Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Neglected Medium

My earliest memory is of me and my mother. I am five. I know this because my mother has told me that I’m going to get a younger brother, but she’s not yet obviously pregnant. We are in the basement of the house I lived in from the time I was 18 months old until I was 16.

We are sitting on the large wood-framed couch together and playing Super Mario Bros. I’m less prone to dying than she is, but whenever we get to Bowser’s castle I hand the controller to her because I’m afraid of the stark black and white architecture, the manic music, the fireballs that fly in from off-screen without warning.

I’m young, couldn’t tell you how old. Maybe 7? Memories from so far back are hard to pull up, nebulous. I know I’m not yet 8 because for my 8th birthday I received an SNES and never looked back. But today I’m not concerned with the NES, I’m concerned with waking up early on a Saturday morning. I descend from my bedroom to the basement, my parents both still asleep. It’s freezing in the basement. I don’t care.

I kneel down in front of the TV in my pajamas and start up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m really bad at the game. I can’t beat the fourth level and rarely even see it. Little do I know I’ll never get further in that game. I’m too young to realize it’s not that the game is hard, it’s that the game is terrible.  I lack the capacity to make those judgments still.

Games have formed a pretty important part of my life, as much a part of my childhood as my parents. The problem is, games have always kind of lived in a section of my life walled off from everything else. As a kid, friends would come over and play Mario Kart or whatever. But they never seemed to think of things the same way I did. How many of them burst into tears when their parents gave them A Link to the Past for their 8th birthday but hid the SNES as a surprise gift in the closet? How many of them could hum the music to dozens of games on command? How many of them doodled in their notebooks not in stick figures but in pixels?

But the world didn’t seem to work that way. So my gaming obsessions were never connected to everything else. I enjoy music. I enjoy movies. I enjoy books. And while they’re all connected to each other and feed off each other and form this cultural mélange that allows a person to enjoy all the type of media together. It’s a foundation of culture. It’s a history. But gaming was never a part of that club. And so that part of my life was different. Separate. Alien. The people I would talk to about movies or books were not the same people I could talk to about games. And I thought that was just the way it was.

But Scott Pilgrim has come out, and I feel like something has changed. You see, Scott Pilgrim isn’t based on a video game, and it’s not even really about video games, but it is at its core drawing as heavily on the cultural references of video games as much as it does music or movies or the comic books its based on.

Movies have been getting away with this for years. Blade Runner isn’t overtly referencing Metropolis, but it uses the concepts and images of the previous work to help enrich its world and story. Similarly, Scott Pilgrim references games but doesn’t overtly name them or use them, but it uses the concepts and images to craft this world where games are just as relevant as all the movies one has seen and all the books one has read and all the music one has listened to.

Scott Pilgrim is the justification of the neglected medium. It is, at heart, a love story. But it uses concepts such as boss battles, leveling up, extra lives—things that games have been using for years—not as simple references for laughs, but as concepts that help enrich the world and as storytelling beats, as relevant as the concepts of every other medium. It welcomes the games medium, with its own culture and references, to join the mess of other forms of entertainment that have all been feeding into each other for decades. And in doing so, it not only provides a good film, but it provides a conduit for all the ideas that have been so long separated to spill out, not as nudge-wink references, but as devices used to tell stories, without shame or apology.

Scott Pilgrim is interesting for many reasons, but it’s magical because at its heart, the movie speaks to the child in me who remembers living a life that was ruled by how many lives I had, what level I was on, the final boss leering at me in the distance, my desire to explore these digital worlds and have these experiences of numbers and pixels and mechanics laid out before me as important and immediate to me as any other world I could experience.

That child would look at something like Scott Pilgrim and say “Of course that’s what the world is like” but the adult in me can only sit back and marvel that what I felt could never happen has already come to pass, that the two countries I thought forever separated in my life could be brought together in ways I had never considered, that someone could decide that all of these things that had been so long ignored were important.

And if that’s true, and the mediums are compatible, if games and every other form of culture and entertainment are on equal footing, who knows what incredible and interesting ways they can interact now and in the future?

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