Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Do You Remember Zorro? Well You Should...

Zorro has long been an iconic pop-culture hero.  The character enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1998 with The Mask of Zorro, which starred Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.  It's a decent, but flawed action movie, never exceeding the excitement and joy of the opening sequence.  Followed by a poorly marketed, lack-luster sequel that didn't appeal to the jaded modern-day audiences more interested in massive robots and city-destroying aliens than good old-fashioned swashbuckling fun, the character has since faded from public consciousness.

The character is quite old, having been created in 1919 by pulp-writer Johnston McCulley, and Zorro has appeared in various films, comics, books and television series for decades.

While he has been more popular in some decades than in others (this is certainly not one of them) Zorro will forever be a timeless hero, easily reimagined, reproduced, and reintroduced to the public just as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, or Batman have continually managed to resurface and inspire new generations of fans.

The man behind the mask is Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman living in Los Angeles during the era of Mexican Rule.  He adopts the persona of Zorro, a black-clad patriot, who inspires the public with his acts of heroism and defiance against the totalitarian government.  He rides a black steed, wields a sword and a whip, and delights in the humiliation of his enemies.  He is a masked acrobat, skilled in various forms of combat and aided in secret by a few loyal servants.  

As you can probably tell, Batman was heavily inspired by Zorro - The Dark Knight is essentially a combination of Zorro and Sherlock Holmes - and while the Mexican legend has many similarities to various super heroes and mythological figures, he is unique and charming enough to merit continual reinterpretation.

The story of Zorro has something modern action heroes and comic book characters almost entirely lack; excitement!  And by excitement I do not mean thrilling action, I mean that he is a joyous, uplifting character, inspiring smiles and cheers amongst the people of his world, not screams of horror. 

He is playful and emotional without being trite or obnoxious.  He does not exist to intimidate or destroy, he is simply a man trying to make his land better, and does this with wit and charm as often as he does with a blade.  He is more a nuisance, and an instigator than some nefarious demon or all-powerful god - and there is a place for that lightheartedness in our cynical modern-era if it is done well-enough.  One of the worst lies perpetrated on the public is that we crave nothing but these massive masturbatory destruction-porn blockbusters, when, in fact, the majority of us just want a good story that feels pertinent. 

The sense of courage and fun has been ripped out of the action-adventure genre, replaced with brooding and psychosis.  And while "dark" certainly has its place, I can't help but feel we're at a low point with our fictional heroes today, especially when these comic book films are churned out mindlessly year after year and feature catastrophic levels of urban destruction - so much so that we are completely disconnected from the implications of such devastation, barely even moved by what we see.  We are expected to enjoy watching an angry, entitled Superman snap a villain's neck - or at least be effected by it in some meaningful way...beyond, "Oh my god, what has happened to us that we need this to occur for us to feel anything."

Batman is the only character who has been treated exactly the way he should on-screen of late, earning the dreariness, which is ultimately overcome by profound hope and altruism.

But we could use a truly uplifting, purely fun hero (that also looks cool in a costume) the likes of Indiana Jones, only one who is not beholden to any particular actor or franchise, and I think Zorro is the man for the job.

And I think the medium where he can be most effectively realized and inspire a new generation is in video games.

Whenever I play an Assassin's Creed game by the studio Ubisoft, I always think, "Why can't this be a Zorro game".  The hit-or-miss AC franchise gives us an idea of the general mechanics a good Zorro game would have: free-running, sword-fighting, open-world-travel, a hideout/homebase, allies, large crowds of people, and potential for a variety of narrative threads.

Imagine a wide-open Californian/Mexican border with cities, towns, and rachos to explore, as well as the wide-open desert terrain.  Players would traverse this land by way of their trusty steed (or fast travel via carriages). 

Zorro's upgradable arsenal would include a variety of rapiers, throwing knives, and of course, the tool that sets Zorro apart from his peers, his whip.  The whip would likely be very difficult to animate, but, if simplified and handled well it would be essential to navigating platforming obstacles and it would provide a useful alternate approach in combat.

The movements and abilities required for such a character with this kind of arsenal to work have already been perfected in games like Assassin's Creed, The Arkham Series, and the new Tomb Raider.  Zorro is not super-human, so these games, with their emphasis upon real-world (though sensationalized) acrobatic abilities provide an excellent guide for how to approach the character. 

Zorro's costume would also be thoroughly enjoyable to behold, especially considering the detailed renditions possible on the newest generation consoles.  It would be nice if his costume altered according to events in the story (not unlike in Arkham) where he lost his hat or had his cape ripped off, all to subtly increase one's sense of connection with the character and the character's connection to their world.  Games like Max Payne 3, Arkham, and Tomb Raider do this exceedingly well, incorporating costume changes and alterations to subtly, but substantially legitimize the believability and emotional effectiveness of the game world.

I would like to see combat similar to Assassin's Creed's fencing, but provided a bit more depth and difficulty beyond a simple counter-win-button press.  A viable stealth option would also be essential, given that the character is human and must carry on many of his efforts in secret.  A crouch button or sneak ability and some shadows is all that's needed to provide players with a sense that they're actually creeping about, and are empowered to choose how they engage the enemy, not limited to specific "stalking zones".

Players should also be able to return to their manor/hideout whenever they wish and explore their land for secrets and perhaps engage in some training exercises.  The ability to unlock new moves and perhaps increase one's speed and jump-distance would be a welcome incentive to putting time into the game.

Sidequests, particularly those providing aid to the people of California/Mexico would be a welcome addition also.

The potential for a moving, uproarious musical score is clearly there - think Red Dead Redemption without the pathos.

The fact that Zorro is so specific to his cultural background makes him that much more unique and pertinent to our wonderfully diverse world.  The environment and tone of the game would be one not often explored, and the sights and sounds would be exhilarating.  I dare you to listen to that song from The Mask of Zorro and not want to put on a cape, grab a sword, mount your horse and ride off into the desert searching for adventure.

And, finally, the narrative would have to incorporate Zorro's lovable cast of characters, a fiery love interest, and a truly despicable villain capable of slicing the smile off our hero's face, pushing him to his limit.  And in the end we're left satisfied and excited to explore the open landscape that much more.

Zorro is such an enjoyable archetype, imbued with lovably unique qualities that deserve to be explored in a variety of ways.  For a business, he will always be a viable property, for he has everything an appealing hero needs, he simply needs to be presented in the best way, by intelligent artists.  He can tap into the public consciousness, he just needs to be embraced and be accompanied by a thrilling, honest tale of heroism.  

For fans of comics, movies, and video games, he's the hero we need right now.  A good old-fashioned swashbuckler who ignites in us a childlike sense of strength and cheer.

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