Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Best Stories, Part 1: Avatar the Last Airbender, Firefly, Final Fantasy VII, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, and Telltale Games's 'The Walking Dead'

Stories you read when you're the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you'll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.” -Neil Gaiman

Good fiction both informs and is informed by reality.

I'm not a big reader. It is strange juxtaposing this truth with my being a writer. Do chefs hate food? Only if it's so oily the US wants to invade the plate. I'm not a lover of books, mostly because I find so many books to be poorly-written, and who has sixty hours to read something that everyone says is good but my own two eyes can't stop bleeding at? No, no. I love good books just like I love good movies, and I have no time for bad books just as I have no time for bad movies. Well, not all bad movies.

To confuse the medium for the core, that is, the story, would be a mistake. Different mediums engage different senses, and they engage the intellect differently. I don't care what the medium is. I want a fusion of good story and effective use of the medium. That's why I've collected this list of my favorite stories. They've inspired me as great examples of story and medium fusion. They've inspired me as a storyteller, and in one way or another, they've inspired the Ark Series.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER



Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best stories told in any medium in recent years. Don't let the fact that it was marketed as a kid's show on Nickelodeon, the bad film adaption, or a film with a similar name about blue people throw you off. This three-season series has captured the imaginations of young and old alike, even spawning a new breed of nerds called "Avatards," a sequel show, and a series of offshoot comics chronicling the cast's adventures after Sozin's Comet. The show is a fusion of an East-Asian cultural milieu, Korean animation, and Western storytelling. Its brilliance is multifaceted, from the gorgeous art to the deep mythology, but that brilliance is brightest in the characters, their relationships, motivations, and maturation. Every person who loves stories owes it to themselves to watch this series. You will laugh, cry, and learn.

Plot Summary: The last Airbender, Aang, gone for a century, must join with a ragtag group of friends as he masters the four elements, embraces his destiny, and fights to restore peace and balance to a war-torn world.

The Good: Season two, episode fifteen: "Tales of Ba Sing Se." Wang Fire. Appa vs Momo. "My cabbageeees!" Kataang.

The Bad and Ugly: Season one, episode eleven: "The Great Divide." Zutarra.

FIREFLY



Joss Whedon's Firefly is considered by many to be the best show that got the worst rap, having been cancelled by Fox after only eleven episodes aired in late 2002. Despite what should have been a quiet birth, life, and death, the show spawned a subculture of "Browncoats" who functioned as "evangelists" bringing the gospel of Firefly to a fan base that has exploded in the past decade. The dedication of the Browncoats is not for nothing, either. Firefly features an outstanding nine-person ensemble cast of misfits and misbehavers, chronicling their adventures on the outskirts of proper civilization as they run not-so legal jobs for not-so nice clients. Firefly is a perfect mix of comedy, drama, and action, and a worthy example for any storyteller to enjoy and learn from. Perhaps most impressive is Whedon's ability to appropriately caricature people with beliefs he himself does not hold to. Shiny.

Plot Summary: Captain Malcolm Reynolds just wants to keep flying after he and his Browncoats lose the war against the Alliance. Six years later, things get complicated when he and his crew of mercs and brigands choose to harbor two Alliance fugitives: a surgeon and his genius sister-turned research specimen.

The Good: Fewer shows are more quotable.

The Bad and Ugly: The good die young.

FINAL FANTASY VII BY SQUARE-ENIX



Widely considered the greatest entry in the Square-Enix's Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy VII captured the hearts of millions of males between the ages of 12 and 25 when it was released on the Sony Playstation in 1997. Mercenary Cloud Strife is recruited by childhood friend, Tifa Lockeheart, to fight alongside rebel group AVALANCHE in their war against the mega-corporation Shinra, Inc. The battle against Shinra turns into a quest to save the planet from total annihilation when Cloud's old mentor-turned-nemesis, Sephiroth, emerges from the shadows and starts impaling people with his novelty-sized katana. FF7 was a triumph not only in terms of its addictive and intuitive game play, but in graphics, music, and its cyberpunk-influenced setting and story, unforgettable characters, and the untimely death of one of gaming's most beloved heroines. No entry in the Final Fantasy series has received so many cries for a remake on a next-generation gaming platform as FF7, and no entry has had so great an impact on gaming and on gaming as a medium of serious storytelling.

Plot Summary: The mega-corporation, Shinra, Inc., is destroying the planet by turning the planet's life-energy into a cheap fuel source. Cloud Strife, Tifa Lockheart, Barret Wallace, Aerith Gainsborough, Red XIII, Yuffie Kisaragi, Cait Sith, Vincent Valentine, and Cid Highwind face off against Shinra, but when the enigmatic Sephiroth returns, it becomes clear that he is the true threat to the planet.

The Good: Revolutionized video games.

The Bad and Ugly: Aside from a few highlights since 1997, it marked the beginning of Square's decline as an RPG developer.

STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC BY BIOWARE



"For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire." This innocuous statement of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope was used, nearly three decades later, as the basis for a tremendous addition to the Star Wars myth. I bought an Xbox in 2003 for the sole purpose of playing Knights of the Old Republic because of its highly-addictive game play and customizable RPG-interface. I replayed the game six times in a row because of the story. I could spoil this for you right now, unversed Internet friend, but I'm not going to. I'm not gonna do you like that. But this is a story to experience, if for no other reason than the obnoxious commentary of HK-47. This story isn't about Star Wars. It's about friendship and forgiveness; betrayal and redemption. It's about the tightrope walk between good and evil. And confound it, it's about lightsabers.

The Plot: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....

For Real, the Plot: It is 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars films. You, an average Joe, are discovered to be a prodigious Force-sensitive and are recruited into the Jedi Knights as the Jedi Civil War rages on. When you discover a "Starmap" on the planet Dantooine, it becomes clear to all that the key to dethroning the fallen Jedi, Darth Malak, can be discovered only by you. With a team of Jedi, soldiers, scoundrels, and droids at your side, you embark on a quest to bring Malak down and restore peace to the Old Republic.

The Good: A serious, complex plot that still manages to be undeniably Star Wars.

The Bad and Ugly: It's so short. (And apparently now that Disney owns Star Wars, KOTOR is myth, not canon.)

THE WALKING DEAD BY TELLTALE GAMES



If the 20th century taught us anything, it's that humans literally possess the technology to destroy themselves. If Star Wars inaugurated a brief breath of optimism in the face of World-War-induced pessimism, then our culture's present obsession with all things undead is pessimism's pissed-off retort. Zombies as we understand them today were cast in stone by George Romero, so The Walking Dead didn't so much invent the genre as it did present it in a deeply-human way (The Walking Dead is categorically a drama, whereas Romero's Dead films are gruesome dark comedies and satires), touching on our most primal fears and instincts: lack of food and shelter, fear of the unknown, the unleashing of death from the cage modern science and medicine have put it in, and a thousandfold reemergence of tribalism. Telltale's Walking Dead game succeeds at the august task, much like Knights of the Old Republic, of achieving a level of storytelling that is on par or perhaps even exceedingly better than that of the original. Brilliance takes many forms, friends, and this apocalyptic tale strikes all the right chords. The sheer stress of playing this game forced me to put it down for a few months to center myself. In a world without laws, is it morally justifiable to execute or assassinate someone who has proven themselves a threat to you and yours? What lengths will you go to to protect a little girl you barely know? It's a beautifully-written, beautifully animated, beautifully acted, and beautifully tragic story.

Plot Summary: Lee Everett is on his way to prison after being found guilty of murder, but when his police escort runs off the road after hitting a zombified pedestrian, Lee finds himself suddenly surrounded by the living dead. He soon befriends young Clementine, taking the girl under his wing as the two struggle to survive in a savage, amoral world.

The Good: Immersion. The decisions you have Lee make impact how other characters respond. The story feels like the real world. Literary tropes demand that love interests be explored and that characters have arcs. In the Walking Dead, many desires go unfulfilled, and lives are often cut tragically short, leaving the player breathless and unsatisfied with how things turned out. This, though, serves to drive home the cruelty of an apocalyptic world and draws the player further into this complex drama.

The Bad and Ugly: F-bombs left and right, to the point that the writer's voice comes through. Different characters should have different ways of expressing anger and frustration.



That's it for now. Thanks for reading!



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