The Last of Us and the Exploration of Agency and Revenge

This article only highlights my personal experience and what I got out of the game.  It should be noted that The Last of Us has been called out for transphobic and harmful portrayals of LGTBQ characters.  Below are links to a few sources, and I believe that they are extremely relevant and absolutely must be included in any discussion about the controversy surrounding these games.  The first condenses these thoughts in a concise manner, while the second is a longer, yet just as vital, link to a fellow blogger’s analysis.  Happy Pride.

LAST OF US PART II DEADNAMING PROMPTS OUTCRY FROM LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY AND ALLIES: Game developers, don’t do this.

THE LAST OF US PART 2 – LET’S TALK ABOUT VIOLENCE, QUEER NARRATIVES, AND REVENGE


The Iliad was written almost a millennium ago, but it is read, dissected, and referenced often.  You know the story: A woman leaves one man for another, a man is killed and then a brother, and all grieving parties seek revenge on the other.  It is a tale as old as time, and it is as trope-filled as they come.  The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta, Hamlet, Carrie, The Princess Bride, John Wick, Genesis 34, The Mask of Zorro, Kill Bill, The Wrath of Khan, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the list goes on and on. Themes and tropes repeat themselves because they work, but rarely are they original.  Art in all mediums make us feel a certain way, and unless immortality and eternal boredom and apathy become normal, we will always get something out of it.  Revenge stories are no different. The Last of Us Part 2, however, manages to examine revenge in an entirely unique way.

WARNING: EXHAUSTIVE SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US AND THE LAST OF US PART 2

The Last of Us was released on the PlayStation 3 in 2013 to universal acclaim, and while it was not new or original in its gameplay, it built upon its developer’s reputation as a narrative adventure video game juggernaut.  Naughty Dog had been working on TLOU while the immensely popular and incredible Indiana Jones-like Uncharted 3 was being enthusiastically devoured by the gaming community, and it was almost inconceivable that ND could outdo themselves in their script writing and their storytelling.  And yet they did, in large part because of performances like these:

Here you see the game’s protagonist duo, Joel and Ellie, barely escape the fungal infected terrors of their world and meet Bill, one of the many compelling supporting characters the player will encounter along their journey.  At the very beginning of the game, the player controls neither.  As Joel’s daughter Sarah, you give your dad a watch for his birthday, you fall asleep watching tv together, he tucks you in, you awake and are unable to find him.  You then witness the horrific start of an apocalyptic nightmare, get into a car crash, and after Joel carries you to what you think is a safe haven, you are shot to death by the military attempting to contain the outbreak.  In Joel’s arms, his daughter, who you were playing as, is murdered by the entity you thought was going to be your protection.

Cut to years later, and now you play as a grizzled Joel, who illegally smuggles contraband in a martial law controlled quarantine zone and does whatever he needs to in order to survive.  Before long, his close partner Tess becomes infected and she sacrifices herself in order to allow you to escape with your latest cargo, an immune girl named Ellie.  What enfolds is a perfectly developed relationship that is obviously influenced by Sarah, but also is wholly unique.  Joel and Ellie develop a rapport, they support each other, survive traumatic experiences together, and Ellie ultimately coaxes out the personality Joel has been violently suppressing since the death of his daughter.

Moments such as these are what made TLOU a truly great game, and why people who did not even play it have watched cinematic movies of it on YouTube and why, hopefully, HBO will adapt it into a really good tv series.  Finding the humanity in the repulsive makes for a great story.  Yes, you had to murder dozens, maybe hundreds of people and fungus corrupted monsters to get to this moment, but you made it.  The bond you have created with Ellie is immense, and Ellie, who is immune from the fungal plague, will provide humanity with a vaccine.

Once you arrive at the hospital, however, you discover that Ellie will have life ending surgery to remove the mutated fungus in her brain.  Joel is told that this is the only way that a vaccine can be produced, and that Ellie has no knowledge that the surgery is happening.  Ellie will die, and neither her nor you have any say in the matter.  Out of respect for doing his job and delivering his cargo, he is allowed to walk out, at gun point, and move on with his life.

In the subsequent cinematic, Joel kills his captor and then you as a player take control and have no choice but to embark on a warpath, shooting and goring your way through anyone.  Whether or not you think you are doing the right thing, you are playing as Joel, who will commit whatever atrocity he has to in order to reach Ellie and prevent the surgery.

You reach the hospital room in question and see the three surgeons.  You see Ellie unconscious on the table, and realize the choice you have to make.  Except you are not given a choice.  One of them grabs a scalpel and brandishes it in your direction.  As a player, you can either turn off the game, or kill them.

The Last of Us ends with Ellie waking up from her drugged stupor and asking Joel what happened.  He lies, and the ending is left ambiguous as to whether or not she believes him.  Ethically, morally, and personally, the player has to come to terms with what they wanted to do in that scenario.  And yet it does not matter.  Joel was going to save Ellie no matter what, and as a player how you feel means nothing.  It is truly hard to convey the depth of emotion that the game leaves players, and this is why it works so well as a video game.

joel and ellie


Agency in video games is complicated.  The level of control a player has over a world and over its characters is obviously limited, but the ultimate reason TLOU endures to this day is because it explores this complex concept in an ethical, moral, and personal way.

Which is why The Last of Us Part 2 is a perfect sequel and a great video game.

AGAIN: EXHAUSTIVE SPOILER WARNING FOR THE LAST OF US PART 2

I successfully dived into TLOU2 relatively blind.  I had seen a little gameplay, a trailer or two, and most importantly I managed to avoid all leaked spoilers.  So when I started playing the game immediately after it finished downloading at 12:30am the day of release, I was working through a bizarre set of feelings.  The game had been twice been delayed for months and months, in part because of Covid-19, but also because the staff at Naughty Dog were exhausted and overworked.  I was giddy with excitement, finally ready to play arguably the most anticipated game in the last decade (it sold over 4 million copies in the first three days, fastest in PS4 history).  But I was also heavy with dread and weariness.  Like a lot of people, I have spent some time wallowing in the disaster that has been 2020.  I’ve been lost, depressed and riddled with anxiety, and there I was, playing a heavy, dark and brutally violent survival-horror video game set in a post apocalyptic nightmare.

After a few hours of playing, I turned off my PlayStation and fell asleep, unsurprised that that I was feeling a little stressed out at being back in TLOU’s setting, but fascinated at getting the chance to spend time with Ellie again.  I also felt relieved, because I had made it to the first big plot point in the story and could more or less extrapolate where it was going. I did not play the game again until two days later, and I continued to take a lot of breaks until the final chapter of the game in which I literally sprinted to the finish during an all-nighter because I just had to know what happened to Ellie.

The game’s marketing campaign had made it clear that Ellie was furious about something and that one of the central themes was revenge.  The catalystic event, however, was not what most of the fandom was expecting, and right off the bat the game became controversial.  Joel is beaten to death with a golf club right in front of a screaming and pleading Ellie.  She does not know why, but what is important, is that you–the player–had up until this point been playing as the killer, a woman named Abby.  Some players admitted online that upon witnessing his death at the hands of a mystery character you were just playing as (Joel even saves her life from a pack of infected), they rage quit in disgust and did not even finish the game.

Ellie is mercifully let go by the enigmatic faction of humans who clearly had beef with Joel, and she spends the next few days numb with grief.  She moves as if through molasses, and as the player you are forced to move at that pace, no matter how much weight you put on your controller’s forward button.  Ellie decides that she is going to go on a warpath of her own and chase after the group responsible, and what unfolds is a gruesome tale of revenge.

In a fascinating and ultimately incredibly important decision by Naughty Dog, the player spends only about half the rest of the game playing as Ellie, instead playing as none other than Abby, the golf club wielding mystery woman responsible for Joel’s fateful demise.  I will not lie, at first I hated playing as Joel’s killer, and in my mind that is all she was to me for awhile, “the woman who killed Joel.” The more time I spent playing as her, however, that relationship got increasingly more complex.

During the time spent controlling Abby, it becomes revealed that she is the daughter of the head surgeon that Joel (the player), kills in order to save Ellie.  Ellie, who at this point is fully aware of the events that transpired in the hospital, discovers Abby’s identity and elects to finish her quest for revenge despite knowing the validity of the motive to kill Joel.  The pacing and structure that the game chooses to reveal all of these plot points is extremely choppy, but it was nonetheless a well done narrative worthy of the first game.

A lot of the fanbase is upset the game chooses to spend so much time with Abby, and that is understandable. The Last of Us is regarded as one of the best games of the 2010s for its gritty storytelling and its gripping relationships, none more than Joel and Ellie’s.  As upsetting as it was to completely destroy that at the beginning of the game, I came to terms with it.  Some macho and opinionated gamers argued that if he had to die, he should have died heroically to save Ellie.  Well, he did, except it was years after he murdered his way through fire and hell to save Ellie from a fatal surgery.

Furthermore, Joel is anything but absent.  My absolute favorite moment in the game is a flashback sequence in which Joel takes Ellie to explore a museum of natural history for her birthday.  She runs around in glee, geeking out among the abandoned and yet largely intact exhibits, scenes I heavily identified with.  When Ellie and Joel sit together inside the replica of a space capsule, he gives her a tape with a recording of a launch, and she closes her eyes.  For a brief moment the world is free of worry and death.  She quietly comes back to earth, turns to look at Joel, and they share a smile.

I had to pause the game and cry outside on my balcony for a while.


Let me be clear, I do not have sympathy for Abby, and I will not forgive her for shattering the bond between Joel and Ellie.  What TLOU2 manages to achieve, however, is expand the story of the first game without retconning it to the point of absurdity or gross fan service.  Am I mad that Joel is dead? Absolutely, but now I know some of the consequences of his/my actions.  Joel killed, and therefore he destroyed the lives of those left alive, setting off a chain of events outside of his control.  Abby killed, and therefore set off a chain of events out of her control.  As controversial as the game is right now, I am convinced it told a stellar story next to its predecessor.  It almost would have been a disservice for the game to have a happy ending, because that was not the point of the first one, despite Joel and Ellie living relatively well in the years after.  If anything, the debate within the fanbase proves how great the story is.  Unanimity, after all, can be quite dull.

When I initially completed the first game and reached the ending, I tried to spare the surgeons.  I wanted both to save Ellie and quell the bloodshed, or at the very least ask the doctors if there was a 100% chance at a vaccine, and ask Ellie for her consent to do the surgery.  When I had no other choice but to kill them, the consequences of my actions and my inability to control the outcome left me with a feeling I cannot describe.  The Last of Us 2 is no different, as it continues to explore player agency within the ethical and philosophical quandary of Joel’s and the other characters’ decisions.  This is of vital importance: It was Joel’s decision, not the player’s.  Joel refused to lose another daughter, and that was that.  The meta layer of the player controlling Joel is why TLOU and TLOU2 make the moral questions of revenge and murder that much more compelling and original, and why they work so well as video games.

Ellie fights Abby at the very end of the second game, and the player is entirely unsure if they are controlling one or the other.  It is deliberately ambiguous, and the finale is nothing short of staggering.  You understand the motivations of both and have not only spent extensive time forming a relationship with either character, but again, you have been guiding them through their respective stories. Unlike reading a novel from the point of view of different characters, the added layer that accompanies the video game medium is monumental within the world of fictional storytelling.  This “final boss” fight is brutal, it is futile, and it is without a winner.  The fight is the old adage “when seeking revenge, dig two graves,” perfectly put to video game screen, and the result is nothing short of devastating.

When HBO does release their adaptation, the themes of action and consequence, trauma, regret, and the endless cycle of violence that stems from an obsession with revenge that these games explore so masterfully will not resonate as powerfully without the inclusion of player agency.  The Last of Us are not what would widely be considered as fun games, but they invite pertinent discussion and are as thematically captivating as they are narratively compelling.  Tropes and clichés may be tried and true, but when they are done this well and executed this uniquely, they feel new again.

“Everyone I have cared for has either died, or left me. Everyone … fucking except for you! So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.”  –Ellie to Joel, The Last of Us

Ludonarrative Dissonance: The disconnect between what players do in a video game (ludo is Latin for play) and the story that the game tells (narrative).

Andrew Jack, The Legendary Dialect Coach Who Brought Fantasy to Life

Covid-19 has disrupted my life, but it has not yet felt personal.  Yes, I am grappling with trying to work from home during a pandemic, yes, I have lost significant income, and yes, aspects of my lifestyle have become exceedingly uncomfortable.  But as of this writing, Covid-19 is a virus that seems like an unseen threat in the distance and has not affected anyone in my life directly.  To put it simply, no one I know has become infected, seriously ill, or passed away because of this novel virus.

That seemed to change this week, when long-time dialect coach Andrew Jack died two days after he was diagnosed with the disease.  He worked with hundreds of actors and actresses on dozens of films and series, including the Bond franchise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Last of the Mohicans, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films, Cold Mountain, Captain America, and Mansfield Park.  His crowning achievement, however, was his work as the supervising dialect director of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and how he taught the cast how to speak all the various languages.

Anyone who knows me is more than aware of my absolute adoration of Tolkien, but without people like Andrew Jack I would likely not harbor such uncompromising feelings.  There are many reasons why Tolkien has affected me so much, but among them is because he invented languages for his story.  Such rich detail is why a fantastical setting like Middle Earth is so enduring to this day, and Andrew Jack took an immensely complicated detail of that world and brought it to life.  When fans go back to the films for the umpteenth time and see Orlando Bloom speak as Legolas, the One Ring terrify with the Black Speech of Mordor, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson speaking flawless Elvish, it truly is real.


I currently teach Spanish to elementary and high schoolers, and of course, I am trying to do that from my desk at home in a strange cyber environment.  I’ve spent time recording videos so that students have an extra resource, and therefore I’ve done a lot of watching myself talk.  It is a bizarre thing, but it has helped me understand what my students see and hear when I teach.  Live, I do not realize how fast I can talk or how strong my accent can be.  The dialect and methods of my speech are inescapable, the intricacies are clear.

The process of this kind of teaching has been authentic and intimate, despite the lack of person-to-person contact.  Let me be clear, I am not in the same room as my students, and that is jarring.  But I am communicating with them in a foreign language through a screen, much like Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is to the audience in her opening monologue in Fellowship of the Ring.  Storytelling is how I teach Spanish, because detail recollection directly correlates with communicative functions and helps retention.  The idea that my dialect of Spanish through this medium is still as effective as in a classroom is not just a relief, it is a revelation.

Andrew Jack most recently acted in a minor role in the recent Star Wars films, and he was working on the most recent Batman film before his untimely death due to Covid-19 complications.  We communicate with language, and how we do that is more important now than ever.  His death makes this pandemic more real, uncertain, and all the more personal.  It also reminds of the power of storytelling, the comfort of escape, the relevance of collaboration, and the catharsis of art.  Andrew Jack helped make fantasy a reality, and that is a good thing.

(I amar prestar aen.) The world is changed. (Han matho ne nen.) I feel it in the water. (Han mathon ned cae.) I feel it in the earth. (A han noston ned gwilith.) I smell it in the air.

 

Top 10 Favorite Video Games

My sister is my best friend, and we like to exchange top 10 lists.  Of everything.  We’ve done the basics, (movies) to the weirdly specific (top ten most romantic songs without the word “love” in the title).  The one we’re on currently is top ten favorite video games, and this one I feel so strongly about it requires a long fleshed out blog post.  Hope you enjoy.

Honorable Mentions — Final Fantasy X, Super Smash Bros, Sly Cooper, Warcraft III, Mass Effect, Mario Kart, Metroid Prime, Fallout 4, Chrono Trigger, Persona 4, Pokemon GO!, Marvel’s Spider-Man, I am Setsuna, Horizon Zero Dawn, Fire Emblem, Little Nightmares

10.)  Humongous Entertainment, The MECC, and the Learning Company

This is fudging it a bit considering that these companies made a bunch of games, but I simply cannot mention one without the others, and in my mind they’re all one big awesome game.  These are the ones that started it all–the educational video games that my parents let myself and my siblings play from the very beginning. If you grew up in the 90’s and never played Oregon Trail, I’m sorry for you loss.  Their spinoffs Amazon and Yukon Trail were just as good, and I must’ve played Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo and Pajama Sam 3: You Are What You Eat From Your Head to Your Feet dozens of times, and Super Solvers: Mission T.H.I.N.K. is a great adventure full of mini games in which you have to collect board game tiles in order to beat the nefarious villain.

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These games made learning fun, and although they were short, they were very sweet, and opened up my mind to the magnificent world of gaming.

9- Pokémon Blue

After the educational games that I devoured on the PC, Pokemon Blue was the next video game I ever played.  But the emotional connection goes beyond that.  The Gameboy Color along with Blue was a gift from my late grandmother, Memé.  I have very fond memories of her, even though those memories are few since she passed when I was still young.  I don’t think my mom was very happy with the gift, but it opened my mind to a different kind of storytelling and adventure, and I was able to supplement my love for the cards and the tv show with a fun, all encompassing RPG that I still revisit to this day.  Not to mention that I am still playing Pokemon Sword, the new one for the Nintendo Switch.  Anyone want to help complete my PokéDex?

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8- Batman: Arkham

Batman has fascinated me ever since I discovered his 10 cent comics in the corner of a hobby store when I was a kid, and he will always be one of my all time favorite fictional characters.  I have consumed every Batman, comic, game, show, and movie that I can, and I am familiar with every one of his adaptive iterations.  Okay, that’s hyperbolic, but I’ve seen all 16 films released since the 40’s, every television show (yes, even the Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour from the 70’s), read as much of the comics as the internet and my budget for comics allows, and played every major video game title that he is heavily featured in (with the exception of the VR one).  Safe to say, I love a flawed superhero who doesn’t have a true super power.  Yes, he has his privilege and immense wealth to help him overcome that, but make no mistake, Batman is a complicated and compelling character worthy of re-exploring for generations to come.

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The Arkham games are exceptional, boasting a compelling story and more than just one major villain per game.  The stealth and combat gameplay elements fit the Bat Detective’s personality perfectly, and the stellar voice acting (Mark Hamill is the best Joker, fight me) makes for an amazing and immersive storytelling experience.

7- Bioshock Trilogy

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I had a lot of trouble trying to decide which first person shooter (FPS) game to put on this list, and after narrowing it down to Metroid Prime, Fallout 4, and Bioshock, I decided to go with the latter based on the better narrative.  Not only is the Bioshock franchise made up of story centered, ambitious FPS’s that explore wholly original environments such as a city built at the bottom of the ocean, but they deliver maybe the best twists in video game history.

The twists though….the twists I tell you! They are spectacular.  I won’t dissect them here as this is a list blog post and not an analysis, but one day I shall.  Just know that it is “fantastic fiction: believability enough that you’re living the moment. Rapture might be a fantastical backdrop, but BioShock‘s most dramatic instance of deadly intimacy felt more palpable than any plot twist from the world of film.”

6- Shadow of the Colossus

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15 minutes into this game I realized two things: SotC is the most unique game I have ever played, and that I must discover and play it all.  So after experiencing this truly remarkable work of art and beating it once, I promptly played it another half dozen times.  This is one of the first games that I achieved platinum status on, meaning I unlocked every single one of its trophies on the PS 4.  I speed ran it, I beat it on hard, I unlocked all special items, I found every hidden stat building lizard, and I discovered all the little hidden gems in the game’s magnificent world that had been inaccessible to my weaker character in previous playthroughs.  In the gaming community, this is what is known as “completionist.”  And holy hell, what ride.

Doing my best not to spoil this must-play experience, SotC is simply 16 boss fights / puzzles.  You find a Colossus and then you proceed to puzzle out how to bring it down, all for the remote possibility of reviving your lost love. The game’s themes of death, rebirth, love and futility are immersive and powerful, setting up a finale and emotional payoff that is nothing short of phenomenal. Along the way the player is treated to some of the most breathtaking art direction in any video game, ever.  I never had the privilege to play this masterpiece in 2005, but thank the aeons that it was given an HD remake and rereleased and that I was blessed to experience it.

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If you’re looking for a deeper analysis with spoilers, I would highly recommend this fellow blogger’s post.

5- The Last of Us

If the stereotypes that video games are just violent pointless shooters or mindless platformers with no backbone are still prevalent, then I’m at a loss.  Video games have evolved into diverse and complex works of art rivaling books, movies, television, and hell, even podcasts.  If you think Tetris and Call of Duty is all that video games are, you are sorely mistaken.

In 2013, the zombie genre was oversaturated.  The Walking Dead and bad zombie games like Dead Island added nothing new to the genre, and frankly, I had no interest in The Last of Us when it was released.  That changed with the reviews and word of mouth and the consensus that The Last of Us was one of the greatest games of all time, if not the best.

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Not wanting to play the game but experience the story, my sister recently watched a playthrough on YouTube and became attached to the characters.  She loved the game and proceeded to devour any video essay available.  We have spent a few hours ourselves discussing it.  Having still seen aspects of gameplay my sister was even more convinced that she never wanted to play the game because of how terrifying it is, and that’s not what makes this game a classic anyway.  It’s the relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie.  Their dynamic is staggering and the emotional journey they go on creates for the most compelling character development in any game this past decade.  Furthermore, it sets up an ending that is, quite frankly, polarizing and utterly thought provoking.  I revisit The Last of Us often, and I still have meaningful discussions about it with friends.  I even spent an entire eight hour work shift telling its story and discussing it.  No game in the 2010’s told a better story, or spurred debates about player agency and ethical quandaries.

4- Zelda

After I played Pokemon Blue on my Game Boy color, I proceeded to move on to Generation II Silver, Gold, and Crystal.  And while those games mean a lot to me, it was Zelda Oracle of Ages and Seasons that really stick with me.  The top-down, dungeon crawling, insane boss battles were mesmerizing.

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The newest game, Breath of the Wild, would top this list if the only criteria were open world exploring and wonderment.  I wish I could adequately describe what it is like to play a Zelda game for the first time.  Twilight Princess introduced gameplay as a wolf, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask made the N64 a must have console, and Link to the Past made everything bad about Ages and Seasons better. The original and remake of Link’s Awakening are near perfect games, complete with their own ethical philosophical dilemma.  The only flaw these games really have is character development, but I would argue there is no such thing as a bad Zelda game, and given the amount of titles, that is astonishing.

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BREATH.  JUST BREATHE.

Whew.  Enter the top three.  These games are so impactful and so powerfully emotional that I have trouble seeing them nudged politely off the podium.  And they would step down humbly, because these games have personality, sensitivity, and are the standard.  I will cherish them always.

3- Journey

Journey.  Journey from point A to point B. You have two moves: jump, and sing/play a short musical note.  There are variations, but really, that is it.  You may sporadically encounter one other player, and if you do the only communication you can use is play your note and intertwine it with theirs–that is, should they reciprocate and offer you their musical collaboration, or even stick with you during the pilgrimage.

This is the only game on the list that I believe is 100 percent accessible.  Anyone can pick it up and play it in a couple of hours, even if you have never played a video game before.

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A few days ago, I played Journey yet again.  I remember every play through and I weep every time, but this one was different.  Early into the game I met another brilliantly robed character–meaning we had both completed the game before.  We stuck along the path, occasionally getting separated, but always singing our musical note and finding each other again.  I thought that I might know all the secrets, but at the very end, my companion showed me a trick, or perhaps a view, or perhaps a musical harmony.  Together we continued to the finale, all the while playing our music, knowing that this was another unique and singular pilgrimage, but certainly not our last.

2- Celeste

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Madeline is struggling.  She is dropped off with no context at the base of Celeste, for she has decided to scale the mountain and reach its summit.  She will platform and learn the mountain’s language, and overcome all obstacles in her way.

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In climbing, the crux is defined as the point of extreme difficulty.  There are a million of these in Celeste, making it supremely difficult, borderline infuriating, and nigh impossible.  But it is not impossible, and that is the beauty of it.  Madeline suffers from anxiety and depression, and Celeste Mountain is the allegory.  The main story, while challenging, is a pleasure to play, each screen and level a lesson in ultimate catharsis.  The game invites you to learn from your deaths, and the time in between trials is so minuscule that it makes the death mechanic genius.  You learn and understand immediately what it was you did wrong, or what route on the wall you need to take, and how to overcome.

Like Journey, Celeste is a game about departing from point A and arriving at point B. Unlike Journey, however, your demon self is there, infusing your quest with doubt and anxiety.  I warn you that this is a spoiler, but when Madeline and her evil self come to terms with themselves, the result is brilliant and therapeutic.  Celeste’s trials become somehow more difficult after that, but no matter.  You are whole.

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1- Chrono Cross

I have written extensively about this game on my blog, so here is a link addressing why this is my favorite game of all time.

I have a tattoo referencing this game, and Chrono Cross will likely forever be the best.  If you do not feel like reading the entire blog post linked above, I offer up this final quote:

We experienced the journey, made the memories, explored our identity, and at the end come out with a better understanding of ourselves.

Which makes Kid’s final words so beautiful, so emotional, so full of unconditional love.

“Thanks for being born you…”

 

Reflecting on Daft Punk’s Discovery 18 Years Later

On February 26, 2001, I was in the 4th grade.  I liked Pokémon, the Redwall series, Legos, and was still writing Star Wars fan fiction and designing the blueprints for space ships.  I did not fully register Linkin Park’s “In the End” until middle school and I sure as hell did not know that Wikipedia’s launch in January 2001 would have such a huge impact on the internet.  I remember asking my parents at the dinner table how a country’s president (Slobodan Milošević was arrested in March of 2001 for his various human rights atrocities, and coincidentally, today at this very moment, Michael Cohen is testifying in front of Congress) could be convicted of a crime, and later that year 9/11 transpired. Meanwhile, amidst all of the consequences that the terrorist attack had, the first film adaptations of both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were released.  I voraciously devoured these movies with the fervor of an incandescently ecstatic kid unable to contain himself at the delight of seeing his two most favorite fantasy series brought to life on screen.  And yet, I was forced to reexamine their seemingly cut and dry “good versus evil” themes within my expanding and exceedingly more confused world view.

Call it a part of growing up, call it losing my innocence, call it what you may, but it was at the age of 10 that I started to pay attention.  The attention of a pre-teen, sure, but I started to notice the impact that the world had on people–individually and on a greater scale.  I began to recognize the fact that both current events and pop culture could change the world.  And while all of this was transpiring, Daft Punk’s sophomore album Discovery was playing, especially when “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was released as a single on October 13th.

At that age, my relationship with music was fairly myopic and contained.  I knew that I loved music, but I only loved what I could easily consume.  The Lion King and The Sound of Music VHS copies were watched more times than logically possible, and any CD’s that my parents had or were available at the public library I listened to copiously.  I heard “One More Time” and “H,B,F,S” on the radio quite a bit but it was not until 2005 when I heard “Technologic” that the electronic duo regained my attention.  They have since been one of the most influential and formative bands of my life, and it is no accident that Daft Punk themselves describe the album as “a reflection of the duo’s childhood memories, when they listened to music with a more playful and innocent viewpoint.”

Pop culture shapes most of our perception of time.  When someone mentions a decade one thinks of the clothing, the music, the movies.  When I think about the turn of the millennia, I think about the immense technological advancements that were beginning to transpire and how they have changed our lives.  The world became more wired and more plugged in.  Internet access was seriously starting to change the way we consume information.  And Daft Punk donned their famous helmets.

This change in their image is the most fascinating decision in their career and without it, they would never have achieved their staggering fame. But that’s the thing. Daft Punk is famous. Their helmets and music are famous. Their stage persona is famous. The men underneath? They are not.

Most of us have dreamed about being a celebrity, but I think I would hate it.  Getting instantly recognized every time I left the house would be constantly uncomfortable and I do not think I would be happy.  Most critics call Daft Punk’s decision to wear helmets a marketing ploy, but they do not acknowledge that it may have been primarily motivated by the desire to protect their identity and privacy.  Daft Punk is the alter ego of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, and they are so careful to preserve their privacy that they rarely ever tour (only twice, to be precise) and never allow their faces to be photographed in interviews.  They even recorded the album in Banghalter’s own house during the two year making of the project.  Masks can be used as protection, not just deception.

Since 2000, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have explored the idea of technological mythology.  Are we our real selves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter?  What lengths do we go to consciously cultivate a carefully crafted false personality instead of portraying our genuine selves?  Combined with our inability to remove our glued eyes from our screens, this self-mythologizing can be a devastating toxin that ruins our brains and identities.  As they would later say on their 2005 album Human After All, “Television Rules the Nation.”

Daft Punk released an animated film with Discovery called Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem.  Completely devoid of dialogue, the movie is really just one long music video, or complete visual album.  It tells the story of an alien band of musicians, who after performing album opener “One More Time,” in front of a crowd on their home planet, are violently kidnapped by humans to be exploited on earth by a greedy record producer.  After being rescued by an astronautical hero and escaping the mind control of the evil producer, they embark on a journey of self discovery, intent on stopping the insidious record mogul and returning to their home planet.

Interstella 5555 perfectly visualizes Daft Punk’s fascination with the identity of the self and a cultivated stage and technological persona, the ultimate themes of Discovery.  And much like my evolving analysis of good and evil back in 2001, it concludes that it is not a simple rule of duality. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter wanted complete control over both their professional and private lives, and by donning their famous robot helmets they were completely successful.

Discovery is a concept album, one about growing up, self discovery and evolving world views.  Daft Punk is nowhere near the first to explore these universally experienced themes, but with Discovery they did it in an ambitious and ecstatic way.  My three roommates and I in college invested in a huge twelve panel poster depicting the neon silhouettes of  Daft Punk in space and it encompassed an entire wall in our dorm quad common room.  It was a reminder that during those formative years one could confusingly stumble through the process of self discovery and still dance and have a ton fun.  Our shared love for Daft Punk was an invaluable building block for our enduring friendship. Similar things can be said for Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories, which was released during our final exam period our senior year just before graduation, but that is worthy of its own blog post.

It is difficult to truly quantify the significance of Discovery.  It is a masterpiece, and as described by Wikipedia itself, “The record was designed to reflect a playful, honest and open-minded attitude toward listening to music. Bangalter compared it to the state of childhood when one does not judge or analyze music.”  And that is perfect.

Daft Punk makes art that asks provocative questions about technology altering our identities or giving us a platform to become someone else entirely.  Our phones and social media can not only be a vacuum, but an addictive drug that strokes our egos and distorts our social, mental, and even physical identity.  In a world in which our cyber selves dominate, we must not lose sight of our humanity.  Despite Daft Punk’s robotic image, the helmets preserve their personalities, and ironically have ensured that they are indeed, human after all.

“This album takes a playful, fun, and colorful look at music. It’s about the idea of looking at something with an open mind and not asking too many questions. It’s about the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”
— Thomas Bangalter

Family Drama: Why The Haunting of Hill House is Netflix’s Best Show Ever

It is the Holidays.  What does that mean exactly?  Who does that involve, and what does that entail?  For me, the “holiday” season starts in October and ends sometime in January. From when Halloween is nigh to when New Years fades away.  It is a joyous time, but it is also a stressful time.  Holiday’s mean family, and family means drama.


The trailer for The Haunting of Hill House instantly grabbed me, but it still would have sat in my list unwatched until Halloween 2019 had I not received the most stellar recommendation.  But lo!  I prioritized the show thanks to that, and I can now say with confidence that it is the best show Netflix has produced and one of the best shows ever, period.

Unfortunately for me, I started it too close to nightfall. Or else I would’ve binged the entire thing right then and there.

BEWARE!  SPOOKY SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

The Haunting of Hill House tells the story of the Crain family.  Parents Hugh and Olivia are house renovators and flippers and have five children: Steven, Shirley, Theodora (Theo), Luke, and Eleanor (Nell).  Hill House is their latest project, and it will be their last.

It is quickly revealed that Olivia dies under mysterious circumstances and that Hugh is the only one privy to specific details.  As he corrals his frightened and confused children into the family hatchback, little to no information is revealed to either them or the audience.  This sets up one of the major conflicts within the show: suppressing and withholding negative emotion.  As the patriarch, Hugh feels that it is his burden and his burden alone to carry the information of Olivia’s death, even if it means alienating his children.

Part of the HoHH’s brilliance is that it tells its story through two alternating timelines.  The use of flashbacks and lengthy scenes depicting events leading up to the night of Olivia’s death give the night extra context, while the present day timeline shows the Crain’s as adults.  The result is exquisite character development, and both the child actors and adult counterparts do a phenomenal job in portraying their roles and their relationships.

After all the years, however, Hugh still has not told his children anything about their mother’s death, other than that it was ruled a suicide.  Hugh’s belief that he is sheltering his children becomes toxic and rotten, which combined with the Crain’s traumatic past creates an incredibly tense, dynamic.

Bottling up feelings, experiences, and avoiding problems has been human behavior since our evolution, and the Crain’s would likely have gone on to their graves forever haunted.  Unfortunately, Hill House claims another one of their lives, and the family is forced to come together for the funeral and finally confront their demons.

Again, I would encourage you to watch this show because it is amazing and the rest of this blog post involves spoiling its best episode. 

MAJOR SPOOKY AND EPICALLY CHILLING SPOILERS AHEAD

One of the Crain siblings cannot handle their haunting trauma, returns to Hill House, and dies.  Coincidentally, their death is also ruled a suicide, and the rest of the family gathers in a funeral home to mourn.  This is the first time that we see all living family members in the same space as adults, and the result is monumental.

What truly makes this episode so mind bogglingly breathtaking is that it is 53 minutes long, but over 51 of those minutes are comprised of only 5 shots.  Some of you will read that and say, “so what?” and that is because I cannot effectively convey in writing the impressiveness and hard work that goes into filming such lengthy scenes in one single take.  Writer Mike Flanagan comes as close as one can in explaining the painstakingly arduous process in a series of tweets that can be found here, but I cannot stress enough how much you should just watch the show and witness the mastery for yourself.

The cast and crew were given two full weeks to rehearse the shots.  The production team spent months working on the hundreds of lighting and blocking cues, the cameramen practicing down to the minuscule and exact moment that they had to come in and out of their hiding spots on set.  The sets for both Hill House and the funeral home were built with this episode in mind, and were thus connected.  The third shot is an unbelievable 17 minutes and 19 seconds and described by Flanagan as “a BEAST.”  Shot on a dolly and unable to get a take by lunch time, Flanagan was told by the crew that the dolly was on the verge of malfunction.  With no replacement dolly and the budget and timeline exhausted, Flanagan did not tell the actors upon their return from lunch.  He told them “I have a good feeling about this one,” and they proceeded to successfully get the shot on the next take.  The dolly broke immediately after.


The Haunting of Hill House works on a lot of levels.  As a family drama, the Crain’s reach a semblance of catharsis by the end.  As a mystery, the audience and the Crain children solve the enigma of Olivia’s death and find out the deep and dark secrets of Hill House.  Ultimately, it is an ideal horror story, and I spent a large portion of the show huddled under the covers with my eyes just over so I could watch.  And there were plenty of times that I jumped out of my skin.  Where the genius truly lies, however, is that psychologically and mentally, I have spent part of every day since watching it thinking about it, haunted by it, and pondering its message.

The Haunting of Hill House is not just a ghost story, and the best horror never is.  Films like Eyes Without a Face, Get Out, It Follows, and The Babadook are all masterpieces in terror because they explore complex themes like female bodies and identities under the patriarchy, racism, the inevitability of death, and the traumas of being a single mother, respectively.  Haunting of Hill House is horrifying because it explores the complexities of our past and their lingering ramifications.  It also shows the disastrous potential of not being open, of not challenging those to be honest, even though honesty can be extremely painful.

Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 Review: Lil Peep’s Comfortingly Emo Sound

Next week marks one year since Gustav “Lil Peep” Åhr died of an accidental overdose of Fentanyl and Xanax.  At 21 years of age, his music career was just getting off the ground, but his unique sound resonated heavily with a lot of people.  On Halloween, the New York Times published an excellent article about how his unreleased music has been handled by his family, friends, and record label.  Its title? “Lil Peep Died Before Becoming Pop Royalty.  His New Music May Change That.”

Lil Peep’s first posthumous album, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, indeed includes some of his best songs, and it plays like a soothing salve.   It is a haunting album that shelters the bereaved, albeit for a short while.  The album begins in silence before building with an eerie, stirring, almost creepy steel drum melody.  It’s like Peep is rising from the dead, taking a deep breath, and stretching out his limbs.  Then it gives way to a signature Peep guitar riff and line.  “She was the one with the broken smile / now that it’s done, she was the one,” he laments, signaling that his emo-rap brand is truly alive and well.

The familiarity of Peep’s music is the most comforting thing about Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, and the fact that it is so obviously his is not detrimental.  It would almost be weird if the album sounded different from his other music.  Even so, while Peep’s artistic genius stemmed from making music about sex, drugs, depression, and death, some lyrics are especially painful given his untimely passing.  On standout “Life is Beautiful,” Peep raps “wake up in the morning, now you’re doing the impossible / find out what’s important, now you’re feeling philosophical / when I die, I’ll pack my bags, move somewhere more affordable.”  Coming from Peep, such a line isn’t just clever, its cutting and overwhelming.

On the fantastic closer “Fingers,” Peep disguises some similarly depressing lyrics with his happiest sounding song in years.

How can I not stare, the way that you’re glowing?
I am a nightmare you don’t wanna know me
Running my fingers through your hair
Makes me remember everything, why don’t you hate me?

“Fingers” showcases what made Lil Peep so great, and that was his surprisingly endearing tenderness and vulnerability.  The anxiety of not being worth it or deserving of someone’s love is palpable, raw, and relatable and Peep’s hypnotic delivery over the gushingly emotional music was the moment that moved me the most.  The song and album itself ends with the words, “I’ll be the first there / and I’ll be the last there / I’m not gonna last here / I’m not gonna last long.”

Shortly after Gustav Åhr passed away, a fan-made music video of “Star Shopping” was put up on Youtube.  After the song plays through once, it is edited into a transition of Lil Peep performing it live.  The audience sings the entire song with him acapella while the video cuts to a slideshow of pictures from his childhood and life.  It’s a gorgeous and powerfully moving tribute from a loving fan which serves as a small window into the star potential of Lil Peep and what could have been.

Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 as a whole is not perfect, but it does not have to be.  The mere fact that Lil Peep’s mother, his friend/producer Smokeasac, and record label all made this project possible is a blessing.  It is as if Gustav is back from the dead, a spectral presence who over the course of 38 minutes is here to haunt us.  Only this ghost isn’t malicious or scary, it’s a loved one stopping by to make sure we know they are in a better place, that they are okay.

Scars of Time: The Serene Existentialism of Chrono Cross

One hundred and ten years ago, one of the most recognizable philosophical works, “The Unreality of Time” was published by J.M.E. McTaggart.  Simplified, he argued that time is an illusion because any event that occurs is simultaneously past, present and future.  Since I am typing both at present and just now in the past, but also right now in the immediate future, they contradict each other.  This creates an infinite regress, a vicious loop in which we cannot explain or differentiate between the three.

It is quite convoluted and often futile to explain what time does to our psyche, livelihood, and identities, but that is exactly what Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) Chrono Cross attempted to untangle.  The plot is dense and at times near impossible to understand, but upon its release, it was critically acclaimed, much debated in video game fandom circles, and is still cited as one of the best JRPG’s of all time.  On November 18th, Chrono Cross will turn 19 years old and personally, I will forever know Chrono Cross as the most beloved and profoundly influential video game I have ever, or will ever play.

Beware of spoilers past this point.

The player controls Serge, a typically silent protagonist who, unbeknownst to him, has been tasked with saving the world.  He embarks on this epic journey when he is unwillingly transported from his “home” world to “another” world.  Both are exactly alike and have the same characters and places, but the only difference is that in “another” world Serge has been dead for the last 10 years, altering the lives, choices, and events of everyone he once knew.

Once Serge visits his own grave and suspects that he has traveled through some kind of dimensional time vortex, a tomboyish thief with a Cockney accent named Kid shows up to guide him towards his fate.  Over the course of the first part of the game, the player explores the vast archipelago of islands, recruiting characters, building relationships and reestablishing Serge’s identity in “another” world.

Just when you carve out a space for yourself, Serge is violently forced to switch bodies with the main antagonist of the game–the half-human, half-cat “demi-human” Lynx.  Similarly to when you were thrown into this “another” reality, you are alone again, back on a path to reclaim your identity and prove that you are not evil.  Furthermore, any relationships that you built are torn apart since no one recognizes you or believes that you are Serge.

It is at this moment that Chrono Cross truly becomes a masterwork on exploring melancholia, existentialism, and the concept of time.  As the player spends the remainder of the game retrieving Serge’s own body, repairing fractured bonds, and saving the world(s) from being devoured by time itself, Chrono Cross forces you to think about your own existence, identity, and purpose.


Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that adhering to social principles was a sneaky form of alienation and that authenticity and existential singularity would overcome the suffocation of social conformity.  The problem that Serge has as Lynx is twofold.  Firstly, he is forced to once again reestablish his inner and external personal identity while imprisoned in another body.  Secondly, Lynx is a demi-human, and Serge is thus stripped of his privilege and is treated as less than human.

Kierkegaard’s critique of society is that by losing one’s authentic self you fall victim to assimilation by a “public” that has an “us vs them” mentality and that you become viewed as a stereotypical whole rather than yourself.  Serge becomes lumped into a species that in Chrono Cross are treated as servants, slaves, and degenerates, but at the same time he is accepted into a “community” that sees Serge for who he is personally.  Marbule, the isle in the game that is entirely inhabited by demi-humans, welcomes Serge with open arms.  Even then, however, they do not allow humans on their island and bear a deep resentment for them.  Playing as Serge I could not help but feel guilty.  Here I was, a human in a half-human body pretending to understand their plight and their lives.  And while the positive values of community and solidarity were powerful, it was tainted by the deep racial divide of Chrono Cross’ world and society.

While the theme of racism is still prevalent and often referred to by characters and portrayed in the game’s world building it is not quite as fleshed out as its others.  One of the most controversial and critiqued aspects of Chrono Cross is that it features a large ensemble cast of 45 playable characters. For RPG’s, this number is staggering and with the exception of Kid, Lynx, and one or two other characters, none of them are necessary.  So why include them?  Serge is an isolated character for large chunks of the game, and while it is nice to think that you can recruit and build friendships with so many characters, it enhances the feeling of empathy for Serge and his loneliness.  Many of the characters have little dialogue and are merely along for the ride.  There is no real sense of togetherness, team culture, or true friendship with the majority of the playable characters.

Many video games feature a silent protagonist (Chrono, Zelda, Half-Life, Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Metroid, Mario, list goes on), and the primary reason for this is so the player can imprint their own personality onto them, implement their own playing style, and interpret them as they like.  Chrono Cross is an exploration of self-discovery, a process that can be lonesome, melancholic, and sometimes seemingly hopeless.

I was eleven or twelve when I first played Chrono Cross, and the nostalgia and formative experience that it gave me is an enormous part of why it will be the best video game I will ever play.  A lot of the themes, however, I completely missed at that age and it wasn’t until my most recent playthrough that I began to piece together its resonance.  Figuring out who I am along with Kid and Serge combined with the vast, oceanic setting and elegantly tranquil score bring me to tears every time.


It is impossible to write about Chrono Cross without mentioning its spiritual predecessor, Chrono Trigger. While Cross is regarded to be among the best JRPG’s of all time, Trigger is regarded to be one of the best games ever, period, and because the former followed the latter, Cross is one of the most controversial because it is not a true nor a direct sequel.  Director Masato Kato was of course well aware of the separate path Cross took in relation to the story, characters, script, and gameplay relative to Trigger, and in an interview was defensive:  “The thing that I can’t understand is how could people possibly declare that this isn’t Chrono? And for these people, I can’t help but wonder what it was that Chrono meant to them? Is it possible that none of the messages that I tried to send out to these people never really got through to them?”

Kato and producer Hiromichi Tanaka consistently and deliberately repeated themselves to ardent fans of Trigger, saying that it was their explicit goal to give players a completely different experience.  Besides the obvious technological difference between the platforms that each game was released, I believe that given the game’s themes of alternate worlds, time travel, and above all personal and authentic identity, there was no way that they were going to make the same game twice.  Cross is cited as a flawed masterpiece because it is not a direct sequel to Trigger, and yet those people fail to see why they are so different from each other.  Chrono Trigger and Cross are each authentic in their own way and were intentionally created to be so because individual identity is the main theme of each game.

Which makes the ending of Chrono Cross so profoundly brilliant.  The finale brings its existential ideas to an open ending, basically managing to heal the fragment in time and uniting both the “home” and “another” worlds.  Consequently, Serge is transported back to the point in time in which he originally traveled dimensions from the homeworld to another world, effectively erasing any of the events.  Does this mean they never occurred?  Does this mean that Serge does not remember the epic journey that he and his companions suffered and celebrated through to save the world?  The final monologue posits a potential answer:

 

   It was bloody good
   knowing ya, mate!
   Thanks for being born
   '"you,"'
   
   I guess now's the time to say,
   '"see ya later, mate!"'
   But...
    
   I'll find ya...
   Sometime, somewhere...
   I'm bloody sure of it!
   
   No matter the time period,
   no matter the world ya live in,
   I'll find ya!

   I'm sure...
   I am sure I will find you...

J.M.E. McTaggart’s “time is an illusion” theory is based on the idea that the past, present, and future contradict themselves and that if an event is always earlier or later than another, then their position never changes.  Change is the definition of time, so if there is no change, and if the past, present, and future are one, then time is unreal.  Chrono Cross’ ultimate thesis is exactly that.  Serge, and us–the players–experienced the journey, made the memories, explored our identity, and at the end come out with a better understanding of ourselves.

Which makes Kid’s final words so beautiful, so emotional, so full of unconditional love.

“Thanks for being born you…

No matter the time period, no matter the world ya live in, I’ll find ya!”

“Until I’m Nothing But Memories:” Lil Peep’s Haunting Lessons on Mental Illness

I keep Lil Peep to myself.  I do not tell others I listen to him, I do not talk about him, I do not listen to his music when other people are around.  I do not entertain the notion that his music is sometimes a window into my soul.

I don’t wanna die alone this way
Read the tattoos on my face
Imma die young, but I get cake
I spent it on the drugs and act OK

Early yesterday morning, it was confirmed that Gustav “Lil Bo Peep” Åhr had passed away.  He was 21.  For anyone remotely familiar with his music, there can be no doubt as to how, and all hope that it was only to dull the pain, not surrender to it.  It was no secret the Åhr was extremely depressed and self medicated with all kinds of drugs.  Every single one of his songs dealt with drug use, depression, low self esteem, suicide, the list goes on.  Combined with the tattoos on his face, brightly dyed hair, and a crooked smile, Lil Peep was so far into counterculture that at first glance he was repulsive.

Truth be told, Åhr’s music is endearing and at times, devastatingly relatable and diabolically irresistible.  The heavy themes of his lyrics are delivered in a mesmerizing drawl over hypnotic, infernally catchy melodies that only make his melancholy siren that much more tempting.  Sonically administered morphine, sweet auditory seduction. Music that is this depressing and talks about suicide every other lyric should not be so captivating.

Lil Peep’s music has been largely referred to as “emo-rap,” which is more or less accurate.  His music sounds like emo-rock, but his message is delivered through rap verses that cut deeper than either genre can account for.  He was a white, truly troubled emotional rapper, so where did he fit in?

The answer is uncomfortable: everywhere.  Åhr suffered from intense depression, and in an interview with Pitchfork in which he was bluntly asked, “Are you suicidal?” he answered, “yeah, it is serious.”

Yeah, it is serious. I suffer from depression and some days I wake up and I’m like, Fuck, I wish I didn’t wake up. That was part of why I moved to California, trying to get away from the place that was doing that to me, and the people I was around. I realized it was just myself—it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain. Some days I’ll be very down and out, but you won’t be able to tell, really, because I don’t express that side of myself on social media. That’s the side of myself that I express through music. That’s my channel for letting all that shit out.

1 in 4 people suffer from depression.  Lil Peep was most assuredly one of them.  After I found out he had passed and I posted a RIP post on my Snapchat story, a few friends responded “drug culture in hip-hop is a problem.”  What they fail to understand is that drug abuse is a symptom of mental illness.

The very first song I heard by Peep was “praying to the sky,” and in it he raps, “they gon’ miss me when I’m dead / I lay my head and rest in peace / I’m prayin’ to the sky and I don’t even know why.” On yet another song called “haunt u” he foretells the future:

Bump Lil Peep, when I die, I’mma haunt you
I could live forever if I want to
I could stop time, but I never wanna do that again
Nothin’ worse than losin’ a friend
And the feelin’ you get when everybody that you love ain’t around

Gustav Åhr was an artistic genius, a real life messiah and literal savior for some.  He lured his listeners to come to terms with mental illness and face the demons.  His death also reveals the stigma of mental illness.  It’s taboo, a layer of grime lying just below the surface.

The Washington Post published an article about the opioid crises and how the current administration was complicit in its uprise.  175 people will die of an overdose a day until action is taken.  Are Lil Peep’s fans complicit in his accidental overdose?  Åhr’s fans, publicist, friends and family all were acutely aware of his depression and drug abuse, and yet at 21 he died.  We all failed him.  We must do a better job in talking about and dealing with mental illness.  We must engage each other, even if its uncomfortable.

I used to keep Lil Peep to myself.  I used to not talk about him. But now I do listen to his music when other people are around.  I do accept the fact that his music is sometimes a window into my soul.

this music is the only thing keeping the peace

when I’m falling to pieces

U2’s Joshua Tree Tour: On Fatherhood and Politics

While my father was driving the family to Monocacy Battlefield for a hike, a young me sat with a CD player.  It had a U2 greatest hits disc in it, and I was holding it precariously in the air so that it would not skip whenever the Toyota 2000 Sienna hit a bump in the road.

Flashback to 3rd grade me, and picture my dad.  He is cooking eggs and pancakes and putting out the cereal options and brewing coffee.  I’m laying peacefully in bed, dreaming.  I am awoken by a guitar, then a bass, and from then and there, the streets have no name.  Bono voices my thoughts….”I wanna run, I want to hide! I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.”

Joshua Tree is one of a handful of records that my dad would play (read: blast!) to wake up the house, to announce the start of the day.  It is a record that is directly responsible for my love of music.  Joshua Tree shaped me and influenced me as a musician, as a music critic, and as a person.


U2 gets a lot of shit these days, from myself included.  They are a band that achieved global stardom and universal acclaim but never sought to reinvent themselves.  Bono, as well intentioned as he may be, is always too explicit and almost always is too painfully corny, his political bombast and generic platitudes too disingenuous.  In his worst moment as an artist he even force-fed us an abysmal album because he knew no one really wanted to listen.  Nonetheless, I remember Joshua Tree fondly and cannot deny its effect on my life.

So the present day me never had the intention to see U2 live, but when they announced they were going to do a Joshua Tree Tour and perform the whole album in its entirety, I immediately signed up for the early ticket access.  I admit I saw it as an opportunity to buy my dad a birthday present, but the thought of experiencing something that affected me so positively in my childhood and giving back and doing that with him was a dream come true.

And it was.  My dad danced and vibed the whole concert with a glint in his eyes that illuminated his pure joy.  After the show he said it was incredible, and that he was at a loss for words (which for him is quite something).  He processed it and ultimately said it was a concert that was simultaneously intellectually stimulating and wildly entertaining, but he did add that at times Bono’s asides were too much.  My father’s analysis is at the core of why those who hate U2 really hate U2.  But at least they are finally accepting their destiny: Joshua Tree is undeniably their magnum opus, and they did the right thing capitalizing on their anniversary tour.  Nonetheless, Bono saw it as an opportunity to grate us with his platitudes.

Before they took the stage, Frank Ocean, Radiohead, and Jamie xx were played, a sad and all-too obvious attempt to seem hip and cool.  Meanwhile, Civil War, slave, and Native American obituaries, speeches, and poems were being scrolled down on the big screen.  There were times during the show when Bono would say “from the left, to the right, we find common ground to achieve higher ground,” and other political things that reminded us too much of the present day.  He thanked America for being an asylum for the Irish (white immigrants) and came razor thin close at times to saying “Fuck Trump,” but instead went back to the United States’ (relatively) open immigration policies.  Luckily, the musical breaks wiped everything clean and were mini moments of incandescent ecstasy.

Going into the show I knew the politics were going to be heavy-handed, but afterwards I did not expect it to make so much sense.  I thought my increased cynicism with age and my absolute dread of reading the news every day would cause me to loathe U2 for tainting my pure moment of nostalgic bonding with my father.  Instead, I found myself thinking of Paul Simon; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Sting, Tracy Chapman, Cat Stevens, and Chile’s very own Inti-Illimani.  They are musicians who are very explicitly political in their art, and my father filled the house every morning with any and all of them.  It was as if he were saying: “okay guys, let’s get up and change the world for the better.”  Whether it was a conscious decision or not, my father brilliantly delivered that lesson in such a gorgeous and implicit fashion that it will never, ever be forgotten. And I will love him forever for it.

2016-04-03-PHOTO-00000026

Lorde, You are not a Liability. You are a Powerful Woman

I really wanted to hate Lorde when she released her debut album.  I was a senior in college and her suburban teenage malaise was not compatible with where I was at in my life.  But lo and behold, her music was inescapable, I heard her croon at parties and her influence hit me regardless of what I wanted.  I thought: here is a white teenage girl complaining about the minutia of her privilege.  How I wanted to hate her, therefore Lorde sucks.

Wanted.  I automatically despised Lorde and the fact that every girl at every party sang along emotionally to all of her lyrics.  Deep down I knew I was judging her for what she looked like: a white, teenaged woman.  The ingrained sexism that I try to dismantle within me everyday triumphed, and I was both pride and prejudice simultaneously.

Deep down I saw how empowered all these women were, and what I was experiencing was disempowerment.  I was on the outside looking in.  Jealous.  I was left out of a circle of women who were singing at the top of their lungs, and as a male identifying person, that is a rare occurrence.

Whatever the thematic and conceptual differences between Lorde’s two albums, the ultimate takeaway from her sophomore effort Melodrama, is that her music is about the emotional difficulty of being a young woman in the world.  “Not easy” at its most understated, fucking impossible at its most real.  “In my head I do everything right,” she sings, but it does not matter if it is in her head or in actuality, some man is going to come around and dismantle all that is seemingly right.  “I am a liability,” she laments on not one, but two songs on Melodrama.

“You’re not what you thought you were……..a liability….”

An enormous part of Lorde’s appeal comes from her maturity.  At 17 years of age she was singing about high school like someone in their late 20’s, early 30’s looking back with wisdom and painful catharsis.  Every time I listen to Pure Heroine, I wish it had come out when I was in high school because it would have staved off so much angst and stereotypical bullshit.  Melodrama doubles down on that, except now she is an adult.  At 19 when the bulk of it was written and at 20 now, she is much wiser than I ever was at that age.  At the very least her art is, and it doesn’t matter if I listen to her music with the lens of a millennial working two jobs and in enormous debt, it speaks volumes to the human experience.

That experience may still be a white privileged one, and that should be noted.  Not often does an artist expose so much and create so much discourse by the age of 19.  Lorde’s music enlightens in such a way that is healthy for progress and empowering to girls everywhere all the while managing not to sound contrite.  I may be older than Lorde by six years, but wisdom isn’t acquired through age, but through experiences.

The most beautiful thing about art is that it is open to interpretation, but it also helps to understand the space and frame of mind the artist was in when they created.  In her interview with the New York Times,  Lorde insisted that Melodrama is not a break up album, but rather “it’s a record about being alone.  The good parts, the bad parts.”

For someone young and fresh out of a long term relationship, “being alone” is essentially the same thing as a break up.  But Lorde is not your normal young person fresh out of a break up.  She knows that one must come to terms with ones self when alone and embrace that identity.  The good and the bad.  Once you learn to love all of that about yourself, then you can move on to better things.  Lorde ghosted for a year, and the pop world is better off because of it.  Melodrama suggests loving is better than not loving at all, and that reflecting on life encourages amelioration.

“But in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power
I’ll find a way to be without you, babe”