Monday, October 22, 2018

What I Learned About Puberty Playing Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

To be honest, I was shooting blanks this week. There’s a lot going on in my life right now, so it’s difficult to focus on one thing at a time. Right now I’m studying for a Networking Certification (for IT) and my daughter just got into Montessori Preschool (awesome) that will cost an additional $250 a month than what we are paying now (not awesome). But that’s an investment I’m willing to make in my daughter’s future, so whatevs’.
                But yesterday, in a moment of tongue-in-cheek amusement, it dawned on me that this one PC game I had fun playing back when I was in Middle School/High School, seemed to carry with it a deeper purpose, one that personally resonated with me. Truth be told, I am not much of a gamer anymore, unless there is a very directed and interesting story running through the game. (I’ve always believed that video games are a contemporary form of pulp fiction entertainment. Readily available and easily discarded.) For instance, The Witcher 3 is a masterclass of interactive storytelling, with a fascinating intertextual analysis of both Fantasy and Science-Fantasy genres existing in the same world. (Portals, guys!). The Stanley Parable also is an interactive discourse in determinism and the illusion of free will presented in videogames in general. (The player feels in control of their destiny, but in reality they are being tricked into running a predetermined maze built on the foundation of mathematics, code, and scripted sequences.) These two are among many examples of incredible storytelling in the gaming medium, but that’s not what this entry is about. It’s about the cartoonish and willful depictions of Vampire clans in pop-culture and roleplaying, specifically how they are rendered in the gameplay of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodliness (a PC iteration of the world-renown tabletop RPG) and how these clans embody the fantasies of young adult society.

The following is an individual treatment of each clan, all of which I had an opportunity to play through the story of Bloodlines about 15 years ago (good god, I’m old…). The central thesis of this entry was listed above and the below serve to establish it..
From Left to Right: Two Brujah and One Malkavian

One of the easier clans to play as in Bloodlines is the Brujah, because of their favoring strength and less-than-diplomatic resolutions to puzzles and conflict. In gaming terminology, you could call this class a “tank,” meant to absorb damage and draw conflict away from more surgical players exercising specific, high power abilities with long “cool-downs” (aka, the time required to elapse before an ability can be used again). The Brujah are described in the game as anarchists, those against the system, passionate about causes that benefit the disenfranchised. I am keenly aware of the youthful rebellion associate with puberty, and the Brujah epitomize radicalization, independence, and strength. It’s the ideal class for any pasty kid with angst for days and a mom and dad hell-bent of getting them to go to church on Sunday mornings. The need to feel like you have a voice in a crowd, and be loud enough to shout them all down, is such a desire as a young kid going to high school. This game capitalizes on that fervor with profound alacrity.

A clan that I personally identified with was the Gangrel. Gangrels are loaners, wild things that like to do what they want to do and don’t care about the trappings of social commitments. They are content to run free in the forest, transforming into animals and vaping THC oil. Gangrel are depicted in Bloodlines as stoners meshed with furries out of costume. While they are more likely to embrace bestial instincts, its more because they just want to be left the hell alone. I mentioned that I personally identified with this clan, primarily because I didn’t subscribe to any institutions growing up. I didn’t play organized sports (and if I did, I never stuck with one), I didn’t participate in social clubs, and I didn’t have friends at all really. I was content in my own world, which for a lot of kids growing up, is enough. Adolescence is the critical period for finding your identity, and for some that time hasn’t arrived yet. That’s why there’s college.

The Malkavians is one of my least favorite clans in Bloodlines, despite having some of the best dialogue options in the game. This clan in essence is grounded in utter insanity, and the traits demonstrated in the game favor those with unique resolutions to quests or puzzles in general. I don’t like this clan because there’s certain people in High School that I despised that readily subscribe to the modus operandi of the Malkavians, in that they didn’t ever shut the fuck up. Giggly teens constantly talking and pretending that they (and their antics) are god’s gift to the world are incorrigible and irritating as fuck. In the game specifically, Malkavians demonstrate a certain prescience and ability to have insight into potentially ambiguous situations. I find this unendingly amusing, because anyone who is crazy believes that they are the only authority on everything. This manifests in the professional world in the form of “one-upmanship,” where you might be talking to a co-worker about how you found a really great deal on chicken breasts at Sprouts, and this motherfucker comes in and says, “oh yeah? This weekend I went to ONE THOUSAND STORES.” And you just want to punch them in the throat, but can’t because medical insurance.

From Left to Right: Malkavian, Nosferatu, and possible Kuei-Jin (Asian Vampire)
In High School, I was very sensitive. Constantly unmoored by love and it’s entanglements. I did a lot of stupid things back then because I just wanted to feel loved, by someone, anyone. In Bloodlines the Toreador clan emphasizes a lot of these romantic tendencies of young adults. If Romeo and Juliet were vampires, they would be Toreador, because they saw each other for an instant and fell apocalyptically in love with each other. Like calling your girlfriend/boyfriend on the phone and talking to them for hours about stupid shit and then having a game of chicken at the end to see who will hangup first. The Toreador clan fulfills the fantasy of passionate, sensual love to every teenager. They are obnoxious like everyone in the Twilight franchise. And they have the power to seduce and charm, a power that every awkward middle schooler wished they had the ability to exercise on command, instead of just hanging out by the snack bar on hay bales waiting for dance to be over. If the Toreador clan was a philosophical movement in history, they would be the embodiment of the Romantics, in essence.

The Tremere, a clan of blood sorcerers and adept followers of magiks, I have difficulty placing into my paradigm of “clans analogous to middle school and high school experiences.” I will say that at my highschool there was a lot of people involved in new age pagan movements, such as Wicca and Asatru Paganism. (In matters of religion I am less vitriolic than I was in college.) Suffice to say, the art of divination and extispicy garners it’s coarse reputation by established religious norms, because magic (at least in Judeo-Christian religious tradition) is seen as a means of hacking reality or rigging the system. In essence, the practitioner is unhappy with the current state of reality and endeavors to change it. So, maybe the Tremere represent a sophisticated symbol of my desire to cheat on my math tests? Otherwise I think it’s safe to say that the RPG developers of Masquerade were like, “fuck! We need wizards,” and voila.

 Oh boy. The Ventrue. Those destined to be hated because they live on top of the social ladder. The Ventrue are the elite bourgeoisie of vampire culture. To be one of them, is to be adored. To not be one of them, it to jealously admire them from a distance. In High School and Middle School, everyone wants to be popular. Popularity is both a tool of power and affection. Power is an active principal, typically a force moving outward on to other people. (ie. Using your status to gain favors or influence certain social politics.) Affection is a passive principal. The adoration of those below you who desire to advance their own social position is gratifying in two ways. First, you feel like you are royalty, which implies you have a good life. Second you have the power to dictate the social hierarchy. The Ventrue idealizes a foundational desire in young adults to feel like they can move up in the social hierarchy. Moving up allows us to get better friends, or access a promotion and perks. Popularity is the ultimate distillation of the Ventrue. And the favors afforded by them are so morally compromised, you might as well sell your soul to the devil.

Last, but not least is the Nosferatu clan, who apparently live in the sewers because they are so ugly that just seeing them would expose the Vampire Illuminati. Those that feel completely isolated from society because of their looks or because of their circumstances, identify well with the Nosferatu. Their external appearance (sociological or physical) would compel these individuals to the heights of critical acclaim, like a scorned nerd in high school growing up to manage a tech empire and marry into a harem of trophy wives and extramarital partners. The Nosferatu are resourceful and adept at gathering intelligence. In other words they are indispensable lackeys. I didn’t know anyone like this in High School, truth be told. So maybe the Nosferatu is the AV Club?
So there you have it, my wild hair-brained theory. 

All in jest of course.

Friday, October 5, 2018

King of The Hill’s Legacy as THE Animated Sitcom

Earlier last year my boss gave me the first six seasons of King of the Hill as a gift, but I’ve had a longstanding admiration for the show and had seen most, if not all, of the episodes. Re-watching the show uncovered old memories and reflections that compelled me to write what you are about to read. I was exposed to the show both when I was a young kid and an adult, first watching the episodes on Fox during the celebrated Sunday night lineup, and catching re-runs on Cartoon Network’s adult programming block, Adult Swim. For those not familiar with the premise (heaven forbid it), the story is centered around the Hills, a family living in a Texan small town called Arlen, based off of other cities found in the DFW Metroplex. Even though the population is around 140,000 people, local tradition is defiantly proud, with many people out on their doorsteps supporting parades, high school football games, and patronizing local business, all centered close to the town. Outside the city limits, other small towns with their own traditions and cultures staunchly enforced, rival that of Arlen, the chief being the town of McMaynerberry. The entire show focuses on the rural life of Middle America with a comedic, astute level of detail. The show’s creator, Mike Judge, who grew up in Texas in a town very much like Arlen is privy and intimately familiar with the regional attitudes and customs.
                Of course, the show’s titular character, Hank Hill, is the star of the show, depicted as an idealistic, naive, suburbanite with unapologetic moral character. And though the first season depicted Hank as coarse and stereotypically conservative, the depth of his character comes to light in subsequent seasons, as writers of the show created the portrait of a man that is principled yet capable of easily misunderstanding the changing world around him. Hank is exposed to modern elements of the world (cosmopolitan, postmodern ideals, “liberal” ideologies, unique subcultures, and various ethnicities) throughout the show’s duration, often following a plot like the one below:
  1. ·         Hank encounters a subculture
  2. ·         Hank struggles with the values of that subculture.
  3. ·         Hank ultimately accepts or rejects the subculture (by reasoned or arbitrary means).
The tension between tradition and new thought is constant, ultimately striking a perplexingly palatable middle ground. In this regard, Hank truly is the archetypical American male acting as an ecumenical bridge between liberalism and conservatism. 
                The supporting characters in the show are varied across different socioeconomic backgrounds and ideas. Hank is supported by his wife Peggy and his son Bobby. (Their relationship I will elaborate on later.) Hank’s neighbors, all of whom are developed throughout the series, are colorfully nuanced. Dale Gribbel, Boomhauer, and Bill Dauterive serve to contrast Hank’s ideals. Dale is a conspiracy theorist, paranoid and unsettled. Opposite of Dale is Bill, a hopelessly na├»ve and sad individual, willing to believe anything if the result is his own gratification. Boomhauer is the least developed in the series, but strikes a moderate balance between Dale and Bill while still retaining faults and complexity.

                Dale and Bill are easily my favorite characters in the show due to their co-dependency featured throughout the show’s run. Despite being characterized as a conspiracy theorist and always suspicious of the world he occupies, Dale often makes inaccurate assessments of his surroundings. And despite the trouble he gets into, Hank sees him as a friend that he can confide in, even though Hank’s father, Cotton Hill (an embittered war hero), continually presses Dale to antagonize Hank. A prominent plot point featured in the show is Dale being cuckolded by John Redcorn, an Anasazi descendent that drives an open top Jeep blasting 80s metal. Dale is entirely unaware that his son Joseph, with dark, rust colored skin, is not his biological son. Yet, despite being completely unaware of this, Dale continues to be a good father, immersed in his own male fantasy of charisma and sexual bravado.
                Dale’s opposite, Bill, I believe acts a foil. Where Dale initiates conflict, Bill participates willingly because he is so morosely depressed. Bill’s background is that of a well-to-do football athlete of rising acclaim. Once possessing the bravado and popularity as a record-holding high school senior, Bill’s strength is reduced by a manipulative woman (Lenore) who utterly ruins his life. Bill makes me laugh the hardest, as I watch this picturesque, sad individual constantly undercut himself. Bill’s character is a catharsis to his friends who have, for better or worse, moved on from their high school legacies and embraced domesticity. Bill’s talent as a barber, however, unites him with Hank, as he is the only one capable of giving Hank his signature haircut. But even before this, there is a resounding love Hank feels for his friend Bill, and he is always willing to cheer him up, if only to distract Bill from how depressing his life is.

                Cotton Hill, Hank’s father is a WWII veteran who was crippled by enemy fire in the Pacific Theater. Often prone to exaggerating his stories, Cotton hangs his suffering over the heads of all he meets, his son Hank foremost, and Peggy as well (who Cotton only refers to as “Hank’s Wife” in a chauvinistic and demeaning tone).The conflict between Hank and his father dominates the show throughout its run, ultimately ending with Cotton’s death. Mostly this is by contrasting vitality. Hank, who is getting older and struggled to conceive his son Bobby with Peggy, observes his own father (easily in his mid-seventies) impregnate a trophy wife and who then gives birth to Hank’s uncle. Hank’s insistence on “manly” activities and hobbies does not compensate for the deep unreciprocated love he feels for his father. Cotton essentially serves as Hank’s bully in the many flashbacks to Hank’s youth. Still, Cotton is outrageous and principled, nearly making up for his deficiencies as a husband and father. In one episode, Cotton is forced out of a home that he can no longer afford. After a failed attempt at rejoining society, Cotton contemplates suicide, so that his wife and newborn can benefit from a large life insurance policy. And as Hank realizes what his father is about to do, he discovers his father teaching his newborn how to shoot in the attic of the VFW. And Hank, relieved, is able to convince his father to accept financial assistance, which Cotton begrudgingly accepts. Like the entire cast of King of the Hill, Cotton is portrayed as a flawed individual with little to like about him as a person, but can be endearing for his severe independence, as appears in the following recounting of his war exploits against Imperial Japanese soldiers:
“I was fourteen, just a little older than Bobby. But I knew Uncle Sam needed me, so I lied and signed up. We had beat the Nazzys in Italy, and they shipped me to the Pacific Theater. A Tojo torpedo sent our troop ship to the bottom. I could only save three of my buddies: Fatty, Stinky, and Brooklyn. They were kind of like you fellas [to Bill, Dale, and Boomhauer], only one of them was from Brooklyn. Out of the sun came a Tojo Zero and put fitty bullets in my back. The blood attracted sharks. I had to give 'em Fatty. Then things took a turn for the worse. I made it to an island, but it was full of Tojos! They were spitting on the U.S. flag! So I rushed 'em, but it was a trap. They opened fire and blew my shins off. Last thing I remember, I beat 'em all to death with a big piece of Fatty. I woke up in a field hospital, and they were sewing my feet to my knees."
                Without any hesitation, I can say definitively that Hank and his son Bobby’s relationship is a definitive study in character development in the medium of television. What I find so charming about Bobby is how different he is from his father. While Hank is very aware of who he is and what he wants to be, Bobby continuously vacillates between hobbies, others characterized as bizarre and unconventional. Bobby’s tenure includes stand-up comedy, professional dog dancing, being a magician and ventriloquist, playing soccer, and adopting a feral raccoon. Each of these bizarre hobbies, of course, irritates Hank, yet the ultimate result is Hanks’s acceptance of his son. This constitutes a dynamic relationship underscoring Hank’s prejudice, but also his willingness to challenge his beliefs because of the love he has for his son. Oftentimes the end result is Hank “winning Bobby over” with his conservative values, but the progressive attitude of Bobby opens Hank’s mind to new experiences and beliefs, chiefly with his relationship with his neighbor Kahn Souphanousinphone’s daughter Kahn Jr. (alluding to Kahn’s own disappointment that he had a girl, instead of a boy).
                I hope I still have you with me. (I love this show!) Suffice to say, I will leave you with this final picture of how King of the Hill masterfully completed its arc in the concluding season of the show. In the final episode it is revealed that Bobby is very adept at grading butchered meat, and he takes his talent to a national competition where he ultimately wins. The closing shot of the show is Bobby and Hank grilling together (as Hank is an enthusiast of “propane and propane accessories”), finally united by a complimentary hobby. It’s a beautiful moment of unification, where opposites attract and Hank is truly, without pause, proud of his son.