Lessons From…Penny Arcade: The Series

For those of you unfortunate souls not aware of Penny Arcade, allow me to quickly illuminate you on the subject. Penny Arcade is a long running web-comic that spawned a multifaceted international corporation consisting of conventions, comic series, video programming, podcasts, a charitable organization, and probably more to come.  While at times the company has come under criticism and ire, the people in charge manage to acknowledge their errors and come out the other end a little bit smarter and more compassionate.

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To be perfectly honest, the lessons contained in PA: The Series would be enough to fill several tomes of analytic research and theory, so containing them all within a single post seems futile. Perhaps I will write several posts about the series but for now I want to focus on three specific lessons found in the show.

First off, reality television does not have to be utter crap! I know; I was surprised as well with this revelation. The entire premise of Penny Arcade: The Series is a behind the scenes look at the company of Penny Arcade and how they began, work , and continue to create and grow. Obviously, this did not revolutionize or create a new premise when it comes to reality television programming. However, unlike standard reality fodder, there are no convoluted situations to drum up drama or scandalous enjoyment. Instead, the audience views actual people who want to be creative and productive with each other. They do not tear each other down or try to gain an advantage over the other. They work together and care for one another. Amazingly, this not only does not deplete the enjoyment of the show but actually makes for entertaining and compelling programming.

Second, I have written on the topic of choosing a family through friends before, but PA: The Series exemplifies this concept throughout the entire show. Every person that works for Penny Arcade can best be described as an ‘odd duck.” Yet, at Penny Arcade, their collective weirdness merges to form a “work family.” They are not just coworkers but friends and family, perhaps even more so than the family they were born into. No episode demonstrates this more than “Happy Holidays.” At one point during the jovial celebrations, Mike and Jerry actually specify what role each person plays in their makeshift family.

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Finally, for now, PA: The Series demonstrates, through interviews with Mike and Jerry, the creators of Penny Arcade, the perils of creative work. By all measurable, and intangible, accounts, Penny Arcade is a successful company. It is profitable, self-sufficient, and ever expanding into different avenues, creative and commercial. The creators are not unaware of their success and are even more conscience of the fact that it could all be taken from them at a moment’s notice. In the first season of the series, the interviewers ask Mike and Jerry if they think about what would happen if everything just stopped or went away. They consider that possibility every day and that is why they continue to put their heart and soul into their work to be “worthy of the audience they have been given.” Though some might have become complacent or focus on the funds, these two manage to continue to care about the art and making sure that they earn their audience every day. Hopefully, all artists will be so luck and thoughtful.

I know this post was a bit long so here is the shorthand: reality (television) does not have to suck, the “family” you choose is at times better than the family your born into, and artists, regardless of their level, should earn their audience and recognition with every act and piece.

Thus ends the lesson.

(All images are © COPYRIGHT 1998 – 2014 PENNY ARCADE, INC.)

Magic in the Ink

Everyone is special. Everyone has a power in them.

These were the thoughts that rattled around in my head as the needle pierced my skin. I had experienced the ritual involved in marking my flesh that pain and discomfort were distant memories. The process had become more meditative than aesthetic; something that I needed to do.

“We’re almost finished,” said Ink. I am fairly certain he has a real name, maybe even a legitimate business in another life. However, in this world of shadows I only knew him as his moniker. This was the way things were done: the way we survived.

Tattoo artists, as they liked to call themselves, littered the surrounding area. Of the few that took on clients like myself, Ink was the best and could be counted on to keep his mouth shut.

“Alright, done. Take a look.”

The eye on my rib cage was a thing of exquisite beauty; a deep blue iris that seemed to stare into infinity. Ink’s work was flawless as always. It stung as I caressed my newly acquired mark.

“It’s perfect.”

“Of course, it is. I may not have your skills, but I am a master of my craft,” Ink responded as he put away his tools. “I assume you have a new request already in the works.”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” I pulled out the small box held within my coat. “It has two small vials. More than enough to mix with your ink.”

Ink removed one of the vials and held the vial up to the ceiling bulbs. Even after leaving the body, blood held a dark crimson color that turned a bright red when exposed to a light.

“So am I going to get this one’s name?”

“No names. You don’t need to know to create your work.”

“True, but I do need something.”

“He was a musician. Good with his hands. I am sure that is enough to inspire considering what you managed with last time.”

“Hey, what is more appropriate for someone who spent her life looking at the stars than a well-designed eye?”

“Fair enough. Delivery?”

“Give me two weeks to make the arrangements. I’m sure a man of your talents will have something new by then.”

“Two weeks. I’ll be here.”

I exited Ink’s shop to let him work. The night’s bitter wind ran a chill down my spine. My new eye still heated my side. I could feel her eyes seeping into my body. The moon and stars shined brighter than they ever had before or perhaps I could simply perceive their magnificence easier with my new sight.  My phone rang while I was admiring the night sky.

“New job? Send me the details and it will be done.”  I hung up and waited for my next instructions to come through. Another job presented another opportunity.

Everyone is special. Everyone has a power in them. And I will have their gifts.

On…Dreams

At what age or point are we supposed to put away childish things and be adults? Sorry for the vagueness of the question; I am sort of writing this as a stream of conscience. Essentially, my question is simply when do we stop pursuing our dreams and start living the lives we have?

Let’s be honest; percentage wise, most people will not achieve their passion’s pursuits. For every one who managed to become an author, there are hundreds of thousands of unread novels and manuscripts. For every actor, there are thousands who are praying for their break. For every musician, there are hundreds of guitars, pianos, and random instruments that go unplayed by their owners. And that are just considering those who manage to etch out a living and life from their dreams. If we just discussed those who actually perform their passions as a livelihood, the numbers go down considerably to a lucky few.

I swear I am not trying to be depressing. I am just trying to be a bit realistic. I mean the world needs painters, musicians, writers, actors, and artists of all kinds. Their creations give life color, sound, and pleasure. What kind of world would we have without them? However, as much as the world desires their gifts, it also needs doctors, teachers, mechanics, plumbers, cooks. etc. Yet, not many people dream of the unflattering professions or the unseen lives. We dream and pray that we may be the lucky few that somehow can create and make something worth remembering.

What is that is not what we are meant to do? And even if we are, how the hell do we go about achieving those lofty ambitions? More importantly, how do we know that we will be fruitful in these endeavors and when to throw in the towel? Unlike other pursuits, there might never be any sign of progress when trying to achieve artistic dreams. What would that sign even be?

This turned out a bit more somber than I had attended, but it is what has been in my head recently. I don’t have any real answers to the questions I posed, hence why I am crowd sourcing some responses here. When, if ever, do we move on from the dreams of our youth and take on the mantel of adulthood?

Lessons From…Mario Bros

Last week’s lesson, which can be found here, revolved around how Journey teaches us the value of the path and not the destination particularly because there is no real final destination. I was considering this further and realized that Journey requires the player to experience the, for lack of a better term, journey because of its lack of clear instructions or goals, but a game that better drives the point of valuing experience has been around for much longer: Mario Bros.

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That’s right! This post is about the lovable, slightly stereotypical, Italian plumbers that virtually every gamer has played. Just to be clear, this post will focus on the pre-N64 era games. If I have to explain what an N64 is, you should probably not be on a computer by yourself so go ask a parent or older sibling. Anyhow, the focus will be on the 2D side scrolling adventures of the titular characters since the basic play system altered with the introduction of three dimensional landscapes. Everyone clear? Cool, let’s get started.

The Mario Games have a pretty basic premise; you are Mario and you have to make it to the end of the level before time runs out without getting killed. Along the way you will face dangerous obstacles and enemies like turtles, mushrooms, pits, spiked blocks, etc. These things will kill you. How? Who knows? The game operates under video game logic so just go with it. After several “worlds” of this weird hallucinogen induced adventure, you have the chance to rescue a princess, for some reason and thus end your journey. However, the one rule that did not change was that you could not go back.

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Seriously, you see where the screen cuts off on the left side? That is the point of no return. The screen moves with you as you continue along and will not let you return to whence you came from. This doesn’t seem too bad in the long run since you have to get to the end of the level before time runs out anyhow, but this also means you might have missed out on some power ups just to get to the end faster. No Mario game best enabled this than Super Mario Bros. 3 with this:

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That is the world traversing Warp Whistle. With it you could transport to a another world/level bypassing dangers and obstacles. It made your path easier to get through and thus easier to complete/finish the game. However, this also means you skip over parts of the game to finish the game you are enjoying and playing faster. I never understood the insane logic of doing something like that, but that is neither here nor there.

Yes, using this in game devices enabled you to rescue the princess faster, but it also avoided the adventure and some rather enjoyable aspects of the universe you were playing in.

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See that? That is the freaking Tanooki Suit. With it you can soar the skies, use your tail to destroy your enemies, and turn to stone. (Again video game logic) There is also a Frog Suit that allowed you to be a God of the Sea without fear of losing breath or energy from the depths of the oceans. These were a few of the magical abilities you could obtain if only you had not blown on the whistle and jumped over them. Was it easy to get these things? No. Were they worth it? Absolutely!

Thus today’s lesson: You have to always keep moving forward (or to the left in this case) and can’t ever really go back after a certain point, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the game for all its worth and try your best to get every possible moment from the path you are taking.

Thus ends the lesson. See you for next week’s session.

 

Three Little Words

Dear XX,

I don’t know why I am writing this since you’ll probably never read it. In fact, I know you’ll won’t because I would never show it to you. Still, you know better than most how I have always had an easier time writing how I feel than expressing it out loud. Some things never change I guess.

I am sitting in the park writing twirling a sugar packet in my fingers. Don’t worry it’s not the same one from that day though to be fair I did keep the quarter in my pocket. What can I say; I’m a mix of packrat and romantic. I still think about that afternoon. It was so unexpected but that spontaneity is what makes it so beautiful. It still astounds me how an entire relationship can be changed by just simply saying something.

 

*  *  *

 

You walked in to the café with your usual mix of confidence and subtlety. Do you know how much the room changes around you when you walk in? I know it sounds crazy, but I swear you somehow manage to command the attention of everyone with each step. You never seem to notice it. I did though. I remember the first time I saw you across the classroom. You wear biting down on the end of your pen with your brow furrowed. I thought you must be a great student if you were focusing so much on the first day of lecture. Of course, you were actually on your phone waiting for concert tickets to go on sale. Even then, you made people notice you without trying. Still that is a memory for another time.

You were wearing that pink and yellow floral dress that hugged your hips just the right way while still swaying back and forth while you walked. Man, that dress. I don’t know if it was the dress or the way you wore it, but there were some thoughts that come about I would be embarrassed to tell my best friends about. You wore your hair differently that day. Instead of the ponytail, you let it fall down past your shoulders. It had a slight shine to it. I liked it. My heart skipped a beat as you sashayed toward me. My heart skipped a beat when you sat down. I lost thought of everything when you grabbed my hand. At that moment, I was lost in you and would have done virtually anything. I knew I was in love. Neither one of us had said it before, but I hoped to gain the courage to do so. I never thought you would beat me to the punch with your own declaration.

It was a pretty standard lunch. One of the many we have had. The waitress came by with the typical niceties and took our order. I went with my usual and ordered a club sandwich. You wanted to try something new and got a spicy pasta dish. You seemed excited at the novelty of your decision. You were all smiles. The topics of museums, art, and new places that had recently opened up were the only things you had in mind. I could feel the energy radiating from your body. I don’t know why you were so excited, but it was contagious and a bit overwhelming.

We hadn’t really managed to talk before our food arrived. We ate in relative silence. Sure, we made sure we were each satisfied with our meals and offered a bite or two to the other. For the most part, we were content to just be next to each other. Our plated disappeared after we had finished our meals. We discussed whether dessert was an option, but we knew better than to actually order anything more.

I could feel the atmosphere change during that dessert chat. I knew I had to tell you how I felt at that moment or I would lose the nerve. I started to speak but you cut me off before I could get a word out.

“Mark.”

“Yeah?”

“I need to tell you something and I want you to listen before saying anything, ok.”

I nodded my head in response. It was unlike you to take charge in such a manner, but you had been acting a bit different then.

“I need to say this now before I get too scared to say it. We’ve been together for some time now and I just feel that…I think, no, I know that this is the right time and the right thing. Mark, we should break up. We are done…”

You kept talking about how we had grown apart and that we were now two different people or that maybe we had always been or something like that. Truth be told, I stopped paying attention after you said “We are done.” They were not the words I wanted to say, hear, or expected, but there they were. They couldn’t be taken back and I doubt you were going to try. We were over.

 

*  *  *

 

Everything else from that day is kind of a blur. I remember paying for the food. I can recall getting up and saying goodbye for the last time. I can still picture you walking away from me.

I suppose looking back that I shouldn’t be too surprised. You were right. We had grown up and grown apart. Whether that was natural progression or lack of our own consideration doesn’t really matter anymore. Still, I needed to write this to you, even though you will never see it, to thank you.

Admittedly, I was a bit of a mess after that day. It took a while for me to get over you and move one, but if I hadn’t I would never have met her. You two are similar but so vastly different. She also finds most of my jokes a bit corny but is willing to laugh at them as long as I pay her the same favor. The first time she came over to my place she also commented on my extensive comic collection, but then she showed me here Wonder Woman tattoo on her…well the placement doesn’t really matter.

The point is I love her and she feels the same way. Somehow in this immense world I found someone who compliments and challenges me and I owe a small bit of this happiness to you. I don’t know where or how you are, but I just wanted to thank you for everything and for saying those three little words.

 

Sincerely,

Mark

On Faith…Sort Of

I have written on the topics of religion and faith to some extent in the past, or more accurately I have written about my own personal experience concerning religion and faith which I still struggle with. Accordingly, I will try not to be too long and bore everyone, but something has been in my head for some time and writers write things out when confuse so here goes.

For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself a Christian. However, others, including those within my own church, would not because of my personal ideologies and beliefs and at times I agree with their assessment. I do not follow a lot of the teachings and tenants of the church and question the systems and edicts touted by those in authority. It has always been in my nature to do so. After all, if I question my teachers on their lessons and they are merely telling me where countries are shouldn’t I also question those who are claiming to speak for God and are instructing me in being a moral person? Well apparently they don’t seem to like that.

Now for all the disagreements I may have with organized religion and ideologies, I still believe in a greater power whom I choose to call God. I don’t know this being’s gender, purpose, will, intent, or decisions, but I choose to believe and feel that there is something beyond the human experience. Still, i recognize that my ignorance of this divinity does not allow me to create whatever rules I want to fill the vacuum and that I should live my life according to basic tenets, like try to do no harm and to do good for others. As well, I recognize that not everyone holds a belief in a deity and that they are not required to. Obviously, this thought process tends to be at odds with most monotheistic religions. Hence my ongoing issues with my particular church.

While I may disagree with some of the tenets of my religion, there is one aspect of it that both interests and terrifies me; the unwavering faith that the devout seem to have. For them, the bible is true and explains everything you need to know about God’s divine plan. There are no errors or misunderstandings as it is the inspired word of God. If somehow someone was able to prove without a shadow of a doubt that God did not exist, they would not waver in their faith. I cannot comprehend how one achieves such a level of belief. I have faith in a higher power, in people, and in the human experience but it changes and adjusts to new information and stimuli. I don’t know whether or not that makes my faith legitimate or illegitimate, but it is the only way I know how to operate.

Religion and faith attempts to answer life’s questions, but I don’t know if I want the answers or if they could even be completely found. How can you know that your answer is correct when there are literally thousands of other answers that also claim legitimacy? More so, why is your answer more valid than someone else’s when their holy book is telling them they are right just like yours? I wish there was some short or quick solution to this constant questioning I have, but alas I have not found it.

I know what I believe and I know what kind of person I want to be and what kind of world I want to help make. I want to be a good person who tries not to harm others and helps create good in various forms. Hopefully this will be enough for now and help me be a better person as I continue to explore and seek answers.

Last note I swear, there is a great ongoing series of videos found here that explores different religions and beliefs without prejudice or agenda.

Lessons From…Journey (The Game)

Joseph Campbell wrote a great book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, in which he describes his theory of the monomyth. I won’t go into great detail here about it, as I already previously have, but suffice to say that a lot of what we understand about narrative structure and story owes some degree to Campbell’s work. This post, however, isn’t about Campbell or “The Hero’s Journey”, at least not directly. It is about the 2012 video game Journey

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I cannot recommend this game enough; really anything done by That Game Company deserves a look and a fan. The game is, essentially, an interactive experience of Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”, hence the name. Because of its independent nature, Journey does not play like a traditional game. There is no final boss battle, and really no battles to speak of. No instructions are given as to your tasks or how to play. No arrows or guide points show you the path to take. There is no dialogue, spoken or written, telling you the narrative of your experience. No exposition, no weapons, and no power ups save a scarf that grows longer when fabric is found in the world.

I know this might seem like some pretentious, artsy game that serves no purpose other than to be some meta narrative up its own ass and to some degree that is kind of true, but where other independent games fall into such a rut, Journey manages to stay above such fray by remembering to be a game. It contains enough similar traits to traditional gaming experience that the player knows just enough to move forward, and the manner in which the story unfolds is compelling and able to keep the player intrigued.

Journey does this by making the player actually experience the world and story through the avatar. The world is breathtakingly rendered and the music perfectly fits every level and scenario to fully immerse its audience. The further the player delves into the game the more the story unfolds which further immerses the player. In essence, the player experiences the full journey of the avatar in a different way than playing Zelda, Grand Theft Auto, or Halo cannot provide.

The best aspect, at least to me, is that it really takes the player in an exploration and experience of “The Hero’s Journey.” Even if you have never read Campbell’s work, you would have a grasp of it after playing the game. As well, much like the circular path described by Campbell, Journey doesn’t have a standard ending. I won’t spoil it for you because I really think you should play it, but the ending is not so much an end as it is an invitation to continue exploring and the story.

And that is really the heart and lesson of the game. There is no real end. There is only the continuing Journey. Whatever obstacles you have faced, fallen to, or overcome are only part of the experience that must keep on.

Thus end’s today’s lesson.