Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ocarina of Time: Preliminary Findings: Platypus Nostalgia

About a month back, I wrote about a conversation I had with one of my students about the perfect video game.  That conversation sent me back to the old SNES and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  Feeling it only fair to consider its equally monumental successor, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, I've been working my way through that N64 classic over the past few months.  Since I'm busy and in no particular hurry to finish, progress remains slow.  Still, I think I've made it far enough to begin making some some preliminary comments.

Ocarina of Time is giant leap ahead of A Link to the Past in graphics, game play, expansiveness of the world, and story.  The attention to beauty and creating a sense of wonder was noted by gamers almost immediately.  It was a big deal back then to be able watch a sunrise over an imagined world.  The technology was not quite up to snuff with the designers' artistic vision, however, and there are distinct points where the creative effect suffers (the flatness of details such as the bones in the cemetery and the objects in the scientist's hut).  The only true creative failure are the three Great Fairies (who inexplicably appear in Majora's Mask).  Everything else is suffused with an imaginative wonder that excites exploration for the mere pleasure of experiencing each of the environments.  My personal vote for the most successful of these are the Forest Temple, the battle with Shadow Link in the Water Temple, and Gerudo Valley.

In terms of gameplay, the move into a three dimensional environment enhances the immersiveness of the experience.  It also allows for more complex puzzles and challenges.  The downside is that it presents more opportunities for artistic failure as all objects had to be made from simple painted polygons.  Unrealistic collisions and overlapping of interacting elements and characters also tend to throw the player out of the world of the game on a regular, though infrequent basis.

The sheer expansiveness of the world is a welcome improvement over A Link to the Past.  Hyrule has always been a world in miniature, but that often leaves the player wishing that their was a little more of it.  The expansiveness of Ocarina of Time and its successors does come at a price.  With more world to cover comes the need of more content to fill it.  This leads rapidly to the proliferation of side quests.  Some players like this, some players don't.  I've heard people split over the number and difficulty of side quests in Ocarina of Time.  I've only heard negative comments about the same aspect of Majora's Mask.

Finally, there's the question of story.  The fuller world of Ocarina of Time allows for a greater amount of story telling.  Quantity doesn't always equal quality, though, and there is always the question of how much "story" a light, all-ages, entertainment like The Legend of Zelda can bare.  Since I haven't finished my re-play of the game, I'll hold off commenting further on this aspect right now.

So where does that leave us?  The jury's still out to lunch I'm afraid.  Ocarina of Time dares more than A Link to the Past, but I'm still not sure if it delivers on all its promises.  We'll see how it goes.  I'll be sure to let you know what I think once I finish.           

Friday, September 13, 2013

Platypus Treasure: Strange Platypus(es)

Do you remember being a child?  Do you remember making some new discovery and rushing with it to the nearest adult you could find?  You tried to make them see how absolutely astounding it was but the words wouldn't come.  Maybe they smiled at you.  Maybe you got a pat on the head.  Maybe you were just ignored.  It happens again as you get older.  Think of your teenage self: a whirlwind of confusion.  Expectations are everywhere; desires, longings.  Once again, you try to tell someone but the words won't come.  You're laughed at -ignored.  The moment passes.  The thing slips away and is lost.  Perhaps you experienced this in college.  You had a better command of words now, it was just a matter of finding the right ones and putting them into the right form.  Words slipped, caught, and broke, falling through your fingers and with them the thought, the discovery.  Then career came with the whirl of adult responsibilities.  Discoveries were limited to one's field and had to be articulated in clear, company prose or they became worthless, outdated, overhead, waste.  The words got the better of you and slipped away.

I found something once, and I didn't have the words for it.  I tried to show it to others but they laughed, grew bored, and turned it into a cliche.  It was my fault.  I couldn't find the right way to say it.  I didn't have the words to help them see.  So I keep searching, keep looking, keep struggling, to find just the right turn of phrase, the right form.  It's been years, but I don't doubt my discovery.  I doubt myself.  

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Homer and the Hobbit: The Platypus Reads Part CCXLV

I've been reading The Hobbit since I was in fifth grade and it's the first book that really sparked my life-long interest in reading.  Along the way, I've also developed a love of Ancient Greek literature and I am currently in the middle of a book on Homer's Odyssey.  With the upcoming installment of  Peter Jackson's Hobbit on the horizon, I also decided to go back and read The Hobbit.  This brought about and interesting intersection of my two literary loves, Greece and Middle Earth, and I have started seeing The Hobbit with new eyes.

Before Tolkien studied Anglo-Saxon, he was a Classics scholar.  The official change came about during his sophomore year of college.  Early influences are, however, hard to shake, and I believe that there may be quite a bit of to hellenon hiding out under the anglo-nordic surface of Tolkien's first great tale.  Let's take a brief look at some of the key scenes of The Hobbit and see how they match up with Greek myth.

First, there's those three pesky trolls.  Trolls are quite properly nordic, but look at the episode they appear in.  The dwarves are weary and miserable and seeing evidence of a fire they send Bilbo ahead in hopes of gaining shelter and provisions.  When Bilbo is discovered and caught, the rest of Thorin's followers go looking for him and are each taken captive in turn.  It then falls to Thorin to save his companions from being eaten and he pulls a great log out of the fire and puts out one of the troll's eyes.  Of course, the other two then tackle him and it is only the clever intervention of Gandalf that saves the day.  Can you see the underlying episode yet?  It's Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops.  Lost and weary, Odysseus and his men come to a strange coast where they can see smoke rising from fires.  Hoping for a gift of food and provisions, Odysseus and a search party set ashore.  They are captured by Polyphemus, who makes a supper of some of the men.  Odysseus retaliates by blinding the Cyclops and then uses a clever ruse to orchestrate his men's escape.  Tolkien has modified the original by adding two more flesh-eating giants, thus nullifying Thorin's Odyssian eye-jab and requiring the intervention of the wizard to save the day.

Interested yet?  Notice that Smaug's cave repeats the Cyclopes motif with greater concurrence and divergence.  Bibo encounters the dragon with Odyssian riddling being careful, like Odysseus, to guard his true name under a pseudonym.  After the enraged dragon pummels the mountain, the dwarves are trapped in the "cave" this time with stones blocking the entrance that they cannot move.  In the original draft of The Hobbit, Bilbo was supposed to stab the dragon himself (Corey Olsen points out that this is still vestigially present in Smaug's dream) as a sort of Sigurd-Odysseus figure.  Wisely going for something a bit more plausible, Tolkien changed the encounter in the final draft and gives the victory to Bard, allowing the dwarves to simply walk out of the cave by the intact front door.  There is still a little Homeric nod in Bilbo and the dwarves final resolution to leave the dark tunnel so that they may at least die in the light mirroring Aias' request in The Iliad that Zeus let the light shine on them before they die -one of Lewis' favorite quotes.

Looking elsewhere at the original draft discovers another echo of Greek myth.  Bilbo describes himself to Smaug as the "clue-finder" which Corey Olson points out is a reference to the first draft of the book where Bilbo follows a "clue" of spider thread to the Spider's lair.  Our use of the word "clue" goes back to the legend of Theseus and the Labyrinth where the hero must use a clue, or ball of thread, to find his way out after killing the minotaur.

As a final icing on the cake, after his Odyssian adventures Bilbo returns to reclaim his home from a host of neighbors who are in the process of pillaging it.  Bilbo is too bourgeois and too English to engage in an Odyssian killing spree, but he does have a bit of doing to reclaim his house.  In the parallel scene in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, however, there is a violent struggle to reclaim the shire from the ruffians who have occupied and despoiled it.

So there you have it: Greek echoes in Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I'm convinced that more can be found on examining The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  For instance, has anyone looked at Elendil as and Aeneas figure?  However, I'll save those parallels for another time.  For now, its sufficient to remember that Tolkien was a truly learned man with wide-ranging interests.  These interests seem, by author's intent or the leaf-mold of the mind, to have each found their place in Tolkien's legendarium.  Much attention has been payed to the obvious Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, and Nordic elements.  Maybe it's time for a more careful consideration of the Classical elements as well.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Rocketeer: Film Platypus

Do you remember this one?  It had Timothy Dalton and Jennifer Connelly -you know, the guy who used to play Bond in the '80s and that girl from Labyrinth?  Disney released it in 1991 and it didn't do so well but a lot of people liked it.  So I went back and watched it...

The Rocketeer was worth seeing again.  There was so much more going on there than I realized when I was a kid.  There's all the classic pulp material: clean-cut heroes, a Commander Cody rocket pack, Nazis, mobsters, G Men, air planes (and an air ship!) along with that wonderful, un-ironic spirit that soars above so much of today's pop entertainment.  Then there's the little historical tidbits: Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose, Carey Grant, an Erol Flynn knock-off, and W.C. Fields (not to mention the Copeland-esque soundtrack).  Above all, it's an homage to the state of California and the free-wheeling, independent spirit that made it the fifth largest economy in the world in just a half-century.  The Land is a character in and of itself from the opening airstrip right down to the sepia and orange field finish.

That's just a short blurb -nothing too detailed.  But if it peeks your interest, why not consider adding The Rocketeer to your Netflix que?  The Golden State's not doing so well these days and its good to have a reminder of everything it could still be.