Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing break

You may be interested to know that I finished my chapter outline today, some 2700 words later. All in all I think it's somewhere around 6000 words, but add in character bios and world-related info and it's probably closer to 10,000. And all before I've even started writing! What's with that?

This idea of 'planning' is new and scary. I do find that I'm liking it, though. Planning ahead gives me the ability to set up mini cliffhangers for my chapter breaks, and I've managed to make sure there's something I'm excited about writing in every chapter, which has never happened before. It's usually more a case of, "Great, now my main character has to spend three chapters on a boat! Story over!" Far from getting bored with the story, which is what I was afraid would happen, I'm excited to write it, now that I know it's all going to work out. I guess it's that certainty that is giving me the drive to write this time - it's no longer a leap of faith, but a chartered road along which the scenery should still be a pleasant surprise.

Now, if I could only organise a week off from work... Well, another week off...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creating the player's Dramatic Need

Today in class we were discussing how to turn a character’s goals into the player’s goals.  This is generally a mark of good character design and integration – it’s not enough to tell the player what the character would want to do.  The player has to feel that the task is important, or they won’t do it.  To my surprise, this was handled quite elegantly in Folklore.

I played the demo of Folklore when it first came out, before I had a PS3 or even knew how to use a Playstation controller.  I was astounded by the beauty of the world and the richness of the narrative, which was based on Celtic mythology.  When I did eventually get a PS3, it was one of the first games I bought, though it was quite difficult to find, having somewhat dropped off the radar in the intervening years.  Then life happened, and I forgot all about it.

My boyfriend and I have made a job, recently, of playing single-player console games together, rather than spending time on separate PCs.  I have to say, I enjoy the time more, and it feels more like we’re making a dent in our ever-growing games-yet-to-be-played pile.  Recently we played Fable 2 together, as I said.  At the moment, at my request, while I continue to work on my chapter plan, he’s playing Folklore.  It’s even more interesting than I’d hoped.

You play the game as either Ellen or Keats, the former being a young girl in search of the spirit of her deceased mother, and the latter being an investigative journalist for an occult magazine who received a strange phone call that led him to the village of Doolin.  They meet up when a woman – who Ellen assumes to be her mother – falls over a cliff.  None of this was new to me from playing the demo.  What was new was the intensity with which Ellen searches for her mother.

The opening cinematic shows her aboard a tiny fishing ship off the coast of Doolin, near a lighthouse.  The sailor in charge of the boat refuses to go any closer in the darkness and storm-tossed tide.  Ellen looks at the letter she received from her mother (“All this time you were alive! Why did you wait so long to tell me?”) and dives over the edge, into the black waves. 

All of this would be little without the voice acting.  Each of the characters has a distinctive lilt to their voices that only says “United Kingdoms” to me, but probably speaks volumes to someone more used to the subtle differences within regions of the UK.  While this adds to the atmosphere, it’s the intensity with which Ellen speaks that makes a difference.  Not knowing how her mother died (Ellen states merely that she “lost” her mother), we can nevertheless see how it’s affected Ellen.  The fact that she would travel so far, risk death in the water offshore, and beg so eloquently a woman she doesn’t even remember speaks volumes about her determination.  Here, then, must be some pretty serious trauma.

Knowing what little extra I gleaned from the demo makes her desperation understandable and her situation pitiable.  It’s nice to see character design carried through with such consistency, and for a character that’s brand new to pull at my heartstrings in such a way that I want to help her find her mother (note: I found myself thinking that, to help, indeed, rather than to play) is something that I find lacking in many games.  Why should I care about events x, y or z?  Why should I do what the tutorial wants me to do, just because it’s the tutorial?  It’s this kind of convincing that I think needs to be more prevalent in games – the kind that takes place based on pathos, and a desire to help.

I think if more games were based on this desire to help, rather than the desire for revenge, or for the joy of killing, or on espionage or stealing, games might be a little more interesting.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy those things – my character in Fable 2 is tending toward evil, simply because I take everything that isn’t nailed down – but it’s so often about the player and their wants and needs, with the player character as a blank slate, that I much prefer to play a character who has their own wants and needs, separate to my own.  I find it far more immersive than remembering who I am and just pretending I’m in a different world.  How I would behave in that situation is secondary to how a character who has grown up in that world would behave.  Our skillsets and understandings of the world are so completely different that I fail to see how being yourself in that circumstance is even relevant. 

As I’ve said before, tell me who I am, and I’ll take the chance to prove I’m who you think I should be.  Don’t leave me in the dark.  Somehow I doubt even Alan Wake has the ability to save me from that kind of miasma.  

Monday, June 28, 2010

Creativity and Time

Back to our regularly-scheduled blog posts!


I found something interesting when I was on the cruise.  I was interested in writing again.  Not so much since I arrived home, nor in the days that followed, because I had now to tidy up my house (I’m not hiring that house sitter again) and catch up on fascinating things like washing and grocery shopping.

I wondered why I used to write more when I was at school.  As I went to university, then got my first real job that didn’t involve a checkout, I did notice my writing dropping to minimal levels.  Looking at my archives, the steady decrease in my output was a little depressing.  Given that I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was 5 years old, the idea that I was writing less was not a welcome one.

I also found that events in my life were affecting me more.  Without the catharsis of writing, I was unable to work my way through the large and small issues that arose in daily life.  But writing takes so much life, so much energy, and while it’s the activity I love most (games, believe it or not, are actually a close second), it’s also the one I let fall away the most often. 

These past three days I have been writing a document of character biographies, worldbuilding and a chapter outline for a novel I want to write.  I’ve never been this organised before – I’ve always been one of those writers who gets excited by where the story is going, to which elegant planning is a devious enemy.  When I was younger, if I knew the ending to a story, I didn’t want to write it.  Now I start with the endings and work back from there, figuring out the beginning.  I still have trouble with the middle, so I think I’ll enlist some help this time around.

I’m still concerned that I won’t make it.  I started this blog not only to muse about certain aspects of writing that were of interest to me, but to get back into the habit of writing every day.  For all my complaints about other people choosing to let their dreams die, I let my own drift out of sight.  Why sit down and write when you can play?  Why create when you can partake?  This is the challenge that faces me at the end of a long day – do I take the easy path, or the rewarding path?  Gandalf would be very displeased with me.

The thing is, being creative requires sleep.  Sleep requires time.  Time after work is a precious commodity, all too easily devoured by chores and cooking.  I don’t even have children.  My goodness.  Although I suppose, if I did, I might have more time, since I wouldn’t be working.  Then again, I'd have children to look after.  What a conundrum.  I used to find it so much easier to write when my day job didn’t involve computers, either.  Working on the checkout was a blissful way to disengage my brain, so that by the time I’d finished work, everything story-related was sorted out and ready to go.  Working as a lecturer, or actually writing games, is far from intellectually restful.  Not that I’m complaining – give me skilled labour any day – but I’m finding it interesting to draw these comparisons, to understand why I haven’t been giving writing the love it deserves.

Let’s start with sleep, since that’s the easiest one to fix.  Well, if our cat would stop waking us up, that one might be pretty much solved, but it does also come down to wanting to do too many things after work, and either not having the time, or staying up to do things that aren’t actually fulfilling, but are either enjoyable or time-wasting.  It seems strange to stay up late to undertake time-wasting activities, but that’s why I wrote my post about Facebook games, in an effort to convince myself to give them up.  I’m happy to say it mostly worked.  Apart from that, I think it’s part of taking on a full-time job – you may not get to do much during the week, but by goodness you enjoy your weekends.  The problem then is that you have so many things to do on the weekend that writing becomes another task that falls by the wayside.  By this logic, writing each night may be the best way to go about it.

But I forgot about a certain time of the day!  Morning!  One of the theories of creativity is that you’re more creative after a good night’s sleep than at the end of a long day, so getting up early could work a charm.  I’ve heard of many people who simply got up an hour earlier each day to get their writing done, and finished their novel in no time.  If you’re getting enough sleep, that might not be such a task.  So, there are two possible ways to improve one’s writing quota.  Let’s look at another aspect.

Intellectual jobs.  Oh, oh dear.  They kill me.  At the end of the day, I am Vegetable Woman.  I enjoy my job, I enjoy the challenge, but sometimes all that sitting and thinking and reading and talking about writing does my head in.  After that, all I want to do is sleep, or play games.  For someone in my profession, that certainly doesn’t sound ideal.  So what can I do to offset the necessary cognitive deficit caused by my job?

I enjoy baking.  Usually I don’t follow a recipe, I just throw things together and see what happens, but that can be stressful if it doesn’t work out.  That and baking every day would quickly become expensive, and more than a little fattening.  I enjoy reading, but that again is an intellectual pursuit.  Playing games usually takes far more time than I mean it to, and cooking dinner isn’t nearly as relaxing as you’d think.  Cuddling my cat helps, but I find it difficult to sit still, so that doesn’t last.  There has to be something that will relax my mind without it being a nap.

Then again, maybe that’s another argument for morning writing.  Get out of bed, turn on the computer, and write for an hour before the day actually begins.  Of course, then I have to be careful not to let my getting-ready-for-work time expand to fill the available space, like my cat does when I roll over at night, so I guess that means setting some pretty strict time boundaries.  Oh dear.

The other option is to write tidbits throughout the day.  I don’t think I’d be any good at that – I’ve never tried.  I suppose it’s possible to edit the emotion in later, but I usually have so much to do at work that it’s unlikely I’d get anything done even if I remembered.  Couple that with shared office space, and suddenly the idea appeals a lot less.  I’d like to be one of those writers who doesn’t get distracted by outside influences, but even while writing this blog post, I’m getting distracted by my boyfriend chopping wood in Fable 2.  Not in a bad way.  I just want to see what’s going on.  I think curiosity is something every writer must have, but you’re joking if you say it doesn’t make us more whimsical. 

So writing, in the mornings, after a good night’s sleep, with no distractions.  Sounds excellent.   But, for now, more Fable 2 co-op.  Oh deary, deary me.

24th June - PokeDON'T! & Briefly: The Hogfather

I have a problem with my Pokewalker.  It’s not the fact that I sometimes forget to put it on, thus not registering my steps, nor even the fact that I often forget to return my little darling to my DS, and thus spend 60,000 steps on gaining only one level.  My problem is that my Pokemon doesn’t love me.

Sometimes he does.  JarethY, my shiny little Dunsparce – can you think of a Pokemon more unworthy as a shiny? – cheers me on when I’m at the gym, stepping madly, and I remember to press the button between songs.  He has a tolerance, I know.  He’ll cheer every 1500 steps taken within an hour.  I need to time my burst of adoration wisely, for maximum effectiveness. 

But sometimes my little close-eyed rock-bug doesn’t even seem to know that I exist.  Can he not see the extra steps I take, just in the hopes of achieving an iota of his affection?  Does he not comprehend that, after dinner, all I’d really like to do is play some little Flash-based game and maybe think about calling it a night?  Does he understand that maybe, just maybe, 13 flights of stairs on my way to work is just a little bit too much to ask?

No, with Pokemon it’s always give, give, give!  But put him back in the DS and he’s right as rain.  He’s happy to be there, and emotes on command, even if it is a bit weird because he doesn’t have legs.  Put him in the Pokewalker and he becomes a domineering exercise automaton, built on input to maintain output and about as difficult to please as a post-colostomy arthritic using a thunderbox in a cyclone. 

I know he’s imaginary.  That doesn’t lessen my pain.

On the bright side, I did finally manage to watch the Televid movie version of The Hogfather today.  Each  character was exactly as I’d imagined, except Mr. Teatime, who was just as sinister, but a little hard to take seriously.  Well, that and I thought Ridcully was supposed to be more fit than the others, given his proclivity for sports.  And where was the Librarian??

Watching it with 3 non-Pratchett readers was an education in itself.  I found myself explaining aspects I hadn’t even remembered I’d remembered.  I guess a childhood spent scouring fantasy after fantasy finally comes to some good after all.  Fiction with real-world applications - 1, ‘lost’ time creeping up to bite me in the ass - 0!  Take that, statistics!

23rd June - Using the Holocaust as a narrative crutch

I’ve often been inspired, and a little daunted, by the Albert Schweitzer quote : "The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives."  This quote, more than anything else, once convinced me to follow my dreams, no matter where they may lead. Mine is not a life of hardship, but, like anyone else’s, has contained difficult choices.  Do I really have the faculties to understand, let alone write about, the kind of suffering that I can only imagine?

We had this discussion today, my boyfriend and I, regarding the movie Shutter Island.  Spoilers to follow.  While I would like to do terrible things to the composer for going over the top in a way that led to Narm, the main content of the film was mostly bearable.  The problem, for me, in the first half, lay with the depiction of Leonardo Di Caprio as a hardened veteran of the second World War.  To his credit, he’s grown older.  That seems like a funny thing to say, but I was as surprised as anyone to find out he could actually act, and I think being older has given him the chance to take roles that show his ability and experience, rather than casting his as the pretty boy.  But that’s neither relevant nor interesting.  My problem was with the depiction of the Holocaust itself.

In the movie, Di Caprio is at the taking of Dashow, and sees frozen bodies piled in the snow, among them a woman and her young daughter.  This movie was released last year and directed by Martin Scorsese.  Given that the Great War ended in 1945 (Mr. Scorsese was born in 1942), any surviving member of the army would be, at youngest, 83.  I know the movie is set in 1957 – that’s not what I’m getting at.  For the same reason I have a problem with a white guy making a film like Avatar, I’m not sure I’m okay with people who have never been to war writing about it.  We can hear, but we do not comprehend.  We can tell, but we do not believe.  For the shock value, and education, and a hundred other reasons, yes, these things must be remembered, but as history.  Not as entertainment.  Despite film being used for documentaries and other wonderful things, never forget that any feature film is designed primarily to entertain.  I have no ties to the war, or any European relatives, but is the greatest tragedy of humankind really suitable as fodder for a film about schizophrenia?

Some may argue schizophrenia isn’t a fair topic in itself.  They may be correct, if it isn’t handled properly, as some of the horror films of the 70s and 80s handled it.  From what I know from studying psychology at university, Di Caprio’s portrayal is accurate.  It’s even sympathetic.  In this sense, then, I would argue that Shutter Island makes a case for schizophrenia being understood, rather than mistreated, and rather vehemently in both cases.  No, I have no problem with the portrayal of mental illness in Shutter Island.  I do have a problem with partial portrayal of historical fact.

It’s easy to do – you’re making a game, writing the dialogue, you write a line, put it in, the game goes gold, and suddenly you’re flooded with emails or forum queries asking how to get past a certain point of the game.  “But it’s obvious!” you cry.  “The hint is clearly in the dialogue!”  Did you user-test it?  Or did you only have everyone on the development team check it?  The same thing happens with stories, all the time.  Only when someone else reads it can they pick up on the logic flaws that make your work unreadable.  “Of course the key is blue!” you snap.  “It’s written right… hold on…”  Suddenly a vital piece of information that is so clear in your mind that it was integral to the story somehow went without saying.  For your reader or viewer, this is a problem.

For many students these days, the Holocaust has a name, but little meaning.  I don’t know why this is.  When I was at school, I was excused from Modern History class on account of extreme distress regarding the events in East Timor.  They were nothing compared to the concentration camps.  What I have learned in detail I have learned through research for some project or another, and what I did learn was never directly translated into those projects, never taken wholesale.  I respect the source material, even if I can’t understand it, in the sense that I wasn’t there, and am grateful I wasn’t.  I know I will never understand it, in the same way that studying Japanese culture for a lifetime will never make me Japanese.  The content is foreign, but educational.

My students know none of this.  They know the vague outline of events, like one can navigate through a dark room by seeing the forms of the furniture, but they lack comprehension.  This is the generation that desecrates graveyards and war memorials.  They don’t know why the older generations can’t forgive.  I’m not advocating racial hatred.  I’m certainly not saying these events should be described, in graphic detail, to each generation.  I’m only saying that while bodies piled in the snow may seem like an evocative image, to this new generation, they are just that.  An image.  “There were bodies.  Too many to count.  Too many to imagine,” Di Caprio says at one point.  If there are too many to imagine, how can we, safe in our cinema seats?  Do we want to?

What happened in those camps… there are no words.  English itself fails in the face of such treatment.  Only emotion and fact remain, and one cannot convey the other.  An image on a screen can never relate the real horror of what came before those bodies were frozen.  At best, they make evoke the viewer’s own knowledge and horror.  At worst, they seem like a waste, but only a waste.  Can you, or I, or anyone we know, claim to understand the horror of waste that is the loss of human life?  For all of our sakes, I hope not.  No one deserves that responsibility, or that punishment.  We deserve to know, so that we can make better choices for the future, but that’s as far as our claim can extend.  Many of our veterans are dead, and they took the memory of those horrors with them.  We should be grateful. 

These people and their memories are not for entertainment.  I’m not picking on Shutter Island in particular here, but rather a recent rise in the number of Holocaust-centric movies.  Is it better to view something in only partial understanding, or to be ignorant?  What’s the path here?  How can we move forward without understanding our past?  But how can we bring understanding to children who don’t read or watch TV or movies?  Inextricably linked is this : how can we teach those who have no interest in learning?  Should we?

And, as writers, how does this affect us?  Am I able only to write about falling in love and loss, and none of the in-between?  Should I shy away from topics of birth, marriage and war because I have no personal experience?  I believe so.  The fictions I create are based on my experiences.  They may be science-fiction or fantasy-based, but they are only ever my own.  I can imagine how it feels to lose a loved one, be it here, in space, or in the fantastic past.  I can imagine falling in love.  I wouldn’t write about having a child, or getting married, or going to war.  Hopefully one day I can address the first two.  Can I write about living in terror?  Only as much as I fear walking home alone in the dark.  Can I ask other people for their accounts of events I myself have not lived, but want to write about?  Yes.  Should I have them fact-check what I end up writing?  Definitely.  Will it read the same as if I’d experienced it myself?  Never.

And is this fallacy enough?  Sometimes, yes.  The Forever War is all too real for being written by a Vietnam veteran.  If I want to imagine trekking across country with a pack of wolves on my heels, must I go through it first?  No.  Will the fallacy do?  I hope so.  Must I be aboard an 18th century pirate vessel to write about that experience?  Aside from the fact it’s chronologically impossible, no.  I can research, I can talk to experts, and I can do my best.

Can I write about what it’s like to be a child in war-torn Serbia?  No.  Should I write a fictional account of how I imagine life was for my great uncle in Changi?  I wouldn’t even dream of it.  How, then, can one claim to use the Holocaust as a function of entertainment?  I can’t, and I wouldn’t.

That’s my personal preference.  Clearly, many others, and far more successful than I, disagree.  All I ask is for anyone in the entertainment industry to treat the dead with respect.  They can’t return the favour, so you’ve nothing to gain save the honour of all those who have died before us, in war or otherwise, and the thought that, someday, others will accord you the same.  It’s not much of an incentive, I know, but I don’t think it’s much to ask, either.  Don’t let what’s inside you, your history, your knowledge, your learning and your understanding of the world, die because you were afraid of what others might think.  And don’t mock those who had similar hopes and dreams in the past.  We’re all human.  We all dream.  And someday, we will all die.  It’s not important to the dead how they’re treated.  They’re dead.  But as a culture, as a society, and as a world view, if we want to provide a sense of history and belonging to those of the Internet generation, we need to set some boundaries.

If those boundaries start with declaring taboo the sensationalism of the Holocaust and the profanation of the graves of our relatives, then I will be only too glad.

22nd June - Pirates in my mind

There’s something about pirates that disarms us.  Har de har har.  My favourite characters are pirates, and who doesn’t love Jack Sparrow?  But I find it hard to reconcile the truth of what I know – scurvy, diseases, general lack of hygiene, ruthlessness and often a death at sea – with the image I wish were true.

Looking at writing another story, I’ve come to the line where I can no longer dance a merry peg-legged jig around the line between fantasy and accuracy.  ‘Why bother?’ you may wonder.  Because, most precious reader, if the reader has to believe an  untruth, the closer the rest of the world is to what they know, the more willing they will be to accept your lie.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept, you must first know this : all stories are lies.  The extent of the lie determines its believability. Never forget that it is the willing suspension of disbelief that sustains your audience’s interest.  To tell a convincing lie, you must include some element of the truth, twisted or not.

If I want to have fantasy-land pirates, what does it take away from my story elsewhere?  What other untruth will I have to forego in order to keep my pirates firmly in place?  And what does it add to or remove from my story if I have one type of pirate or another?  Perhaps nothing but my enjoyment, but perhaps whole issues of tone and pacing.  Real world pirates are not so interesting for me to write, so if they intend to feature as a large element of my story, they certainly can’t.  There’s nothing so boring as reading a piece of writing written by a bored author.  I mark student assignments.  I can tell the difference.  If the pirates are grand and grandiose, however, and were meant to feature within certain bounds, how do I stop them overflowing those bounds to insinuate themselves into the rest of the story?

I suppose the real question there is : should I?  If something is interesting for me, and for my audience, need I cut it short?  Perhaps not.  Maybe these pirates will find their way into the rest of the story, and that’s not especially a bad thing.  Much like Dustin Hoffman as the pirate captain in Stardust became one of my most beloved characters instantly, and Captain Kenneth from the Liveship Traders series my most reviled, they have taken over my recollections of both of those works, and ones I immensely enjoyed.  None of the other characters are as memorable for me.  ‘But what about the main characters?’ you may ask, ever eager to question my decisions.  Well, they carry the story along favourably, and come to a resolution.  But it’s the story, not the main characters, that I remember, and both pirates feature strongly.  The acceptance of Dustin Hoffman’s character by his crew is heart-warming.  The moment between Captain Kenneth and Paragon is sublime.  I couldn’t explain why I cried, save that I did.

So do I have the right to dictate to my audience how much time they spend, and with which characters?  Absolutely.  Do I have the ability to dictate who they find the most likeable or memorable?  Not a chance.  Good characterisation, touching backstories and believable motivations are all aspects I can provide, but they’re only stepping stones for the imagination.  I can only write characters that I like and understand, whether from the standpoint of villain or hero and hope the audience will fall into alignment with my beliefs, but it’s never a sure thing.  There’s as much fanart for Voldemort as there is for Harry Potter.  There’s probably more slash fiction about Snape than any other character, as far as I can tell from my memories of a misspent “youth”.  There will always be people who sympathise with Wormtongue, as there should be.  We cannot know what will appeal to any given person at any given time.  The things we hate when we’re younger we can grow to love in old age, and one character will speak more strongly to your reader than anyone else.  Can you define what experience your reader has?

No, but you can give them the best one possible.  Know your characters, know their motivations and know their reactions, and you’ll be one step closer to writing something your audience can believe in.  If that involves bending a few rules, bend the heck out of them, and smooth things over by flying straight elsewhere.  Your audience may not explicitly thank you for excellent characterisation, but they’ll sure put your book down if it’s boring.  Help them give you the benefit of the doubt.

And as for me, I’ve decided to take my own advice and go with then fun pirates.  What could possibly go wrong?

21st June - The King's Bastard - the ending

Some mornings you have a dream that’s so wonderful you don’t want to wake up.  It’s full of unanswered questions and ideas that need to be followed.  The remnants of those thoughts cling to every moment of your day, but dreaming once more brings no relief.  Ah, the dream is lost forever!

The ending to The King’s Bastard reminded me of this feeling.  I ached to know more, yet that door was closed, and will remain so… for now.  During my day, I kept remembering, as one does after a dream, some unfinished task that demanded immediate attention and was of the utmost importance.  On further inspection, it would turn out to be the feeling that I had yet to finish the book, and must certainly do so right this instant.  Alas, but the book was already finished, lying on my bedside table with my bookmark between the front cover and first page.  Can there be no sadder moment in a reader’s life?

So I will have to wait, and hope for an advance copy of the second book of the Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin.  Even if I’m lucky, it will be at least another month.  It’s for this reason that I usually don’t read trilogies until all three books are released.  I have the first two books of Robin Hobb’s new Rain Wilds trilogy, but damned if you’ll catch me sneaking a peek at the first chapter of the first book before the third is safely in my grasping hands.  I remember the moment I first saw Ms. Hobbs’ new book, at Target, of all places.  I literally stopped breathing.  I get the feeling The Uncrowned King will give me the same reaction.

Shall I tell you of the ending of The King’s Bastard?  There are unlikely heroes, declarations of the most damning sort, misconceptions, misunderstandings, misappropriations, sword fights, the clashing of cultures, deaths, murders, antagonism, ambition and betrayal.  And throughout all, as the distant reader, you’re utterly helpless.  All you can do is turn the page.  I say this not with defeat, but relish.  Even in my helplessness, I was aware that I felt helpless.  I could see the strings that were tugging on my heart, but they didn’t matter so much as the emotion.  I wrote previously of how to assure your reader’s fealty to your characters – make the reader feel as your characters do.  In this, Ms. Daniells is masterful.

Like the last note of an unfinished refrain is The King’s Bastard to my sense of story and love for these characters.  As I reach out for that last note of reconciliation, I’m met only with silence.  For now.  In the meantime, I watch the blurred horizon between sea and sky, and refuse to believe certain characters are dead.  Time, and Ms. Daniells, will tell.

And if you believe I write this patiently, you have a far more flattering image of me than is truth.

Monday, June 21, 2010

20th June - Creating the unexpected

Writing an interesting story is something that can be achieved through enthusiasm and a way with words.  Writing a good story requires a little more, in the form of a clever little quip or insight that your audience can walk away with.  Writing a great story requires, well…  I can’t claim to have figured that out yet.

What I do know is that I enjoy writing a certain type of story – a misdirection story, if you will.  I long to create that moment of realisation that the world is not as you thought, yet everything still makes sense.  There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a murder mystery, only to find out that the killer was Barry’s second cousin once removed, who was only mentioned at the beginning of the story as being of note because he owned a particularly fine poodle.  No, that will not do.  To create a mystery that resolves well, you need to have something you’re aiming the audience for – your red herring – and yet throw in enough clues so that the answer will be equally obvious on reinspection.  This is no easy task, yet it doesn’t have to be as hard as some people make it out to be.

I think of it in terms of my hero’s dramatic Want and dramatic Need.  The hero wants something – say it’s a girl.  He goes after every slim-legged blonde he can find, convinced that if he can find a girl in the image of his ex-girlfriend, he’ll be happy.  Now, what does the hero need?  Probably a good kick in the pants, but that doesn’t make for a convincing romantic comedy, so let’s say he needs a girl who is the exact opposite of everything he ever thought he wanted.  The irony there is that he’s chasing in one direction, when what he really needs to do is make an about-face.  Okay, that’s a stereotypical example, and it’s adequate.  Let’s look at something a bit better.

For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology, it’s really quite simple.  The closer the hero’s Want is to their Need, the more ironic we find the ending.  Usually movies will have a hero with completely opposite Wants and Needs, in the same way that fanfic writers have a saying – your first hate is your first love.  This is the case in The Chronicles of Riddick – Riddick wants to be left alone, so he inadvertently goes after the Necromunga so he can go back to his outer-rim worlds in peace.  What he really needed, though, was someone to care about, in the form of Kira.  Spoiler alert: when Kira dies at the end of the movie, it’s helping Riddick achieve his Want, but forever destroying his chance of fulfilling his Need.

When a movie is unsatisfying in terms of character growth, it’s usually because the hero didn’t accomplish their Need.  I liked the ironic ending to The Chronicles of Riddick.  It surprised me which, as I said in my last post, is somewhat hard to do.  Denying the hero their Need can definitely lend a sense of tragedy.  But if we go on a journey with a character through terrible hardships and against overwhelming odds, it can be very disappointing to find out they haven’t grown.  The same goes for your story.

If the characters in your story need to be convinced of a certain fact in order for the narrative to work, your reader has to be, too.  It’s no good telling the character that Mr. X killed their father, when it was actually Mr. Y, and the audience knows this.  The audience will think your main character is stupid.   I know, I know, this is a cliché in many films – Mr. Y is actually the hero’s mentor, and using them to defeat an ancient enemy, etc.  But if your hero is misdirected, and your audience can’t possibly see why that would be the case, they’re going to assume your hero is dumb and stop paying attention.

To that end, you need to make your ruse believable.  The main character has to believe it.  Your audience has to believe it.  That way, when your hero comes to the realisation that everything they know is a lie, your audience will, too.  Never underestimate the power of shared experiences.  If your character feels betrayed, at a loss, heartbroken and bewildered, so should your audience.  Writing is nothing if not empathy.  Who didn’t feel a surge of dread when Darth Vader revealed he was Luke’s father?  The shared experience binds your audience to your character more closely than you can otherwise engineer.  That’s why multiple third person perspective can be so tricky.

But how do you build this false reality, and make it believable?  Easy: you simply write the story as if it were true.  You can go back and add in the extra hints to the real culprit later on.  You need to have a villain, someone the audience can hate, in order to want the hero to succeed.  In romantic comedies, it’s usually some aspect of the hero themselves.  But if you had an intergalactic war brewing between two races because one of them attacked the other, while a third played mediator, you need to have spaceships from the second race present at the attack on the first even if they didn’t do it.  There has to be some reason for them to be there, whether it’s a stolen vessel or help that arrived too late, your audience and your main character have to have enough evidence to make a case.  If you simply claim race two did it, without providing any support, your audience is going to immediately be suspicious of race three, who seem to be turning up just in time to be of no use at all.  They may be suspicious of race three anyway, but that’s another story.

Having said that, your audience should feel smart.  That’s where placing the right clues comes in.  As I said before, it’s no fun trying to guess who the murderer is if you’re never introduced to them, because the task is impossible.  It should be a challenge, but be willing to let your audience in on the sham.  They like to see behind the scenes as much as anyone else, and if they feel smart for having figured it out, so much the better.  It goes without saying, of course, that you should never make the solution too obvious, either, otherwise your audience will assume you think they’re stupid.  It’s a fine line between a whole bunch of people thinking a whole bunch of completely different people are stupid, but if you can pull it off, the result will be an immensely rewarding story that merits at least another read-through.  My favourite stories can all offer me more each time I read them.  Give your audience something to go back to, to see how they were fooled, and you’ll stay in their mind a whole lot longer than if you spell everything out for them.

19th June - The King’s Bastard: Book one of Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin – the first 300 pages

Holidays are curious things.  I must admit that, despite my profession, I had forgotten what it was like to lose an afternoon to a particularly enthralling book.  Perhaps because of my profession, such discoveries have been made more difficult.  There are few authors it seems, these days, who can hold my attention when washing, vacuuming, general tidying and work-related matters often override my immersion.  Barbara Hambly is one.  Joe Abercrombie is another.  I’m happy to say Rowena Cory Daniells has joined them, and single-handedly convinced me that I need to spend more time reading.

I have tried writing novels – far from never getting started, I usually get my story out, only to discover that my narrative has become distressingly short.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I have no patience for the middle.  Let me write the beginning and the end and I’ll be happy.  It’s gratifying to see, however, that other people don’t suffer from my admitted lack of patience.

Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series is one that follows numerous characters through some occasionally mundane tasks, yet never gets boring.  David Eddings’ The Elenium and The Tamuli enthralled me years ago with their epic quests on which so much happened.  With The King’s Bastard, when I went to relate the first four chapters to my boyfriend, I was talking for 20 minutes straight.

This, from my point of view, is an excellent compliment.  200 pages have flown by since then, and this evening I considered taking the book with me to the after dinner entertainment.  So much happens, and yet all of it relevant, that it feels like a more witty action movie, filled with intrigue and political agendas, but enough danger to keep the tension humming along as a counterpoint.

There are also extra points for mythical creatures, a type of banned and sometimes reviled magic, excellent sword fights and daring escapes, all bundled into a world that is not only fascinating, but alive.  It reminds me of the tone of The Princess Bride, save that this is an epic of two brothers, bound into a tragic fate that has only, so far, been hinted at.  And that is where my true amazement lies – nothing terrible has happened… yet.  There have been some minor issues, people’s spouses getting killed, that sort of thing, but for the vast majority, our main characters have remained unscathed.  That worries me.  And I’m thrilled that I’m worried!  How did this happen?  When?  But I’m trying very hard to appreciate the book for what it is – an introduction to a world I desperately want to know more about – without letting analysis sap my enjoyment by dissecting the emotions that arise with each new chapter.  There’s always another day for analysis.  Right now is for reading.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Permission to Dream, Pt. I

He was there, in the darkness, watching her.  She could feel his eyes on her like the cold dread of tiny legs across sleeping flesh.  She knew he was only waiting for them to come and take her.  She'd had his advice an hour ago, hadn't even tried to flee.  No doubt he thought her a fool.  She wished she thought him the same.

She watched the neon lights flicker and toss her shadow like an unwanted doll, tumbling her shape across the brickwork behind her.  I'll be strong, she told herself, waiting and wishing she'd had just one more cigarette to keep her company.  I'll show him what I'm made of at the eleventh hour.  Headlights rounded the corner, flooded the freakshow alleyway with normalcy, and she tensed.  Two agents stepped out of the car, then another two.  Despite herself, she ran.

In the end, it didn't matter.  The sad part was, she'd known it all along.

#     #     #     

They'd met in the days when she still believed in good, like a high-town girl with a shiny new uniform does.  She'd listened to him, been enthralled by him, and quickly fallen in love with him.  Here was the voice of The Force, personified - a man whose every movement, breath and smoke-laden exhalation had been the epitome of the law.  It was for him that she'd taken up smoking, hoping to impress.  The first time he'd seen her on the smoker's terrace, he'd fixed her with a lop-sided smile, like he'd just seen a child crossing the road alone for the first time.  She'd been stupidly pleased, even though her lungs had burned for days afterward.

In time, she'd been promoted away from him, competent enough to undertake her own duties, out on the beat, with a partner just a little less green than herself.  She'd lost a lot of her veneer in those first weeks, had a lot of chips and dents put in the world that she'd been told existed.  God, how she'd wept those first nights, alone in her studio apartment, wept for the beaten women and homeless children and men with guns and knives and no hope.  If she'd expected reassurance from him, that was tough luck.  He'd watched her once more on the smoker's terrace, but this time there was only an unfathomable stillness to his gaze.

After a particularly clumsy gunfight, she'd been chewed out by the Sargent while he sat and watched in the corner, smoky reflections dancing in his still, dark eyes.  She'd been demoted to indefinite desk duty, and as she slouched to her new cubicle, holster light and heart heavy, he'd followed her with two cups of coffee and that same lop-sided smile.  For a moment, she'd been able to convince herself that he cared, before dismissing it as childish fantasy.  Nevertheless, it was an afternoon she had remembered for years.

Then, one day, he was gone.  Transferred, someone said.  Moved away, from someone else.  She'd tried to find him, come up zip, with offhand comments and downright glares her only answer to her casually crafted questions.  They knew why she asked.  She pretended they didn't.  And she sat in her cubicle, remembering that smile and the scent of cheap filter coffee like it was manna.  Months later, cleaning out a stack of files, she'd found her transfer papers, with his signature at the bottom.  She'd remembered the smell of gunpowder and the numbness of her hands, the horror of the spreading darkness that had haunted her dreams and her career.  She'd known she should thank him, even though she'd been far from pleased at the time.  She'd wished that she could thank him, but all she could do was put paper after paper in its proper place and memorise the curve of his surprisingly elegant script.  It was only when the last box had been packed away and she'd been moved on to filling out incident reports that she realised she'd probably never see him again.

All that was long past.  He'd walked back into the station, back into her life, a little more than three months ago.  After seven long years of failed relationships and a nowhere career, she was ready to cling to the last remnants of her youth in a way that both ashamed and astounded her.  None of the men she'd met had lived up to his standard, always, in some way, falling short of his ideal as the loveable, the untouchable.  She'd greeted him with a smile, turned on the charm, and he'd looked right through her, as if she didn't exist.

She hadn't known then that he'd undergone seven years of cybernetic reconstruction, had barely made it out sane.  She hadn't known of the terrors that had overtaken him between streets, of the cruelty of men in respectable positions who didn't appreciate cops who weren't for sale.  She only knew that her heart had broken in a way she hadn't felt since she was twelve, when the world had first introduced her to pain.  She hadn't known she could still cry like that.  She'd wished she couldn't.

Ever since, she'd maintained her distance, kept to herself, and tried not to see his eyes sliding over her like she was the space between two pictures.  Sometimes his gaze would linger, looking through her, but since she'd first noticed the subtle red tint behind his pupils, it had been as if he was no longer really alive, no longer there.  He was on a big case, one to rival the feds, and he was copping a lot of heat from higher-ups who were becoming uncomfortable with his hard-lined questions.  He didn't even try to reassure them.  What he'd lost in grace, he'd made up for in efficiency.  Even his handwriting was different.

Then that one day, everything had changed.  He'd looked at her for the first time in months, eyes widening, red glow gone.  He'd stared at her until horror overcame his features, and he'd grabbed her arms with enough strength to make her gasp.

"Sarah," he'd said.  "Run."

So she'd run, leaving her apartment, even her cat, hiding away in backstreet hollows and dingy motels, never using her real name, withdrawing money only an increment at a time.  That moment of humanity in his red-lined gaze had terrified her, kept her on the move, forever wanting to know more but afraid of what she would find.  Somehow, he'd kept in touch, kept her one step ahead of the shadows she would see at the far end of the corridor as she slipped silently down another outdoor fire escape.  There was no doubt they were hunting her.  All she'd wanted to know was why.

Eventually, her answer had come, in the form of a note slipped under her door at 3am on a rusty morning.  She'd learned to sleep lightly, so the whisper of paper warned her.  She'd wished anything for a gun, but remembered enough to know better.  It was a folded photograph of the last time she'd seen him fully human, of him and her on the smoker's terrace, him with his lop-sided smile, and her, glancing away.  In the darkness, all she could see was a circle, drawn around the image of herself.  When she took it into the light, she could see the perfectly-captured look on his face.  Tenderness and regret.

She'd known then what kind of questions they'd ask.  She'd known she didn't have the answers.  But she'd also known it wouldn't matter.  When he'd told her their next strike point, she'd set up an ambush of her own.  The rabbit, setting the snare.  He couldn't help her anymore, without jeopardising himself, and his task was important, more vital than she could know.  She wouldn't let him die protecting her.  She turned back toward the light.

#     #     #     

As the agent pulled his fist back, ready to strike another blow, for a brief moment, she smiled.  The mess of her face mocked her from the reflective glass, turning her smile into a nightmare of gore.  She didn't know where he was, or how'd he'd acquired his information.  She didn't know who his next target was, so she stayed silent, and they took her silence for stubbornness.  She smiled at their ignorance.

Eventually they asked the one question she could answer, lips split and bloodied, tongue heavy from catching it between her teeth when they caught her by surprise.

"What do you know of John Sanders?"  Her eyes strayed to the corner where a security camera watched, red light unblinking, and her smile was genuine.  A silent image played across the nearby screen, the first of a series of corrupt senators being escorted through the surging crowd, microphones like hungry flies converging on a corpse.  He was there, on the screen, giving a speech with subtitles like 'dignity' and 'integrity'.  The agent stared at the screen in shock, fist half-raised, his mission in tatters.  Despite all this, she knew he was watching, tapped into the security system.  He'd be her confessor.

"It was the best relationship I never had."

And then it was done.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Miscellany and Epiphany (in the form of a cat)

"With no-one wearing their real face
It's a whiteout of emotion
And I've only got my brittle bones to break the fall

When the love in letters fade
It's like moving in slow motion
And we're already too late if we arrive at all"

Today is a tidbit trickle of things I encountered - the above is from a song called War by Poets of the Fall.  It's in Alan Wake, as the ending to Chapter 5, and I fell in love with it on first listen.  One of their other songs, Last Goodbye, plays in the credits of Max Payne 2, and it's another favourite of mine.

For me, the appeal is always in a singular moment.  Much as I craft my stories by a feeling or a thought, and expand upon them to create a world and narrative, a single moment is all it takes for me to fall in love.  In the above, it's the last line: "And we're too late if we arrive at all."  It's such a desperate kind of phrase, with a rising tempo behind it, that it sets my hair on end every time, and gives me that little frisson of realisation that I so look forward to when the song first begins.  

Another thing I found today that made me stop to think was this quote: "That is what forgiveness sounds like.  Screaming, and then silence."  I read it as a friend's status on Facebook.  Little did I know it was a line delivered during a conversation between two llamas.  Reading it, in the space of my own mind, it sounds ominous, maniacal, and not a little bit sad.  Hearing it spoken aloud by one of said llamas probably would have been far more hilarious if I didn't already have such preconceptions.  It's a fantastic line, one that conjures up images of intergalactic war but, instead, is about the deaths of people on a cruise ship, drowned by a psychopathic llama.  The gap between what I was expecting and what I actually got is almost as funny as the cartoon itself.  Now, to think of a story I can turn it in to...

It does make me think of The Silent King, in Planescape: Torment.  King of the undead, he was a giant skeleton who sat atop a massive throne in the catacombs under Sigil.  Never saying a word, he ruled for thousands of years.  His last lot of ruminations was so intense he hasn't moved for an age.  As a minor spoiler, when you finally get an audience with him, it turns out he's been dead for the past 20 years, and no one noticed.  That, too, was equal parts funny and sad, but had just enough of a taste of the world-within-a-world that I was happy enough to leave with what I had gathered, without being bored enough to be glad to escape.

I also had the pleasure of playing Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble today.  While some of the writing is a little less than I would have hoped, the mechanics must be fun - I played it for an hour and a half and didn't even want to think about quitting.  It takes the style of a board game such as Cluedo, set in an all girls' school in the 1930s.  As one of the students, you must uncover clues relating to certain schoolyard mysteries while using a combination of Popularity, Rebellion, Glamour and Savvy to outsmart those around you and charm the little cotton socks off prospective gang members (other schoolgirls) and wandering encounters (teachers and possible boyfriends).  In fact, I'd be playing it right now if I weren't simultaneously packing and writing this blog post.

Which brings me to another point of interest - I'm off on holidays for a week, starting on Saturday.  Woo hoo!  I mean... *ahem*.  I'll be sure to make many meaningful posts regarding story and related matters while I'm in the middle of the Pacific on a cruise ship drinking some kind of delicious cocktail.  

The sad part is, since I have an internet-enabled phone, I probably will.  The excellent part is, since I'll actually have time to catch up on my reading, I'll have more to talk about than llamas.  Keep an eye out for a review of The King's Bastard, the new book by Rowena Cory Daniells, sometime in the near future!

And, because it's a cold night and I'm feeling generous, have a picture of my cat asleep in her little fluffy cat-home:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

After many a year and many a reference, I finally read the seminal text.  To say I was underwhelmed would be incorrect.  Unsurprised would be closer to the truth.  Not at all shocked, perhaps.  Revolted, a little.  But if I didn't believe before in the desensitising factor of modern media, I do now.

Don't get me wrong - the story is well-written, evocative, and thought-provoking.  I don't know whether it was a fault of the version I read, backed up in some internet archive from goodness-knows-when, but it seemed like a lot of information was missing.  After reading the story, I read some notes that accompanied it, on the 'translation' of events.  I didn't get half of what was in those comments from reading the story itself.  They may be ideas or notions that come to light on re-reading, and since I read it at work, I'll admit the air of horror was subdued by fluorescence and too many co-workers.  I can see how, in the 60s, finding this tidbit in a science fiction magazine, completely unexpectedly, could have a serious impact on one's sanity.  These days, though, I'm sad to say it's shoulder-shrug territory.

For me it all had an air of the familiar, which doubtless comes from it being such an iconic part of science fiction history.  There's a similarly horrifying ending to the second trade paperback of Fall of Cthulhu.  I've seen The Cube, and that, for me, was and still is far more terrifying, simply because a) the horror is random and b) it shows more of man's inhumanity to man.  I'm far more afraid of my fellow passers-by than I am of a world-wide supercomputer.  Then again, The Cube was really the same story, as far as I'm concerned.  Only the 'mute' makes it out alive.

The unfortunate aspect of being a canonical piece of literature is the parody that also follows.  I'm sure I've seen the idea of a can without a can opener in several cartoons, or at least the Simpsons.  The band of strangers running from a cruel AI is also something taken lightly, in many cases and differing locales.  What I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream does well is bring out the horror of those one hundred and nine years.  One hundred and nine years of starvation, of being caught up with the same 4 people!  One hundred and nine years of terror, and never sleeping, of being hunted by creatures that exist only in your mind, of torture in an undying body that, nevertheless, can be hurt and scarred.  That is horrifying.  It is repulsive.  It is memorable.  But I felt no more than a little sad.

Vault 106 shows its roots, clearly.  You take the path of Ted, if you are good.  But their prison is a prison of the mind - they can't escape, even if they want to.  There's no way out.  The cruelty of Ellison's work is that Benny almost makes it to the surface, to the dubious freedom of the wasteland above, to the nothingness that is preferable to continued torment, and AM punishes him.  Like many a Greek hell, the desired is visible, but forever out of reach.  I doubt I need to explain why the latter is worse.

I believe this is a story that becomes more horrific on consideration.  Much like some movies are only funny in retrospect, understanding each of the characters in Ellison's story, as the computer game embellishment allows you to do, leads, inexorably, to considering where they wound up.  How they wound up.  The horrors they faced that, even after a hundred and nine years, are never okay.  What I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream does is argue against desensitisation, against the idea that some things, once experienced, are never quite as horrifying.  That some experiences can be lived through, and those who appear sane really are.  That there's a reason to this madness.  There is only AM, and it hates you, more than you can ever comprehend.

Would I recommend reading it?  Definitely.  Go here, and start the journey.  It isn't a long one, but it's very worthwhile.  Much like Algernon Blackwood managing to make me afraid of trees with 20 pages of non-action, I imagine this one will stay with me for a while yet.  The main question of Ted as an unreliable narrator is still one I'm tossing around in my mind.  Was he crazy?  Was he right?  What is this unending torment, this new prison like to experience?  And, following these questions, we come to the abyss.  Despite my outward apathy, I get the feeling that, deep down, a day and a half later, I'm still secretly terrified.

I suppose AM affects us all.

Fantasy in video games

A friend posed the question today about fantasy, and its relevance to a modern audience in its 1950s, semi-archaic form.  Being primarily a novelist, she wondered : does fantasy have any place in the world of video games?  How do the distinctly modern-day demographic relate to worlds that are usually more slow-paced, vast and so black-and-white?

My first answer is, "Yes, fantasy has a place in video games."  My next answer is, "Really well, actually!"  So tonight I'm going to showcase a brief history of fantasy in the games I've played, the permutations and the assimilations that have made the genre what it is today - primarily something that's seen along the same lines as 40-year-olds playing D&D in their mum's basement.  Oh my.

Gaming goes through trends, as everything does.  One year you're seeing a lot of generic heroes-in-hoodies, and the next it's Art Deco retro-futures.  Like Pixar and Dreamworks films, or velociraptors, they seem to run in packs.  But fantasy is a humble beast, with origins in many of the finest minds, including those of the video game persuasion.  Some of these wander into the domain of historic fantasy, but I would argue that every game these days has some element of what would traditionally be called 'fantasy', be it the overly romantic representation of the New World in Colonization or the treasure- and ghost-hunting of The Sims 3.

But onto some history.  Where's the sword and sorcery, you ask?  Nowhere more clearly than in the Legend of Zelda series.  Here is a story, repeated tenfold, of a simple farmboy destined to save the Princess from the Darkness (a.k.a. Ganondorf).  Through countless iterations, and several platform changes, the story has remained mostly similar, even if the locale has changed.  Take another step, and we're closer to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two games hailed as the most beautifully moving experiences of the PlayStation 2 generation.  They are fantasy, pure and simple, with fantasy's underlying question : what does it mean to be human?

In the interim are games like Gauntlet and its later cousin, Gauntlet: Legends.  Altered Beast certainly warrants a mention, as does Bubble Bobble (though when you're dinosaurs, but from space, what genre is that, exactly?).  I was, of course, raised on games such as King's Quest and Quest For Glory, which each had their own unique, 8-colour worlds.  In the days of booting from black and white DOS prompt, those worlds were magic, when you had to be able to read to win the game, and I barely walking.  I managed enough through mimicry.  King's Quest 4 was the first game I ever finished all on my own.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt, but I remember equally the story, when the princess kisses the frog, you escape from the harpies, and the unicorn finally shows up.  I remember King's Quest 6 and its Dangling Participle.  They were worlds of whimsy, fun little places that, nevertheless, could have serious consequences.  Miss picking up an item, or select the wrong item for one of the gnomes, or even take too long in choosing, and you were a goner.  I've waxed a little more philosophical about what these games taught me in my article in The Escapist, so I won't go into further detail here.  But what these games lacked in graphics, they more than made up for in spirit.  Then everything changed.

Eventually, when the affordable home PC was more than a twinkle in Bill Gates' eye, the fantasy genre took on new meaning for me in the form of Myst.  I'd never seen anything like it.  It was so realistic, yet so alien; so intriguing, yet so unwelcoming, and more than a little chilling.  My strongest memory is looking through the telescope to see a skeleton sitting in the crow's nest of the ship.  As a tender child, you don't expect to see those kinds of things.  Myst didn't pull any punches when it came to epic choices, either, with the ending being one of the few moments that gave me a serious crisis of conscience in the years when I was too young to fully comprehend what a moral choice actually was.  All I knew was that it was wrong, wrong, wrong - I had to be able to save everyone!  Right?

Years later, when Myst III: Exile came out, I stumbled upon The Book of Atrus, and the world of Myst took on new meaning.  Here was an entire society, chronicled in a form that my higher thought processes said must be fake, but that my Dinotopia-loving soul cried out had to be real.  The idea, for a young writer, that someone with enough talent could literally write a world into existence, and visit it via a Linking Book?  Could there be anything more compelling?  Gladly, for a writer who had begun to venture further into games, the answer was another, "Yes!"  Two years earlier I'd discovered Baldur's Gate.  I'd journeyed throughout the Sword Coast, seen my foster father cut down in front of me, and fled from North to South to escape the evil tyranny of my half-brother by blood, son of the murdered God Bhaal, who had decreed himself to be our father's replacement in heaven.  It was a long and treacherous path, full of terror, exploration, moments of sweetness and, inexorably, the crushing weight of destiny.  I came out of that world a changed girl.

Then I fell in love.  For all that Myst III captivated me with its stunning visuals and rich lore, there was someone else on my horizon than Atrus and his lovely wife.  I had met a half-breed tiefling bard by the name of Haer'Dalis in Baldur's Gate 2.  We were inseparable, but this being the days when it was uncool to be a girl who played games, I had chosen a male character.  My anguish knew no bounds when Haer'Dalis chose, instead, to flirt not only with a female party member of mine, but the girl who was supposed to be in love with me!  That made for some confusing teenage angst, let me tell you.  In Baldur's Gate 2, I was following the man who had stolen my soul to replace his own, as his connection with the World Tree was severed after he tried to bring his dead sister back to life and inadvertently made her a vampire.  If he could only gather two half-immortal souls, he could return to Elven society to be with the woman he loved.  Luckily for him, I and my half-sister were on hand.  Unluckily for me, that meant that I would occasionally lose control and find myself as a demon-beast known only as The Slayer, without any ability to impede or halt my own rampage in any way.  I killed Haer'Dalis, and my entire party, and when I was myself again, I was alone.  I think you can guess how that ended.  A quick bout of tears, an even quicker load of my saved game, and renewed determination.

From there, I stepped to Planescape: Torment.  As another world set in the AD&D universe, it was similar in mechanics, but brand new in every other sense.  Here was a new world to explore, where thought had real power to create or shape the very ground on which you walked, and in which you were a walking corpse who awoke in the morgue with a bad hangover and no idea of how you had wound up dead.  The main character is even called The Nameless One.  If I had to choose a single game that defined my love of not only the fantasy genre, but games in totality, Planescape: Torment is it.  I had read many Pern and Discworld novels, I had written what I now realise was quite poor fanfiction, and I dreamed of one day writing my own novels, but my journey through Planescape was the first time a world had truly come alive for me.  The world of Myst was beautiful, fragile, like a crystal butterfly inside a filigree cage, but Planescape was the beating heart I held in my hand, covering me in blood and filling me with dread.  When I could bring myself to finish the game, I cried for two weeks.  I couldn't stop.  Even with all the anguish of Heavy Rain, Planescape left a stronger mark - not only had I been betrayed, I was the betrayer.  I felt sick, weak, powerless, and irredeemable.  I felt like I would never be clean.  And I knew then that I wanted to write games.

Fantasy, in these worlds, gave me something to believe in.  I was willing to lose myself in the exploration, and though many of the NPCs would as soon kill me as look at me, I always knew where I stood.  People would betray me, but I could see it coming.  Bandits would attack me, but I knew I was stronger.  I wasn't anyone special - heck, I wasn't even anyone, really.  But I was working hard, I was improving, and I was taking mastery of my world.  For a child, then a teenager, those are powerful feelings.  To hold a life in your hands is a precious thing, and nothing has taught me that more clearly than video games.

The other aspect of fantasy that I know attracted me, and still does, though it's somehow a shameful conceit in an adult, is that sense of control.  When you help someone, you're really helping them.  You're making a difference, a difference you can see and feel.  The quest reward is only a part of it.  I would like to think that, in the real world, if I saw someone in danger, or being attacked, I would rush to help.  In actuality, I'd call the police.  Quite often, when you do so, you never find out what happened.  There are few endings in life, and fewer things as simple as rescuing a Damsel in Distress.  There are rarely any situations that are so clearly black and white.  I say that Myst is shades of grey, and that, in itself, is true.  But what is also true is that your decision is, ideally, informed; you have power, you make a choice, and you improve the world.  How could that not appeal?

The thing that has drawn me most to fantasy in recent years is the simplicity of life, and the danger of it.  As I grow older, I crave experiences that make me feel alive.  A lot of the romance has gone out of romance, since there are no world wars, and most diseases have a cure.  I would argue that a big part of passionate love is the fear of loss, which we simply don't see in our everyday lives, bar accidents or illness.  The world is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was for those of us in First World countries, and our passions have suffered for it.  In fantasy, and especially in games, you have no idea what awaits you in a new town.  You never know if there's an assassin around the bend.  You keep in touch only in person, and get news only in major towns.  It's a striking comparison to my internet-enabled iPhone.  Without technology, people have to actually communicate.  The urgency, the immediacy and the intimacy of these conversations is something that's sorely lacking from many people's lives.  To live in fear that you may never see someone again is hell, but in a video game, it provides impetus.  You work to save the people or places you love.  Nothing in the real world is so clear, so finite.  Fantasy lets us believe we can make a difference, and shows us that we can.  And, ideally, good wins out.  You fight the ultimate evil, or perhaps discover yourself to be the ultimate evil, but rarely does the story end badly.  The world is a safer place, and you were responsible.  But this has been changing, slowly, in games and elsewhere.  Suddenly things aren't so simple anymore.

In recent years there have been games such as Morrowind and Oblivion of the Elder Scrolls series, worlds that are open for exploration and wild beyond imagining.  I spent hours playing multiplayer Age of Empires and Civilisation, which taught me valuable lessons about logistics and strange phrases to use in Chinese class.  I laughed at bacon in the world of Nox, and dropped 50 diamonds at a time just to watch the physics.  I hunted the slayer of Aribeth's fiance in Neverwinter Nights and cringed at the sequel.  I spent hours with my brother in Dungeon Siege, getting to the giant chicken level.  I entered the world of Armoured Princess with delight, and hack-and-slashed my way through Torchlight and Trine.  Most recently, I've fallen into Dragon Age, but it seems a pale wisp of a thing compared to the flames of my past experiences.  And that's my main complaint, which I know is being echoed in other media :

Fantasy is getting watered down.  I don't believe it's just because the games of the past were based on Dungeons and Dragons.  Myst wasn't, and it had its own mythos, including a trilogy of real-world books.  The Elder Scrolls games have always had a rich history, with in-game books to pique your interest.  Trine had a bedtime-story quality that endeared it to me, and Torchlight, while lacking the dramatic turnaround that made Diablo such a heart-wrencher originally, was pretty and fun and had a cute enough story to match the visuals.  'Serious' games of the past few years, those that have tried to do fantasy, haven't had the majority of these things.  From what I've played of Fable 2 and my impressions of it, the console gamers aren't faring much better, either.

So what is it?  Have we finally run out of ideas?  No, I don't think so.  Is fantasy no longer relevant?  I'd like to think that question is so absurd as to not need answering, but the harsh truth must be faced.  When Joe Abercrombie can write amazing, terrible, soul-destroying epics, and still have me love him for them, perhaps the face of fantasy is changing.  It's no longer the person I once knew.  If that were simply it, it might be bearable, but fantasy writers in games seem to be taking themselves too seriously.  The religious connotations of the Chantry in Dragon Age give the world a sense of realism that I don't care to embrace.  The idea of persuasion in Oblivion, while fun and a nice change from the previous mechanics, becomes a little creepy when you're coercing someone and they're smiling to show you they'll respond 'well' to it, despite saying things along the lines of, "Please! No! You're scaring me!"

It's also becoming more generic, not less.  The worlds of yore, though seen with rose-tinted glasses, had more to offer in terms of escapism than simply swords and dragons.  They had a living world that invited you to play.  I haven't spent as long in any recent game as I have in Morrowind or the Baldur's Gate series.  I'm willing to accept that's part of growing up, but it isn't only that.  When a genre is something so near and dear to your heart that you can't bear to see it done badly, it becomes very difficult to get excited about new releases.  It's been years since I yearned to play.  Does that mean the magic's gone?

I'm hoping it's a cycle.  Planescape and Baldur's Gate had serious stories, but there were also many opportunities for lightness and humour.  Dragon Age can be funny, but only when I convince it I'm not taking it seriously first, only with my permission.  Shouldn't the default be to entertain?  Inappropriate levity can ruin an important moment, but there's a time and a place for everything.  Humour has many places, and can be applied at many times.  Those old games were fun.  There was only one outcome, but you couldn't wait to take the journey.  With our branching paths and multiple endings, it feels a bit like we've lost the plot or, worse, the soul of what we set out to achieve.  Fantasy is more than pretty armour and dashing knights.  It tells us something vitally important :

This is what it's like to be human.

Pain is a part of that, but so are joy, happiness, love, excitement and colour.  Brighten your world in more ways than one.  Blue skies never did anyone harm.  Even if the world is ending, even if I and everyone I love are about to die, the sun can still shine.  Make me feel those last moments as keenly as if I were really there.  Show me the beauty of the world I'm trying to save, though dialogue, through interactions, through scenery, and through my own reactions.  Build a living world, rather than tacking more material on something dead to begin with.  Start from the ground up, and give yourself permission to breathe life into your creation.  There have been so many advances in technology that I refuse to believe this is the best we can do.  Remember the wonder you felt as a child, and translate it into the world you create.  The result will be something that lends itself infinitely better to sequels and spinoffs than a hollow shell.

The most important aspect, for me, as a gamer?  Tell me who I am again.  In Baldur's Gate and Planescape and Morrowind, even Myst, I was someone.  I had a purpose.  Let me choose my face, but give me a past.  Give me a purpose.  And give me a world to explore.  I'll be on your side, I promise.  I'll delight in your delight,  share your enthusiasm and your anguish, and spend my hours exploring the world you created for me.  You'll never know, but you just have to trust me.  After all, isn't that why we got into games?

Is fantasy dead, as a genre in games?  No.  But it's a bit too much of the grieving widow to dance a merry jig. The Scandinavian countries, to generalise, are doing a fantastic job.  We're merely hanging on.  It's time to do more, and for those of you who play games, it's time to demand more.  Fantasy isn't dead.  It's only sleeping. And it's my fervent hope that Prince Charming is just over the horizon.