The Cultural Gutter

dumpster diving of the brain

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde


James Schellenberg
Posted September 27, 2012

In which I take a rambling walk through some recent semi-connected pop culture items, starting with a videogame reboot that’s actually worth playing, moving on to nostalgia for a nostalgia-based movie, and ending with a look at child actors, in reality and in novel form.

The Paranoid Style in American Videogames

This is fun: Black Mesa, a complete reboot/re-imagining of Half-Life, is finally out. See the Wertzone for some details about it. Valve’s famous game came out in a much different era, the late 90s, so the graphical upgrades are much needed. And with such a fun original to build on, with a polish here and there, it’s almost like it couldn’t go wrong. In fact, I enjoyed it the experience immensely… with one or two relatively large caveats.

In some ways, Black Mesa feels like an orphan in space and time: games that are conceived and executed more recently are simultaneously too polished and too easy, and Black Mesa felt really rough on the player. On one hand, I liked the expansiveness of the gameplay, but the lack of signposting (or, less kindly, hand-holding) was a bit of a revelation. I mean, I used to play this kind of what-the-hell-is-going-on gameplay all the time, with all of the accompanying it-took-me-five-hours-to-get-out-of-this-sewer experiences that came with it. I admit it, after confronting yet another jumping puzzle across vats of radioactive waste and giant stirring paddles that were going to knock me into the green goo, I broke out the cheat codes and no-clipped right across the room (at least the game is old school enough to keep the cheat codes in place!).

No one has ever claimed a great amount of originality for the Half-Life storyline – scientists do some wacky experiments, experiments get out of control, aliens/zombies invade, military comes in for a scorched-earth cover-up. But it’s really effective as a videogame narrative, and it was particularly ground-breaking at the time for its paradoxical combination of sparseness and immersiveness. Valve has talked about Stephen King’s “The Mist” as a big influence, and that’s about right – yup, the horror tropes of helplessness and nihilism don’t quite survive the conversion into an action shooter where the protagonist can blow the shit out his existential dilemmas, i.e. the vast impersonal forces of society and the universe as embodied by out-of-control beasties. But that’s ok! Not many games have even gotten as far into narrative coherence as Half-Life, and Black Mesa makes good use of that.

King as a Central Pop Culture Figure

That brings me around to Stephen King. I’m still hoping to catch up on some of his recent books since he seems to be on a tear, again (both 11/22/63 and The Wind Through the Keyhole look more promising to me than Under the Dome). I recently rewatched Stand By Me, so I’ve been thinking about the role of King’s work in pop culture. I mean, there are a ton of flaws in King’s body of work (complete with not one or two, but three pretty obvious magical negroes), but he’s a canny observer of modern life (again, saturated by American/nostalgic/white/boys’ life) and a better writer than most give him credit for. I took a look at his book On Writing here on the Gutter and came away fairly impressed.

I would argue that Stand By Me (and the novella “The Body” that it’s based on) is the purest non-horror distillation of Stephen King, i.e. small-town life, growing up, not-so-nice realizations about life, and tons of pop culture references. If you want the aforementioned beasties, you can find lots of those elsewhere in his work. The movie version in particular is driven by four really solid performances. I would recommend watching parts one and two of this interview/retrospective with Wil Wheaton – one of the more revealing things that Wheaton mentions is that he and his three castmates were picked based on how close they were to the characters in real life. I dunno, I’m sure this is how lots of actors are cast in movies, but in this case, it seems like it’s an indication of the importance of “ordinary life” in the full spectrum of King’s works (books or movies), from the close-to-reality to the mostly far-out.

Wheaton and Child Actors

This brings me around to child actors. I just finished reading a book by Walter Jon Williams called The Fourth Wall. I reviewed the first book in this particular series, This is Not a Game, favourably here on the Gutter earlier this year, and have continued reading the series, even though the second book, Deep State, was not that good. The third book switches it up by focusing on a different protagonist, in this case a former child actor desperate to get back into the business. I highly recommend the book.

Along those lines, it’s fascinating to observe Wheaton’s post-child-actor-era career. He’s a super-busy guy, and seems pretty fulfilled (in my admittedly surface judgment), but a lot of the stuff he’s doing doesn’t have the same saturated-in-pop-culture effect. Of course, all that means is that he’s found his niche. Again, that sounds like a bad thing, but I don’t mean it that way at all.

As an example of what I’m talking about, take a look at this. Wheaton has been hosting a boardgame channel on Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry – it’s called TableTop (of course) and heads as deep into super-nerdery as possible by getting Wheaton’s sci-fi buddies to play boardgames with him. I enjoy watching week-to-week, even for boardgames that I don’t know myself. And then I saw this: Geek & Sundry + Target = <3. You can now buy boardgames at Target (presumably ones that Target wouldn’t carry otherwise, but that’s not clear to me from the article) with an “As Seen on Geek & Sundry” label on it! I don’t know about you, but that feels like a victory no matter which way you look at it. Keep up the good work Wheaton!


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