Bagoum Literature Club

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Water in Bloodborne: Oceans Aren't The Way

13 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Essays, Games, Souls

If you look out from Lumenwood Garden on the way to the Fishing Hamlet, on the right you'll see floating islands with "cities" on them. On the left, you'll see a few cities on islands within what seems to be an ocean, overlooked by a shining sun. You can still see the light of the sun as you prepare to exit into the Fishing Hamlet, and as you cross the threshold, it momentarily blinds you, but then... you see only water. The radiant sun is replaced by rainy skies. The cities to your right and left are still there-- only now underwater.

Looking out from Lumenwood Garden

The change of perspective between Lumenwood Garden and the Fishing Hamlet raises the question: how can a city be in open air and underwater at the same time? The snail that mysteriously falls from the sky near the Whirligig Saw in the Hunter's Nightmare suggests that the place is under the Fishing Hamlet, ie, that it's underwater. But that snail was falling, not sinking, and you certainly don't seem to need scuba gear. Perhaps our understanding of water needs some refining...

What is Water?

Great volumes of water serve as a bulwark guarding sleep, and an augur of the eldritch Truth.
-Lake/Sea runes

It seems to me that the traditional interpretation of this phrase has been that it refers to oceans or lakes. But this interpretation is insufficient, because it explains too little. For the most-repeated phrase in all item descriptions, are we really to interact with it only once and weakly at that, when fighting a braindead spider? I think we can do better. Let's attack the problem from another angle.

"The Sky and the Cosmos are One"

For the majority of us who grew up in the Western cultural and literary tradition, the above line seems somewhat redundant. We've generally considered that the gods live on some really big mountain, in the clouds, or just somewhere up there, so it means very little to affirm that the sky and the heavens (or cosmos) are the same.

But there's one thing somewhat unique about the sky in Bloodborne: it's always cloudy (except in Forbidden Woods, where it's foggy instead), and the clouds are generally quite dense. Even if you take the naive ending and wake to the morning sun, there are still clouds. This unnatural universality allows us to better understand the role of clouds: physically, clouds in Bloodborne are always there to separate us from the sky-- or, to the Choir, they are always there to push us away from the cosmos and all the secrets held within. This corresponds to the role that the Lake runes assign to bodies of water. And scientifically speaking, clouds are quite literally "great volumes of water".

Remember the floating islands to the right of Lumenwood Garden, and the waterbound islands to the left? It's a weird asymmetry. But as soon as you consider that clouds are just water, right and left are basically the same, and the otherwise inexplicable asymmetry is resolved. Moonside Lake's "sky" also seems to contain cloudlike structures, notably towards the horizon. If we consider that clouds are the "same thing" as oceans, the contradiction of an underwater sky no longer exists.

Why Clouds?

Now the Lake runes become much more applicable, and the paucity of relevant oceans in the game is no longer an issue to the supposed importance of water, since we have plenty of bulwarky clouds. (Otherwise, Moonside Lake is the only example of an ocean that blocks access to something eldritch.) In the most pertinent example, The Hunter's Nightmare, Fishing Hamlet, Nightmare Frontier, and Nightmare of Mensis are stacked on top of each other, the eldritch truths of the next layer up bulwarked away only by clouds.

If you look out at the moon from the Wet Nurse's Lunarium, you'll notice that it's below the clouds, but also above a different layer of clouds. This is absurd on a scientific level. But with our metaphorical reading, it makes sense to consider that this place is some kind of cosmic eldritch truth beyond which other truths exist, blocked off by great volumes of water in the form of clouds. Thus, the scientific absurdity can be read to reinforce the thematic nature of the level.

You can see clouds moving... above the moon

We look down from Hamlet and see a city underwater, whereas we look up from the Nightmare and see billowing clouds. This initially confounded us, but now we've established that the game's distinction between clouds and oceans is only a facade, that they're the same thing from different perspectives. It's not clear what rules govern this difference in perspective, but it may be related to one of the core themes of the game: the incomprehensibility of the truth.

Wrapping Up

ROSMARIUS

A special weapon used by the Choir, high-ranking members of the Healing Church. Sprays a cloud of sacred mist, created by using blood-imbued Quicksilver Bullets as a special medium.

Arias are heard whenever sacred mist is seen, proving that the mist is a heavenly blessing. "Oh, fair maiden, why is it that you weep?"

Why would mist, of all things, be "sacred" or "a heavenly blessing"? The only other things described as sacred in item descriptions are the Yharnam Stone (for obvious reasons) and Healing Church rituals (in the Loch Shield description, again for obvious reasons), and the only other blessing described is "making contact with eldritch wisdom" (Madman's Knowledge). Why are Quicksilver Bullets and Blood Vials mundane, but heavenly when turned into mist?

Now we know: it's because mist, with its construction so similar to clouds, is too a marker of the divide between us and the eldtrich.

The impact of this perspective is, as just demonstrated, that we can now meaningfully analyze the usage of the other forms of water in Bloodborne. The game has many different skies and many different types of clouds, and I hope that I've been able to lay some groundwork for further investigation of their implications on lore and literary meaning. If I knew anything about cloud types, I would try, but I think I'll leave the nephology to those who are capable :P


Journey: A Hero's Journey With No Hero

06 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Essays, Games

Normally, when one embarks on a hero’s journey, it is done to some societal end. Little surprise, since our perceptions of what is heroic are entirely dependent on our societies and cultures. Become a king. Succeed in the job market. Defeat the Empire. So what happens when there is no society to set the ideals to which budding heroes can aspire, no society to recognize who the heroes are?

This is the situation proposed in Journey, a small game I had the pleasure of playing this week. Your “destiny”, to climb a mountain, is dictated to you by possibly imaginary messengers of a lost civilization, who have left behind nothing but ruins, cryptic glyphs, and industrial machinery.

In another game, you might have the option of walking away from this destiny. You, after all, bear no responsibility to the dead. But Journey forces you to accept this destiny of voyaging to an obsolete holy ground, and then celebrates it.

So why do we accept and celebrate a quest from a lost civilization?

Nature and Industry

To have discussion on how Journey justifies the imperativity of the player’s destiny, we must first begin with an analysis of how it conceives of man and society. Normally, in the hero’s journey, the duality of man is one of good and evil (see my post on the last Star Wars movie for more on this). However, in Journey, we focus more on the duality of nature and industry.

The world of Journey is filled with red cloth, which stands clearly as a metaphor for life (and is coincidentally colored like coursing blood). All the living things you meet in Journey (except the Ancestor) are made of red cloth, and vaguely resemble real-life animals in their sounds and mannerisms.

On one hand, the game shows us that man is, at some level, in touch with this natural state. In the calm temple area, unlocking the glyphs– records of man’s history– raises the water level and revives cloth creatures. As the player, you free and befriend cloth creatures during your quest, while simultaneously serving the wishes of the civilization. To top it off, the mountaintop– the height of your destiny as dictated by the civilization– is the most pure concentration of natural glory in the game.

But man’s societies, as recorded on the great murals and in the ruins of their civilization, ultimately rely on trapping this red cloth and driving powerful machinery, as we first see at the end of the desert level. The robot whales are, as shown towards the end of the game, cloth whales encased in steel– lifeless industry– for the purpose of man’s civilization. The endless search for technological advancement leads to the destruction of nature and the eventual downfall of civilization.

Every Industry is Industrial in its Own Way

Now, here’s the claim we’re going to make: All people commune with nature in the same way, but they deviate from it in different ways. Alternatively, while our societies and cultures will inevitably depend randomly on our artificial technology, they must arise from the same natural origin.

The largest tipoff to this idea is the final mural scene, where two people holding a cloth rip it between them, before the camera scrolls to a depiction of the robot whales and the ruin of civilization. With nature, they are one, but with industry, they are at war.

The “oneness” of natural man is further backed in the game by the depiction of the travellers. You, and whatever collaborators you may find along the way, all don red cloth, in the fashion of the cloth creatures. You all rely on the cloth to recharge your scarf. With the questions of political allegiance and wealth removed, the travellers are really all the same.

The Monomyth

So let’s return to the original question: why do we carry out the wishes of a dead civilization? The answer is…

We don’t.

While the voyage is framed by the ancient civilization, it does not actually concern human society. The quest you carry out is one of communing with nature. When you burst through the clouds to the mountaintop, the two robot whales following you shed their industrial skin and emerge as natural cloth. There is no industry here– only nature. In man’s greatest holy ground we find something primordial, something natural; we find a synthesis of sun and moon, water and ice, life and death, but nothing human.

It does not matter what civilization “designated” this holy ground or this quest. The hero’s journey here exists beyond any conceptions of society or culture; it exists in nature. We do not need the civilization to tell us of the greatness of the mountaintop– it is self-apparent in its natural glory.

Journey here claims that our civilization, our culture, our technology are irrelevant to the glory of the hero’s journey. They may guide or empower us as the white-hoods do in-game, but the mountaintop’s splendor is in no way dependent on them. It only requires the unperturbed beauty of nature, and our willingness to participate in and honor it.

Our celebration at the top of the mountain is utterly devoid of anything human: it is a pure celebration of the world that gave birth to us. This is what makes Journey unique, and what makes it great.

Wrapping Up

For something to be regarded as heroic, there must naturally be a culture that reveres it. But this doesn’t really exist in Journey, since civilization is dead. That’s where the title of this piece comes from: a glorious journey to the peak of what it means to live in this world, but with only a small and unacknowledged traveler.

It took me two playthroughs and a long time to put the beauty of Journey into words, and I hope that I’ve done so well enough. Much like when I played Ori, I felt a work that struck at the very heart of its archetypal story.

I’m still planning a piece on Bloodborne, but it’s difficult to think of a topic that hasn’t been covered. I’ll also be doing a piece on Ori, which I plan to replay this week; it’ll likely look much like this writeup (except not about the hero’s journey!).

Until next time.


Dark Souls 3: Leviathan, or Why “Usurpation of Fire” is the Only Good Ending

31 December, 2017 ~ ElDynamite ~ Essays, Games, Souls

Once I’d finished Dark Souls 3, I wandered around on a few Discords, talking about some of the lore and, in particular, the endings. One common disagreement I had with others was the designation of “good” or “bad” endings, as I often found myself alone in claiming that the Usurpation of Fire ending was the “good” ending. I’ll try here to explain here some of the philosophy that justifies this notion, and also why it rejects the standard ending and the End of Fire ending as “bad”. (I’ll stay away from the secret ending… for now.)

Something is Rotten in the Chaos of Lothric

What is it that makes us human? You may say that it’s the capability for language, and you would be mostly correct. But it’s a bit bigger than that– it’s the use of language to create culture. Without our mythology, our holidays, our history, and all the arbitrary customs and practices founded on them, humans even now are little more than animalistic husks in a world of steel. Now, here is the critical bit that we will borrow from Hobbes’ Leviathan: this culture, these stories, this meaning only exists in the framework of society– that is, where “natural” order has been overthrown.

NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that… the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest…

Where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power… others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain… no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Whether or not you believe that this “natural” order ever existed historically, it’s clear that it exists in DS3: it’s the present. As you wander around Lothric, you come across many humans who are now but mindless husks ready to kill you. Even of those who do retain their senses, several of them will eventually kill you if you do not kill them, including Anri and Horace. Outside of the last remnants of Gwyn’s society, there are no humans with whom you can create culture and knowledge, as you do with the pyromancy teachers once bringing them to Firelink (*DLC discussion in another post).

Fundamentally, the problem is that a lack of security– or alternatively a lack of certainty– prevents both lasting peace between and around people, as well as the cultural products that necessitate peace. We speak often of the Lost Generation– those who, growing up during the ravages of World War 1, lost sight of what it meant to live in society. Thus, whatever our solution may be, it must be one where we offer security, peace, and a serious basis upon which we may create arts, letters, culture.

The King is Dead…

It’s debatable whether or not Gwyn’s government was a “good” one for humans during its prime, but regardless, it definitely is no longer. The Age of Fire, insofar as it represented a society protected and ruled by Gwyn, once could offer security to man against whatever terror lay beyond the gates. But in DS3, the gods are long gone and long forgotten, and the Age of Fire is a society in name only, not effect. By extending the Age of Fire, you are effectively doing nothing with regards to the Hobbesian question: man’s life is uncertain both before and after your useless deed, and man will continue to suffer, without culture and without meaning.

No Man's Land

It’s easy to see what the political parallels are that make the End of Fire ending “good”: a yoke of historical repression, then a gentle overthrow and a possibility for a new future. But is this really what’s happening?

In DS3, unlike in most literature, there is only one minor “city” (as in, a society of nonhostile people), both in gameplay and in story, and the rest of the world is out to kill you. What this ending does, then, is destroy the very last city, Firelink Shrine, which only exists as a fragment of Gwyn’s society. There is no promise for a rebuilt society, no promise of security, no promise of certainty. The life of any human is still in severe danger from war against other humans and the lingering terrors of the Dark Souls world. Nobody in the DS3 world has created a bastion of lasting security for humans (DS2 takes a very different perspective on this).

Framed against the final ending, you can read this ending a bit more poignantly: You had the chance to use the remnants of the old orders to establish a new one. But instead, you chose to remove the last crutch of human safety in the world.

The Lord of Hollows

Nobody has created a bastion of lasting security except, of course, the Sable Church of Londor. It may not be the most savory or democratic organization, but it nonetheless offers “salvation for Hollows” (Black Dress). And while it is small and limited, it has already begun to spin its own culture: “tales that portray the suffering and conflict of Hollows” (Dark Blade). The Sable Church is the only group of humans in this world which can be said to have created a meaningful society (*DLC discussion in another post).

Why, then, must you wrest the flame from its mantle? Why can you not just let it die, as Kaathe wished in DS1? What is the Sable Church looking for in the flame and in you?

Power.

In order to create a great society, you need power. Regardless of whether your enemies are other societies,the Dark Souls world, or civil unrest, you need authority to establish society and guarantee peace. For the Sable Church to become the society of all Hollows and truly free them from Gwyn’s legacy, it follows that they should expropriate the flame which is simultaneously the power necessary to do so and the last remnant of the gods.

Is this not what the anonymous Hollow is referencing when he pleads for you to “make Londor whole” (or in the Japanese, “guide Londor”)? You have taken responsibility for the full establishment of a new order. You are the sovereign. Through your authority and guidance, rule of law can and will be established across the world, and the nascent culture of the Sable Church may expand and flourish. You are Prometheus. By bringing to man the flame of the gods, you have enabled human civilization and human progress. By unifying man with the power of the gods, you have made man divine, even in a post-religious world.

Furthermore, this ending is the only one which solves the existential problem of the end of society. Trivially, if we are to feel secure in a society, we must be confident that it will not end any time soon. But if we think on cultural terms, we must nevertheless fear the ultimate end of society– not a transition from Fourth Republic to Fifth Republic, but a reversion to that primordial state of nature where our cultural products will be little more than firewood. This problem is stamped all over Endings 1 and 2: the flame will soon fade regardless of whether you kindle it, as will the legacies of the gods, and whatever is made in the Age of Dark will be destroyed by the return of fire. But when light and dark are unified under the empire on which the sun never sets, we have only to fear the end of the world itself.

Long live the King.

Wrapping Up

You may notice that I switch freely between the designation “hollow” and “human” in this writeup. Lorewise, Hollows are derived from humans, and Yuria refers to them as the true form of man. With regards to real-world comparisons, the game makes it clear that language and will, which are all that is fundamentally required to create a real-world human society and culture, are characteristics that Hollows share. Being hollowed doesn’t necessitate mindlessly wandering around and attacking people (just look at Yuria!), so we must recognize that a Hollow society is fully valid as a literary expression of real-world human society.

I think we must generally be careful not to project our own politics onto the politics of fictional worlds. I feel that people generally read the second ending with a parallel to something like a province declaring independence from a decrepit empire, but fail to recognize that the societal structures that validate the province do not exist in the Souls world. Society is so fundamental to how we think that we may find it hard to imagine its absence– but once you do, the world of Souls becomes that much more terrifying.

I’ve had these thoughts scribbled around for a while, and I enjoyed compiling them and structuring them like this. I wanted to discuss the way the two DLCs also play into this dynamic, but that would make this piece too long, so I’ll save it for another one.

I plan to write a piece about Bloodborne soon, since I recently finished that game. I’m a bit late to do lore analysis, but I’d like to look at real-world moral implications, just like in this post. It’ll be interesting, given how exquisitely they mutilate the hero’s journey.

Until next time.


Order and Redemption in The Last Jedi: A Failure of Climax

26 December, 2017 ~ ElDynamite ~ Essays, Movies

I really liked The Last Jedi. Past tense. I liked it before it got to the climax. Now, the more I think about it, the less I’m able to accept the thematic development of the story.

The film is quite large in scope, and so I’m not going to try to discuss all the themes encompassed. Instead, I’ll focus on two: letting go of “old orders” (structures of power and culture that are no longer relevant), and redemption as a part of the hero’s journey. These are critical to the Rey/Kylo story arc, which is my main bone with the story.

Mayan Calendars

Rey’s pervasive character flaw is that she seeks an emotional anchor in the old orders, these being her parents, the Jedi, and… a natural extension that we’ll make later on. She begins the movie desperately chasing after the knowledge of the Jedi, as well as, once tempted by the darkness within the island, knowledge of her parents. Rey is eventually forced to acknowledge that she’s “nothing”– that her parents are a meaningless construct that she cannot hold to– and that the Jedi are not going to be her saviors. (In a way, Luke also must come to terms with the end of the “old order” of the Jedi. It is not until the very symbols of that order– the holy texts– are destroyed that he resolves to step into the future and serve his duty.) Here, we are presented with order as something that must eventually be abandoned or remade for the sake of advancement. Rey is nothing, but she can become something; the Jedi will not help her, but Rey can go on without them.

Ludwig, the Accursed and Holy Blade

The other major theme that runs through the movie, and more specifically the Rey/Kylo arc, is the belief that man is capable of forging his own destiny. This idea is not new– it was pervasive in Greco-Roman thought, then brought back during the Renaissance, and is at the moment fairly foundational to anything resembling a hero story in Western literature. The hero must be capable of both failing and succeeding, and it is his decisions and his will that determine where he goes. It is up to man to determine where he shall stand on the divine ladder, between the beasts and the angels.

The movie mainly frames this idea through the possibility of Kylo Ren’s redemption. Sure, he was betrayed by Luke; sure, he did a lot of bad things, but he is not forsaken yet. There is still conflict within him– there is still good within him. Rey spends much of her time with Luke trying to convince him that Kylo does not need to be signed off to the dark side, and the writers worked desperately to humanize Kylo by depicting a fairly tragic backstory and putting him in very personal human contact with Rey. While I found the specifics of this mental contact somewhat awkward, it nonetheless serves to very distinctly point out that Kylo is still on his hero’s journey, just like Rey. This stands even after Snoke gloats about how this conflict was his work, since at the end of the day, part of the hero’s journey is defying and destroying arrogant power structures.

If you need any more convincing that Kylo could be redemeed, go back and watch Return of the Jedi.

U-Turn Climax

As the climax of the film approached on the side of Rey and Kylo, I was mainly concerned with how it would address these two themes:

  1. We are capable of defining our own destinies. Specifically, Kylo Ren can be redeemed.
  2. We cannot hold too tightly to the old order. Specifically, Rey must be willing to let go of her attachments to the old orders (parentage, Jedi, and…).

Thus, when Kylo killed Snoke, I was entirely sure that it would serve as his redemption. This was not Caesar crossing the Rubicon, pitting his massive army against that of his rival for political advantage. This was not a quiet coup of an unpopular Dong Zhuo. This was a lone man committing high treason in a room full of elite soldiers, Oedipus stabbing out his eyes and throwing away his stature as penance for his misdeeds. This was principle. This was humanity. This was the bond between Kylo and Rey, as two fellow heroes capable of becoming divine or becoming beastly.

After the fight scene, Kylo, having done everything possible to qualify as redeemed, makes Rey an offer. Let us toss away the antagonisms of the past. Let us abandon the First Order, the Jedi, the rebels. Let us use this massive machinery to create a new world, one in which we will be respected instead of treated like garbage.

Rey’s response is… “Don’t do this.”

Oedipus Sieges Colonus

The only way to understand Rey’s rejection of Kylo’s offer is as a mistake, because everything points to Kylo having redeemed himself (including the extremely powerful parallel to the ending of Return of the Jedi), and there’s no real reason to doubt his intentions in making the offer (he even says that the First Order is worthless!). Recall the last time someone unfairly doubted Kylo’s motives? Luke’s fear that Kylo was “unsaveable” was what ultimately led to Kylo turning to the dark in the first place.

I mentioned earlier that there is one more “old order” to which Rey is too attached. That would be the rebel army. The rebel army is tiny (smaller than the size of one CS course at my university), and has no friends anywhere in the universe outside of Luke and some eight-year-olds, made clear when approximately nobody answers their distress call. If there is anything that should be sacrificed in order to create a new world, this is it. Holding too tightly to your friends over the greater cause is cowardice– as exemplified by Finn’s story in the previous movie as well as in the beginning of TLJ– so the natural resolution to this scene is that Rey lets go of her attachments and becomes a tried hero. Kylo explicitly tells her to abandon her obsession with her parents, the Jedi, and the rebels– acquiescing would be the natural completion of her journey, which up to this point has entirely focused on her inability to do so.

But the movie doesn’t treat it this way. The resolution of the climax is ultimately that Kylo is and always will be a petulant kid, that his redemption was a sham, and that the rebels, now with even fewer numbers, will be a shining beacon of hope for time everlasting. Here is Kylo, facing the trials and coming out a changed man, and here is Rey, facing her flaws but failing to acknowledge them. We are very clearly told by the movie that after this moment, Kylo is evil and Rey is a great hero, now decked out with befitting Jedi powers. How did this happen?

It seems to me that the Star Wars universe, perhaps, is too obsessed with the designation of “First Order = EVIL”. Thus, since Kylo’s offer necessitates utilizing the machinery of the First Order, it must necessarily, by the movie’s logic, be evil, even if it abandons the ideals of the First Order. In other words, the only good society is one made of 400 people on some ships with three days’ worth of fuel. Thus, we can cheaply toss away Kylo’s redemption by stamping it as evil, and we can ignore everything about Rey’s stagnated character development by obscuring them with Jedi powers and scenes of Kylo being a petulant kid, which come in unproportional droves after the climax.

Wrapping Up

The climax fails to carry out the two main themes of the Rey/Kylo story arc, those being Kylo’s redeemability and Rey’s dependence on old order. It claims that neither of these are as important as the few hundred or so rebels fleeing to the salt planet, and that we must (given Rey’s flaw, ironically) reject any resolution to this conflict not dependent on the rebel order. This incongruence with all the events leading up to the climax and the hero’s journey structures throws the thematic structure of the Rey/Kylo arc into disarray, and hurts the film as a result.