The art that made me care
I never cared much about the art I consumed. I enjoyed it, I wanted the shows and films and games to be good, I was invested enough to want to know what happened next, but I never cared, never had much of an emotional connection to any of them. I don’t think it was just an age thing, either; you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a lot of teenagers don’t care deeply about the things they like. I had a lot of friends who cared about what they loved. But, for a long time, I never really did. And then I started to.
As someone who has been interested in media criticism and analysis for a lot of time, I find I’m often more interested in why we connect to the things we do, sometimes more than in the work itself. So, I thought it might be interesting to talk a little about the bits of art that made me care about their media for the first time; TV, film, and even a video game. And, along the way, have a discussion about why we care about our stories.
I’ll apologise up-front for starting this by talking about something so close to anime. That said, it’s impossible for me to write something like this without talking about this show.
‘RWBY’ is an online animated series by online content company Rooster Teeth, starting in 2013 and still in production now. At the start, it’s about a group of students at a school for monster hunters, although it’s moved a lot since then.
The story of how I was introduced to it isn’t too interesting; a friend drew some art of it on Instagram, I asked what it was, I looked it up, and I enjoyed it. The first two seasons were out at this point, and despite it being a little low-budget and the animation a little rough around the edges, I enjoyed it a lot of was excited to see where the story was going.
Then the third season came out, and everything changed. It started similarly enough to what came before, the animation was a bit better, but otherwise what I expected. And then, as the season went on, things started getting darker, and more serious, and we learned more about the world, and then the characters’ lives start to go downhill very, very fast.
And I absolutely loved it. I found myself not just enjoying it in the passive kind of way I had before, with this and everything else I’d ever seen. I was invested, finding it entertaining but also coming into every episode with this distinct sense of tension and nervousness, that I’d never experienced with a show before because I’d never cared enough to feel nervous. The story progressed, twists appeared, characters died, and it hit me emotionally in a way I wasn’t expecting, especially from this show. Like, I’d never cared about characters dying before, but now I was sad about it?
I think a lot of it, in this case, was about the feelings a community can lend to a show. Before season 3 started, I had started exploring the online fandom in a way I’d never done with anything before. I was just dipping my toes in at first, I wasn’t deep into it, but I had found in it a community of people that enjoyed what I enjoyed, and who seemed to care so deeply about it, enough to make all this incredible artwork and stories and analytical content.
I used to be a little bit dismissive about fanfiction, but this was the point where I started to really get it. And that spread to the show too. I was seeing how much other people cared, and it encouraged me to open myself up to caring too.
I think the nature of television also helps with this somewhat. You spend so much more time with characters in TV than you do film, so it makes sense that I’d get to the point of caring on this level first with TV. I still consider myself more of a fan of TV than film to this day, and part of the reason is that I love watching characters develop over time, watching them grow, getting to know the complexities of their personalities.
But I think there was something unique about RWBY, about how its fandom drew me in for the first time and encouraged me to care about it in the way the community did. From memory, it might have been the first time I ever cared about a piece of art in this way; actively feeling nervous about what the characters were going through, feeling sad when things went south. It was something new, and it’s something that I still don’t get that often. But to this day, I love this show, and I think it’s special to me because it was the first time I really cared. But it wouldn’t be the last time.
The perks of being a wallflower
Jump forward a couple of years, I was in my last year of school, and I had started to explore some films that broke from my history of sci-fi and fantasy; I’d seen ‘Steve Jobs’ with school and loved it, and had a particular anime open my eyes to the fact that I could enjoy a romance story. It was during this time of exploring new work that a friend of mine who, in hindsight, I had very complicated feelings about (and possibly for) introduced me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the 2012 coming-of-art film directed by the original book’s author, Stephen Chbosky.
Immediately, this story clicked with me like no film had before. Partially it was timing; I was already getting more interested in film, applying for my ill-fated film production course, and engaging with film as an art form for the first time, so seeing a film that wasn’t a big, bombastic blockbuster, that was tight and intricate and showed such an artistic voice, definitely opened my eyes to how you could tell smaller stories on a big screen. But I’d be lying if I said that was the main reason I loved this film.
While my struggles were nowhere near as serious as those that Logan Lerman’s Charlie faces, my final year of school was turning into quite the mess, and I was dealing with real, actual issues for the first time.
The mixture of a surprise break-up and the fracturing of my group of friends had left my mental health at the worst it had, and to this day has ever been, and while it wasn’t a 1:1 comparison for my experiences, the film connected to me so deeply. I had never had real-world problems, so films about those problems never worked for me, but now I did, I just got it.
I got struggling with mental health. I got struggling with interpersonal conflict. I got relationship troubles. And, in hindsight, I definitely got having messy, complicated feelings for a close friend, although the extent of that would take a while to actually realise. I got the film, and I felt like it got me.
And, to an extent, I think I was looking to escape into what this film was. Ultimately, while there is a mess to work through, everything turns out fine in the end, and I think that conscious or subconsciously, I looked at this film and thought, I want this. I wanted things to work out the way they were supposed to, for all of the mess to get tied up neatly and for everyone to be happy in the end.
My friends wouldn’t fix things until months after we’d all left school (although are mostly fine now), my mental health improved in the short-term but I still have problems to this day, and my friend who introduced me to this film, who I would realise a year later that I probably had feelings for, I haven’t had a proper conversation with, in years.
I didn’t get the tidy happy ending I saw in this film. But, at a point, I looked at it and thought ‘I want this’. And while as my interests have expanded, I’ve seen films in the genre that I like more, while I don’t see The Perks of Being a Wallflower as something that stands out like it once did, it still holds a special place to me, as something that really connected to my experiences on a personal level. And that desire to connect with media that gave me that escapism, that lasted too…
If you haven’t heard of one thing in this article, it’s probably ‘Arcade Spirits’. ‘RWBY’ is small but successful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is definitely an indie film but it also stars Emma Watson and Paul Rudd, so it’s hardly obscure. ‘Arcade Spirits’ is a small indie game by a small indie developer, that gave me the first genuinely emotional connection I’d had to a video game.
The disclaimer here is that I’m lying a little bit when I say that. ‘GRIS’ is an incredibly emotional story, that made me think of video games as art for the first time, but I also feel that its success as a poignant bit of art is separate from it being a video game; mechanically, it’s just a solid platformer with a beautiful art style. ‘Life is Strange’ is similar; the gameplay is fun, but I connect to the story more like a TV show or film. ‘Arcade Spirits’, I connected to as a game, though, and because of, the gameplay.
It’s a visual novel, with limited interaction other than choosing who to talk to and what to say. It’s set in an alternate timeline where the video game crash of the 80s never happened, and arcades still exist. Your character, who you name yourself, is a bit aimless, with no real ambition and a belief in a family curse that will inevitably leave their dreams in tatters.
Your worryingly sentient virtual assistant points you at a job at a small local arcade, where you get to know your colleagues and regular customers and dive into a story about the highs and lows of running a small struggling business. It’s a simple game, that I was pointed at by YouTube creator Laura Crone’s video on it and thought would just be a fun way to waste a few hours. And then I realised I was absolutely in love with it.
If I’m being honest, I think most of it was just that it gave me a bit of escapism. Even after I was starting to find a more concrete goal, I was still finding myself feeling a little aimless, with those goals feeling so far in the future. This game gave me a way to experience that feeling of finding, chasing, and achieving a dream.
I related so much to those emotions, placed myself in my character’s shoes so easily, despite the fact that her dream was so distinct from my own. As a result, both the highs and lows in the game hit emotionally in such a strong way. The lows especially; I feel like I may have projected my own feelings, how I would feel if my goals started to slip away, but that made the whole game feel so much more personal to me. And it made those high points, and, ultimately, the ending, felt so much more special and genuinely uplifting; I felt like I had made it.
There was also a personal connection aspect to that escapism. Like many, I haven’t seen a lot of friends over the last couple of years, have left behind university friendships (even if I still have some communication), and that particularly close, important friendship seems to have fizzled out entirely.
This game is all about building relationships, talking to people, getting to know and care about them, and I think that filled a gap, a little bit. And, of course, it would be disingenuous not to qualify that this is, in part, a dating game. I haven’t had a lot of romantic options the past few years, with lots of ‘wrong person, wrong time’ types of feelings, and being able to play this, and choose a character, go through the process of flirting and building a relationship that felt like it had some stakes to it, and ultimately have that happy ending, drew me in more than I ever expected a game like that do.
I got really concerned about saying the wrong thing to her, that would ruin things, and it made the catharsis of seeing things work out hit so much harder. I got to have this small, personal, romantic story, and it felt really nice to spend some time in that world.
It’s all part of this same idea as with ‘Perks’; ‘I want this’. Not to own an arcade, specifically, but in this game, I got to spend a few hours pretending I lived in a world where I got to follow a dream, achieve it, and find a sense of stability, both in a job that I love and with a person I love. It’s something I’ve felt sad not to have in my life, and this game, while obviously only a game, gave me that escapism.
I found myself feeling so excited every day to sit down and play it, felt tense about what might happen next, be so careful choosing my words because I didn’t want to upset these fictional, 2D characters, and genuinely cared about the story because it felt like it was mine. Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was a way to spend some time in the kind of world I wanted to live in.
So, if you’ve been generous enough to get this far, there is a question you may still be asking; why? Why have I spent this time explaining why these three works, two of which are fairly obscure indie media, connected to me, personally?
We can take wildly different paths to find the things we love; throwaway recommendations on Instagram, interests of friends you’ve got messy feelings for, a YouTube video that you just watched because you like the creator. It doesn’t matter.
This isn’t even about the specific work I’ve written about, although I highly recommend them all to the right audience. It’s about the process of connecting, and the process of sharing. We connect to art, especially weird, indie art, in weird ways. Sometimes, those ways catch you completely off-guard, and you find yourself caring about things you never thought you would. I think it’s interesting, and even important, to spend time exploring why we love what we love, why we connected to them in the first place.
And I think it’s important to share them, too. Because while there’s every chance that most of the people who listen may not end up having the same relationship with it that you do, it’s worth sharing the things we love anyway, because sometimes, someone may end up loving it too.
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