oppressive regime, partly because it was a lot easier than striking out on his own or having a will that probably couldn’t stand up to the Empire, the Sith Lord, and everything in between. He chose a path that put him in direct conflict with his son -- and ultimately, chose a new path as an act of redemption that ended in his death.
So now I’m left wondering: that’s the guy you want to immortalize in RC car form? A sycophant to a band of Space Nazis? A subordinate whose iconic costume existed (contextually) to support his ruined body and (subtextually) to mask the weak, feeble man he had become with a superficial veil of menace? Don’t get me wrong, though; those elements of Vader’s character certainly make him more interesting. It proves that there’s more to like about him than “I can swing a laser sword and choke people”.
But that’s the clincher. The reason I had to go off on this tangent is because it’s gotten me thinking: how should one think about the media they consume? How can they -- and we -- get the most out of it?
I know the title implies that this is a problem that relates strictly to games, but it obviously doesn’t. Games, movies, books, TV shows, whatever -- if it’s got a story (and even if it doesn’t, in the case of a fine painting), then it’s a piece of media ripe for digestion. People are going to have an opinion on it. But before that? There are going to be points that they take away from it. Impressions, lessons learned, the works. How do you reconcile that? What’s the proper method? Is it possible to help others see something, or something more? Is it possible to share something, and be put into a position where you can have something shared with you in return?
You know me by now, I hope (since I’ve been at this for, like, five years). I try to think critically about what I play and see -- partly so I can enjoy it more thoroughly, partly so I can relay my thoughts/opinions to others, and partly so I can improve myself in all sorts of ways. Not everyone shares my mindset, I know. I still remember heading out to watch Captain America: Civil War and trying to start a dialogue with my brother about the nature of a superhero registration act…only to be told to shut up so he could get hyped over Spider-Man.
I get it, though. Different people are going to take away different things from different stories. At this stage, I’m more interested in dissecting the Marvel movies than simply making a binary “is it good or not” quasi-review. My brother wants to see his favorite heroes jumping around and kicking ass (which would explain why he got hyped for Logan from minute one of its reveal). That’s not something I want to do so readily these days, but I can still do it in addition to the egghead shtick. After all, a story’s ability to build hype is a reflection of the skill behind it. Or a strong marketing budget, if you’re being cynical. But I am an optimist.
With that said, there are times when I feel like some kind of alien from beyond the stars. I think so hard and write so much because I want to wring every last drop out of the games, movies, and more that come my way. I threw up my interpretation of Darth Vader (as shaky as it may be) because I think those are quality elements worth taking notice of. Meanwhile, I’ve heard that Vader in Rogue One is the most badass thing ever, or something like it. My first thought isn’t “Whoa, that’s awesome!” It’s “Okay, how does that enrich the public’s understanding of the character?” Or “What do you suppose was the authorial intent behind Vader, and how well was that intent shown and executed in the movie?”
As you can imagine, I’m the life of every party.
I guess what I’m getting at with this post isn’t so much of “how can I get people to overthink the stuff they watch as much as I do?” Granted I’m not opposed to that; diving deep with a story offers up a chance for some huge rewards, and it helps a person make a stronger case whenever Jack McContrarian calls your favorite game trash. And as I’ve said before, if you can understand fiction on a higher level, then you can ask for fiction on a higher level -- and receive it, and be better entertained, and raise par a few dozen notches above sea level. That, I think, is the key to making sure games continue to evolve -- because we’ve long since reached a point where raw graphical power isn’t enough to curry favor.
But I digress. The bigger point here is that I’m curious about how I, personally, can get the most out of games. I’m not about to toss out my over-analytical mindset anytime soon, that’s for sure. It’s just that, well, I feel like I’ve reached a point where I need to evolve my mindset if I want to succeed. That is, I might be able to go forward by going backward. Back to square one, proverbially speaking.
Gaming websites like Destructoid cast a wide net and talk about multiple games in a short span of time -- reviews, commonly, but there are previews and features that go into greater depth on certain topics. Fair enough, though they have the advantage of being a cabal of journalists, while I’m one guy with finite time in a week and his key resource being a computer in dire need of dusting. Meanwhile, you’ve got guys and series on YouTube -- ProJared, Super Bunnyhop, and more -- who’ll go in-depth with 15- to 30-minute videos on a single game or topic. Much-appreciated, for sure, but the tradeoff is that they can’t get to all of the big releases (and discussion points therein) within a feasible time frame. Writing a blog post is one thing; scripting and editing a video is another, far bigger thing.
There’s room for both, of course, because they opt for different things. Still, the end goal is more or less the same: to empower their fellow gamers so that they can make better purchases and/or broaden their horizons. I want to be a part of that. I don’t want to brainwash people into thinking that it’s wrong to like Darth Vader just because he’s badass -- but I do want to do what I can to show that there are more ways to think about media, games in particular, than the surface-level stuff. Have I done that enough (and effectively) up to that point? I don’t know for sure. But I want to bridge the gaps between gamers, games, and more -- and I get the feeling that if I’m going to do that, then I need to…well, git gud.
Here’s a little status update on my end: right now, there are two games that have my attention (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding, because it’ll shove everything else off the table). Basically, they’re the “high priority” games -- the two that I want to write about and show to anyone willing to read ASAP. The game in the top slot is Tales of Berseria, the follow-up -- and prequel, incidentally -- to Tales of Zestiria, AKA a franchise entry I enjoyed immensely despite its faults. The other game is one that needs no introduction: Final Fantasy 15. I’ve pretty much slotted into the role of “that guy who hates Final Fantasy” by virtue of dumping all over The Lightning Saga (HRRRGKH), but A) it’s not like I’m willing to retract praise for the other games, and B) I want to see if this latest, long-delayed entry redeems the franchise. For good or ill, I want to report my findings on both games.
The question then is simple: how do I do that? Or, more pressingly, what mindset and methodology should I use to dissect both games?
I ask this because, if I had to guess, I could write a good FOUR posts on Tales of Berseria. I could do one about the nature of prequels; one about its leading lady, Velvet; one that gives impressions on the gameplay (which I imagine is pretty important to, you know, gamers); and, one that gives impressions on the story. That last point’s the trickiest, because it could mean doing one post on the first 15-ish hours and never looking back, or it could mean doing a post on the first 15-ish and then doing a follow-up on the completed game to see if it held up overall.
Theoretically, that means that I’d be writing about 15,000 words on a game whose series of origin doesn’t have a fraction of the popularity major releases enjoy. Would it be worth it? It would for me, because I love the Tales series. Would it be worth it for others? If I made it worth it, then yes -- but then I have to ask how I’d go about doing that. And the first question that needs answering is the proverbial step zero: how do I approach this game? How do I dissect it? How do I, personally, get the most out of it so that I can help others do the same (even if they don’t play through it for themselves)?
What should I look for? What should I be wary of? How should I judge the characters? How should I analyze the plot? How should I compare it with respect to its predecessor, and with regard to the connections between the two? Should I use my biases to look at it as an entry into a franchise I’m pretty familiar with, or should I reject my biases to stay objective and relay it to would-be newcomers? And, perhaps most crucially: how do I probe it in light of Final Fantasy 15? Is that going to take another post so I can do a compare-and-contrast? And that just begs the question of how I even think of approaching FF15.
These days, I’m starting to see the value of that basic, guttural reaction -- that mindset that lets someone go “Darth Vader is badass” and leave it at that. There have been times where I wished that I could see things the way everyone else sees them; I wonder what my life would be like if I could see a Darth Vader RC car and not wonder about the implications of a plastic toy. It’s not like I’ve suddenly decided that doing what I do is some great sin, but I see the value of that natural, instinctual simplicity more than ever.
So I guess one thing I can do from here on is to pare certain issues and topics down to a simple question, and a question I’ll answer as I go along: why?
That simple question fractures off into countless others, I know -- why people think Vader is badass, why his misdeeds don’t remove him from fan adoration, why he’s endured as an icon for decades despite being a peon, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s a start. If I can answer “why” with the games I enjoy, as a way to resolve the questions I ask myself, maybe I’ll be in a good place. But if I can answer why others think, feel, or react the way they do -- to understand their perspectives on a deeper level -- then maybe I won’t have to lock myself in an echo chamber scrawled with insane ramblings and pictures of hot dogs.
Or maybe I should just STFU, do what comes naturally, and write. That’s also a viable option.
In any case, thanks for reading. If you’ve got any advice, suggestions, or personal experiences, then by all means weigh in. What’s your metric for getting the most out of games? How do you decide what’s good, bad, or ugly? How do you know when you’re satisfied by what’s on the screen in front of you? And, perhaps most importantly: should bipedal droids in the Star Wars universe -- like C-3PO -- be required by law to wear clothes, or at least a decent pair of pants? I mean sure, it’s not like he has anything to show off, but I’m guessing that it’s a universe where bots of the boudoir are bound to frolic -- so is there a law of parity to help prevent those issues beforehand?
Maybe not. If Chewbacca can get away with wearing nothing but a belt, then I guess no one else has to wrap up. Although that begs the question of whether Wookies have proper, working -- aaaaaaaaaaaand I’m ending the post now.