[Spoiler Warning for “Stranger Things”]
“Stranger Things” (2016) is a cultural artifact, and “Stranger Things 2” (2017) is close behind it in terms of instant classic appeal. The series is an idealized homage to a previous iteration of film culture that existed most notably in the 80s and it draws on many sources from film, literature, and music to create an atmosphere thick with nostalgia. The 80s being a seemingly specific era of inspiration is one of the reasons why it’s amazing that this series is so popular with seemingly every demographic imaginable. This includes groups who wouldn’t be nostalgic for the 80s because of their age, whether they be too young or too old, everyone loves this show. I just finished the second season at the time of this writing and I’m using this blog post to digest my thoughts.
Regardless of how powerful the spell “Stranger Things” weaves, this is a distinctly modern show with themes and ideas that transcend the 80s or even the genre that it commonly finds itself placed in, though that genre is difficult to pin down. “Stranger Things” is a hodgepodge of genre tropes and concepts, though most notably science-fiction and horror. However, it also feels like a Stephen King novel and “The Goonies” (1985) had a baby, and that baby was lovingly delivered by John Hughes. It feels like certain scenes were inspired by “Aliens” (1986), while others feels like they were ripped directly from “Stand By Me” (1986) or even the “It” mini-series (1990).
Despite the retro sensibilities of “Stranger Things”, this is a show that exists in 2017. With Netflix quickly taking over as the king of home entertainment, their attempts at original content have had mixed reception though they continue to improve, probably due much in part to the wealth of meta-data they have on their audience’s behavior. “House of Cards” (2013) was their first bonafide hit, with mature audiences flocking to view a show they could only see on the aforementioned streaming platform. If you didn’t already know, a family show “House of Cards” is not, and therein lies the problem. Enter “Stranger Things”, a show designed from its very core to be something that the entire family can enjoy. While still a family show, the Duffer Brothers remember a time when family films had cursing and sex, i.e. the 80s. The Duffer Brothers also know that kids don’t want to watch things marketed to kids, and that’s why “Stranger Things” is drenched in adult trappings, while still being a fundamentally straightforward and child-like show.
Cliches make up the DNA of “Stranger Things”, and while that might sound like a criticism I would have to disagree. Cliches are the language of story and narrative. If you break a cliche, you’ve told a subversive story. If you play with cliches, you’re being smart or you’ve tried to make a point, and if you execute cliches extremely well you will tap into the collective cultural consciousness of your audience. We may have seen this before, but we love the story, and I really enjoyed “Stranger Things”.
True to form, like most films in the 80s and 90s made for kids and families, there are themes and ideas that might go over the heads of the young ones in the room, and I want to talk about them. Firstly: Communism. There’s a hilarious joke I’ve seen floating around the internet about how everyone in college is talking about communism and that you can’t escape from the conversation. I think this applies to a lot of media made in the last couple of years, and “Stranger Things” is no exception.
In S02EP07 Eleven meets a side character who is holding up a gas station mart and she says something along the lines of “We’re not stealing from you, we’re stealing from the war-criminals who own this place.” Talk about a woke statement. The implications being that no laypeople were hurt financially in this robbery, which is a very Marxist way of justifying ones actions. The show leaves you with no direction as to the morality of this character’s actions, though it doesn’t frame these specific actions as being particularly misguided. The group robbing the gas station is also primarily people of color, and secondarily female. Furthermore, the group is stealing from the gas station to fuel and fund their quest for revenge against a group of primarily white male scientists who experimented and tortured their leader, who is a female of color. In my opinion, while this episode is the weakest in the entire series, it has the most to say about the meta-narrative of “Stranger Things”. It serves to contextualize the socio-political nature of the events from the first and second season as being a class and gender struggle. Interestingly, this is the point where most examples of Liberal Western media would reveal the group and their leader to be radicals who are misguided by revenge, and while “Stranger Things” goes there by having Eleven spare the life of one of her torturers, it doesn’t paint the group of budding Marxists as being lost or wrong in their thinking, it just isn’t the path that Eleven is going to join them in at this time, which reveals her white privilege in a subversive way. Eleven has a choice to go back to her primarily white suburban friends and her white suburban provider, whereas these characters can go nowhere and do nothing about their current situation.
The second interesting theme in “Stranger Things” is the sexual autonomy of the female characters. While I still think Nancy is a jerkface, she chooses her lover and the males involved don’t treat her like a prize to be won. She’s a person who they are attracted to for her mind and her personality, and she is attracted to the two main male love-interests for various non-superficial reasons as well. The character called “Mad Max” also chooses the boy whose affections she desires, she is not won or conquered. Furthermore, in this line of feminist talking points, there’s an emotional conversation about how to channel psychic powers that is had between two females, something you don’t often see in modern science fiction. This show definitely passes the Bechdel test, though there are some criticisms I still have about the way the show handles feminism. Firstly, Eleven channels her rage against Max because she potentially flirted with Mike (Eleven’s crush), which encourages the tired trope of women fighting over men and only serves to distract from the fact that she’s angry about other more meaningful and personal reasons including but not limited to: her mother’s mental degradation at the hands of evil men, her own torture and experimentation at the hands of those same men, her surrogate father’s authoritarian punishment, and also… a girl she saw with Mike? I’m not what most people would call a feminist, so I don’t really care about these things, but I just want to remind people that while this show has some interesting ideas, it’s still a show made primarily by straight while males, and it's not as woke as some people who try to claim.
The third and final modern/adult theme that “Stranger Things” strangely has, though it avoids, is race. While I’m not a fan of Salon, their article on race in “Stranger Things” is more comprehensive than anything I could write, so I won’t add much, but there is something they didn’t hit on that I think is worth talking about. I had an interesting conversation about how Lucas’ relationship with Max was handled, and while I don’t pretend to have the answers, I can at least transcribe the basic outline of the conversation and what was discussed. My question was this: “Was the Lucas and Max pairing a racially positive move, was it lazy, or both?” At first, every friend I’ve brought this up to has responded by saying “No it was great, don’t be a racist.”
In a world of science-fiction monsters and smoke-demons, the one thing the town of Hawkin’s doesn’t seem to have is any other people of color besides Lucas and his family. Personally, I’m glad to see that his sister had a role in season 2, as it painted a family of color in a positive light and served to illustrate a Cosby-esqe black suburban family, but why does the height of racial progress always seem to be an interracial pairing? I’m not against interracial relationships, I just find it odd that the only way white people seem to be able to celebrate black relationships is if they are assimilating into white culture. Lucas and Max are extremely compatible from a narrative standpoint and while it doesn’t feel forced, it might be lazy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but future filmmakers should take note and try to celebrate black culture more than “Stranger Things” and “Stranger Things 2”. The height of every black boy’s life in media should not be when they get the white girl at the end of the movie. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it reflects poorly on white assumptions about what a progressive view on race in media looks like.
With those heavy ideas out of the way, let me tell you about my personal experiences with “Stranger Things 2”. This section is just going to be flow of consciousness, and I’m going to write how I feel with little to no organization.
Like I mentioned before, Nancy is a buttface-jerkwad and I’ve been yelling at her and the TV for two seasons now. The way she handles boys is beyond me. Steve is so much better than the crack-head she ends up with. Steve and Billy were my favorite characters this season. Billy was complex and interesting, and he didn’t overstay his welcome. I also don’t want to believe that Billy is actually racist, and apparently the actor who played him doesn’t want him to be either. They didn’t push him too hard, and he felt more 80s than most of the actors besides Dustin. His mullet rooted me firmly in the hair metal era that I had been missing in the first season, and his style was on point. Furthermore, the brief Fabio reference in the last episode on the cover of the romance novel that Mike’s mom is reading before she answers the door to a similarly dressed Billy was a wildly entertaining comparison. Much of “Stranger Things 2” is entertaining without being substantive. Despite the themes I talked about in the previous section, “Stranger Things” is mostly character building and narrative, but even those elements felt weak this season. Mike didn’t feel like he had anything to do besides be moody and act like a jerk to Max. There wasn’t a clear main character. Dustin almost felt like the core of this season, but he wasn’t very compelling beyond his relationship with d’Artagnan, which was the true emotional gut punch of the entire series for me. When we see d’Artagnan next to the nougat candy wrapper, I almost cried. Nothing else in the show got me like that shot. “Stranger Things” might as well be called “Let’s Torture Will” because that’s all his character had this season, same as season 1. The whole “Zombie Boy” element didn’t work for me. Justice for Barb was a wonderful way to end the second season (though again, not as impactful as the d’Artagnan arc), as it felt grounded in its own world, and it was satisfying as hell. There wasn’t enough D&D. The nerd stuff felt toned down, but maybe that’s just my nostalgia for the first season. I really liked Steve a lot. Nancy does not deserve him. The music was really good, again. The soundtrack and the score were both fantastic.
Finally, regardless of my praises or criticisms of “Stranger Things”, I highly recommend that you stop everything and binge the two seasons that are out if you haven’t already. “Stranger Things” is one of the best shows not on television right now, and if you can steal a Netflix login from your roommate I would strongly suggest you do so. Aesthetically, “Stranger Things” is an accomplishment. It goes from Steven Spielberg small-town idealism to Ridley Scott grunge in seconds and it does so flawlessly. There’s nothing like it (besides everything it pulls from) on TV or on Netflix for that matter, and I can’t wait to see what comfy goodness the Duffer Brothers cook up for season 3.
P.S. I couldn't find the artist of the image featured at the beginning of this article, and I would love to credit them and/or get their permission to use it. If you have any information please comment.
I had a conversation with my girlfriend yesterday while shopping for groceries about difficulty in video games. It is a common topic, one often brought up when someone mentions Dark Souls or a “Souls” game. Elitists will tell you that Dark Souls is a good game because it is difficult and keeps the casuals at bay. Personally, there is an element of superiority when I play Dark Souls or a game like it. I enjoy getting good at a game. Having a challenge just handed to me does not give me that sweet rush of dopamine that most gamers crave. This discussion of difficulty however, did not start with a conversation about “Dark Souls.” It started with me talking about the new Legend of Zelda game: Breath of the Wild.
I have been a Zelda fan since I was a kid. Even though I am part of the generation that would have played Ocarina of Time on the Gamecube special edition disc (which I eventually did), I played it on the original Nintendo 64. I fell in love with the story, the characters, and the addictive exploration-based gameplay. I quickly began learning more about the world of Hyrule and begging my parents to get me a Gamecube so I could play Wind Waker. My parents were not big on video games at the time, so my siblings and I had to scrape pennies together to get it, and when we did, it was so worth it. I love Wind Waker, but at the time, I loved Twilight Princess even more. As a young teen, it was the best version of Zelda because it was the “realest.” It was gritty, dark, and had enough edge to cut you from the couch. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the more subtle elements of games like Ocarina of Time, as compared to (while still a great game) the over-the-top drama of Twilight Princess.
Breath of the Wild is a completely new experience. It’s nothing like the games of my childhood, and that’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok. I’ve played the old games to death and Breath of the Wild is a breath of fresh air. As of this writing, I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of the massive open world. I had just unlocked the paraglider when my alarm told me it was time to go to bed. However, with even this small taste (a few hours at most) of Breath of the Wild, I had rediscovered the world that made me excited about Zelda in the first place. Breath of the Wild makes everything larger than life in terms of scale, and it reminds me of the feeling I got when I first played Ocarina of Time. When I was a child, the open world of OoT felt impossibly expansive. Breath of Wild has recreated that feeling.
However, I digress. While Breath of Wild has its magnificent vistas and open world, it also has a surprisingly difficult combat system as compared to the previous Zelda titles. My roommate and I have commented that it resembles “Baby’s first Dark Souls.” Timing/animations and your knowledge thereof rules your success in battle. Combat skill is something that hasn’t truly been a part of the Zelda series, and I enjoy the focus they gave this particular element of the game.
While I explained this to my girlfriend she asked “Why does that matter?” And the answer is more complex than you might think. The combat in Breath of the Wild isn’t good just because it’s more difficult and has a higher skill-cap. It’s good because it’s a carefully designed experience that is fair. There are no difficulty settings with Darks Souls, or the Legend of Zelda. The game is designed to be the way it is because it has been carefully crafted to provide a balanced experience. Dark Souls harkened back to old-school design principles with its well-thought out yet punishing boss battles, a style which has been ditched for lazier technics and difficulty sliders that raise or lower the health and attack damage of your enemies. When approaching a game like Bioshock: Infinite, most gamers will tell you that the game was designed somewhere between the medium and hard difficulties. An easy mode is included because they want the game consumed by as many people as possible and first person shooters are notoriously difficult for non-gamers to grasp. However, nothing can truly be done about the Dark Souls’ or Breath of the Wild’s difficulty level without altering core gameplay elements. First person shooters will make your weapons more powerful, and give you more health, but Dark Souls can only give you so much health, and you’ll still die the exact same way every time until you figure out how to win.
Personally, I would never give someone a neutered version of Dark Souls or Breath of the Wild, as it would detract from their experience of that work. Similarly, you would not give a perfectly able student a copy of an abridged 5th grade version of Moby Dick and expect them to understand the depth and complexity of that classic novel. Dark Souls and even Breath of the Wild are both like novels, and to understand them you have to struggle and grapple with them like Ahab and the great white whale.
I bring this up because I’ve been hearing a lot of people mention that they would like an easy mode for Dark Souls, and Breath of the Wild reinvigorated my opinion about difficulty settings and the integrity of a single-player gaming experience. Maybe grappling with video games isn’t your past-time of choice. That’s ok, just don’t try to change the classics that already exist.
I had been growing bored with single-player video-games for a long time. A couple years ago I had landed on the League of Legends bandwagon, and then Hearthstone, and then Smash Bros. for the Wii U, etc, etc. Everything was multiplayer. There was no point in playing single-player titles. They didn’t give me that rush anymore. My opinion towards single player games had soured. I still liked older titles like Half-Life 2, Legend of the Zelda, Mass Effect (1 and 2) FTL, FEZ, Bioshock, etc, etc., but I hadn’t truly enjoyed a single player experience since Bioshock Infinite. Nothing since Infinite had come close in terms of capturing my imagination with its amazing design and complex story. I had been burned too many times by main-stream developers and I had also lost my appetite for the indie side-scrollers that were pushed as “games” by the indie community. Sure I enjoyed Don’t Starve, Bastion, and Limbo, but they were the exceptions.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’m playing Legend of Zelda (Twilight Princess HD), becoming slowly bored by the lack of variation in my gaming diet. Zelda is the only single player game I had been playing (besides a little bit of Pokemon and Super Mario) and the pure childish nostalgia (while enjoyable) was starting to overload me in terms of… sweetness. Like too much candy in one sitting, I was beginning to have an existential crisis. “Maybe I don’t like video-games anymore,” I thought to myself. “Maybe this is the end of childhood. Nothing has that magical touch anymore that gets me excited without it being a gambler’s rush or a competitive experience.” I refused to let these thoughts ruminate, and I immediately went to my local Gamestop and did what I had been meaning to do for a long time.
I had never owned a PS3. As a child I had played the Nintendo 64, GameCube, PS2, Xbox 360, and PC. I had never experienced the post-golden age of Sony’s gaming console, and I had resolved to try it out. I imagine the employees of Gamestop were surprised that I was looking for a PlayStation 3, being that the latest iteration of the PlayStation 4 had just been announced. With demand comes supply, and the higher the demand, the higher the price. The originally $600 console was now 1/6th of the price. I bought a PlayStation 3. It was just over $100 and the average game price varied from $2 to $11.
At the top of the used games pile was a copy of Dark Souls. I had heard rumors and rumblings as to its legendary reputation, and I threw it on my bargain stack of cheap games (including one of the early Ratchet and Clank titles for the PS3 and some other PS3 exclusives) and checked out around $160. “Not a bad haul” I thought to myself as I made my way to the car. “I’m experiencing an entire generation of a critically acclaimed console at less than 25% of the cost.”
When I got home I immediately began playing the first Dark Souls title. The initial reveal that my character was undead threw me for a loop, and like that I was on board. It didn’t take me long to delve into the lore (which is surprisingly deep yet paradoxically sparse and vague), and become completely immersed in the Dark Souls world. The gameplay is nothing less than amazing. While completely unforgiving, Dark Souls is fair. If you “git gud” and learn the enemy attack patterns, you will be rewarded with easy fights that are extremely satisfying. Hilariously, the fights are rewarding because I died probably 20 times against that particular enemy type before I understood how to beat them.
The feeling of oppressive dread that oozes out of every structure in the world of Dark Souls reminds me of the Adult Link Timeline in Ocarina of Time, mixed with a bit of H.P. Lovecraft, or Poe. I was surprised to learn that despite the western high-fantasy atmosphere, Dark Souls is a Japanese game. Once I realized this the parallels to Shadow of the Colossus (another single-player Japanese fantasy game) became solidified in my mind, and I fell in love even more. Similar to SotC, Dark Souls is a puzzle game. The combat is the puzzle, and figuring out how to defeat the seemingly insurmountable and unchallengeable gods, demi-gods, demons, and monsters of Dark Souls with just your sword and shield is a mental exercise, and your death is a failure to skillfully unlock the simple secret to an otherwise impossible boss fight.
My love for single-player gaming was rekindled like the bonfires spread across the land of Dark Souls, a game I had written off for years as being a simple Skyrim clone, now one of my favorite games of all time. At the time of this writing, I am resolved to finish the entire series and seek out other games with a similar level of quality and complexity.