February 27, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper

I just got home from watching "American Sniper". I have read about a dozen reviews, all of them filled with superlatives, many of them loaded with accusations about the intent of the movie. By now everyone knows that various Hollywood blowhards have come out lambasting this film as "pro-war propaganda". Some reviews are overflowing with hatred for Al Qaeda and native Iraqis while others are filled with hatred of America. If you haven't noticed any of the controversy surrounding this movie then I have to assume you live off the grid somewhere quiet and I kind of envy you for it.

Now that I have seen the movie I can honestly say I don't know what all the fuss is about. If there is any one word that would describe this movie that word would be, "restrained." There is no political message in the movie that I can see. Maybe I'm blind to it or immune to it or maybe I'm just stupid, but as far as I can tell there is no political message in the movie at all. The movie opens with Chris Kyle and his father out hunting. The father is presented as overbearing, emotionally abusive, and deeply opinionated about the human race. Those opinions are not favorable, but nowhere does he come across as racist, partisan, or even deeply religious. He's just strongly opinionated. If you disagree with his opinions you're going to dislike him. If you agree with them you're going to love him. He is a man that holds no gray. I found the character kind of one-dimensional, so much so that I'm not certain why they felt it was necessary to include him. Granted, I have not read Chris Kyle's book. It is entirely possible the movie depicts the man the same way the book does, but I wouldn't know.

For the first couple of acts Chris Kyle goes from the son of an emotionally abusive father to a rodeo cowboy specializing in bronco riding. Now you might have some opinions about rodeo as a sport and bronco busting itself, but none of the those opinions are in the movie. It's a job he had before he became a soldier. He comes home from a rodeo to find his live-in lover in bed with another man, there's a tussle, but it's neither particularly violent nor particularly emotional. It is a surprisingly restrained scene. So much so that the attempt at delivering a humorous one-liner at the very end of the scene falls completely flat. There is no tension for the humor to dispel.

Then comes the terror attacks on our embassies in east Africa. This prompts young Chris to join the Navy and become a SEAL. He is 30 years old at the time, a bit old for a SEAL, which his instructor pounds into his head over and over again, but Chris Kyle sticks it out and becomes a SEAL. He then meets Taya and they date while he is in Sniper training. One thing that happens during this brief period is the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The day he is married he learns his team is being shipped off to Iraq. His team is eager to get over there and do some damage, but Bradley Cooper presents Chris Kyle as being somewhat ambivalent. After all, this is his wedding day.

Off to war he goes. Four tours altogether. We don't see many of his kills, which is a good thing. In fact, none of the combat scenes are particularly over the top. We learn his first kill was a woman and her son as they were trying to toss a grenade at an American convoy. We see Chris Kyle emotionally torn by this a bit, but again, this emotional turmoil is highly restrained and is neither overplayed nor underplayed. It happened, he hurt, but there is no reason any rational person should come away from this scene deeply disturbed by either the barbarism of a woman and son attacking soldiers or the horror of a woman and son being killed by a sniper. Like the rest of the movie, this potentially divisive scene which could easily be twisted into some kind of statement is not allowed to become a metaphor for anything. I suppose you could say there is no depth here. I would have to disagree. I feel that the lack of a clear symbolic impact gives the scene an even more profound message than it would have had if it had been pushed into being a metaphor for one political ideology or another. War is hell. Sometimes civilians die. Sometimes they die because they try to participate in the war. It is a simple reality and that is how the movie presents it.

There are many places like that in the movie. Enemy combatants have organization and intelligence. There is no gratuitous slaughter of anonymous brown guys going on. There is, instead, a strong effort made to show that these people are indeed, ordinary humans with goals and ideals that put them at odds with the American soldiers. The soldiers themselves are never presented as battle-hungry wild animals, occupying imperialists, chest-pounding heroes, or any of the other popular extremes Hollywood loves to depict. These are ordinary men a long way from home doing a dangerous job because they believe that by doing so they are protecting their homeland.

There are stories told of people coming out of the theater talking about how they want to go kill Iraqis. If those stories are true then those attitudes are something the people brought into the theater and not something the movie gave them. Just the opposite. If anything there is an overwhelming sense of tragedy in the movie, an acknowledgement that the entire war was both necessary and wasteful, which is something that holds true for almost every conflict since World War One.

There are also reviewers who tried to turn the tables and say that in fact this is an anti-war movie. Well, if so, then they missed the scenes where Chris Kyle watches in horror as people climb over the ruins of American embassies looking for survivors or shares a painful moment with Taya watching the towers collapse on CNN. I know exactly how they feel. That was exactly how it happened to me. My wife called from work to say something was happening in New York. I turned on CNN to find one of the towers burning. A short time later, as I was watching, the second plane struck. For several minutes even the CNN newscasters did not realize what had happened. It was kind of surreal, listening to them recount the first attack while speculating endlessly if this was some kind of accident and if so, how it might have happened, as the second plane hits, then there is a pause as the plane shreds itself inside the building, fuel splashing through the interior, and then the explosion. And the whole time the CNN folks are speculating over what could have caused such a tragic accident.

Restrained. That was the overall impression I took away from the movie. The Iraqi war was a tragedy, the way Chris Kyle died was a tragedy, but his service was as heroic as any normal human can achieve. His relationship with his wife was filled with both passion and heartbreak. His life was as important as any human life can be. In the same way, his nemesis in Iraq, a Syrian sniper named Mustafa, has a wife and a child and is a former Olympian who won a Gold medal for Syria. War brought these two men together, made them enemies, and both of them died tragically.

The real question, of course, is whether or not I would recommend the movie. I think, yes. The movie lacks both the chest-pounding machismo of "The Expendables" and the gut-wrenching horror of "Saving Private Ryan." It is a very realistic movie, presenting realistic people making realistic decisions for realistic reasons. It is not boring, but it is very restrained and understated. Hollywood has a very difficult time presenting realism, but in the case of "American Sniper" I think Clint Eastwood has managed to succeed in a very convincing way. It is a good movie, but it is not a great one. If pressed, I guess would have to say that it is in fact the lack of greatness that makes "American Sniper" one of the most important movies Hollywood has ever produced. So, "yes", you should definitely see it.

(As a final footnote, it should be mentioned that the movie character of Mustafa, Chris Kyle's nemesis on the battlefield, is a fictional character. He fills an important role in that he allows us to see the enemy as human beings with an opposing agenda, but he is not real. I suppose it comes as no surprise that even in one of the most realistic films Hollywood has ever produced, there had to be at least one completely fictional character. As I noted above, Hollywood has a very hard time dealing with reality.)

February 23, 2015

Remembering Dusty Enalios

I don't remember exactly when I first logged into City of Heroes. I don't have any screenshots from those early days. My first experience was during the Closed Beta. I was in one of the last groups allowed in. I also played in the Open Beta. The character creator captured my imagination almost immediately, but the gameplay itself was lackluster, the writing was uninspired, and the archetypes were hopelessly unbalanced. The game was designed around the Tank-Damage Dealer-Healer holy trinity that has infected far too many online games. Crowd control was added in the form of "Controllers", but the class was very nearly useless and did not attract many players. The two classes that completely dominated the game in those early days were Blasters and Scrappers. A Katana/Regeneration Scrapper of middling levels could literally take on and defeat any enemy in the game, including enemies intended for multiple teams. The battle would be long, and the Scrapper would have to dodge most of the attacks, but their damage output surpassed even the fastest regenerating enemies and their /Regeneration secondary could heal faster than the enemy could deliver damage. Provided the Scrapper only took every other blow, or better yet every third blow, they would end the fight with a full or nearly full health meter.

Naturally this did not go over well with the Tanks, who were supposed to be the damage sinks that led the charge, depending on the Scrappers and Blasters to actually do the damage while the Defender debuffed the enemy and healed the Tank. Right around the time of commercial release or perhaps shortly thereafter, /Regeneration was redesigned with more powers toggled on and off, thus requiring Endurance to function. This meant the Scrapper now had to pay attention to their Endurance bar because if it fell below the requirements of the toggles, they switched off and regeneration stopped functioning. Tanks were also given a damage boost and their /Invulnerability power was given a broader spectrum of resistances. These changes, unfortunately, created a situation where teams would go into a mission and wait by the door while the Tank cleared the mission of enemies and defeated the Boss, earning everyone a nice bonus. Players like myself fled the game in droves.

I had already purchased a one year subscription. In the long run, this was always cheaper so whenever I joined a game the first thing I did was subscribe for a full year. In the case of City of Heroes, this meant that for about six months I was paying for a game that I wasn't playing, which is normally not a good thing, but turned out to be a real godsend. Cryptic Studios answer to the flood of players leaving the game was to recreate it from the ground up and add on the new version as a hold out for supervillains. After all, a world with superheroes is not much of a world if it doesn't also have supervillains. Right about this time Jack Emmert sold his ownership of the game to NC Soft, making them the sole shareholders in the game. NC Soft has done many things wrong in their quest to dominate the world of online gaming, but this time they made a move that proved to be absolutely genius: they consolidated the entire staff at Cryptic Studios into a new, wholly-owned American subsidiary called, "Paragon Studios" and gave the folks at Paragon one dictum: turn a profit.

City of Villains proved to be an enormous improvement over City of Heroes, at least in my opinion. The first thing Paragon Studios did was abandon the holy trinity of gaming. Every class in City of Villains could solo the game from beginning to end. Joining teams was possible, but never necessary. The weaker classes in City of Heroes (Defenders and Controllers) were beefed up enough so that with careful play even while playing solo they could accomplish most of the gameplay on the Heroside, but teaming up still gave them huge advantages in terms of survivability and rate of progress. A small crowd of people left the game in disgust when they learned that the Heroes would not be able to fight the Villains and the Villains would not be able to beat up ordinary civilian NPCs. The influx of new players and the return of thousands of players like myself more than made up for the loss. I did not read the NC Soft quarterly report every single quarter, but every time I did read it, Paragon Studios was turning a profit and sending money to South Korea. In several quarters, they were the only NC Soft title outside South Korea that turned a profit and sent it back to the home office. Making money inside South Korea has never been a problem for NC Soft. However, their overseas titles have never enjoyed the same level of success. City of Heroes/City of Villains was often the exception to the rule. Now that Paragon Studios has been abandoned, it seems that Wildstar is turning a profit, but I haven't checked 4thQ2014 results and there are rumors that Wildstar is struggling.

The first character I created in City of Villains is really not worth remembering. The second character, however, became an obsession. Dusty Enalios was a Technology origin Robotics/Traps Mastermind. She rose to the maximum level possible, and when it became available, she completed the tasks necessary to become an Incarnate, but never gathered enough materials to create the proper Enhancement to "activate" her Incarnate status. If I had focused exclusively on her, then I no doubt could have accomplished it, but it was always far too much fun to go off and create a new character. I did play her on the last day the servers were live, but neglected to save any screenshots from that fateful day. She finished her career creating a four story mission arc in the Mission Architect, publishing it, and then running through it two or three times. Afterwards she went outside to spend the last few minutes of the game's life interacting with the community. This morning I did a brief write up about her on a forum for a new hero game being designed and created by CoH/CoV refugees. I wanted to record it here along with a few pictures of her career.

Dusty Enalios
Mastermind, Robotic/Traps

From the time she was a small child Dusty Enalios had a penchant for two things: thievery and assembling working robots from whatever materials fell to hand. When other girls were playing with stuffed animals and nursing baby dolls, Dusty was assembling robots from blocks of wood scavenged at local construction sites held together by glue, kite strings, and cabinet hinges. She powered these wooden robots with electric motors swiped from RC toys owned by boys in the neighborhood. In elementary school teachers learned to keep a close eye on her because if they didn't, they would find her in a closet somewhere building robots from cleaning supplies.

A few days after her sixteenth birthday Dusty Enalios was arrested breaking into a local shop that specialized in items used by heroes who depended on Science and Technology to perform their good works. She shut down the alarm system, disarmed all of the stores electronic locks, and probably would have gotten away clean if a claws wielding hero hadn't stopped by to check why the store's lights were on at four in the morning. The encounter left her blind in one eye with three scars across the left side of her face and carrying a deep seated hatred for all things heroic. She was dropped into the deepest warrens of Ziggursky Penitentiary where she probably would have lived out the remainder of her days if it weren't for Arachnos.

Dusty Enalios was one of the thousands of superpowered prisoners freed during one of Arachnos early raids on the Zig. They very quickly learned to regret freeing her as she tore through the Rogue Isles building up a powerful robot army, defeating countless elite Arachnos troops, taking out half a dozen Arbiters, and eventually defeating every member of Lord Recluse's inner circle. It is rumored but cannot be proven that Dusty and Lord Recluse met on the burning shell of an alternate reality in an epic duel that left no doubt Lord Recluse had very real limits to his near omnipotence. Although she never joined the ranks of the Incarnate, there are stories told in whispered voices of gods that crossed her path and barely survived.

Dusty Enalios has not been heard from for a few years now. It is said she retired to a quite corner of Croatoa where Red Caps serve her meals, Fir Bolg guard her gates, and Witches keep her appraised of world events.

It is not certain when, but somewhere along the line she had the damage to her face repaired and her left eye replaced. Her right eye is her natural blue, but her left eye is a brilliant emerald green.

This is Dusty Enalios robbing a bank on her first day in the Rogue Isles:

This is Dusty Enalios at level 50, the maximum level in the game, with all of her robot companions:

And this is the very last screenshot I still have of her. It was taken on January 18, 2008:

With everything that is happening in the world right now, it seems silly to be posting old screenshots from a game that shut down almost three years ago. My life has changed quite a bit since I created Dusty Enalios in City of Villains back on November 9th, 2005. Our world has changed irrevocably and it seems that ever since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the world has spiraled further and further down the path to complete, total self-destruction. I honestly do not expect our civilization to last another decade, and that is the optimist side of me. If I give him rein to run loose, the pessimist in me cannot imagine our world making it to the end of 2015 without some kind of shattering event. Perhaps a world war, perhaps a nuclear holocaust, perhaps a series of cataclysmic natural disasters. The end of the world is in the air to a degree it has not been since 1979 and the hostage crisis in Iran.

City of Heroes/City of Villains was just a game. For those who never liked it, a superhero MMORPG is epitome of foolishness in an already foolish genre. The critics are not mistaken. Nonetheless, as ISIS rises to power, as Barack Obama plays with his selfie stick, as the EU struggles to keep their banks solvent and their union intact, I find myself thinking of Dusty Enalios and all the other heroes and villains I played while the game was alive. It truly was a living, breathing community. There are even today tens of thousands of people scattered all through cyberspace who pause what they are doing almost daily to make some brief mention of "CoX" as they now call it in their Tweets, on their Facebook profile, and in pictures they post to their online art galleries. There are four distinct groups of former players, not multi-million dollar game tychoons but simple, ordinary players with lives and families of their own who are right now daily struggling to master the intricacies of computer programming and 3D CGI so they can build a replacement for the world they have lost.

City of Heroes was more than just another MMORPG. It was a breath of fresh air in a market filled to overcapacity with half-dressed elven archers, human knights, and dwarven tinkers. There will never be a shortage of games devoted to high medieval fantasy. There has only ever been one superhero game worth playing and at the height of its profitability the owners pulled the plug, abandoning ten of thousands of cash paying customers without even offering them a reasonable explanation. And that, to me, symbolizes perfectly everything that is driving the modern world along the road to self-destruction. The complete lack of common sense and empathy that would lead a company to abandon a profitable enterprise and casually discard their loyal clientele perfectly expresses the crass, callous attitudes of both princes and paupers in the modern age. True medieval Kings and Queens, for all their pomposity and arrogance, would never have treated their peasants with this level of overwhelming disdain.

February 12, 2015

Responsible Firearm Ownership and Global Culture

(I doubt anyone cares, but it is worth noting that today's meandering and somewhat irrational outburst is blog post number 601. Over six hundred posts. Over a decade online. I know the age of blogging is supposed to be over, but I'm quite proud of my little corner of cyberspace. Unfortunately, it has never earned me a single dime.)

Every since the first of the year the news has been filled with horror stories related to firearms. Terrorists with firearms shot up a satire magazine, a concealed carry permit holder executed three Muslim students, a man was arrested after plotting to attack the U.S. Congress, Marines in Yemen are forced to surrender their weapons and leave the country, so forth and so on. I'm not going to bother linking all of these to the news stories themselves. It seems no one follows the links I provide anyway and today I'm feeling completely burnt out on all the hatred floating around out there.

I am in Japan at the moment, so I do not have access to my firearms. They are secured in a locked safe with 1200 degree fireproofing, watertight seals, an 11-bolt locking mechanism, and five-inch thick solid steel walls. With weapons and ammo both inside as they are right now, the safe weighs right around a full standard ton. No one is going to break it open and no one is going to haul it off. It is twelve feet below ground behind a modern, state of the art security system with 24/7 monitoring. I take security very seriously. I have seen firsthand the destruction wrought by insane people. Firsthand experience has also brought me an uncomfortably intimate awareness of how much trouble a desperate criminal will go to in order to acquire a gun. I hope and pray that I will never have to confront one of these insane predators, but if I do, I also hope and pray that I am armed. One of my own personal nightmares is being in Japan and being confronted by one of these animals. Call me paranoid if you like, but for all its reputation as one of the safest countries in the world I have lived here long enough to see how violent these people can become when they slip beyond the bonds of sanity. Remember, barely three generations ago Japanese criminals were routinely beheaded for petty theft or publishing anti-government books and comics. There are people alive today who still wish they had died on the battlefields of World War Two. Not many, but enough.

If someone in the United States exercises their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms then they should also be prepared to take full responsibility for protecting their firearms, maintaining their firearms, and mastering the use of their firearms. We do not need a plethora of laws with extreme punishments that coerce or force people to be responsible firearm owners. Absolutely not! What we do need is more teachers who are willing work pro bono providing indepth guidance to people of limited economic means. We need salespeople who will take time before they make a sale to ask about a prospective buyer's training level as well as their ability to properly secure their firearm when it is not in use. A salesperson cannot base the sale on these answers, naturally, but asking the questions will raise awareness in the minds of first time buyers that firearm ownership is not the same as buying a new dishwasher or big screen television. Knocking over a big screen television might make a mess but it is unlikely to kill someone. Knocking over a loaded and improperly secured firearm on the other hand, could have disastrous results.

When and how to use a firearm is also important to learn. The case in North Carolina yesterday along with the case in Montana last year are typical of poorly trained individuals who abused their Second Amendment freedom. Both cases will probably result in the offenders spending the rest of their lives behind bars. The Second Amendment does not grant permission to hunt people down, lay in wait for them, or execute them. Those actions do not constitute self-defense and anyone who engages in such activities deserves to feel the full weight of the law come crashing down on their shoulders. At the same time, access to firearms is not the problem here. In every single one of these cases the murderers could have just as easily committed these crimes with hand axes, bow and arrow, golf clubs, or baseball bats. When a murder occurs in Japan (and they occur with horrifying regularity) the weapon of choice is usually a knife or poison. Banning firearms has not changed the murder rate in Japan. Modernization of their education system along with better policing is the main reason Japan has a lower violent crime rate than the United States. It has nothing to do with firearm ownership. It is more a matter of education and culture.

I suppose I ought to get to the point. If you own firearms you have a personal responsibility to keep those firearms safe and to learn how to use them safely. If you own firearms or plan to own firearms you must also:

1> Get educated about firearms.
2> Buy a safe and use it.
3> Always clearly identify both your target and what is behind it.
4> Subscribe to a firearms magazine that emphasizes safe shooting and read it.
5> Practice regularly.
6> Keep your weapons clean!
7> Remember that once the trigger is pulled the bullet will not stop until it hits something.
8> Memorize and review daily the four rules of safe firearm handling:

a. Assume every gun is loaded
b. Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire
c. Keep the barrel pointed in a safe direction
d. Look at the area behind your target before you fire

Whenever someone dies from an accident, in a natural disaster, or by violence, it is a great tragedy. It is important for each of us individually to be aware of our surroundings and remain vigilant. Know where the safe exits are. Be alert for excessive anger, aggression, or stalking-type behavior. Cross the street if you see something dangerous, or choose a different street entirely. Learn how to use a firearm, get a concealed carry permit, and keep your firearm on your person, both inside the house and when you leave home. Learn some kind of hand-to-hand fighting technique. Boxing, martial arts, self-defense classes at the local YMCA/YWCA. Anything at all. It does not matter which techniques you learn. The important part is to learn something. Any level of preparation is better than naively wandering into someone else's garage late at night assuming the homeowner is both friendly and unarmed.

Most important of all, don't be the person everyone else wants to kill! If you go through life assuming everyone is trying to take advantage of you then you are headed for trouble. Vigilance is not paranoia. Be polite, be helpful, be the individual who everyone around you knows they can trust to provide a helping hand. Life is unpredictable. Sooner or later you will need the help of your neighbors. That help will be far easier to gain if you have a history of helping all of them. True, some people will take advantage of you, so it is important to have limits. It is equally important to respect the limits of others! If the guy in the corner apartment hates having people park in front of his door then don't park in front of his door! It would also be a good idea to warn your friends not to park in front of his door. Don't just tell yourself the guy is an asshole and ignore him. It's his door. Cooperate with him and help him keep it free of cars.

In every single violent outburst that makes the nightly news there are no innocent participants. Both people are guilty of failing to properly assess the situation and act wisely. The number one rule to not becoming a victim is to avoid situations that create one. Respect the beliefs of other people, especially when you disagree with them. Atheists have every right to deny the existence of God and to ridicule the idea of God. A believer, no matter what faith they carry, is entitled to hold fast to those beliefs and base their life upon them. Arrogant, noisy people have the right to be arrogant and noisy. Quiet, unassuming people have the right to be the way they are. Homosexuals have every right to spend their life with someone of the same gender, heterosexuals have every right to spend their life with a partner of the opposite gender. Children need a safe environment to grow up in, parents need an environment free of hostility to raise their children in. You have every right to call me every insulting name you can think of and I have the right to not only return every insult but if possible to double down on them. On the other hand, wouldn't both our lives run more smoothly if we concentrated on avoiding insulting each other and making unrealistic demands?

It has been my experience that when individuals cooperate with one another without demanding conformity everyone gains something and no one loses. Cooperation works more efficiently and effectively than competition in every human endeavour imaginable. I don't understand why the modern world has become so violent and so hypercompetitive. The current global culture of domination and oppression is far worse than it was during the Cold War era. I remember. I was there. I grew up in a world divided between the United States and the Soviet Union with an impoverished China perched like a vulture waiting for the two combatants to destroy each other so she could pick scraps off the bones. I see a television program like "The Walking Dead" and I cringe at every episode. It's not the violence, the blood, or the gore that makes me cringe. What I cannot understand is how diverse bands of people in a post-apocalyptic world can run around killing each other off faster than the zombies do. In online gaming "League of Legends" has now surpassed "World of Warcraft" as the most popular game in the world. Its appeal crosses cultural and political boundaries as easily as the wind. I don't understand why the favorite pastime of modern gamers is beating each other up over status on a virtual ranking board that proves absolutely nothing about either their potential as human beings or their fitness as breeding partners. Russia has spent the past decade biting off chunks of territory from smaller nations all along her borders. The Russian people on social media and in news interviews routinely appear to enjoy bragging about their nation's bullying tactics as well as its aggressive stance toward nations that are home to a tiny percentage of what Russia holds in terms of land, resources, population, and economic power. Seriously, what is the point of all this?

Irresponsible firearm owners are created by a global culture that has once again fallen into the habit of treating people like objects. This trend needs to stop, both individually and globally, and it needs to stop now. We don't need ISIS, we don't need a new Russian Empire, and we don't need gun owners walking around looking for someone to kill. I am a firm, unshakable advocate of an armed global citizenry. Everyone, everywhere in the world should have the right to own, maintain, and train with their preferred personal weapon. Regardless of whether they are rich or poor and regardless of whether that weapon is a sword, a knife, a handgun, a rifle, a battleaxe, or a game controller, everyone has the right to defend themselves and to carry their weapon of choice with them everywhere they go. It is far past time that national laws around the world stopped trying to limit the individual's natural right to self-defense and started looking for ways to enhance it. However, with that right comes a harsh, unrelenting responsibility. Owners of firearms and other weapons have a personal responsibility to pursue their right to self-defense safely and sanely. Even a tiny percentage of accidents is not acceptable. A life, once taken, cannot be returned.

February 04, 2015

Dreams and Imagination

Let me start with a moment of silence for great dreams that have now faded into memory and will soon be lost to legend until one day all too soon even the legends themselves will be forgotten so completely it will be as if they never existed.

Auto Assault
City of Heroes/City of Villains
Lego Universe
The Matrix Online
Project Wish
Stargate Worlds
Tabula Rasa
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

And dozens more whose names even I have already forgotten.

A lifetime ago, in that ancient age before the internet, dreams and imagination were the very stuff of life. Dreamers could not easily share the soaring vistas and magnificent landscapes of their inner eye. Painting took years of disciplined study to master. Writing was a good second choice but even if you wrote with exquisite detail you could not control the final vision that awakened in the mind of the reader. Dreams were something a person held inside themselves. From those dreams they harvested hope, inspiration, fuel for nightmares, and a well-trod path for escaping the drudgery of reality. This reality we walk through is drab, colorless, cruel, and unforgiving when compared to the possibilities that sweep through an unfettered imagination shaped by legend, myth, mystery, and occasionally, surprise. One of the great losses that will never be recovered is the limitless potential of an unrestrained imaginary landscape. I see it daily in people who are a mere decade younger than I am. For those who are two or three decades younger, the loss is so complete it breaks my heart. Almost no one in the modern world can simply sit and daydream for hours on end. We have lost one of the most fundamental aspects of being human: the ability to dream.

People in today's world do still have dreams, but they are shallow dreams shaped almost entirely by games, cartoons, progressive school teachers, and parents consumed by material ambition. Ask someone to draw a monster and the result is inevitably a copy of some creature from television, movies, or computer games. If you ask them to draw a monster of their own creation they'll add an extra limb or toothy mouth, but the monster will still be something dreamed up by someone else, probably someone my age or a bit older. Have them draw a completely imaginary landscape and you'll get a poor copy of something they saw online or on television. No one I know under the age of forty truly exercises free, unrestrained imaginative creativity. It has died out completely. Hollywood writers recycle movies from their youth, young fiction writers recycle Hollywood movie characters, and game creators recycle old game characters. Ask a young person how to travel to a distant planet and most of them will look at you like you're crazy. If you push them for an answer they will say something like, "Why would you even want to?"

One of the most creative and entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood recently was "The Lego Movie". Written, directed, and produced by Christopher Robert Miller, born in 1975. The cityscape centerpiece of the movie is a Lego-adaptation of anonymous modern city, the main character is an average construction worker, the secondary character is a shallow-minded Goth/Ninja chick who doesn't even understand why she has undertaken the quest she is on. The movie is fun, the story is engaging, but there is nothing new here beyond the use of computer animated Lego building blocks. The story is nothing more than a mashup of "The Neverending Story" and "Wall Street". It completely lacks both the wonder of the former and the power of the latter. It is a very fun movie and I enjoyed it immensely, but it lacked any sort of real imaginative qualities. The movie is simply a few colorful Lego sets put together in ways that satirize powerful metaphors from an earlier age that no one in Hollywood understands any more. Because they don't understand the metaphors, they can cobble together a blockbuster movie that recycles them the same way Hollywood recycles aluminum cans and plastic bottles. When you are using pre-formed plastic toys it takes very little imagination to find a way to string together a wizard, a comic book hero, and a cowboy all in the same movie. Even doing something like using a live person to play Emmet, normal animation for Batman, and a non-Lego computer generated landscape for at least one of the scenes would have helped create tension and drama between the metaphors, helping to hint at a deeper story. Even the theme, the conflict between conformity and individualism, is commonplace in modern thinking and locks the movie into the ordinary realities of everyday life.

Maybe the problem is me. I suppose it is possible that I have grown old and cynical. Very little awakens in me a sense of wonder and surprise. My own imagination sails off in directions that are getting harder and harder for me to follow. So many characters, places, and stories go roaring through my mind all day long, but when I try to write about them the words on the page come across empty of life. There was a time, back when computers were still new and exotic, that I had high hopes here was finally the medium I could use to blend words and images with characters who could perform actions completely impossible in the real world. Finally, I thought, I would have a way to communicate the wonder and mystery of the reality inside me while also exploring the fabulous worlds others had dreamed up. At first, it seemed very likely. People shared stories of worlds they had imagined into existence, worlds extrapolated out from both reality and fiction in ways that were completely surprising. Alt.cuddle with its meadow of happy characters ranging from energetic squirrels to ancient dragons was unlike anything else I have ever encountered in fiction, in movies, or even in my own imagination. For raging adventure, dashing heroes and heroines, and an eternal battle fought valiantly on both sides by true believers in opposing causes there was the bloody war between hunters and wildlife in alt.devilbunnies. VRML was invented right alongside HTML, then computer technology suddenly leapt forward and VRML was unnecessary.

Virtual reality arrived online in the form of a game, Ultima Online, and there has been no turning back. I tried to study programming and computer graphics, but it turned out programming required a natural aptitude for math while computer graphics were even more difficult to create than oil paintings. Instead of creating worlds, I was forced to settle for exploring them. Hundreds of them. I cannot even remember them all. My longest and most satisfying sojourn was the decade I spent playing City of Heroes/City of Villains. Although I was in the American beta test (both closed and open), the game did not immediately catch my imagination. Even though the original character creator was far better than anything else available at the time, it was still too basic and simple for my needs. It wasn't until Issue 3 came along and the character creator got its first major expansion that it became something I could go to time and again to experiment with different ways of visualizing some of the characters in my imagination. Gameplay was still not quite what I was looking for, with the heavy reliance on groups and the absolute necessity for at least two more friends to game with regularly. I did manage to get a hero up to level twenty or so, but mostly I just created characters, ran them through the first ten levels, went off and wrote a story, then came back and created another. By going back and forth between writing and the CoH character creator, I could find ways to express personality, flair, and style of a particular character. I published a fantasy novel on CD in conjunction with two other former residents of alt.cuddle, one a co-writer and the other an artist. Unfortunately, the ebook market was still experimental at that stage and my novel failed.

Just about the time I realized my first foray into electronic publishing had failed dismally, City of Heroes came out with Issue 6, City of Villains. New locations, new gameplay, an all new character creator, and a whole new way to think about virtual worlds. I created hundreds of villains and eventually played a dozen or so of them to the maximum level possible in the game. Issue 11 brought many of the strengths of the villain side over to the hero side and suddenly heroes were far more playable when playing solo. It seemed like no time at all until I'd taken a hero character as far as one could go and I had even found half a dozen people who were often online the same time as I was. A year later they announced that City of Heroes was closing down for good.

I still dream and I still write, but nowadays it is harder than ever to find people who understand what I am trying to express. The world of fiction has become locked into a death spiral of falling sales and rising perversion. Fiction has always been edgy, but common novels intended for teenagers now contain situations and language that I still have trouble approaching without experiencing a sense of shame rather than a sense of wonder. Sex and violence have always been present in fiction, but now they are more graphic, less real, and utterly devoid of meaning. Instead of sex being used as a metaphor to explore human relationships, sex has become the fictional equivalent of a handshake, an expected activity between two adult characters (and it doesn't even matter what gender they are!). Rather than using violence to draw a line between civilized behavior and the animal that lurks inside us all, violence has become a normal means for settling even trivial conflicts between fictional characters. Mainstream novels are filled with scenes that even the most disreputable pulp editor of my youth would have sent straight to garbage bin. This is not how real-world relationships are held together, so why has it become the stock in trade for fictional ones? Where has beauty gone? Where are the elegant women, defiant men, brave heroes, and cunning villains of a generation ago? Modern fictional villains are neither intelligent nor clever, they are sadistic clones of Hollywood bad guys, or perhaps the Hollywood bad guys are clones of the sadistic villains of fiction. I can no longer tell the difference.

The past decade has been a tumultuous period for both virtual worlds and fictional worlds. These two passions that once gave voice to my dreams and fueled my imagination have now become dominated by real world concerns over wealth, social status, and political affiliation. I can still remember the first time I read "The Hobbit". I had read other fantasy stories and seen several fantasy movies, but this book held something I had found nowhere else: wonder and awe. The first time I stumbled into the meadow of alt.cuddle I found it again. When I created Dusty Enalios in City of Villains, I found it for a third time and held fast to it for a full decade.

They broke up The Hobbit into three hugely elaborate movies filled with fantastic effects and charming characters, but not even a hint of wonder and awe. Alt.cuddle held on for almost five years after Usenet was abandoned, with Facebook dealing the final deathblow. Not that it matters, really. By the time Facebook came along most of the people who filled Cuddleland had died of cancer, heart attack, traffic accidents, or in terror attacks. I guess the real world just could not allow such a magical place to exist, not even in cyberspace. City of Heroes fell to the giant ban hammer of advancing technology, budget cuts and fiscal responsibility to shareholders. Although it turned a profit, it did not turn enough of a profit to justify the rebuilding of the game engine that would be required when Windows 10 is finally released later this year. I am looking out at the virtual landscape and in all honesty, I do not like what I see coming down the pike. Every day I hope and pray that I am wrong, but I see nothing on the horizon which even remotely implies that someone out there is working on a book, a movie, or a game specifically designed to awaken in children and adults alike a deep sense of wonder and a profound respect for human existence.

I see a storm gathering. It has been building strength for the past five years and threatens to break loose any day now. The first tendrils of darkness have arrived in Yemen, the Crimean Pennisula, the streets of Paris, the halls of academia, and the ballot boxes of American cities. 2015 is shaping up to be a dark, bloody year the like of which I have only really seen in Biblical prophecy and fictional works like Lord of the Rings. Love is dying, and I don't mean that in some John Lennonesque 1968 "Give Peace a Chance" way. I mean it literally. People no longer love one another. They pursue each other as sexual conquests or seek out enemies of their faith and mark them for destruction. Maybe I am just old and cynical, or maybe the African children dying from Ebola really are the oracles of a great plague about to sweep across the entire globe. Terrorists are killing journalists and the journalists are blaming people who vote for conservative politicians. Ecotopian dreamers cause an outbreak of measles in the United States and Christian coalitions that oppose Thimerosal in vaccinations take the blame.

Perhaps I am an overimaginative dreamer but I feel like Gandalf standing beside Frodo's fireplace whispering, "a great darkness is coming."