By Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times
There was a time when liking video games was seen as some sort of abnormality.
Once, knowing one’s way around a console controller was considered an affliction worthy of being attacked with virgin jokes. A deep knowledge of all things geek was viewed as relatively useless, at least, if early ‘80s films were to be believed, until a catastrophic event occurred, one that required the mastery of a video game controller — an event that showed us that video gamers were special people after all.
But the weirdos are no longer weird. The omnipresence of San Diego’s Comic-Con, the near weekly release of genre films and the rise of Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist empire are proof.
The outcasts with their 20-sided dice now rule pop culture. Even Vin Diesel recently posted pictures of his Dungeons & Dragons-inspired birthday cake.
Congratulations, we won.
Yet as recent evidence suggests, our new overlords aren’t going to be any better than the old ones who mocked us.
“Pixels,” this weekend’s Adam Sandler vehicle, pits a bunch of schlubby losers against a battle of real-life video game characters. “Armada,” a new book from “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline, pits a bunch of schlubby losers against real-life video game characters.
The danger is not that the world is more getting geeky. Bring it on, I say. Many nights of my childhood were spent organizing Dungeons & Dragons dice into color-coded dice pouches, and the more people I can play D&D with, the better. I longed for a day when such habits weren’t the cause of mockery but were, if not accepted, at least ignored.
No, the danger is that reference culture is increasingly becoming exclusionary rather than inclusive, where works of art pull from other works of art as opposed to real-life experience.
Watching and reading “Pixels” and “Armada” felt as if I were being subjected to a cheerleading routine rather than experiencing a work of pop art. Congrats, you remember “Centipede”! Honorary, you know which tattoos grace the characters of “Aliens”!
Still, “Pixels” was near the top at this weekend’s soft box office, and “Armada” in all likelihood will follow Cline’s “Ready Player One” to the bestseller list. Their very existence is evidence of a larger pop-cultural problem: the near-relentless pandering to us so-called geeks.
You, dear gamers, are the ones “who possess the rare talents required to help us defend our planet,” reads a passage from “Armada,” as the book goes back to an era when gamers were a small subset of the larger populace. It’s true even today that games, especially console and PC games, are difficult — nay, nearly impossible — for the uninitiated, but the idea that players are unique or different is like saying people with tattoos are no-good punks.
But we’re no different than those who watch CBS crime procedurals, and even CBS knows this (see “Supergirl”).
If there’s hope, it’s that these recent odes to the geek are such disasters that they will bring an end to works obsessed with their own influences.
They can already be written off for their reliance on nostalgia. Characters in “Armada,” for instance, go so far as to speak in “Say Anything” quotes, as if today the ability to have the good taste to recognize a great line is a skill every bit as laudable as writing the great line itself. To be fair, characters in “Armada” also speak in the language of “Dune,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “They Live” and, of course, “Star Wars.”
These works also, of course, contain predictability old-fashioned mores. Video game nerds as conspiracy theorist nutsos? Check. Sexist? Check, at least for “Pixels.” The latter isn’t much of a surprise in Adam Sandler’s universe, but must real-life women such as Serena Williams be viewed as trophies for winning a battle in 2015? Must video gamers be so inept that the sight of a pretty woman inspires a “whoa” rather than a “hello”?
“Pixels” and “Armada” can’t exist without the success of prior texts. Aliens in both even communicate via clips of old TV shows and movies (that’s probably a reference to something I missed). They’re symbols of a larger landscape in which serving the cloistered and obsessed fan is paramount.
Why, just this summer we’ve seen that “Jurassic World” is more a nostalgic ode to “Jurassic Park” than it is a stand-alone movie. Also, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” shows that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is at risk of swallowing itself — a snake eating its own tail full of nods to past and future Marvel movies.
Once fun, the Marvel world is now worrisomely closed off, practically demanding that outsiders learn the minutiae of the world or fall behind. Just when you feel you’ve grasped it, here comes the coda to pull the rug out. No, no, no, the two-hour movie you just enjoyed is really part of this other bigger thing. Stay tuned to these seven other movies, and you’ll understand it all.
It’s not a tease, it’s a holier-than-thou turnoff. Take a scene early in “Armada” in which a typical bully is lobbing spitballs at an acne-addled freak. What Cline fails to see is that it’s him, the author, who has the power of the aggressor.
Nary a page of his book goes by without some need to reference a prior work of fiction. Infuriatingly, intergalactic war doesn’t inspire much concern. Instead, it’s an excuse to throw out nods to Buck Rogers and Admiral Akbar. And when the theories of a military official are questioned, this is the reasoning: “He doesn’t know … about common tropes in science fiction.”
Each of these is a spitball, needling the reader. Didn’t you get that “Time Bandits” joke? You mean, you prefer “Top Gun” to “Iron Eagle”? Don’t you remember the plot points of “Total Recall”? It’s OK, you love “Flight of the Navigator,” right? RIGHT? YOU MUST LOVE “FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR”?
Never seen it, and now I feel ashamed.
It’s a book that should have come with footnotes, because keeping up with all the references makes the text impenetrable to those schooled in something other than sci-fi.
It’s also exhausting. The counterculture I once found so communal has now become oppressive. Dorks are cool. Can we please stop trying to prove it?