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|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.
|Friday, April 4th, 2014|
|On a Much Loved Book
This is my copy of Taran Wanderer
, by Lloyd Alexander. For a very long time it was perhaps my favorite book, and certainly my most often read one. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that a non-trivial portion of my younger self’s thoughts on life and creativity and all that good stuff was affected by this book. You will not necessarily succeed at your heart’s desire, the book says, though you will never know that unless you give it your best attempt. The easiest path isn’t always the best one. The best choice for others isn’t always the right one to make. Don’t find one thing you’re good at and stop there, or you’ll never find out what else you can do. Success is not achieved without hard work. Your early, unskilled efforts may well not be good enough, and that is reasonable and natural - learn from them and improve and the next ones may be better.
Heady stuff for a kid just figuring out that he was good with these “words” things and starting to get good at clarinet and trying his hand at some for-reals science and getting beaten up a lot and mainly trying to figure out who the hell he was and what he was supposed to do.
I confess, I didn’t take all of those lessons to heart, even the ones I knew were good ones. Some felt too hard. Some felt selfish to Much Younger Me. Some I didn’t necessarily have perspective on until later. But I always came back to Taran Wanderer
, because my inner Assistant Pig-Keeper never let me forget where those bits of me had come from.
This copy is going to its final resting place soon. It is old, and the cover is gone, and the spine is going. The pages are yellowing and frankly, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last as a physical artifact. And I have other copies of the Chronicles of Prydain, sturdier ones in better shape, and I suppose if I really wanted to I could get an eBook version as well, but, honestly, that’s not the point.
This is the one I read in third grade, after I’d chewed through Narnia during a bout of chicken pox and demanded more of the same. This is the one I went back to in fifth grade, and the year after, and the year after that. This is the one I’ve carried through my adult life, to where I sit now, and to where it sits next to me.
It’s probably got one more read in it. At least one more.
We’ll see, won’t we.
|Monday, March 31st, 2014|
|Not Finding Bigfoot 2: The Return
So there are a lot of things that I could write about here tonight. Serious stuff. GDC-related stuff. Writerly stuff. Maybe even a light-hearted recitation of the wacky misadventures that befell the brilliant and charming Melinda and myself when we went to buy a mattress for our guest bedroom today.
But instead, I’ll give you this
. Because if Animal Planet isn’t going to give me grainy sasquatch-themed footage without any actual sasquatches on a Sunday night, by gum, I’m going to have to make it myself.
|GDC Thoughts - The Unexpected Case Of the Round Table In The Night
Something funny happened at the Game Writers’ Round Tables I hosted this year at GDC.
Now, I’ve been running these round tables for a while. This was, if my fuzzy memory serves, the eighth year the folks at GDC have kindly consented to let me gather up members of the scribblers’ tribe in a room to discuss techniques, concerns, process and other vagaries of game writing. They are generally well attended, and they are generally well reviewed (kayn-ahora for this year).
This year, we talked about a lot of different things across the three days. Portfolio building. Character-driven narrative construction. Working with voice actors. You name it. I always take notes at these things; after the show I collate them and send them out to all of the attendees. When I started collating today, a rough word count for the three sessions’ worth of stuff was close to 5000 words.
But what was just as interesting to me was what wasn’t talked about. In the early days of the round tables, there were a few topics we always zeroed in on. How do we convince teams that writing is important? How do we get a writer a seat at the table early on, so the narrative doesn’t feel tacked on? How do we start to interface with the rest of the team?
This year (and really, very little for the few years previously), there was none of that. The conversation we were having assumed narrative was important. It assumed that teams that wanted narrative would get writers on board and integrate them with the team. It assumed collaboration with level design and sound and creative direction.
The goals we had aspired to had become part of the landscape, baked into the conversation as a given.
Which, in the vernacular, is freaking awesome. Because it means that we can move past the basics to discuss other things. Because it means game narratives are starting from a better place in the production cycle. Because it means the industry’s going to let us do better work.
So is this it? Are we done? Absolutely not. There’s still miles to go before we sleep, at least when it comes to creating interactive narratives. There’s so much still left to do. But as an industry, collectively, we’re closer than we used to be.
And to me, that feels like winning.
|Tuesday, March 25th, 2014|
| Things That Happened At GDC (Random Shuffle)
So these things happened at GDC…
- Michelle Clough gave the blow-the-doors-off breakout talk of the Narrative Summit, and acquired the nickname “Atomic Ovaries” in the process. Go check out her talk on the Vault. I’ll wait. And you’ll understand.
- I may have offered a sip from my flask to the honorable Mayor of Baton Rouge, LA.
- Alexander Bevier did a great job of stepping up for the IGDA Writers’ SIG and ran a kick-ass edition of Write Club. The fact that the final question was about writing dialog for a gritty FPS about a vengeful cabbage whose family has been shredded (working title: Cole’s Law) is entirely beside the point. Bravo, Alex.
- There was orange wine. Three kinds of orange wine.
- Two of my favorite designers nearly got into a fight, and I’m not sure one of them even noticed.
- Roughly 84 Californians, very few of them native, asked me “When are you moving out here?” When I said “I’m not,” they looked very surprised.
- Over 70 people showed up for the last iteration of my Game Writers’ Round Table on Friday, during the last slot of the conference. I am humbly pleased that folks were that into the material.
- There was a playtest of Squatches and Scotches, my home-brew card game. We did it in a bar. Because it was GDC.
- The estimable Mark Nelson and I argued college basketball in front of internationally celebrated game designer Ken Rolston, whose transparent amusement at our hammer-and-tongs debate was one of the most genuine expressions of joy I saw all week.
- When it comes to college basketball, by the way, Mark Nelson is still wrong.
- After innumerable years of saying “someday I’m going to…” I finally took a look around the Contemporary Jewish Museum, around the corner from the Moscone Center. It took maybe an hour. (But it was worth it for the Lobel exhibit alone.)
- One of the security personnel at Moscone West told me, “I appreciate your enthusiasm.” Seriously.
- Had breakfast with Nicole Lazzaro and Lee Sheldon, which made me feel a lot like the Sheriff character on Eureka, brain-wise. Wow. The smartness.
- Many people whom I admire as professional peers did terrible things to my book.
- The legendary Brenda Romero had multiple slides in her PPT presentation featuring asparagus.
- I bought Hal Barwood’s book. You should, too.
- There was a moment during an interview where I actually had to pull out the “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you” line.
- The game writing crowd found a new bar and promptly drank it out of most of its scotch. Monkey Shoulder, we hardly knew ye.
- Some people did some really disturbing things with milkshakes.
- I discovered the downside to staying at a hotel with hall bathrooms and showers is that it has hall bathrooms and showers. Especially if the shower is next to your room and two of your hall mates like showering together.
- People ate the roast beef in the conference lunches. This was a mistake.
- Steve Meretzky promised to show me 100 places with better drinks than the Tadich Grill. 98 to go. Next year, then…
|Saturday, March 15th, 2014|
|Concert Thoughts: Drive-By Truckers
When I went to see Drive-By Truckers’ guitarist Mike Cooley’s solo show in Chapel Hill last year, the audience was a problem. Which is to say they were in large part less of an audience and more of a bunch of people standing around expecting Cooley to provide background music to their conversations, to the point where the man had to tell people to pipe the hell down on multiple occasions.
So when the Truckers more-or-less kicked off the tour for their new album, “English Oceans” in Raleigh tonight, they decided to make sure that wasn’t going to be a problem. And the way they addressed this was by playing so goddamn loud, it didn’t matter if anyone was talking or not, because you weren’t going to hear a damn thing except the music.
Which was, apart from a few early tracks where they pretty much overpowered the sound board with badassery, just fine.
Lots of flannel at the show. Lots of dad shirts bought at thrift shops by people wearing mesh trucker caps. Lots of beards.
None of them, however, compared to DBTs drummer Brad Morgan’s. That, my friends, is the majestic Niagara of beards. How he avoided getting his sticks tangled in it is beyond my comprehension.
I think the encore was nine songs. I lost count. But we got “Zip City” and “Shut Up And Get On the Plane” and “Lookout Mountain” and, well, damn. Nine songs. Thats a set for some bands I’ve seen.
The first time I saw the DBTs, they were still trying to figure out their sound in the post-Jason Isbell era. (Note: All stories about the DBTs have at least one mandatory reference to Isbell’s leaving the band. This is mine.) It was an ugly, snowy night at the Lincoln Theater, and the crowd half past drunk before they hit the stage, and to be honest, there was an Isbell-shaped hole in the sound. Like they were still trying to figure out how the arrangements were going to work without that triple guitar attack. It was a good show, but it wasn’t the transcendent musical experience I’d been hoping for.
Like I said, it felt like there was a hole in their sound.
Tonight, there wasn’t a hole. They’ve figured out what they’re supposed to sound like, which is a kick-ass rock band that happens to be from Alabama. They got rid of their flirtations with steel guitar. They had Jay Gonzalez splitting time between guitar and keys, recreating a version of that three-headed monster they used to have. They had a bassist in Matt Patton who looked really, really happy to be there. And they just plugged it all in and went for it, and it worked in a way it hadn’t worked that first time.
Damn, my ears are still ringing.
I think this show may have set a record for most second hand pot smoke I’ve absorbed at a concert. There was enough getting lit up to fog the stage lights.
They played a lot off the new album, “English Oceans”, which was apparently was the highest charting album of the band’s career in its first week. The went to the well for songs like “Steve McQueen” and “Ronnie and Neil”. They pretty much split lead vocals down the middle between Cooley and Patterson Hood, who looks like a younger, healthier version of Dan Harmon. They had Jay Gonzalez take a bunch of the guitar solos. And they let Morgan take the last bow. And all of them were grinning like maniacs all the way through it, clearly having a good time, even when the sweat was flying off them so thick they needed to towel off onstage.
Was it a perfect show? Naah. Like I said, the sound was muddy at times. There were a couple of weird feedback issues. It was a first night, with all that implied.
But it was a great show.
Outside the Ritz (which is a converted warehouse in downtown Raleigh and decidedly not ritzy), someone had set up a food truck selling Mexican food. On the way in, business looked slow, with everyone lining up for tickets (presages were capped) and afraid of losing their place in line and thus not getting in. It was, truth be told, a pretty packed show.
On the way out, they were doing land office business.
Which, in hindsight, made sense.
|Thursday, March 6th, 2014|
|Book Reviews For All and Sundry
One of my long-running side gigs has been as a book reviewer at Green Man Review and its sister magazine, Sleeping Hedgehog. (I’m not quite sure what the family tree that produces a Green Man and a hedgehog actually looks like, but I don’t judge).
In any case, the reviewing engine has revved back up after a bit of a fallow period, with a multi-barreled set posted over at GMR today. The reviews include:
Death’s Apprentice, by Jeter & Jefferson
Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, by Golden and Mignola
Brazen, by Kelley Armstrong
and the steampunk classic Homunculus, by James P. Blaylock.
|Wednesday, March 5th, 2014|
|Help My Favorite Data Scientist Out
Want to help out my favorite data scientist? Want to be entered to win Valuable Prizes (TM)? Then take a minute to fill out a short survey
on book-buying habits. (Seriously. It's short. Like, "two pages long and that's it" short).
|Film Thoughts: Margin Call
The most interesting thing to me about Margin Call is that it’s shot like a horror movie. Look at the visual palette and it’s all icy blues and whites. Sunlight is harsh and alien; what these people do they do in the dark, lit only by the artificial light of their monitors and overhead fluorescents.
And make no mistake, it is a horror movie. The story of a thinly fictionalized Lehman Brothers in the hours before, during and after the sell-off of worthless assets that catalyzed the economic crash of 2008. The traders, played by an all-star cast of mostly men, are not overtly monstrous. When Zachary Quinto’s hapless quant explains to the emergency meeting of the board that their financial model is screwed, there’s no yelling or shouting or Mametian verbal pyrotechnics, because there’s no need. These denizens of the trading pit are just creatures who’ve lost their humanity one transaction at a time, and who largely seem unaware of this fact.
Kevin Spacey’s senior trader is perhaps the most human of the bunch, and his concern is for the firm and for the people working under him, whose careers the firm is going to wreck because they’re going to be selling of trash. The people outside of the walls of the firm don’t exist; the only emotional connection Spacey has is to his dying dog. Even his son is someone other characters have to constantly remind him of. And he’s the most human. Everyone else - Demi Moore’s sacrificial victim, Stanley Tucci’s disgusted quant, Paul Bettany’s self-absorbed would-be maven - is too fully a part of the machine, or recognizes there’s no point in fighting it so they might as well play along. Why not? They’re still getting paid to, even as they’re getting chewed up and spit out.
And when it all comes down, when the company has sold itself and the schnooks working the phones are being marched out of the building before their phones even get cold, that’s when the two most powerful scenes in the movie hit. Spacey confronts his boss (Jeremy Irons) and quits in a fit of vague sympathy for his people, and is told quite calmly that no, he’ll be staying on for a couple of years because he’s needed. Oh, and not to worry, he’ll be well compensated, and really, all this is cyclical and it doesn’t really matter and the proportions of rich and poor are always going to stay the same and it’s just a question of who the labels are assigned to. All the while, he’s at dinner - fine wine, white tablecloth, white china, fine steak - and he never stops chewing. Never stops consuming long enough to address his valued, needed long-time comrade with his full attention, instead spewing the spiel which he clearly believes and which hindsight lets us know irrefutably is pure bullshit. As for Spacey, he crumbles. Gives in. Because, dammit, he needs the money, because he’s divorced and his dying dog is costing him a fortune and the one gesture of defiance he makes he has to retract on because after all these years of rolling in dough for a living, he still needs the goddamn money.
Then there’s the last scene. He’s at his house, his former house, digging a grave in the front yard for his dog. His ex wife comes out, and talks with him a while, and reassures him that his son got out of all the market chaos all right - not that he’d checked. And then she remembers herself, and remembers him, and she closes up her bathrobe, which had slipped a little bit open. She tells Spacey - out there on that lawn, half-lit in the icy blue of his expensive car, half lit in the warm yellow of the porch lamp of a house where he is no longer welcome - that he can stay out here, but she’s going back inside. That she’s turning the alarm back on. That he can’t come in.
That’s where it ends, which is about perfect. Because it is a horror movie after all.
|Monday, March 3rd, 2014|
|A Tale of Two Fairy Tales
Friday night, my wife and I went to see a double feature at the Carolina Theater of Legend
. One of these two has aged well. One of them hasn’t.Legend
, directed by Ridley Scott, is by far the better made film. It’s gorgeous, full of striking tableaus and artfully composed shots. And it’s awful. The script, by William Hjortsberg, is a godawful mess of cliche, illogic, and discontinuity. Tom Cruise, who wears no pants in the entire movie, spends it all either crouching, doing backflips, or grinning like he’s auditioning for a part in Wolf
. Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness lives in a hollow tree five minutes from the enchanted forest, and his only minions are three goblins, some kitchen staff, and a choreographer. Mia Sara’s Princess Lily is a horror; the fact that she is vacant-faced pretty and wears a nice dress does not make up for the fact that her willful decision to muck with the unicorns got a baby flash-frozen. (Let me repeat that: DEAD BABY. You don’t deserve a fairy tale ending if your stupid crap results in DEAD BABY.) Everything is covered in glitter and moves in slow motion, and what isn’t covered in glitter is covered in fake snow or fake flower petals or - ugh. Hell, even Evil’s hooves have glitter on them.Labyrinth
, by contrast, has the feel of a Muppet production, even if it doesn’t feature any of the usual suspects. It’s wildly uneven in places, the musical numbers (with the exception of the ball sequence and David Bowie’s closing plea) tend to derail the film’s momentum, and whoever thought letting Bowie wear tights like that in what’s putatively a kids’ movie was out of their minds. (My friend Paul came to the movie in order to play the David Bowie Codpiece Drinking Game - take a swig every time the Goblin King’s little goblin is front and center. He ran out of beer halfway through the film).
Yet there’s undeniable power and subtlety there. The sequence with the garbagewoman loading down heroine Sara with the detritus of her childhood is chilling. The visual design of the labyrinth and the creatures dwelling within it is endlessly delightful, as opposed to Legend’s
rote critters. And at the end, when Sara confronts the Goblin King and his offer for her to remain safely a child forever - because that’s what he’s really offering, a permanent escape into fantasy and away from adult responsibility - she shows more strength and self-awareness than a half dozen “strong female leads” who are largely defined by their ability to punch people in the neck. She’s in control when the movie ends; of herself and her life, and it’s now safe for her to indulge in the world of fantasy because it’s her active decision to do.
Not bad for a bunch of Muppets.
|Friday, February 28th, 2014|
|A Shockingly Short Interview With Lucien Soulban
Lucien Soulban is one of my oldest and dearest friends in the industry. We go back a long, long way - he wrote the item descriptions for the Wraith 2nd Storyteller Screen for me, and despite the edits I gave him, he’s still speaking to me.
And as such, it was a real pleasure to take the opportunity to interview him for the UbiBlog, and to get his typically sharp, insightful take on things both serious and silly. Enjoy
|Monday, February 24th, 2014|
|10 Things You Learn From A Case Of Norovirus
1-True Detective makes way, waaaaay more sense when you’ve got a spiking fever and the cats are leaving vapor trails as they zip around the room.
2-The couch has not yet been made that is big enough for two people with simultaneous cases of norovirus. Best case scenario is that you sit at opposite ends and make feeble slapping motions at one another while mumbling “Go away. You’re icky.” Worst case scenario is that you both try simultaneously.
3-There is only so much SportsCenter one human being can take, even one for whom reaching for the remote is a herculean effort. New scientific studies put it at roughly 35 minutes, give or take how many Jon Gruden segments they show.
4-One of these days, someone is going to bundle up the norovirus experience as an “all-natural biotic cleanse and intense weight loss program”. They will then spend all the money they make from that in hell.
5-Throwing up takes practice. Otherwise, it becomes the most terrifying ab workout of your life.
6-At a certain point in the proceedings, your sheets will smell like dude. Just accept this.
7-Ancient Aliens, on the other hand, makes way more sense when you haven’t eaten solid food for four days.
8-It is not possible to have too much soup in the house. Whatever you’ve got, stop reading this and go out and get more. Just in case. You might need it.
9-Reading is only a fun activity if you can get your eyes to focus and your brain to stop running the bass line from “Twilight Zone” on endless loop. Otherwise, you’ve got maybe a paragraph, tops before you’ve forgotten who exactly GRRM’s gotten stabbed on this page and you have to start it all over again.
10-If you and your spouse both have this and you’re locked up together in your living quarters for a week non-stop, and you’re still referring to each other with terms other than “Cursed Plague Dog Of the Netherpits” and “Person Who Would Look Good With A Giant Stab Hole In Their Face”, you have something special. Cherish it.
|Friday, February 14th, 2014|
|A Modest Thought
"I do X and it worked out for me" is a reasonable position to take.
"I do X, it worked out for me and you could benefit from trying it" is also a reasonable position to take.
"I do X and you are a horrible human being worthy only of contempt if you don’t do X, too" is not a reasonable position.
"I do X and anyone who has a reasonable argument for why they don’t do X as well is clearly a lying elitist bastard with an agenda, while my position is fueled only by visions of an altruistic utopia wherein we all frolic endlessly in fields of daffodils" is not a reasonable position, and if expounded on too far, may require professional intervention.
In summation: If you have found a thing that works for you, great. If you want to share that thing with folks because you genuinely think it’s worth sharing, great. If you’re going to demonize everyone who disagrees with you, crap on any data that doesn’t agree with your position, and behave like a cult leader looking for disciples, you’re a jackass.
Fanatics, regardless of held position, generally make lousy company.
|Wednesday, February 12th, 2014|
|On Driving In Snow...
Important safety tip for my fellow Triangle drivers: cutting your wheel and gunning it is the wrong thing to do. Always. Cutting your wheel, gunning it, feeling yourself skid and then correcting by cutting your wheel hard the other way and gunning it again is also the wrong thing to do. Continuing to do this multiple times is several wrong things to do, all stacked on top of each other.In unrelated news, I hope the lady in the Lexus over on Aviation Blvd. who nearly took out six of us while fishtailing all over the place made it home safely and without clobbering anyone else.
|Saturday, January 25th, 2014|
|The Kermit Test: A Game Writer's Friend
Every so often, the fine folks at UbiBlog let me ascend the stage to discuss a topic near and dear to my heart: game writing. The latest installment got unleashed today, and it looks a little something like this
And before you ask, yes, that is Kermit the Frog's head photoshopped onto Sam Fisher's body. It's pertinent. I swear.
|Thursday, January 23rd, 2014|
|Snow and the South
So here’s the thing about snow and the south.
Yes, an inch of snow is enough to send the whole region screeching to a halt, which is pretty funny until you’re living in it. Because, yes, it’s just an inch. But the difference between no snow and an inch of snow in an area that isn’t used to it is a hell of a lot bigger than the difference between nine inches and ten in an area that is. An inch of snow on the ground in an area that doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot of snow removal equipment (because how often does it get used) means that the inch of snow is going to be sitting there a while in some parts of the region, which means it’s going to get crunched into a half inch of ice. And let’s not forget the folks who didn’t grow up driving with snow, who don’t have an instinctive feel for it, trying to get home or get their kids at school or whatever in that.
Now, I freely confess there is absolutely no excuse for the grocery store panic that grips the region every time the word “snow” gets uttered. Why the possibility of accumulation makes everyone pelt to the nearest Food Lion to grab all the milk, bread, eggs, batteries and condoms they can is beyond me - it’s not like the snow generally sticks around long enough for the milk to even think about going yogurt. And the folks who stubbornly insist that since they have SUVs, they don’t need to learn the difference between black ice and dry road, well, you need to get your heads out of your asses, toot suite, because the rest of us don’t appreciate getting held up by a blocked intersection after you pirouette through a stop light and into a four-car pileup. That stuff, frankly, deserves to get made fun of, or would if it weren’t so bloody dangerous.
But yeah, it all boils down to an inch of snow is a rare and exotic thing down here, and it gets handled as well as a rare and exotic thing - like, say, a hurricane slamming the Jersey shore - gets handled anywhere else. So if we could all dial back on the reflexive contempt for stuff that seems goofy only outside of context, we all might be a little happier.
And a little warmer, too.
|Wednesday, January 15th, 2014|
|On Virtual Love Interests: Vaporware and Her
In Spike Jonze’s new movie Her, a schlubby writer, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls for his operating system. You can’t really blame him. For one thing, the OS is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. For another, she’s programmed to be compatible with him. To match his wants and his needs. To make his life easier and his interactions with her uncomplicated and undemanding. And this is particularly alluring because relationships with real people are messy. They have jagged edges and they require work and you don’t always get everything you want as soon as you want it. Even in the most loving, equal partnership, there are points of contention and hidden land mines, moments of disagreement that can render you frustrated or angry or irritated. Hollywood may package up romance as seamless and zipless, but the person you wake up next to in the morning is a person, with their own wants and needs and dislikes. Theirs will never align precisely with yours; just as importantly, yours will never align with theirs. And so if you’re raised by movies to expect that once you find the love of your life, or even the love of the next six hours, it’s all slo-mo montages and near-psychic agreement, you’re going to get a rude surprise the second you discover that your partner’s wants and needs are just as valid as your own, and that you’re going to have to put in honest effort to support and sustain what you have.
That, in large part, was what I was trying to get at in VAPORWARE. The protagonist, Ryan, has relationships with multiple people in his life, and they’re hard. They take effort, to give the person in the relationship what they require or expect. Whether that’s the love and attention he needs to give his partner or the professional and personal respect he needs to give his ex or the friendship he needs to show his best buddy, all of them demand that he make an effort on someone else’s behalf or give up something he wants. What it is he actually wants is unimportant; what matters is that in dealing with the people who are theoretically important to him, he can’t have everything and he can’t have it right away, or he’s going to lose them as parts of his life.
And that’s where Blue Lightning comes from. The game asks him to give up nothing that he wants. There are no compromises, no learning curves or missteps or forgotten anniversaries or moments when he needs to subjugate his desires to Blue Lightning’s. All he needs to surrender is time, and who could possibly begrudge time spent at work? That’s doing something important.It’s the easiest thing to keep doing that, especially if your relationships outside of work are more demanding than the ones on the inside.
Which means, ultimately, that Her and Vaporware are circling the same problem from two very different directions. Her is a marshmallow apocalypse, people sinking into effortless comfort and away from one another. Vaporware is about the cost of people falling into that sort of relationship, particularly the cost to people who are not themselves falling.
You may of course, be asking why I’m choosing now to write about Vaporware. After all, it’s been out for a while. I have new projects. Surely there’s something else to talk about. But sometimes things fall together a certain way. Her came out. Adam Shaftoe wrote a very sharp review of the book that nailed all the points I had been trying to make. And everything came together.
So. Is Vaporware like Her? No. But they’re different aspects of the same issue, different fictional takes on the latest iteration of that age-old question “How are we going to talk to each other?” Read the book, see the movie. Maybe you’ll figure it out. I certainly haven’t.
|Wednesday, January 8th, 2014|
|When Jerkfaces Ruin the Woo
I watch Finding Bigfoot voluntarily, so feel free to dismiss anything you read here.
One of the reasons I watch Finding Bigfoot is that, at it’s core, it’s a positive show. Yes, Matt Moneymaker pulls new “documented” sasquatch behaviors out of his butt at a moment’s notice, and yes Bobo appears to be baked in half the episodes, and yes, their techniques occasionally appear designed to warn any potential sasquatches that it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge because the circus is in town, but still. They’re out there looking and exploring and genuinely hoping to add something to the human experience, and they generally do it cheerfully and politely and with occasional vague nods to things like “science”.
That, in a nutshell, is why I find it bearable week to week, even when they’re looking at footage of what is clearly someone who is engaging in Wookie cosplay and declaring it genuine. They’re not vicious and they’re not mean (except Matt on occasion*, but with hair like that, who can blame him) and, gosh darn it, they’re even plucky.
And then you get to crap like Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed, and everything changes. Because they’re not there to find anything new. Oh, no. Those guys have already found everything they’re looking for, whether it’s the incontrovertible fact that the Pyramids at Giza were actual a Tron-like power station that was also a death ray or that Vikings definitely colonized Oklahoma. Anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, they’re also actively evil - part of a conspiracy to cover up The Truth And Keep It From You. (The idea of a conspiracy of archaeologists, who generally can’t agree on where to have lunch, sitting in a star chamber and deciding what knowledge to allow is one of the more hysterical ones conjured by the show). The folks on those shows are Noble Crusaders For Truth, and anyone who disagrees with them - even if it’s just a guy espousing a different goofball conspiracy theory - is tainted with evil.
And then there’s what is at best anti-human racism, and at worst something really unpleasant bubbling underneath. The core premise of both Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed is that “the people who lived in place X back in the day couldn’t possibly have been advanced enough to create Y”. In Ancient Aliens' case, they credit the assist to what appear to be extras from Babylon 5; with America Unearthed it’s generally Europeans or Egyptians. In either case, the one hypothesis that gets dismissed immediately is that the folks who lived there at the time made the stuff using, I don’t know, hard work and gumption and smartness and stuff like that. It is, in a word, disturbing, especially since there’s plenty of evidence that in every case the locals were perfectly capable of - and should get credit for - doing the deed.
I understand the appeal of the woo. It’s great fun to imagine undiscovered mysteries and brave explorers and stories still untold. And, in a perfect world where a guy who looks like Londo Molari’s unsuccessful kid brother would not have a television series that ran for multiple seasons, potentially anomalous artifacts and structures would get explored in the spirit of wonder and the pursuit of knowledge that characterizes the best of scientific pursuits. I’d love to have a show where there’s a serious look at the possible history of Vinland, and actual analysis of weird rocks and structures. I’d love to see a show that genuinely explored Cahokia. Hell, I’d love a show that took a serious look at Mystery Hill and then presented its conclusions based on the facts, as opposed to stomping in convinced that it was a mixed Celtic-Phoenecian clambake in the hills of New Hampshire because of misunderstood archaeoastronomy with a side of sweet potato fries.
Instead, we get petty-minded bullying and weasel language and a mix of entitled persecution complexes and oblivious wishcasting. And while I’m sure those on the inside are cheering on their jut-jawed paranoid heroes for sticking it to The Man at 2 AM on basic cable (The Man, incidentally, has apparently infiltrated the Smithsonian, where He has masterminded a plan to mysteriously lose all the rocks proving that Oklahoma was colonized by alien vikings) and enjoying being along for the ride, I’m just saddened.
And a little disgusted.
And not watching any more.*Moneymaker’s legendary “THERE’S NOWHERE FOR THE OWL TO SIT!” rants have been toned back and the discussions of the “evidence” have moved largely to conditionals. Not perfect, but it’s a start.
|Monday, December 23rd, 2013|
|Scenes From a Vacation In the Uwharries
"So you’re going up looking for Bigfoot?" said the man at the apple orchard. We’d pulled in on a whim and been seduced by the wide array of varietals offered up for our delectation; naturally we were going to buy a bunch. And while Melinda and Lynne picked out apples, I talked to Bob the counterman. He’d been working there a few years, he said; he found it relaxing, and it basically took two and a half guys to do all the work of the orchard. Previously, he’d had some sort of mysterious occupation that involved moving around the southwest a lot; he slid off further questions and I didn’t push. But when we told him we were headed up to the Uwharries, he asked if we were going for Bigfoot. "In theory," I told him, and everyone got a big laugh. "I don’t think we’ll be looking too hard,"
And then Bob was telling us about the cider and the wine cake, and we bought some of that too, and then piled back into the car. We were losing daylight, and the cabin we’d rented was - as we had been told - up seven miles of dirt road, and we were making the journey in stages: Home to Devil’s Tramping Ground, Devil’s Tramping Ground to the orchard, orchard to Troy, the gateway town for the Uwharries I’d visited in the summer, and Troy to the cabin.
It never did occur to any of us to ask why he’d asked us about Bigfoot.
Devil’s Tramping Ground is a legend. A circular patch of ground south of Siler City where nothing’s grown for centuries, where Ol’ Nick himself supposedly walks around at night thinking up literal deviltry, where objects left in the circle overnight are supposedly flung out by a mysterious force.
We had directions there printed out from a web site.
Pull over, they said, at the parking area on your left. The Tramping Ground is down a path 150 or so feet into the woods. Be respectful - it’s on private property. Bring a trash bag and maybe clean up a bit if you see anything.
We pulled over. We pulled out. We walked up the path into a clearing, where someone had set up a campfire the night before. Burned cans of paint sat in the ashes, evidence of huffing. Beer cans and soda bottles were everywhere, and various paths led off in various directions. There was nothing visible that looked remotely tramped, or devilish.
So we headed off down one path, lured by what looked like a clearing up ahead. That turned out to be an optical illusion, so we went down another path, and another one (which led us back to the first one) and another one, and by this time we were all getting a little nervous about whether we’d pulled in at the wrong place or some such, when I did the painful, obvious thing.
I went to the web site where we’d gotten the directions, my phone somehow miraculously pulling bars. I called up the page of pictures of the Tramping Ground.
And I saw it was the sandy clearing with the campfire and the huffed paint cans in it.
We went back. We posed for pictures. We cleaned up some bottles and cans, as it seemed like the right thing to do. Lynne found a small stone circle someone had obviously set up with great care for a smaller fire - and by “small” I mean maybe 2 feet across. And that was that, the mystery I’d been telling myself I’d go see for nearly fifteen years.
"Go on ahead and see if there’s anything interesting," Melinda said. We were up a hillside along a path, looking vaguely for a map feature called "Nifty Rocks", and she and Lynne were sitting on a fallen log. Up ahead the trail supposedly made a small loop.
"Like a gazelle," I said, and went on. Jeff came with me, and we hit the loop trail almost instantly. Left, we decided, for no good reason, and started walking. According to the map, the trail went along the edge of the lake; what we found instead was that it went along the top of bluffs by the edge of the lake, but maybe twenty feet back from the edge and screened by trees. Not as scenic as one would hope, so we pressed on looking for something more interesting.
Meanwhile. it turned out that more than five minutes had passed. Lynne and Melinda got a little worried about their vanished husbands. They followed us along the path, but didn’t catch up. THey tried calling us, but we’d sensibly turned off our cell phones to save battery life. And they tried sasquatch calls, figuring we’d hear those and respond.
We did not hear them. Neither, apparently, did any local sasquatches.
So they turned back. And we trundled on, oblivious to the time. Eventually, we hit a landmark sign that said, simple, “Big Rock”. And it was, a boulder formation jutting out of the top of the hill. We gravitated to it, of course. Took some pictures. Looked around. And then realized we’d completely lost the path.
Now, we knew we were inside a loop. We knew we’d hit the path sooner or later. We had a decent idea of which way we’d come from, and there was plenty of light left. But still, cutting through the forest on a best guess, two horror writers against a tiny patch of wilderness passing ravines and landmarks that most assuredly were not on our map…
And then, suddenly, we found the path, and we heard noises.
Sasquatch calls. From our wives. Who were not pleased with us at all.
And who insisted in immediately going back on the path, but taking the part of the loop we hadn’t.
We didn’t make it back to Big Rock. We never saw Nifty Rocks (or Kodak Rock, another landmark on the map). I’m not sure Lynne and Melinda believe Big Rock exists. But the next day, we all stayed together and we all stayed on the path.
The sign said there was a dam, one of those brown signs that generally indicates things in parks your supposed to go see. So we kept on down the road looking for it, hoping there’d be a nice view or a parking lot or something. And we didn’t see it, and we kept going down that dirt road, which got increasingly more rutted and rocky, and Melinda, who’d grown up driving those roads, became increasingly concerned about the fact that we were down a Park Service Road covered in rocks and gullies in a 2007 Camry Hybrid, which had most assuredly not been designed for such things. Sensibly, she made noises about turning around. Less sensibly, I pointed out we hadn’t seen the dam, so we should keep going. Sensibly, she made louder noises about turning around, which may or may not have culminated in a declaration of intent to seize the wheel, throw me out of the car, and head back to civilization with Jeff and Lynne.
I turned the car round. And there, through the trees, we saw the dam, and the waterfall spilling down its side. It was well off the road, which had been following roughly the edge of the Yadkin River, and there was nothing scening or hikeable or accessible about it.
But it was there, and we saw it. And then we headed back, looking for an easier path.
Seven miles of dirt road. That’s what the directions said. Turn onto the road into the park north of Troy on 109, and then the fun would begin. It was well after dark when we left Troy, the car crammed with groceries and us and our stuff. We had no idea where the turn was, and checking road signs at 45 miles an hour on a twisty country highway was not something our screenburned eyes were good at. Eventually we pulled over and looked at the map, and figured the turn was just over the Uwharrie River. So we kept an eye out for the river, and when we found it, kept an eye out for the turn, and when we made it, still nearly ended up in a ditch because it was goddamn dark and the road spun off at an angle.
Then, seven miles of dirt road. Dirt and rock, really. Sometimes one lane wide. Dark. Up and down hills. Watching for turns, jokingly watching for sasquatches. Seeing warnings for OTV trails and worrying that either offroaders or deer were going to lurch out of the darkness. And of course checking the odometer - has it been seven miles yet? How about now?
We missed the last turn, of course, largely because it looked like an ATV path and not a road. Beyond it was a trailhead and a parking lot; we turned around there and nearly took the belly off the Camry crossing a rain gully in the hard-packed dirt. Then back and down the turn - a look at that turn in daylight had us cringing that we’d tried it - and up a steeper hill with looser dirt than we’d seen before, with the Camry giving it all it had before we finally crested the top and found, there, the cabin.
And we pulled up, and we unloaded, and Melinda said, “Tomorrow, if you want, I can drive.”