About Taylor Brogan

Managing Editor - inconnu magazine. Tweets @thbrogan.

Smoke Signals

I wanted to revisit the conversation we had last week in class about the smoke on page 3 of In the Shadow of No Towers, because I think it lends itself to a larger discussion on the advantages of “comix” as a medium and the possibilities for translation into another. The layout of the page, bookended by two producers of smoke (the falling Tower on the left and Art’s cigarette on the right), would be very difficult to recreate in another form.

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The way the smoke obscures bits of text near the bottom and clears near the top of the page would definitely not play in printed prose, given the lack of images, and it really would not play so well in film, due to the leveled layout of the page. As mentioned in class, the layout is almost architectural, and each of the stories occupies a different storey. The comic page allows the audience to take in the whole scene at once, top to bottom, while also picking out the individual components at will.

The only medium I could see capturing the movement from top to bottom, left to right, so well as the comic page does would be that of the video game. Braid is a good example of a game that used text and obstruction to good effect, and the interactivity of the player with the text itself was interesting. If this particular page had been a stage in a video game, I could imagine a little 8-bit Art Spiegelman moving up, down, left, and right across an interactive version of the page, with the falling tower and the towering cigarette sectioning off the playable area, the various scenes playing out at different levels.

Still, a video game, and any kind of interactive, audio-visual medium, would have its limitations. The immovability of the smoke and of the other various objects obstructing the text is partly what makes the page so effective.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.09 PMThe freeze-framed moments of Art and Francoise on their way to Nadja’s school capture very static, isolated moments of panic, at times truly terrifying, at others absurdly comical.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.28 PMComic Art’s anxiety is interrogated from such a wide variety of angles, all of which are present on the page, but none of which ever have to mingle with each other unless precisely dictated by Art the artist. The precision of the layout, carefully crafted by Art, paints a very particular, very Art-specific portrait of the experience of 9/11 that might not come across as so deeply personal if the audience were presented the opportunity to interact with the text.

Masking the Horror: Light & Music in ‘Gone Home’

When I was young (I’m talking like 6 or 7), I was absolutely terrified of the Carmen Sandiego video games, which I’m quite sure were not supposed to be actually terrifying. These were educational adventure mysteries designed to teach geography, math, history, etc. with a very low (to nonexistent) level of horror intensity, but I could never play beyond the first level or so due to my own expectation that Carmen might appear and I would be unable to catch her. Similarly, I played the Barbie Detective game series, which was a more sophisticated 3D point and click mystery that involved finding clues and chasing a shadowy figure that would spontaneously appear. That was also too terrifying for me, and I would frequently hand the controls over to my friends and watch as they chased those shadowy figures.

While playing Gone Home, I felt that same urge to duck and cover or just hand over the controls to a friend, even though I’m 21-years-old now and this game’s potential horrors never actually emerged. I needed to play through my own irrational fears, though, in order to experience the gameplay, so I found myself inventing ways to put myself at ease throughout the game. Initially, this meant playing the Turn On Every Light game. I’m calling it a sub-game, because that’s very much how I treated it: with each new light turned on, I achieved a new level of safeness. I suspect I wasn’t the only person who had this experience.

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The cassette tapes (and the record player) also factored heavily into this kind of distraction-based gameplay. Each time I entered a room with a music player, I immediately turned the music on, and to the best of my ability, I replayed the songs soon after they ended. This served to drown out the (beautiful! but) occasionally creepy ambient score and the frankly unwelcome thunderstorm, allowing me to dwell in Sam’s teen space.

This strategy of masking the ambience of the “Psycho House” with Sam’s riot grrrl aesthetics was ultimately very effective, and I think it allowed me to better connect with both Sam’s character and the larger ~purpose~ of the game. The ouija board, pentagram, and blood-red hair dye became un-frightening to me as soon as Sam was brought into the picture. Just as I tried to ease my personal fears and brighten the tone of the game by turning on lamps and listening to Sam’s energetic music, I-Kaitlin came to realize that her family was gone from home not because of something terrible but because of something really touching.

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Gameplay Expectations & Frustration

Having grown up around game consoles and being more than passingly familiar with Gen X/Y gamer culture, I have come to hold a certain set of expectations for gameplay. When I play a platformer, I expect to jump on blocks and enemies and collect things until I eventually reach some kind of desirable end. These expectations are deeply ingrained enough that It’s difficult for me to enter into any kind of gameplay experience with an open mind.

Passage is a game best played with an open mind. It took a few tries playing the game to finally experience some empathy for my avatar during the loss of his partner and the emptiness of his life in the late years, because I was too preoccupied trying to figure out a) the mechanics of the game and b) whether I was missing out on something really obvious. My first play through, I did not venture ~down, and instead I walked as far right as I could before dying — it was a confusing experience, and I didn’t even realize that my “partner” was my partner, or that she had died. I just thought it was odd that she’d disappeared.

The second play through, I wandered down into the maze and was trying to figure out what I was supposed to find in the maze. Moving the avatar and his partner through narrow passageways felt more like Tetris than anything, so I tried to move down as far as I could and mostly just was stuck until my partner died. On the third play through I found the treasure chests. So I thought, is that what this is about? Collecting points from chests? That approach to the game was just as if not more tedious than the straight walk through and the Tetris-ing.

My experience of playing Passage was more frustrating than it was immediately affective or sad-making. I wonder, then, what this might say about the medium itself and the process of discovery and acclimation that is built in to every video game. By my fourth and fifth plays of the game, I started to come to terms with the lack of a clear objective and started paying attention to how it made me feel (still frustrated, but more aware of the sadness). I wonder how many times I’d have to play the game for me to actually get it in the way that I’m sure many of my peers will have. Mostly, I wonder how frequenly others felt that the mechanics and learning curve of game play get in the way of the game’s objective, or whether that was really the point all along.

No Flashbacks in ‘Treatment’

Upon first reflection, my memory of Week 1 of In Treatment is really inaccurate. I vividly remember the details of a sexual encounter in a bathroom stall, the bombing of a school in Baghdad, the late-night shouting between a married couple about the possibility of an abortion, a young gymnast’s allegedly accidental incident with a flying motorcycle, etc. — but none of this actually happened on In Treatment. The show is structurally nothing more than Dr. Paul Weston talking to his patients in his office. There are no flashbacks, only narration, but the storytelling is so vivid and emotionally intense that the stories seem in hindsight like they were presented as flashbacks.

I think that the absence of flashbacks allows for a number of things that make In Treatment stand alone in its complex seriality. First of all, the patients’ stories are complicated by Dr. Weston’s frequent questioning, and many of the details of these stories are either altered, recontextualized, or proven to be fabricated, allowing character to supersede plot. Secondly, because the audience is accustomed to the formulaic use of flashbacks in traditional television, the complete lack of that device (at least in Week One) is noticeable enough to produce some appreciation for the writers’ talents. Finally, and most importantly, the absence of flashbacks allows the viewers to see Dr. Weston’s reactions to and interactions with his patients, presenting a long arc of characterization for him. Each session reveals some small aspect of Dr. Weston’s personality or history and leads up to his own sessions with Dr. Gina Toll, during which he reveals that he is much more affected by and invested in those sessions than he typically lets on. For example, the observation in the episode “Paul and Gina: Week One” that “we don’t have an audience” and the subsequent revelation that Gina’s idea of audience is supervision, while Paul’s idea of audience is praise, sheds new light on the moments of both reservation (in “Laura: Week One”) and outburst (in “Jake and Amy: Week One”) during the previous week. Paul’s opinions about his patients, his insistence that he’s “losing patience with my patients,” the moments he chooses to intervene or not, etc., all help to create a more complete portrait of the psychotherapist as a flawed and compelling character.

New Weird & TV

After spending some serious thought-time with Pynchon’s “Entropy” and David Foster Wallace’s essay on TV and American fiction writers, I have noticed (in my own 6-hrs/day) that television’s relationship with irony truly permeates every aspect of televisual programming and that that relationship has only deepened with time. Where DFW referenced St. Elsewhere’s meta-episode, Pepsi commercials, and the emergence of SNL as significant moments for irony on television, I’ve grown up around shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, which are wildly popular with mainstream audiences. 30 Rock (the most meta TV show of all time, apparently) was never a ratings darling, but it’s taken home more than its fair share of awards. Flip to the Disney Channel, and you’ll see shows like Phineas and Ferb and So Random using that same self-referential humor. It’s everywhere because it is the language of television.

I’m curious to see whether the New Weird would be able to find any footing on TV (or in some similar format). The genre blends elements of genuine grotesque horror with the low-cultural references of ironic fiction, giving it a certain potential for mass appeal. But the key to the New Weird, at least according to Jeff Vandermeer, is the author’s complete surrender to the material, “without ironic distance” (The New Weird, xi). Knowing how immersed we as viewers are in irony when we watch television — knowing how we’ve come to expect and rely on it — I am inclined to say that New Weird fiction is as good as married to its textual medium, given the average television watcher of today.

I guess the real problem I’m getting at here is whether we, as viewers, are capable of suspending our expectations on a wide enough scale to accept something like New Weird on our TV screens. Shows like The Twilight Zone (referenced in Vandermeer’s essay as an example of ~Weird TV) are not consumed in 2013 with the same genuine kind of terror of the original audiences — they are MST3K‘d. They are loved, but ironically (and at  the very least nostalgically). I’m not questioning whether it’s possible to create a serial television show using the elements of New Weird fiction but whether New Weird via TV could ever be approached with the necessary suspension of ironic distance. Thoughts?