Final Fantasy VII Remake lore theory (ending spoilers)

In a recent interview for the Final Fantasy VII Remake Ultimania Guide, Tetsuya Nomura dropped some huge lore bombs. Among them was the very strong hint that the Whisper bosses at the end are Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo from Advent Children. The descriptions revealed by the assess materia, for all three, state that they are defending their timeline.

Later, the party catches a glimpse of events from Advent Children and Nanaki says “this is what will happen if we fail here today”.

Two paths that fork from the point of departure at the end of FFVIIR are discussed. One openly, the other by implication. Advent Children was a sequel to the original Final Fantasy VII. The path of the original that proceeds into Advent Children is what Nanaki said would happen if they “failed”. The path revealed by implication is what the party embarks on after they appear not to fail.

Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo are protecting the timeline that shaped them as they were in Advent Children. Three of the Whispers at the end are meddlers from outside of the timeline.

What about the giant Whisper Harbinger that looms in the background during that fight? It looks a hell of a lot like Sapphire Weapon. Why would a Weapon be intruding into another timeline?

The planet created the Weapons to defend itself in the event of an existential threat. They were originally created to combat Jenova (according to Ifalna) but so long as Jenova exists in an undead, “viral” state, they can’t go away. The planet will also lash out at any soul that’s been exposed to Jenova as it passes through the Lifestream on its way to its next existence (Geostigma).

It is intuitive to think that a Weapon is attacking another timeline because it poses an existential threat to the planet in its own timeline. Aerith, in her dialogue describing what she knows or has deduced about Sephiroth, says that she thinks that he has good intentions even if his actions are destructive (“he would probably say he would do anything to protect it”, loose paraphrase). Later, after the final boss fight, Sephiroth tells Cloud that he wants him to exist for as long as he himself does.

In the original game, Sephiroth never said or did anything that would suggest he cares about the planet. Nanaki’s remark implied that the timeline of the original FFVII was a worst case scenario, yet in the chronology (which ends with Dirge of Cerberus, if I’m not mistaken) nothing seems to back this up.

If Jenova ever fully corrupted the Lifestream and turned Gaia into a new Meteor, we haven’t seen it yet. Maybe this is a mystery that the Remake series might elucidate in the future.

If Sapphire Weapon is penetrating into a new timeline, it is equally possible that it’s either attacking Jenova or defending the planet in its own timeline. If Jenova ever succeeded in corrupting the Lifestream, though, would the planetary Weapons continue to distinguish between it’s wellbeing and attacking Jenova?

And if the Whispers are pure, spiritual agents of destiny, why do they seem beholden to Sephiroth? Why, at the end of FVIIR, does it seem like both Sephiroth and the Whispers are protecting the same thing?

This theory depends on the ultimate fate of the original timeline. Either Jenova “won” in the end, during some far future event we just haven’t seen, or Jenova was somehow subtly “winning” the whole time. Either way, the Gaia of the original timeline does not seem to exist.

The behavior of the Whisper Harbinger and the three boss Whispers begins to make sense in this situation. Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo have no other existence except for the one that happened in the original timeline. They want to “enforce” the chronology that happened in their own past because it’s the only way to guarantee their existence in a new timeline. Sephiroth, Sephiroth clones and Jenova attempting to shape the events of a separate timeline to conform to their own only makes sense if the world they originated from doesn’t exist any more.

An event like that would also explain why Sephiroth wants to protect Gaia and why Aerith sees him as a threat in spite of that. Jenova is a colony organism that exists by spreading its cells into more bodies. When such a body dies and it’s soul passes into the Lifestream, the essence of Jenova is now mixed up in the planetary transmigration cycle. Jenova exists through “possession”, almost like a demon whose cells can be both spirit and matter. If Jenova “possessed” every body and every soul on Gaia in the original timeline, then the Lifestream itself would be possessed. The Lifestream is the spiritual existence of the planet, so even beings like the Weapons would end up enslaved. (That Sapphire Weapon was originally right next to Sephiroth in the Northern Crater might also be a factor)

If the Gaia in that timeline ceased to exist, though, Jenova would be saddled with a Lifestream with no planet. The existence of both Jenova and Sephiroth would be dependent on that Lifestream, so it makes sense that they would stop at nothing to protect it. If you have a Lifestream with no planet then you would want to find a new one. In a parallel timeline, for instance, within the same planet it came from.

This possibility also clarifies what Nanaki meant when he said “This could very well be her last line of defense, it won’t be easy.” If Jenova would “burn out” a planet while possessing or consuming it, the search for a new planet to move the corrupted Lifestream into would be the last line of defense.

If the Whisper Harbinger actually is a Weapon that (like Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo) originated in a doomed timeline, what about the rest of the Whispers? If the world was destroyed in that timeline and the displaced souls are pushing through to the timeline next door, there’s gotta be more than three. Maybe all visitors from outside your timeline look like Whispers in this fictional world.

I suspect that the Whispers are not agents of destiny but migrating souls desperate to create a timeline that will bring them into existence. That would mean making sure everything happens the same way it did last time. Not a single detail can be out of place because every single detail probably played a role, ala “butterfly effect”. That would also explain things like resurrecting Barret after the Sephiroth clone skewered him- he’s not allowed to die like that because he didn’t the first time around.

This begs another question- the last boss fights in the game imply that Sephiroth and the Whispers are working toward the same end. The whole theory I just unpacked would also support that. However, Sephiroth and Jenova need to shape the neighboring timeline to resemble their own in order to preserve themselves. If the old timeline is recreated in every detail in the new one, though, both universes might end the same way.

What’s so good about FFVII anyway? (big fat spoilers for the original game)

The story.

The Final Fantasy games are irreducibly a combination of gaming and story telling and each one has a different emphasis. My favorite FF title that balances good gaming with good storytelling is VI. My favorite for gameplay without attention paid to the story would either be XV or XIII-2. And my favorite for story, regardless of gameplay, is VII.

Nearly every Final Fantasy game has an identical plot, themes and story structuring. Since Final Fantasy uses a balance between gaming and story, the story often does not need to carry all the weight. I believe, though, that Final Fantasy VII is either the most successful version of the classic Final Fantasy story or the most ambitious.

No small part of this is the carefully consistent thematic language that discusses death. Two of the main characters are dead: one of them passes into the holistic network of souls (Lifestream) to preserve its interconnected vitality. the other dead person holds his identity separate and wants to absorb the interconnected whole into himself. And these two dead people are the main characters– as in, they move all of the plot pieces.

There is also the somewhat understated use of historical and mythic references. Final Fantasy VII is a post World War II legend. The upper plates of Midgar look a hell of a lot like romantic, 1940’s, detective movie New York. You start the game blowing up energy “reactors”, massive power sources that can provide indefinitely or destroy all life. The nuke parallels only get stronger from there: the WEAPONs are kaijus. The first kaiju-like movies in the sixties, Godzilla and stuff, were about mutants created by radiation that destroy entire cities.

Then there’s the not-so-understated WWII references: Heidegger is named after Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher that collaborated with the Nazis and had a few of his students sent to concentration camps. Professor Hojo is also clearly modeled after Josef Mengele and the Cetra have an ancestral legend of a place called The Promised Land. The first Cetra victim of Hojo that we see is Aerith, who is one of our two dead main characters.

The first allegorical Jew of the game lays down her life to preserve the dignity and familial (one might say “brotherly”) harmony between all souls.

To whit: the Lifestream borrows from ideas common in Hinduism that also appear in Buddhism. The soul of the individual needs to merge with all other souls and share the totality of its experience for its own good. And then there’s this big fat Jesus thing going on with Aerith. Which is interesting because the Final Fantasy games are usually very critical of both religion and also just power in general. So I don’t think it’s a pro-religion thing, maybe pro-spirituality.

If not pro-spirituality it is at least spiritual-friendly. What clinches the whole spiritual “reading” is the importance of Cloud’s subjectivity in the main plot. When we first meet Cloud, he doesn’t even give his name until he’s asked frankly- he’s just Ex-SOLDIER. Later, Cloud falls into the Lifestream while being locked in his own mind. He is both in the afterlife and trapped inside of his own pain. Another human being, Tifa, bodily enters his mind with him.

Later, the party goes directly into the planet’s core. Given that the Lifestream is every transmigrating soul crisscrossing through the core on their way to their next lives, this is familiar territory for Cloud. The final confrontation with Sephiroth even takes place in Cloud’s mind, after the last boss fight.

Basically, I’ve never played a game that gets plot, mythic themes and characters to work so well together. It sucks you into a discussion of big ideas in a way that’s poetic and exciting…and without getting preachy or taking sides. Or if it is, the side is that nukes and fascism are bad, which I happen to be okay with anyway 😉

More on Mr. Robot

Content warning: discussion of pedophilia, sexual abuse in general and sexism.

To say nothing of massive spoilers.

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Evidently I can’t shut up about this 😛

In my last post about this show, I discussed what I believe to be some of Mr. Robot‘s central, overarching themes, mostly regarding its nature as a politically-oriented psychological drama. There are some finer points that I just didn’t get around to, though.

While roughing out what I wanted to write here, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus on Mr. Robot‘s discussion of God or masculinity. There is a third possibility, though, that captures both of those topics and relates them back to the show’s main structural feature of an inside and an outside half. That encapsulation is simply power.

In eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes, Elliot returns from his “Word Up Wednesday” dream to find himself hospitalized after a brutal attack in prison. Elliot’s voice-over says “Masters. We all have them. Every relationship is a power struggle. Some of us need to be controlled.”

How often, in Mr. Robot, does this turn out to be true? We might start by thinking of the ones for which it is not. Or at least the ones that don’t obviously look like it.

I actually can’t think of any relationship portrayed in Mr. Robot that has no power dynamics at all. Off the top of my head, I think you could argue that Dominique and Darlene are close to being benign in spite of the power that separates them, as well as Whiterose and her lost lover. (And yes I get that Domlene is not frankly romantic or even sexual beyond a calculated one night stand- we’ll get to all that later)

Are Qwerty and Elliot in a power-free relationship? Which one of them is in charge of whose container? (“Only one thing you can do for a brother in a fish bowl…MOVE ME TO A GODDAMN WINDOW!!”)

Speaking of Elliot and relationships, this is a pretty good time to talk about the scene that tugs on my heartstrings every single time I see it.

Elliot is lying in bed thinking of something Leon told him, about visualizing a world worth fighting for. “How would my fairy tale unfold? Would I finally get close to the ones I deeply care for? See the ones I love achieve true happiness? Make amends to those I’ve unfairly wronged? Maybe this future includes people I never would have dreamt I’d ever get close to. A future that’s not so lonely. Even you would be there.”

While Elliot has conditioned himself to his own toxic isolation and suspicion, he can’t help but yearn for a world with no divisions and unconditional good will. In other words, relationships that are not power struggles.

In fact, the frustration created between his genuine alienation and his misguided solution can be seen in that Mr.Robot, a facet of himself, is constantly attempting to deceive and manipulate him. It can also be seen in Elliot’s professed altruism: whenever he cyber-stalks anyone, psychologically tortures anyone or does things like trick an addict into relapsing, he is always doing it for the common good.

Elliot’s frustration is visible in the warring factions of his mind and his determination to do good even if it means being the 1 to everyone else’s 0. If “(e)very relationship is a power struggle” and everyone has a master, then one must be a master to effect anything, either for good or ill.

Is that every relationship in this show, though? Look at Gideon and his husband. Oh wait never mind- in season one, his husband tells him he loves him and he’s grateful to wake up next to him. In season two, his husband leaves him as soon as Gideon is falsely implicated in the Five/Nine hack.

Darlene and Cisco? I mean, Darlene calls Cisco the love of her life, but most of the time she treats him like a resource that requires a bit of emotional pressure to keep pliable.

I suppose there is Elliot and Shayla. Except Shayla dies when Elliot tries to take on Vera and loses….while Vera is using her as a bargaining chip. Whiterose eventually gets involved with Grant, but Grant is still a Dark Army foot soldier who lays down his life when Whiterose tells him to.

Before Dominique ends up in bed with Darlene, she is investigating Darlene as a possible domestic terrorist and later keeps Darlene’s interrogation footage for spank bank. Also Dominique has several nightmare scenarios spring from internet hookups or blind dates (including a literal nightmare).

If we bring up Tyrell and Joanna Wellick, we might as well get to the point. Not only are all relationships a power struggle in Mr. Robot, but a central aspect of the power play is the ability of one partner to completely ghost the other.

When Joanna first met Tyrell, she told him to fuck a woman with earrings she wanted and to steal them for her. He succeeded, and Joanna knew she wanted him.

Whenever we’re allowed to see Tyrell and Joanna’s domestic life in season one, it appears to be entirely structured around Joanna giving orders and Tyrell obeying them. Tyrell is frustrated when, under Joanna’s direction, he tries and fails to seduce Sharon Knowles, the wife of a professional rival. When he gets his second bite at the apple, he murders Sharon, evidently in the heat of the moment. Joanna, being pregnant, self-induces labor to get Tyrell out of a police interrogation in their home.

After giving birth, she tells Tyrell that he is no longer a man she wants to be married to, and if he wants to remain in “this family”, he will “fix this”. Not only was Joanna’s original plan for sabotage thrown to the wind, but Tyrell now has to solve the problem of a murder investigation over an act he probably can’t even explain to himself. Electing to keep his eye on the ball, he goes back to targeting his professional rivals by collaborating with Mr. Robot on the Five/Nine hack. In the process, his manic loyalty shifts from Joanna to Mr. Robot / Elliot.

Everything about these early exchanges between Joanna and Tyrell permeate all other relationships in the story. Gideon gets dumped as soon as he gets in legal trouble, Ollie hides his black-mail driven sabotage of Allsafe as an extension of his cheating and Vera physically and economically enslaved Shayla.

And Elliot jumped out of a window to avoid his pedophile father. But how does Elliot first explain the event to himself via Mr. Robot in season one? He says his father pushed him out of the window because Elliot told the family he had leukemia against his will. What does Mr. Robot (who is modeled on Elliot’s father) accuse Elliot of before “pushing” him off the boardwalk? Breaking his word. Of not being sufficiently loyal. In this exchange with his own alternate personality, Elliot frames the event as a punishment for his own ethical failure. Elliot, at this point, blames himself for what he feels was a disowning.

The biggest trauma in Elliot’s life has supported tension on two fronts- an inside acceptance that is intolerable and dangerous versus outside abandonment that is suffocating and alienating. The alienation of rejection, in the long run, turns out to be the lesser of two evils and so becomes his state of normalcy.

Therefore, all relationships are power struggles and the world is made of 1’s and 0’s. Sure enough, the relationships between Elliot’s personalities are power plays that echo the same power plays outside of himself.

And on the outside, this theme is no less present. Darlene, when faced with an fsociety gopher that’s on the brink of death, would rather leave him to die than risk the potential exposure of bringing him to the hospital. She says that there are casualties in every war, that the man is a soldier and knew what he was getting into. As for the Dark Army…Elliot says in season three “they didn’t kill us. That tends to be how they deal with disagreements.”

We even get a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this with Whiterose. Literal manipulation of time to make it so everyone survives and is happy, even if they are currently dead, can justify any measure taken in its pursuit. Whiterose embodies the whole principle of using others for the eventual good of all. If literally no one can die in her endgame and anyone currently dead will be alive, then in the mind of Whiterose it is literally impossible to do wrong in the pursuit of her project.

The final three episodes of the series show a full confrontation with this, wherein many other themes converge. And yes, we’re still talking about God, masculinity and power.

When I first saw those final episodes, the whole source of tension for me was whether or not this was simply going to turn out to be exactly what it looked like. Angela and Philip Price are both alive again and appear to be enjoying a rather normal father-daughter relationship. Kinda? Maybe? Normie Elliot says “Your dad sure likes to drink.” And he does seem a little compulsive about it when we see him on camera. And where is Darlene, anyway? Did some Danish person who shall remain nameless get to keep the daughter she adopted out?

But anyway, for me the stakes were higher than whether or not Sam Esmail was going to make a prompt genre change to science fiction in the final episodes. If Whiterose’s machine had turned out to be an unambiguous success, where does that leave everything we saw before hand?

Would it have been a simple fairy tale ending where everyone got what they wanted in the end? If the whole story up until that point wasn’t true anymore, it becomes functionally identical to being a figment of Normie Elliot’s imagination.

(Sorry I can’t resist calling the alternate timeline Elliot “Normie Elliot”. I saw someone online use that name and it just kinda stuck in my head)

What are we to think of a new Elliot with none of the outward signs of the life he once knew? Did the window event not happen? If not, does that mean his father simply continued molesting him forever while Elliot never said or did anything?

That was the real possibility that haunted me as I watched part one of the finale.

When we see part two, when our Elliot is able to see and react to this world, his immediate panic around his father made a world of sense.

In any event, Elliot is now a successful powerhouse at his job and is about to marry Angela, his constant unrequited love. Whiterose has openly transitioned and is a famous philanthropist. No one’s parents died to construct a nuclear-powered gateway between timelines.

The loss that provided motivation for Elliot and Angela to target E Corps is now gone, thanks to the architect behind the project that caused that loss. It seems manifestly clear, for a moment at least, that Whiterose has undone the wrongs that she and E Corps are responsible for.

If not a reductio ad absurdum of the ends justifying the means, this at least epitomizes the idea.

Along with the sucker-punch of momentary uncertainty as to whether or not this is real (if you’re seeing it for the first time), it may also sink in that this idea has been discussed at some length in the third season.

Particularly, through Angela, who goes above and beyond her directives to ensure that stage 2 happens. In spite of Elliot/Mr. Robot’s homicidal idealism, it seems to me that Angela emotes her grief over her lost mother and her desire for justice more clearly than Elliot. Her mother’s death by cancer through the Washington Township power plant is mentioned more than once in her early efforts for the class action lawsuit. Elliot, on the other hand, has mixed emotions about his father and his motivation is largely ideological.

Even if we, the viewers, are never explicitly shown what Angela learned after Whiterose says that she “(doesn’t) want (her) proof” and that she “wants (her) belief”, we are still shown enough. We are shown Angela changing from someone driven by justice for an irreparable wrong to someone who believes that Whiterose is capable of literally fixing anything. Including death. And that Angela believes that no price is too high for Whiterose’s success.

Or at least…believes as much as she can. Or perhaps the psychological state called ‘belief’ can only carry one so far in direct opposition to their senses and logic. After the coordinated bombings, Angela is reduced to a neurotic wreck, rewinding and watching footage of the falling buildings over and over again. She is constantly telling Darlene that “everyone can come back” over and over again, possibly to reassure herself as much as Darlene.

This event happens while Mr. Robot is constantly deceiving Elliot while reassuring him that he is finishing their revolution, that he is doing the hard work that Elliot cannot. Whiterose and Angela are a mistress-slave pair, in which the mistress is given license by her good intentions. The same is true for Mr. Robot and Elliot.

Angela attempts to accept her role to the letter even to the detriment of her sanity, whereas Elliot fights his slave status every step of the way. These two struggles happen while Angela is subtly keeping Elliot in the dark about how Tyrell and Mr. Robot are solving the problem of his daytime subversion at E Corps.

Completing the trio of overburdened subordinates is Tyrell Wellick. Tyrell seems to yearn for a single dominant personality in his life to attach himself to. Late in season one, we see him shift the center of his universe from Joanna to Mr. Robot. As fervent as this transition is, it is not without angst.

He repeatedly says that he and Elliot (meaning Mr. Robot) are destined to be gods together, prompted in part by a misfired bullet which he takes as divine sanction. In fact, Tyrell’s stretch in the cabin and his conversation with Mr. Williams have the flavor of an Old Testament trial of faith. Nonetheless, he still cherishes his family role as a husband to Joanna and a father to their son. He repeatedly reads about her apparent infidelities online and recites a Deuteronomy quote to Irving with a creepy absence of context (“One who has been emasculated by cutting or crushing may not enter the assembly of the Lord.”)

Tyrell very nearly breaks faith with Elliot before being reigned in by Agent Santiago. One may only conjecture on how this might have effected Tyrell’s feelings of sacrifice and predestination toward his collaboration with Mr. Robot, but we can safely assume it added gravity. Continuing with the scenarios that feel like quasi-Biblical tests of faith, Mr. Robot once gave Tyrell a gun to protect his revolution from absolutely anyone, and Tyrell is shocked to find this may even include Mr. Robot’s own host body: Elliot.

Like Abraham poised to kill his own son, Tyrell’s god tests his faith by his ability to take orders sight-unseen and carry them out to perfection. The scene where Tyrell shoots Elliot is also powerful for bringing us back to what the show presents as a central weapon that masters use against slaves: absence.

Here I think we have most of the pertinent information to begin systematically exploring Mr. Robot‘s thematic treatment of power.

If my laundry list of character relationships earlier seemed a little…obsessive, it’s because I find the ubiquity of alienation and power games in this show almost…weirdly pervasive. I began to realize this when Dominique had her nightmare about the internet-hookup turning out to be a Dark Army assassin. I mean, I happen to have BPD, so I personally am not unfamiliar with having abandonment issues up the wazoo and being paranoid; it just seems like it’s either a structural or maybe even a genre choice in Mr. Robot.

The specific genre it reminds me of is a certain kind of film about fascism. A lot of them come from the seventies but the type itself isn’t exclusive to that decade. I’m thinking of The Conformist, Salo: or, the 120 Days of Sodom and Max.

The Conformist is a character study about a man named Marcello, whose life-long avoidance of intimacy due to psychological trauma makes him uniquely suited to be a member of a fascist secret police force in WWII-era Italy. Eventually, Marcello is tasked with assassinating an old mentor of his named Quadri.

Salo is an adaptation of a Marquis De Sade novel, which sets the story, similarly, in WWII-era Italy. It documents the final, objectified and commodified days of a collection of civilians rounded up to be used as sex slaves until their eventual murders. The captors are perpetually frustrated by their inability to derive any satisfaction from their harem. At first their sadism appears to be a sexual experiment but later turns into true fury and desperation as pleasure eludes them, until they are wearing bondage gear and cross-dressing with looks of dark, brooding rage on their faces.

Lastly, Max is a fictional historical drama about a hypothetical meeting between Adolf Hitler and a Jewish art dealer, both of whom harbor trauma from the grisly battle of Ypres during WWI. The two men bond over their shared suffering and slowly develop an awkward yet earnest confidence in each other. Along with their physical and psychological war-time injuries, both men also struggle with alienation in their private lives, particularly how to re-integrate into a society of people with whom they cannot share understanding of the experiences they endured at the hands of the state.

Max Rothman, the fictional Jewish art dealer, has lost an arm and can no longer paint. He goes into art dealing, seduces a woman with an amputee fetish and creates a theatrical, non-linear art installation. Hitler fails to take to Rothman’s post-war pragmatism, feels emasculated by Rothman’s success with the ladies and spirals into a pit of rage wherein he fails to produce art but discovers a gift for propagandist speeches and architecture.

That Mr. Robot has thematic similarities to these films is not surprising. And I’m definitely here for any work of art that intelligently attacks fascism. In the improbable event that these similarities are intentional, I would gladly applaud the ambition of picking up threads commonly used in WWII films.

At any rate, an artist worth their salt knows the conventions and history of their craft and Sam Esmail has acknowledged the influence of Psycho, Taxi Driver and Fight Club. Two of those films have protagonists that are deeply alienated from society and all three involve dark, dangerous explorations of a single character’s mind. Two of those films have characters with psychological personas that function as characters themselves.

However, I was repeatedly reminded of the three WWII films in particular. And the association doesn’t strike me as far-off. All three of those WWII films have male characters that struggle with trauma or neuroses that stop them from connecting with society, all three deal with betrayal against or at the hands of power and all three use the act of seeing or being seen as an essential plot element.

All three films also look at these themes of alienation from power through the lens of male identity, intentionally or not. Rather like Elliot, Marcello was sexually victimized as a child. As an adult, Marcello always feels as if his role as a husband is not as close to his true self as his role as a spy. He even encourages his wife to have an affair for an espionage goal. Rothman’s gradual recovery and Hitler’s failure to thrive are both passively expressed in terms of sexual success or failure. Salo is initially presented as a male sexual fantasy of supreme dominance over the women and men they desire.

This may be a good place to clear something up: when I say that Mr. Robot discusses male identity, I don’t think it’s necessary to consider any evidence outside of the show itself. Not unlike the three WWII films. The show hinges on an inside/outside structure with Elliot representing the inside. With the exception of Tyrell, female characters like Darlene or Dominique are our main viewpoints of the outside.

What’s more is that female characters are often presented according to male anxieties. Joanna Wellick represents the sexually desirable woman who will only pair with the strongest male and Angela, to Elliot, is an object of perpetually unrequited love. Krista, Elliot’s therapist, is a comforting maternal presence in his life that plays to the lack created by his abusive mother. Tyrell and Joanna perhaps represent the most gendered example. After his murder of Sharon Knowles, Tyrell tells Joanna “you pushed me to this” and Joanna tells him “if you want to remain a part of this family, you’ll fix this”.

Typically, these male fears represent either a real or imagined threat of abandonment or rejection. Even Whiterose, as unconventional as she is, represents a kind of threatening absence: the loss of context made possible by the uncertainty of your mind and the minds of others.

I know this attitude is far from universal but in my opinion this does not make Mr. Robot sexist. All it means is that Sam Esmail is a man writing from a man’s point of view. All artists work with what they have and that, in and of itself, is perfectly fine. And anyway, in this specific case, the prominence of a male perspective does not stop Mr. Robot from having compelling, three-dimensional female characters like Whiterose, Darlene and Dominique.

And yes, I realize I have rose-colored glasses when it comes to Whiterose. God I love that character 💕

Many of these male anxieties- an unloving mother, a wife who might leave you if you show weakness and an idealized woman who will never want you -revolve around conditional worthiness. More specifically, the fear of conditional worthiness.

In my previous entry about Mr. Robot, I wrote at some length about how Elliot is the male point of view on the “inside” and Tyrell is the male point of view on the “outside”. Both of these men are tortured by the specter of conditional worthiness and it shows in their behavior.

Elliot holds the whole world at length and will only deal with it through a persona modeled after his father (Mr. Robot). Tyrell is a perfectly submissive male who will do anything to meet the conditions set for his validation. Both men assuage these anxieties through fantasies of active prowess and capability. Tyrell constructs his appearance to either intimidate or seduce and Elliot’s skill as a hacker is the main way he experiences power over others- power that he exercises with or without consent. The fantasy playing over and over again on a loop to occupy Elliot’s submerged true self revolves around an imaginary marriage to Angela.

These gendered characterizations are not reductive though. The division between outside and inside is the central plot device in Mr. Robot and much of Elliot’s arc concerns his struggle for freedom- not just against a corrupt society but the psychological echoes of that society created within him. The show even ends with the retiring of the defensive Mastermind persona and the emergence of the real Elliot.

In other words, Mr. Robot is about escape and transcendence. That Elliot’s master-slave world of 1’s and 0’s is expressed only through Mr. Robot and the Mastermind is cause for optimism. Whiterose, more of a 1 than any other character, cannot stop Elliot’s struggle for freedom even with Elliot’s temporary belief in her absolute power to magic any problem away. The most compelling and irresistible power still cannot destroy context and the wider world.

This is also what makes the show’s discussion of God more than just a few random lines of dialogue. The treatment of God frequently reveals itself to be a symbol of transcendence. Ray, the warden of the prison Elliot lands in during season two, compares the voices in Elliot’s head to the voice of God heard by Moses. The leader of the prison Bible study also mistakes Elliot’s conversations with Mr. Robot for conversations with God.

The show positions E Corps as an unambiguous villainous force and, while the show grows suspicious and critical of fsociety in general, fsociety is never actually vilified by Sam Esmail. E Corps is morally black, fsociety is gray, Elliot is the hero and Mr. Robot is the anti-hero. Mr. Robot has his dark and unsympathetic moments, like Vegeta in early Dragon Ball Z, but by season four he has almost turned completely benign as Elliot grows into a darker character.

Mr. Robot, as a character, explores a moral spectrum and the show always uses E Corps as a villainous foil. These details lend credence to the remarks of Ray and the prison pastor. Ray says that Elliot’s voices could either be an illness or divinity and the show doesn’t contradict this.

The thematic equivalence between God and transcendence is also upheld by the character that mentions God the most: Tyrell. For a man that wants, so badly, to be someone, he is totally unlike anyone. Tyrell wants to serve someone perfectly yet is totally unpredictable. He is obsessed with social-climbing, yet readily joins fsociety at first and later moves on to the Dark Army. Mr. Robot has characters that are frankly LGBT (Whiterose, Dominique, Gideon, etc. ) without pussyfooting around with any “queer coding” nonsense, yet Tyrell’s sexuality defies any obvious classification.

Tyrell yearns for the definition of belonging while defying all definition. His last definite, non-delusory on-screen appearance, nearly resembles an alien abduction. He wanders off into the woods, approaches the source of a strange, repetitive sound, and is bathed in blue light. I mean…presumably, Tyrell just died of a bullet wound out in the woods in season four. No other clear possibility is really provided.

But…since we get so used to Elliot being an unreliable narrator, we get so used to seeing and hearing weird shit that we might not immediately question weird shit that happens outside of Elliot’s mind. So…while Tyrell wandered off with an untreated gunshot wound and probably died for that reason, we cannot actually know. And that same repetitive mystery noise appears in Elliot’s dive into his subconscious in the final episodes. Both God and the character that is most interested in God represent the presence of the genuine outside, beyond anyone’s subjective definition.

This wraps up the majority of thoughts that I couldn’t work into my first Mr. Robot analysis and it’s definitely been a long and winding road. If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Seriously. I know this is probably not my best writing but I just had to get this stuff out of my system. And yes I’m perfectly aware that I probably sounded like Leon on one of his Seinfeld or Fraiser monologues 😛

Text-aware TV reboots (Watchmen & Hannibal)

Warning: casual disregard for spoilers, as usual 😛

For the last few months a close friend of mine has been showing me Hannibal, which he describes as his favorite TV series. I read the Thomas Harris books Hannibal, Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal Rising as a teenager and, in the second and third season, a very interesting relationship with the texts of those works is established.

It may also be helpful to mention that, when the first three seasons of Hannibal were shot, the creative team did not have access to the rights for Clarice Starling or much of the Silence of The Lambs material.

So, going into Hannibal, it has every appearance of being a prequel. After all, the story is before Will Graham’s capture of the title character. However, the writing of the show demonstrates an awareness of Clarice Starling as being a moral, logical opposite equal to Hannibal Lecter’s amorality and freedom from logic. This is present in Silence of The Lambs but it is at the center in the novel Hannibal. The novel is structured as a collision between the separate worlds of Clarice and Hannibal. And this alleged prequel show takes its name from that book.

Hannibal the TV show puts separation and conflict between subjectivity and objective reality in the foreground. In the first two seasons in particular, there are moments that seriously tempt you to wonder what is objectively going on and and what is an imaginative, non-literal construct.

Late in the first season, Will Graham has a drug-addled exchange with Abigail Hobbs and then there’s a slam cut to Will being somewhere else. What the cut was meant to imply was that Will blacked out and can’t remember what happened. What it at first looked like, though, is Will waking up from a dream. Then there’s a cut back to Abigail talking to Hannibal. At first, it looks like the show is cutting back to the dream Will just woke up from where stuff is still going on even though he’s awake.

In all fairness, what the cut is meant to signify (doubling back in the timeline before Will’s blackout) is not at all obvious. This might look like careless editing, but the dialogue and other sequences are so tightly written that I can’t get around thinking that the occasional blurred meanings are probably nothing short of deliberate. The line is especially easy to blur given the frequent usage of dreams and hallucinations.

Near the end of the second season, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the impression that Hannibal is a prequel. Mason and Margot Verger appear at this point, characters originally from the novel Hannibal who only enter the chronology of the books at the later stage.

The appearance of these characters, in and of itself, does not necessarily call anything into doubt. We’ve already met other characters from later in the chronology, like Frederick Chilton. But many of the events from the ending of the novel Hannibal happen, with dialogue from both the novel and the film.

Hannibal is taken to be fed to Mason’s pigs and he makes the same remark about how one of his handlers must smell “almost as bad” as his dead brother. Later, Will and Hannibal recreate a well-known exchange that he originally had with Clarice: “Given the chance, you’d deny me my life? Wouldn’t you?” “No, just your freedom.” Honestly, when Hannibal was rescued from the pigs, I was expecting Will to say “Do right and you’ll get out of this alive,” with Hannibal’s reply: “Spoken like a true Protestant.” They didn’t use that dialogue, but it would have worked.

So there is enough of Clarice’s transplanted dialogue in Will’s mouth, combined with the conversational cat and mouse with Hannibal, to make Will Graham look like a substitute for Clarice Starling. With the Clarice dialogue from the books and the movies, he seems almost like a literal gender flipped re-interpretation of Clarice like Freddie Lounds and Alana Bloom (both males in the source material).

This whole topic of which character is channeling Clarice Starling is exacerbated even more when we see Hannibal fleeing on a plane in the company of Dr. Du Maurier, which seriously mirrors Hannibal eloping with Clarice at the end of the book.

So. The broken sequence of events tells us that Hannibal the TV show is less of a prequel and more of a ground-up re-imagining of the whole story. Clarice Starling getting split in half between Will and Du Maurier goes smoothly with the idea of a radical re-telling as well. Another word commonly used recently for this kind of re-telling is a reboot.

Lately I have also been watching the new Watchmen adaptation from HBO. Although Damon Lindelof, the producer and writer, has insisted that his version of Watchmen is not a reboot, it beats a lot of reboots at their own game.

One way that both Watchmen and Hannibal achieve this is through writing that clearly reflects a thoughtful reading and exchange with the source material. In fact, you could almost argue for the possibility that both of those shows contain a version of the original text within themselves.

Lindelof’s Watchmen definitely does, but you could also make a case for the same thing occurring in Hannibal. Dialogue from the novels are constantly used and the re-arranged chronology reflects a careful awareness of those novels.

Many of the events of the show are re-organized content from the books; the main innovation that Hannibal brings is the frank discussion of subjectivity versus objectivity. It dwells on tension between perception and forensic analysis- if you wanted to go full lit-crit, you could say that it’s about seeing or, perhaps, reading.

The relationship with the source material in Lindelof’s Watchmen, though, is far more lucid. As someone who absolutely adores the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this delighted me. Watchmen the graphic novel is all about language and how belief, popular wisdom and the idea of documented fact is explored. In other words, how language and perception shape reality.

There are multiple texts-within-texts, many of which are placed between chapters. There are excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoir, psychiatric medical documents relating to Rorschach, in-world academic papers, in-world interviews and a whole other in-world comic. The intertextual nature of the world building is emphasized even more with how Rorschach is originally positioned as a narrator and how the reader comes to doubt his reliability. In fact, his narrations are nothing but excerpts from his journal, another in-world text.

One way that Damon Lindelof’s adaptation preserves this literary device- while simultaneously connecting that device to the show’s relationship with the graphic novel -is an in-world TV series called American Hero Story.

American Hero Story is, quite simply, a representation of the graphic novel within the TV show. For example, only very few people in the graphic novel knew about the romance between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, almost no one. In the new adaptation, it is frankly spelled out in American Hero Story. This strongly suggests that the average person in the world of the TV show knows about this. In another episode, a young FBI agent with a passion for the history of the Minutemen, casually relates the story of Laurie Juspeczyk’s parentage. The reveal of the identity of Laurie’s father was a huge dramatic event in the book but, like the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, is common knowledge in the world of the TV show.

This all adds up to tell us that the average person, in the TV show’s fictional universe, knows everything that a real-life reader of the graphic novel would. So the events of American Hero Story function as a representative of the original graphic novel within the show…and that graphic novel had multiple in-world documents within itself. Yo dawg… 😛

There are other more understated, thematic bells and whistles, such as Hooded Justice being inspired, in part, by a Superman comic. Then there are more overt reminders of the present of the TV show being inspired by its past, the comic. There is a white supremacist terrorist network inspired by the words and example of Rorschach. They are not just inspired by his publicized actions- they actually quote from his journal, which itself constitutes text from the original comic.

Between the manifested legacy of Rorschach embodied by the Seventh Kalvary and the portrayal in the graphic novel, though, there are fascinating gray areas. For example, the character called Looking Glass. He wears a reflective mask which no other character equates with the Rorschach mask and he regularly pulls up the lower half to talk and eat, something readers of Watchmen the comic will instantly recognize as typical of Rorschach.

However, there is no reason why the characters in the TV show would know that. They have American Hero Story and Rorschach’s journal is circulated among white nationalists, but there is no reason why that particular mannerism of his would be known of.

Meaning that, while the world of the TV adaptation knows the general plot points of the original, we also see reflections of things they shouldn’t know about. Rorschach probably never wrote about his unshaven mouth and love of canned beans in his journal, after all. So there is one level of intertextual exchange- the popular wisdom of the TV show’s world -and something less meta, a connection that characters know nothing of, but the writers and viewers are.

There are more explicable examples of the gap between text and reader as well. We get a glimpse of a scene from American Hero Story where Hooded Justice is outed as queer and forced to remove his mask, revealing a white actor. Later, the viewer learns that Hooded Justice was originally a black man.

Then there is the use of the colors black and white as a thematic device. In the racial sense as well as the abstract sense. This immediately reminded me of the graphic novel’s chapter called Fearful Symmetry, which made frequent use of panels with alternating color patterns. The character Sister Night says, early on, that if any bit of yolk is allowed into egg whites, the whites are ruined. She even tells her son, Topher, that people like to fill the world with all kinds of fake colors but she and him both know that the only colors are black and white.

This kind of dialogue smacks of Rorschach, which I found ironic. When the first trailers dropped, we saw a brief glimpse of Sister Night in a police station saying she has a guy in her trunk. The casual police brutality, combined with what looked like a face paint domino mask, made me wonder if this was a re-imagining of The Comedian. Then in the TV show, we receive more visual cues equating her with Nite Owl. The riffs on Fearful Symmetry continue in the episode when we see the original Hooded Justice receive face paint around his eyes and nose bridge to make it look like he’s white under the hood.

I guess one question this begs is…what exactly does this kind of sensitivity to the text add? The biggest gain I can think of is more reverence for the source material and more freedom to explore one’s own interpretation of it. You can do more while acknowledging the authority of the originals than you can with a straightforward, note-for-note adaptation.

And by reverence I mean…acknowledgement of the influence while maintaining a respectful distance. The original ideas are present and influential, but still have a distinct degree of separation from the derivative product allowing for interpretive freedom. If the reader or the viewer can perceive the influence of the original while understanding that the current interpretation is not a literal,word-for-word recreation, more room for imagination opens up. You could almost call it a more frank display of the dialogue between the original text and its readers.

Approximations of filmmaking in other mediums

As a prose writer it’s easy for me to get attached to my sandbox mentality.  When you hit your stride with a story, you luxuriate in your solitary ownership of the process so much that it could potentially spoil you for anything that requires any diversification.  Just lately I’ve been skimming the RPG Maker website since I’m way too much of a wuss to actually get a real engine and attempt ground-up game design.

Not that it was ever a terribly good idea to go into game design completely on your own in the first place: in the eighties and nineties, a game we would consider simple by modern standards would be a neck-deep passion project of a small handful of developers.  The fact that the Mortal Kombat games were pioneered for 16-bit arcade cabinets by two people may have been uncommon for the time but by today’s standards it’s almost Herculean.  Being a total Final Fantasy fan girl, I’ve been following the development of the FFVII Remake and the FFVIII Remaster with bated breath and the developers have said repeatedly that video game development is rapidly reaching par with filmmaking as the most expensive and collaborative of art forms.

This specific comparison has been on my mind lately because I recently finished playing through a game called The Space Between that I first found out about through John Wolf’s YouTube channel.  Put simply, The Space Between is completely narrative driven; no puzzles, no combat, no normal video game mechanics of any kind.  Your job is simply to move through the linear story through exploration and dialogue.  In other words, it’s an interactive short film.

In the last few years (going on decades) this has hardly been unique: we’ve all heard of the TellTale Games along with Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment: interactive video game “films” have pretty much blossomed into their own genre (to say nothing of visual novel games).  Most of them, though, typically rely on a combination of polished graphics (whether that’s attempted photo-realism or an emulation of hand-drawn art) and exploiting opportunities to work in more conventional gaming mechanics into the cinematic narrative.  Telltale Games produced two Batman games that use elements of stealth, puzzle-solving and beat’em up combat.  Life Is Strange relies on puzzles and Vampyr is an action-RPG.  These games also typically have ordinary and recognizable situational and narrative cues that give you a pretty clear idea about where things are going.

With films, there are definitely several precedents for auteurs forgoing these expedients:  something like Elias Merhige’s Begotten or David Lynch’s Inland Empire require you to take it in like a painting or a sculpture.  These films are almost purely visual with little to no use of narrative craft.  When I was in college I encountered a helpful way of describing this in an essay by Tania Modleski about cinematic excess.  According to Modleski, cinematic excess is when the visual content overwhelms or outpaces the narrative content.  According to this model of filmmaking as visual art and narrative craft, mainstream film is basically a hybrid medium: stories are largely what people are looking for from a mainstream film, making them a combination of literature and graphic art.  A “pure” film, with no emphasis on literature, would probably be something like Dali’s Andalusian Dog, since it’s a series of images that are held together by a thematic thread but has no frankly expressed story.  Begotten and the films of Kenneth Anger could also be classified as “pure” filmmaking with little to no reliance on literature.

Before I go on, I just want to bottom-line the fact that Modleski’s breakdown is meant to be descriptive and not judgemental: something that uses visual presentation along with a story is, in the most literal sense, a hybrid of literature and graphic art.  Even dramatic writing is a sort of hybrid since, along with its visual presentation, drama and theater often have their own academic and artistic partitions.  A novelist and a playwright are not interchangeable.

The application to video games should be pretty clear: something like Pong or the very first Mario or Donkey Kong games are good examples of “pure” video games.   They have virtually no reliance on story-telling of any kind- all of the content is in the gameplay.  No one who has ever enjoyed those games has ever required narrative context for them to make sense. 

When video games became more mainstream in the late eighties and early nineties, fictional scenarios were implemented more and more to make them conventionally compelling, since stories are something we all have some familiarity with.  It could be argued that this was where the expectation that video games be as “real” as possible emerged.  Since then, the majority of popular video games, like popular films, have been literary hybrids according to the Tania Modleski analysis.  Clearly, Telltale Games, Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment have become specialists in this hybridization, making it even more frank with their cinematic influence (not that they were the first game developers to be seriously influenced by film, obviously).

I’m bringing all this up because it offers a more streamlined way to talk about the use of narrative devices in video games. Specifically where The Space Between is concerned.  If video games have widely adopted literary hybridization with the same success that filmmaking has, then the recent popularity of linear, cinematic video games is a useful point of comparison.  Life Is Strange is a hybrid game and The Space Between is definitely, obviously a hybrid game.  But even between hybrids (and especially between ones influenced by film) there are degrees of specialization and craft convention.

If, for the sake of argument, we designate subgenres like Metroidvania and Soulsborne as the middle of the spectrum (since they often employ a vast, single map, mostly visual storytelling and a narrative pace that hinges on puzzles, combat and other ordinary gaming mechanics) then The Space Between easily lies closer toward the cinematic end of the spectrum. 

Like I said, the story is firmly linear and, as the player, your participation is limited to putting one foot in front of another until the end.  What makes playing this game different from watcing someone else play it is that, from a first person perspective, you have a deeper sense of immersion and participation (although your interactions and relationships are dictated by the script).  You hear things happening around you based on your movements and locations which gives the impression that your actions matter, that you are tapping on one side and something on the other side is tapping back (very literally in some cases).  One of the cooler instances of this involves…snipping sounds.

Lemme back up, and this where we’re gonna go into some spoilers (if you wanna close out of this and experience the game for yourself, I’ll include a download link at the bottom of the entry).  Your player character has had a lifelong relationship with someone named Daniel, apparently going back to childhood.  Potentially.  There are only so many ordinary ways where one ends up in a blanket fort with chairs, talking to someone on the outside.  I guess this doesn’t necessarily have to be in childhood.  It’s a flashback, at any rate.  So Martin (our player character) tells Daniel he doesn’t want him inside with him, but he doesn’t want him to leave either.  He asks him to put his hand on the blanket and Martin touches back.  Martin then asks if he feels his hand or the blanket.  This flashback establishes some basic thematic language and has a few parallel echoes later on.  It’s presented as fundamentally important for Martin but the specific nature of his relationship with Daniel is almost never frankly stated.  Almost.

During another scene that could potentially be a continuation of the flashback, Martin tells Daniel to get a pair of scissors and cut one hole above and another below.  When this flashback(?) ends and we’re back in the present, we’re standing in rows of sheets hung out to dry outside of an apartment building.  As you’re passing through the corridors of sheets you hear one snip.  A little while later, you hear another.  After that, you glimpse a sheet with one hole near the top and one near the bottom.  If there was any doubt that was what it sounds like, later on you see a curtain sucked around a human outline with a hole in its face and another between its legs.

Since many of the flashbacks seem to be dropped during conversations with another character named Clara, it’s probable that Martin is actually talking about these events as you, the player, are shown them.  This possibility is emphasized even more later on when the momentum near the end picks up, when he says “Clara don’t do this” when eerie events that resemble his connection to Daniel start happening.  If Clara is doing anything, the only potential reason the player is given is because of what Martin told her.  The fact that the player has been in Martin’s POV during the mid-conversation flashbacks that show his story adds to the sense of participation.  Even after the sections where you are basically forced to sit in Martin’s POV and watch him talk, you are put in very ambiguous and tense situations that will not progress until you go where you have to go to trigger the events.

Essentially, you are shown a visceral vulnerability of the player character that may or may not have been vocalized before, then, following this huge, personal surrender, the protagonist loses all sense of control and safety.  Fear was overcome to let another person in, and then the fear was justified in spades.  You’re not even sure of the exact threat and you will not learn how badly you fucked up until you walk yourself into the worst of it.

Think of the cut-scene in the second BioShock game where your awful ending will not happen until you press a button, and you will press the button because you can’t do anything else.  That’s kinda what’s going on.

If The Space Between was a short film, the ending and the momentum that’s built up by Martin’s trust and his subsequent betrayal is where we would get the real payoff of the literary and photographic hybridization.  There is even a word from early twentieth century German film that’s easily applicable to this: expressionism.  Put simply, an expressionist film is set in a vacuum, establishes its own “rules” in the course of its story and needs no context.  David Lynch has probably done more heavy lifting than anyone toward updating and localizing German expressionism for America with films like EreaserheadLost Highway and Mulholland Drive.  Those films are not set in a vacuum, but the real world locations that they are set in tend to not inform the internal rules of the “world” any more than a vacuum.  Usually, a psychological or emotional continuity takes priority over a literal one.  All of the visual cues and character decisions make sense, but only if you accept the subjective dominance of one specific character over all others, since the things that have emotional connotations for them will end up controlling everything else.

If The Space Between was a film, the ending is where Martin’s psychological continuity would start replacing the literal continuity in the foreground.  What makes this kind of narrative device different from, say, something like the Pink Floyd film The Wall which is strictly about a character’s internal life, is that The Space Between tries to draw your attention to an objective world that definitely exists but is still invisible.

The game begins with what appears to be a newspaper article about the body of Martin Melanson, a well-known architect, being found in a hollow within a wall.  So we have a definite statement of something happening, but everything else is totally subjective.  David Lynch has done similar things, such as in Lost Highway when Fred Madsen appears to magically change into Pete Dayton while he’s in prison.  Pete is released from prison and the story, through visual cues, seriously begins to look like a separate, parallel event to the Fred Madsen story.  What stops the viewer from firmly deciding that Pete Dayton is in a separate story is that he was followed out of prison and is being surveilled by two FBI agents from the Fred Madsen story.  The presence of the FBI agents are a constant reminder that, no matter how much this looks like a broken continuity, one thing is still chronologically following the other.  Like The Space Between, something is definitely happening in the real world, but the subjective continuity makes it totally invisible.

For film, this is an example of a well-established device that relies completely on the visual cues and the performances of the actors to overwhelm a frankly stated plot.  The plot is overwhelmed with a visual and dramatic continuity that still has a thematic relationship with the plot, even while leaving it behind.

As much as I enjoyed The Space Between, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: what makes this different from an interactive film?  Does its presentation as a video game actually bring any real hybridization, or is this simply a film via video game?

As previously stated, the orientation of the player in Martin’s first person point of view does much to differentiate the experience from that of watching a film.  Dialogue is used often but many of the essential stories told by Martin are shown directly to the player through flashbacks rather than through explication. The next difference may not be a substantial one but The Space Between utilizes the same graphics as early nineties PS1 games which has a few different consequences.

One of them, which is admittedly negotiable, is nostalgia-tinged uncanniness for those of us that grew up with the PS1. It creates the experience of finding something startlingly foreign within something familiar. It also uses some commonplace technological limitations from that era to good effect. Most early PlayStation games used text-based dialogue to save information space and, rather like those very games, The Space Between‘s text dialogue allows the communication between characters to share the foreground with the atmosphere created by the music.

Which is to say, the dialogue happens within a sonic atmosphere rather than interrupting or embodying it like voice acting would. This, both for this game and older games, is a huge gain for the immersion. It’s this immersion that enables the player to be directly in touch with the subjective continuity as it takes over the objective one, making it an effective blending of cinematic trope with classic video game presentation. The first person player experience plays into the success of the expressionist structure.

Now….as cool as I think this game is and as much as I’m enjoying reviewing it, this review was not originally the point of this entry. What I wanted to talk about in the first place were ideas from filmmaking seeping into other mediums. There are a few different reasons for this.

The more selfish ones are, as the opening paragraph states, that I am growing curious about other art forms than the one I’m most accustomed to. So I’m skimming the more, shall we say, vanilla edges of game development. I’ve also had ideas for screenplays that I’ve been seriously excited about in the past but, realistically, filmmaking can be very difficult to get into. Which hasn’t stopped me from roughing out screenplays, but genuine difficulties exist. So perhaps it’s prudent to be aware of other expedients.

Was this what Christoph Frey, the mind behind The Space Between was thinking when he made that game?

I can think of some reasons why it may not have been, such as a wish to simply make an uncanny and dreamlike work of art, but if he was thinking about an alternative to filmmaking, I could hardly blame him. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renowned filmmaker by any standard, struggled for decades to make a sequel to his 1970 classic El Topo and, recently, has decided that his vision was too pressing to wait any further on the convenience of the film industry. He then turned to an artist he trusted deeply and elected to make the El Topo sequel, called The Sons Of El Topo, into comics. I have read the first hard back English language volume, Cain, and Abel is expected to get a hard back English release later this year.

Being the pragmatic and opportunistic magpie that I am, I always jump at the opportunity to learn more about how my own ideas may benefit from similar adjustments. My recent desire to throw myself into RPG Maker started with a conversation with a friend about making our own video game together. My mind took off but at the time I wasn’t aware how obtainable RPG Maker software is. As I plotted the story out I realized I cared too much about it to let go and so resolved myself to write it as a novel. And then I saw the bad-ass retro SNES and Gameboy-style assets and skins on RPG Maker and now I just don’t know. So the pros and cons of different kinds of artistic hybridization have been on my mind lately, how a story may change from one medium to another. Especially since this particular story of mine is connected to the same world-building project of two different novels I have in the works.

Why not do both the game and the book? Good question, why not indeed. Neil Gaiman did a few different retellings of Neverwhere for different mediums. Butttttt Iiii dunnnoooo…..I like the idea of a creative exchange between different mediums that are all involved in the same project. Such things have their flaws, as the expanded FFXV and Kingdom Hearts universes attest, but…I wanna 😡

And, at least, I think the multi-volume El Topo saga indicates that success might just be obtainable on that front. Several things that had a very specific function in the original film, that worked specifically as cinematic techniques, have been translated to intriguing effect in the comic book continuation.

For example, the cross dressing and the seemingly random fetish imagery. Film, like theater, can get so subjective at times that you wonder if there is meant to be any actual context (I.e. expressionism). El Topo exploited this potential well. The protagonists’ transformation has a lot to do with a female phantom-self, a kind of Jungian anima, that may or may not actually exist. This female reflection is portrayed by an actress but, when she speaks, she has a male voice. Later, in a separate setting, an apparently female character also has a male voice-over when she speaks. Does the female reflection of El Topo exist in the same way that the named characters do? What about the same phenomena appearing casually in a different place?

The comic continuation has made it clear that at least some of these things literally exist: male to female cross dressers do, in fact, seem to be common place. Particularly in the clergy. And that El Topo, post-martyrdom, is venerated by Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. This could either mean that El Topo has literally synthesized all of these religions into one or that this is a non-literal way of indicating that El Topo is universally revered in the fictional world. It is also now clear that the honey-combs that appeared at El Topos grave were not an illusory symbol but literally appeared as his dying miracle.

Another smaller but cool wrinkle is that the ghost of El Topo and the appearance of his sons are all meticulously drawn to resemble Jodorowsky himself in his performance in the original movie. Cain is identical to the violent pre-apotheosis El Topo and Abel is identical to post-apotheosis El Topo. El Topo’s actual ghost looks simply the way he did at the moment of his death. In the beginning, when El Topo’s final massacre near the end of his life is retold, the artist is very precise is recreating Jodorowsky’s specific facial expressions and it’s freaking beautiful.

The precise nuts and bolts there remain to be seen for English speakers, and my French is a little rusty right now so I don’t know if I’d be up to tackling the older digital versions of the French run. Another thing that has yet to be seen is whether or not the female version of El Topo will be revealed to have a literal existence after El Topo is dead- she was an essential character in the film and I would love to see her again in the comic.

So yeah. I find some of Jodorowsky’s words rather applicable to my current predicament: “There is no failure, only a change of direction”. Closed doors can definitely lead to successes of their own with the right mindset as he himself has made clear.

Link to the Ichio page where Christoph Frey’s The Space Between can be purchased-

https://chrstphfr.itch.io/the-space-between

More FFIV lore analysis

I have, at last, vindicated the frustration of twenty-one year old Ailix and beat FFIV. There was a bit of the typical Final Fantasy difficulty spike before the final boss but nothing too spooky compared to VI, VII, VIII or XIII. As has been typical of this playthrough, all of the real grindy grind marathons have been entirely because I decided I wanted to. When I first played through FFVII I got on this crazy, single-minded kick of wanting every character’s ultima(te) weapon. FFIV was pretty quick and painless in that regard. The one that really seemed to require effort was Edge’s Masamune and Murasame, since one of them is pretty deep in the final dungeon and protected by some fairly tough monsters. Excalibur, meanwhile, was a fetch quest that’s kind of a walk in the park if you’ve waited until the very end of the game to do it. I may be inclined to be blasé, though, since I had already completed the Feymarch dungeon and collected the rat tail without knowing what it was for beforehand. As frustrating as that particular dungeon was at times, I had a lot of fun with it.

If you’re reading this for helpful notes it may behoove me to mention that you might want to have both Porom and Rosa in your party for the final battle with Zeromis. With Rosa absolutely maxed out, of course, with Holy in her repertoire. You’ll also want to buy as much elixirs and dry ethers from the Hummingway cave as you can (the Hummingway cave had a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe. Lots of colorfully dressed short creatures making discordant, electrical-sounding noises…).

Basically, if you Holy spam the crap out of Zeromis with another reasonably maxed out white mage on healing detail with everyone else doing decent damage (having Rydia summon Bahamut repeatedly sure won’t hurt, if you’ve managed to navigate the Cave of the Father) while being absolutely shameless with keeping everyone doused with elixirs, you should do okay. I didn’t feel too much like a lame-ass for using elixirs like that, since Zeromis will screen nuke you repeatedly and if you get stuck in a rut of trying to revive multiple party members with phoenix downs on one turn and then healing them another…well, that gets you in a downward spiral that’s real hard to climb out of. I mean…if you have the Asura summon, that could be occasionally helpful, but what she does once summoned is just too random to be reliable.

BTW I deduced the thing about having two white mages in retrospect: I just went in with my normal arrangement (Rosa, Edge, Cecil, Rydia and Kain) and almost didn’t make it. Basically, Rosa was on both Holy and healing duty. Which turned out not to be feasible. And I barely had enough elixirs. I was one away from being out, with only Rydia and Kain still alive, when Kain came down from a Jump and wasted the bastard. Rydia was pretty low on MP also; I’d more or less resigned myself to dying while trying to get her to Osmose her way back up to the point of being able to summon when Kain miraculously won the fight. A satisfying final boss, really. When judged solely as a boss fight, anyway.

This game has many of the same narrative strengths and weaknesses of Final Fantasy XIII. Both stories do a great job of discussing themes while also being lazy with plot construction. When a story does a good job of discussing ideas while failing to get you to care about its characters it creates a funny feeling of watching something archetypal. Which could turn out to be true, but even then, those archetypal tropes and comments don’t create depth in and of themselves.

The concept of Zemis/Zeromis ties into both the thematic strength and the narrative weakness. With fantasy stories with fictional worlds that could, potentially, be constructed in a total vacuum with no reliance on the real world, the consistency and integrity of the world building is more open ended and therefore more delicate. With no correlating outside material (other than other sources taking place in the same fictional universe) you’re kind of trusting the storyteller 100%. You are anyway in a lot of cases, but the totality of the storyteller’s job get’s starker and more delicate the more unrestricted they are.

The really big narrative weakness in Final Fantasy IV is something that can easily happen in fantasy stories with an alien-invasion plot. World A is the world we spend most of our time in and it’s the one we get the most immersed in (Earth or Gaia or whatever. The Blue Planet). Since the unfolding of a plot has to happen through gradual revelations, there are necessarily parts that look like blank spots until they are revealed or explained, and the mystery of the blank spaces is usually something that keeps you interested until the end.

Anyway, there were obscured plot details that were resolved with the appearance of World B: The Red Planet, or the moon. In a fantasy setting, bringing in a separate world that informs things about another has the potential of subverting one set of rules with a completely new set of rules. Final Fantasy IX sidestepped this by having the Terrans be almost completely off-camera- we only see their biomechanical creations and future host bodies. Same goes for Jenova and the Cetra in VII- the original worlds of both groups are totally off-camera with only the most relevant details being visible.

In Final Fantasy IV, we get to set foot on the other world. I mean, we don’t get full immersion- the aliens are still in cold storage waiting for their custodians to find and prepare their new home. We have the Crystal Palace, the Cave of the Father, Hummingway village and the Lunar ruins- that last one I haven’t explored yet, though.

With both IV and IX, you could argue that the World B changes the rules up to that point. In IX, though, less things are stated openly. Some people have a variety of theories about whether or not Necron was present beforehand, what precisely is happening in Memoria, why Memoria is there, etc. I have my own interpretations of all that which I might get into in a later post, and I think the game offers more than a Rorschach ink blot to go off of. What I mean is that you can credibly infer what is going on from the implications. But because so much is implied in IX, it’s possible to finish that game with a personal interpretation that keeps everything in the same world with the same set of rules. I don’t think that’s sound way to “read” FFIX, but because so much is not said openly, the player has a lot of latitude to make their own interpretations. FFIV has less latitude, though.

For one, Zemis/Zeromis is tied directly to both the thematic threads and his utterances are so reminiscent of certain plot points that it’s hard not to think that he’s talking literally about how the fictional world works. And he does not say much. He only tells Golbez that his commitment to a path of darkness is irrevocable and that “the crystal cannot cleanse your sins”. This isn’t just a thematic nod, since the story on the mythgraven sword describes a hero who goes from “dark” to “light”. I mean, we see moral reversals and forgiveness all the time in this game- Cecil razed Rydia’s village at the very beginning, after all. But the mythgraven blade tells us that the journey through sin and absolution is literally a part of the world building mechanics. And Zemis’s transformation into Zeromis is only explained as his hatred “growing stronger” after his death. Which supports the possibility that moral and spiritual states of being have material expressions in the world of Final Fantasy IV.

Before moving on, there is a phrase describing a trope that covers events like this: the power of love. Trinity brings Neo back to life with her love in the first Matrix film. Steve Martin changes the polarity of the earth to stop a plane from taking off to keep a girl he likes nearby in The Jerk. That’s basically how the “power of love” trope works.

While what happens with Zeromis is credited to hatred, it still has the basic mechanics of the “power of love” trope. Something happens for no other reason than a powerful emotional cry going out to the universe. You could reasonably call it the “power of prayer” also. Harry Potter takes advantage of the power of love trope, but also manages to incorporate it into its world building, making it less of a naked, self-justifying trope. I’m not sure if Final Fantasy IV makes that transition successfully or not. It’s clearly supposed to.

The reason I’m droning on about this trope and it’s common usage, though, is because it’s widely disliked for a reason close to all this: the power of love trope has a tendency to subvert the constancy of the world building or “rules” of a story. It’s a commonly used deus ex machina. This is also the risk of bringing in the rules of a second fictional world when the player/reader/viewer/whatever has spent so much time getting used to the rules of a first one.

This destabilizing risk at play with both the “power of love” trope and the appearance of a second set of fictional rules are tied together in that the aliens in FFIV are something of a founder race of the first planet. The Tower of Babil has been there for the entire history of the Kingdom of Eblan. It seems like that, anyway, no one there seems to remember a time when it wasn’t there. The Lunarians also know a ton of specifics about how the crystals work and the Earthlings seem like they just worship them as forces of nature that have always been there. The crystals are the McGuffin tying this plot together and it seriously looks like the Lunarians have all the answers regarding them. The Lunarians have also been technologically advanced for much longer than the Earthlings and will even sow bits of knowledge Prometheus-style (Cecil’s dad and the airship technology…). So it looks like the crystals may actually be a creation of the Lunarians- not divine elemental sources after all, but technology that controls the elements. An apparently controversial technology- the mythgraven blade says one thing and Zeromis says another -but still technology in all likelihood.

Because the Lunarians are the founder race and this is a story about ancient aliens, we have to take their assessments of the relevant McGuffins as definitive. You can’t explain any of the ending events of FFIV as part of the prior set of rules for the first planet, since the inhabitants of the second planet created the whole situation. The second planet has all the answers, so the paradigm shift is unavoidable. And the central plot dynamic has to do with material expressions of spiritual states of being, as spoken by an authoritative second planet source, so the “power of love” trope is equally unavoidable.

Paradigm-shifting plot-twists can be pulled off in the late stages of the story but not if the player or reader has to accept too many radical breaks in consistency too quickly. If a plot-twist effects earlier plot mechanics, it has to somehow be addressed, or the reader or gamer feels like they’re trying to swallow something either sight-unseen or with incomplete information. Witness the timeline issues that are never brought up again (unless it happens in Interlude or After Years, in which case I will happily eat my words. Even if it does happen in those, though, the original game was presented as a standalone story for years sooo….those last two games must be taken as after-the-fact retcons).

As I explained in my last post, this is brought up by the appearance of airships and the lifespans of Cecil and Golbez. The same Lunarian introduced the airship technology and fathered both of those characters. This Lunarian is also the brother of Fusoya, our first friendly denizen of the moon, who is ancient- presumably thousands of years old. Not very many Lunarians are awake, so Fusoya and his brother are probably ancient caretakers of the planet.
Probably. The age of each brother is not specified but the rest of the story only leaves room for so many possibilities. If the two brothers are caretakers for the rest of the sleeping planet and one of them is canonically stated to be the caretaker since the era when the Tower of Babil was constructed…what about the second brother? On one hand, airship technology was only introduced in the recent past and there’s no reason to think that Cecil is any older than the other adult-ish(?) characters. On the other hand…we are told nothing about the background of Golbez, other than he has the same father as Cecil. Then there’s Mount Ordeals and the legend of the Paladin inscribed on the mythgraven blade, which the village of Mysidia has known about for time immemorial. When Cecil transforms into a Paladin and draws the mythgraven blade, he hears the voice of his father. Did Lunarian Number Two plant the mythgraven blade thousands of years ago? Apparently. So are both Lunarian brothers thousands of years old? What exactly caused Lunarian Number Two to go rogue and start doing his own thing on the Blue Planet in the last few decades?

The parentage of Cecil and all of these complications are introduced very quickly near the end of the game and are never addressed in the first game in the trilogy. The consequences that the plot-twist has for the plot so far are never addressed, which compromises the continuity. The paradigm shift with the Lunarian founder race and the elements of the “power of love” then start to be a bit of an eyesore.

There are other weaknesses in the story, but in my opinion this is the really big one. That being said, the thematic discussion of redemption holds up well. Between Cecil, Kain and Golbez there are three major character arcs that involve stark examples of absolution. Rydia’s reappearance from the Feymarch does a good job of bearing this up as well. When Cecil gets shipwrecked near Mysidia, he has every reason to think Rydia is dead, which renders his treachery to the village of Mist complete and snatches away his last shred of redemption in his own eyes. It’s a great way to set up the Paladin transformation, and when Rydia comes back it stops her from being another female character predictably sacrificed to develop a male one through tragedy. I also appreciated that Golbez elected to stay on the moon at the end of the game, as it echoes Cecil’s expiation arc. Despair is also examined hand in hand with redemption, which makes sense: redemption is transcendence, despair is being cut of from transcendence. Self-sacrifice or suicide can be ways of narratively exploring the link between the two and a ton of characters attempt to off themselves. The link and the mingled hope and despair implicit in it is even stated by one character after Cid appears to blow himself up: “Why do so many choose death so easily?”

There are other expressions of this a little further from the foreground. The four demonic guardians of the crystals (typically represented by the Four Fiends in older FF games) are now named after demons from the Inferno section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The last fight with them, with all four at once as a single being, even has a loose consistency with the deeper circles of Hell reserved for betrayers. In Inferno, people’s bodies frequently combine. In one canto, a scorpion stings one of the condemned souls, the soul turns to ash, then the ash swarms around the scorpion, absorbs it and turns into a hybrid. Obviously that has no bearing on the plot of FFIV, but it’s a way of keeping a relevant theme in the background. Then there’s Namingway constantly offering to change your name for you, which is rather on the nose.

If I really wanted to bog myself down in minutia, I could get into the thematic comparison between temporal and spatial world views. Theological concepts like salvation and damnation are typically part of a temporal cosmology where a grand timeline of the universe is privileged over local circumstances. In the worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of humanity, everywhere, all has a common destiny which involves salvation for some and damnation for others. Salvation and damnation seem to be consequences of the timeline’s eventual end. In spatial cosmologies though, locations and nature are privileged over any possible timeline. Ancient pre-Christian belief systems in the West, for example, with deities embodying different natural forces. This is also exemplified by the reaction that both Vikings and some Native Americans had to Christian missionaries: they appreciated the Christian origin story as relevant to a certain group of humans…but fundamentally believed that different people originated in realms that are so different as to almost put them on the level of other planets or species. That different humans, like different non-humans, can be literally worlds apart. I imagine that some interpretation involving this is possible with this game, what with involving language of salvation and damnation combined with a world organized by four different elements. Which could possibly play into the thematic structure examining despair and redemption, side by side.

Maybe some of the writers and developers were thinking about things like that. Or maybe they were just reaching for different sources from religion and mythology which, as a fantasy writer myself, I understand is very fun to do just in and of itself. When I was in middle school a friend and I made our own table top game that was literally just a giant amalgam of mythology and religion. So no hate on that front. There’s at least enough suggestions of a temporal versus spatial thematic layer to raise the question, though.

As interested as I am in this kind of nutty interpretation, though, compelling thematic structures are not enough to create a good story in and of itself. In fact, I think this very disparity is something that Final Fantasy games historically have a messy relationship with. FFXIII is an even better case and point than IV, in both how it can go very right in one way and horribly wrong in another. I can only think of two, maybe three, Final Fantasy games that really got the balance right, and even the way in which the successes compare with the failures are interesting. Since I seem to be losing inhibitions with being a full tilt weeb, I’m sure I’ll write a longer post unpacking that even more eventually.

The relationship between graphics and scenario writing in video games

I have attempted two playthroughs of Final Fantasy IV and choked both times.  As a FF fan that ain’t normal for me, to say nothing of how excited I was to play it in the beginning.  From what I read on the internet prior, it seemed like IV was the turning point for Final Fantasy becoming the narrative heavy experience that we all know today.  I don’t think I’ll sound too lame if I own that the Golbez fight in the castle of the dwarves was a factor in the termination of both of my playthroughs, especially if I add that I was playing it on a DS those times.  For some reason, Square Enix decided to buff a boss fight in this remake that was already notoriously hard to begin with.

So playthrough one ended with the Golbez fight and playthrough two ended when I started buffing Rydia immediately before she disappears from the party.  I got her to learn bio, which most agree is a thing you want to have in the dwarvish Golbez fight, but my nerves were so fried from all the grinding that took that I just didn’t have the patience to keep playing after that point.  Just yesterday, though, I was able to start playing the original 16-bit SNES version and I’m actually getting more interested in the events of the story than I was the first time around.  Within my first few minutes of SNES FFIV I was reminded that the effect of the Nintendo DS graphics and voice acting was almost as much of a turn off as the remake’s infamous difficulty spike.

No matter what the subject of a film, painting or video game is, how that subject looks is bound to direct your attention at least as much as the script of the subject’s story.  However with video games and commercial cinema there is an oddly quantitative way of judging something as qualitative as visual and auditory effect.  To me, it’s comparable to saying that photographs have destroyed the reason to ever draw, or that photography has replaced painting.  We could digress even further if we dwell on what ways of looking and sounding are treated as the most “natural” or “appealing” in computer animation (I mean, if I wanna look like Serah Farron in FFXIII, I’m gonna need to spend several grand on plastic surgery).

But for now, regardless of what we are treating as real, let’s at least allow that trying to look “real” is something that is widely valued in both video games and big budget movies.  How “real” something looks can be valued with strange single-mindedness, though.  For some, the fact that black and white film can have color doctored into them is a good enough reason to do it, regardless if certain decisions were originally planned to have the best effect as black and white images.  Digitally adding color to a film like Orphee or Les enfants terribles would, to say the absolute least, be very, very single-minded.

I think this was the mistake that was being made in the DS FFIV remake.  Voice acting and 3D graphics were added without consideration for how they would change the flow of the action.  The voice actors also sound unsure if they are supposed to be melodramatic or earnest.  I get that stories and characters are allowed to have tone shifts, but with the FFIV voices the changes sounded too random to be intentional.  In the older version, though, the use of text-based dialogue allowed both the delivery of words and their content to go by the player’s own pace.  In this regard, I think the DS remake compares particularly badly to  the original.  Just look at the different presentations of the desolation of the Mage Village and the theft of their crystal.  I found the 16-bit portrayal easier on the eyes and therefore easier to take in.  Probably because the scenario was written with a 16-bit image in mind.

 

Anyway, this is more of a random thought of the day.  I’m still pretty early in my playthrough but so far everything about the presentation is working better.