It’s going to happen again

The return of sports, and the insistence on our new normal

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded Star Wars: Fallen Order, a 2019 video game that takes place shortly after the events of the Episodes I-III movies where you play as Cal Kestis, a former Jedi apprentice who goes on the run after the order is wiped out by the Empire (hence the title) until he’s drafted into action by the fledging Rebel resistance, and tasked with restoring the Jedi to prominence. Explaining that to anyone who isn’t a gigantic dork fills me with the shame reserved for public nudity, and I don’t have much specific to say about the game besides “I’m glad I bought it at a discount,” but it has its charms, including one that makes me giggle as I think of it now.

Fallen Order is one of those games where essentially you explore a series of gigantic maps, whose routes and rooms and secrets are unlocked by the gradual procuring of in-game items and skills, such as a bomb (to blow up a wall obstructing your passage to a new area) or a flamethrower (to burn away some vines… also obstructing your passage to a new area, you sort of know what you’re in for with these games), before you can proceed. The formula is decades-old, and rightfully inspires the fatigue of gamers looking for new thrills, but as a map enthusiast and ephemera completionist I’m still drawn to the concept; some games play more like you’re checking off a list of tasks, but the right blend of elements can inspire a natural interest in finding out what happens next, and scratch the same obsessive itch found in novels that open up with a family tree.

Fallen Order has its own variations on the skills require to fully explore its maps, most of which derive from the Jedi’s telekinetic powers. Wielding the Force, one may pull an enemy toward them as if by tractor beam, or fling them into the abyss as if by reverse tractor beam. It also has the Jedi Flip. Games like this allow you to jump, so you can reach platforms that are high in the air, but occasionally these platforms are too high, requiring the self-explanatory double jump, another skill one typically must collect during these adventures. As a matter of physics, one cannot obviously jump again while you’re still in the air, but obviously a lot of video game stuff can’t happen in real life. Still, rather than ask you to accept another bit of game logic, Fallen Order creates an in-universe explanation for how Cal can do this: because his Jedi master taught him how to, using the Force. Hence not the traditional double jump but the Jedi Flip, a goofy rebranding of a technique that nearly every semi-serious gamer is familiar with, except the makers of the game would have you believe you’re doing something unique and special.

The Jedi Flip is equally insulting (because just give us the double jump) and silly enough to nearly find fun, which is the best case scenario for how a lot of things are right now. My experience with Fallen Order has loosely coincided with my first real outdoor social plans since the pandemic started, outside of some socially distanced stoop and roof hangs. I’m talking about actual bars, those places we used to congregate to overpay for craft beer and gossip about the losers we know, and maybe even actual restaurants, where in a past life I begrudgingly paid $21 for a burger that did not come with fries. The main difference is that we have to sit outside, and we have to wear masks, and the bathroom will maybe coat you in disease if you flush the toilet, and so on and so forth. Some have been cooped up inside, so they want to go outside, and others have been forced to return to work by expiring unemployment benefits, so they have to go outside, and there’s this begrudged resignation accompanying the entire ritual. It’s sold as a return to normal life but nobody outside is smiling, whether they’re serving or being served.

The myriad infuriating reasons why any of this is required are too easily obscured in daily life, the inflamed emotions modulated out of necessity. One can and should be angry but one actually cannot always be angry, less your body and brain burn out from stress. So people talk about it less than they should, after the initial “well isn’t this weird” acknowledgment. Especially during live sports, which have returned stateside in the last few weeks to expectedly mixed success. The fans are gone, as are some of the players, but what we have is a truncated season played under more or less improvised rules meant to justify why any of this is happening at all.

It’s not only entertainment, because there are — ha, I have to laugh, because ha ha!so many entertainments and ways of accessing those entertainments, no matter your zip code or tax bracket. Sports have been primarily sold as a return to normalcy, these bizarre games enabling the consumption of beers with the homies over Zoom, the livetweeting of in-game antics, and the glossolalic ramblings of professional pundits who can finally return to braying about whether LeBron will eventually surpass Jordan. It was the March suspension of the NBA season that announced to many that COVID-19 was, in fact, a big deal; its return signals that everything is on the upswing. Same for MLB, though we didn’t get a week into the new season before the Miami Marlins had an outbreak.

I can’t summon too much indignation at the MLB and NBA for insisting on this charade, because there’s nothing I can do about it and anyone who can’t think out what the obvious problems are for themselves probably won’t be convinced by a blog, and probably shouldn’t be trusted to boil water. What I have appreciated is how the inherent conditions of the 2020 season have further demonstrated the arbitrary value of sports. Stoners and graduate students are aware of the deeper truth that sports are nowhere nearly as important as its followers insist, but they are fun to watch. That fun is enabled partially by the narratives meaningful and cheap that arise every year, as well as the larger contexts in which players and teams turn out to inhabit, such as the pursuit of certain numerical benchmarks or the slow-boiling realization that LeBron may actually surpass Jordan. Now the largest narrative is “what’s going on here” and “are these players going to get sick,” the numbers are relative, and the contexts are dramatically disrupted by the historical lack of precedence.

Many players are willing to acknowledge the circumstances, chiefly the ones who’ve opted out of play, and I thought Austin Rivers offered a refreshingly zoomed-out perspective on how alien and challenging the brief season will be. But here’s LeBron, conditioning us for the return to normalcy: “No matter what the [situation] is, no matter what the bubble is, no fans, or [with] fans, basketball is basketball and competitive spirit is competitive spirit, so we're right back to where we left off.” Okay, but… you might say, What about…. It doesn’t matter, before the scoreboard is wiped and we’re onto the next day, just as it’s meant to work.

We recently started watching Dark, a German TV show that’s roughly a cross between Twin Peaks and Stranger Things and filtered through an emotionally professional Germanic sensibility that makes it a whole lot more watchable than what I can imagine the American mashup of Twin Peaks and Stranger Things might be (Riverdale, essentially). Dark revolves around the recurring disappearances of children in the fictional town Winden, and the Twin Peaks homage goes a step further in the pilot when, ahead of another disappearance, a dementia-addled old man appears before the town and ominously proclaims “It's going to happen again.”

A little more derivative than cheekily referential, yes, but not a bad commentary on the repeating mishaps of the pandemic (because everything stupid and preventable happens twice, thrice, four times over), and the feeling of dread that there isn’t much we can do to avoid them outside our own community, not when the macro response is being governed by the stupidest, evilest people alive. By this point we’re far removed from the original fuckups, and must bear witness to the photocopied versions, of which there are no shortage. More players will get sick (it’s going to happen again), other leagues like the NFL negotiating their future return will make the same tactical oversights (it’s going to happen again), and beyond sports way too many facets of normal American life (schools, restaurants, bars, etc.) will attempt to push through the discomfort to say Hey, this is just how it is, may as well get used to it (it’s going to happen again).

Maybe they’ll sell it as something unique to boot strap our way through in order to exemplify the enduring human spirit, or whatever, and not a tired spin on the same old thing we’ve always seen, which is average people forced to contend with the catastrophic fuckups of the institutions they’ve unwillingly entrusted with their well-being. We can Jedi Flip our way out of this thing, they’ll tell us. Not to be pessimistic; the human spirit endures, and next Wednesday I’ll be sitting six feet apart from my friend at the bar, drinking a gin and tonic and trying not to breathe into his face. Hopefully the game will be on.

I recently partnered up with the folks at Discontents, a new collective of thoughtful people from the left-leaning blogosphere, all of whom are established and good and worth checking out. The first edition went out on Monday, and besides me it includes Discourse Blog by the former Splinter staff, Welcome to Hell World by Luke O’Neil, Cruel and Usual by Shane Ferro, no love in fear by André Carlisle, BORDER/LINES by Gaby Del Valle and Felipe De La Hoz, A Lonely Impulse of Delight by Connor Wroe Southard, Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future by Patrick Wyman, Be the Spark by Kim Kelly, Wars of Future Past by Kelsey D. Atherton, The Insurgents by Jordan Uhl, Rob Rousseau and Ken Klippenstein, and Foreign Exchanges by Derek Davidson. Check them out!