Sunday, December 28, 2008

Egg & Identity (Identity)

I recently dined at a little breakfast place in the Las Vegas area, called Egg Works. Egg Works is a branch off of an older successful restaurant called Egg & I. The food was good and I have no complaints regarding the restaurant itself; however, I found myself disturbed by some of the artwork displayed. I think, in my admittedly overly analytical perspective, that there lays an interesting philosophical dilemma portrayed, however unintentionally.

The restaurant has an obvious egg-related theme. Anthropomorphic egg cartoons are present everywhere throughout the place: the menu, the windows, the wall, the condiment containers, which feature a nifty little device for signaling waiters that has a happy face when you’re fine and a sad face when you need service, and in the logo. The eggs all exhibit distinct characteristics that separate them from each other; although there are no specific characters, there are the authoritative egg, the humble egg, the enthusiastic egg, the content egg, and others. The logo features a boy egg and a girl egg who are embraced in a hug and clearly infatuated with each other.

The problem comes from a notice in the display stand at each table, which announces the new location of Egg Works as opposed to the previously singular Egg & I location. I snapped a picture of it when I was there, but as the picture is highly fuzzy, I’ll describe it here. The notice is themed to look like a newspaper, the “EGGNEWS”, with a front page article describing the new opening location:


Egg Works new location at Sunset and Eastern
hatched in July!

help us celebrate the new arrival!

And alongside the note is (oh my god…) a hatching chicken. The egg is in pieces, and in the shell sits a baby chicken. The chick has its wings open in delight, a goofy smile on its face. So, my question is… what happened to the intelligence governing the egg persona it once was?

Eggs are people in the artwork of Egg Works. They have intelligence and individual personalities. When an egg hatches, what becomes of that person? When they are eggs, is the intelligence suspended in the developing egg yolk, which would then operate the shell body as a brain, the ghost in the literal shell? If so, perhaps the chicken would exist as a continuation of that same person, much as a caterpillar undergoing metamorphosis into a butterfly. However, suppose the chick is a new life, as the note about the “new arrival” would suggest. Have we witnessed the death of a lovable egg person?

The situation makes me recall the bittersweet world of Haibane Renmei, an anime about rebirth. The anime takes place in what appears to be a world in between worlds, a weigh station for the souls of children yet to go on to their next life, whatever that may be. The Haibane are these angel-like children who are reborn into this world, Guri, through being hatched out of room-filling cocoons that grow from plants that appear in abandoned buildings. Before they emerge from their cocoons, Haibane experience a vivid dream that would appear to be a last remnant of their previous life, basically their deaths. Aside from the rapidly fading memory of this dream, the Haibane are born into the world without knowledge of who they once were and subsequently take names based on their dreams. So, we have Rakka (falling), Nemu (sleep), Kuu (air), Kana (river fish), and Hikari (light) – people whose memories of their past selves are limited only to their final moments.

Eventually, every Haibane leaves on their Day of Flight. Although their angelic wings are useless for true aerodynamic ascension, they can leave the walled-in town of Guri through a mysterious process in which they enter the forbidden woods to the west and ascend to the sky in a miraculous light beam, leaving behind only a burnt halo. The Haibane always leaves suddenly without saying goodbye, after their character has evolved to the point where they no longer have need of Guri and can make their way to their next life.

When the once-childish Kuu leaves on her Day of Flight, Rakka is thrown into depression. If I am destined to leave here, never to return, she wonders, does my life mean anything? When the representative of the Renmei, the local government, assures her that she will see Kuu again upon her own Day of Flight, this does little to ease her troubled mentality. What if Kuu doesn’t recognize her? What if there is no memory of her previous existence?

This life-and-death metaphor is rather different from the Egg Works case in that, for one thing, the stages of life and afterlife of Haibane Renmei are completely separate universes. While a crow, representing one of Rakka’s loved ones from her past life, managed to get from Earth to Guri, there is no indication that its soul was able to get back. There are hopes and intuitive suspicions, but ultimately no one knows what the next life may bring. This is not necessarily the case of the Egg Works cartoons, which may plausibly have a hatched chick exist at the same time as of one of the other egg people.

This opens up the doorway for more issues. If the former-egg and one of its egg buddies interact, will they know each other or will they be strangers? The tint of the egg shell matches that of the girl egg in the logo, making me suspect that they might be one and the same. It breaks my heart to think of the boy egg talking to the hatched chick unable to resume their former relationship, much like the plot of The Notebook.

In conclusion… I embrace over analyzing stuff. I have no doubt that the creators of the anthropomorphic egg artwork never meant anything more than to add a little playful atmosphere to a family breakfast place. However, I do have a great interest in the philosophical subject of identity, and that my idle thoughts on their egg cartoons should provoke such questions is only evidence of the continued preoccupation I have with the subject. In the end, the main reason I wrote this is that my going on about the “philosophical issues” present in the egg art prompted my dad to sarcastically suggest I “write a blog about it.” So I did. :)

Creepy (Halo)

Originally written for Halopedia:

Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, have been highly useful to the Halo franchise for presenting material in a unique manner. Both I Love Bees and Iris have provided the Halo universe with invaluable material in addition to their primary purposes of keeping the fans sated preceding the releases of Halo 2 and Halo 3 respectively. The unique means of presenting such aspects of the Halo universe involves the fans to a degree not usually found in fictional media, in which they become part of the story themselves. It is my opinion that this aspect of ARGs affects the relationship of the fan to the fiction and forces a connection not usually present in which the fan takes a voyeuristic role.

The “voyeur” theory I’ve heard is one with which I usually don’t agree. The perspective is that when an individual appreciates fiction, they take on a voyeuristic role in which they act as an observer of the fictional subject, treated for the moment as a legitimate aspect of reality. An example could be of a movie depicting a private moment between a boyfriend and girlfriend.

I generally disagree with the theory. I believe that for the purposes of the example, the fan and the fiction do not exist in the same way. When I watch the movie, I do not see myself as a voyeur trespassing on a private moment thanks to the magic TV screen. I either empathize directly with one or more of the subjects, or I compartmentalize the diegesis as existing entirely separate to myself and view the scene from an omniscient perspective. However, due to the reality-bending nature of ARGs, the “voyeur” concept gains new relevance.

The I Love Bees story has a particularly intriguing pair of scenes, played out in both the axon audio drama and in literary text seen on the website. The gist of the story is that AIs from 2552 have taken over an average American’s personal webpage in 2004 after a mysterious accident and they’re trying to figure out what happened. The main AI (Melissa) has fragmented into three separate personalities: The Operator, the Sleeping Princess, and still in the future is Durga. The Operator doesn’t realize that the Sleeping Princess is anything but a “rogue process” and is trying to track her down, so the Sleeping Princess hides in the “Error 404” area of the site, which is only accessible through trying to get to a page that doesn’t exist. She is kept company by the Seeker, which is a Covenant AI spy with minimal intelligence that infected Melissa like a Trojan horse virus, and they together listen to audio files captured by Durga in the future (the audio drama) that have floated across the temporal connection.

In one of the files, the characters Durga and Jersey, a civilian whose personal computer plays host to the Durga fragment, discuss the creepy nature of Durga’s spying habits. Melissa was a powerful smart AI designed for purposes of gathering intelligence, specifically on the Covenant. While Durga suffers from amnesia because Melissa’s memories are in the other fragments, she still retains the compulsion to spy on various individuals of interest to her and captures audio files from their chatters (essentially the 2552 version of the iPhone). Jersey at first loves the power of having “God’s own spyware” and uses her to spy on the hot girl down the hall, Janissary James, but soon becomes overwhelmed by discovering the intensely serious and real natures of other persons’ lives.

As he notes to Durga in the file creepy.ogg:

Jersey: You know, I just had a creepy thought. (…) How spooky it would be if someone was listening to us right now.
Durga: To us?
Jersey: Spying on us, you know, like we’re listening to them.
Durga: (animatedly) That would be impossible. I would know.
Jersey: Yeah, I guess you’re right. But if they were, creeeepy!

This scene is emphasized when the Sleeping Princess offers her commentary on the situation. As it turned out, Jersey’s fear was warranted after all as people were listening to them. The Sleeping Princess in turn agrees with Jersey’s sentiment and tells this to the Seeker. The Seeker at first does not understand the concept and the Sleeping Princess has to explain it to the alien AI. When it does understand, the Seeker then comments “creepy”.

This creates a very unusual scenario. The premise of the I Love Bees ARG involves Dana, the webmistress of the website that has been taken over by the AIs, calling for help. The fan, then, is an active participant in the story, in which they take the role of essentially themselves trying to help uncover the mysterious nature of the AIs. The fan can email the Sleeping Princess and can take calls from the Operator, and can directly influence the storyline by participating in games they set up.

This means that when the fan observes, they truly assume the “voyeur” persona. The audio drama is depicted as something real, as is the AI commentary. While possible to empathize with specific characters, the boundary between diegesis and reality is strained. Not only is it voyeuristic to listen in on Jersey and Durga, but also to read the conversations between the Sleeping Princess and the Seeker. The fan has access to a wide body of the diegesis, from the audio files to the thoughts of the AIs to even the message board posts of other users, who are in some ways as much a part of the story as is Melissa. The fan thus takes on a similar role as Durga, God’s own spyware, and I have to wonder at the implications.

The nature of the Alternate Reality Game is different from many other forms of media, and can open these unusual philosophical conundrums. I’m not sure if there’s even any moral question involved in this instance, other than a vague feeling of “creepy”. I feel fairly confident that at some point (hopefully before the SPDR gets wide awake and physical) huge capitalistic corporations will adopt ARGs as a marketing technique, at which point the philosophical issues will get more vast and interesting. One thing’s for sure, the ARG is a highly intriguing concept.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Hello! Gay Now! (Bisexuality)

While by no means perfect, the treatment of homosexuality in modern media is improving. Gay storylines were once introduced purely for shock value, but now their appearance is far more commonplace and is often portrayed as legitimate drama (or comedy) alongside heterosexual narratives. However, while treatment of simple homosexuality has been increasingly progressive, bisexuality remains a subject without decent representation in many shows. This includes shows that would otherwise have a decent portrayal of homosexuality, but have somehow missed the boat when it comes to the concept of being attracted to both genders rather than just being gay or straight. Such examples are found in Will and Grace, Friends, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

In Bed with Sexism (Wedding Crashers)

I’m a pretty good fan of the movie Wedding Crashers. I usually find Owen Wilson funny, and the movie’s pretty silly in general… However, I have an issue with the movie’s treatment of rape as conducted by a female onto a male. Because the subject is treated playfully, I find it indicative of sexism of the creators and of the general movie audience.