Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rune Factory 3 : Living as a Slave

I have the same problem with both Rune Factory as Animal Crossing : they're games I shouldn't enjoy nearly as much as I do.  In essence, they simulate being tied to the land and the people around you.  In this age of the Internet Community, it's a little scary to think about what that means.

In Rune Factory, I stay friends with people, as long as I make the effort to speak to them every day, and give them gifts on their birthday.  This is not entirely true to life, since I've missed a real friend's birthday for 3 years in a row and she somehow doesn't hate me, but it's a simplistic view of what's involved : relationships, of all kinds, take effort.  Animal Crossing is the same.  In fact, if you don't speak to a character for a number of days in a row, there's a chance they'll even leave town.  Harsh.

While Animal Crossing is all about keeping your town pretty and paying off a mortgage, Rune Factory takes it one step further.  You grow plants in your farm, which you can sell or use for crafting.  In addition to this, you get quests from the townsfolk, and can go dungeon-delving with a friend at your side.  Rune Factory 3 has even been extended for multiplayer.  I don't know about you, but watching my boyfriend and I hop around the screen as little yellow Woolies (read : sheep) on an adventure in the forest is about as much cuteness as I can take.

But it's the social interactions that keep me hooked.  Sure, it's frustrating that each character only has one thing to say on a given day, and, sure, Rune Factory 3 is essentially a dating sim, like all of the other Rune Factory games, only this time I'm locked into being a boy (albeit a cute one who turns into a sheep~~).  But the more time you spend with a character, the more they'll open up to you.  The shy girl you meet on your first day who won't say a word will eventually say something sweet or astounding.  The lazy girl will turn out to have grand aspirations.  Even the characters you can't ever date are revealed to have hidden facets to their personality.

It's compressed and easy socialising.  It's Facebook without all the spam.  I know Collette likes food, so if I give her food, she'll be happy.  Some of the other girls are more complex, but they give me hints.  They like me if I talk to them, and are disappointed if I don't.  There's nowhere near the amount of to-ing and fro-ing that comes with a real friendship, and none of the arguments.  I wonder if that makes me a little shallow, but I do have real life friends.  They're just not accessible at the flick of a power switch.  They're also not dismissible by the same.

I guess it's the same as real-life pets.  They're cute until they vomit on your new carpet.  The in-game thing is so much easier, cuter, never grows up and can be turned off.  Our cat keeps us awake all night if she feels like it.  Still, no amount of stroking a glass or plastic screen can compare to the softness of her fur, or the happiness I get when she lies down beside me and purrs me to sleep.  Friends aren't as close as all that, but I know I'd go crazy if I only had Rune Factory.

I do feel a little guilty, though, when I'm at a social gathering I'd rather not be attending, and I take out my DS to socialise in a different way.  For shame, you may say.  For comfort, I'll reply.  We no longer have neighbours, but strangers, and our tribes of people collected by interest are nowhere within reach.  Somehow, in the snowglobe world of mobile gaming, those little 2D people seem more real, and infinitely closer.  Despite my love of games and all they entail, I still find that a little sad.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My life as an ARG

I've been AWOL for some time now, but, rest assured, it was not all in vain.  I had the delight and fortuitous circumstance to be able to attend the Game Developer's Conference Online in Austin, Texas at the beginning of October, and I intend to share my notes, similar to the chronicling that I undertook for WorldCon.  Here, however, is a brief list of my favourite presentations, free to access on the GDC Vault, and so wonderfully informative and thrilling that I can't believe I never attended the conference before.

My favourite top pick (video):
Dr. Richard BartleMUD: Messrs Bartle & Trubshaw's Astonishing Contrivance

"Almost all today's MMOs are direct descendents of MUD, yet few developers have played it. This talk, by one of MUD's two co-authors, describes the thinking behind its design and corrects some of the commonly-held misconceptions about what it must have been like to play. It also explains why it is that although MMO development has advanced dramatically since 1978 there are still some areas where early MUDs were more capable than today's behemoths. The present can learn from the past; the good old days are yet to come."

Executive summary: Absolutely fantastic coverage of the entire speech by Leigh Alexander here, but basically, today's designers are lazy.  

My second favourites (slides only):
Marleigh Norton(D) None of the Above: Interactive Dialogue Without Multiple Choice (currently broken?)

"Once upon a time, there was a girl who liked video games. She played pirates and emperors and third-person omniscient beings, but in spite of all that, she noticed whenever it came time to talk to someone, her games turned into third grade multiple choice tests. And she wondered why that was. Now that she is a grown-up -- or at least can often pass for one -- she has given this matter some thought and come up with several alternatives. Some are finished games, some are demos, some are just sketches, but none of them work if you just pick C. Please come steal her ideas."

Executive summary: Sometimes the best narrative designers aren't writers.  Moderating incoming hate mail in 3, 2, 1...

Tim Cain - I'm a Special Snowflake: The Art of Participatory Storytelling in MMOs

"Join Carbine Studios Design Director Tim Cain, as he draws on his 30 year game development career to discuss the art of taking storytelling from single-player RPGs to the world of massively multiplayer online games. Drawing on his experiences crafting storyline for titles like FALLOUT, ARCANUM and more, well discuss several different approaches that developers have to craft a story that is both accessible and immersive, with candid evaluation of the state of storytelling in today's massively multiplayer online games."

Executive summary: This is the MMO I want to play.  Right now.  
Otherwise known as: We need to make better use of instances to support the player in creating a unique experience that they can call their own, e.g. why aren't MMOs more like single-player games?

As for the title of this post, I'm currently teaching myself ActionScript 3, with the help of Todd Perkins of Lynda Library, and a very patient friend who disdainfully teaches it in lieu of 'real programming' because some of us don't like C++.  Now that I'm trying to wrap my head around the internal logic of what's going on - as you may have seen by my previous disastrous attempt at learning to program - I'm starting to notice behaviours in the real world that I'm wondering about in code.

Simple behaviours like stopping at a light when it's red and going when it's green are comparatively simple to create, when compared to another function which might decide that the person crossing the road is running late and wants to cross even though the light is red.  However, both of these people would be of the same class type, just with certain functions enabled or disabled.  So if I have a robot that does certain things, and I have a baby robot that doesn't do anything, baby robot is just an on/off switch within the robot class that disables all of its other functions, apart from existing.  That's a pretty holistic view of humanity.  No wonder so many programmers are so tolerant.  Well, with things that aren't programming-related.

Some time ago, I started reading The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, and I found it very informative.  Why, when you choose the wrong option at the ATM, must you begin the transaction again?  Why do we still have a folder structure for file browsing when it doesn't really make that much sense when you think about it?  Why has Fable 3 gone for NO HUD AT ALL?

OzCHI - the Human Computer Interaction conference - is taking place in Brisbane soon, and I think it might be a good chance to get some of those HCI geniuses and combine them with the brilliance of people like Morgan Jaffit and Matt Ditton.  Just like Marleigh Norton came up with excellent ways of providing dialogue, without calling herself a writer, HCI and computer games have a lot to discuss.  I have no HUD in real life - I want one in my games.  If I had a health bar, I wouldn't spend so long agonising over whether or not to go see the doctor.  

And, really, it's this dissection into components that is making all of this more apparent.  I don't claim to understand programming in the least, but I hope I'm getting a little closer.  Understanding that every consequence comes from somewhere is a value that's often discussed in new age spirituality, but I hadn't considered it in the form of numbers, strings and functions.  In games writing, we talk a lot about how to make the player feel, and how to create emotion and agency in games, but if the player is a very complicated computer, why are we regarding them so simply?  We're playing God with electron probability fields.  Come on, player, just stay in the damn cup!  Why do we think it works that way?

Amazing how science can inform creativity.  I love hard sci-fi as much as the next person, but when books like In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality are informing my understanding of narrative theory, I think that's truly wonderful.  

Now, back to Todd Perkins and his step-by-step explanations.  I'll try to be more coherent in my next post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Katniss and Catching Fire

Having just finished the second book of The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire, I think I can safely say that it exceeded my expectations.

Having been warned that the second and third books are not as good as the first, I can see the argument, but I disagree.  Where the second book starts is around 6 months after the end of the first, when Katniss has had time to grow used to her life as a Victor and the luxury that entails.  Part of that luxury includes the ability to have time to feel.  Far from who she was in the first book, the second begins with a Katniss aware of, if not in control of, the most basic of her emotions.  She tries to get along with her mother.  She feels sorry for people, and tries to help them.  She even empathises with her prep team.  That's when things start to go sour.

Reading through Catching Fire, I can see why Katniss was who she was in the first book.  It made sense, on a basic level, but Ms. Collins has a talent for two very memorable things : making you care about characters, and then hurting them.  Unlike many books, movies or games, Katniss and her world constantly surprise me.  I appreciate this since, in a story sense, it's usually quite difficult to accomplish.  However, when a single-sentence description of the death of a minor character can move me to tears and force me to close the book, there's got to be something more powerful at play.

I hate the Capitol.  I hate President Snow.  Watching the numerous ways Katniss gets hurt, the cruelty of those events, and knowing the mind that must have spawned them, it's impossible to do anything else.  In this, I am completely on Katniss' side, even if she herself doesn't know which side that is.  I hope for her victory, even if I seem to have more faith in her abilities, and in the people around her, than she does.

She's distrustful, but having lived in a community where breaking the law is the only way to live, who wouldn't be?  She's selfish, but she recognises as much.  She's unfeeling, because she saves her energy to care about the people closest to her.  She seems constantly surprised that people like her, or want to follow her, and to make all the wrong moves with the best of motives.  And when I think about how old she is, all I can think is that she's just a kid.  It's extraordinary that she's able to act at all, given the circumstances.

So Katniss has begun her transition into a human being.  The power of it lies in the fact that, because she cares about these characters, when she cares about so little else, we do too.  The whole situation is so unfair that her fatalism is understandable, even undeniable.  But she has the rest of the characters to carry her forward, and Mockingjay is sitting on my bed, waiting.  The third act will often make or break a story.  I just hope it doesn't break Katniss first.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Hunger Games and Dawn of the Dead

There are some social constructs that stick in our minds : class, race, wealth. Love. However, it's only when looking at our world through the eyes of an outsider that we begin to see how ridiculous those scaffolds are. What does it really mean, when the zombie apocalypse happens, that we had the most expensive wristwatch or handbag? How can the privileged ever understand the suffering of the oppressed?

These are the questions if social commentary in the mass media. Jonathon Swift did it, and almost got excommunicated. Dr. Bartle did it, and no one realized. For all that it's a common theme, there are still elements that make any form of satire worthwhile. For Dawn of the Dead, it was the innate tragedy. For The Hunger Games, the answer is less apparent.

Standing aside from allegations of a certain friendliness with Battle Royale, let's take a look at Katniss and her dystopian ideal. There will be spoilers. You have been warned.

At the core of Dawn of the Dead lies the idea that what is important to you in life is important to you in death. That this is the fate of one of the main characters, as he turns into a zombie and leads the way through the secret barricade to his pregnant wife, is set up early on, and with surprising empathy. Every other zombie is content to wander around the mall. If he didn't care so much about his wife and unborn child, they would have been safe. That's the tragedy. Sure, the rest of the downfall of society isn't pretty, but, at its core, Dawn of the Dead is about love.

Compare that to The Hunger Games, where it takes Katniss an entire book to figure out her fellow tribute is in love with her, and at the end, she still doesn't get it. I'm not dismissing Katniss here, though I'll admit it took me a while to stomach her true motivations. She's 16. For those of you who have been 16, you'll remember how selfish teenagers can be. For those of you who aren't there yet, try to be a jerk in moderation, for your parents' sake. Now, Katniss, she was left in a very difficult situation. Her father died and her mother mentally checked out. She had to take care of her little sister, do all the running of the household, and put food on the table since she was 11. She cares about her sister. There can be no doubt about that. But the rest of the world? That's another story.

She cares about Rue because she reminds her of Prim. She says as much, after Rue dies. That upset me, until I realized how in-character it is. Forget eating goose-liver pate when she'd been raised on scraps. That makes no sense. But everything she does after she enters the arena is rational, in an uncomfortable kind of way. Katniss only cares about herself. She assumes everyone to be as selfish as she is. In essence, she's a sociopath.

In terms of the world envisioned in Dawn of the Dead, she's one of the idiots blazing around the mall, and who eventually dies.  She's the guy who gets his arm stuck in the blood pressure monitor.  She's the one most likely to turn on her teammates, and come out on top.  She is what we try to weed out of society, because evolution has taught us that, to survive, we need community.  She is the antithesis of all of these things, and she is successful.

We don't want to believe it.  In Dawn of the Dead, all the jerks are punished.  Unfortunately, that's part of its inherent romanticism.  It believes that, in the end, the good guys win.  I'm sorry, but I know who will be the first to go in a zombie apocalypse.  Me, followed by everyone else who tries to help other people.  The jerks are the ones who will survive.  We already have sociopaths in upper management.  Capitalism itself is sociopathic.  Katniss survives because she works alone.  She kisses Peeta to get food.  She never quite says she loves him, but knows exactly where to place the silences.  When he finds out she doesn't love him, and he's hurt, she can't possibly understand why.

I've got the second two books, and I intend to read them.  I want to know what happens, even though I think the story ends with the first book.  I'm interested to see where Ms. Collins takes this half-character, who thinks in terms of advantages and never lets her guard down because she doesn't even realise the distance between herself and the world.  Katniss is the person I would want to be with when the zombie apocalypse happens.  Unfortunately, she wouldn't want to be around me.

From the standpoint of psychology, I found The Hunger Games interesting.  Much in the same way that I love Prom Night for its elegant camera angles and correct representation of a delusional mindset, Katniss was a study in just how far this could go in a YA novel.  It's not Hannibal level, but Katniss isn't cruel - she simply does what has to be done.  The descriptions of events occur as she feels about them, not how anyone else would.  When Peeta has been slashed across the thigh and she tries to clean the wound, she doesn't talk about how much pain he must be in, except in a clinical "his face went white" kind of way.  She doesn't empathise.  Cleaning Peeta's wound is entirely about her, and about her feelings, and she helps him because she doesn't want to lose him because of how it would make her feel.

In a way, I find Katniss comforting.  As an avid game player, I'm often confused when confronted with sociopathic main characters who seem just as at ease ripping off someone's head as they are eating a bowl of ice cream.  It doesn't make sense, and I don't want to be that person.  My real appreciation for The Hunger Games comes from the discomfort it gives me.  I'm not comfortable, listening to Katniss' thoughts.  I don't want to read her surgical descriptions of events that would ruin my world.  Yet I'm compelled to continue, because there's one thing that is planted, right at the beginning of the book, before the Reaping, before the arena, and it's a simple, but repeated: "there's nothing romantic between us."

So, really, what Katniss is for me, is hope.  I hope that she'll grow, and I look forward to seeing if she does.  I believe that she would survive the Hunger Games, whereas Peeta survived through cleverness and avoidance, and would probably have died there, under the mud.  I believe there's something wrong with Katniss, deeply, deeply wrong, in the terms of the social construct we call a conscience, and I believe that anyone who reads the book, child or teenager or otherwise, can't help but see that.  Her actions, until you understand, don't make sense.  People who don't see it may complain she's a broken character.  Yes, she is, but in a far worse way than poor writing could create.  The fact that she acts in such an illogical way is actually what made me keep reading.  It takes a lot of work to get a sociopath right.  In a way, it might even have been a terrifying thing to consider.  Nietzsche's abyss is still going strong.

And, of course, there's the gender role reversal that makes me happy, if only because there are no damsel in distress characters.  Suitably, they all get killed and we never hear from them again.  I'm sure I would be a fated DID if I was in The Hunger Games; gladly, it's not reality, and I can still like strong female characters without having the fortitude to stab people myself.  In a way, Katniss is almost too strong.  She gets upset about dying, but gets over it quickly.  We don't see a weakness in her that we might expect to see in ourselves.  She's the Terminator, and we're John Connor.  Much like in a good horror movie, when you can't look away, watching Katniss interact with her world is a work of carefully crafted art.  She's more terrifying than the world around her, but she's a product of that world.  The lessons is the same as in Dawn of the Dead :

We are what society makes us.  Maybe it's time for a change.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

End-of-September Roundup of Stuff I Like

I notice I've been quite negative here, lately, so in an effort to dispel the image of me as a grumpy old hag, waving my walking-stick at pigeons and talking about those "damn kids", I'm going to do a post of things I've found recently that I like.

See, the problem with things I like is that the critiques tend to be short.  Alan Wake is an exception, because there are a lot of layers to unfold.  So, unlike the things that make me angry (e.g. A History of Violence - no structure or story) or frustrated (StarCraft 2's characterisation), good things give me relatively little to say.

So here are some pictures.

iPhone : Jojo's Fashion Show 2

Luckily, I scored this via OpenFeint's Free App of the Day, but if I'd known how much I would enjoy it, I would gladly have paid the $3.99 pricetag.  I'm not at all fashion-conscious - I like what I like - but somehow this ticks all the right boxes, probably because it's like a formula for looking spectacular.  When I first started, I was a bit ashamed to be seen playing it, but soon I was actually looking forward to the bus ride home, so I could rack up points on beautiful Bollywood outfits, or make up crazy combinations for the Prom category.

There's a free version, which I highly recommend.  There are two 'map packs', as well, for $2.49 each, and I'm considering buying them, as I finished the game today.  There's actually a remarkably complex storyline, told in no more than two lines of dialogue between 'missions'.  I'm using quotes because I don't really know what to call them - there are catwalk shows, and there are photo shoots, but each mission advances the story.  I genuinely wanted to know what was going to happen with Jojo and Rosalind.  Great writing, to make me care with very little dialogue and no voice acting.  I could go into the mother-daughter dynamic, and the fact that I was winning my mother's approval by being who I was, rather than who I thought I should be, but to be honest, it's just a nice story, and I can appreciate it for that.

iPhone : Pocket Frogs

Oh dear.  All aboard the OCD train!  You can collect frogs, breed them, and - get this - make more frogs.  But there are different patterns, different colours, and you get different requests, to make a certain type of frog.  All of this would be fine on its own, but it also includes a 'feed me' mode, where you leap around a pond as the frog of your choice, eating dragonflies, finding presents and hunting down new frogs to 'make friends with'.  Strangely satisfying, though I imagine it would be more fun if I had other people to play and trade with.  

Anyone want to add me?  Oh, and did I mention it's free?

Advertised (to me, at least) by the same people who got me to grow imaginary flowers and send them via email in Flower Garden (Free version).

PC : Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale

A super-cute indie Japanese title available on Steam, this has been a $19.99USD well-spent.  You play the role of Recette, a girl whose father ran away and left her with a debt to pay off.  You do this by selling items to adventurers in your shop, as well as paying adventurers to go into the dungeon to find items for you to sell. It's possible to play the game just from the economic standpoint, but it's infinitely more satisfying to get all that otherwise hard-earned stock for free.

I found it works best with an Xbox 360 PC controller, since the keyboard controls were too difficult for me to handle.  Nonetheless, I leave the fighting up to my boyfriend, then I rake in the cash on the days off.  It's a good system, and we both get to enjoy the aspect of the game that we find most interesting.

The dialogue is something to enjoy, too.  While they do talk a lot, much of it is entertaining, and with only short, non-situation-specific voice clips (in Japanese), you won't have too much trouble skipping ahead.  One to while away a Sunday afternoon.

PC : Aion

It's summer!  Well, at least until the 13th of October, it is.  Log in to earn a token of Scorching Heat every 20 minutes - many, many people camping and running macros, or just plain putting a rock on their spacebar, to stay logged in - and use them to buy a lottery box possibly containing a pretty item, or just some general, everyday kind of things that might be useful, but certainly aren't as pretty.

Anyone got a spare Beautiful/Cool Swimsuit they want to give me?  For free?  18,000,000 Kinah is just a bit too much.

And, of course, there's always this aspect of the game to enjoy.

Xbox 360 : Magna Carta 2

I've been watching the concept artist for Magna CartaHyung-tae Kim, for a good 3 or 4 years by now, never hoping that the games he worked on would make it to Australia.  Imagine my glee, then, when I saw Magna Carta 2 on the shelves.  His costume and character designs are really something else, in an excellent and unforgettable way.  I spent the majority of my time skipping dialogue, but the combat I was engaged in, the gathering I was able to do, and the different skills available to me, as well as the menu system, all make for an oddly engaging experience.  Two seconds in, I was hoping one of the characters died, and I got my wish, so at least it's keeping me happy in that regard.

Real-time squad fighting with autonomous squad mates (at least at this stage), and nice use of counter-attacks and combos.  I haven't really played a game like it before, so people more experienced in this genre may find it trite, but for me it's a breath of fresh air.

So that's it for the things I like that I can think of right now.  I tend to avoid these kind of reviews, because they're not particularly critical or useful, but hopefully I've recommended a few things to brighten your day.  Back to impotent rage tomorrow!

Monday, September 27, 2010

StarCraft 2 Spoilers Part 1

I still haven't finished the game yet - close, so close! - but I just felt the need to comment on Tychus' emasculation ala the post-Sigma Quadrant mission. Minor spoilers.

Here is a brief list of 5 things Tychus could have done that would have been cooler than and made more sense than throwing a jukebox at Raynor.

1) Set up Raynor so he can make his 'inspiring' speech. A wink, and we know he didn't mean all the things he said, he was just helping out. What a pal.

2) Actually be trying to kill Raynor. You know how he said he lost 9 years of his life to prison because of Jim? Why not act on it? He's already down for murder.

3) While we're at it, Tosh warned Raynor against Dominion spies. We know Tychus' suit is out of his control - a clever ploy by Mengsk or his progeny to use Raynor's friend as a sleeper agent doesn't seem so far-fetched.

4) Taken control of the ship. Why not? Stage a mutiny, get to punch Horner in the face, then go kamikaze on Mengsk's butt. Heck, the way the Dominion seems to be crumbling like anything I try to bake suggests flying their flagship up to the palace windows and shooting Arcturus in the kneecaps with a Yamato cannon would be a walk in the park.

5) Cabaret. Unconventional, but entertaining.

This all reminds me of the rarely seen pilot episodes - turned into a direct-to-DVD movie - of Disney's Atlantis: Milo's Return. The new writer absolutely loved Mole, and if you've seen the original, you know there's nothing much to love. Suddenly, Mole was charming, solved every problem and was more intelligent than the guy with the PhD.

This is Mole.  See the guy in the background?  That's my reaction to people choosing to follow Raynor.

I happen to agree with Tychus. Raynor is a coward and a drunk who drinks while commanding an army because he can't move on. I have no problem with drinking, but when I'm taking orders from the guy who can't let a bottle of Scotch get lonely, I begin to worry.  As for his past, he may be tortured, but it's misguided self-torture, and I have no pity for that. Of course, that says much about me, as I covered in my previous post with Epictetus, blah blah blah, but essentially a self-pitying drunk isn't really my type.  So Tychus is my main point of reference, and watching him get beaten, not only in an unfair manner, but by Raynor, who suddenly comes across as all morally superior, is like slapping my grandma and expecting me to laugh.

Okay, so it's not quite that bad.  My grandma isn't a convicted killer in a welded-shut space marine outfit.  But James 'Eugene' Raynor is essentially a Mary Sue.  Like Bella in Twilight, his actions make little sense.  He has a tragic past - check; he's out to right a terrible wrong from said past - check; people follow him because of his 'charisma' - check; he's plagued with doubts - check; he makes what seem to be terrible decisions that always work out for the best - check; he gets the best of people who are more physically and/mentally capable than him - check; he has respect from a strange and wonderful alien species even though they were recently hell-bent on destroying the dumb humans who wandered into Zerg territory - check.

Running through a quick Mary Sue quiz from what I've gleaned from the storylines of StarCraft 1 & 2, Raynor comes up with:
Your Mary Sue Score: 63
"56-70 points: Über-Sue. You've got one hell of a Mary-Sue on your hands here, and it's not going to be easy to set things right. But do your best. There may be hope for you yet."

Sorry, Raynor.  As a mouthpiece for player satisfaction, I suppose he works, because players want to feel cool, and if you can identify with Raynor, that would definitely be the case.  Taking on an evil emperor who killed not only your girlfriend but also possibly your wife and child?  That would feel good.  Winning would feel awesome.  Seeing Raynor's fatalistic attitude turned on its head when he's victorious would be a triumph.  Really what I'm complaining about is my disconnect with the character, based on his personal traits that I see as vices, rather than virtues.  It doesn't help that I've seen it all before, either.  

But that's what comes of reading books, watching movies, and then moving to games.  Games haven't had the same stereotypes for as long, so something that's old hat in written sci-fi becomes new and amazing when translated into a game.  Each stereotype has its day, from the hoodie-d protagonists of Prototype and inFamous to playing as a wanna-be god ala God of War or Darksiders.  The twisted "You were working for the wrong side all along!" plotline was popular for quite a few years.  Personally, I'm glad that one's gone, because there are only so many of those plotlines you can take before it's just too predictable.

And, really, I feel the same way about Raynor as I do about Bella - they're fine for some, but I'd rather watch something else.  Anything else.  The gameplay in StaCraft 2 is what keeps me going - that and Tychus, who I would argue is the only 'round' character, according to E.M. Forster's definition, unpredictability lending life and all that - and that's what I enjoy.  As with all games, or as it should be with all games, story is secondary.  Coming from a games writer, maybe that's a newsflash but, hey, I'm realistic, at least some of the time.  I can ignore the story.  I can't ignore the gameplay, and the gameplay is good.  I'm looking forward to trying it on a harder difficulty setting, and I got quite a thrill upon discovering the secret mission, so they're keeping me happy in that regard.

I just wish I could like Raynor.  He's not that bad a guy.  He's got at least one right motive.  But the more they try to make me like him, the less I do.  I know I'm not the target demographic.  I wonder when I will be.  Someday, magically, there will be a game that's aimed directly at my heart.  I have high hopes for The Last Guardian.  Dragonquest 9 is doing an admirable job so far.  But I wonder that I'm not allowed to like my RTS, and also like strong characters, characters who have a tragic past and get over it, and move toward a brighter future.

Then again, optimism isn't really a forefront value in the StarCraft universe.  In fact, optimism will get you killed.  I wouldn't last an hour on board the Hyperion.  Maybe that's the biggest disappointment of all.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hyperconnectivity and The Great Divide

Let me put on my old fogey hat for a while - there we go - to complain about things like Facebook.  "I remember," it begins, "I remember a time when we had to TALK to each other, organise meetups like civilised people."  Here I may smack my toothless gums speculatively.  "Those were the days."

Well, no, they weren't.  There isn't anything I'd particularly trade from the days of home-only telephones to shiny new mobile phones that we can use to call anyone anywhere, such as when I called my parents in Seattle from a boat in the mid-Pacific using some kind of new-fangled satellite relay business.  Of course, it was prohibitively expensive, but that's as may be.  Being stranded on a dark highway in the middle of nowhere is (probably) no one's idea of fun, yet I'd wager people were also more willing to stop and help in the days before mobile phones, too.

It all relates to that idea of a global village, in which we all live, but don't know the names of our real-life neighbours.  Why would I try to start a conversation with someone I don't know and don't particularly care about when I could be chatting with strangers across the world who share my interests?  "But," you might counter, "won't that leave you with a terribly narrow world-view?"  Yes, fellow conspirator, it will.

People are constantly aware of each other in a way that was previously impossible.  I'm reading E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel at the moment, and he says the reason we prefer characters from novels is because they allow us a peek into the depths of self-disclosure that we can never attain with even our loved ones in real life.  Unfortunately, Facebook has put paid to that theory.

I'm more aware of what the people on my Facebook friends list are doing than I am of what I had for lunch.  I check the site once a day, if that.  However, the amount of self-disclosure people are willing to get into with their status updates is phenomenal.  Much of the time, it's not information I need to know.  Often, it's information I don't want to know.  But unloading your psyche on the Internet, like eating red jelly until you throw up, can be both cathartic and a mark of poor judgement.

The real world is prevalent in so many aspects of our lives - necessarily - that I'm quite happy, when playing my little iPhone games, to be left alone, however briefly.  But, through my own choice, I'm also a member of OpenFeint.  I must be the only person in the world who gets immersed in Jojo's Fashion Show 2, or Pocket Frogs, because I find the experience of receiving an achievement incredibly jarring.  It reminds me that I'm playing a game which, funnily enough, ruins my immersion.  If being a kickass fashion designer only required me to choose which shirts and pants to put with which shoes, I wouldn't need to be playing the game, now, would I?  Then it wouldn't matter if real life intruded because, hey, I'd be living the dream.  Or something.

But through OpenFeint I'm also connected to Facebook, which means these games can post little updates to my Facebook account.  Then I might have someone comment on it, and find me in game, and we might chat while my frogs are jumping around...  But we'll never speak in real life.  That would be weird.

I had a strange moment of vertigo yesterday, when I was having a casual chat with a coworker, and was playing Words With Friends at the same time.  Rude of me, I know.  However, I thought I was replying to my boyfriend's uncle, and didn't want to forfeit the game by leaving my turn for too long.  I hit send, a message tone went off somewhere else in the building, my coworker excused himself, and about a minute later I received a reply - from him - to my previous word placement.  I answered the wrong person, and an imaginary game of Scrabble overtook our real-life social interaction.  I had to sit back and just try to take that in for a moment.

But now, to creativity.  If, as Mr. Forster says, the reason we read novels is to get to know characters the way we never can in real life, but real life suddenly includes elements of very personal self-disclosure, and from more realistic sources than we might otherwise get in a novel, where does the fantasy fall?  If I want to write a believable character, I need to map out their psyche, figure out their motivations, their personality traits, their past experiences, their relationships with their friends and family members - the list goes on.  If I want to see what self-disclosure looks like, I only have to sign into the Internet.  Where, then, does the draw to discover a character from the inside out, to get to know another person so deeply that they feel almost a part of you, the details of their lives are so intimate - where does that desire go?  Fulfilled, is it now worthless?  Is Facebook superceding my desire to write?

All I know is that I write best when I'm relaxed.  Or, conversely, when I have a deadline, but never, ever, when I'm worried about something else.  Being so hyper aware of the worries of the people around me, I become constantly on edge.  This doubtless has more to do with my personality than any particular facet of social networking, but essentially while Facebook et al may be a way to share, they are also a way to unload.  I've seen no end of arguments between friends, in a public forum, that should have taken place behind closed doors.  I don't need to know why person x and person y are fighting.  In fact, if they're my friends, I probably don't care about the details, because I don't want to take sides.  In a way, all I really want to quote and reappropriate is this statement, from Ms. Bartky's On Psychological Oppression: "...this being-made-to-be-aware of one's own flesh; like being made to apologise, it is humiliating."

In novels, we can know as much as we want about the characters, because they don't exist.  When the line gets blurred between person and person, offline and online, when we find out information about others that we consider should be kept secret, we are humiliated.  It's important, here, to remember what our old friend Epictetus says : "Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinions of the things that happen."  My reaction to all this super-intimacy malarkey tells as much about me as your reaction to my reaction tells about you.

Given the veracity of our circumstances, can we ever write this accurately or this unpredictably?  Can the words I put on paper ever approach the humanity of status updates?  Possibly not, but fiction is art, not life.  Just as real conversation is boring to read, so too would a series of status updates be nothing more than a trail of loosely-connected vignettes.  I just wish more people were aware of the stories they were telling online.  Maybe then they wouldn't feel so vulnerable to criticism all the time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hamlet on the Holodeck - Welcome, Captain Janeway

I've just finished reading Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (as you can probably see in my shiny new "Recently Finished Reading" column on the right) and I have one important thing to say:

Goodness, but Ms. Murray can turn a phrase.

Many of her chapters are peppered with the most delightful, wondrous and wonderful sentences that I have ever read in a non-fiction book.  She leads exquisitely from point to point to final culmination that, at times, feels like choosing stepping stones across a too-fast river, but always results in the warm glow of a friendly campfire at the far end.  She gets carried away in her writing, and takes you with her, until you reach what seems should have been the only logical conclusion all along.  I found myself often smiling as she made use of simile, and the last line of her second-last chapter (arguably the last chapter, since the last chapter is, in truth, more of a summary) almost - and I'm somewhat ashamed to say this - brought tears to my eyes, before I remembered I was in a public library, and I was reading a book about hypertext narrative.

But enough of a fangirl moment from me - despite the fact it took me almost a month to read, between work and other commitments, what Ms. Murray presents has become a little forlorn in its predictions for the future, as does any speculative work when faced with the truths of technology.  Ms. Murray is fascinated by alternate realities in which the active participant has a say, from screens that register the interactor as part of a pre-devised scene to her idea of a Babylon 5 MMO where players could  be any of a number of races and interact to take part in plots running parallel - in real-time - to those happening in the show.  "What happens when the TV screen goes blank?" she seems to ask.  "That's where the internet should step in."

Her vision of an idealised future is so strong that, really, what more brought me to tears than either having finished the book, suffering from that anxiety we all face when something wonderful comes to an end, or a particularly beautiful sentence, is this simple fact : none of if came true.

Like reading a fairytale in which Cinderella remains a maid, or Sleeping Beauty never wakes up, I'm left with a sense of disenchantment with the  future - the now - that I live in.  It's been 13 years.  Where did all this technology go?

Watching some SIGGRAPH lectures recently, I was excited by some of the developments in cognitive/behavioural psychology that had yielded results that could be applied to AI.  What Ms. Murray reminds us is that we had ELIZA in the 60s, and have barely pioneered since then a realm that was not carefully constructed.  She goes into some delightful detail regarding Julia, the MUD-based chatter-bot, and Lyotard, the cat-like cat, but I ask the world the same question as Dr. Wilson - Where's My Jetpack?  Where's my emergent AI?

I remember the most exciting aspect of Oblivion, for me, in the previews of their AI system, was the endless possibilities.  They had a guard who got hungry while on patrol, so he shot a deer.  Shooting deer in the forest is illegal, so the other guards chased him.  Since all of the guards were gone from the town, people started looting.  The playtester returned to an entirely different town than the one they'd left, and all because of a bug. A simple bug, that made the guard act like a real person, and which was subsequently stamped out.

I know why they did it.  It''s unstable, it makes the game harder to play - though no more than every guard everywhere knowing that you've stolen something 200 miles away - and, to be honest, that was probably only one coherent example of many things that occurred.  But it, too, held such promise that, playing the final game, I was disappointed.  Had I never read of this ridiculous exchange, I probably would have been mightily impressed.

And this, I believe, is what Ms. Murray is asking us.  Yes, we've made amazing things, yes we've got a way to go - but why aren't we going there?  From what I can tell, research into AP (artificial personalities) has been usurped by the desire to make things prettier.  I'm not a programmer, but what Ms. Murray identifies is one of my dreams - to create a personality that acts based on its own inner desires and needs, and responds to the player in a meaningful way.  Why aren't we there yet?  Where did we lose the path?  There are so many possibilities.  What about an in-game help guide, as Julia was, but for World of Warcraft, or Aion?  Why must games be difficuult?  Why aren't we allowed to delight, any longer, in interacting with robots?  We seem to have lost a lot of our flexibility when we  moved away from text-based input.  Robots in choose-your-own-adventure-style conversations aren't nearly as entertaining.  The old chatter-bots might not have been convincing, but they were a lot of fun.

When did games become such serious business?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Whither the Republic: Forms of Government in Science Fiction

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for Whither the Republic: Forms of Government in Science Fiction :

Plenty of science fiction seems to base itself around future empires and kingdoms, and still more have focused on democratic Federations and Commonwealths - but are there forms of government we’ve been overlooking? What are some of the potential forms of government and political systems we might use in science fiction stories, and how would they affect the  kinds of stories we could tell?
Will Elliot, Gail Carriger, Howard Tayler, Dave Freer 

Unfortunately, or fortunately for his many fans, Howard Tayler was the only one able to make it to this particular panel.

H: I’m sure many of you who are looking at the man on the stage are wondering if he is feeling uncomfortable because he has no co-panellists, but rest assured I am a humourist, and I’m not afraid of you because I’m currently imagining you all in my underwear. (Laughter)

Q: Wouldn’t that be crowded? (Laughter)

H: Well, a couple of you are going to be disappointed because I’ve got no one here to argue with.  I want to share a story where I made two NPCs in a roleplaying game where the party members wanted them to argue, and expected me to roleplay both sides of this argument.  It’s difficult, but not impossible.

H: So who is here because that have an axe to grind, a bone to chew or a hatchet to bury in meaty, meaty flesh with regards to politics?  No one?  Okay, good.

Q: Maybe they’re just too smart to put their hands up.

H:And that’s a good place to stand in a political debate. (Laughter)

H: I promise not to let my white-bread Utah upbringing, I promise not to let that colour my argument Republican red.

Q: ???

H: Who likes what that lady just said? (Hands up) There, it’s a democracy.  Who doesn’t like it?  Come on, I was hoping for at least one… there we go!  I wanted to say it’s a democracy, but it’s also a tyranny.  See what I did there?  That was clever. (Laughter)

Q: Incorrect systems of government?

H: In scientifical societies (In Banks – Iain M. Banks?), I love that word, I wish we’d kept it, once there are enough resources in one of these cultures, you read about an oligarchical system where the peasants never have the power to move into the higher ranks, and it’s supposed to be crazy space socialism, but I end up thinking I want to live there, because I can be anything I want.

H: Have any of you read David Brin’s essay on Salon.com about Star Wars versus Star Trek?  He asks the question “Which universe would you rather live in?” and it would be cool to be a Jedi, but more likely I’d be some nobody without the Force, whereas Star Trek is idyllic, all this exciting stuff is happening on the fringes of space.

H: [story of Lando & copilot taking out the death star, illusion of power to the people, but it’s not]

H: Sorry, there’s a long hair on my microphone, it was creeping me out, and now… distracted.  And my internal censor just kicked in and said “No, you’re not gonna tell that story.”

H: In my world, it’s come to my attention that no one wants to hear about who I voted for in the last US election, they want something funny that rewards them for reading the book.  When I write about the politics in Schlock Mercenary, I want to take something that is happening in the real world and look at it in a funny way, extrapolate it into the future so people will look at it and think “That’s completely absurd!”

SF society, interesting – look at south Africa between 2002 and 2003.  Advertising 24 hour protection i.e. from private mercenaries. 

H: We just got word that this is the official Howard Tayler show! I’m going to put on a radio voice!  Monday! Monday! Monday!

Q: When are you syndicating?

H: No, I don’t have a face for radio.

 H: What District 9 did is they made South Africa so real that we accepted it, then showed us the future of what happens with race relations when aliens get involved.

H: Mike Williamson presented a case of Libertarianism in one of his stories, but he didn’t make it feel real enough, and one reader described it as a form of the Potemkin village that completely threw them out of the story, because it was a little too perfect to be real.

H: What’s the best kind of government?

Q: One that works. (Laughter)

H: Some people believe the government has a responsibility to its people in regards to infrastructure, in that they don’t let private companies build roads, but they’re wrestling with the idea of letting them build private internet lines, and we use the internet much as we use roads these days, and so how is that fair?  What will happen when they turn what should be a service toward their profit?

H: I’m going to open it up to questions, let’s save comments for later, or at least, if you want to make a comment, phrase it as a question so I can answer it and seem smarter than I am.

Q: How do you make people believe your government?

H: You have to believe it yourself, you have to set up rules and follow them and convince them you’re an expert.  Sometimes if you hold up the vaguely-explained thing in this hand and the unexplained thing in this hand, once you have the audience believing the unexplained thing, they kind of read through the other one and accept the explanation.  It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.

H: Inevitably, we’ll come to hard science-fiction and hand-wavium, hand-wavium makes the hyperdrive work.  I don’t know what’s inside an annie plant, I don’t know why they’re all round, but I’m consistent enough that people will believe it, and forget about the science.

Q: [Long convoluted comment]

H: Now phrase it in the form of a question.

Q: How do you make that work?

H: There you go!  I often approach religion in a certain way, usually in the form of areligion, one word, which is the belief that there can be no belief, which is still a belief.  I have two characters who sometimes debate religion, both of which I’m sympathetic with, and I will get two emails consecutively, one from a religious person thanking me for treating religion with respect, and someone else saying that they were worried the Mormon sci-fi writer was going to let religion beat science all the time and thanking me for being reasonable. 

H: It would be the same as getting a socialist to argue with a capitalist, and the socialist is saying “We’ve gotten to the point where we have enough resources that we can redistribute the wealth” and the capitalist will say “Yes, but we have those resources because we compete for them” and neither of those sounds inherently wrong.  I’m just making this up off the top of my head, but if I wanted to write further about this, I would look for excellent essays written for and against capitalism and socialism, then have these two characters embrace the best parts of each argument and pit them against each other.

H: My background is in music.  John Cage once said “well-stolen is half-composed” – I will steal like a bandit.

H: Think for a moment of one novel that has faithfully replicated politics and government, and put your hand up, and we’ll do a roll call.

Mike Williamson Freehold/That weapon

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a strange land

Julian Comstock

The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness, by Le Guin

Frank Herbert, Dune

H: The fact that Herbert took machine life completely out of that society so that manipulating people was still the way of gaining power in that society was an excellent way of maintaining feudalism in a science-fiction setting.

Aasimov, Caves of Steel

Ken McCloud

L. Niell Smith

C.J. Cherryh’s Down Below Station – you could tell the bad guy was the bad guy because he was a little less sympathetic, but you could tell he still believed he was the hero in his own story.

Pandora’s star by Peter F. Hamilton

Kevin Anderson, Sage of the Seven Suns

Sheri  S. Tepper

Phoenix Café – White Queen

H: Brandon Sanderson’s new book The Way of Kings, has really fun political things happening, looking at what happens below you when you’re the one in charge.  It’s a thousand pages long, just for the first book, but it’s the best epic fantasy I’ve read.

H: Why do aliens always have human-style governments?  For the same reason all the aliens I draw have two eyebrows, because they need to be relatable.  If you have a completely alien system of government, it will throw your reader out of your story and you lose them, and that’s sad.

H: Louis the 14th is Lord Vetinari – even though everyone hates him, he’s more useful than a power vacuum where he’s standing.

H: Someone once asked me which of my characters I identify the most with, and I said General Xinchub, and they were shocked, but he’s just a guy who does what’s necessary to preserve the things he loves, or to do his job.  He’s not evil, he’s just a great-good sort of guy.

H: As Orson Scott Card once said – pick the person in the most pain, and there’s your story.

H: Ladies and gentlemen, you have been a kind and wonderful audience, thank you for not making me tell any more underwear jokes. (Applause)

WorldCon 2010 : The Eternal Border

must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for The Eternal Border

Are there taboos in dark fantasy? At what point does the fantasy stop and the psychosis begin?
Deborah Biancotti, Terry Dowling, Richard Harland, Jason Nahrung, Catherynne M Valente 

Terry Dowling was unfortunately unable to make it to the panel.

J: What we’re really interested in here is pushing boundaries, then probably breaking them into pieces. Looking at taboos in fiction.  I have some very well-established and boundary-pushing people with me today.  I’m going to introduce them, then we’ll get into what taboos exist, which are left to break, and should we be doing it?

J: So taboos.  Things that endanger society or the people around them, things that shouldn’t be done, we write dark fantasy and we tend to work in the realm of the things that society’s a little bit afraid of, because that’s where we can test society and test the rules that go on in our lives.  This is the beauty of writing under that broad umbrella of horror writing, and you get to scare people and ask them what it is about this idea that scares them, it’s pushing boundaries.  To start off, I thought I’d ask these guys what taboos they’ve broken, what was the reaction to it, and why break them? I think I should probably go first because I think I’m the first most least-achieved, I’ve had a story get into a year’s best collection which flirted very much with the line between sex, pleasure and pain, the giving and receiving of pain, but in a very fantastical way.  It was a slightly uncomfortable story to write, I’m not quite sure what it was saying or what it says about me, and I think sometimes you worry about that, the reader not differentiating between the narrator on the page and the person behind those words.  I think authors can put a lot of the things on the page and talk about them, like racism or homophobia, and talk about them and believe the opposite.  Stephen King often gets abused for being racist, when in fact he’s presenting these beliefs and debunking them throughout the story.  Deb?

D: The taboo I play with most is death, I think it’s a taboo because we don’t talk about it, but apparently we all do it, so I’m told (Laughter).  But we don’t talk about it at all, especially I the Western society where I was raised.  One of my stories was mostly related to by a mother, and it’s a story about a mother making a journey to mourn her daughter, and I thought these people would really be disturbed by this, but they actually felt very close to it.

C: I’ve got two.  The first is incest, that’s a huge one in most cultures, in my book it makes a lot of sense in context, and they do what they have to do, I’ve read it out loud a lot and it kind of falls like a brick in the middle of the room, and when my parents brought my very religious grandfather to the reading, I just cut that part out.  (Laughter)  I think in current society we don’t talk about incest, murder or adultery, which can also be incest, but the second deeper level is consensual incest, which is really disturbing on many levels.  My short story, 13 ways of looking at spacetime, apparently contained too many autobiographical elements, and they started debating that it should be more literature, and I didn’t realize how much of a taboo it is to lay stuff out there in the science fiction community without putting robots on it. (Laughter)

R: When Ferrin and the Angle came out, I had a lot of negative comments from the librarians about the plasmatics, beings constructed out of body parts, and I have a scene where one of these beings is plunged into a pit and the butchers went through dividing up the body parts and choosing which ones to use, and I wrote it because it seemed to fit, but it is probably a bit extreme for younger readers.  In World Shaker, there’s an elderly man who tortures someone with a kind of medical torture, it’s pretty black, it’s pretty nasty, and I wondered after Ferrin and the Angel how this was going to go down, and I haven’t heard a peep about it.  In fact, I gave a school visit recently and a class of girls was studying Worldshaker, and none of them mentioned it at all.  I think times have changed.

D: We watched Legion on the hotel TV the other day, and it starts with the old lady coming in on a walker and telling the lady who’s about to give birth to the savior of humanity that her baby is going to ‘fucking burn’, and it’s great to see taboos broken, like an old lady with a mouth like a sailor, especially when they’re unnecessary taboos.

C: I think that’s why people like Betty White.

R: Old people aren’t supposed to swear!

C: Well, it’s not a taboo to do it when you’re young anymore, because it doesn’t shock old people.

J: I was reading an article that said that nothing is sacred anymore in terms of story, that everything’s been done, but do you think there are some things that should be treated with perhaps a bit more respect?

D: Joan Rivers said something along those lines, there are no taboos in comedy, but comedy is very similar to horror, in that it examines society.  Snuff films are very much still a taboo, obviously killing someone on film is very wrong.  Appropriating other cultures or misrepresenting them is also not a good idea.

J: The power of the written word is exploring these things without physically hurting anyone.

C: People tend to get touchy when you use Christian mythology, and just tweeting the phrase “Christian mythology” got people super offended.  I mean, I know America sucks, our relationship with religion is pretty FUBAR’d at the moment, but it’s not just us, I’m pretty sure Greece and Italy don’t want you to call it mythology either.

R: I think things like consensual incest, or consensual pedophilia, is something that really gets to people.

J: Where that comes in is with vampires, you get to something where you can have a 150 year old man making out with a highschool student.  But if you want to go back to real vampires, you get something from Anne Rice like the child vampire…

C: But she didn’t go out seeking pedophiles, which, I think if it was written today, is what she would do.  She gets all angsty about not expressing her sexuality, but she could, just not with the best kind of humanity. (Laughter)

J: Let the Right One In did that in an interesting way…

C: Oh, certainly.  But in a lot of these stories they tend to get killed at the end.

J: And you have someone like Lucy who liked having sex with a vampire, so she gets turned into one, and becomes a pedophile, and essentially gets gang-raped to death, so that also deals with issues of female empowerment.

D: Freud said there are two great taboos, incest and patricide, which seems unfair to me, because killing your father is bad, but killing your mother is okay.

C: But a daughter killing her mother is disturbing in another way, because you have women expressing violence.

D: Didn’t King do that?

C: Yes, but if we stopped writing all the stories King has written, we’d all be out of jobs. (Laughter)

C: But I think the popularity of angel fiction in America, it doesn’t get banned, but these books don’t get put in the fantasy section, they get put in the literary section, because everyone in America is supposed to be Christian, so these are seen as a form of fictional realism, rather than fantasy. (Outcry) Stranger in a strange land, I know!

R: Movie title - flapping…?  The terrifying concept of life after death.  It was the idea of you not being good or bad, but this just being the way things are, that’s terrifying.

D: To my mind, there’s a book called The Painted Eorld that’s just page after page of violence, some of it sexual, a lot of it bestial, and a main character who’s incredibly innocent until you get to the last chapter, and he turns into an ass, and the writer tries to make a point by saying “See? If you’re nasty to people they’ll be nasty to you” and I think if you want to write that, you shouldn’t pretend you’re trying to do anything else.  I was going to bring the book along and toss it into the audience, but it turned out I’d already burned it. (Laughter)

C: And angels now have gone from being alien and strange and unfathomable to being birds, kind of cute talking parrots.

C: In Ferren and the Angel, I said angels are beautiful and terrible, why try to make them friendly?

C: I think something that’s missing a lot from horror recently is that it’s supposed to be both terrible and beautiful, and a lot of the horror these days just focuses on the terror, rather than the beauty.  A book like Lolita, maybe why it’s so popular is that the way it’s written is very intimate, and he’s sleeping with this young girl, and yet it somehow implicates the reader in the act, which is a way in which you can watch people in a way that’s not possible in the real world.

J: This is a country where we debate the reality of R18+ rating for games.  Cat, you were on a panel recently where someone suggested books have these kind of ratings?

C: Yeah, that person was an idiot. (Laughter)  It was someone suggesting that every book contain a warning that has all the things it contains on the front so you can only ever read the things you want to read, and the whole mood of the audience was asking us if we didn’t feel it was our duty to make our audience feel safe, and all of us were going “No, not really.”

D: What about labels like “Threesome 3 MFF”?

C: You try in your next book having 4 people who are all in a relationship and they’re all happy and all of the partners have equal standing, that’s a huge taboo.

R: In YA you can get away with almost everything to do with sex, except enjoyment.  (Laughter)

Q: In England, with the program ratings for television, everything is getting listed just in case

J: We do that here, my favourite is ‘contains sex scene’ which means once I’ve seen that, I can turn the TV off. (Laughter)

Q: Is this okay for us?

J: This is about people who want to know what they’re getting, they like to feel safe – these are the people who read trilogies, but there are other people who want a good challenge, who want to leave a story feeling a little bit dirty.

D: I think these days there are so many ways to watch TV, I don’t watch it on TV, I don’t download it illegally, but if I ever do watch it, it’s always without those warnings.

Q: ???

C: Another panel I was on, I said I don’t think that readers really know what they want until they’ve had it and they realize they were gunning for that, it’s just that the books that really get you usually surprised you.  I think a classification system like that is to comfort the reader, and that’s not our job.

C: One of the taboos is still violence against animals.

C: That’s how you know who the bad guy is, he kicked his dog. (Laughter)

J: And yet Chuck Norris has killed how many people?

Q: Autobiographical works?

C: Heinlein’s done autobiographical, so has Gaiman, the difference is that they’re men.

Q: He said at the end “Spot the mistake in the story” and the mistake is that it happened to him.

R: People are okay with it being just fiction, but as soon as it’s real, we feel differently about it, and I don’t know why.

Q: Rating – rape scenes?

C: I feel that if you’re talking about speculative fiction, you’ve got about a 70% chance of a rape scene in there, especially in horror, it’s pretty common, and yet literature should be about more than personal triggers.

R: People have nightmares about wolves, should there be a warning about wolves?

C: AS I said in the other panel, the safe word is always closing the book.  A rape scene lasts more than 3 words, you can tell what’s coming, you can close the book, you can escape.  I was abused a lot as a child, and that upsets me, but that feeling of getting upset can be cathartic, books can help you work through this, and that’s a good thing. 

D: There were two girls who were abducted in the US and their pictures were flashed up on every highway in case you saw them, you could call the police, and they were eventually found, but they had been sexually abused, and at that point their pictures disappeared from every media in the world, and in a way that made it more shameful, and I think not talking about rape makes it more shameful by hiding it behind a taboo.

Q: Polyamory?

C: Bella should just screw both of them, she’s in high school, okay, but if she was I college, that’s totally what she would do. (Laughter)

Q: Suicide bombers?

J: Tragedy plus time equals comedy.  After an event you can start to sift the events and find out why it happened.