Category Archives: From Screen to Page

Flappy Bird: A Critical Analysis

The last week has seen the meteoric rise and fall of Flappy Bird. I first heard of Flappy Bird on a Tuesday, and by Thursday the creator of the game announced that he was removing it from circulation. As far as simple and addicting flash games go, no game has ever inspired such joy and such rage as Flappy Bird. But how can one explain the tragic trajectory of Flappy Bird’s success and, ultimately, failure? What does our love and our hatred of Flappy Bird say about the human condition? What are the implications of Flappy Bird on reality itself? Brace yourselves, dear readers, as we embark on an exploration into the deep depths of this cruel and short-lived game.

Flappy Birds screenshot The player avatar and titular character of Flappy Bird, is, of course, the bird. However, this pixelated avian calls into question the very concept of “bird”. Indeed, the “bird” of Flappy Bird appears less like a bird, and more like a beach ball with fish lips. Moreover, this creature has no seeming birdlike traits or motivations. According to Michel Foucault, our system of language creates almost arbitrary categories, overemphasizing the similarities between objects and ignoring the differences. By presenting such a tenuous “bird”, is Flappy Bird urging us to abandon our current system of animal classification? Would the “bird” of Flappy Bird be better classified as a different organism? Should we classify organisms at all?

Moreover, Flappy Bird questions our concept of “the pipe”, through the endless stream of Mario-esque pipes that scroll onto the screen from the right. Unlike the universe of Mario, in which pipes have some meaning, due to Mario’s occupation as a plumber, the pipes of Flappy Bird are out of place and even bizarre. How did these pipes come to be hanging from the sky? Why do they enter ceaselessly onto the screen? Is there a purpose or a deeper meaning to the pipes? Through the use of Mario pipes, not only the character of Flappy Bird, but the setting is deconstructed and dismantled.

Indeed, Flappy Bird seems to call into question the idea of “the game” itself. There is no progression in Flappy Bird. There is no winning, only losing. There is no success, only failure. One could argue that Flappy Bird is not truly a game, but an endless exercise in futility. In this way, Flappy Bird mimics the cruelty of life. In the world of Flappy Bird, as in the world of the human, there is no “winning”, only an endless series of obstacles that will one day cause failure. It is almost comforting to know that Flappy Bird contains nothing unexpected. The first pipe is the same as the last pipe. Is Flappy Bird the only predictable thing in this cruel and inconstant world? Continue reading

From Screen to Page: Orange is the New Black and The Wire

from screen to page logoFor this installment, I’ll be talking about two shows, and how they use language, specifically to make the dialog of their characters feel realistic. More specifically, this comes in two forms: swearing and lingo.

First a little about the shows. The Wire ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, with five seasons totaling 60 episodes. The Wire is, at its core, a show about Baltimore, West Baltimore to be specific. While there are a number of police officers at the center of the show, it isn’t a cop show per se, and it’s certainly not a procedural (shows like Bones, or Dragnet). The cast is huge and sprawling, and includes the aforementioned cops, as well as drug dealers, addicts, lawyers, politicians, longshoremen, reporters, judges, teachers, parents, clergy, and children.

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original series, the first season of which debuted in July 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman, an upper-middle class white woman who is sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security women’s prison. The show explores the kinds of relationships and problems that arise in such places, and while the bulk of the characters are prisoners, the prison staff and Chapman’s family play an important role, as do people connected to the other prisoners, often presented in flashbacks.

Both shows make liberal use of vulgarity, emboldened by their relative safety from the FCC. Part of the reason I haven’t shared clips of the shows is that it would be next to impossible to find any that were “safe for work,” so I didn’t bother. The kind of characters the shows deal with tend to use “colorful” language in their day-to-day life, the kind of language that can’t be heard on regular television, gets censored on the radio, and earns your move an “R” rating. The use of this language is important though, because when gangsters and prisoners and cops use watered down vulgarities, the characters sound unrealistic. This kind language, whether people like it or not, is a part of daily life everywhere in the world, and shows like The Wire and Orange is the New Black purport to present the real world as closely as possible (albeit as fiction).

I’ve had students in the past ask whether or not they should include vulgarities within quotations in their term papers, and I always tell them yes, if it’s relevant. Quoting historical figures swearing because you want to be “edgy” or try and freak out your professor or teaching assistant is ridiculous (and I swear constantly in real life, so it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway). But if a quote from a historical figure is particularly relevant to your argument, and it contains some vulgarity? Include it. Continue reading

From Screen to Page: “The Mind’s Eye”

from screen to page logoThis week I want to write about narrative organization. Namely, I want to write about how simply presenting things to your audience in chronological order can sometimes work against you.

For this, I’ll be referring to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, called “The Mind’s Eye.” Now, this is an interesting challenge for me, because while I’m a huge Star Trek fan (the technical term is Trekker), I can’t assume that my audience is, or knows anything about Star Trek. So this means I need to give you all a summary of the episode, but not confuse anyone with a lot of references to the series that don’t make any sense.

The episode in question is about one of the main characters (Geordi) being kidnapped and brainwashed by some of the Bad Guys. They do this so they can use him to assassinate an ambassador. He goes back home thinking everything is fine (he’s brainwashed, after all) and goes about his business. Then some mysterious stuff starts happening, and the Good Guys are accused of helping some Other Bad Guys. Geordi gets his chance, and tries to kill the ambassador, but the Good Guys stop him, figure it all out, and he is cleared of charges. The episode ends with Geordi talking to a psychiatrist, trying to unravel what happened to him.

So that’s the break down. If you want a more detailed version, check out the episode’s Wikipedia entry here. For a really detailed version you can check out the entry at Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. Continue reading

From Screen to Page: “Young Tory of the Year”

from screen to page logoWriting comes in many forms, and different genres and styles have different techniques and requirements. Writing for film or television is necessarily different than writing an essay or a novel, but the great secret is that these techniques are not mutually exclusive. Just because you’re writing an essay for a class doesn’t mean that you can’t be inspired by something you heard in a film. I’ve heard it said that the best way to become a good writer is to read a lot, and I think that’s true, but incomplete. You shouldn’t limit yourself to one form of writing. Novelists can learn a lot from TV, screenwriters can learn a lot from essays, and so on.

It is my intention with this column to find writing lessons in television and film, lessons which I think can be helpful to writers of all sorts. I myself am a great evangelist of popular culture: I’ve turned many a friend and family member into a fan of some show or  band or game they were unfamiliar with, so hopefully I’ll also be able to introduce readers to a variety of shows and films they might not otherwise have seen. I’d also like to think that the analyses that will follow might help readers become better critics themselves, and help them to see visual entertainment as more than “merely” entertainment, and instead as mediums that should be taken seriously, and can have as much merit as any novel or opera. I guess we’ll see.

So all that aside, I’d like to talk about a sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie. A little background, first. Like most of my favorite sketch comedies, A Bit of Fry and Laurie was a British show. It was created, written, and performed by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, hence the name. Both are quite well known performers, although Hugh Laurie is probably better known in the United States these days for having played Dr. House on, well, House.

What I love about the show is that it’s rather intellectual, and most of the sketches rely on wordplay, context, pronunciation, or definitions for their humor. Oh there are plenty of jokes about body parts and a good deal of absurdity, and no small amount of social and political commentary, but it’s the use of language that really does it for me here. Continue reading