Saturday, July 31, 2010

Autobiography in working relationships

Despite telling my students otherwise in order to allow them to feel comfortable writing a creative assessment item, I do believe that every aspect of writing contains some autobiographical information, whether it's how the writer looks at the world or an experience they've had.  Being able to read between the lines, and knowing the person on the other side, can be an enlightening process.  Of course, for this to be the case, the process must be undertaken un-self-consciously, which is what can make the whole exercise so difficult in the first place.  If you know that someone is going to be reading your work, you will automatically self-edit.  But what if we didn't, and what would that tell us about our co-workers?

I'm not talking about sending emails or memos.  I mean creative writing, as in short stories, screenplays or in-game modules.  If we wrote something for ourselves, then shared that with the people we work with, what effect would that have?  Would they be able to see facets of your personality that they'd never noticed before? Or would they take the work at face value, and learn only what you wanted them to?

I was thinking about this tonight, wondering about what it would be like to work in a team of writers.  I had the wonderful experience of working with Tom Abernathy when I was at Pandemic, and, for the first time in my life, I met someone whose brain functioned the same way as mine.  It was indescribable.  I can only imagine what it would be like, working with an entire team of like-minded people, but then that brought me to the scary part of that equation - how do you shield yourself from people who know how to truly read?

Not everything you write is autobiographical.  I can imagine many situations I have never experienced, and many I hope I never will.   But, as I said, your attitudes toward so many things dictate the way that you look at the world.  I read a quote attributed to Einstein, the other night, that said "Common sense is the set of prejudices acquired by age 18."  How much of your childhood are you giving away with each paragraph?

Psychoanalysts would probably find more meaning in the above than fellow writers, though having a background in both makes me eminently suited to question what I read.  Doubtless many people take what they are given and don't read too closely, since the benefits of doing so seem relatively moot and, to be honest, speculation may be interesting, but it will almost never be confirmed in the case of personalities.  But working in a team, in such a close-knit environment, where overtime is common - surely you would start to learn a thing or two about each other.  Surely, from your writing, that would shine through.

I suppose it's like any group of professionals.  How you code and comment says a lot about your mindset.  The other computer-game-related disciplines doubtless have their own indicators, and their own sub-sets that I'm unaware of.  But none of them expose so much of the self as writing, and using your own experiences to inform your writing.  Of course, it's impossible to accuse someone of having an abusive childhood, just because they write the symptoms well, but I wonder if groups of writers spend as much time thinking about each others' experiences as I sometimes do when I read student treatments.  And my answer, since I would love to work in that kind of environment is : I sincerely hope not.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pokemon Black, Fatale and Peter Chimaera

People do strange things.  Take, for example, the collected works of Peter Chimaera, available for free or in print.  In case you haven't heard of him, or don't recognise the name, he's the author of Doom: Resurrection of Evil, which notably includes such phrases as : ""I will shoot at him" said the cyberdemon and he fired the rocket missiles. John plasmaed at him and tried to blew him up."  This is a person making mock of fanfictions, and thereby rewriting the entire genre.

On a similar, but more disturbing note, comes this story of Pokemon Black, and its serious repercussions.  I recommend you read the article itself, but essentially it gives the player an irremovable Pokemon called Ghost that only has one move - Curse.  Contrary to what Curse does in later versions, in Pokemon Black, the screen fades to black, a lower version of the 'your Pokemon has fainted' sound plays, and when the screen comes back, the Pokemon is... gone.  If it belonged to a trainer, that trainer now has one fewer Pokeball.  If you've ever played Pokemon, you know the entire game is based around loving and respecting your Pokemon, and taking care of them if they faint, because a Pokemon trusts its trainer implicitly, especially if the trainer raises them from when they were an egg.  I get upset when wild Pokemon I'm fighting faint, because I don't like to think that I'm leaving them there, unconscious and unprotected.  The idea of killing a Pokemon is anathema.

And, to wrap things up, I recently played Fatale.  It's a game by Tale of Tales, makers of The Graveyard and The Path.  If you're into the whole 'games as art' debate, then you probably already know about them.  If not, don't let that put you off - The Path is a genuinely chilling experience, and Fatale is beautiful, confusing, frustrating and cathartic, all at once.  I love their games because they are experiences, not games.  If you want to win, don't play them.  If you want to know what kind of games they make, there's a free demo of The Path, and a demo of The Graveyard on Steam.  There's no demo of Fatale, and I can see why.  The experience is carefully crafted, and providing just one segment of it would detract from the whole.  I love them, because they give me stories I'm horrified to be a part of.  The Path made me cry.  Fatale made me feel...  I'm not sure what, but it was powerful. I don't want to give too much away, because it is very short, but so very worthwhile.  These are the games you play and recommend, and never touch again, because the emotional content of your first playthrough is so pure that it seems a shame to dilute it.  They may sound like noting on paper, but they're everything in execution.  I guess that's true of many things.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Believing in yourself - or how I learned to stop worrying and love the critique

You're a writer.  You know it, deep down.  That part of you that has existed since you were a child, that still looks up at the stars or down at the grass and imagines worlds beyond imagining, that part of you knows.  Knows, intimately.  You were born to create.  You were born to describe.  You were born to write.  Then you get your first negative review.

First of all : shock.  How could they say that?  Don't they know how hard you worked, how much you sacrificed?  Don't they care?  Next : denial.  You must have read it wrong.  Surely it doesn't say what you think it does.  Maybe they made a typo, and it changed the whole meaning of their sentence.  Then : outrage.  How dare they?  How dare they?  'I don't see you with a published book/movie/game!' you scream in your mind, silently tearing their criticism apart, syllable by syllable.  'Boring and derivative!  Maybe if you'd ever watched anything other than Big Brother you'd know true originality when you saw it!'  Then : mortification.  What will your friends think?  Will you still have any friends?  And, finally, the big one : what if your critic is... right?

To which the correct answer is : so what?  It's only one person.  Extrapolating one person into many is like saying a grain of sand is a beach.  No sane person will believe you.  But with enough practice, you might be able to convince yourself the beach is real, and therein lies the danger.

We writers, and I haven't met a one of us without this trait, we're not, well, very robust.  Writing is such a soul-baring process that exposing yourself - or what you think of as yourself - to a bunch of strangers who can wound you without a second thought is a terrifying prospect.  Remember when you put a part of yourself into the wide-eyed funny man in chapter 4, who everyone said was hilarious?  And then that one reviewer hated him?  Don't you hate that part of yourself now?

Cut it the hell out.  If you've ever done this, you'll know what I'm talking about.  If you've yet to be critiqued, come forearmed with this knowledge : people don't see you, behind the page.  They're not critiquing you.  It may feel that way, since you know how much of your soul is stuck between the virtual pages of your labour of love.  All they see are words, and all they're thinking about are themselves.

Never forget that.  There are few people - very few - who can give criticism based on what is best for the other person.  For one thing, it requires an intimate knowledge of that person's personality, their drive, what will motivate or destroy them, and their secret and passionate loves.  I'm sorry, but no reviewer, unless they're immediate family, is going to get that close to you.  Breathe a sigh of relief.  Everyone else is simply reacting to their reaction to your work, and, as Epictetus said : "Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinions of the things that happen."  This means that the reviewer/critic is reacting not to the content of your book/story/play/movie/game, but to how that content made him or her feel.  And, as we learned in our turbulent teen years, we're not responsible for how other people feel.  At all.  In the slightest.

Everything is a choice.  Never forget that.  The reviewer has the choice to criticise or praise.  You have the choice to be offended or not.  No one can hurt you without your consent.  That goes for everything in life, and writing no less.  You just have to remember that you are in control of your emotions.

And, if remembering that doesn't help, here are a few simple things that help me get over receiving a bad review :

1) Will it matter in 5 minutes?  5 days?  5 weeks?  5 years?
2) Did you do your best?
3) Have you learned anything new from this experience?
4) Will you be able to do better next time?

If the answer to any part of question 1 is 'no', then, congratulations!  Worry over.  If the answer to questions 2-4 is 'no', then you have a slightly bigger problem.

If you didn't do your best, why not?  Try to figure out what held you back.  Why didn't you give it your all, and is it something you could have reasonably expected yourself to do, at the time?  If you're holding down four jobs and writing five novels in your spare time and you let a couple of typos slip by in the edit, that's an unreasonable circumstance in which to expect better of yourself.  Give yourself a break.

If you didn't learn anything new from the experience, try to uncover why the same thing happened again.  What lesson are you meant to be learning that maybe hasn't caught on yet?  How can you avoid this pitfall in future?  Make a plan, and stick to it.  That will help alleviate your anxiety.

If you don't think you'll be able to do better next time, and it's not a combination of the above, sit down for a minute, because I've got something important to tell you :

The only person you can rely on in this life to believe in you, to really and truly believe that you can do anything, is yourself.

You may have family, or a partner, or children, or a pet.  They love you.  They believe in you, I'm sure.  But they have their own lives.  You're not going to get too far if you need guidance every step of the way.  Eventually you need to stand on your own two feet, and if that means being able to take criticism, then shrug into your thick skin and wade into the fray.  Life is going to be a whole lot easier if you can actively be aware of when you're doing your best, and when you should be learning.  Only when you can see the problem will you know how to fix it.  Only when you believe in yourself will you be able to convince others to believe in you.

Every stumbling block is a learning exercise.  Every critique is a chance to do better.  Genuine constructive criticism is a rarity, so look for it where you can.  Any chance to improve is one you should grab hold of with all your might.  There's a chance it might sting, for a little, but your pride can take it.  It's tough.  And it'll take the fall for you so you don't have to.  Just keep doing your thing, keep believing in yourself, and keep doing your best.  It's all anyone can ask of you, and it's all you should expect of yourself.  Any more and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment, and that's no way to become an award-winning author.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Self-publishing : writer's friend or foe?

Often known by a far less flattering and inaccurate name - vanity press - self-publishing has become more readily available over the last couple of years.  Heck, it's even recommended for poetry anthologies these days, since the market is so 'niche'.  However, with that recommendation comes a list of sites to avoid as long as my arm.  I spent some time researching different publishing houses, when I was thinking about my poor little anthology, gathering dust.  There are a lot of informed opinions out there, if you know where to look, but if you don't, consider this a quick-start guide to the research you need to do if you're even considering the self-publishing route.

1) Is your book sellable, ever?

If the answer is yes, don't self-publish.  No matter how long it takes, keep sending that manuscript out.  There is a good reason for this - if you self-publish your book, and one of the publishers you sent your manuscript to comes back with - glory of glories! - an acceptance letter, you're immediately in a bit of a bind.  What the publisher will want to buy is first publication rights, meaning they will be the first person/company to publish your work.  What you effectively use up when self-publishing is, you guessed it, your first publication rights.  You might be able to negotiate, if it was a small print run that only went to friends and family, but self-publishing should be considered the same as posting your novel, chapter by chapter, on your blog.  It's still published, and it's still available somewhere that isn't exclusive to your potential buyer.  This is bad, as far as publishing houses are concerned.  They want exclusivity.  If you've sent your manuscript to every publishing house you can think of and it still hasn't been accepted, but you still believe in your work, not only do I envy you, but you may have a strong case for self-publishing.

2) How will you distribute your book?

Sites like Lulu.com will provide you with an ISBN and Amazon.com distribution, for a price.  Their services are POD (Print On Demand), so they don't have stock sitting around, using up valuable real estate.  If, however, you don't want to take that route, or your publisher of choice doesn't offer it, you might have a rather big problem on your hands.  Distribution is normally handled by your publisher, if you were to go the classical route, and they already have deals with most major bookstores.  Failing that, they know enough indie retailers, and have enough of a marketing budget, to make enough sales to get back the money they paid you as an advance, otherwise they wouldn't still be in business.  Trying to get your self-published book up for sale in a store like Borders is going to be beyond difficult.  Even if you can convince them that the book has merit, they buy in bulk and have the titles shipped to their different stores from one distribution centre.  Unless you're willing to pay a heck of a lot of postage, you can't compete with that.  Smaller bookstores might carry your book, but then, as with smaller publishers, you face the issue of marketing.  How are you going to convince people who have never heard of you to buy your book?  How are you going to let them know it even exists?  This is why, personally, I think Lulu's system is ideal.  Amazon.com keywords could lead potential customers right to your book, with no extra effort on your part.  It may be substituting money for that effort, but since we live in a global economy, I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

3) Are you getting value for money?

This is where the distinction between Vanity Press and Self-Publishing comes into play.  Vanity Press will make you sound or feel important, while ripping your wallet from your cold, dead hands.  Self-Publishing is legitimate and respectful, and charges a decent price for all of the stages leading up to publication.  Vanity Press will look something like this.  Dellarte is the Harlequin Vanity imprint, previously called Harlequin Horizons, and recommended to budding authors in rejection letters as an alternative to being published in the regular fashion.  I don't know who has $20,000 to spend on a book trailer, but I imagine if they do have that much money to burn on a gamble, the idea of Vanity Press isn't going to be bothering them in the first place.

Some places will charge for mandatory 'services', such as editing, formatting, review copies, and other things. There are many, many horror stories related to these 'services'.  I won't go into them here.  Suffice to say that if it's costing you more than $700 for 6 copies of your 281-page, A5 book, bound in red-cotton hardcover with silver embossed lettering, as my friend recently bought from Kainos Printing in the ACT, you're probably not getting a very good deal.

4) Is it worth it?

This is a personal question, and one only you can answer.  Will it make your heart flutter to see your work in print?  Do you have the money to support what is essentially a non-business venture?  Are you content to know that your book will never achieve record sales?  I say never, as devil's advocate.  I haven't heard of any massive success stories.  What I have heard of, are stories like this, where people were happy with what they paid for, and content with the level of acclaim they acquired.  If you honestly don't think your book will ever be published by conventional means, or if it's too niche-market, like my poetry anthology, then go for it.  Do your own editing, or pay someone to edit your work.  The same goes for layout, cover art and deciding on which grade of cardboard you want for your cover.  If you want to pay them, some companies will do everything for you.  There's no shame in that.  There's no shame in self-publishing.  You need only be prepared, forewarned against disaster, and aware of what you're getting in to.  And, hey, let's face it - a signed copy of a limited edition book with your name on the cover makes a wonderful Christmas present.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jim Raynor is not a pretty man

So, despite my best intentions, tonight has been a night of StarCraft 2.  I say best intentions, because I really wanted to write.  Funny, but I guess the hype of last night got to me after all, and I cracked my Collector's Edition shortly after I got home.  The art book is nice, and I'm very interested in the behind-the-scenes DVD.  I didn't open the comic - for a game that's he sequel to something with a fantastic story, I find I'm just not that interested.  Then again, I said I wasn't particularly interested in the game, either.  I hadn't really counted on the story.

Coming from a long lineage of multiplayer-only RTS experiences, I must say, two missions in (give me a break, it's late), and I'm already enjoying waiting to find out what'll happen next.  Despite the fact that I know the stories of StarCraft and WarCraft 3, I've never played them, because I didn't have the patience.  StarCraft 2 is managing to keep me interested, even though - and this I freely admit - I don't like Jim Raynor.

He's an alcoholic.  He's a smoker.  He's laconic.  He's an ex-outlaw.  He's one of the heroes from the original StarCraft but, as I've already said, I owe him no allegiance thus far.  His one shining light has been the photo he keeps of Kerrigan, and even that hasn't really warmed my heart.  The first mission (spoilers, if it matters) sees him rescuing colonists from Dominion control on Mar Sara.  Everyone seems happy to see him.  I do enjoy the after-mission news reports, where the news anchor is trying to make Raynor look bad, while his on-the-spot reporter keeps contradicting him and being cut off.  It's cute.  But Raynor himself...  Well, he's a hick.

Then again, it seems most of the people in the StarCraft universe are.  People marvelled when Firefly combined sci-fi and Westerns, but StarCraft did the same thing in 1998, just without the horses.  The miners were hicks.  Most of the marines, while serving for crimes too numerous and horrible to mention, are also usually hicks.  The exceptions are the General and 'my good Alexi', and then they become the oppressive bureaucracy.  Mengsk fought for freedom, and became an overlord.  I wonder that they then expect us to trust to Raynor's altruism.

Apart from that, I'm enjoying the single player campaign a lot more than I thought I would.  Like most Blizzard titles, it stands out in polish.  The radio chatter can be irritating at times, but I'll probably get used to it soon.  Either that, or I'll turn off the sound, though that's hardly ideal.  I suppose it adds character, and saves on assets to have Jim say, "This is getting ugly.", but since the early missions function as a tutorial (never mind that there's also an actual tutorial), the amount of chatter if you already know what you're doing is enough to be distracting.  I also take issue with the Adjutant saying, "You have new tutorial videos to view, Commander." in the same way I rage quit Dungeon Siege 2 after the tutorial Sargent told me to, "Press the Spacebar, maggot!"  I know why they do it, I just wish they'd hide it better.

There is one area where StarCraft 2 gets a lot of praise from me, though.  While I was initially confused upon finishing the first mission, as I wound up back in the bar, but with some crazy side-on view, as soon as my partner said, "Point and click adventure!" I was in love.  Sure, the actions are limited for now, but being able to explore my environment and gain backstory or useful information gives the game a triple super++ from me. I've already mentioned the news broadcasts, but you can change the background music (jukebox), look at elements of Raynor's past (corkboard), talk to an accomplice or start a new mission, which appears to be coming out of some kind of beat-up old suitcase.  It's a nice way to have a visual menu, without the need to heap story on the player.  The mission-start briefings tell you everything you need to know, but if you want to hear it with more character than the Adjutant has, you can talk to other people or sail the mists of Raynor's nostalgia.

I'm still not sold on Jim Raynor as a character, but the rest of the game is giving him a good start.  The environment design also helps - there's a chair behind him with "0.02^" on a piece of paper taped to it - so I'm hoping he's going to show himself to be more honourable, and maybe even stop drinking so much.  I know life is tough on the outer rim, and I know I'd hate him just as much if he were perfect, but when I feel like I'm beheading one tyrant to enthrone another, or to bring them anarchy as Raynor seems to intend, it doesn't bring me much hope for humanity.  Maybe the Zerg will change all that.  It's an entertaining thought.

StarCraft 2 makes me feel old

I remember... You young whipper-snappers, with your new-fangled iPhones and your TVs and your 2 by 4s... I remember when I used to get excited about midnight launches, too.

I can't help but think they certainly weren't more exciting. The clientele was definitely the same. In fact, I saw an acquaintance I hadn't seen since the last midnight launch we went to... 4 years ago. So I guess I'm the one who's changed, since the events haven't.

I used to talk about those midnight launches for moths, with my equally dedicated friends and coworkers. This time I wouldn't have left the house if I hadn't promised someone else a lift. So I guess my narrative is changing, as I grow older and add elements of time-consuming in the form of work and a home life. Back in the days when I would actually get home at 1am and load up Burning Crusade and finally get to bed a day and a half later, that was a story I wanted to tell, and clearly I still tell it now, but with a sense of wry confusion. Was it really that much fun? With friends, I suppose the answer is yes, but without, it becomes a much lonelier story. I can't help but feel I've been gifted with a set of new clothes, and everyone is laughing. Maybe that's why they hold these launches. At least we can all be naked together.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and why I wish stories in movies were better

I could have made a terrible pun in the title of this post.  In fact, I could have made several, but I decided against it.  Because, at its heart, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs deserves better.  So much better, in fact, that it deserved a better story.

I have no trouble with Flint, the crazy inventor stereotype.  He has what most crazy inventor good-guy types have, but in his case it's a little more obvious - he just wants to save the world, whether it's from bad food or shoes that fall apart.  He's like a kid, in that he thinks everything can be solved.  His relationship with his father is delightfully complex, and sad.  It highlights the way a lot of parents feel with their children - out of touch, out of date, and hopelessly confused.  I didn't mind the twist, either, that the 'pretty' girl has to put on glasses and tie her hair up in a ponytail to become what she was meant to be.  There's a little bit of a sinister undertone there, and not in the usual way of happy animated films, that it's better to be yourself than try to hide it - Sam is told that she can't hide who she is, and who she is, is only attractive to freaky, spike-haired weirdos.  Hmmm.

Add to that 'Baby' Brent, and you've got a whole different level of disturbing.  I might be reading too deeply into the film, but I get the feeling one of the writers has a pretty serious grudge against people who rest on the laurels from their youth, and never do anything constructive with their lives - an image not at all dispelled when Brent puts on the roast chicken suit and essentially becomes a linebacker.  Your prejudices are all too clear now, dear writer, and a little too sharp.  The comparison between the high-school science geek and the football player isn't lost on me.  I merely think, in a world where we never see a mention of high school, or any school beyond elementary, it doesn't fit in.  Schoolday melodrama in my animated fantasy setting just doesn't do it for me, the same way I didn't like the Futurama episode about the Eyephone.  Stick to what you're doing, and be proud.  Don't try to dumb it down or add more 'sex or sentimentality', as Craig Kellem puts it.  Your story is already a lie.  Help people believe it, rather than rubbing the lie in their faces.

Then again, one of the main reasons I didn't like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs may have something to do with the following sequence of images :










Yes, that's a roast chicken.  Yes, those are bones sticking out of the bottom of its legs.  Yes, they don't have heads.  Yes, Brent acts like an Alien chestburster.  Yes, that's his diaper - his one and only item of clothing apart from the chicken suit - that Brent drops on the ground in the second last shot.  Tell me what part of this isn't disgusting?

At its heart, the movie is about improving the world with idealism and rubber-band inventions that no one believes will work.  In its execution, it brings about a whole new level of disturbing.  I wish I had liked the movie more.  I was disappointed by the strange and unwelcome ending.  It seemed to me like a whole bunch of people got drunk one night and said, "Hey, you know what'd be really, really funny?  Roast chicken suits!  It'll have them rolling in the aisles!" and they moderated the script and didn't remember until they got the finished product back from the animators, then they were too far over budget and too embarrassed to change it.  I don't know a world in which possessing the undead, cooked corpse of a giant-sized, once-alive food item isn't creepy as all hell.  Maybe it's the same world in which this is an acceptable thing to show children : 


"Your ears you keep, and I'll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, "Dear God, what is that thing?" will echo in your perfect ears. That is what "to the pain" means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever."

The dark age of children's cinema has begun.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cow Clicker and my Life Purpose

Ian Bogost has come up with an interesting proposition.  It's a Facebook game that you can play here.  Before you get too excited, read the blog entry.  Are you done?  Okay.  Laugh with me :

HAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAAHAHAHA!

Since I've no love of time-wasting Facebook games, but seem to play them anyway, this strikes a chord with me. However, a large number of the comments at the bottom of the blog suggest avid Farmville gamers take offence at his disregard for their very serious pastime.  The level of outraged impotence weaves close to the comical, and then beyond.  I know that Facebook games are a waste of time, a horrible, soul-destroying, production-destroying waste of my day, yet I play them anyway.  If I feel like it.  What these people apparently don't understand is the very simple concept Mr. Bogost explained in the post they're commenting on :

Stop wasting your lives.

So, yes, that's a bit more harsh than he put it, but the principle comes down to the same thing.  Facebook games are not :

a) Fun
b) Useful
c) Educational*
d) Making you a better person
e) Worth real money
f) Worth real time

* Restaurant City has daily quizzes regarding foods from around the world but, I suspect, like most people, I simply memorise the answers and would be hard-pressed to remember the information if asked.

People talk about how Farmville et al allow them to express themselves.  Yes, to other players.  Other people who place the same value on imaginary hay will no doubt think you are the epitome of class.

People say they play these games because they're 'not just fighting someone, they're making something.'  Well, that was the reason I was playing My Empire, and now they've introduced a battle system in which you fight barbarians (e.g. non-Romans) to explore.  No word yet on whether they'll allow player-to-player combat.  So, yes, I can see the appeal of a game that includes no violence, and I can see the appeal of a game you 'play' with your friends, but I don't think any of them understand that there's no true interactivity.

In a game, and I'm not saying Facebook 'games' fall into this category, but, just for the sake of argument, hear me out : in a game, you learn about the characters in the world, the storyline, and the world itself.  The game aims to teach you something, or tell you something, or make you feel something.  At its most basic element, this should be what all games strive for.  Facebook games offer frustration, time consumption, and the ever-present lure of, "If you only paid real cash this would be so much easier."  Sure, I feel a sense of accomplishment when I can pave my entire city with the most expensive streets and make my citizens happy, but it's fleeting, and hollow.  I know it will all be gone someday.

This may also be me, but if I have no one to share it with, what's the point?  I know I don't look at my friends' cities when I go to visit.  I grab my coins, look for the merchant, and get on with my life.  I don't think anyone I know has the time to sit down and admire the layout of my city, or the way the houses always face a garden or the ocean, so the people inside don't get claustrophobic.  Sure, that gives me enjoyment, but, again, no more than any other time-wasting device, and certainly not more than if I was undertaking a productive task instead of building an empire no one is ever going to see and I myself will probably not care about beyond the next couple of months.

With a game like Heavy Rain, you can sit down and share the experience.  Of course, it's face-to-face, and actually spending time with friends or family might be more difficult for some people than it is for me.  But we don't just play the game - we chat, we discuss what's happening on-screen or what happened during the day, and the game is like background noise to the steady thrum of our relationships.  Facebook games take so much concentration (try maintaining any size of orchard in Farmville, then try being on the phone and having a serious conversation while clicking on everything in your farm to harvest it) that it's definitely not a social endeavour.  The fact that your friends CAN visit is moot.  The fact that they're not going to is something I'm not sure people are aware of.

As a general rule, everyone is at least as busy as you are.  If you're not going to take the time to admire their farm, why would they admire yours?  Going to visit 'friends' is a chore aimed at acquiring money.  In fact, many Facebook games will offer to undertake the self-identified 'tedious' chore of harvesting your plants and taking care of your animals, all for a low, real-money price.  That's the game designers telling you their product is a time sink, and, worst of all, they know it - listen to them!

I'm all about the player story, as you may be aware.  My player story when playing a Facebook game goes something like this :

Get home
Check the cat
Look at the time
OHgodohgodohgodturnonthecomputer
Wait while it boots, ignoring hungry cat
Hurriedly log in to Facebook
Check games x, y & z for their respective 'click now' timers
Breathe a sigh of relief as I haven't missed the deadline, or;
Kick myself for not remembering to log on sooner (really?  Is that how it makes me feel?)
Set up the time bombs again, debating whether or not I'll stay up a little longer to get a couple of extra coins before going to bed
Go to bed
Get up in the morning
Repeat

You may notice I began to question myself in the middle.  I am essentially paying these games in terms of my time so they can make me feel bad.  That's right - my main positive emotion related to these games is relief.  That tells me a lot about my relationship with them, and it should tell you a lot, too.  You know when you have a chronic headache/backpain/leg pain/whatever, and you notice it's getting worse, so you take some painkillers, and later on, it's still worse, but you're sitting there thinking, 'At least it's not as bad as it would have been if I hadn't taken those painkillers!'?  No?  How about, "I'm so glad he didn't hit me tonight.  He must be in a good mood."?  Sounding familiar?  I sure hope not.

Understand this : Facebook games are abusive.  They give us nothing, and they take our time, which is precious beyond measure.  When you're dying, or a loved one of yours is dying, you're not going to wish you'd spent more time on Farmville.  There are rare exceptions, like this story about a kid, his mum, and Animal Crossing, but for the most part, anything you think you gain from these games is a lie.  Unless they're used for real human interaction, unless they can move you, unless they can make you a better person, you, as a person, deserve better.

Your life is a story.  Don't fill it with blanks.  Do the things that make you feel, and feel good about yourself.  If Facebook games genuinely have that impact on you, then go for it.  If playing Farmville makes you start your own real-life garden, or Pet Society teaches you the basics of interior decorating and you use it to enrich your life, then everything I've said here is wrong.  But if they don't, and I'm not, then think about it, for your own sake, and close the games down.  Remove them, so you won't be tempted.  Start writing that novel you've always dreamed of, finish the game you've had sitting on the last stage for three years, go on that camping trip you're always planning in the back of your mind.  10 minutes a day doesn't sound like a lot, but if you play more than one game, do the maths.  How many times a day do you spend those ten minutes per game?  What could you accomplish in an extra half hour?  An extra hour?  An extra three hours?  And now you have a reason to quit playing those games.

As for me, I'll post about Cow Clicker in my Facebook feed as much as I can, until people get the message.  Maybe then we'll move toward a more reasonable, helpful, genuinely interesting and player-centric model of play, rather than time-oriented, chore-heavy, money-grubbing bullshit.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Alien Swarm - half of the Alien, all of the swarm

Since its release in 2005, Alien Swarm has been my favourite UT2004 mod.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's the tiny details that make it a.k.a. praise for Akira Yamaoka

"A letter to my future self,
Am I still happy? I began
Have I grown up pretty?
Is daddy still a good man?
Am I still friends with Colleen?
I'm sure that I'm still laughing
Aren't I?
Aren't I?"

-- Letter - From the Lost Days, from Silent Hill 3, by Akira Yamaoka

It may be the beautiful, yet strained, voice of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, but these lyrics are some of my favourite.  In a strange twist, this song, which is actually quite positive, is haunting and melancholy.  Another song from a Silent Hill soundtrack, Room of Angel ("The love you never gave, I give to you"), sounds happy, and is anything but.  This is the wonder of Akira Yamaoka, and his amazing way with music.

His lyrics, too, betray something I often forget myself, but which is my first piece of advice to aspiring writers - don't forget the small stuff.  Let the reader be part of your world, draw them in, and make them feel like they belong.  Describe the things the eye notices, almost without realising, and write as if they were seeing all of this for the first time.  There's nothing like looking at the world with new eyes.

Akira Yamaoka's lyrics do that for me.  From the opening lines of You're Not Here:

"Blue sky to forever
The green grass blows in the wind, dancing.
It would be a much better sight with you, with me."


to the heart-breaking childlike lines of Waiting For You:

"Mom's gone to Heaven now
Why won't she come back down?
Does she have someone she loves more than me?"


and the drum-heavy exultation of my second favourite, Your Rain:

"Dancing alone again 
again, the rain falling,
only the scent of you remains 
to dance with me."

the simple longing of these phrases comes back, time and time again, to make me feel.  Written, as they are, I doubt their impact is as strong, but sung, unexpected, by a woman who sounds so strong, they're something else entirely.  The simplicity works in their favour, while the strength of the backing imagery is irrepressible.  From the hurt of a child who has lost their mother, to the almost desperate questioning of Letter - From the Lost Days, the innocence with which Yamaoka-san writes is something that can only be written with these new eyes.  As adults, we understand loss, and we understand that life sometimes doesn't go the way you want it to.  Children question this.  They constantly see everything anew.

So these are my songs for writing by.  Whenever I want to feel this way, to write this innocent pain, all I have to do is listen.  My heart may have think it has forgotten, but it's only there, under the surface, waiting for me to remember it.  In the end, opening your eyes to the world depends on what kind of person you are - do you look for the best, or the worst?  Whatever you look for, you will find.  Keep that thought alive for your writing, and be aware of how you bring the world to paper.  It might reveal more of you than you think.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Arkham Horror with the uninitiated

I've come to a conclusion.  Arkham Horror isn't actually that much fun to play.

When I first learned, it was with a group of guys from THQ, who were very keen on the whole Lovecraftian horror aspect, and would cackle maniacally whenever someone else got set upon by a Byakhee.  I must admit I haven't had the patience to read Lovecraft's work, but I've played Delta Green, I quite enjoy Algernon Blackwood and I'm a big fan of Fall of Cthulhu.  But, while watching someone new come into the world of horror that is Delta Green, trying to get someone who doesn't understand Cthulhu to play Arkham Horror is, well... boring.

At first I thought it was the ridiculously complex rule system.  That took us a while to learn, from scratch.  Then I thought it might be the core game simply not living up to the promise of the version I'd played, which had all the expansions, so I ordered them from America.  Having had a discussion with the two people who most often play the game with us yesterday, I've come to conclude that it's the audience.

You see, they don't understand.  That's okay, you might think, the whole point of Lovecraftian horror is not to understand, and you'd be right.  But they don't even know how little they know.  We were fighting Nyarlathotep, and their main comment was, "Only -4 to Fight?  That's not so bad."  Of Nyarlathotep.  The Crawling Chaos.  Oh dear.

I know, I know, none of this is real, and knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos stands somewhere between being able to recite Pi to 300 digits and singing the Periodic Table song.  It might make you friends, but it also definitely marks you out as someone... different.  And not always in a good way.

Still, when they look at a Star Spawn and consider it only in terms of gunshots required, or decide to fight a Dark Young because "it's only Nightmarish 1", I can't help but feel a little let-down.  Here is a mythos that has so many mind-bending layers of terror, horror, fascination and despair that it's spawned countless offshoots and cults of geek-worshippers worldwide, and they only shrug and make sure they have a tommy gun.

Co-incidentally, I did try to educate them.  At the end of Fall of Cthulhu Vol. 2 (spoilers ahead), Nyarlathotep needs a human host for a dark presence that's part of his evil plan.  The 'sacrifice' decides to go out for one last night of binge drinking, possibly thinking thoughts of escape, and wakes up back in the mansion.  They perform the surgery (while he's lucid, of course), and transplant the dark presence inside his skull.  All seems to have gone off smoothly, until Nyarlathotep reveals the price of betrayal - he drags a mirror over to in front of his unlucky friend, who is now no more than a pair of eyeballs and a brain in a jar, attached to a car battery, and leaves him staring into the mirror, with no way to blink or look away.  Nyarlathotep leaves him by saying :

"We agreed you would be placed back into your body once the gith had returned to the Dreamlands. During the interim, you would remain here in darkness to minimise the distress of your disembodiment.  Putting you back was part of the arrangement. But keeping you in the dark was a courtesy. I wonder if you will have any semblance of sanity when you return. Well, good night, Connor. Sweet dreams."

This is the god who they deemed "not that bad".  When I showed them this section of the comic, one of them looked ill and said, "That's not right.  That's... really not right."  The other of them shrugged.  Somehow, he didn't look like he wanted to play anymore.  Funny, that, but it would be a lot more fun if he did know what was going on, even if the learning cost him a few nights' sleep.  I might leave Midnight Syndicate running quietly in the background next time, just to make sure they're at least as jumpy as they should be.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Virtual Villagers pass life stoically

Despite my rant about Facebook games, I've recently started playing Virtual Villagers, which was developed by a friend of mine.  It's kind of a cross between Black and White 2 and Mafia Wars, so you have to wait 5 minutes for a point of energy to make your villagers do anything.  To be fair, they do some things on their own, and important tasks, like gathering food, don't cost energy.  One of the things you can 'suggest' to your villagers, although the benefits have yet to be made clear to me, is that they should 'discuss' having children in the 'love shack'.  Yeah.

So, the love shack having been recently completed, I figured my villagers would be keen to try it out.  Pop a guy on a girl, she runs off to the love shack while he... takes a stroll down the beach, fluttering with love hearts.  Um, okay.  Moments later, she emerges with an infant cradled in her arms.  Oh my.

This made her essentially useless for any other task I threw her at.  A brief text message popped up : "Adding villager failed."  There was no way to check what the game meant, or to ask it why, it had merely 'failed'.  She still continued to carry the baby around, though, cooing at it occasionally.  Thinking she and her partner might have been genetically incompatible (maybe too complex for a Facebook game, but you never know), I tried putting the other girl with the other guy.  She flat out shook her head, and he wandered off to chop wood, presumably to combat his humiliation and release his manly, pent-up rage.  I left them to it.

When I came back 6 hours later, since I was a nong and left Facebook open while I did my weekend-ly chores, the first girl was still carrying the infant around. If it only took her a moment to fall pregnant, I kind of assumed the kid would be into motorbikes and the other girl by now.  But, no, she was still coddling her little bundle of joy, adding nothing to society.  Sigh.

Then I decided to visit the island of one of my friends.  Again, the benefits of this have not been made clear to me but, nevertheless, when a tooltip tells you to do something, you do it.  When I came back to my own village, the baby was gone.

"Ino," I asked her, for surely this was her randomly generated name, "where is your child?"  She responded by beginning to chop down a tree, then getting bored, and standing in front of the hammock, idly waving from side to side.  Unsure whether it was delirium, grief or possibly blood loss, I let her be, until she moved over to the berry bushes and started dancing.  What the hell?

I came back an hour later to find my villagers had deforested most of the available nearby land.  I'm not even sure why, since they don't seem to be doing anything with it.  Ino seemed as happy as anyone else, completely oblivious to the mystery disappearance of her child.  This strikes me as very sad, least of all for two reasons:

1) She didn't want it in the first place, and so my 'suggesting' they 'discuss' having children was about as welcome as an incontinent cat on satin bedsheets, and 

2) She either 'disposed of' the child, or didn't know how to care for it (her main stat is in farming, after all) and is subsequently either deliriously happy she no longer has the responsibility, or deliriously sad, and has entered a state of denial.  I imagine that, if she were in a state of denial, she would walk around with an imaginary baby cuddled to her side instead, so I can only assume she's quite happy to be free, actually.

Apparently if I build another house, I will be able to have more villagers, e.g. add more children.  Unfortunately, given Ino's disregard for human life, I'm not sure it's the kind of society I want to bring children up in.  I did, however, wind up with at least one amusing image of a villager who stood still for too long : 


It seems the devil does make work for idle hands.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Being old (on the outside)

I've been thinking about my life goals lately, and where I want to be in five years time (I know, I never imagined I'd be saying that either).  Something that's come to my attention, though, is one distinct benefit of ageing:

Being older, as a writer, lends you super-cred.

Well, that and actually being a good writer.  But think about it: there are only certain professions that work this way.  Doctors, lawyers, writers - anything based on non-technological experience.  So, yeah, I can see wanting to be a games writer coming back to punch me in my soft bits, but being a writer, in general?  No problem!  In fact, the older I get, the more writerly I will become!  Glasses?  Check!  Grey hair?  Check!  Credibility?  Absolutely check!

Now, if I were a programmer or an animator, I might have a problem.  Programs change so fast, and whatnot.  I was three years late in joining Facebook!  I'm not ready for a technology revolution!  But writing never changes, or rarely.  Oh, the format might change from printed books to e-readers, but the essence of writing, the sitting down and typing and imagining, that all lives on.  Until we create a procedural AI to implement plot lines, character elements and cliffhangers in a believable way, I think my profession is pretty safe.

This blog might not be, though.  Internet archives don't tend to age well, and they become less credible as time goes on.  Alas, poor blog.  I knew you adequately.  But, in the meantime, I suppose we can get better acquainted...  Another day, for it is late, and I am made weary by many TF2 victories.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Cat Returns

In class today, we were looking at how a movie is set up - how characters and intrigue are created, how the world is explained and how the Crossing of the Threshold can have many applications.  I have to say that, after watching many a movie, The Cat Returns is still one of my favourites.


Like Kung Fu Panda and Meet the Robinsons, The Cat Returns leaves me feeling happy, satisfied, and a little teary.  It's about a girl who saves a cat from being hit by a truck, and is thanked by the ruler of the cat kingdom with many gifts and the offer of marriage to Prince Lune, the cat she saved.  She goes seeking the help of the Baron, who turns out to be a rather charming statue that becomes real-size when they enter the world of the Cat Kingdom :


Being a cat surely can't be all that bad, as Haru thinks.  This was something my students had trouble with - the idea that Haru could fall for a cat, when she is human, or is for most of the movie.  This is difficult to say without it coming across in the wrong way, but, given the personality of the Baron, it's definitely a romance-adventure.  If you've only seen it in English, the mistranslation would have covered this up quite well.  If you know even basic Japanese, you'll understand the ending for what it's meant to be - a frank discussion of the boundaries of reality.  Even that, though, is putting it in too harsh a light - it's a fun little movie, perfect for kids and restless students, and for cheering oneself up on a rainy day.  Sadly, I think Haru is actually quite a lot cuter as a cat, but that also fits well with the theme of being yourself, and being content, rather than trying to be something you're not.

If my spoilers haven't ruined it completely for you, please do go borrow or rent it and take a look at the subtext between Haru and the Baron.  There's a lot going on there, if you take the time to look, but it's all completely G-rated.  This is a girl with a crush, and nothing at all more sinister.  I certainly had a crush on the Baron by the time the film was over and, judging by the voice actor :



I'd bet a fair amount that was intended.  Even though he's a cat.  Who doubles as a statue during the day.

Since a big component of love (or, in this case, a crush) is respect, I don't see anything wrong with either Haru's or my reaction.  Try explaining that to a bunch of 17-year-olds, though.  I simply told them to watch how the romance was implied, and try to take notes.  They're still learning about subtext, and if any relationship is subtextual, it's going to be the one between the high school girl and the cat statue who saves her from a fate worse than death, by dancing at a masked ball.  Did I mention he's stylish?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Writers are lucky people

Today in my lecture, I was trying to explain to a room of semi-glassy-eyed students the importance of observing.  That is one of the things that I believe makes writing so worthwhile - everything you see is useful.

Much like some of my artist friends can look at an object and perfectly sketch the interplay of light, good writers are able to take the world around them and spin it into new circumstances, places and times.  The sparkle of the lights of the city might become a mage's tower on a far-off horizon; the reflections on the river could be a wavering mirror-world.  Looking out over the edge of Mount Coot-tha on a clear night is like looking over the edge of Larry Niven's Ringworld.  The world is full of amazing sights, amazing moments, that we can capture and store for later use.

In this regard, I think writers are fantastically lucky.  No moment is ever really lost, if you take the time to write it down.  I'm not an artist or a composer, but I imagine the principle is similar.  To convey an emotion, you just need the correct set of tools.  For us, that's words, and the fact that words are so simple, accessible and flexible means we can reach almost anyone in the world.

I'm very picky about my art.  I far prefer classic styles to modern ones, and so my interpretation is hopelessly biased.  Similarly, I can't stand most jazz or blues, but I love classical music and hardstyle techno.  Try explaining that combination succinctly.  So it is with writing - I don't like the literary genre, for example - but words are still words, and can still create a feeling - my blogging, here, has no particular genre, except for perhaps the whiny-old-woman genre, but if I say something of interest, people are likely to keep reading.  Art is a medium that I feel takes a long time to create, and sometimes only a second to appraise; getting your original compositions listened to on the internet can feel like an immense chore.  Like every medium, writing is captivating when done well, regardless of genre - it just seems that keeping a blog, for me, is so very much easier than creating a drawing or a song would be for someone of a similarly artistic bent.

Having said that, it's not as if I'm crafting a short story to write here.  That would be this post.  If I were writing short story every day, apart from being disappointed that each of them were instantly unpublishable, I'd probably go crazy.  So there are greater and lesser extents of commitment, like sketching rather than full-scale painting, or creating a loop instead of a full-length song.

Coincidentally, I'm still on my quest to gain copies of Exotique and Expose - the most recent issue of Expose is about to be released, which is exciting.  I do become jealous, sometimes, of how art and music are short-term mediums, in that the audience can look, or listen, and feel immediately.  One of my favourite images from the before-times was coloured by Min Rho :


Every time I see it, it creates this visceral longing and sadness within me.  Writing doesn't allow you to do that.

What writing does allow you to do, however, is bring readers to that realisation slowly.  You can spend 80,000 words building to a climax, and it will be worthwhile.  Much like playing a game for however many hours can be made relevant by a moving story moment, bringing your reader to that point of emotion is an art and a privilege.  I love art as a medium, but it's never changed my life.  I'm not an artist.  Similarly, I love music, and I have many important songs that remind me of feelings and places and people that I never want to forget, but they've always been an after-effect, so the music reminds me of a feeling I've already had.  I'm not a composer.  But writing, ah!  Writing!  It has changed my life.  It has allowed me to dream of places unknown, of people I wanted to meet or had met, and dreams I longed to chase that would never come to pass.  In the realm of words, there are infinite possibilities, and if the journey is longer, then it is all the sweeter.

So I think we, as writers, are really pretty darn lucky.  We can shape the world around us, create or change events to our whim, have entire societies live and die in our imaginations, and somehow convince people to pay us for the syllables and letters we use every day in things like shopping lists, emails and thank-you notes.  If that isn't magic, I don't know what is.

Toy Story 3 and the writer's dilemma

Let me open this blog post with a qualifying statement :

I don't like Toy Story.

If you are offended by this, please, read no further.  I enjoyed the first one, but didn't like the second, and recently saw, but did not admire, the third in same the manner as everyone else seems to be.  If you want to know why, check the subtitle of my blog.  If you're interested in a more in-depth analysis, please, join me over here near my soapbox.

The first Toy Story was quaint.  I can relate to an old toy being 'betrayed' for something new.  It was sweet, about acceptance, and learning to live with each other.  In a way, it was also the emotions we all go through whenever a younger sibling is introduced to the household - infants takes up so much more time than toddlers, so it seems like our parents prefer our younger sibling, even though all it does is cry and poop and be boring.

Toy Story 2 is about Woody being the star, needing the others to convince him that he should return to where he 'should' be.  The moral is that, even if someone will eventually stop loving you, you should spend as much time with them as you can.  Hmmm.  The old man-dark mentor-shapeshifter archetype is apparent here, in the form of Stinky Pete, the Prospector.

Toy Story 3 is about being left behind.  The moral of the story is 'don't ever try'.  The toys get given away by accident, and spend the rest of the movie trying to get home so they can be stuffed in the attic.  They meet another old man-dark mentor-shapeshifter archetype, and the same kind of relationship ensues.  In both movies, boy do these evil guys get their Comeuppance!  And it rings hollow, for me, because the motives of the villains are as plain as the motives of the 'good' guys - they're not necessarily bad, just self-absorbed.  They also get a 'healthy' dose of what they most fear as an antidote for their selfishness.  I'm not really okay with this.

I know these are children's films, but what are we teaching our kids?  Being considerate is fine, but if you teach them that, if they're not considerate, their greatest fear will come true, how is that at all reassuring?  Ideally, people would be nice because of the inherent value and self-esteem they get from being so; if they're only being nice 'just in case', that's a whole different game, which leads to resentment and a slow testing of the boundaries to find out just how nice 'nice' has to be.  When it turns out Karma doesn't immediately hunt them down, suddenly, the lesson is lost.  Surely there must be a better way to teach this lesson.

And, while I'm on the topic, Woody and Buzz et al aren't nice, either.  They're loyal, which is different.  They help each other out, they'll help out other toys in trouble, but they're only in it for themselves, and to get home to Andy.  Woody only seems to be altruistic when it's ridiculously inconvenient.  They do things because they're 'right', not because they're nice.  That's also sending a mixed message to children - do what society tells you, or you'll end up like that guy.  Compliance is key!

But, aside from that, my main problem with the series is one that many writers, especially those of children's media, face - how do you create tension when none of the main characters can die?  My gut response is to say "Man up and kill 'em", but that's not always an option.  As Tim Babb so eloquently put it :



So maybe killing Buzz, or Jessie, or Rex would ruin the franchise.  That's fine.  It's already over, so why not go out with a bang?  But I suppose it's the same way I'd feel if they did another My Little Pony movie and killed off Wind Whistler.  I wouldn't care if they gutted Majesty, though.  She's pretty much a jerk.

Maybe I'm just hard at heart, like an ice cube that's been left in the freezer too long.  I have other problems with Toy Story 3, such as Woody's ridiculous walk cycle, which I actually liked, but didn't fit in when everyone else ran normally, or the creepiness factor of a movie that's supposedly for children : 


What is THIS?

I wasn't as excited for the film as my boyfriend was.  I'm not a 3D animator.  But I shouldn't have to be to enjoy the story.  I didn't.  I wish they'd all died, but that's just me.  It would have been better than taking the hopes of maltreated toys, giving them what they always wanted, then dashing those hopes forever as a punishment for their 'wicked' ways.  I can't think of anything crueller, and when you show us the world has already been cruel to them, why do you expect us to laugh?

Have one-dimensional villains, if you're writing a children's movie.  It makes punishing them so much easier.  Lose the 'no one is truly evil' crap, and have them be evil because they can be.  Children sure as heck can be rotten little things, but they don't know any better.  Morality isn't inbuilt.  You need to teach it, but not in a didactic way.  Let them understand that some people are just plain mean.  That way, they won't be confused when the school bully punches them in the eye.  They won't agonise over how the bully feels, they'll either punch him right back or learn to avoid him, rather than thinking that maybe he's a good person underneath.  Most people are, but when you're a kid, it's not that complicated.  Some kids are lovely.  Some kids are jerks.  The gradual distinctions are the realm of adults.  Children shouldn't have to think that much about it.  

I say we return to cartoon villains.  They never really hurt anyone, though not through lack of trying, and they sure as heck didn't confuse me when I was young.  You know where you stand with a good cartoon villain.  It's these shades-of-grey guys that make me angry, when I'm forced to sympathise, then expected to laugh.  Some people have tough lives, Pixar.  And sometimes the effort of not being a jerk is too hard to maintain.  It doesn't make you a bad person, it just makes you a weak one.  That's a big difference.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Catharsis - right or wrong?

Sometimes writers write because they want to experience something they never could in real life.  Sometimes they have a moral they want to share with their audience.  A lot of the time I write to try to figure out what I'm thinking.

At the moment, as I alluded to in my earlier reference to Twitter, I'm writing a novel.  Surprise surprise, I'm sure.  This is somewhat of a different tack for me, as you will know from my previous posts, so suffice to say I'm trying to keep myself entertained in the middle.  I've done this by formulating character biographies, an overall story arc and even a chapter plan.  My organisational skills are finally coming in useful in my writing-related life.  For the first time, I feel like I can do this, I can make it to 80,000 words and have something worthwhile at the end of it.  What I hadn't counted on was my choice of subject matter.

My aunt died two years ago of cancer.  She was my only biological aunt, and one of those people who would light up the room when they entered.  From a biased, family perspective, I didn't know a single person who didn't adore her.  She was adept at taking care of us, all of us, her mother, my father, her children, me.  She would stay up until midnight to assemble a swingset in the back yard and sprinkle footsteps made of flour so her children would believe in the Easter Bunny.  She was a real source of magic in a world where, I was quickly learning, reality too often held sway.

Then she died.  It was a long time later, and her kids are toward the end of their teens, but the fact still hits me like a blow sometimes.  They lived interstate, so I saw them rarely, which makes missing her all too easy.  I always assume she's just around the next corner, at the next family gathering.  I watched them take her coffin away, and I still believe this.  No wonder it's so hard to write about.

I hadn't counted on it, really.  I knew it still upset me, still played an important role in my life, but I thought it was time to work it through, to let my writing take me where I couldn't make myself go - into a world without her.  It turns out that maybe I was wrong.

I wrote my chapter plan.  I wrote my character biographies.  I know what's going to happen, and yet so many unexpected things keep cropping up that I'm not sure what to make of myself.  There's a lot of anger here, a lot more than I'd anticipated, a lot more than I'd hoped.  I know it's natural to feel betrayed, to question, to bargain, to plead.  I know it's natural to feel like a part of your life has died.  I didn't know it would still feel this way, 2 years and 3 months later.  I couldn't have fathomed I'd be crying over my keyboard, typing a blog post about how angry I felt.

People say it's for the best, that you need to let your grief out, you need to let it go.  As a writer, that's how I relate to the world.  I write about it.  I write about the things that hurt me, so I can grow to understand them.  It turns out there are very few things that can truly hurt us.  The death of a loved one surely can.

But I think, having seen this anger, I'm also afraid.  I'm afraid that what I'll come out with won't be the catharsis I'm planning.  I want to look at loss from every angle, to find the perspectives of lover, mother, sister, brother, that are intertwined in my family.  But that means talking to my family, and maybe even showing them how angry I still feel.

I don't like to discuss my personal life, but when it comes to my writing, I'm stuck.  There is nothing so personal as a grain of truth.  There is nothing so moving as a tragedy you've experienced.  But how much of myself can I put into my work before it becomes something other than fiction?  Is it better to be true to what you feel when writing, and edit later, or censor your feelings, so they might appeal more and be less revealing?

I don't believe you can write without becoming vulnerable.  At the moment, I wish that weren't the case.  In some way, everything you write is part of you, in the same way that everyone you meet is part of your memory.  You can try to forget, but they'll still be there, at the back of your mind.  Some of all writing is autobiographical, and all of my generalisations are usually broad.  Perhaps, instead, the sum of all writing is autobiographical.  Analyse the author and you come to their core.  Their core is the legacy they leave behind in the words they sculpt on the page.  In that regard, at least, I know I'm certainly not alone in wondering :

What shall the world think of me when my work here is done?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kicking my own ass

You know what I like?  Ruining my own life.

In games, I mean.

My favourite example of this is in Space Quest 4.  You get teleported into the future, and then the past, and all over the place, and one of the places you wind up at is this bar in Space Quest 1, where you got beat up in the original for kicking over some bikes you never touched.  Well, in Space Quest 4, you're the jerk that kicks the bikes over and gets your ass handed to yourself.  Oh, the delicious irony!

I can't think of another game that's done this quite so well, but, then again, I can't exactly think right now, either.  GoG has SQ4-5-6 for sale, but be warned : they are the talkie, CD-rom versions, not the quaint floppy diskette versions.  Buy only if you can put up with obnoxious American voice acting that would probably bring back wonderful memories if I'd ever heard it before in my life.

And, while you're at it, I recommend King's Quest 6, where you can pick up a Dangling Participle and watch a Dogwood bark at some Cattails.  I tried to find a picture of the Dangling Participle for your gratification and enjoyment, but short of reinstalling DoSBox and taking a screenshot from my own emulated version of the game, which would mean playing for a good half-hour if I can ever remember how to speedrun, it seems the internet has failed me.  Suffice to say it's a darn cute critter, and worth playing the game for.

That is all.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Religion, worldview and writing

I've been a little flaky with my blog posts of late.  If you've been following my Twitter, you'd know why, but that would require you to know who I am, which makes this a moot point.  Regardless, I'm here now, and I have something I'm wondering about.

Cleaning out my bookcase, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is an enlightening experience.  I found books I didn't even know I had, gifts from friends and uncles and aunts that were so strangely not my taste that I wondered if they knew me at all.  Nostradamus?  Really?  But I also found a bunch of books on spirituality that were very interesting to peruse.  It seemed like I had a world collection of religion, growing in the bottom shelf of my favourite bookcase like a field of particularly pretty and educational mushrooms.

I'll make my views clear, so no one is offended, or, if they are, it's because they read further even after being warned : I'm opinionated.  This may already be apparent.  My stance on religion is this : the more evangelical, the worse.  I don't care who you are, whether you're Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha'i or Pastafarian, if you try to convert me, I will never listen to another thing you say, possibly even, "Watch out for that truck!"  If you want to practice in your own way, in your own time, obviously that's not my right to judge. If you want to tell me your worldview without me specifically asking first, then we'll have a problem.

You may have also seen my post about the Falun Gong.  I feel for them, but they shouldn't be in my ballet.  I feel the same way about books.  They also shouldn't be in my ballet, but they definitely shouldn't have real-world religions in them if they're supposed to be fantasy.  Sci-fi is perhaps acceptable, but if you want to make your work accessible, it's better to avoid both politics and religion (though I still note with delight that V for Vendetta avoids neither, however, me not having the brilliant beard of Alan Moore obviously precludes me from writing as brilliantly).  This is why I loathe the Chantry in Dragon Age.  Not because it misrepresents Christians, but because it represents them at all.  I'm trying to enjoy my escapism - don't bog me down in real-world stuff.

But then I got to thinking about the different ways these different views would influence our writing anyway.  Say, for example, I believe in reincarnation.  My characters might die and come back in a different body.  If I believe death is final, it's unlikely I would resurrect anyone.  Similarly, if I believe in Heaven and Hell, there will be some serious undertones to the characters (and particularly the type of magic) that I write, whereas if I believe more in a Gaia entity, I'll be far less concerned with how my characters act while they're alive.

And, inevitably, this brought me to the question of : can I write like that guy?  Could I have a godfearing person in my work?  Someone who fears for their immortal soul, is constantly afraid of sinning and takes drastic steps to avoid it?  Or am I only then painting a caricature, which does both me and Christianity a disservice?  Similarly, can I write a Buddhist monk if I don't understand the tenets of Buddhism as well as I could?  Does it really matter?

To the people of those faiths, yes, it matters.  Stereotypes exist for a reason, but that's not a reason to rely on them.  Could I ask someone from that religion to read my work and give feedback?  Yes.  Am I committed enough?  Nah.  I just don't care.

You may be noticing some parallels between this post and my earlier one about the Holocaust.  It's essentially the same thing.  But those underlying ideas, that's what gets me.  The ideas that I put into my work that I don't even know are there, and the ideas I read in other people's work that make me either more or less interested, depending on whether or not their worldview is similar to mine.  I don't even realise I'm doing this.  The way we think is so integral to our experience of the world that understanding other points of view on something we feel strongly about is probably one of the hardest things I've tried.  I can see their point logically, but when the ideas transcend logic, as religion does, I just can't wrap my head around it.

I believe what happens, happens, and it is neither good or bad.  Those are only our terms for the events around us.  That makes it easy for me to put my characters in situations where they get hurt, without feeling too guilty.  I don't believe there is any evil in the world.  That makes it hard for me to write characters with no redeeming features, even if those redeeming features never explicitly make their way to the page.  I believe we will all be reunited after death, regardless of actions in life, which makes it easy for me to kill my characters.  If I believed opposite of these facts, not only would my writing style be different, I would be a different person.

It all comes back to being unique.  Everyone is, and no one any more so than another.  That's the reason for writing, the reason to keep on writing - no one is ever going to produce the same work of art as you.  You're special, just like everyone else.  Every single event in your life has been building toward this moment, and every current moment is building toward your future.  No one can take that away from you.  No one can take you away from you.

This is why I write.  To get my thoughts and feelings and experiences down on paper, to look at them through a different coloured pane and say, "Ah!  There is Suffering; but turn it this way, and it becomes Growth.  Slide Love behind that panel of blue and it becomes Desperation.  Place Death within the fire's glow and it becomes Humanity."  I write myself in every word.  I can't not.  I might be able to edit myself out later, with help, but my values will remain.  Some small part of me is in everything I do.  I find that a comforting thought.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Logic leaps and the misheard sentence

The mind is an amazing thing.  It can create logical leaps where there is only the miasma of chaos.  Contrary to my previous post, this is more to do with the stories people make up to explain everyday objects than with the links that might actually make sense.

Take, for example, duct tape.  I had a friend who was convinced it was ‘duck’ tape, and everyone else was just saying it wrong.  A friend of a friend thought it was ‘duck’ tape, too, but because it was grey, and ducks are also grey, kind of in the same way glue is made from horses because it’s white and horses are white. 

Sometimes these misunderstandings can come from not being able to hear what the other person has said.  Today I was convinced that a student had asked me what the content of “one third of a cookie nest” was.  I tried to answer him reasonably, until it came out he was actually asking after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Similarly, if you listen to any of the strange, half-heard things I’ve said in my time as a teacher, apparently Dwarf is not a skill and my favourite colour is things exploding.

People like to create stories.  That’s where mythology came from, the desire to explain the inexplicable.  I see this in action every time I try to talk to my Grandad when he doesn’t have his hearing aid in.  It’s entertaining, but not entirely informative; then again, personal conversations don’t always have to be.  It’s the simple act of communicating that’s important.

But I digress.  In the cyberpunk realm of the game I’m playing at the moment, 6 of the members were discussing the safety of the creek, due to the radioactive element common to most cyberpunk futures.  My reasoning was that, since the creek is surrounded by trees, the water was probably safe.  The newest player, who is familiar with roleplaying, but not especially cyberpunk, responded to this statement by saying, “Uh, yeah, sure, I totally can’t imagine a child being abducted and murdered in that creek! Thank God for those trees!”  The mental blank as we all tried to make the same logic leap lead to an impressive silence.  Similarly, when my character was trying to teach an NPC a lesson, he dragged him outside of his house, and made him act like a letterbox.  I’m pretty sure that didn’t make sense to anyone else, either.

How does this differ from being crazy?  I’m not sure, but everyone does it.  Perhaps that’s the only true definition of what makes an action ‘crazy’ – how many other people are doing the same thing?  As many stories have explored, if everyone is strangling kittens and dancing skyclad, the guy who keeps cats and is modestly dressed is going to be an outcast.  And, just now, I could have sworn I heard a male team-mate say he’s got a flashbang in his bra.  This night just keeps getting weirder.

Of course, this kind of deciding-upon-a-logic-that-fits-my-worldview goes perfectly with the recently-released trailers for Portal 2.  As GLaDOS says, “I’m sure we can put our differences aside.  For science.  You monster.”  The idea that the player was somehow in the wrong in the original Portal is laughable; the idea that GLadoS still clings to that ‘injustice’ makes it even more so.  It’s not usually as obvious, when someone has a worldview that doesn’t mesh with reality, but it’s a different kind of crazy, or perhaps the only kind.  In this case, GLaDOS knows that what she’s doing is right, or doesn’t see how anyone could object, so the person or people acting contrary to her plans must be evil.  We do the same thing with people who cut us off in traffic, take the donut we were about to take, or get anything we wanted, imagined or real, explicitly stated or not.  There’s a little bit of a sociopath in all of us, and it loves telling stories.

That, however, is quite morbid.  There’s a large capacity in most people that enjoys telling stories to delight or entertain.  It’s the stories we tell to ourselves that become a bit more sinister.  We are our own unreliable narrators, and our reconstructive memory makes our task only easier.  That it allows us to tell other stories, pleasant stories, to other people, for money, is a wonderful, capricious thing.  That we can mishear something, and make up a new meaning that somehow fits in with what we thought we heard, and respond, is an entertaining, and sometimes disturbing, thing.  All in all, language is but a collection of sounds, and our brains do all the hard work to turn it into information.  Hooray for neuroscience!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Buffy: Season 1

We just finished watching Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I know, I'm only 13 years behind - couldn't I have left it a little longer?

Something I found very interesting while watching Season 1 (having seen Seasons 6 & 7), is how they made the show accessible.  Every episode something weird happened.  Every episode they mentioned the fact that Sunnydale is on the Hellmouth and draws weird people and events to it.  If they introduced or re-introduced a character, that character would say something to tell the audience of their previous adventures.  For example, Computer Sciences lady was helping out in the final episode, and my boyfriend had missed the episode where she helped defeat Moloch after he got stored in the computer.

"Who's she?" he asked.  Pausing the playback, I replied.

"She helped them get a demon out of the internet a couple of episodes ago."

"Oh, okay."  I hit play.

On-screen : "I did help you banish that demon from the internet not too long ago."

"Huh."

What struck me the most about the final episode, though, was Buffy's reaction at the end.  Never mind that she'd already changed prophecy by knowing who The Anointed was, the prophecy still said she had to die.  I don't know how long she was face-down in the water, but it can't have been long.  Long enough to qualify for a medial death?  Or perhaps some kind of micro-death?

While I've enjoyed the fact that the fight scenes are excitingly brief, and I'm actually coming to like Cordelia, Buffy is still far and away the most complex character of the lot.  Most of the time she's the Slayer, but mid-episode, she's just a teenager, scared and lost.  At the end of the episode, after Xander and Angel rescue her, she says she feels stronger, but her tears say differently.  It doesn't mesh to cry for someone like the Master.  She wasn't crying for him.  Was she crying because, without him to rally them, there might be no more vampires to fight?  I doubt it.  Was she crying because the Hellmouth went back home, and she'd wanted to see what it would do?  Highly unlikely.  Was she crying because Willow didn't get eaten?  Naw.  Alison Hannigan's way too cute.  So what, then?

I don't know the history of Buffy.  I enjoy it, but, as I said, I only really just started watching it.  I don't know if they had funding for Season 2 by the time Season 1 was filmed.  Maybe they thought this was the end.  There was no cliffhanger - the big bad guy is dead.  There's just the look on Buffy's face as she stares at what should be her triumphal moment, and cries.  Silently, and while speaking, hiding behind a smile.  She's making wisecracks, but she's not really there.  She's lost something.

Having seen Season 7, I know what that something is.  I don't know if it will be explained in Season 2.  Would I have noticed her expression anyway?  I think so, yes.  And that's a different kind of mystery - the one of the character, not behaving the way we think they should.  I think it's a far better cliffhanger than any chase or possible character death.  It leaves us wondering, thinking, wanting to know, while the threat of a death, to me, always loses impact.  I have time to consider how I'll feel if the character does die, and then it's not as sad.

There are a couple of exceptions.  Ugly Betty played with those emotions exceptionally well.  NCIS killed off Kate in the last few seconds of the season finale.  If the tension can't be maintained, then you need to create a self-fuelling emotion that can.  I think that's what Buffy achieved.  I like her, I want her to be happy, she's accomplished her task, so why is she sad?  I want to comfort her, but I can't.  I can only keep watching, so I want to.  Subtle, but effective.

Now to borrow the technique.  Wish me luck!