Salvatore Pane

Category: Pop Culture

Worst. Spoilers. Ever.

4. Age 12. Location: Comics on the Green. I had been reading the Clone Saga storyline in the Spider-Man books for 3 years. Everything had been building to a final revelation of just who exactly was behind replacing Spider-Man with a clone. In those days, I didn’t go to the comic store every Wednesday, I went about once a month and bought all the books I was behind on. So I missed the final issue by about three weeks. I went to the store like normal and picked out the issues, but at the cash register some teenage nerd looked at my picks and said, “Man, I couldn’t believe it was Norman Osborn behind it the whole time.” 3 years of my life! 3 years of my life! I didn’t read comics seriously for 10 years after this incident (combined with the oft maligned Onslaught crossover).

3. Age 21. Location: Parents’ House. During winter break from college, I came down with the flu. So I read. I read a lot. I had just finished a very lackluster novel by Nick Hornby that mentioned another novel called Revolutionary Road by some guy named Richard Yates, and I bought that next on a total whim, mostly because Richard Russo did the introduction. I was stunned. And to this day, RR is still my favorite book. But halfway through I dropped it and lost my place, and when I picked it up it was open to somewhere close to the end and I read the words “April Wheeler was dead.” I was only maybe 60 pages in. O youth! O lost!

2. Age 22. Location: Parents’ House. I’d just graduated from college and was spending my days subtitling DVDs in Scranton while waiting to move to Pittsburgh for grad school at the end of the summer. I was watching Attack of the Show on G4, because sometimes I like to be pandered to, and they did a segment about spoilers in which a man dressed like Doc Brown revealed how various season finales would wrap up. I didn’t believe him, didn’t believe that the frat boys at G4 knew anything. But then Doc Brown stared out from the television and told me that tonight, on LOST, Jack’s flashback wouldn’t be a flashback at all, that it would be a flashforward, that season four would be about the cast’s attempts to get back to the Island. A part of my soul died that day.

1. Age 14. Location: Steamtown Mall – Electronics Boutique. I skipped school to go see The Phantom Menace with my mother. We arrived downtown where the movie theater was but tickets were sold out for the first morning showing, so we bought some for the afternoon. The mall was next door, so we went over there for awhile where I killed time in the video game store salivating over posters of Chrono Cross which would be released later that summer. And then, while minding my own business, some asshole in a dragon button up shirt (remember those?) started talking to the clerk and said, “Man, I can’t believe Lucas killed off Qui Gon AND Darth Maul! I thought they were going to be in all three.” It was up until that time the worst moment of my life. Little did I know that my life would soon be ruined by sitting through The Phantom Menace, the greatest tragedy in all of human history.


Foucault on Bill and Ted

“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”

“The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

“…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing”

“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

“Psychoanalysis can unravel some of the forms of madness; it remains a stranger to the sovereign enterprise of unreason. It can neither limit nor transcribe, nor most certainly explain, what is essential in this enterprise.”

“The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the ‘outlaw,’ the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order.”

“Calling sex by its name thereafter [the 17th c.] became more difficult and more costly. As if in order to gain mastery of it in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present. “

“Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.”

“The appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and ‘psychic hermaphroditism’ made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of ‘perversity’; but it also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified.”

Lorrie Moore on the Carmelo Anthony/New York Knicks Trade

“Her rage flopped awkwardly away like a duck. She felt as she had when her cold, fierce parents had at last grown sick and old, stick-boned and saggy, protected by infirmity the way cuteness protected a baby, or should, it should protect a baby, and she had been left with her rage–vestigial, girlhood rage–inappropriate and intact. She would hug her parents good-bye, the gentle, emptied sacks of them, and think Where did you go?

“You couldn’t pretend you had lost nothing… you had to begin there, not let your blood freeze over.”

“I missed him.”

“I wondered about the half-life of regret.”

“When you find out who you are, you will no longer be innocent. That will be sad for others to see. All that knowledge will show on your face and change it. But sad only for others, not for yourself. You will feel you have a kind of wisdom, very mistaken, but a mistake of some power to you and so you will sadly treasure it and grow it.”

“I tried not to think about my life. I did not have any good solid plans for it long-term – not bad plans either, no plans at all.”

“I just don’t want you to feel uncomfortable about this.”

“How can it be described? How can any of it be described?”

“When she packed up to leave, she knew that she was saying goodbye to something important, which was not that bad, in a way, because it meant that at least you had said hello to it to begin with…”

Richard Nixon on the Pokemons

“Any lady who is first lady likes being first lady. I don’t care what they say, they like it.”

“I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?”

“No, no, no, I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?”

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose because most of them are psychiatrists.”

“Always remember that others may hate you but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself. ”

“I can take it. The tougher it gets, the cooler I get. “
“If you want to make beautiful music, you must play the black and the white notes together. “
“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he’ll do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see, I see.  That he’ll go after our enemies, not our friends.”
“It is necessary for me to establish a winner image. Therefore, I have to beat somebody.”

“I can’t shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.”


In Honor of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”: The Top 20 Kanye West Tracks (I Just Want to be Young, Rich and Tasteless)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about Kanye West. He shows up in my blog posts, he shows up in my short stories, he shows up in my novel. And I listen to his music. I really do. When a Pitt student foolishly asked to hitch a ride with me across the state to Scranton, she was utterly shocked when I spent so much of the drive listening to Kanye West. “Aren’t you being ironic?” people keep asking me. No. I’m really not. I honestly like Kanye West.

On a very base level, I find West to be infinitely relatable. His early work deals with class struggles and intense insecurity masked by a totally false, totally self-aware bravado. But somewhere along the way that false ego–an obvious defense mechanism–gave way to the monstrously real ego that West can’t really shake. This is almost always what his later music about: the realization that he is not a complete or even a good person, the realization that he’s an asshole, and the strive for redemption and how difficult it is to actually be kind in the 21st century. West desperately wants to become a better person, but always comes back to the point that “[he] can’t stop/No, no, oh no/[he] can’t stop”. Who can’t relate to that? Beyond the hyperbole, beyond the techno-fetishism, beyond the outlandish statements, is a quest to become something better than he currently is. That speaks to me and has always spoken to me. With so many other rappers and rock bands, I’ve always felt that there was a shallowness at their core, but with West, I truly believe there is a deeper tension in play that reflects this generation’s complicated relationship with technology and the revelation of self in the public sphere.

And even if you think that’s all bullshit, check out his 35 minute movie “Runaway”. You see that paper mache Michael Jackson head marching down the street? Fuck yeah you did, son.

This post is in honor of the November 22nd release of Kanye West’s latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  I’m not going to say that Yeezy is the best rapper of my generation, but I will say that Yeezy is the greatest artist/hero/human of all time. So, without further adieu, here’s my favorite 20 Kanye tracks in no particular order.

Oh, and check out my boy Brian Oliu on our boy Kanye West.


Late-era Kanye is noteworthy for Yeezy’s move away from an analysis of class dynamics seen through the prism of his Chicago childhood and toward a Facebook/Twitter style introspection of the self. And what Kanye discovers at his center is not good. He finds that he’s a douchebag, asshole, a scumbag. The hope for redemption is there (“I could have me a good girl/And still be addicted to them hoodrats”), but what Kanye realizes is that the quest for redemption is an illusion, and we (or at least Yeezy) are doomed to repeat past mistakes. In the end he begs unsuspecting women to just leave him alone out of fear he’s going to hurt them.  Oh, and that beat. That beat, you guys. That beat.

“Flashing Lights”

This was the first time I started to take Kanye West seriously. Before 2007, I lumped West in with all the other rappers I admired from a distance. But something about this song made me stop, take notice, and begin to retroactively dig through his catalog. I’m still not sure what it is about “Flashing Lights” that drew me to West in the first place, but it might be the perfect blend in this song between a totally unchecked ego (“As I recall you know I love to show off/but you never thought that I would take it this far”) and his utter shock that any human female would actually CHOOSE to leave him (“Hey, babe, lately you’ve been all on my brain/And if somebody would told me a month ago/fronting on/yo I wouldn’t want to know/If somebody would’ve told me a year ago/it’d go get this difficult”). Excess combined with emotional immaturity and an inability to deal with normal human pain. Yes please!

“We Don’t Care”

The opening track on Kanye’s first album The College Dropout, “We Don’t Care” stands as a testament to Kanye’s early flirtations with jazz and funk, and “if this is your first time hearing this/you’re about to experience something so cold”. Right from the very first track, Kanye hits on all his major subjects: racism, classism, and the total absence of upward mobility for black males in America. But really, I like this one for the child choir that sings on the chorus. “Drug dealing just to get by/we wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on  you we still alive”. That’s fucking awesome, bro.

“Jesus Walks”

“We Don’t Care” was Kanye’s first album track, but “Jesus Walks” was his first single as headliner, and for many, their introduction to Kanye West at large. Right from the very start, it was clear that West was not going to be your typical rapper, springboarding from guest rhyming on a Jay-Z track to “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means sex, guns, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played?” Although the Black Church and the rap industry have always had close ties, I can’t imagine many executives being excited that a song that references Jesus Christ over 20 times was Kanye’s choice for debut single. But this showed from the very beginning that Kanye had zero interest in being anyone other than Kanye West. He’s not roleplaying like so many rappers. He is image made flesh.

“New Workout Plan”

What people forget is that Kanye West is fucking funny. I’d nominate “New Workout Plan” from his first album as his overall funniest track thanks to the ridiculous amount of self-aware misogyny. “New Workout Plan” has arguably what is the slickest production of all his first album tracks, and it focuses on Kanye’s directions for how women can get thin and land a man (“all the mocha lattes/you gotta do pilates” or “And ladies/if you follow these instructions exactly/you might be able to pull you a rapper/an NBA player/Man, at least a dude with a car”). But the kicker comes at the three minute mark when Kanye carts out three women to deliver their testimonials after following the titular workout plan. The first woman lands the previously mentioned NBA player. The second gets 13′ rims out on her Cavalier. The third? The third. “My name is Alamae from Mobille, Alabama/and I just want to say since listenin’ to Kanye’s workout tape/I been able to date outside the family, I got a double wide/And I rode a plane, rode a plane, rode a plane”. The thrice repeated “rode a plane” that fades into the bass line is so utterly ridiculous, but the humor is actually kind of depressing on account of the fact that we know just how moody and introspective Kanye is going to become within the span of three mere albums.

“Welcome to Heartbreak”

After the death of his mother and breakup with his fiance, Kanye retreated to Hawaii with his TR-808 drum machine, emerging months later with his fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak. Right from this, the second track, we know we’re in for a much more subdued affair (“My friend shows me pictures of his kids/And all I can show him is pictures of my crib/He says his daughter’s got a new report card/and all I got is a brand new sports car”). Here we find a Yeezy that has discovered that money and class mobility have not magically solved all his problems, that in fact, “chas[ing] the good life my whole life long” has only made things worse. His mother is dead. His fiance has left him. And all he has to turn to are his sports cars. It’s this quest for happiness and meaning in a post-stardom world that defines late-era Kanye West.

“Never Let Me Down”

“I told you I wouldn’t let this rap game change me, right?” Six years later and I wonder how Kanye feels about this. This one’s another early exploration of class and racism, but also touches upon Kanye’s car crash, a subject of particular interest to Kanye scholars (that’s fucking right, son). “I can’t complain what the accident to my left eye/’Cuz look what a accident did to Left Eye”. Kanye has stated many times that he’s often wondered whether or not he really did die in that accident, that everything that’s happened to him since (his meteoric rise and subsequent clashes with the media) has been so absurd as to only be possible in some type of afterlife. Let me repeat that. Sometimes Kanye West legitimately worries that he’s living in a Matrix-styled afterlife.

“Drunk and Hot Girls”

Essentially, this track is an attempt to one up “New Workout Plan” from two albums earlier. In most ways it succeeds (although it never has a section as funny as Alamae’s plane), culminating with the impersonation of a drunken girl trying to prove she can sing when Kanye is only looking for sex. Look. This is Kanye West, folks. He’s a self-admitted douche bag. You gotta take the asshole sometimes if you want the witty examinations of technology and excess in a post-human world. You can’t have one without the other here. It’s not that easy.

“Diamonds Are Forever (Remix ft. Jay-Z)”

This song sums up Kanye’s entire repertoire. “It’s in a black person’s soul to rock that gold/Spend your whole life trying to get that ice/On a polo rugby it look so nice/How can something so wrong make me feel so right?” From Late Registration, the “Diamonds Are Forever” remix is Kanye’s attempt to balance the fact that diamonds are a necessary component to the rap game with the reality that the diamond trade is exploiting, and murdering, poor people in  third world countries. Everything that makes Kanye feel good about himself does harm to someone else around the globe. How perfect, right? How perfectly that symbolizes globalization, capitalism, and pretty much every system and structure of power governing our lives. Kanye done do it again!

“Touch the Sky”

Everybody needs one of those pump yourself up tracks. This is mine. “I gotta testify/come up in the spot looking extra fly/’Fore the day I die/I’mma touch the sky”. This is unbridled positivity from Kanye’s second studio release, and possibly the last time we see such optimism from Yeezy without a healthy dose of skepticism and alpha male strutting. Dare I go so far as to say that “Touch the Sky” reminds me a lot of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? I dare. “Take ’em back to the plan/Me and my momma hopped in the U-Haul van/Any pessimists I ain’t talk to them”. This song mostly focuses on Kanye’s early days in the rap game, coming up among a sea of non-believers. Isn’t that what it’s like to be a writer? Haven’t so many of us needed to close ourselves off from the non-believers, the haters even? Come on. COME ON. Jump on the Kanye bandwagon.

“Love Lockdown”

The morose synth beat of “Love Lockdown” is representative of the majority of 808’s & Heartbreak. The lyrics, like the beat, are sparse. There’s no rhyming pyrotechnics ala “Gold Digger” to be found here. Instead, Kanye funnels his pain over his failed engagement through autotune. Look at that previous sentence. He takes the most relatable and oldest of song topics–heartbreak–and runs it through a fucking machine. I know this isn’t new, that autotune and similar effects have been used a million times before, but Kanye’s entire focus on this album is the human as viewed through the digital. It’s about what feelings look like when encoded by the machine. The fact that these songs are catchy enough to actually warrant radio play on top of the digital theory masturbation is just ridiculous.

“Heard ‘Em Say”

One of the memes of Kanye’s first trio of albums–the college trilogy–is the idea that Yeezy is waking up at the beginning of each album (although, admittedly, this only holds up for Late Registration and Graduation). The version I like best is “Heard ‘Em Say” on LR. What we have here is back to basics Kanye calling out racial/class discrimination. “Before you ask me to get a job today/can I at least get a raise on a minimum wage?/And I know the government administered AIDS/So I guess we just pray like the minister say”.  Late Registration dropped just a few months before Hurricane Katrina and the infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident. But if you already knew West blames the government for AIDS , I guess you wouldn’t be surprised by the infinitely milder Katrina claim.

“Dark Fantasy”

Ok. I haven’t been as excited for an album as I am for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy since Weezer’s green album. And we all know how that turned out (not good). My first introduction to Yeezy’s new album, aside from the glorious “Power” and “Runaway”, came in the form of his 35-minute Runaway movie which opens with this video for “Dark Fantasy”. Oh. My. God. That chorus. That fucking chorus. What kind of rap song has a chorus like that? “I got so much head/I woke up in Sleepy Hollow”. Who combines blow job imagery with Sleepy Hollow? “She look like a fat booty Celine Dion”. What? WHAT? While drunk, I often point at people and yell this. “You got too many Urkels on your team/That’s why your wins low”. No. He did not just reference Family Matters. Fuck yeah he did, fuck yeah he did.

I want this song played at my funeral as they shoot my casket into outer space.


Kanye’s G.O.O.D Friday project delivered a lot of memorable tracks (and some duds), but none as overwhelmingly spectacular as “Monster”. “I’m living in the future so the present is my past/my presence is a present so you can kiss my ass”. Kanye’s section on the track is indicative of his post-808s work: obsessed with technology and futurism rivaling Marvel comics hero/villain Tony “Iron Man” Stark. But the real highlight comes from Nicki Minaj who absolutely murders her guest verse, dipping back and forth between her natural voice and that of her alter ego. Seriously, listen to her verse. Oh, and did I mention that the chorus involves a lion roar?

“Gold Digger”

I know I’ll never be able to accurately assess what is arguably Kanye’s most popular hit, because for me, it’ll forever be intertwined with all my memories of college and all that nostalgic bullshit. What I remember most vividly is this: seeing my buddy Ian Nevans drunk out of his mind at a party screaming the lyrics to this song. Nobody else could hear the music. He was playing it on his iPod through his earbuds. There he was, forty in hand, bopping his head, singing a song only he could hear. Welcome to partying in the 21st century. Oh, and “She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money/She went to the doctor got lipo with your money/She walking around looking like Michael with your money/Should’ve got that insured/Geico for your money” is probably my favorite usage of rhyming ever.


By Graduation, Kanye had begun to consider all the options now permanently out of reach for him in the wake of unimaginable fame and money. One of those is focused on in “Homecoming”, a nostalgic remembering of an old flame from his beloved Chicago. Everybody who’s left their hometown with zero intention of ever coming back can relate to this one (“If you really cared for her/then you would’ve never hit the airport to follow your dreams”). Also, that puffy jacket Kanye wears in the music video is totally badass.

“My Way Home”

Chris Lee will probably complain about this one’s inclusion on the list because it samples Gil Scott-Heron’s ’70s soul track “Home is Where the Hatred is”. Truth is, I know nothing about jazz or soul, but I don’t care. This track is fucking awesome, and although I’ve generally really loved the way Kanye has evolved away from the more mainstream music found on his first three albums, I do miss the jazz flourishes which were so memorable on Late Registration.

“Crack Music”

On this track, Kanye West and the Game blame Ronald Reagan for killing the Black Panthers by cooking up crack. Then they talk about how George Bush gave Sadaam Hussein anthrax. I don’t think I need to say anything else about this one.

“Big Brother”

Jay-Z famously discovered Kanye West about ten years back, which made their mid-decade feud so puzzling (“I told Jay I did a song with Coldplay/Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay/Back in my mind, I’m like damn, no way”). As we’ve all no doubt gathered from Kanye’s recent dealings with the press, Yeezy ain’t too good at apologizing. So it would have been easy to predict that West would have just splintered off from his mentor and Def Jam after their little tiff. But no. Kanye apologized via a track on Graduation. What I love about this song is how sappy it is, how obvious it is that Kanye’s realized his mistake and now knows better than to bite the hand that feeds or those who first believed in him. It’s a sign of humility. It’s a sign that despite all his claims that he’s an irredeemable asshole, there is still hope. Plus, the song starts with Kanye just yelling “Stadium Status”, and I like to do this in my own life during really mundane events like folding laundry or making dinner.


It’s not a music video, it’s a living painting. That’s Yeezy on the utterly insane music video for “Power”, his first single off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ok. Where to begin with this one? The King Crimson “21st Schizoid Man” sample? The superhero references? The haunting end where Yeezy chants “This would be a beautiful death”? No. There’s only one way to end a post about Kanye West. From the man himself:

“At the end of the day/goddamn/I’m killing this shit.”

Deleuze and Guattari on Kanye West

“…when we say that univocal being is related immediately and essentially to individuating factors, we certainly do not mean by the latter individuals constituted in experience, but that which acts in them as a transcendental principle: as a plastic, anarchic and nomadic principle, contemporaneous with the process of individuation, no less capable of dissolving and destroying individuals than of constituting them temporarily; intrinsic modalities of being, passing from one ‘individual’ to another, circulating and communicating underneath matters and forms. The individuating is not the simple individual.”

“Only the extreme forms return – those which, large or small, are deployed within the limit and extend to the limit of their power, transforming themselves and changing one into another.”

“Production for the sake of production – the obsession with the rate of growth, whether in the capitalist market or in planned economies – leads to monstrous absurdities. The only acceptable finality of human activity is the production of a subjectivity that is auto-enriching its relation to the world in a continuous fashion.”

“To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”

“…[something] [something] rhizome [something]…”

Metal Gear Solid: A Narrative in the Digital World, A Narrative in the Physical World

(Note: this is the second in a series of blog posts looking back on certain formally interesting video games of the past twenty-five years. Check out the first one–about the 1994 forgotten gem Earthbound–here)

Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, I had horrible warts on the bottom of my left foot. We’re talking mini-flesh Death Stars on my heel and they hurt like hell. The first year or two was bearable, but then I actually started limping, the pain getting so bad that I found it difficult to run during basketball games. So I finally went to see a specialist and after multiple treatments, they decided to whip out a laser beam and fry that shit off. To repeat, I was thirteen-years-old and some creepy doctor shot a laser beam at bacteria on my foot.

It was awesome.

However, I learned right before they Large Hadron Collidered my foot that I would soon be in severe pain, that I would have to remain sitting up or prone in my house for a solid week. They numbed the shit out of my foot and told me I had one hour before the agony would set in. Once we left the doctors, my parents offered to take me wherever I wanted, to do whatever I wanted before retiring home for an entire week, a span of time which seemed practically incalculable to a young Sal Pane. I told them to take me to the mall. Metal Gear Solid had just come out for the Playstation, and I was more than ready to trade in three old games to get that gem of a stealth classic. They drove me. I purchased MGS. I spent the next week on the living room floor having the time of my life.

It removes foot warts AND creates black holes.

I had been anticipating MGS for months, ever since Electronic Gaming Monthly–a magazine that was the closest we had in the late-90’s/early-2000’s to Tom Bissell–started talking about it in hushed, reverent prose, declaring it months before its release as the front runner for game of the year. They ran a multi-page cover story over the summer before MGS‘ fall release, but what really hooked me, the moment when MGS really sunk its teeth into me, was when Konami–the beautiful wonderful corporation behind the Metal Gear franchise–released a demo with the latest issue of The Official Playstation Magazine. I purchased a copy the day it came out. Here’s how MGS begins. Prepare to be fucking awed, chumps.

HOLY SHIT!!! What was so shocking about this back in 1998 was that Metal Gear Solid Director–Hideo Kojima, one of the few gaming directors worthy of the title auteur–was clearly as interested in narrative as gameplay. There’s nothing inherently video game-esque about this opening. Instead, it apes modern action thriller tropes right down to the voice actor credits that roll across the scene. And how about the beautiful opera music 3/4ths of the way through the video? All of this was unheard of. What you have to remember is that 1998 was only two years removed from when gaming’s most narrative driven games looked like this:

And the music? The music of the mid-to-late nineties video games, even at its absolute best, sounded like this:

What struck me immediately while playing Metal Gear Solid–both the demo and when I finally purchased the full game just minutes before transforming into an immobile, cheesy foot goon–was how much of a quantum leap forward gaming had now taken in terms of narrative. Earlier game narratives of the culturally repugnant save the princess variety  could now be replaced with the more filmic qualities of political and action thrillers alike. Now that might not seem like such a big deal to non-gamers–is the plot of Clear and Present Danger that much of an artistic improvement over the simplistic story lines of Saturday morning cartoons?–but Metal Gear Solid was one of the first games to really tackle adult material. The politics of DNA mapping. The feasibility of nuclear disarmament. The ethics of genetic enhancement. A ghastly prediction of terrorism in a pre-9/11 world. These are the narrative questions that Metal Gear Solid is most formally interested in, and although it’s certainly not Shakespeare, it’s a massive improvement for an art form that only ten years earlier witnessed the launch of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Over the course of 20 or so hours, Metal Gear Solid tells an interesting story of political intrigue and nuclear escalation set amid the frozen tundras of coastal Alaska. The story interrupts the game frequently with cut scenes that are actually not all cringe worthy to watch (there are filmic perspectives, music, and acting that’s not actually terrible!).

But if all Metal Gear Solid had going for it was a groundbreaking story, it wouldn’t be as fondly remembered as it is. So many video games since 1998 have attempted vastly more sophisticated narratives. But what makes Metal Gear Solid stand out is its combination of filmic narrative with a metatexuality and interactivity only capable in video games. Hideo Kojima didn’t want to create a game that was merely a poor man’s action movie. He wanted to push games to their limit in terms of interaction with the player’s world. He abandons Tom Bissell’s notions of luddonarrative for a stringently linear structure that forces the gamer to actually interact with the physical world in order to proceed. Kojima’s most important tool? The recently released Dualshock controller.

About six months prior to the North American release of Metal Gear Solid, Sony released the highly advanced Dualshock controller for use with their sales chart topping Playstation. On the surface, the controller doesn’t look that different than their original controller; the only noticeable improvement is the addition of two analog controllers beneath the d-pad and face buttons. But the Dualshock actually contains two motors inside the controller that simulate tactile feedback experienced in video games. For example, let’s say you’re playing Gran Turismo, one of the most popular racing games of the era,  and you crash your vehicle into a wall. Prior to the Dualshock,  the only feedback you would get from the game would be visual. But now, the motors would spin causing the controller to vibrate,  thus simulating the impact of the crash. The Dualshock was much more advanced than Nintendo’s rival product–the Rumble Pak–because it could vibrate at various speeds and intensities. The Dualshock could mimic crashing into a wall at a hundred miles per hour as well as driving over a small speed bump at thirty. Although the controller was only released a few months before Metal Gear, Kojima was given a prototype and fully implemented Dualshock features into the game.

The first few hours of Metal Gear Solid are a delight to play. As mentioned, the narrative stands out as one of the best of its era and its gameplay–in which you’re actively encouraged to flee from enemies instead of taking them head on–was downright revolutionary for its focus on evasion over murder. But one of the first truly memorable scenes–when you first realize that Kojima is doing something far more interesting formally than you might have realized–occurs around the four-hour mark. Solid Snake–the gruff main character, a government manipulated soldier pulled out of retirement for one final mission–tracks down the DARPA Chief, one of the primary objects of the game. Kojima launches into a seven-minute cut scene that portrays the Chief’s death via heart attack. And what’s so intense about this scene, what’s so unlike anything in gaming that had come before, is that the two motors in  the Dualshock simulate this man’s heart attack. It mimics his racing heartbeat, climaxing with the seizure that causes his death, all in the palms of your hands. I could be wrong about this, but this is the first example I can recall of video game narrative being combined so artfully with real world stimuli: the mechanized simulation of a dying human heart.

From this point on, Kojima and Metal Gear Solid take great pains to blur the lines between playing a game in the digital world and playing a game in the physical world. The most meta moment–and easily my favorite moment in any video game ever–occurs less than an hour after the DARPA Chief’s death. Via Snake, the player encounters a character who tells you that you must contact an in-game character named Meryl. Your only clue on how to contact her? “Use the code on the back of the CD case.” Metal Gear Solid uses a simple radio program to contact its in-game characters. They all have different frequency codes, and you can pause the game at any time, enter one of these numbers, and talk to the various characters who are monitoring Solid Snake’s progress from afar. The first time I got this clue–laid-up with a throbbing sour foot don’t forget–I wandered around the limited area of the Shadow Moses fortress that I then had access to, searching for an in-game CD case which would hopefully contain Meryl’s frequency. I searched for hours, and then, in total desperation, opened up the case the game had come in to scan the instruction booklet.

What you have to remember is that this all occurred at the dawn of the modern internet era. I did not have internet access at the time, so unlike today, I couldn’t just go to GameFAQs and look up a walkthrough. I scanned the useless booklet for awhile, then gave up and sealed the case. Here’s what’s on the back.

See that box  toward the bottom middle? The black one with green faces? That’s the radio screen. On the right is Solid Snake, and on the left is Meryl. And what’s that in the middle? That’s right. Meryl’s code. There is no in-game CD case to find. The character was referring to the actual case you bought the game in. He needed you to inspect something that existed in the physical world.

This utterly blew my mind at thirteen, but I don’t think I truly understood the ramifications of what Kojima and MGS had actually pulled. For the first time that I’m aware of, a video game called on you, the player, to do something in the real world in order to advance. Let me be clear on this. If the player does not get up off the couch and inspect the back of the CD case, there is no way to advance. You’re stuck. You can continue playing the game, but there’s no way to further the narrative. The only way to move forward depends on an action in the physical world, not the digital one. This may not seem like such a huge deal, but what will the interaction be between digital narratives and physical narratives in ten years? How about fifty? Hideo Kojima was and is limited by whatever technology is available to him at the time. His imagination is limitless, but the same cannot be said about technology, especially about the now vastly underpowered Playstation. If Kojima is interested in blurring the lines between the digital and the physical–which I would argue that he is–what happens when the technology catches up with Kojima’s imagination? What happens when he’s able to make what happens in games “real”?

Metal Gear Solid is peppered with moments like this throughout. None so brilliantly capture how blended players have become with their digital avatars as the CD code, but there are other interesting examples. Later in the game, one of the bosses gives a demonstration of his physic abilities. In a cut scene, Psycho Mantis looks at the camera, at the player, and tells them whether or not they’re fans of certain games. I remember sitting there on the floor and Psycho Mantis shaking his head and telling me how much I loved the most recent Castlevania game, the now legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Holy shit! I did love Symphony of the Night! But how did Mantis know?

Like the Dualshock, one of the big peripherals for the Playstation was the memory card, a small plastic trinket that you plugged into your system, allowing you to “save” your progress in various games. Kojima programmed Metal Gear Solid to scan your saved files at this point in the game and then have Psycho Mantis announce whether or not you owned any other Konami products. A bizarre bit of meta-corporate commentary to be sure, but this was nothing in comparison to Mantis’ next trick. He looks at the player once again and instructs you to put the controller on the floor. I looked around the room, startled, and did as I was told. Mantis points his fingers at the controller, and then, with only the power of his mind, causes the controller to rattle across the physical floor in your living room! Obviously, this is accomplished via the motors inside the Dualshock. They rev at maximum intensity when Mantis points, causing the controller to jerk around. Once again, Kojima proves that he wants to obliterate the line delineating avatar and player. For this brief moment, the player is no longer herself. For this brief moment, she is absorbed into the digital world; the player becomes Solid Snake.

And the highlight of the Psycho Mantis encounter? That’s unquestionably the boss fight itself. No matter what you  try and do, Mantis anticipates your attack and easily dodges, chalking it up to his psychic abilities. You call your advisers via radio, and they don’t know what to do and only say that you must break the connection between Mantis and your mind. And while all of this is happening,  the picture keeps going out. The screen keeps going black with the word Hideo appearing in green on the top edge of the screen, just like old televisions used to look when you’d switch to the video channel. The implication here is that Psycho Mantis has actually taken over your television and is changing channels at will in order to kill you in the game world.

The only way to win the fight is to stand up and unplug your controller from the player one socket and insert it into player two’s, thus disrupting the link between Psycho Mantis and your mind/Dualshock/television. This bizarre marriage of technology and implied flesh really disturbed me as a young man. And after killing Psycho Mantis, while watching him bleed out on the floor and tell you about his terrible childhood in a third-world country, I felt like I’d been put through something, that I’d experienced something emotional. It’s sort of like with short stories, how when you get to the end of a good one you find that moment of emotional resonance. Only here, it wasn’t a character who had gone through the journey; I’d gone through that journey.

There’s so much more I want to say about Metal Gear Solid, and in many ways, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. What about the part when you get sick, and Dr. Naomi tells you to put the Dualshock up against your forearm so she can give you a shot? You do as instructed and feel the controller’s motors vibrate once against your bare skin. How about the complicated–for a video game from 1998 at least–questions about love? How about the final battle which goes on and on, moving to set piece after set piece in a manner so obviously culled from a thousand Hollywood thrillers? How about Metal Gear Rex, the cartoony, yet alarmingly plausible weapon designed for launching nuclear missiles at any target on the planet? How about the character of Grey Fox, a dead soldier brought back to life through illegal cybernetics, a terrifying premonition of the military industrial complex gone mad? All of these things could justify their own essays, but what made Metal Gear Solid truly matter to me all those years ago sprawled out with my throbbing foot was the way in which a mere man–Hideo Kojima–had been able, if even momentarily, to merge my identity with that of a video game avatar, that he could so easily merge the physical and digital worlds. It’s an experience that has always stayed with me, and one that I continually go back to every few years with a six-pack of beer. How comforting it is to play through Metal Gear Solid one more time, to find that no matter how much I or the world have changed that Solid Snake and Meryl and Psycho Mantis are exactly as I left them, ready to once again bestow their curious gifts upon me.

Is it that unlike rewatching a favorite film? Is it that unlike rereading a beloved novel?

Culture Death Match #2: Tom Bissell vs. Sarah Vowell

What’s that? You read Culture Death Match #1 in which Amy Whipple and I talked Batman and Golden Girls and you’re dying for more? BEHOLD! Amy Whipple and I chat up Tom Bissell, Sarah Vowell, and who is assigned writerly authority and why that is exactly. It’s like a thousand Christmas mornings up in this bitch.

Curt Moyer Remembers Reach

Let me tell you about the kind of person Curt Moyer is. One time we  purchased soda and then were transporting said soda to our homes. Curt hooked his twelve-pack over his shoulder and started nodding his head to a made up beat. He looked over at me and sang, “You feel them cans jiggling?” That sums up our entire friendship.

He writes poetry too.

Now, without further interruption, I give you his thoughts on the impending release of Halo: Reach.


September 14th is a day of historical significance, not because it is 3 days after the 11th, but because it’s right around the time George W. Bush told Americans to not worry about anything and go shopping. Given that it is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think it’s best to salvage the important message from that day: buy things to show the terrorists we are not afraid.

September 14th will mark a new era for America as it is the release of Bungie’s Halo: Reach. Reach is one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. Many stores will open at midnight for gamers to get their hands on Reach as early as possible. Some gamers have already pre-ordered copies to pick up at midnight, while gamers like myself chance the hard conditions and possibility all the copies will be sold out. I am willing to take that chance. It will be a tough time, standing next to fellow nerds in the harsh early morning weather for an opportunity to do our part to keep America free.

September in Pennsylvania is mild, but if there is a strong wind, I might need to wear a light jacket and find some cover in order to light my cigarettes. It has been hard living as a young American, but I owe my country this much. It is true what they say, freedom isn’t free, it’s about $60 plus tax (or $150 for the “legendary edition”; this is only for the most financially committed patriots). Ultimately it doesn’t matter what edition you buy, it matters that you show up and put your time in, display your enduring patriotism.

But purchasing Reach is only the beginning. In order to maintain your patriotism you must play. Reach has three modes that will please any Halo fan or average gamer; Campaign (story), Firefight (fight oncoming waves of enemies that get progressively harder), Multiplayer (vs. other real-life patriots, this is the bread and butter of the Halo series). Ultimately it doesn’t matter what mode you play, you must put your time in.

The Reach Spartans

What makes Halo so appealing (apart from pulling off great headshots that make 14 year olds moan and cry mercy) is its allegorical nature. The storyline of Halo is simple. You are a member of the USNC and your objective is to defeat the Covenant. The UNSC is basically your 2-D military heroes, and the Covenant is a bunch of religious extraterrestrial zealots that are attempting to wipe out humanity. Did I mention this takes place in space (Philip K. Dick, eat your heart out!)? You play as a Spartan (yes, that’s what they’re called, why, because of their ability to beat the overwhelming odds that are against them, Thermopylae anyone?) and you have to battle tons of different Covenant enemies (everything from grunts to hunters). Did I also mention that grunts are the smallest/worthless units and some kamikaze with sticky grenades attached to them? Seriously, this game just reaches a level
of contemporary allegory Jonathan Franzen can’t even touch.

Grunt kamikaze with sticky nades

I can tell you the first week after Reach’s release I will be getting little sleep. I work long hours, so my free time home will be eaten up by Reach . There will be no books (which means I might be eligible to join the Tea Party) or blogs, or anything that involves words other than “pwn” and “noobs”. This is what it means to be American, this is what it means to have principles, this is what it means to be a Patriot. Do yourself a favor, remember Reach.

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An Excuse to Talk About Fantasy Football or It’s Prime Submission Season!

For a few days, I’ve been trying to think of a good excuse for talking about fantasy football on a blog that’s supposedly about writing and books and shit. I’ve done this before, coming up with justifications to discuss Scott Pilgrim and Earthbound and and all kinds of esoteric subjects. I thought maybe I could pass the draft day experience as an unfolding narrative, how once choice affects another (for example, if you use your first pick on Chris Johnson, you don’t then use your second on another running back with the same bye week).

But, in the end, I couldn’t think of a single, solitary reason for why I’d talk about fantasy football on this blog which (normally) has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy football. But you know what? Fuck it. This is, so if I want to talk about fantasy football I should be able to talk about fantasy football, right? Here’s the outcome of my draft:

Excuse me? Is you saying something? Nu-uh. Can't tell me nothin'.

How’d I do? I feel good about it with the exception of Winslow (I wanted Visanthe Shiancoe, but I’m in a league with Minnesota fans). Do you guys play fantasy? Or do you think, like Marvel Editor Nathan Crosby, that it “combines the excitement of the NFL with the sadness of role-playing games”? Can you come up with any parallels between the world of fantasy football and writing? Ok. Wait a sec. How about this shit? Assembling a fantasy football team is a lot like assembling the contents of a literary journal. You’ve got to balance things while playing towards your aesthetic. I’m a running back guy. I took one in the first round (then a WR then QB) and then a bunch of RBs in a row. Is this like editing a journal that primarily runs metafiction while still trying to balance things in terms of gender and race and sexuality? Are you also worried about Maurice Jones-Drew (language thugs like me call him The Hyphen) blowing out his knee and ruining your season? Are you too obsessed with the Talented Mr. Roto?

One last thing. And this has nothing to do with fantasy football but everything to do with lit journals. IT’S SUBMISSION SEASON AGAIN! I remember very vividly when I started my MFA program going for drinks with two recently graduated poets. They clinked glasses and made a toast to the new submission season. One thing I miss in an era when so much of what we do is digital is the idea that September 1st is the universal starting day for new submissions. So many online outlets read year round (which is obviously so much better for everyone–writer and reader both) that the anticipation of 9/1 just isn’t what it used to be.

However, I am preparing to send out a shit ton of new work. How do you guys go about this? Recently I told a current MFA student that I like to have no fewer than 30 submissions out at any given time, and she looked terrified. Is 30 high? Do you send to more places than that? Are you like me and get panicky whenever your submissions queue on Duotrope drops below 20? Do you not use Duotrope? How many times will you try a journal before you give up (DON’T GIVE UP; I’ve gotten into a bunch of journals that initially rejected my work)? How do you find new journals? Through the work of your peers? Through lit blogs like HTMLGIANT? If you don’t know Chris Johnson from LaDainian Tomlinson, but know the difference between Ploughshares and Diagram, hit me up in the comments.

What? Deal with it.

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