Children’s media is often dismissed as sentimentalised and condescending tripe, and in many cases this is entirely true. The heroes are as pure as the finest Colombian marching powder, driven towards benevolent ends by unselfish motives and bearing only the most superficial of flaws, ripe for a teachable moment or two. The villains are theatrically cackling menaces, skipping along the tightrope between irredeemable depravity and appropriately G-rated mischief. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and as always, England prevails! Ahem… These are literally infantile morality plays of the kind that I have previously denounced as insulting to the intelligence of anyone over the age of twelve. I personally abhor being spoken down to and kids’ television and films are often prime examples of this irksome tendency. This preamble has been a clever exercise in misdirection because I am about to defend exactly this stark good/evil dichotomy, and why this can be valuable to us as emotional and only partly rational beings.
As is my custom, a few definitions and distinctions must be noted before going any further. The terms used going forward are largely colloquial, and are not to be taken as strict definitions in any kind of logical argument. My case is not logical or necessarily rational but rather emotional, and thus it may be unconvincing to most people. The fact that emotions are non-rational does not diminish their importance to us, and per my last piece on the objective-subjective distinction, subjective matters may be simultaneously crucial and indefensible. It should also be made clear that I am referring to an abstract kind of good vs. evil story, wherein the only stakes are those of a fictional scenario, and no real world parallel is intended. This is for a very simple reason: the world in which we live is not one of black and white issues, wherein any situation can be reduced to this kind of bifurcation. To do so is offensive precisely because it fails to respect the intelligence of the audience and the complexity of the situation. Though five years have passed, James Cameron’s Avatar remains at the top of my list of least favourite movies, precisely because it commits this cardinal sin. Acting as a clear metaphor for modern American foreign policy, or whichever colonial catastrophe one wishes to mention, it attempts to reduce real history to the level of a pantomime. The following examples do not do this; any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The 1990s were the decade of the televised superhero team. This was the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars and the mighty Samurai Pizza Cats. More specifically it brought the shows of Saban, a company adept in the Americanisation of Japanese tokusatsu shows, bring us VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs. But the king of these programmes was one that continues to this day, and which is so ingrained into the consciousness of my generation that the first three words of the theme song will elicit a spirited singalong: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. All of the necessary elements are present: comedy, action, romance, giant monsters, giant robots, and a main cast so diverse and stereotypical that everyone could easily pick a favourite. The titular heroes would regularly foil the machinations of Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, two villains with charmingly convenient evil monikers. It was all so simple. A monster would wreak havoc, the Rangers would defeat the creature and, crucially, they saved the world. To a child this is a glowing example of the power of hard work, friendship and a pure heart overcoming any adversity. To an adult this is a bittersweet reminder that we once believed that it was as easy as that. The only threats to humankind can be overcome if we only try our best and saving the world is as easy as vanquishing a personified evil presence. To watch this now is to experience a kind of jealousy at the world that Power Rangers presents. Huge monsters ravaging the abandoned warehouse district may be a legitimate threat, but we have people we can rely upon the stop them, and these special people are capable of making a real difference and bringing peace to the planet. This is uncomplicated and incredibly endearing, and as a form of escapism functions personally. For just over twenty minutes I can almost believe that the darkness is powerless before the light, sink into a disconnected ethical simplicity, and find a little peace.
In comparison to films and TV shows, video games hold a unique advantage. You can both witness and participate in the action, by your own hand determining success or failure. This is what makes games a distinct and valuable medium, and why they deserve a place in the pantheon of the arts. Of course some games are more worthy of this status than others, and I am not here concerned with any game I would call a work of art. The interactive aspect is the important component of my point. Thus, my subject is another nostalgic creation, familiar to anyone familiar with the ’90s: Sonic Adventure, the blue blur’s first true 3D outing on Sega’s doomed Dreamcast. As with Power Rangers, there is a surprisingly jovial criminal mastermind planning to take over the world with a giant monster. But in this case, we get to take control of a group of superheroes in order to take him down. Minor conflicts abound, yet running through the middle of this game is the same moral dichotomy, and undiluted satisfaction that one is on the side of the angels. Moral choice systems have been a feature of video games since before the age of dialogue wheels, but they are noticeably lacking in this game, and it is better for it. The experience contains precisely that which I earlier lamented that Power Rangers could not give us: a chance to save the world. A computerised world, composed of nothing more than a few lines of code, but a world nonetheless. For the vast majority of us this is the closest we will ever come to the real experience, and a fictional facsimile of feeling is better than no feeling at all.
The charge of hypocrisy looms large over my comments. Surely this is a privileging of feeling over thought, of sentimentalism over rationalism. Is ignorance really bliss, and knowledge an unbearable burden? Ought we to value happiness over reality? Better a beautiful lie than an ugly truth, right? Well, no. What I am extolling is the feelings that such works can ignite in us, but also the recognition that this is escapism. The world is an enormous, complex and frightening place, and it is beyond the capability of most humans to face brute reality with no buffer at all. Even the most rational, nay cynical, of us need to take some time out with a novel, a film or a game, to take a break from the “real world”. To be absolutely clear, this can only ever be a temporary respite. To take this too far is to flirt with irresponsible delusion and an unwillingness to treat life with the weight and importance it deserves. I do not really believe that I can leave the world in the hands of superheroes, or that I can personally solve every problem with a clever gambit or righteous battle. All I can do is try to leave the world as a better placed than I entered it. But in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with stepping back and finding something simple that you can enjoy. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, love is the only thing that allows finite creatures such as us to cope with the enormity of the universe. This love can take many forms, among which I hope I have illuminated the love of these simple stories of heroism and the impossible dream that good can, once and for all, defeat evil.