In Praise of Lando

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool.

– T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Proofrock

Middle age is a crushing thing.

When you hit 45 (which, for the sake of feeling good about my prospects, I’m going to call middle age), you inevitably spend time looking back on your life. Assessing things. And then you feel like a self-absorbed prick for a while, and you move on.

But the tapes that I replay in my head suggest that this should be the time when I’ve figured it all out. As a young male, I learned about the grown-up world from infallible sources: Spider Man and Sgt. Rock, Angus Young and John Hughes. According to them, all I have to do is work really hard, and it will all work out. I’ll be famous and rich and get the girl of my dreams. Things will be swell.

A young man believes these things.

Unfortunately, life has a way of creeping in between the Technicolor rock & roll fantasies and reality. The heroes of youth — Halo’s anonymous testosterone junkie Master Chief, for instance — don’t match with the man I’ve become. Who exactly do I want to be?

“You coming to bed?” asks Jess. It’s not her “come hither” voice. There’s neither the promise of carnal pleasure nor any criticism for a denial.

“Nope. Wide awake.” It’s only a partial lie. I’ve had a martini and a long day, so while I’m not actually wide awake, neither am I ready to head into a dark room, read on my iPad for 20 minutes and restart the cycle 7 hours later. She heads upstairs, and I think about a game to play, scrolling through the endless list of half-finished “big games.”

So many stories.

I love stories. I love being Jack in Rapture, Shepard on the Normandy, or even Link wandering Hyrule. For as long as I’ve been a gamer, there have been two, and really only two reasons I love games. There’s the intellectual part of me that loves the challenge. I love figuring out how to optimize my World of Warcraft build, or my League of Legends loadout, or my strategy for finally getting a diplomatic victory out of Civ V.

And then there are the stories. The best games meld the two, but I can overlook a long list of game-design sins if I can genuinely connect with a character. For decades, it was about the heroes: I grew up wanting to be Luke Skywalker, and then, as I got a bit more cynical, Han Solo.

But I’ve only recently realized that the missing hero in my games is neither the scoundrel with a heart of gold, or that young desert boy on a path to greatness. It’s Lando.

Lando Calrissian. The guy who graduated from his smuggling days to take on the responsibility of an entire city, and was willing to make deals with the devil in order to protect it.

But perhaps even more, it’s Walt “Heisenberg” White, the 50-something, effete, intellectual, meth-making protagonist of Breaking Bad.

There’s no need for spoilers here; it’s clear from nearly the first ten minutes of Breaking Bad that Walter White is, essentially, me. He’s the smart, middle class, middle-aged white guy who did everything right — and still got f*cked.

Not badly. Neither Walt or I are on the street, unable to support our families. There are, truth be told, vast panoramas of people far, far worse off than we are.

But we were lied to. We grew up in a world which laid out a pattern for us. A “Corwin-in-Amber” level maze traced on the ground that, if we’d just keep walking it, would lead us towards privileged white-guy heaven, a place of peace and prosperity.

But it turns out the world doesn’t work that way. The middle-aged-white-guy life from ‘80s TV sitcoms and movies doesn’t actually exist. Instead, we live in a real world, where the line between prosperity and destitution can be as thin as the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers or a factory closure.

I’m not asking for pity, honestly. I’m blessed. But like the working people of every class, and every generation everywhere, I turn to the Penny Dreadful of my age for solace when the sh*t hits the fan. And for me, that care-worn book has, more often than not, been a game.

So as I look down this pile of games, this cornucopia of slavishly created entertainments from some of the most imaginative people of my generation, I’m saddened to see a decided lack of Walter White in the mix.

In the grey dark loneliness of Middle America, what’s missing isn’t another regurgitation of idealized humans on the hero’s journey. It’s a connection. The heroes of my other-worlds seem to have become more and more polarized in the past few years. Yes, there are still nuances, still plenty of “your choices matter” type ambiguity with room for interpretation.

Mass Effect, for instance. What bothered me most about playing Mass Effect wasn’t the false-choices of the endings, but how removed I felt from Shepard’s own experience. I’ve led virtual teams of caricatures in and out of battle a thousand times by now. But none of those Commanders had ever changed a diaper or sat through a boring meeting on marketing strategy. Shepard was no different.

Even more frustrating than the cardboard heroism of a future soldier is the timeless crutch of amnesia. As a writer, I get the attraction. If you’re going to write from the first person, having your protagonist know nothing at the start of your story is a fantastic way to introduce a strange new world, and flow in characters and past lives at will. But it doesn’t do much to make me actually connect to that poor, amnesiac bastard. At least BioShock had the common decency to make the whole trope of found-agency-in-amnesia the punch line of a cruel joke.

As for the countless games that let me build up from nothing — starting as a child in a Peter Molyneux fable or clicking through “background” screens in an RPG — these leave me hollow too. For while I make these stories mine, they are pure escapism, and thus poor teachers. When I was twelve and playing “Torganar the Brave” in a D&D campaign run by stoned theater hippies down the street, I reveled in the stout axe-wielder’s heroic deeds simply because my own life was already a blank slate.

But I’m not a tabula rasa any more. I’m a grown-ass man. I have baggage. I’ve changed the diapers and sat through the meetings. I’ve made the grown-up choices to not buy the electric guitar, not upset the boss, not take off on a vacation I can’t afford. I’ve made the all-too-adult choices to pay the mortgage, do the job, console the snot-nosed, feverish child and roll the garbage can down the driveway in the darkness of a frozen February morning.

These choices may not be noble, but they’re at least, I hope, the quiet, subtle choices that separate me from the true assholes of the world. And they are, always, my starting point for any character I’m going to explore.

How can they not be?

I’m not suggesting that I long to actually play as Charles Bukowski or Tom Waits or Walter Mitty in a game. I don’t want to play at being bitter and angry, grizzled by the world and its realities. What I want is a path. What I’m asking for is an actual answer. Where are the characters that take who I am today toward something more righteous? For every 12 year old inspired by Luke Skywalker to be better than they think they can be, there’s a 45 year old middle-class father of two wondering where it all goes from here, wondering if there was more than a little nobility in Lando’s loyalty to Cloud City, in Walt’s descent into the dark.

Perhaps I’ll just have to settle for being Ethan Mars from Heavy Rain, wandering through the train station, yelling “Jason!?” after a lost youth?

--

Note: Actor Graham Rowat does a reading of this piece on the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call, Episode 307. He starts the reading about 37 minutes in.

Comments

General Crespin wrote:

Thanks for making this front page worthwhile.

gizmo wrote:

I tend to glaze over the front page and go to my recents, but really was spot on.

Of course I thought of Lando Calrissian and the black rage scene from Chasing Amy. Clearly NSFW, with language. Not necessarily tied to the article, but whenever Lando is mentioned my mind goes there.

Anyway, all the Catherine recommendations are making me regret not getting in on the $19.99 PSN sale last month. Hm...

I guess I'll just go play Walking Dead Ep3 this afternoon.

Stele wrote:

Anyway, all the Catherine recommendations are making me regret not getting in on the $19.99 PSN sale last month. Hm...

Aw, don't feel too bad. I'm sure it'll go on sale again...

*quietly adds Stele to his block list*

imbiginjapan wrote:

Great read.

I think the escapism of being Commander Shepard has as much to do with the grandiosity of his tale as it does the incredible simplicity of his inner life. Whatever the decision, he never doubts himself for a moment.

Male Shepard?? Did your game glitch or something? Everyone knows that FemShep is the only real choice.

heavyfeul wrote:

There are very few heroes that personify the sentiments expressed in this article, but, as I read through, I was reminded of the character David Dunn from Unbreakable.

David Dunn's only motivation in Unbreakable is to repair the rift his depression has caused his family through shear brute force. The brass ring in Unbreakable is not a surgically enhanced blonde chippy with only half a brain who makes him "feel young again," but just simple familial contentment.

You and I may be the only two people who liked that movie for what it was. I have never seen a favorable reaction from a real live human being when discussing this film.

I also thought Alien3 was fantastic so maybe I'm just weird.

The image of him (David Dunn) emerging from the pool in the SECURITY parka is burned on my brain.

Charles S. Dutten is pretty awesome in Alien 3 (talk about a dark hero...yikes) and I never get tired of watching Sigourney Weaver. She is an amazing actor.

I have been a fan of this site, it's users, and the Conference Call for years. I can't express what a thrill it was to voice Rabbit's words and be part of the podcast I await so eagerly each week. Thanks to Shawn and and Julian for including me.

Jeez I love Unbreakable. Where have you guys been hanging out?

Now Alien 3... well, I wish they sold an Alien+Aliens blu-ray collection. Don't really need the other two.

Yeah, Unbreakable is a great movie.

Spoiler:

Now that we know who you are... I know who I am. I'm not a mistake! It all makes sense. In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain's going to be? He's the exact opposite of the hero, and most time's they're friends, like you and me. I should've known way back when. You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr. Glass.

Growat wrote:

I have been a fan of this site, it's users, and the Conference Call for years. I can't express what a thrill it was to voice Rabbit's words and be part of the podcast I await so eagerly each week. Thanks to Shawn and and Julian for including me.

It was a great performance. You should be doing audiobooks. Cheers!

There are very few heroes that personify the sentiments expressed in this article, but, as I read through, I was reminded of the character David Dunn from Unbreakable.

Most mid-life crisis movies are played for laughs and the man is rarely someone we sympathize with. You have seen the guy a million times. He is usually a selfish prick who spends his time and money on women, drugs, and red, often convertible, sports cars.

David Dunn's only motivation in Unbreakable is to repair the rift his depression has caused within his family through shear brute force. The brass ring in Unbreakable is not a surgically enhanced blonde chippy with only half a brain who makes him "feel young again," but just simple familial contentment.

I am also reminded of Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me and, to some extent, Vic Mackey from The Shield and Donald Draper from Mad Men. Our stories are out there, although I never see them played out in video games.

heavyfeul wrote:

It was a great performance. You should be doing audiobooks. Cheers! :drink:

Thanks. It's obviously great material. And as a 40 year old father of one, it wasn't hard to relate.

Also, since you mention it.

Wonderfully written Julian, thank you again.

Excellente.

Fantastic work, and a really effective reading by Graham.

The whole thing makes me want to write some music for it, slice up Graham's VO, and make a full-on This American Life version.

Podunk wrote:

Fantastic work, and a really effective reading by Graham.

The whole thing makes me want to write some music for it, slice up Graham's VO, and make a full-on This American Life version.

Careful ... you know how I get when people start whimsically mentioning things like that out loud around me.

Certis wrote:

Careful ... you know how I get when people start whimsically mentioning things like that out loud around me.

Growat wrote:

I have been a fan of this site, it's users, and the Conference Call for years. I can't express what a thrill it was to voice Rabbit's words and be part of the podcast I await so eagerly each week. Thanks to Shawn and and Julian for including me.

Dude, your reading was as amazing as the original prose. Well done to both!

Certis wrote:
Podunk wrote:

Fantastic work, and a really effective reading by Graham.

The whole thing makes me want to write some music for it, slice up Graham's VO, and make a full-on This American Life version.

Careful ... you know how I get when people start whimsically mentioning things like that out loud around me.

I hear if the moon is high, and you've poured some moon shine on a cross roads, a little banjo pickin' is all you need to summon the Podunk.

Excellent article. Many others have said the same, but I had to make an account just to give praise!

BTW, forum experts... this sig works on other forums, why not here?

IMAGE(http://alabasterslim.com/76561197968547267/steam_sig.png)

Frawg wrote:

Excellent article. Many others have said the same, but I had to make an account just to give praise!

BTW, forum experts... this sig works on other forums, why not here?

IMAGE(http://alabasterslim.com/76561197968547267/steam_sig.png)

No images in signatures, sorry!

((EFFETEJERKMODE))

In our forums, we rely on the words to tell our stories.

((/EFFETEJERKMODE))

In all seriousness, it's part of what makes this place so awesome and antifanboiBS.

Thanks Julian (and all the gang at Gamers with Jobs)! It is an awesome piece and a great segment on the podcast.

rabbit wrote:

In all seriousness, it's part of what makes this place so awesome and antifanboiBS.

Although, if we're truthful, it's mostly because we can't trust Quintin.

Hi Guys,

Just listened to this week's podcast. This is a great piece Julian, and thanks for the dramatic reading Graham. Made my wife listen to it over tea this morning.

Cheers,
Mark

I love it. Yet strangely, when you do it in the voice of Ray Romano, it changes in context. I have to record that impression to let you judge Rabbit.

Minarchist wrote:

I know I've said this before, Julian, but you really, really need to play Catherine.

There needs to be more games like Catherine but without the absurdly hard, cheating puzzle aspect.

Budo wrote:

the voice of Ray Romano

Don't do that.

imbiginjapan wrote:

And I would totally play a Tom Waits video game.

You haven't played Black Rider? It's awesome. It's in that space where medicine and music overlap.

What do you think of Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII? I think he comes close to fitting the description of the character type you're looking for, or at least he's another Ethan Mars. He's a single father who ended up involved with the game's plot because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he eventually ends up rising to the occasion.

Also, I haven't played Alan Wake myself, but its protagonist is also a middle-aged man who didn't put any points into Action Hero during character creation. I wonder if this kind of "hero" is more common in the horror genre of games?