More Than Taking Ten
Penny Arcade turned ten this week. They didn’t do anything special for it – a casual mention or two amidst a flurry of newsposts on all manner of other things. Those other things are rather telling, however – posts on Child’s Play, on Greenhouse, commentary on various games and gaming-related material. The sheer amount of accomplishment and influence they have is phenomenal, and makes Penny Arcade far more than a simple webcomic – and yet, the creators remain humble, and diligent in their work. They have continued to improve over the last decade, despite how easy it might be to simply indulge in their success.
I still find myself sitting around with my friends, and someone will quote a recent strip, and then a dozen more quotes will erupt from the crowd. They need no explanation, no context – Penny Arcade is a shared experience, and a few simple words are enough. “I vant you to keel seex snow moose,” indeed.
Meanwhile, interesting things are afoot at PvP. I was recently talking with a friend about the strip, and he expressed dissatisfaction with it of late. For myself, while I couldn’t recall being impressed with many recent story arcs (and while I had been disappointed to once again see Kurtz acting like a child on the interwebs), I found the strip itself still holding my attention quite well, and the stand-alone strips were maintaining an excellent level of humor, often trying new things with his oldest jokes – without abandoning them entirely.
And then, this week, we got the start of a new storyline – and one I couldn’t wait to see unfold.
Max and his interaction with the crew have always been some of the most interesting scenes to me, even since I read a certain Websnark article that quite effectively pointed out that Max Powers (constantly shown as the antagonist)… was actually the good guy.
So this week starts with a promising premise – a chance to really delve at the underlying frustration between Max and the PvP crew. And it sets up the scene extremely well – we see the ever-smiling Max Powers, confronted by the usual hostility, finally stop smiling – and ask, point blank, why Brent and Cole don’t like him.
It humanizes Max in a way the strip rarely is willing to do – and that’s the interesting part. Sure, it is easy enough to realize that Max isn’t actually as bad a guy as Brent and Cole present him as, but the strip isn’t never points that out – it presents him as the villain time and time again!
So what does it mean when it takes a step back, and presents him as a real person? Let’s us see the human side of him directly, and makes that central to the storyline?
I’m eager to find out, and yet I’m also worried. Kurtz has shown before that he can pull off this sort of thing extremely well – many of the story arcs about Brent and Jade have walked this edge and come out triumphant in the end. But at the same time, some of the more recent character-centric storylines… about Skull, and Francis and Marcy… have been rather hit or miss.
The last few days in this arc have had their share of interesting revelations, but I’m willing to see how it all plays out before giving final judgement. But regardless of how successful it is, it is still something I’m glad to see Kurtz willing to try.
There is a fear that certain comics will stagnate. Will go the route of the newspaper strips, and focus on the same tired jokes for years on end, without ever risking change to what has been a successful formula. PvP could end up like that – it passed its ten year mark just in May. But Kurtz is unwilling to risk that fate, and wants to let the characters grow, even with the risk, even without it being guaranteed success. He’s experimenting, here, with a proven element of the strip – Max Powers as Cole’s foil, Cole’s rival, Cole’s counterpart. He is a very easy character to use, and a very powerful tool in the strip’s arsenal – and Kurtz is risking that tool losing it’s ability to function, in return for the chance to make it something even better.
I might not end up liking this arc, or I might end up loving it. But either way, I’m glad to see Kurtz still willing to take that chance, and push his comic past its boundaries, and into the brave new world beyond.
A connection, tenuously built.
So… this week has certainly been full of excitement.
While history has been busy defining and redefining itself around me, I’ve been busy getting a head start on falling behind on NaNoWriMo!
The reasons for this have been reasonably varied, from the usual gaming to the election excitement to finding myself attending a performance of Waiting for Godot. And, of course, thanks to the recent release of Episode 2 of Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.
Having finished the game yesterday, I found it much the same as the first one – some slight mechanical refinements, certainly, but the same animal as a whole. Which is to say, an immersion into the humor of Gabe and Tycho for hours on end. There is nothing else to it, and there does not need to be. Indeed, it is an amazing triumph that they can take the same humor usually parcelled out in small doses thrice weekly, and unleash it in a maelstrom of absurdity, vulgarity, and surreality that goes on for hours! Penny Arcade advertises it as “A Completely Ridiculous RPG Adventure” – that is about as accurate as one can get, in all the right ways.
But it might be that my sense of humor is suspect. Perhaps all the chaos and calamity of current events has left me unable to discern what is true entertainment. Indeed, I found I had laughed – out loud – at the latest Ctrl+Alt+Del. How does that come to pass?
Well, that’s a poor example – I know precisely why. I said, a long time ago, that whatever my opinion of Tim Buckley, I found Ctrl+Alt+Del a perfectly reasonable comic – nothing amazing, but competent enough in its own right, with a single exception: Ethan.
Ethan, you see, was crazy. He was a miserable failure of a character whose only defining characteristic was that he acted in a fashion no human being would ever consider acting in, and was typically rewarded for doing so. He got an easy job, he got the cliche geek girl, his friends never actually permanently remained upset when he caused them physical injury or destroyed their property… and so forth.
I haven’t been a fan of the latest storyline. I haven’t particularly liked the comic’s treatment of Lilah, the main female character. I found the twists and turns of the storyline itself to be poorly chosen.
But the other day, I laughed at the strip, ever so momentarily. I found the previous strip actually, genuinely touching, in spite of all my reservations about the storyline.
And I realized why – Ethan was acting like a real person. Oh, he was still zany and silly and not entirely connected with reality – but he seemed to have an actual connection to the world around him. He was connecting with Lilah, he was about to carry on reasonable conversations with people – and his interaction with his former boss seemed like an entirely real human interaction.
It might seem strange that, after praising how over-the-top and ridiculous the Penny Arcade humor is, I go on to state that CAD’s greatest accomplishment is in stepping back from its absurdity and bringing one of its characters down to earth. But… Penny Arcade has been about the absurdity of the entire universe in which those strips occur, while Ethan has simply been about being silly for the sake of being silly. Penny Arcade occasionally dips into dread continuity, but largely focuses on little capsules of humors three days a week. CAD has become more and more of an ongoing story – which doesn’t work if the audience can’t stand your main character.
But make the main character a bit more real? Make it a figure in which they can become genuinely invested in?
That is step one.
Whether Buckley will keep it going, or whether we’ll deserve back into the usual antics, is hard to say. And there are plenty more areas of the strip in which there is room to improve – but for the longest time, I’ve been wondering why I kept reading the comic.
This week, I actually had an answer.