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R.E.M. has enjoyed success that is not typical of their brand of “nerd” or “college” rock. Though they began over 20 years ago with the album Murmur (1983), R.E.M. exploded into the mainstream with Out of Time (1991) single “Losing My Religion.” R.E.M.’s early 90’s period has the hallmarks of the band’s career. While Out of Time made R.E.M. famous, Automatic for the People made them a legacy.

automaticcover.jpgR.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992) was their 8th studio album release and is to this date one of their most successful, selling over four million copies. Featuring lead singer Peter Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and (now former) drummer Bill Berry, the album features twelve tracks devoted to a range of topics from death (“Everybody Hurts,” “Try Not to Breathe”) to skinnydipping (“Nightswimming”).

Far from an upbeat album, it has its moments of sunshiny goodness: “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” is bouncy and bright (although it does tend to push Stipe to the limit of his vocal range), and the famous tribute to Andy Kaufman “Man on the Moon” is a bit more upbeat and well-received. However, it becomes clear very quickly that this is not the mood the band was going for, as both songs are placed on far sides of the album from each other, separated by songs like the hit anti-suicide anthem “Everybody Hurts,” the somber melodic guitar-and-orchestra piece “Sweetness Follows,” and the droning hums and interspersed guitar of “Star Me Kitten.”

Though it doesn’t stay true to it, Automatic is at least mainly about death. It certainly does not back away from dark lyrics and heavy orchestra arrangements that drag the music into an almost hypnotic depressive state – but, impressively, it does it in a good way. It doesn’t hurt that orchestra arrangements by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones are on quite a few of the tracks. Without these, it would have been too easy to have empty sad undistinguished music versus the full soothing melancholy it achieves.

And here, fifteen years later, the album proves to be as timeless as it could possibly hope to be. Relevant, heart-wrenching, and lovely, it may be a treasure of acquired taste, but it is a treasure nonetheless. That’s why when my copy became too scratched from hours upon hours of playtime, I bought it again. It is more than a mainstay – it is essential.

There are certain fantasies that grab hold of us with ferocious tenacity when we are growing up. Most of my friends found themselves wrapped up in various fetishes: Magic the Gathering, PlayStation games, the occasional comic book, and a cartoon show. Just as adults had their glorified shows (my grandmother and grandfather watched skating and my mother remembers Northern Exposure rather fondly), we kids had our own religious experiences on Saturday morning. Rarely is the impact from a cartoon so profound as to change the course of someone’s life, but I had the privilege of such a painful cosmic realignment.

Season One GangDigimon: Digital Monsters was an anime from Japan. Season 1 featured eight kids, Tai, Sora, Matt, Mimi, Izzy, Joe, T.K., and Kari (in Season 2, Davis, Yolei, Cody, and Ken are added). All of the kids are endowed with powers from a digital dimension, which they were given Digivices to access. In the beginning, the troop of kids each get their own Digimon (Tai, the leader, had Agumon, a T-Rex type monster) and find out that they are stuck in the Digiworld. They have to fight über-Digimon to get closer to their goal of going home. Along the way, the Digimon find ways to warp into super-über-Digimon, the kids discover more about themselves and what home really means, and the universe struggles to right itself from the surge in evil power that has tipped the balance.

My mid-teen life in many ways revolved around this show. My friends at school watched it. We would discuss what the relationships meant on the show, how the good guys would beat the bad guys in the new episode (because good guys don’t lose), and how stupid it was that <insert character’s name> didn’t use their power in a way that suited our high-fallutin tastes.

But more than this, so much more than this, I found a family in Digimon. It seems so lame, so pathetic, to say that Digimon drove me to expand my writing because I wanted to shape a more satisfactory world for those precious characters. Even so, as the truth often makes us limp and weak, I must admit to that ache of wanting to find a way of shaping a world full of my unrequited love and gratitude for giving me an excuse to have friends.

But even more than this, I found a family through Digimon. When I began writing, ISeason Two Gang stumbled onto Fanfiction.net . I posted my work there, which still exists. I wrote laboriously and lovingly for those characters, becoming an exceptional writer for my age (though now it is embarrassing and archaic to look at). The stories embodied ridiculously mature themes for a children’s TV show, including sex, abusive fathers, and unrequited love. But people loved them. Every once in a while, when I go back to the site, more people have reviewed and said how it made them cry (my claim to fame, as it would appear).

It was through this site that I meant Logan, Angel, Kari, and Aushie – three fellow writers. All were older than me, but Logan and Angel were the oldest. Bonds began to form, connections made, and suddenly Logan and Angel became the father and mother figures, Kari, Aushie, and I, the daughters. All of us had something less than perfect in our lives and the family provided the inadequate surrogate that we all leaned upon and drew life from. For me, Logan was the father I had never had, Angel the stable mother I needed, Kari the wise older sister I wanted, and Aushie the intent listener I loved. Years later, our relationships would disintegrate – Aushie and I would band together, Logan and Angel would stay friends because of geography, and Kari would be devoured by a world hungry for innocence. But at the time, it was love, stability, kindness, and relief.

Perhaps there was a part of us all that loved the show for the simple fact it was Japanese, or that it included good guys touting over-the-top skills on their ostentatious enemies. Or maybe it was even that the characters were cute in their odd, often abstract, ways. Then again, I think it was much more fundamental than to human nature than to kid culture.

The five of us were searching for home, too. We had dreams of stability that could never quite be realized under even the most spectacular of real-life circumstances. I think our finding each other (and finding that our circumstances were as spectacular as they were going to get) gave us a new lease on friendship, faith, love, and steadfastness – which, as young as we all were, we had nearly given up on.

I am not beyond calling the entire spectacle melodramatic. Then again, when a person hallucinates, illusion becomes tangible, magic becomes power, idols become gods. Whether or not we were children who had lost our way in a digital age or not, the danger to us was real: our lives were in danger, our meaning was becoming corroded, our souls were in limbo. Without each other, our lives could have turned out very differently. At many points, I had considered running away or, God help me, suicide. But because of that damn show that came on every Saturday morning, I had been given a way to a means out of loss of faith in my own worth. It grounded me. It chained me. It steadied me. If I were to runaway (or worse), I wouldn’t be able to talk about that episode that night with my dear family. They would miss me, and I never wanted to disrupt the sanctity of our contentment.

Now, looking back, it seems we all wrote each other stories to live by. I’m not so sure it was ever intended, but I believe, with all my heart, that those stories became our lives. Without them, I’m not sure any of us would have ever found the rest we hunted so desperately.

To preface my aesthetic experience, I will say that, though a growing number of people believe video games have been or are becoming art, many people still consider video games the same way they still consider comic books, TV shows, and Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) too “low” to be art. Yes, there might be a good cartoonist, guest star, or clever Photoshop-ist, but they are just that. They are good, but they aren’t artists.

final-fantasy-x-logo.jpgWhen I first started playing, video games were nothing more than interactive entertainment. They were lots of fun, but basic and depth was expressed through a story filtered through graphics that couldn’t give it its due. I think it’s completely fair to say that a large percentage of the games produced were shallow and frustrated attempts at the ideas developers had. In December 2001, Final Fantasy X (FFX) for the PS2 came out. In Fall 2003, I first laid hands on the PS2 and FFX.

Here is a thought experiment to understand the art of FFX: a blank world with people and no history. What would it take to make that world like Earth today? Religion? War? Government? History? Then would that world be comparable? FFX fills these requirements with astounding humanity through story and an entire, mostly visual, cultures. However, there are subtleties that require an education of some caliber to understand. For instance, one of the great swords has a move named after Bushido, the code of the samurai. The summons, called aeons, mirror gods, goddesses, myths, and legends from around the world. If indeed, as many claim, having history behind the strokes of a painting makes it worth more, then most certainly histories behind the histories of the models in a video game are worth something.

When people talk about video games with contempt, they usually cite its attempted realism against it – that is, it fails not because of vision, but because of hardware. This claim, though a bit superficial, has its merit. Generally people do not take giant strides and go no where, fight enemies through a system of hit points, or have places where they cannot go (see: pre-rendered). However, it takes time, as with any art medium, to find a stride where portrayed subjects are mastered (compare early cave paintings to Roman art). For video games, the vision is intact, but the tools to give these visions life are waiting on their own type of mastery. In Final Fantasy X, though the gameplay itself has many unrealistic characteristics, the cinemas are works of meticulous art. From the intro to the end, each cinema (around 50) displays in high detail what the regular gameplay often cannot (character model details, etc.). But what does this all mean in terms of realization and application?

 

Final Fantasy X - Yuna and Tidus The cinemas are art. Though I try not to admit it, I can be quite the elitist. So it means something personal to say, “This is not art, but Art.” Traditionally, art with a capital “A” meant something old, under glass, and only seen in reproduction (or in France). However, Final Fantasy X helped me to realize that this may indeed mean something is classic, but some of the best art ever made, visions just as grandiose as Da Vinci’s or Michelangelo’s, are being drawn/designed/divined as I write. Final Fantasy X changed the lenses I was looking through. “Does <name> have perfect form for it to be called art?” Well, honestly, perfect form is <name>’s vision – there can be no such thing as defined creativity. FFX pushed me into the fresh air from the stuffy faux-aristocratic tastes I had nurtured for so long.

I am, if nothing else, a mediocre historian, but I certainly enjoy learning about the past. However, being on the assimiliation end instead of the manufacturing end of history often feels stale. With Final Fantasy X, there was a sense of undiscovered anthropology. It is the historian’s dream to be able to stumble upon a new civilization. Unsurprisingly, this had a huge effect on how I read into things. I found myself starting to pay more attention, catching the off-the-radar references and reading more on what those references meant for the creator’s vision. When seen this way, everything becomes multi-dimensional.

So yes, a typical “born-again” liberal-artsy person’s admittance to at one point being less than such. But more than that, my experience with Final Fantasy X changed my thought trajectory in art for the next four years (and counting). I hope my readers are willing to believe for a moment that it really isn’t bad for a video game to change my approach to media. No one jeers when someone says that about a painting, now do they?

Awards and Recognition

Echoes in the Coil

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