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Below are 20 journal entries, after skipping by the 20 most recent ones recorded in Richard Dansky's LiveJournal:

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    Sunday, June 15th, 2014
    9:57 pm
    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
    12:02 pm
    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 )
    11:57 am
    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 )
    11:54 am
    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 )
    11:52 am
    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
    10:39 pm
    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
    7:33 am
    Not Getting A Piece of the Rock
    2014-03-22 16.35.50

    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.

    And yet.

    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
    12:55 am
    On a Much Loved Book
    2014-04-03 09.29.37
    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.

    And yet.

    It’s probably got one more read in it. At least one more.

    We’ll see, won’t we.
    Monday, March 31st, 2014
    1:11 am
    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.
    1:07 am
    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
    10:28 pm
    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
    10:40 pm
    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
    12:01 am
    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.

    Enjoy!

    Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
    6:57 pm
    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).
    10:05 am
    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
    10:14 pm
    A Tale of Two Fairy Tales
    Friday night, my wife and I went to see a double feature at the Carolina Theater of Legend and Labyrinth. 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
    12:23 am
    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
    9:02 pm
    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
    10:34 am
    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
    6:14 pm
    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.
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