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|Saturday, November 8th, 2014|
Very pleased and proud to be giving a keynote at SBGames 2014
. I'll be talking about The Writers' Journey, or at least my version of it, which included stops in Boston, Atlanta, and a giant pile of dice.
|Thursday, November 6th, 2014|
|Ruminations on Trick-or-Treating
There are a lot of reasons I like trick-or-treating (besides the leftover candy, you heathens), but the biggest one is this:
It’s a reason to talk to your neighbors.
Once a year, you’re guaranteed to have folks from all over your neighborhood - in theory, at least - knocking on your door, saying hello, and generally being pleasant. And the people having their doors knocked on are also being pleasant, and saying hello, and participating in an honorable social contract within the community: if I leave my light on (my part of the deal) and you wear a costume (your part of the deal), I give you something nice.
[Side note: all that nonsense about razor blades in apples is exactly that. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were started by the people making fun sized candies of various persuasions in order to get us to buy more bags of tiny Butterfingers that are mostly wrapper. “Fun sized”, my ass.]
And implied in that was that you talked to all your neighbors. You didn’t knock on some doors and not on others because of politics or what church someone belonged to or whatever. You went, neighbor to neighbor, in a simple, human interaction.
Now, of course, trick-or-treating is on a downturn. In too many places, it’s being replaced by “Trunk or treating” or mall treating or whatever. And yes, I can see the benefits of limiting this to a controlled time and space, and not gambling against the extremely minuscule chance that one of your neighbors will, when asked for candy, instead respond with a chainsaw.
But I still think it’s a bad idea. Mall treating just reinforces consumer behavior - go store to store and get stuff. Trunk or treating is generally done within the bounds of an existing social group - a church or a school, for example - so there’s no reaching out, no getting to know your neighbors, no meeting the new.
Yes, I know, not every neighborhood’s great (or viable, or safe) for trick-or-treating. Not every neighbor wants to be reached out to, and there are a myriad of reasons to do something controlled and scheduled and above all, safe. But it feels sad that our neighbors don’t feel safe, that our neighborhoods don’t feel worth connecting with, that we can’t take as long as we need to make the circuit of the neighborhood and that at the same time as so many kids are trick-or-treating at the mall, so many people are shutting their lights off and hanging “no trick or treating” signs on their doors lest their evenings be disturbed by occasional friendly interruption.
We will, of course, keep the jack-o-lantern flame burning as long as we keep getting knocks on the door. But it’s always a little disappointing when this year’s knocks are fewer than last years, and last year’s were fewer than the year before’s. And in the back of my head I think of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Pillar of Fire”, wherein the last dead man on earth tries to reinvent Halloween and all its frights all by his lonesome in a world that’s gotten over being scared of the dark.
|Friday, October 31st, 2014|
|Why I Write Horror: A Rumination
It’s Halloween, and I’m more-or-less a horror writer, which means that ‘tis the season I get questions like “What horror novels should I read?” (Answer: Mine, of course) and “What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever read?” (Besides a royalty statement?) and, of course, “Why do you write this stuff?”
The “Why do you write this stuff” is the one I’ve been getting the longest, it part because it’s one my mother keeps asking. She wants to know, not unreasonably, when I’m going to write something a little bit nicer, and she often points to the fairy tale intro I wrote for Changeling 2nd Edition as proof I could maybe branch out into something with a lower body count once in a while. And that’s true, but I keep coming back to horror, and I suppose it’s worth noodling around a bit as to why. In no particular order:
I write horror because this stuff made a hell of an impression on me when I was a kid. To a six year old me, the story on the side of the 7-11 Slurpee Monster Cup for zombies was scary as all get-out. I used to lay awake at night debating whether to leave the door to my bedroom open (so the light from the nightlight in the hallway could come in) or closed (so if the zombies came up the stairs, I wouldn’t have to see them coming). By 4th grade, I’d been introduced to Ray Bradbury, most notably stories like “The Halloween Tree” and “Pillar of Fire”, and the simultaneous terror and fascination was locked firmly in place. My thesis was on Lovecraft; my first two published papers were on HPL and Charles Robert Maturin, respectively. In short, it’s been a part of me for a very long time.
I write horror because it’s interesting. What scares folks - the outward manifestations of inward fears, as Ambrose Bierce put it - is really meaty material to chew on. Know what terrifies a character and you know something about that character. Know why that terrifies them and you know the character entire.
I write horror, not because I’m interested in writing critters or spattering bodily fluids on walls, but because it’s possible to write the scary stuff without resorting to fangs in neck or blood on walls. Some of the most enduring pieces in the horror canon (such as it is) offer neither beasts nor blood, but manage to chill the reader just the same. That level of skill and craft is what I aspire to.
I write horror because I’ve spent good chunks of my life scared - scared of getting beaten up on the playground, scared of failing, scared of not living up to expectations, scared of all sorts of things. And while those fears may not be much in the grand scheme of things to be afraid of in this life, they’ve been with me all my life, and writing the spooky stuff is how I finally figured out to take them on.
I write horror because I was told I couldn’t or shouldn’t. Because the stories I submitted to Annie Dillard’s writing class at Wesleyan came back with the words “We have nothing to say to each other” on them. Because bringing along Dan Simmons’ “Carrion Comfort” as my subway reading material on orientation day at my MA program got me instantly labeled as the Not Actually Serious About Books Guy. And yeah, maybe twenty-plus years on I should be letting that stuff go, but old embers can still burn hot.
And finally, I write horror because I’m good at it. Those are the stories that come naturally to me - the small child making a bargain with unseen powers as he plays at the beach, the impossible thing in the man-made lake, the slumbering power underneath placid suburban real estate - these are the things that call out to me when I sit down to write. These are the things whose stories I know how to tell instinctively. These are the things I can wrestle best with in words, and I’m OK with that.
|Sunday, October 26th, 2014|
|The Three Stages of Adulthood
As near as I can tell, there are three stages of adulthood:
Stage one is when you decide that you are too grown up to eat horrible sugared cereals with marshmallows in them, even if you have lived your whole life loving Booberry with an unreasonable passion. Being grown up means putting away childish things because you are, well. grown up. And so when Halloween season comes around and the familiar boxes reappear on the shelves, you say, “No, no, I’ve outgrown it. I’m an adult now.”
Stage two is when you realize that you are in fact an adult and that means that you can do any damn thing you want, including slamming down whole boxfuls of sugary cereals that are dyed a color blue that does not exist in nature, or, alternately, pouring them out so you can pick out the marshmallows. As an adult, you have the right to do foolish or childish things because that’s your decision to make, and you’re making it right now. Anyone who calls it immature simply doesn’t understand that you’ve grown beyond simple labels like that, and have become more comfortable with who the adult version of you is. The fact that adult you like Booberry is just another facet of who you are, and that’s just fine.
And stage three is where you realize that you are perfectly within your rights as an adult to eat a box of Booberry every year when they release it again, but for the love of God there’s absolutely no reason you should because that stuff is terrible.
As of this year, I have achieved stage three.
If there’s a stage four, I don’t want to know about it.
|Tuesday, October 7th, 2014|
|A few thoughts - A Most Wanted Man
The opening shot of A Most Wanted Man
is of water. It’s a simple shot of water sloshing up against a seawall, then sloshing slightly higher as a boat’s wake rolls past. It is, in a word, fluid. Then, a man pulls himself up out of the water and up a ladder, onto dry land. He’s soaking wet and anonymous; he does not speak. At this point, he, too, is completely fluid.
As the movie progresses, we learn more about this man. His name is Issa. He is half Chechen and half Russian. He was jailed and tortured. He is indeed a wanted man, and he is many other things.
And as the movie progresses, the shots we see change. The early ones are full of the images of liquid. Every establishing shot shows water in the background. We get shots of whiskey glasses, of coffee, of tea. The fluidity is there in the imagery. But as we move along, those shots go away. They’re replaced by rigid images - brushed steel and chrome, dry land and building guts. The coffee cups get covered up. Things are settling into a single pattern. The future is increasingly less fluid.
And eventually, Issa is defined - for the people who want to use him, and for us, the audience. He is what he is. His possibilities have been whittled down to a single one. He is no longer fluid.
Which is where the story ends.
But there’s another guy in the movie. He’s a spy, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last role, and he’s also caught up in the narrowing of focus, the loss of possibility. It’s a brilliant performance, with Hoffman shambling through the film like an aging, wounded bear, underestimated but still dangerous. Of course, Hoffman’s character is the one drawing the threads of possibility closed. He’s got an endgame in mind, and he relentlessly cuts off every other character’s other options until there’s only one way things can possibly play out. But he’s caught in it, too, as trapped as any of the people he’s been manipulating “to make the world a safer place” all along.
And when the final step is taken, when the endgame goes horribly wrong, then we realize that Hoffman’s character’s story parallels Issa’s. That in thinking he was master of his own destiny, he was led to a place where there was only one way things could end, and it was not the one he imagined. That like Issa, he had retreated from a bloody past in hopes of perhaps drawing some good out of evil, and that he was encouraged to think this was a possibility in order to serve the ends of others.
I’ve seen reviewers call this a “minor” film, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s a minor key film, where the stakes are high in human terms but the plot is distinctly lacking in showpiece explosions. Everything is understated - conversations and plots, interrogations and chases. There are maybe half a dozen moments of physical violence in the film, and no blood. And that’s fine. Explosions and blood would have made this about the moment of conflict and the adrenaline rush of the race for survival. What A Most Wanted Man
touches on instead is the bigger game, and the notion that big things are made from small actions, combined and conjoined in myriad ways.
There’s one moment in the middle of the film, unrecognizable when it happens, when Hoffman’s character is offered a way out of what’s coming. It’s an admission from his American contact that it was her people who blew his op in Beirut, who got his people killed, who got him demoted to Hamburg. It’s a suggestion that she shouldn’t be trusted, and that he should walk away while he still has the chance.
He doesn’t walk away, doesn’t even realize what he’s being offered. And so everyone’s fate is sealed, in minor gestures that have major consequences.
If you’re getting the impression that it’s not a cheerful film, you’re absolutely correct. To watch A Most Wanted Man
is to watch a failure of hope, to see good intentions and a desire to lessen bloodshed cynically used for the benefit of the ambitious and uninformed, to observe old failures repeated in a way that will recreate old problems. It is, in its own quiet way, vastly pessimistic in a way that shouts “it doesn’t have to be this way”. And as such, it’s worth seeing, and listening to.
|Saturday, September 20th, 2014|
|On the Loot That Is Character
So here’s the great thing about the Telltale story-driven games.
It’s not that they’re “GREAT STORIES”, though they are in fact excellent examples of the storyteller’s art, showing keen understanding of their respective properties (Walking Dead and Fables, respectively, for those of you yahoos who haven’t played them yet, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for). There have been, much to the surprise of many, quite a few excellent stories in games over the years. No, that’s not what makes these two, Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, stand out.
It’s because Telltale figured out a mechanic - a mechanic! Yes! A game mechanic as a storytelling tool in a game! - to make you care about the characters in the game world.
And how do they do that? By stripping away all of the “game” elements of the game until those character are all that’s left. You don’t level in The Wolf Among Us. You don’t collect loot. You don’t get XP or better armor or a +3 sword of fable-smiting. In fact, they have taken absolutely everything that you normally use to keep track of your progress and advancement in a game and stripped it out.
The only thing that’s left? Character. More specifically, your relationships with the other characters in the world. There is, quite literally, nothing else to hold on to.
And that is, by and large, the mechanical function of those characters in the design as well. They’re not quest givers. They’re not there to give you combos or unlock skill trees or shoot bad guys or do anything mechanical for you. They are there to be a part of the world, the only part of the world that matters from moment to moment.
It’s a remarkable achievement, and an elegant one. To make characters mean more, give the player less. Bravo.
|Sunday, September 14th, 2014|
|The Pro Con Goer
So I went to PAX.
Not because I wanted to GO TO PAX. I mean, I’ve seen show floors before. Lots of them, many of them more conducive to keeping my hearing intact that the Vegas-like carnival that flourishes inside the Washington State Convention Center.
And not because I wanted to “do business”, whatever that means, for someone in my position. (Seriously, I have no idea. Suggestions are welcome.) I did have one panel, moderated and organized by the estimable Chris Tihor, that I was a part of. But that was literally my only formal commitment while I was out there. I didn’t talk to any media or take any meetings. I did show off some of the cards for Squatches and Scotches, the card game I’ve been working on, but that was really more in the interest of getting ego gratification for the incredibly funny things I’ve written as card text, and less about actually flogging the game per se.
And I certainly didn’t go to PAX for the frequent flier miles. As a matter of fact, I kind of botched my travel roll - a first for me in ages - and booked myself into a hotel in Bellvue when I thought I was booking a place near SeaTac and light rail. On the bright side, this allowed me to make new friends out of numerous Lyft and cab drivers in the greater Seattle area, but Lordy, new friends get expensive if you have to keep on making them a half hour ride at a time.
No, I went to PAX - and really, this is why I go to most conferences, conventions, kaffeklatches, gatherings of the tribe and so forth - to see people. To talk to people. To immerse myself in a pool of very smart people whom I think very highly of, so we can talk of things various and sundry. About writing, about games, about scotch, about ACC football (if it comes to that, which it occasionally does), about what we’re working on and what we’re not working on and what we want to be working on.
Why? Why fly cross-country and subject myself to an Au Bon Pain in DFW at 5 in the morning, just for the odd bits of conversation?
Because that stuff is what’s really important. It recharges my batteries. It stimulates new ideas. It gives me new ways to tackle existing problems. It feeds new data into the system, which is exactly what I need to be re-energized and get back into the word mines with a jaunty tilt to my cap.
And hopefully, talking to me helps do the same thing for the folks I talk with. Or at least provides them with a good laugh or two.
I joke, but I’m also quite serious. Getting out of headspace inhabited solely by me or the few people I interact with on a daily basis is a good thing. Filling that headspace, even if it’s just for a couple of days, with other folks is both a genuine pleasure and good for the Muse, who gets cranky if left to endlessly peruse the old magazines in the waiting room of my mind.
So young’uns, take heed - there’s much to be said for getting out there and talking with smart people to make you better at what you do. It’s a worthwhile investment of time, of money, and of energy, and it would be if all you got out of it was the chance to spend time with people whose company you genuinely enjoy. Throw in the added benefit that it makes you better at what you do, and, well, it looks more appealing all the time.
So, to all the smart and generous folks I had the good fortune to hang out with at PAX, I say “thank you”. Not just for the pleasure of your company, which is considerable, but for the energy and inspiration you provide. And to those of you who don’t think you need to mingle with your professional peers now and again, well, it might be worth reconsidering.
|Tuesday, August 19th, 2014|
|On the Priority of Falling Rocks From Space
Got home the other night well after 11, after the local gamedev drink-up at an Irish-ish pub in downtown Raleigh. When I reached the front door, I remembered that this week was the Perseid meteor shower. Tuesday was supposed to be peak activity, which turned out to be not such a good thing, schedule-wise; Tuesday night here could best be described as “ark building weather”. Thick cloud cover, torrential rain and the omnipresent chance of being flash-fried by a couple of zillion volts makes for a poor meteor shower viewing experience.
Tonight, though, was clear. And it was late and it was quiet and it was reasonably dark, except for the street corner light and the neighbors’ outdoor light and our porch light, which had been left on so I wouldn’t have to try to figure out in pitch blackness which of the 84 keys I carry was the the right one for the front door.
Best viewing conditions would be, of course, out in the country. Up by Falls Lake, maybe. Away from the city. Not on my front lawn, with porch light and neighbor light and street light.
I went to go inside, thinking “there’s going to be another one.” Or maybe I was thinking “I’ll catch them next year.”
And without realizing it, I said to myself, “How many more of these things are you going to get a chance to see?” Not because there’s anything wrong, or I’m in imminent danger, or I’m feeling the weight of my creeping middle age particularly heavily tonight. It was just a thought about how taking that sort of thing for granted - assuming that the thing you skipped out on today will always be waiting when you want it tomorrow - doesn’t always pay off.
I tried taking my nephew and his friend out watching for meteors earlier in the summer. We set up too early and saw bupkis. Opportunity, gone.
But it was late, and I was tired, and tomorrow’s a school day, metaphorically speaking. I went up onto the front porch, Opened the door.
Thought about it for a second, then reached in and turned off the porch light. Turned around, marched myself back onto the lawn, and held up a hand and an iPad respectively, to block out the neighbor’s light and the streetlight.
Easy enough to just dust that off with a “Cool story, bro” or whatever, and move on. It’s another “stop and smell the roses” thing, right? Of course it is.
I looked up. I waited. And a minute later, I saw a meteor.
Just one. This wasn’t a precursor to Day of the Triffids, after all, with the sky on fire with a million bits of cosmic leftover raining down in fire and light. It was the waning evening of a trip through old cometary incontinence, left behind for us to swing through and ooh and ah about. One bit of dust that hit the atmosphere and took a short trip and flamed out.
I looked around. Nobody else was out there. On my block, at least, that moment and that vision were all mine.
Which was enough. I waited another minute, then inside and shut the door.
Except it isn’t.
Because, aging nerd that I am, I’ve always wanted to see meteor showers. They are, in a sense, important. they have a priority.
The problem being, that priority was always lower than the priority of something else I was doing at the time. It’s always a different something else, but each instance is higher priority at that given moment.
Which is how, if you look at it in the long view, “lower priority” becomes “no priority”. And “no priority” means “it never gets done, ever.”
I have a comic book spec script I’m working on now. It’s a project I’m excited about. But because it’s a spec project, it slots in behind Story X for Anthology Y or Game Project Z or Book Review Omicron, any of which may have a greater urgency at a given moment, but none of which are such high priority that they’ve got the heft to consign another project to the dustbin permanently.
But that’s the practical effect. (Note: this sort of thing applies at work, too. Check your task lists for the stuff that’s been lurking at the bottom for weeks or months or years. It’s never the most important thing, which is why it never gets done - until suddenly it’s the thing that needed to be done ages ago and ohcrap) And the end result of that practical effect is things left undone and regretted because of the always-excusable strict hierarchy of priorities. There’s no individual element of that decision-making that can be critiqued, because any given item, when weighed against the spec project, carries more heft. It’s only when things are seen in toto that the cost becomes apparent.
Which is why it is occasionally worth it to reprioritize based on on the long view, and not the short. To temporarily assign artificially high value to a particular project to keep it from forever defaulting to no value. And to, just maybe, trade a minute at the keyboard for a minute looking at shooting stars.
|Wednesday, August 13th, 2014|
|A Small Note On Depression
There are many better voices than mine to discuss what depression really is, how being rich or famous or good-looking is not an automatic counter to its ravages, and how it is a disease and not something that can be easily overcome simply through “sucking it up” (whatever that means).
That being said, I’d like to politely suggest that everyone who does think that wealth or fame counters depression, or that it is something that can be easily overcome with enough Arizona Diamondbacks-style grittiness check out some of these resources, leave their preconceptions at the door, and maybe put themselves in a better position to help the people in their own lives who are suffering from depression.
Because if your attitude is that those suffering from depression are weak, or have no willpower, or are lazy, then you are just making it that much harder for the ones you care about who are dealing with this to come forward, to get help, and to try to find a way to get better. You are, in other words, making things worse for people you know and love.
Don’t be part of the problem. Because there are people in your life wrestling with this, even if you don’t know it. And being stubborn or uninformed or disdainful towards the problem makes pushes in exactly the wrong direction.
|Sunday, August 10th, 2014|
|On the White Wolf Writer Factory
Robert Rath over at The Escapist does a lovely job of looking at how The Wolf bred writers, calling out Chuck Wendig, Mur Lafferty and myself, among others. There are oodles more - Dawn Metcalf, Tracy Rysavy-Fernandez, Lucien Soulban and many other scribbly types did work for WW back in the day - but I think it's a really well-written piece.Check it out
|Sunday, August 3rd, 2014|
|Things I Think I Think About Guardians of the Galaxy
- It was a wonderfully enjoyable movie. I laughed in all the right places, I sniffled in all the right places, and generally had a great time. No complaints.
- For something that is explicitly sold as a wacky good time in space, the film sure is violent and, on occasion, foul-mouthed. The commercials - and the 17 minutes of preview footage screened for fans a month ago - really de-emphasized how brutal many of the fight scenes are. There are stabbings. There is attempted murder. There are impalings. There are stabbings and explosions and various other unpleasant ways to go out inflicted on various characters, some of whom even have speaking parts. Not that I’m going all Hayes Code or anything here, but if you’re bringing your kids expecting nothing but cute talking trees and raccoons, you might want to adjust those expectations.
- Spiritually, this splits the difference between the ongoing Marvel films, which do an excellent job of mainstreaming obscure nerd properties with machinelike efficiency, and the mid-80s action comedies like Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai. It’s winkingly self-aware of the genre conventions it’s sending up, recognizing that they’re shared vocabulary that lets the film do something different. At the same time, the film is composed with mechanical, relentless precision. Every character gets their one moment of pathos, the climactic showdown plays out beat-for-beat like innumerable other action films, and there’s plenty of sly toy commercials built into the film. But that’s OK, because the craftsmanship of the film is so damn good.
- Vin Diesel really is Groot. This may be the defining performance of his career.
- I want some of the space technology that preserves audiocassettes, AA batteries, and earphone foam for multiple decades. Seriously. I’m not nitpicking. I’ve got a couple of aging cassettes that are shedding iron oxide faster than Donald Trump ditches creditors and if space technology is what it takes to save those suckers, I want it now.
- Director/cowriter James Gunn does an impressive job of shoehorning a ridiculous amount of exposition about the Marvel Universe into the movie without turning it into Adam Warlock Studies 101. Those who are paying attention can squee to themselves over the nice little detail touches that get worked in; those who don’t care or who don’t realize that all this infodump is the setup for about six other movies can simply relax because the only bit’s that actually pertinent is “blue guy in a hoodie wants to blow up the planet.” Everything else? Details.
- Complaining about the post-credits scene is self-entitled nonsense. What we get is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film and a nice nod to a bit of Marvel’s history. No, it’s not splodey or ominous or plot-relevant; it’s fun. Talking yourself into thinking that it was going to be Ultron jello-wrestling Thanos while Nathan Fillion and the cast of Firefly cheer them on might have been fun forum fodder, but Marvel and James Gunn are under no obligation to match the fantasies you spun out of whole cloth. And besides, complaining about how the free stuff you just got is the wrong free stuff always kind of makes you look like a jerkface.
- Whoever decided that Benicio Del Toro’s version of The Collector would look like someone trying to cosplay the abominable snowman from the old Rankin Bass Christmas specials may want to have others check their work on future character redesigns.
- Part of me will always wonder how different a movie this would have been in StarLord’s mom had liked Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull instead of early 70s cheese rock.
- Did I mention I really enjoyed the movie? ‘Cause I did.
|Saturday, August 2nd, 2014|
|Interview - Marianne Krawczyk
I've posted an interview I did with the estimable and ridiculously talent Marianne Krawczyk (God of War
, The Long Dark
) up at my blog on Gamasutra, in which we discuss Aeschylus, the possibility of Kratos getting into a bar fight, and Sweet Valley High in space. Check it out here
|Sunday, July 27th, 2014|
|I Don't Like The New Suicide Squad, And That's OK
I read the first collection of the New 52’s version of Suicide Squad today. to be honest, I didn’t like it. It seemed needlessly brutal, wallowing in unnecessary character death and having the members of the Squad kill relentlessly in such quantity that after a few pages, the deaths stopped registering. Adding a hard edge to the notion of super villains working off their sentences on top-secret missions makes sense; the endless scenes of cannibal Hulk-wannabe King Shark chowing down on whoever’s in reach is cartoonish.
I confess, I was a big fan of John Ostrander’s run on the series. It tackled some of the same moral dilemmas the new series seems to want to take on, and it blew away the occasional team member as needed to make an impact, but it was never less than aware of the level of its violence. The new series, on the other hand, goes for a wannabe cool nihilism, camouflaging the ever-increasing body count Deadshot’s racking up under the blanket of “badass efficiency”. These are supposed to be character moments for Deadshot, you see, not just kills.
After a while, the camo starts looking mighty thin.
That being said, the last thing DC should do is listen to my grumping and backpedal to the way things were. Why? Because the last time I bought a Suicide Squad issue, it was two decades ago, give or take. I’m not the target audience anymore, and I’m not the guy the new book is intended to appeal to. I may not like the new direction, but it’s not like they’re going to lose a customer by pissing me off. And at five bucks a new issue, odds were pretty good that even if I liked the new stuff, I wasn’t going to be setting up a pull list at my Friendly Local Comic Shop.
Besides, the Ostrander issues aren’t going anywhere. I can still read them if I want and I feel like digging through my long boxes (now repurposed as a cat perch). The sort of Suicide Squad story I want is still available to me, even if it isn’t a new Suicide Squad.
But to expect a comics company to be governed by the nostalgia of those of us who haven’t actually been their customers in a very long time is to sit in a metaphorical rocking chair on the porch, shaking a metaphorical cane at those darn kids and their rock-and-roll musics. This goes whether we’re talking about Suicide Squad (did I mention that I hate that they’ve reimagined Amanda Waller to be skinny and young. Come on, can’t we have one character in comics who looks like they’ve eaten a slice of pie in their life?) or Thor fans who haven’t picked up an issue since the Walt Simonson days yelling on Twitter about the character’s gender swapping, or really anyone who doesn’t understand why comics can’t be exactly the way they were in the halcyon days of their youth.
To which all I can say is “Let it go”. The Ostrander Suicide Squad isn’t comic back, and even if he were put back on the book it wouldn’t be the same one I’d fallen in love with two decades ago. Those comics are our high school crushes; in memory they stay the same forever, but in real life they’re live in Des Moines, have two kids, and may have recently learned what words like “diverticulitis” and “heart palpitations” mean. To expect them to stay as perpetually dewy-eyed and young as our mental image of them is cruel and unrealistic, and leads to awkward conversations at high school reunions.
So shut up and let the new creators do new things. If you like those new things, hop on board. If you don’t, try to sound less like Abe Simpson when you criticize. But always remember, nobody’s writing for twenty-years-ago-you any more, nor should they have to. To think otherwise is to be as cranky and entitled as, well, as the guys who were clogging up USENet back in 1989 kvetching about how they should put Captain Marvel back in his old Kree uniform and what Batman really needed to be good was more of the good old BIFF-POW-BOOM.
I don’t want to be that guy. At least, not the noisy version of that guy. And neither should you.
|Sunday, June 15th, 2014|
|Screw Narrative Wrappers
And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.
What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it.
And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.
Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.
Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression.
But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!
To which I say, cunningly (because this is my blog and I win all the arguments here), that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way.
But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function.
Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.
And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing
|Sunday, June 1st, 2014|
|Dents: Why The Winter Soldier Was So Good
If you want to understand what Captain America: The Winter Soldier
is all about, watch the shield. Yes, it’s a very good movie, probably the best of the Marvel flicks so far. Yes, it’s a four-color take on a Seventies political thriller, which is why Robert Redford was so wonderfully cast. Yes, it had issues of moral complexity that, depending on where you sit were either painstakingly simplistic or deeply adventurous for a billion dollar tentpole flick.
But what matters is the shield.
Because when Captain America’s shield hits something in this movie, there’s an impact. It slices into walls and stays there. It gets used to hack open padlocks and smash through things. When Cap takes a corner too fast and bounces off the wall, shield-first, it leaves a mark. ( Read more...Collapse )
|Game Thoughts: Attachment In Absence
Just finished playing Monument Valley
, in which the most sympathetic character is indubitably the Totem, a sentient piece of masonry that looks suspiciously like a block of supermarket cheese but which selflessly assists you in solving puzzles. You, being the protagonist of a video game, cheerfully accept its help before moving on to the next level, at which point the Totem busts through a wall in order to follow you. The last you see of it, it’s sinking beneath the waves in a desperate attempt to keep pace with your magical floating platform, and while it’s less likely to generate filk than the death of the Weighted Companion Cube, it’s nearly as affecting.
(The player avatar, for her part, makes no effort to stop, turn around, warn, or assist the totem, which honestly diminished my pleasure at taking that role for the remainder of the game. Yes, I know it was a cut scene, but even a failed attempt would have been nice.)
But that sequence got me thinking about the Totem, and the Weighted Companion Cube, and about how they and characters like them are generally beloved out of all proportion to their screen time and interaction with the player. And I think a lot of that can be put down to absence.( Read more...Collapse )
|On Godzillas Come And Gone
(Written a few weeks ago, cross posted now because I'm lazy)
Let’s be honest: much of the excitement surrounding the new Godzilla film is pinned to the hope that it will help us forget about the last Hollywood Godzilla film, the Roland Emmerich late 90s disaster that remains a towering embarrassment nearly two decades later. (Do not, however, confuse “bad movie” with “unsuccessful one”. Between foreign box office, distribution rights, broadcast rights, merchandising deals and DVD sales, that movie more than made its pile back.)
And there are good reasons to hate that movie: It’s poorly written, it rips off Jurassic Park, it goes for cheap gags, and it gives us a Godzilla that looks like the unholy love child of an iguana and Pete Rose.
(Seriously. Check the chin.)( Read more...Collapse )
|Fathers, Sons and Guns - Some Spoilery Thoughts on Cold In July
(WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS)
The main thrust of the reviews on the Joe Lansdale adaptation Cold In July
all seem to focus on notions of masculinity, which, in my opinion, is completely missing the point of the movie.
I mean, I can see why they do it. There’s an easy, visible progression there, as nebbishy Richard Dane accidentally plugs an intruder in his living room, gradually gets more decisive (sometimes disastrously so), and ends up in the middle of a scene of horrific gunplay that would have caused his start-of-movie self to piddle in his boxers.
But the easy reading is the wrong one. Because the movie’s not about nebulously macho masculinity, per se, and the acquiring thereof. It’s about fathers and sons, and everything else is peripheral.( Read more...Collapse )
|Thursday, April 17th, 2014|
|Game Story, Six Gilled Sharks and The Quest For the Narrative Fix-A-Flat
Every couple of years, we get one of these. And by “these”, I mean “some distinguished gentleman from outside the game industry announces that games aren’t/can’t be art”, and everyone goes nuts as a result. A couple of years ago it was the late Roger Ebert, whose argument could largely be summed up that games weren’t art because they were terrible movies (part of which, by and large, is true - most games are terrible movies, and most games that also make for good movies are terrible games because you’re watching them instead of playing them - thought the underlying assumption that form dictates artfulness is, I think, a faulty one. But I digress).
This time around, it’s noted screenplay seminar guru Robert McKee, who posted a video a couple of days ago wherein he declares that games aren’t and can’t be art because, among other things, art has to be received passively. He also makes a few unsupported statements and pulls out the usual Shakespeare appeal to authority (incorrectly, I might add - does not the prologue to Henry V explicitly invite the audience to on some level participate in the transformation of the stage?) and generally draws a line in the sand that the tides of history have already washed away.
But that’s not important, really. I mean, yes, I think McKee’s arguments are pretty weak, but I’m not interested in using them as a springboard into the “can games be Art with a capital A” argument. Let’s be honest here: if you do think that games can be Art, you’ve almost certainly already drafted a 750 word response referencing some combination of Gone Home, Papers Please, Monument Valley and (if you’re really old school) the death of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall. If you don’t think games can be art, you’ve no doubt already written something of equal and equally indignant length calling out Modern Warfare deathmatch gameplay, hookers in GTA, and the alien sexytime morning talk shows warned you against in Mass Effect.
Which gets us precisely nowhere. And I confess, I’m not particularly interested in the debate as it currently stands. I’d much rather make games, and if somebody taps me on the shoulder and informs me that the work I collaborated on was “Art”, well, my mother will probably be very happy.
What I am interested in, though, is the argument underneath this argument, particularly as it pertains to McKee’s approach. And that’s talking about “solving the problem” of narrative in games.
By “solving the problem”, I think, most people are thinking of an out of the box solution for narrative in interactive entertainment. Story as it stands is sorta-kinda-in-theory broken (depending on which game you’re talking about and who you’re asking), and there’s a desire from all quarters to fix it, in the same way we’ve fixed animation systems and particle physics and so forth.
Which, I think misses the point. Because games, at this point, are such a wide category of experiences that thinking a single narrative approach covers them all, from soup to nuts, is pure folly. Functionally, dialog-heavy extended gameplay monsters like Mass Effect bear the same relationship to visual storytelling games like Journey that a rhesus monkey does to a six-gilled shark: They’re related, if you go back far enough, and they share a few design basics, but their practical needs are very different.
Which is not to privilege one type of game above any other in terms of the narrative experience it offers, but rather just to say there are so many types of games with so many different ways they approach storytelling that the notion of liberally applying Narrative Fix-a-Flat and then saying “done” is a pipe dream. Mass Effect, which incorporates dialog choice into gameplay and encourages open world exploration, needs a different approach than Journey. Journey, done almost entirely through visual storytelling, needs a different approach than Burgertime. Burgertime, where the narrative is almost completely implied by the character design and props, needs a different approach than The Last of Us. The Last of Us, with its linear narrative, needs a different approach than Papers, Please. I could go on for hours. The variety - with fundamental differences right down to the core of player interaction and experience - is that wide.
So what am I saying here? That improving narrative elements in games is impossible and we shouldn’t try? No. But it is time to abandon the quest for the narrative equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorceror’s Stone, if you read Harry Potter in the US) that will magically transform all it touches. Stop using the reductio ad absurdum announcements about GAME NARRATIVE (singular) that are really just lame clickbait. Instead, revel in the variety, and find ways to improve the narrative elements in the types of games you’re working on.
Because my game ain’t your game ain’t the game the three guys are making in a small office downtown. There is no universal panacea or descriptor for this stuff, and there never will be.
And that’s OK. Or it will be, as soon as everyone stops Insisting otherwise.
|Wednesday, April 9th, 2014|
|Not Getting A Piece of the Rock
This is Alcatraz.
In all the years I’ve gone out to San Francisco, for GDC or other meetings or once, God help me, for a press tour, I’ve never been. This picture is quite literally the closest I’ve ever gotten.
Now everyone tells me I should go, of course, largely because A)everyone goes, sooner or later and B)it’s supposed to be haunted, and everyone knows I’m a morbid little son of a gun. I mean, hey, I went to Eastern State Pentitentiary, after all, and if you want to talk “supposedly haunted prisons that occupy a seminal place in American penal history”, that joint’s kind of the mother lode.
Alcatraz holds no interest for me. Not the history, not the ghost stories, not the over-dramaticized tales of attempted escapes. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Like I said, it should be right down my alley
Maybe it’s overexposure. There are a million documentaries on the place, after all, historical and “supernatural”. There’s the mock Ken Burns stuff and there’s the stuff that’s dripping with woo. Damn near every detail of the place has been diagrammed, exposed, recreated in blocky CGI, and analyzed to death. The famous inmates, the famous stories, the notorious cells and events from opening to the day the last prisoner left, it’s been told. Left behind are only little scraps of mystery, of things undiscovered that the imagination still maintains are lurking out on that rock.
If I go out there, maybe those scraps get swept away. Maybe it becomes all fact and memory and picture and plaque and tour guide lecture. Maybe there’s no place left on that island for the ghosts of my imagination to hide. And all things considered, that would be a sad thing indeed.
So I won’t get any closer than this. I’ll take the picture. I’ll think about what it shows, and what it doesn’t. And for that last bit, I’ll be thankful.