The Best Stories Include People

We all love a good story. I’ve thought about the story of my life. I’ll be honest I’m not sure if it is a good one or not. It probably isn’t a very interesting one if you lay it beside another person’s life, but it’s mine.

I’ve thought about the story of my life and the moments that have shaped it the most. In that I’ve realized that the most significant moments have involved other people. That’s not profound or anything like that, but it can be a difficult thing to communicate.

How do you talk about the times people have hurt you when they are people you love or are close to? I read enough blogs to know that at some point when you gain followers/detractors you also gain people who start to think they know you. This “knowledge” is often incomplete even when they have a number of posts and thoughts to interact with and try to piece together. How much more incomplete is it of those we include in our stories?

Is it possible to tell of the pain others have caused us without making them a villain? Is it possible to speak of those who have poured life into us without presenting them as having no faults? I think there is, but I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to try. Plus I think the danger of presenting them as a villain is more of a danger than presenting them as having no faults. At least from a relational standpoint.

You may wonder why I’m thinking about this. It’s simple. I’ve thought about telling some of the stories that have shaped me and the faith that I have, but they involve other people. So I don’t want to tell them because I don’t want to misrepresent and I don’t want to hurt. Which is kind of funny in a way because some of the most harmful times I can think of, at least involving those close to me, have actually helped me more than they’ve left scars or made me bitter. Maybe not helped me attain occupational or monetary success, but helped me figure out how I wanted to approach life, faith, and everything out there.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot and just wanted to put in into words. How do you go about telling stories about times you’ve been hurt or healed (be it in conversations, writing, or some other way)? I’d be curious to hear how

Barriers to Examining the Themes of Video Games

It is interesting to look at how people handle various types of media. Books and movies are often examined for themes and meanings that flow out of or perhaps even transcend the works themselves. Of course not all books or movies set out to do this, and there are movies and books out there for little purpose besides a few laughs and entertainment. However, it is recognized more readily in movies and books when they do contain engaging themes that can be thought of outside of the media. As you move to music and TV there seems to be less of this. There are definitely themes present within the works, but the exploration of these themes doesn’t seem to be as pronounced as for movies or books. Perhaps it is the subjective quality of music and the fact that it can be very hard to extract meaning from music unless you know what the songwriter is referring to. With TV, well I think this comes down to the fact that most TV isn’t really well thought out. Often there is a set beginning, but no set ending and I think it makes major themes a hard thing to maintain. Some do it, but it seems to me that they are few and far between.

Then we have video games. It seems to me that video games are treated in an entirely different way, at least by those who do not already enjoy video games. What I mean by this is that you don’t have to be a movie enthusiast to think about or discuss a theme from a movie. With video games it seems that you have to be someone very dedicated to the medium to really look at and pull themes and meaning out of it. Now admittedly I think there are reasons for this, both inside the medium itself and outside it. I want to take a look at these before I actually try to tackle some games and the themes present in them.

A Divide Between Gameplay and Story

Before simply focusing on the unfair portrayals of video games from those outside and creating some sort of victim complex, I think it is best to look inside the medium first. Perhaps some of us remember playing some of the early video games. If your first system was an Atari 2600 maybe you remember games like Space Invaders, Defender, Pac-Man, and Missile Command these games didn’t really have much of a story. They were almost purely gameplay, story is not an issue at all. We don’t find ourselves asking why the aliens are invading or what Pac-Man’s motivation for eating pellets and avoiding ghosts are. We simply play the game and as was the case with many Atari games you played to try to reach a high score. There are still games like this today. One could argue that the Mario games from Nintendo are still like that. Even though there is a story it is mostly there for background and setting, but most of the game is about the gameplay itself. However, games like Peggle, Bejeweled, Tetris, Farmville, Madden, Rock Band, and most games that deal with competitive online play are still in this boat. To sum all of this up, games started out with little to no story and there are still games that have little to no story, these games are usually not able to be looked at for any sort of messages or themes.

Then you have the games where the gameplay can hurt the integrity of the story. Perhaps one of the more well known examples of this is Grand Theft Auto IV made by Rockstar Games.  The game centers around an immigrant from Eastern Europe named Niko Bellic who comes to America searching for the American Dream. He wants to escape his past life of violence and also find out who betrayed his military unit in the past. However what Niko finds is simply more violence, corruption, and the inability to escape a life of crime.

However, while that story is there, the gameplay allows you to have a certain degree of free reign. Basically it allows you to do things that the main character of the story probably wouldn’t do. This creates a disconnect and can make the game seem more about wanton killing and destruction more than a coherent life of crime drama/satire. This affects the story because you lose that cohesiveness, but it can also effect the perception of the game. If there is a story and purpose the deeds done even if they are evil, it can be reflected upon, think a movie like The Godfather for example. However, when you have deeds outside of any context well it could result in trouble with public perception.

Even if there isn’t a gap like this, gameplay and story still have a divide. It may be having to play a level, doing a list of boring tasks, or getting past a major battle before you can actually continue on the story. Admittedly this is part of the fun of video games, but also can be frustrating as you want to continue the story but are unable to without a lot of work or a certain level of skill. I’m not sure if this problem will ever completely go away, but it may not have to. It is something that we have to recognize.

Not Just for Kids

This is probably the biggest misconception about video games out there. Just the other day I saw a video posted by someone that was on Fox News. It was talking about games that were socially conscious and how this one guy thought that these games were trying to indoctrinate children into being liberals. The guy’s biggest misconception, and there were many in that segment, was that video games were just for kids. It seemed inconceivable to the guy that maybe adults would play these games to explore games focused on global management or city building.

However, this seems to be a lot of what goes behind the rhetoric against violence in video games or sexuality in video games. It is the idea that only kids are going to be playing the game so having these things in it are bad. Admittedly it doesn’t help when sometimes the video game companies market M rated games to kids… but that’s a different topic.

I think this mentality hinders us from actually looking at the themes and messages present in the games with stories be they mature or even for younger kids as well. If we look down on video games and adults who play them, because we think they are only a kid’s toy, then we’re going to be alienating a large segment of our population. Not to say that making your life all about video games is healthy and right, because it’s not. Granted one could say the same for sports (played or watched), television, movies even reading if we’re wanting to be fully honest.

As video games continue to develop and include more thought provoking ideas and themes, they’re going to have to be engaged. My main focus would be in the Christian sphere, but I would argue not just there. While the problem within video games that I highlighted may not go away, our misconceptions about them can. It may take time and effort, but I think we can do it.

Final Thoughts on Big Fish

A couple of weeks ago Kristen and I watched Big Fish for the first time. What was so interesting about this movie is that it seemed to be running parallel to a few themes that have been being discussed in other areas of my life. Before we get into those it is perhaps best to give some basic details about the movie.

Big Fish was released in 2003 and is PG-13. It was directed by Tim Burton, which is relevant simply because Burton tends to have a style that is his own and marks each of the works that he directs. The story focuses on the life of Edward Bloom as his son William Bloom tries to understand his father and mend their relationship due to Edward being on his deathbed.

The reason for the disconnect between father and son is due to Edward’s tales that he has told all throughout Will’s life. It seems that this is partly due to the fact that William thinks all of his father’s tales are complete fabrications and also because of the fact that major events in Will’s life tend to be overshadowed by his father’s ability to tell stories.

The bulk of the movie is simply watching the stories that Edward tells about his life growing up. This is occasionally interrupted by returning to the present with William trying to get his father to be honest with him and trying to figure out more about his dad’s real life as opposed to life in his stories.

This is the basic overview of the movie. What are some of the major themes of the movie? The most obvious is probably the idea of reconciliation between father and son. Honestly though, this theme does not seem to be alone or even able to be taken alone. This theme of reconciliation is constantly interacting with the theme of living a story. If you haven’t watched the movie, there may be some spoilers ahead so if you haven’t seen the movie you may either be a little lost or have the movie spoiled for you.

The reason why you can’t separate the reconciliation theme from the story theme is because in some ways the story theme is what causes the need for reconciliation. The story theme is presented in two different lights a positive one and a negative one. The positive light is that just because we can’t believe a story doesn’t mean that it isn’t at least partly true. The problem that William had with his father’s stories was that he didn’t believe that they were true at all. He thought they were just well told lies that made for good party entertainment and made his dad feel important. As the movie goes on though, William finds out that there are parts of the stories that are true. Even at the end of the movie you are left not knowing exactly how much of the stories were true, even though we are given some clues as to certain parts that were false.

We should be able to relate with this. I think as we grow up we’re expected to lose our imagination and our idea that there is something more to this world than just provable facts. Looking at this from a Christian perspective, how many of us really believe that God has worked in this world in the past and that is is able to and does work today? Do we toss out a practical notion of the supernatural or even of God’s presence and speaking into our lives because it sounds too fanciful? Personally I’ve found that it is all to easy to do that, particularly in a world that tends to value what can be proven over what is beyond explanation.

Big Fish offers a challenge to this mindset by asking if a story is false simply because it is too hard to believe. It leaves us with a mixed answer, saying that all of the details and flourishes may not always be true, but leaves us wondering how much is true, because clearly some parts are true. One example from the movie is that while in the Korean war on a dangerous mission Edward meets two Korean twins who help him escape back to the US and come along with him. In the story version these two are presented as conjoined twins, but at the end of the movie they are seen at Edward’s funeral as simply identical twins. How much of the rest of the story was true? We aren’t told, but it chips away at the belief that this amazing tale couldn’t be true.

Not all is a positive view of story though. Part of William’s distance from his dad was the belief that the stories were false, but there was another part to the distance and perhaps a bigger cause of the problem. When we’re engaged in grand stories, we can sometimes neglect those closest to us. William grew up not knowing his dad very well because he was always somewhere else having a grand adventure. Then when he was around he spent the time telling those stories. The problem was the stories never really included William except as a minor detail, this is exemplified in the story about what Edward was doing the day that William was born. William’s birth was merely intro for a story that had little to do with William, but was about how Edward caught an uncatchable fish.

Living big stories may be great and lead to an exciting life, but how does it leave those characters in our life that should be playing a major role? Are they simply background detail or are we making a story that involves those closest to us? Would William have been able to believe and trust his father more had he been part of his story? There is no way to tell for certain, but the movie does show that there was a void and a distance created because of the fact that William did not know his father intimately in experience and doubted the stories about his father that he did hear.

Do we do the same? Do we pursue our stories at the expense of those who should be closest to us or do we have to involve those closest to us in the stories that we are living? Perhaps an even scarier and more difficult question is are we only able to live big stories if we’re willing to leave those closest to us behind? I wish I had definitive answers for these questions, but I’m not sure I do. It seems to me that we are to keep our families involved in our lives, but that at the same time we can’t let that hinder us from the stories that God leads us on in our lives. That may look vastly different from person to person, but I think that’s as much as I can say.

So while the reconciliation theme is there, it is more of a vehicle for the theme of story. It is perhaps the way in which we see the downside to this great story of Edward’s life. He may be known by many, but one who should be so close to him doesn’t feel like he knows him much at all until the very end. I think that if you miss the theme of story than the reconciliation theme could feel a bit cliche or forced.

I’m not sure if you’d call it a theme, but there was another aspect of the movie I found. The motivation for Edward’s great story was that he had no fear of death. This is explained by the fact that he was able to see his death in the magical eye of a witch when he was young. Much like the other stories we have no idea if this is true in the slightest, but it does raise an interesting point. Is the reason why we do not live bold lives due to fear? Maybe not fear of death but fear of anything. Sadly, I’d probably say fear is a bigger factor in my life than I’d like to admit. Fear of rejection, of bothering other people, or of being disliked do hinder me from doing all that I think of or even simply showing all of who I am to people. It was interesting though that the removal of fear of death was given as the reason that Edward was able to press on beyond what most people would.

So these were the themes that I personally found and thought were good to interact with in the movie. The idea that just because a story sounds fantastic doesn’t always mean that it is false, that living great stories can come at a high price, and that our fears can keep us from attempting to live better stories with our own lives. Good themes to think on and an enjoyable film to watch as well.