Mr. Mercedes’ Rag-Tag Team Gives Me Life

Though I think Stephen King is arguably most well-known for his supernatural stories, I’ve always been a huge fan of his more “normal” works that may or may not have horror undercurrents. Different Seasons, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Cell, I enjoyed all of these for many reasons. King has a knack for writing about people, especially those that are overlooked or misjudged, and I believe it’s why he’s so great at horror stories. After all, most horrific things often have a human element to it. In Mr. Mercedes, a delightful gem that I am disappointed is not more well-recognized, King assembles a rag-tag team that I felt so compelled to root for and celebrate with as they try to untangle a criminal’s final death wish.

 

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Unlike many other mystery stories, Mr. Mercedes starts out at a low point, at the end of Detective Bill Hodges’ career. You can tell how devoted he was to his job, sacrificing family and his own health in the process. It’s paid off usually, except for some loose ends and culprits which got away, one of which as you may have guessed, is Mr. Mercedes. We find Hodges eating junk food, watching mindless TV in his house, barely sleeping and contemplating suicide. He’s stuck in the past, thinking of his career and estranged family. He’s overweight, balding and lonely when he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes. He’s cut off from his detective clout, but he can’t help but be drawn him back into the field to try and untangle Mr. Mercedes’ identity and his next move. In the process, Hodges ends up partnered with Jerome Robinson, an intelligent, cunning and hip high school student who feels caught between two cultural worlds. The last member of the trio is Holly Gibney, an anxiety-ridden woman who’s babied by her mother.

If you like stories in which people help each other grow and give one another a chance to prove themselves, then you will adore Mr. Mercedes as much as I did. It’s easy to root for the trio to prevail. Hodges is a great detective and a great observer. Mr. Mercedes, on the other hand, is also a great observer but he doesn’t try to see people beyond their looks. He uses them as he sees fit, thinking mean thoughts and acting on bad feelings. Hodges doesn’t act cruelly though. He genuinely cares about people and he gives them a chance, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity. He’s a strong and genuine force of good.

Hodges becomes close with Holly and Jerome, despite their individual differences, and all three of them grow to admire and support each other. Jerome, on the surface, is a successful kid, and he really is. He’s good looking, smart, fairly wealthy and young, but he feels internally trapped between being “authentically black” and “too white.” You wouldn’t know how hard it is though based on his interactions with Hodges and his family. He’s so kind and compassionate towards his family, Hodges and later, Holly and it was so refreshing to see Hodges treat Jerome as he would a peer and in turn Jerome did the same thing. They were honest with each other and helped each other out. Their relationship subverts the whole “crotchety and out of touch” senior citizen stereotype and the “isolated and disrespectful” teen trope that is a welcome breath of fresh air as they are both open to learn and teach one another.

Later on, though you wouldn’t guess it at first, Holly comes to fit in well with their group. Like Hodges and Jerome, her appearance is deceiving. She’s a nervous, twitchy 40-ish old woman that mistrusts her medication and is shielded from the world by her overbearing mother. She picks at her nails and hair, has trouble talking with others, smokes and hardly eats, and looks like a teenager, which is fitting since she lives with her mother who is controlling. She immediately trusts Hodges though and feels at ease with him and later on feels similarly when she meets Jerome. While Jerome is technologically savvy, it turns out Holly is gifted too with some tricks up her sleeve that greatly aid the trio in cracking the case. I also found it a fascinating parallel that while Mr. Mercedes is also mentally ill, he couldn’t be more different than Holly. Holly may say and act weirdly and self-identify as being mentally ill like Mr. Mercedes, but she harnesses her behavior and chooses to use it to act heroically. She doesn’t isolate herself like Mr. Mercedes, rather she works to come out of her shell and trust Jerome and Hodges.

 

Jerome and Holly and Hodges fill out each other’s rough edges and they make a fantastic team, three people that someone would easily overlook. They each contribute to the mission and lean on one another. Hodges loses weight and finds a purpose again and family in working with Holly and Jerome. He doesn’t isolate himself inside at home anymore,  degenerating alone. Jerome and Hodges encourage Holly to take her medicine and stop smoking, helping her to eventually find the strength to move out and seek therapy. In tough situations in which most people like Hodges and Jerome become emotional, she is calm and rational, anchoring the group to the present. And Jerome is just so kind. He’s tactile and encouraging of Holly and Hodges and he’s very intuitive, helping to deduct loose ends.

I read that Mr. Mercedes is currently being filmed for a potential TV season, which elated me. I really hope that it comes to fruition and gains more widespread acclaim for its characters, which seem so fully fleshed out and flawed as you and I, as well as the hope it generates in finding the good from a tragedy. It shows that an “old” man, a “mentally ill” woman and a “black” teen can form strong bonds and become a family, working together to do good. The book takes a typical plot but King invigorates it with dynamic and diverse characters which come together and become heroes in the process. They may be a little flawed and rough around the edges, but they’re human heroes, which I can appreciate more, and it’s thrilling to watch them develop. It’s a timeless lesson that I will never tire of, woven into a remarkable human story of what we can achieve when you take away stigmas and surface value and work for the common good.

 

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Bioshock: A Cautionary Story of Illusions and Choices

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Bioshock has always been one of those series that I’ve always heard great things about, but for some reason I never felt compelled to play it (though in my defense my student loans and wallet also played a large role in this). To my surprise I was gifted with The Bioshock Collection so I was able to finish the first game recently. It’s difficult to sum up my opinion, but I think saying that I feel a little horrified at the thought of never getting a chance to play it should suffice.

 

Bioshock is hands-down the most ambitious first-person shooter game I’ve played, and in general, it’s one of the rare games in that make you genuinely question things. It’s a wonderful example I would use in explaining how video games can be powerful vehicles for learning. As someone that loves questioning the status quo and trying to unravel mysteries, this game was a natural fit for me.

 

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Bioshock’s retro underwater city is well-detailed and incredibly impressive, from the sound to its visuals, and I really like how the game uses the environment as a way of enhancing the story and setting the tone. For example, I never thought the song, ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window,’ could be so ominous prior to playing this game. It’s been 10 years since it came out but you can clearly see the influence it has had on gaming. It’s a testament to its ingenuity that it’s even more progressive than a lot of games released in the past few years when it comes to plot, characterization, diversity and gameplay.

 

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As you will see with my future musings here, it’s often the meaning behind the story and how a game impacts me that truly get me thinking and give me the urge to write. Sure I could wax poetic about the satisfying and very fun style of gameplay that lets players switch between hacking, using some pretty nifty gadgets (hello napalm!) and amazing powers (I have a soft spot for insect swarm). I could also go on about the diversity of characters and how well they are developed, from the incredibly intelligent, mustard-stained Dr. Tenenbaum (a refreshingly progressive female character that still breaks the mold compared to more recent games) to the charismatic/smart-alec Atlas and his chilling, cruel counterpart Fontaine.

 

Instead, I wanted to touch upon some big ethical political, science and economical issues that the game makes you think about. One thing I especially enjoyed was seeing science as a big source of power and influence in the Bioshock universe. Often times when there is corruption in a story, science is usually not one of the culprits. But in Bioshock I liked that it recognized that things like genetics, psychiatry and medicine are powerful tools that can corrupt and influence society and I like that science is incorporated into the backbone of the story.

 

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Abuse/Misuse of Power

As you progress through the game, it becomes a funny irony to see propaganda strewn around in Rapture with sayings like “No Gods or Kings, Only Man” and “Man Creates, A Parasite Asks Where Is My Share” when you can see powerful characters have become consumed by their creations. Ryan spouts ideals about the individual and achievement free from constraints like regulations, government and religion but for example, ADAM, which he never wanted regulated, ends up contributing to his and Rapture’s downfall. Many characters in a sense end up destroyed by what they create or are consumed by their work which is free of such “constraints” which end up acting like parasites. And in order to create such things, one acts like a God or King.

Dr. Steinman was once a highly respected surgeon that pioneered plastic surgery techniques. He was driven mad by ADAM consumption and his obsession for beauty, and crossed the line of the “do no harm” part of the physician oath. He fell in love with his work, devoting himself to it, and started seeing hallucinations of Aphrodite while he mutilated willing (and later unwilling) patients in striving to achieve physical perfection but he was never satisfied.

Dr. Suchong worked extensively on the Little Sister and Big Daddy project, Fontaine’s project (aka your character Jack’s development) and plasmid research. In his recordings he referred to himself in the third person and saw himself as a God. His demise was ironically being drilled to death by a Big Daddy after he hit a Little Sister that had been annoying him. He finally was able to establish a bond between Sisters and Daddies though.

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Dr. Tenenbaum is an exception to the rule though. Prior to Rapture, as a concentration camp prisoner she provided much assistance with Nazi human experimentation and was praised for it, though she didn’t find meaning in it. In Rapture, she became revered and powerful for her creation of ADAM, and along with Suchong, contributed significantly to the Little Sister/Big Daddy project and Jack’s development. She later realized ADAM had negative and addictive consequences but didn’t seem to mind Fontaine exploiting this. However, unlike most of the ‘Rapture’s Best and Brightest,’ she became horrified and hated herself for her work on the Little Sisters, whom she noticed still acted like little girls. She became a recluse, leaving her comfy, cushy apartment and influential scientist position and decided to devote herself to saving the little girls that she had experimented on. She also helps save your life too.  

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One of the most fascinating things to me is seeing the parallels between Atlas/Fontaine and Andrew Ryan and the ulterior motives of higher-ups. As you start the game in this unsettling city, the smooth talking, charismatic Atlas is your only ally. Though he does have a family he wants you to help save, he’s still supportive, giving you vital tidbits to help you navigate Rapture and even some comforting words along the way. That’s why it’s horrifying later on when you realize this is just a front to his true persona, the power-hungry, cruel Fontaine who has been enslaving you the whole time you’ve been thinking he’s been helping you. And he’s been gaining power and the trust of Rapture’s citizens by preying on their addiction to ADAM and enslaving them. In your specific case, with his charismatic persona and polite ‘Would You Kindlys’ he’s been creating this illusion of self-control the whole time as you do his bidding. He created you for his own selfish, evil reasons.

Ryan on the other hand, compared to Atlas, is more distant and cold, looking down and watching you from his expensive ivory tower apartment as he does everything he can to impede you. Sure, he does and approves of things that are not good, becoming “King” of Rapture in a sense also on the backs of the city’s citizens, but at least he was always honest about his ideology which he believed in and felt was right. Everything he did was for Rapture’s good. Fontaine on the other hand was a manipulator, opening schools and homes for the poor, but his ulterior motive was personal greed. 

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Whether it was a coincidence or not though, I enjoyed the idea of having some degree of free will when it came to certain decisions, such as harvesting or rescuing the little sisters. Sure, one could argue it’s simply a matter of player preference to have an immediate ADAM advantage by harvesting versus some big ethical dilemma. After all it’s just a few girls who have ADAM which will help you battle enemies along the way to safety. However, my interpretation was that conditioning can only go so far, and that a person can still have the power to act of their own will in the end. In a sense, I equate it to brainwashing. People will act based on what they know or are “conditioned” to do but it is powerful when we break this and think for ourself once we figure out the truth, especially when it comes to ethical decision making.

It was a beautiful moment for me every time I was able to rescue a Little Sister, especially when you find out the truth of your own similar origin. Being able to give these little girls a touch of humanity that was denied them and yourself as you’re both essentially slaves is poignant. Despite Rapture’s negativity and horrors, kindness is a powerful commodity that is underestimated. It defeats Fontaine, saved Tanenbaum and it can save you. It’s a powerful message of being careful of what we allow ourselves to care for. 

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What does it mean to be human?

Is humanity its own limitation?

Where is the fine line between creation/advancement versus making the most of what we have and in recognizing the individual versus the needs of the many?

I’m still not sure as to my own thoughts about these topics, but the important thing is that Bioshock brings them up. I’m very grateful for that, when a video game challenges not only the world you’re playing in, but the one you really live in as well.

 

 

Sic Parvis Magna: How Uncharted Reminded Me to Appreciate My Own Journey

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Uncharted 4 deserved every bit of acclaim it received when it was released back in May last year. It’s visually stunning, has amazing locations, the adventure is a blast, the characters and their dynamics are so vivid that they seem to be four-dimensional and the story is engaging. But it’s the underlying element of “Sic Parvis Magna,” the inscription all Uncharted fans are very familiar with, that packs the biggest punch in the fourth game. It’s something that I still think about from time to time, and I wanted to spread some more recognition about it, which is scarcely written about.

 

Though I’ve always been a huge fan of Uncharted’s ability to balance its action with its story, its heart is something that started with a faint pulse before growing into the strong heartbeat it has today. It truly is the embodiment of “greatness from small beginnings.” As the games progressed, there were some dark moments as the series delved more into Nate’s story, which is something it started leaving breadcrumbs in with the third entry.

 

In one of the most meaningful moments of the Uncharted 4, we learn more about Nate’s mom. Now Cassandra means “shining upon men” in Greek so I’m unsure of the rationale behind Naughty Dog’s decision to name her, but it’s so aptly fitting that I’m hoping it’s more than a coincidence. We finally learn more about her from Nate’s flashback as well as his own back story. My interest in his past was first piqued upon hearing Katherine Marlowe deeply cut him with it in Uncharted 3, taunting him about his mother committing suicide and him ending up in an orphanage.

 

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In the 4th game, learning about how his mother challenged historical notions, did extensive research, made impressive journals and drawings, and had her own adventures and chased after legends made my heart burst. This was the reasoning behind Nate’s life, his passion. It all started with his mom. He grew up savoring legends too and wanted to continue her work. He admired her, learned from her and emulated her. To learn she was the inspiration for Nate’s own adventures was so touching, not to mention incredibly awesome since you rarely find male characters so affected by their mother/their interests. It was a beautiful realization and a wonderful story decision that I am deeply grateful to Naughty Dog for creating.

 

As we’ve seen from Nate’s journey in Uncharted, he wasn’t born into the best circumstances, he’s dealt with his fair share of loss and disappointments, and he’s held onto the stories and the myths and historical knowledge as if they were his own quests, chasing after the remnants of glory of other historical figures. We’ve seen him come close to being consumed by this in many cases, proving Nate is the unluckiest luckiest paradoxical character. A lot of the time he’s had help from the beloved Uncharted gang of Chloe, Elena and Sully. In fact as Sully famously tells Nate at the end of Uncharted 3, “We don’t get to pick our start in this life. Real greatness is what you do with the hand you’re dealt.” It’s one of the best lessons that I’ve ever learned, but it doesn’t really sink in for Nate until the last game.

 

In Uncharted 4, which had the most layered story in the series, we see the most evidence of the dangers of letting our passions consume us. Along the way are notes of past Libertalia colonists and pirates who turn on each other, Sam’s obsession with beating Rafe and getting the treasure, and Rafe also becoming so consumed with vengeance he turns on his own partner, Nadine. As we know from the third game, even Nate’s own mom became depressed and committed suicide. Though the game never explicitly states why, I suspect it’s because we find out in the fourth game that she never completed her own Henry Avery quest.

 

Nate however was finally able to prove to himself that his life meant more than following in someone else’s footsteps. He managed to outlive his obsessions and Libertalia, unlike the table full of dead pirates whose greed caught up with them. He made his own family with Nate and Elena, forgave his brother Sam and managed to create his own adventures instead of having them dictate his life. This struck a chord with me because in a world full of social media updates and technology usage, Uncharted 4 helped me come to terms with the barrage of adventures and things going on around me, which can really bog you down. Seeing other success stories and journeys, especially while you’re trying to create your own path, can be distracting.

 

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In the final emotional scene it shows a photo of Nate, Sully and Elena and a drawing of Sir Francis Drake’s ring with “Sic Parvis Magna,” which is the perfect final shot. I’m really glad that Naughty Dog showed an epilogue to the epilogue, not because I think “settling down,” which is a popular ending choice in the media, is the right solution. No, it’s because in seeing an aged Nate you see someone who found success later in life. You see evidence of the adventures Elena and Nate are still doing. You see wrinkles and grey hair and hear him and Elena regaling their daughter Cassie about their own stories this time. Nate and Elena showed that you can have a family, and own a house in one place, and be a little “normal” while still being adventurous. Nate showed that sometimes the glory we get in life is the one we make for ourselves with the people we care about by doing what we love, regardless of fame or fortune. It’s staying true to ourselves, recognizing that our dreams do not necessarily determine our fate and making our own adventures with the situations we’re in. Your life is pretty darn awesome and you have the power to create it.

 

Sic Parvis Magna, indeed. Thank you, Naughty Dog.