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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Virtual Shambala: Tibet in Video Games

People ask me, with some frequency, "Why Tibet?" There are a million and one incredible places and cultures on the planet, and the plane tickets cost about the same as long as you cross one of the oceans. Folks who want to go somewhere and live there to experience something a little out of the ordinary have options. Initially, and it's still the case to a degree, I don't know how to answer the question. It's not just that I don't know how to articulate the mass of feelings floating around inside me, it's that I really don't know. It's been a mysterious, kinda crazy really, experience. Like getting tractor-beamed.

There are two big reasons that I have been able to tease out for picking a Tibetan community. The first is a person, the most visible and known Tibetan of all time - the Dalai Lama. For a few years now I have been enamored with the most famous of Lamas, and not because Richard Gere told me I should be. I received as a gift "The Dalai Lama's Little Book of Wisdom," pictured below, and it has taken a permanent place on the back of the toilet of whichever bathroom I call mine. For those of you who know me, that is a place of highest honor.

iTunes has several of his addresses to various audiences available for free download, and those became the soundtracks to my walking adventures to and from school. He is brilliant, honest, candid, funny, and compassionate in an incredible way. If I were to list, as have several of the prophets of our church, the inspired and God-sent individuals of history, His Holiness would take a prominent place.

The second thing that got me interested in Tibet was nothing so spiritually fulfilling as the first, but actually launched part of my project in a direct way. I love video games, and I am prepared to defend the video game as a legitimate artistic medium (Smithsonian, suckas - http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/ - not that the Smithsonian has always been right about everything, but this exhibit makes my geeky heart happy) and a powerful vehicle for storytelling. One of the best games I have played in my short life was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The Uncharted series creates stories based around ambiguities in history, using a modern day, edgy version of the Indiana Jones archetype to explore exotic locales and solve ancient puzzles. Uncharted 2 explores the mystery of Marco Polo's lost year - you know, the one when he left port with a huge entourage and arrived home with only a few survivors, never telling what actually happened. It also plays with the Shambala/Shangri-La legend, tying in the mythical Cintamani stone and a megalomaniac bent on world domination. The story ends up in Tibet, searching ruins and villages for the entrance into Shambala before the megalomaniac can get there and find who-knows-what. The music for the game pulls a Williams/Glass technique, combining Tibetan music and instrumentation with blood-pumping Western orchestral arrangements. I loved it.

Similar to Patrick French, I was first taken in by the incredible "other-ness" of it all. There has been an exhaustive amount of research done on romanticization of Tibet in Western literature, and, actually, in non-western literature as well. Patrick French mentions Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider games for their inclusion of large sections that play out in Tibet. I wondered what other conceptions of Tibet were formed in video games. I found nine other games that use Tibet as a location, thanks to giantbomb.com.

4x4 Evo 2 The sequel to 4x4 Evolution, 4x4 Evo 2 is an offroad racing game developed by Terminal Reality
Barbie Explorer
Battletoads in Battlemaniacs Battlemaniacs is the first SNES version of the popular Battletoads series, infamous both for its unique humour and brutal difficulty.
Comix Zone All was swell for the comic book artist and part-time rock musician Sketch Turner until his apartment got struck by lightning and he gets sucked into his own comic, where he has to fight off mutants and other monstrosities to save himself, as well as "the girl".
Cosmic Relief: Prof. Renegade to the Rescue A asteroid is hurtling towards earth, you must travel to Tibet and find Professor K.K. Renegade. Once you have found him you must convince him to help build a anti-asteroid deflector to save Earth from being utterly destroyed.
James Bond 007 This is the first James Bond Game for the Gameboy and in the game James Bond travels all over the world in the effort to defeat a weapons ring.
Lost Horizon Fenton Paddock, a disgraced former British solider turned smuggler, must stop the Nazis from finding the mystical Shambhala.
Terranigma Terranigma is an action-RPG from Quintet and Enix telling the tale of the resurrection of the world from the eyes of the protagonist. The game is believed to successfully combine the best of A Link to the Past and Seiken Densetsu series.

TrackMania United Forever TrackMania United compiles much of the content and concepts found in the previous TrackMania games while maintaining the same crazy driving and huge online feel.

I'm sure there are more, and by golly I will find them, but for now this will suffice as indicative of the Western draw toward Tibet. It will be interesting to look into this subject more, as video games by their very nature say quite a bit about how a person imagines other places. Instead of just reading books about or listening to music from a place, video games purport to transport the gamer to that locale and allow them to live the experience vicariously in a unique way. For me, Uncharted was a visceral, exciting experience, encompassing all of the senses except smell and taste - but I will make no claims to its accuracy. This makes it (video gaming) a interesting and wholly singular topic of inquiry, and, I think, very telling in determining the ways Westerners imagine the Roof of the World.

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