Monday, January 26, 2015

Dang-Blasted Video Game Theories 2

Dang-Blasted Video Game Theories, pt. 2

How it went down: I was wrapping up Batman: Arkham Origins and wondering why I spent so much time playing a game that I didn’t really care about. And then I had one of my precious moments of “Hey, what if...” and an idea lodged in my noggin and I realized I wanted to do another post about video game theories. My first one was enjoyable to brainstorm and write. And I have some fresh ideas to share with ya.

Here are four more theories about what might be going on in certain video games. They are not profound, they have no real proof to back them up...hell, who knows if they’re even original. But here they are anyway.


Psychonauts: The Game Takes Place In Ford Cruller’s Head

I did Bastion last time, and now here’s another game in which the headstrong young hero is mentored by a wise old geezer. Are they the same person? Not this time. This time, I posit that we’re inside the geezer’s mind.

Psychonauts takes place at a summer camp for psychic kids, many of whom dream of joining the titular team -- basically becoming a telepathic secret agent. The young hero, Raz, muscles his way into camp, begins to train, and soon discovers that one of the counselors, Coach Oleander, is an evil villain who wants to remove kids’ brains and use them to power a machine army. As Raz attempts to stop Oleander, he is aided by Ford Cruller, a retired Psychonaut who now monitors the world via a Batcave-lair under the camp. Raz explores inside the minds of various characters, but the camp is real. Or is it?

I’m not so sure. Throughout the map, you encounter multiple versions of Ford Cruller, doing various odd jobs. This is lamely explained away by an underground tram system, but no tram is fast enough to get a decrepit old man around like that, especially when you include costume changes. I say, the many Fords are a clue that Camp Whispering Rock is no more real than the other levels. Raz is inside Ford’s brain. And that’s not all: everything that happens in the game is part of an elaborate training simulation. Ford and the other counselors recognized great psychic potential in Raz, who gained access to Ford’s mind without even realizing it. So they essentially bumped him up to the “advanced program.”

Kids aren’t really having their brains sucked out. It’s all a fake scenario for Raz to fight through. Tapping into your psychic powers entails a focused subconscious; if Raz knew it was all staged, his mind wouldn’t respond correctly. He has to believe he’s really stopping an evil plot. Apart from Ford, the counselors, and Raz’s love interest, Lili (who’s secretly a junior Psychonaut), none of the characters are real. That explains why the other camp kids are so wacky and bizarre: they’re figments of Ford’s imagination. Ford creates deeper levels of his mind for Raz to explore and even pulls material from Raz’s troubled childhood, so he can face his own fears. At the end, the defeated Coach Oleander basically just apologizes for being evil, and everyone’s fine with that, because he wasn’t really evil. Just playing a role.

Needless to say, Raz proves himself to be Psychonaut material. Which sucks, because we’re never gonna get a Psychonauts 2, no matter how many letters we write to Tim Schafer. Sigh.

Closure: You’re the Soul of a Sinner Doing Penance

We, as a species, are so obsessed with death, it spills over into every art form. Video games are no exception, and such themes run through Closure, a nifty puzzle-platformer built around darkness and light. Although it’s not overt, I believe that this game is about closure for you, the player character. Because you are a deceased soul, trying to win your way into heaven.

The world of Closure is pitch-black and whatever falls outside the light, ceases to exist. To win, you must manipulate light sources to open pathways. The central character is an odd-looking creature with four legs and no face, seen above. For much of the game, this homunculus (I’ll call him the Sinner) occupies the bodies of three other people: a miner, a woman, and a little girl. My theory goes that each of these three are in peril, and you, the Sinner, are saving them. You can’t influence them directly but you can nudge them in the right direction. The miner is trapped underground and enters a helicopter at the end of his journey, representing rescue. The woman begins at a car crash, explores a forest, and winds up in a hospital where she sees herself motionless in a hospital bed. She’s in a coma, you see, and your job is to guide her consciousness back to its body. The little girl wanders away from home to visit the circus; you need to get her back safe.

Why do all this? Because in life, you sinned...but not badly enough to go to hell. Instead, you’re required to redeem yourself through the act of saving living people. At the game’s end, creepy-looking surgeons loom over you, like a holy jury. You “present” the memories of the three people you helped, literally firing them at your observers. Then comes the key image: the inhuman body of the Sinner dissolves and out flies a glowing butterfly. Your soul, free of its quasi-demonic form. You end the game by flying upwards, navigating a twisted path, and finally arriving in a starry sky. Heaven. You are redeemed.

And why all the surgical-themed imagery? Well, if we make our own heaven and hell, then perhaps the Sinner was a surgeon in life. Perhaps his sin was allowing patients to die through arrogance and carelessness. Thus, it makes sense for him (or her) to do penance by saving lives. Closure is the kind of game that can be interpreted in a million ways. I like this version.

Limbo: The Divine Comedy Allegory

The afterlife seems to be on my brain when it comes to video games, but can you blame me when certain games seem to be begging for such analysis? I refer, of course, to Limbo, that innovatively depressing indie darling in which you are a small boy trudging through a shadowy, hostile world of terror. There’s no real goal, but you seem to be on the trail of a little girl. When you finally “catch” her (under a decayed-looking treehouse), the game abruptly ends. Dafuq just happened?

I went deep into literary nerdism for this theory. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a walking tour of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise. Another name for Purgatory? Limbo. Where souls are purged of their sins before gaining access to heaven. Dante divided Limbo into zones for the seven deadly sins, each requiring a specific type of penance. The Wrathful, for instance, are immersed in choking, blinding smoke. In Limbo the game, everything is gray and smoky. And you encounter other children(?) who try to kill you for no reason...wrathfully. Huh. Okay, what about the slothful, who, according to Dante, are engaged in mindless, ceaseless activity? Well, in the game, you run everywhere, and in the later stages, you are forced to work machinery, pull levers, push boxes, the only goal being to continue your mindless, ceaseless journey. Well, well, well.

So the little boy in Limbo is dead, in Dante’s Purgatory, doing penance for the sins of Wrath and Sloth. But why? He’s just a kid.

A kid who got himself and his little sister killed.

The title screen of Limbo shows the same treehouse where you glimpse the girl at game’s end. Twin clouds of flies buzz beneath, as if two corpses are hidden in the tall grass. So therein hangs my tale: in life, you had a little sister who idolized you, but you found her annoying. One day, you got super angry about something and ran off into the woods, to a rotting old treehouse you’d found. Your sister followed you and tried to climb the old rope ladder to join you. You heard her struggling upward, but were too lazy to help her. The rope broke, she fell and died, and when you tried to climb down, you also fell and died. And that’s why you’re in Limbo. A child may be too innocent for hell, but you still must cast off the sins that led to your death. Your sister, pure and sin-free, appears at the end as Dante’s beloved Beatrice appeared to him in Purgatorio: a guide into Paradise. Basically, I’m forcing a happy ending upon Limbo because otherwise the game is just a field guide to hopeless nihilism. Still fun, though!

Arkham Series: Cyrus Pinkney is the Arkham Knight

And now, ladies and germs, the theory that inspired this post. I’ve placed it last because it is the silliest and probably the most unlikely. And I love it to death.

Batman: Arkham Origins, while a lame game, has plenty of sidequests and easter eggs. This includes one side-mission so unobtrusive that I didn’t even discover the damn thing until I’d finished the main story. Tucked throughout Gotham are plaques containing the journal entries of one Cyrus Pinkney, architect extraordinaire, who designed many of Gotham’s signature buildings during the 1800s. A friend to both Batman ancestor Solomon Wayne and asylum-creator Amadeus Arkham, Pinkney fought against crime and corruption and died mysteriously -- poisoned, some say, by Henry Cobblepot, progenitor of the Penguin. By reading Pinkney’s journals, Batman learns that Pinkney faked his own death, assassinated Cobblepot, and then...vanished?

Bullshit. Nobody vanishes in the Batman mythos, especially when they’re tied into the twisted mythology the games have built up. In the upcoming grand finale of the series, Arkham Knight, Batman will face the titular villain, a violent vigilante in a high-tech robo-suit, created exclusively for the game. A twisted reflection of Batman himself. Holder of a mystery grudge. Real identity unknown.

I’m calling it. Cyrus Pinkney became the Arkham Knight. Ostensibly fighting crime, his mind and ethics grew twisted. He now sees Gotham as a festering shithole of corruption that must be cleansed, which is why he’s onboard with Scarecrow’s terror-gas. I mean, come on, you know they’re gonna have the Knight’s identity be shocking somehow. Why not? “But he’d be, like, two hundred years old!” you cry. Guys, this is a universe containing Solomon Grundy, who’s been around for at least that long, and Ra’s al Ghul, who’s literally immortal just because he has a magical jacuzzi. Let’s imagine that Pinkney figured out how to prolong his life through technology, possibly with the aid of another Solomon -- Bruce Wayne’s thrice-great grandfather. Maybe that’s why he’s now a villain: the line between man and machine got blurry. And he’s already proven himself willing to murder his enemies.

I have no evidence. Well...except for one thing. If you complete the Cyrus Pinkney sidequest in Arkham Origins, you find the man’s (empty) tomb. And what lies upon his sarcophagus, forever etched in stone, quietly foreshadowing?

A knight.

Thus, I drop the mic. I’ll be back later with my awesome theory about Five Nights at Freddy’s. I’m persistent like that.

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