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.

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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."