Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Television, Internet

One of the reasons I started playing MMORPGs was because there was nothing to watch on tv. Until the mid 1990s I'd always been a serious consumer of broadcast television and when I say "serious" I don't just mean I watched a lot of it, I mean I took television seriously.

I didn't just watch it. I talked about it, thought about it, wrote about it, collected it. When home video became a thing in the 1980s I began to build up a library of tv shows, filling my shelves with VHS cassettes the same way I filled the house with books, comics, vinyl and CDs.

And television seemed important, then. Watching was a social act. A bonding ritual. Along with music it was the glue that held society together. Or it was until that all fell apart.

By the time I got around to installing EverQuest in November 1999 I'd already lost faith in the God in the Corner. By then, for a couple of years Mrs Bhagpuss and I had been playing more video games than we watched tv. I'd already all but stopped watching altogether when I stepped onto the wooden platforms of Kelethin for the first time. And fell off.

Falling to my death and losing my corpse on my first evening did not deter me. I stuck with EQ and that was that for television for more than a decade. I almost literally did not look at a screen, other than my CRT monitor, for wel over ten years.

I remember vividly how far removed I became from the televisual experience. It wasn't just that I didn't know the shows any more, it was that my brain ceased to be able to interpret the images. On the very rare occasions when I visited someone and saw a tv playing I felt like Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, only instead of being fascinated I was repelled.

With deep irony, I timed my withdrawal to co-incide almost exactly with the explosive growth of of non-broadcast television and the concomittant, meteoric rise in both the quantity and the quality of available content. Television entered a new and radically transformed golden age and I missed it all.

Luckily, along with the new direction came new technology. Television joined books and music in the long afterlife of the culture. You no longer had to be there. You could wander up later. You'd miss the zeitgeist, sure, but we all missed Dickens' moment yet we still read him. Okay, I don't read him but the point stands. I could, if I wanted.

I still don't watch broadcast TV. As best I can tell it remains, for the most part, abominable. Also inconvenient. What brought me back to the wider form was the discovery I could download television to a pocket device and watch it on a tiny screen in my hand. A very, very tiny screen. Less than two inches square.

I don't think I have that MP4 player any more but it gatewayed me back into television. Over the years I've stared at any number of small screens, from my trusty iPod Touch up to an ironically "gigantic" ten inch Windows tablet and back down to my current platform, Amazon's reliable-if-annoying Kindle Fire.

These days I'm in the habit of watching whole runs. Not in the now-traditional box-set binge over a lost weekend but in hearty bites over a few weeks. I watch in the late evening, in bed, for a couple of hours. It began as thirty minutes right before I went to sleep but the habit has grown. Now I often go to bed early just so I can watch more stuff for longer.

At first I ran through some old favorites, sitcoms mostly. I found them on YouTube, where the quality varied wildly. I learned a lot, both about the history of the medium and the way that long-form, episodic narrative works. It's far easier to see the structure when you watch in a week what would have originally taken a year.

I worked my way through television's comedic back pages, all the way from sixties classics like The Dick Van Dyke show to 90s obscurities like Boston Common, trying to give myself an education in what I'd missed but eventually the poor quality of the recordings on YouTube began to wear at my resolve. I'm no graphics nazi but I do like to be able to see peoples' faces. Like everyone else I turned to box sets, which I watched on the seven-inch portable DVD player I bought to take on holiday.

And then I got Amazon Prime. Jeff Bezos kept offering three months for free and I kept resisting but one day I had some stuff to buy and there was postage and I thought, "Why not? I can cancel it later". Only, I didn't cancel it. I started watching stuff. Often, ironically, shows I already owned on DVD but hadn't gotten around to taking the shrink-wrap off yet because it had only been five years, well maybe ten, and who has time to unwrap stuff?

Streaming was just so much more convenient and the HD picture was so much better. Over the last couple of years I've run through most of what appeals to me on Prime. It's a good selection but it's quite surprising how fast you get through it.

I always like to have the next thing lined up when I near the end of a series because coming to a dead stop can be jarring. Right now, though, there's not an awful lot left that's calling out to me, which is how I let myself be talked, once again, into a subscription, this time to one of Amazon's extra channels. 99p a month for three months, that was the deal, and there was one show on there I really wanted to watch - Doom Patrol. I'd pay a lot more than 99p to watch that.

Only, now I have watched it. It was great - even better than I hoped it would be, let alone than I expected. But it's over now until they make some more and with things as they are, who knows when that might be?

I have a complete box set of Veronica Mars waiting so I have my supply lines secured but that means getting the little DVD player out and I don't want to. To avoid having to do that I was even wondering whether to subscribe to a second streaming service. I'd really like to finish watching Umbrella Academy on Netflix. I started last year but I can only watch it on Mrs Bhagpuss's PC (for a very uninteresting reason I won't bother to explain), which makes it too awkward to bother.

As I was dithering over that decision I was also scrolling through the shows Prime was trying to foist on me. The recommendation algorithm there is... not good. And then I noticed something called AFK. It seemed like a very odd choice for title. Out of idle curiosity I clicked on it and read

Well, that sounds... embarassing. Still, I don't know, maybe it might not be completely terrible? It had four stars from customer recommendations, for what that's worth (not much). I read some of the reviews:
"If you've ever played an MMORPG then you can relate to this series. It is low budget, but don't let that run you off. This little gem is very well written and some of the actors are amazingly good."

"This is one of those low budget finds you sometimes discover on Amazon, very short episodes but its a real winner of a show"

"Honestly, at first, it was kinda bad. It's clearly low budget and I just had it on in the background 'cause was a cool concept. Gamers getting stuck in the game. Nothing groundbreaking, but around halfway through the first season the quality improved massively. And by the end of the second season, I was hooked. "
And I have to agree. It is low budget. Some of the actors seem to have more enthusiasm than experience. The script can be a little on the nose. But the characters are very well conceived, much of the acting is convincing, there's a surprising amount of nuance, the narrative arc is sound and a good percentage of the jokes land.

All in all it's a lot better than I expected. It also raises a lot of very interesting questions about the nature of the hobby itself. Nothing we haven't all thought and talked about plenty of times, but framed in a context that casts new light on some old topics. It made me think, which is above and beyond the call for something like this, I'd say.

The AFK project began as a web series, a whole other part of the tv forest I have yet to explore. In truth, I've been keeping well clear of it until now for fear of what I might find. As a lifelong advocate of the DIY ethic in music, comics and writing, I have no idea why I would do that, other than that I can be an idiot sometimes.

Anyway, I consider this a lesson learned. I need to cast my net wider and keep my mind more open. There seem to be a few more of these shows floating around. I'll see if I can't make some space in my extremely busy schedule and give them a try. 

Recommendations welcome.


  1. If you don't mind anime:
    Sword Art Online - show about VR MMOs in the near future and what dangers and possibilities they open
    Net-juu no Susume - burned out office worker joins social guild in MMO and it changes her life. Mostly romantic and MMO is secondary to actual plot
    Log Horizon - people find themselves trapped in MMO for whatever reason and try to build a new society
    Grimgar - it's hard to say if setting is really MMO, but it has similar premise of people waking without memories in fantasy world and doing quests and grinding just to survive. Has more down to earth feeling compared to other shows and focus on party members bonding with each other.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. Anime is another area I've only dabbled in but I do know a bit about Sword Art Online. We have the manga in the bookshop where I work for one thing.

      I just watched the first episode of Log Horizon on YouTube (dodgy copyright-dodging window-in-a-corner job but I treated it like a free trial, in keeping with the MMO theme :P). I might pursue that one further.

      Then I watched the first episode one of Net-juu no Susume, which is a genuine, official "free trial" and that looked really interesting so I definitely might give that a go. I'll have a look at Grimgar soon, too.

  2. Sword Art Online is good to echo the comment above, though since I paused my Japanese classes I've been less inclined to watch Anime shows. I have an increasingly impatient relationship with TV in general - some shows I will watch, mostly because my husband has always watched more TV than me. Umbrella academy is good, although it has some weird moments. Generally beyond a few stalwarts of TV (Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise, any current Star Trek or Star Wars series), I can take it or leave it nowadays. I'd much rather spend my free time on interactive gaming than passively watching TV. The thought of 'binge watching' whole series on Netflix or Prime is alien to me, yet I could spend endless hours playing MMOs...

    1. As you can tell by the above I've kind of gone full circle on this and the round trip took about fifteen or twenty years. I think I'm coming to some kind of balance point now, where I find the time and the interest for both but that could always change again.

      I think not having that one obsession MMORPG eating up all the available time is a significant factor. The timing on that kind of ties in. My last time going full-on with an MMORPG would probably have been the first couple of years of GW2, which does indeed put the tipping point around five years ago. I suspect that if another AAA MMORPG ever launches and grabs my attention tv shows will take a back seat once again. But I'm not counting on ever seeing another major MMORPG launch...

  3. AFK sounds like an interesting show. My first thought when I saw these pics was that someone had decided to model their show after the old web series The Guild, but it sounds like it's a better done combo of shows such as The Guild and the horrible D&D movies.

    This makes me wonder if anybody is ever going to do a video version of Order of the Stick, where the comic characters are self aware of the RPG they're playing in but at the same time has a great in-game story.

    1. I'm not holding AFK up as great art but it's no worse than many fantasy shows I've seen and better then quite a few. I think it does rely on viewers knowing the tropes of MMORPGs pretty intimately but then that's the big advantage of the niche entertainment world we now live in. And I guess that means almost anything could get remade if there's even a small following.

  4. I'm not sure HOW you'd see this, but we enjoyed Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet which is currently on Apple TV+ (We got a year of this free with an Xmas iPad purchase). It's made by Ubisoft and it's about a game studio that created a super popular MMO. Oh, and it's a comedy, mostly, though episode 5 (A Dark Quiet Death) is almost like a different show and is really excellent.

    And if somehow you get access to Apple TV+ I think you'd REALLY enjoy For All Mankind, considering like me you grew up in the era of the moon landings. It's an alternate history show in which the USSR put a man on the moon before the USA did, which causes the USA to re-double their efforts to catch up, vastly extending the Apollo program. It's like alternate-history The Right Stuff, basically. Really good.


    1. Thanks for the tip - I would never have thought of looking at Apple TV, although I've already seen the trailer for Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, somehow. How I came across it I can't remember. I thought it looked like it might be quite interesting but I don't have a way to watch it right now. I thought for a moment I could get Apple TV on my iPod Touch and indeed I could... if I had iOS 10 or higher. Unfortunately my Touch is so old the highest it can run is 5.1. Mrs Bhagpuss's iPhone would run it though...

      ...and then I found you can watch AppleTV in a web browser! And there's a seven day free trial, which would be plenty to watch the eight episodes, which are listed as available. For All Mankind is on there too. And it's only £4.99 a month if I need longer than a week.

      Thanks again - I'll almost certainly try those at some point soonish.

  5. Amazon Prime is now home to The Expanse, which I would rate as one of the best SF shows on television and another series with a MMO tie-in - the series setting was originally created for an MMO. When that failed the creator used it for a pen and paper RPG campaign that then became a series of novels he co-authored with one of his players, and the novels are now being adapted for television.
    I'll confess to currently running three separate streaming subscriptions - Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+. In my defence the total cost is still less than eating out once a month and there's plenty there to keep both my daughters (and their mother) entertained as well as myself.

    1. I've watched The Expanse. It was excellent for the most part, although I preferred the grittier noir beginnings to the quasi-mystical turn it took in Season 3. I knew it was adapted from a series of novels but I had no idea about the MMO connection or the rpg campaign.

      Subscriptions to streaming services are very good value - providing you actually use them. I have a terrible tendency to subscribe to things and then not use them at all, though, so I have to watch that.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide