Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Special for A Generation: Nostalgic Thoughts on Elmo Saves Christmas

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! We may not have chestnuts roasting on a fire here in Miami, and the Charlie Brown Christmas special has already aired, but the date is upon us. People are happier despite the crowded stores, and the radio has started to play classic carols. Thus it feels fitting to dive into some nostalgia into what I think about the holiday, regarding a classic PBS show that has been on the air for more than forty years.

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A lot of changes have come to Sesame Street over the past few years. The original puppeteer for the Count, Jerry Nelson, passed away, and the actress Sonia Manzano, who plays FixIt repair-woman Maria, has decided to leave the show, and HBO has recently purchased the Sesame Street franchise, slashing the episode times from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. These changes may be for the best, but at the moment they feel murky and stab at my heart. I didn't lear n everything I knew from Sesame Street, but I learned quite a bit. I remember learning a sobering lesson about Christmas from the show, via a rather unusual holiday special.

Elmo Saves Christmas was a special that aired for a few years during the late 1990s, when Christmas in Miami means the sun shining on the green grass for a couple of days before blasting cold would come in. Kevin Clash was still performing for Elmo, and gave the character's voice an endearing scratchiness that sounded monster-like. Another special has since replaced it, so that you can only find several of the songs online. It featured Maya Angelou narrating how Elmo, after rescuing Santa from a stuck chimney, received a snowglobe that can grant three wishes. Elmo decides to wish that it were Christmas every day, so that everyone will be happy all the time.

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At the time, such a wish didn't sound like a bad idea. Christmas to me simply meant one day of the year when one could receive presents, enjoy good weather, and bask in a warm glow of holiday cheer. Santa during the special then sends Elmo out with a time-traveling reindeer, to show him what happens if Christmas happens every day, keeping people out of school, out of work, unable to send mail, and obligated to buy presents. Elmo's friends seem fine in the spring, slowly start to stress during the summer, and completely crack by winter. Having a holiday everyday nibbles away at the novelty, until what's left is a hollow shell of a celebration.

The special did a good job in not hammering in the message that "Christmas every day is bad" and instead reflecting the childlike naivety. In fact, several characters, like Santa's elves, point out that Santa shares part of the blame in giving a childlike Muppet such power, and imply that similar disasters have emerged from other users of the wish-granting snow globe. Santa seems to admit this in part, especially when his morose song "Everyday Can't Be Christmas" doesn't convince Elmo at first, and he has a rather alarmed expression when Elmo uses his first wish to request a glass of water. He also takes the time to come to Sesame Street, warn Elmo, and give him a way to see what will happen. When Elmo gets a second chance to choose either the snow-globe or an ordinary toy at the special's conclusion, he chooses the ordinary toy but Santa offers him something far more extraordinary that won't cause temporal anomalies. Many questions arise from the fact that despite having given the snow-globe before, he hasn't thought to take it out of production, and one wonders what the previous gift recipients did with their wishes.

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The other important thing about this special was that it showed rather than told the consequences, and used concrete imagery to convey these devastating actions. As mentioned in my previous Christmas post, it irked me in Mickey's Christmas Carol how it hammered so much at Scrooge being a miser would condemn him, so that you couldn't sit back and enjoy thirty minutes of animation. In contrast, Sesame Street knew how children thought, that is with visuals instead of words. Elmo can't comprehend consequences in the long term that emerge from too much of a good thing, especially when everyone appears happy on hearing the news. Neither could the viewers at the time, including myself, who came along for the ride. I was quite shocked to see Sesame Street as deserted, and not even Grover trying to sell Christmas trees could add enough humor to quell the blow.

The third thing was that this special showed one Muppet making a series of mistakes, and despite the increasing consequences manages to amend for them. Elmo wishing for Christmas every day is somewhat forgivable, again because he is a child with a childlike mentality. He makes the mistake of not taking Santa's concern seriously, which is again understandable since he cannot visualize the consequences that the man in the red suit brings. The farther Elmo travels into the future, however, the more he realizes that people aren't happy, especially his friends and loved one, but he keeps going forward, hoping that "real Christmas" will recapture the joy that he meant to spread across the year. His final mistake in what happens when he realizes that he has a way to undo Christmas everyday-- with his last wish-- and takes too long to do so, instead of fixing the problem straightaway.  Despite those mistakes, Elmo finds a way to undo his wish, and save everyone from constant holidays.

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 For those reasons, I do hope that Sesame Street starts airing Elmo Saves Christmas again, with its memorable songs that can make one laugh and also sober up instantly. It isn't often that we have a Christmas special with such mood swings and strong plot to show the consequences of our actions, It's A Wonderful Life notwithstanding, and makes us feel like little kids again. For the moment, as we all do with Christmas, I'll keep the hour-long special with me through the year, with my memories of childhood Sesame Street.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Undertale's Moral Dilemma: Love and Experience

 During finals,  while writing two take-homes, I came across a playthrough of the game Undertale. The game made for some interesting white noise as I typed discussions on topics on international business and marketing. The game stirred a lot of feelings in me -- anxiety, anticipation, heartbreak, and disbelief. What stirred the biggest disbelief is that people would consider being cruel in it.

Undertale follows the adventures of a child that falls into an underground world full of monsters and human remains. Monsters tend to hunt down humans out of fear, and the player character has to decide if they want to fight back or attempt to spare their attackers. One can either be a pacifist, a self-defending neutral character, or a serial murderer. A heartbreaking past haunts your playthrough, and all your past actions come into play if you decide to reset.

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I had previously seen Undertale fanart of Sans, Papyrus and Frisk on my Tumblr, mainly involving bad puns and shipping with the game's goat-mom, Toriel. Aside from some character designs, I had no idea what the game was about. I started watching Markiplier's playthrough, got scared by Flowey, and started reading up on the details, including who the characters were. Then I started editing the Undertale page on TVTropes. The game gripped me, to the point where I wished that our class case studies involved the game since I could justify my disorganized thoughts. Obsession with the game's potential for violence grabbed me, especially as I watched the true pacifist run and dramatic boss fights.

Unlike most games, Undertale asks how much responsibility a player character has for taking another life. In a traditional game like Super Mario Bros., you have to kill the tortoises and Goombas because otherwise they will kill you, and in an RPG, as Flowey callously puts it, "It's kill or be killed". You have a choice to spare the monsters, and to even hear them out. On a Pacifist Run one can bond with all the characters, the way Aang from Avatar the Last Airbender or Wander from Wander Over Yonder does. You get to make them happy, to cheer up sad ghosts and imbue shy scientists with confidence about their crushes. You get to comfort those who believe they're beyond comforting. Markiplier during his run asks, "Why would anyone want to kill these monsters? They're cute!"

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That question makes me agonize over the more violent runs of the game. The genocide run is the run where you, the player character, decide to kill all the monsters, regardless of their threat level, and its existence freaks me out. Cuteness of the monsters aside, by logic you get a happier ending if you don't fight.

Why does it scare me? First, the fact that the game assumes that a player would be that callous. As mentioned before, one could technically do a similar run in Pokemon, counter-intuitive as it would be to make every wild Pokemon faint and not capture any, but the game wouldn't call you out for it, any more than Minecraft would call you out for hunting down digital spiders and octopi. Jacksepticeye as of now is doing a genocide run, undoing the happy ending he's provided for his characters, since his viewers have requested such a thing. I cannot believe that so many people would ask that, to disassociate from these three-dimensional characters that have to fight tooth and nail for their happiness.

The ghost on the right is always sad but you can cheer him up.
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Second, the acknowledgement that players can be so violent calls too much to the real world. I prefer to play games and read stories that have an escapist sense, where we can be someone else and while we might learn something like history, mathematics, character development or logic -- I grew up on edutainment gaming like Jump Start and Carmen Sandiego-- we don't get severe wake up calls or tragic endings. Oftentimes the player has to resort to violence out of necessity, say in Minecraft if archers shoot and zombies walk, but in edutainment games the worst that one could do was blow up an asteroid aimed at a satellite, or feed a hungry plant monster a chemical sedative. When I read the news, actions have consequences. Our hateful words echo across the Internet and television far more strongly than our positive words do, and our more extreme sentiments can lead to massive tragedies. Children often suffer in the crossfire, and people often reduce victims to statements, or to blemishes on a seemingly perfect landscape. Seeing these attitudes reflected in a fantasy world, where we have more free agency to act as a human being, for better or for worse, hits too close to home.

Third, the varying endings that resort from the player characters' choices unsettle me, in their degree of happiness or tragedy. Most of the edutainment games that I played, unless they were for kindergarten for first grade, had a very linear progression, in that one has to complete a set of activities to get the rest of the story and cannot deviate from the set path. When you have critical choices in a game, as you do in life, choices become paralyzing, more so when one sees the consequences of bad ones. Undertale's player character if he or she wants to progress cannot stay with goat-mom Toriel and eat butterscotch pie with her, any more than one can stay in Mettaton's hotel or in the Temmie village. Yet to go forward comes with its risks, of defying Toriel to leave her, of finding yourself with monster blood on your hands, or dust as it were. You can either break a lot of hearts, or kill a lot of monsters.

When you want a scene to break your heart . . .
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Undertale is phenomenal  and yet devastating in how it asks gamers, atypical or not, to shed typical gaming behavior. A game had to ask those questions at some point, at what a person would do if they have the option to play without fighting. I hope that if I do play a game, however, that watching a Pacifist run will not hinder me from diving into a new world, to gain  more experience.