One of my Youtube playlists features a bunch of random songs I pick up on the radio, movie OSTs, early morning teleshopping ads from the 90s, etc. Because of that, lately I’ve been realizing how much I feel attracted to songs about places: Loco in Acapulco, Do You Know the Way to San Jose, Puerto Rico… It doesn’t even have to be the whole song; a couple of verses expressing what’s like to live and be somewhere are enough. What also fascinates me is the influence those have on the way I conjure those places up in my mind. There’s a reason my idea of San Francisco is entirely based on Hitchcock’s Vertigo and this song:
If my degree in Psychology and my job as a Translator don’t give it away, the context provides a crucial aspect for the way I consume culture. And by ‘context’ I mean something more than a physical place – it’s the cultures, the traditions, moments in time, relationships.
And it’s about those contexts I’ll be writing about today. About those that appeal to me the most, those I don’t care much for and even those which become characters themselves in certain narratives.
For example, I believe it’s fair to state that Game of Thrones has captured a considerable amount of readers and viewers. Not unlike what happened with The Lord of the Rings a few years back, when the Peter Jackson trilogy was released. Other thing they have in common is the diminutive probability that I’ll be dedicating some of (read: a lot) of my time to them. Not because I doubt their quality, far from it; it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up as another regular viewer of GoT. However, there’s a major element which has been hampering my investment: the setting, the context (not surprising, I know, unless you skipped the title or haven’t been paying attention.)
As I get older, my tendency has been to increase the variety of cultural works my time must be divided between – games, movies, books and more – which results in me being pickier regarding what I choose to effectively dedicate that time to. And a work’s context is something I take much into account when making those choices.
Medieval Fantasy? Not really my thing. Sci-fi in the far future? Don’t think so. But this is not to say that everything that is related to these examples is instantly taken off the list. It’s just that 1) their priority is really low, 2) they’re not something I’ll be actively looking for and 3) my ‘tolerance threshold’ for getting invested is much lower. I love Star Wars, and Berserk is one of the best things ever – both set in those settings I mentioned before – and for me they are enough.
With that said, which are those contexts, settings or genres which scratch that itch, make me ask for more and take my initial investment levels to soaring heights? Glad you asked. I’ll list some of them just because of that:
Present or recent Future/Past: while cultural works are used a lot for their escapism-providing qualities, I personally prefer it when the ones I experience challenge me, make me question and make me consider my perspective of the world we live in. And I rather enjoy watching people facing everyday challenges with things which may seem miniscule or unthinkable for most of us, but that, for them, may be of vital importance.
Writer’s Choices: Louie and Horace & Pete by Louis C.K. and REAL by Takehiko Inoue
Victorian Era: be it the gothic architectural style, the extreme disparity between classes or the technology being at a point in their development which make narratives told in this time so appetizing, this is a period which appeals a lot to me. There’s a reason the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have a prime spot on my shelf. Videogame-wise, there’s a great example of how this can have a huge effect and that’s From Software’s games. I’ve been interested in Souls games for some time, with its approaches to storytelling and gameplay, and I watched many LPs. But they didn’t really click with me enough for me to want to actually play them. Thank goodness for Bloodborne then!
Writer’s Choices: The Adventures of Sherlock Homes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bloodborne by From Software
1950 – 80’s: Yeah, this is a pretty big interval, and each decade could have its own separate entry. But for the sake of brevity they won’t, so let’s move on. This period is entrancing for the colours, the way people talked, the way they dressed and the way they lived back then. It’s the era of the Cold War, of absurd expectations and of doubtful “happily ever afters”. Something I love as much as detective and mystery novels are mafia-related tales, with their particular honour and codes of conduct. Where it’s not an abstract law which governs, and unites them, but rather something more personal. Where blood is not all that makes a family. And, much like the previous entry, the technology is just right for compelling stories.
Writer’s Choices: Scarface (1983) and The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
Post-Apocalyptic: Get those zombies away from me. What I want is human beings (or whatever) trying to live in a desolate world, where everything they took for granted is gone. One where people feel the need to really dig deep and understand what it means to live. Also, I’m a fan of human structures overtaken by nature.
Writer’s Choices: Shin Megami Tensei series by ATLUS and Eden: It’s an Endless World by Hiroki Endo
Well, this makes for a rather nice transition to the last part of this blog post: the narrative element of Place as Character (not a technical term as far as I’m aware, but it’ll do.) The mainline Shin Megami Tensei games tend to focus on the clash between ideologies, religions and what it means to be human in a world overrun by supreme beings. And one aspect those four games share is their setting: the city of Tokyo (sorry Strange Journey, you are a true SMT in every way but I need you out of here right now.)
If there’s a common complaint directed at those specific games it usually is the lack of character development. It’s a valid observation, yes, but I feel we need to refer to those focal elements I mentioned above and the creators’ intention. In general, I prefer interesting characters in a run-of-the-mill plot than generic characters in an intriguing plot; however, one should also go on a case-by-case basis and understand what the work wants to convey.
Here, ideologies upstage personal views, the general overtakes the individual. Those who know me are aware how much this drives me nuts – comments like “men this” and “women that” or “teachers something else.” But, once again, let’s refer to the creators’ intent. This kind of balance spreads to the city of Tokyo, the epicentre of all the madness we experience in the games, during which we meet the people who live there and the factions they form. This creates a living, breathing entity which is effected by our actions and which, in turn, influences us. The main dynamic isn’t between characters, it’s between us and the city, and that city is composed by the stories of everyone living there.
Another case I find particularly interesting is the light novel and anime series Durarara!!. In this we follow a young man, Ryūgamine Mikado, as he moves to town of Ikebukuro in search of a more exciting life and finds himself having to deal with larger-than-life individuals on a daily basis. Most, if not all of them, have been at the centre of several urban myths. As the series progresses, he finds himself in a position of being on the cusp of becoming one of those urban myths himself. However, unlike those people he interacts with, he sought after that status, manipulating the context to grant him something the others got inadvertently (for the most part.) This leads to him developing this fear of being forgotten by the town and its people, and making choices and decisions that may help him avoid that fate.
This way, Ikebukuro comes to life and achieves an identity through those who live in it, both the common folk and the less typical ones, and in the ways they try to live life. Which may or may not include supernatural beings, gangs and constant danger.
What I shared at the beginning reminds me of an exercise my 10th grade Philosophy teacher had us do. He played a portion of a song without lyrics, then asked us to listen and share the place it transported us to. He went first and told us that mental image involved Route 66 and a pink Cadillac (?). At the time, I didn’t really get the point of this, or how I should do it even. Interestingly enough, since then I’m almost unable to listen to music any other way, without imagining some kind of place we conjure up together. Including a 50-year old version of San Francisco.