Monday, August 30, 2010

Alan Wake Feelies

I've done it, ladies and gentlemen.  I have acquired quite a range of Alan Wake feelies, and it is my great pleasure to discuss them with you.  While I would enjoy a promotional flashlight and handgun as much as anyone, I'm speaking more of what would probably be more accurately termed' promotional materials' which, nonetheless, cause my heartrate to quicken and my fingers to become numb.  Welcome to the world of Alan Wake add-ons.

I recently blogged about the Signal, and I've been fan-girl-ing it up for some time now, but the flawless production of a world in which Alan Wake exists is something I dearly adore, especially because of the clever and accurate writerly overtones.  I've seen a bunch of articles where writers discuss the accuracy of Alan Wake.  Pish posh, people who are more famous than me.  Like many things, if you play the story to its conclusion, it all makes sense.  There are no famous, immediately identifiable writers in the world?  Stephen King and Brett Easton Ellis would disagree.  Harlan Ellison probably would, too, but, y'know.  Their other complaint seems to be that any publisher would never let a writer's wife do his cover art, or let his childhood friend be his agent.  To these people I say : Stay awhile, and listen...

First up - The Alan Wake Files, by Clay Steward.  This is a small hardcover book that came with the collector's edition of Alan Wake, and which I stole from my friend.  It looks like this:

Remember that guy in the very first mission, where you make it to the house after being chased by the hitch hiker, and there's some guy with a gun who say, "It's me, Mr. Wake!  Clay Steward!  Remember?"  Yeah.  This is written by him.

It turns out he was having some crazy dreams that lead him to Bright Falls, and he's met Alan a hundred times in those dreams, which is why he sounds so familiar.  Strange chronology, but true : Clay finds the files that Nightingale has on Alan, and which he stashes in the air vent of the motel he's staying at, and which you can find if you explore the motel in the last mission.  You can't take them out, but if you've read the book, you already know what they say.  The book also includes some of Alan Wake's published short stories, and they delight me just as much as the rest of it.

The second piece of wonder I obtained is this : 

I've glanced through it, and it seems to follow the game's dialogue and story pretty closely.  I'm looking forward to reliving the game during my week away at WorldCon (among the 5 other books I have to read before various panels... uh oh...)

Next, the strategy guide.  I'm not normally a strategy guide kind of gal, because I find I don't try as hard if I have the answers sitting on the couch (this includes living strategy guides, too).  However, what sets this one apart is that it's written like a story.  Yup.  You read that right.  The guide itself is written in third person about Alan's adventures through Bright Falls, with relevant information highlighted.  I may have squealed a little when I realised.  I also contains the transcribed conversations, TV segments, radio shows and various other possibly missed or unavailable tidbits that make this well worth reading, even without the walkthrough.

Fourth, the soundtrack.  Oh, the soundtrack.  I love it.  It arrived today and I immediately went to play it, forgetting that I was working from my EeePC, which has no CD drive.  I was sad.

And last, but definitely the best, is a little book known as Alan Wake Illuminated.  This is essentially an art book detailing the development of the game from its open-world-engine-prototype phase in 2005 to its release in 2010.  It contains extra notes about each of the episodes of Alan Wake, as well as a section on the missions, ideas, places and people that were removed from the game.  It's an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the cycle of game development.  It's frank and informative, while not glossing over just how much time was spent on iterations that ended up getting cut from the final product.  I read most of it in a happily-spent hour, and then my hands cramped up and I had to take a break.  As much as I love hardcovers, they're not all that easy to hold aloft for long periods.

So that's it.  My Alan Wake feelie wrapup is complete.  If you'd like to join the joy, each of the names will lead you to the appropriate page.  Now I'm off to read more of that strategy guide!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Staying motivated at the end of the day

It's been a long day.  A LONG day.  On the scale of short to long, this day has been epic.  So how do you stay motivated?

Let's be honest - you don't need to write those 2,000 words tonight.  Really, it's okay.  No one will know.  You can just go to bed, crash, get a reasonable night's sleep, and wake up in the morning, refreshed and ready to go.

That's certainly an option.  And, sometimes, that's all you can do.  Some days you are just so bone tired that you fall asleep waiting for your two minute noodles.  I've been there.  Those cooking instructions are a LIE.  But, hey, that's the way the baklava crumbles.  Into gooey, delicious chunks of nuts, honey and pastry, that also happen to be soporific.  Somehow.

But then there are those days, you know the ones where, yeah, it's been a long day, yeah, you're tired, I know, and you just finished cooking dinner and washing up, and you're sitting in front of the computer with Facebook open, thinking, just thinking...  I could go to bed right now.  Or I could write my words for today.

The bed is sitting there, being all nonchalant.  It's just waiting, blankets wide open and welcoming, warm and soft and fuzzy like my cat's tummy after she's been curled up in the sun.  So warm, especially on these uncharacteristically frozen Brisbane winter nights.  But it will still be there in an hour, or even two.  Heck, it will be there all night, or I hope so, for your sake.  But time?  Yeah, time's a bit more slippery.

You see, an hour might sound like a long time.  If you think about it, really think about it, it is.  That's one thing I think kids have got over us adults, we think, "15 minutes?  I may as well play solitaire." while kids think, "15 minutes?  That's three rounds of make-believe and at least one and a half of dress-up!"  They're active.  They make good use of their time.  Now, I know our tasks become more complex the older we get, to a certain point, but writing is one of those most simple joys, like a hot bath on a cold day, or a ray of sunshine in the rain.  You don't have to work.  Writing isn't work, unless you're getting paid.  Writing is expression, letting oneself go.  Like letting your hair down at the end of the day, loosening your belt, or dreaming, writing is the solace we allow ourselves in order to relax.

Yet it seems like hard work, doesn't it?  On those days where you just want to curl up with a good book on the couch and dream the evening away, it seems like there's nothing more arduous.  But you know that's not true.  If you're anything like me, the catharsis of writing is more relaxing than any journey out of the self.  There's time for that when you're already relaxed.  To process the events of the day, the week, the month, you need an outlet, and where better to put your ideas?

2,000 words.  A day.  Let's put that into perspective.  Write for a week, and you'll have 14,000 words.  That's a long short story (ha!).  Write for two weeks, and you'll have 28,000 words.  That's a novella.  Write for a month, and you'll have 60,000 words.  That's a YA novel.

But, you know, you do this for the love of it.  If you're like me, writing usually comes last, after chores and work and cat and play.  And that's okay.  If it's not a job, you don't have to treat it like one.  Similarly, the worst thing you can do is freeze up and keep your fingers from moving.  Staring at a blank page has rarely helped anyone.  If you decide to write, decide to write, no matter the consequences.  You can edit later.  For now, let your frustrations, sorrows, joys and delights flow onto the screen through your eager fingers, and try not to take any notice of the time.  Don't set an alarm, but do dedicate yourself fully to the task at hand.  Close any messenger programs, emails or unnecessary browser windows.  Turn off music, close doors and windows to keep noise to a minimum, and let the people in your house know that you're busy.  Stay in this mindset for as long as you want to, for as long as you can, and when it's over, for whatever reason, take a deep breath.  You did it.

What's important is not the word count, but the act of writing.  Getting in a habit is only setting part of a routine.  As my mum says, it takes seven days to make a habit, and twenty-one days to break one, so if you write for a week straight, you've got three weeks to get back into the groove.  I think those are pretty good odds.

And, hey, if you don't make it one night or morning or whatever time is best for you, relax.  You're only human.  Whatever you can get done is taking you a step closer to your dream, so don't beat yourself up.  Writing 2,000 words a week is better than no words at all.  Remember to breathe, make yourself a cup of tea, and just be.  You're a writer.  Remember that.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What High Fidelity isn't

A friend recently recommended I watch High Fidelity, with John Cusack.  After my normal faffing around period of a couple of months, I finally got around to putting the disc in my DVD drive while I attempted to wrangle the Dragon Age toolset.  It may have been my monumental frustration at the fact there's no way to preview a map before you spend time loading it, or the fact that I was working while my boyfriend was playing Valkyria Chronicles, but High Fidelity just seemed to be about... well, not fidelity.

I know it's a pun.  Har de har har. He owns a record store, where everyone who works there is a snob, including Jack Black.  Okay.  His girlfriend leaves him, and he can't stand to let her go, so he keeps chasing her, even though he apparently cheated on her while she was pregnant - his defence is that 'didn't know', but he doesn't make an excuse for cheating on her in the first place.  He goes through his life, not knowing what he wants to do, and offending people.  Okay then.

I understand the film is about a journey of the self, and how he goes from being a selfish bastard to being someone possibly worth redeeming.  My problem is that we don't get to see the whole journey, much as 8 Mile stops before Eminem becomes famous, or Mongol is all about how Ghenghis Khan became the scourge of the north-east.  It leaves the viewer feeling hard-done by, in the sense that there's no closure.  Now, I'm normally the last person who cares about such things - I think the ending to Inception was wonderful - but I do like to feel like I haven't wasted my time in watching a movie.  High Fidelity did not offer this.

I get the feeling I'm not the target audience, though.  While his speech toward the end about wanting it all to stop, to stop worrying about relationships and settle down and think about something else instead, strikes a chord with me, after I spent the rest of the time watching him be a jerk, it didn't feel like enough of a payoff.  He doesn't stay with Laura because he loves her, though one of the other characters hints at it, he stays with her because he's tired of trying.  Wow.

It's at this point that I feel like I must have missed something.  Surely the movie couldn't be about settling with what you've got?  There's an underlying message, that you have to settle down sometime, and settling into a relationship that's 'good' is more realistic than searching for one that's 'spectacular', but I'm still somewhat amazed he got AND kept a girlfriend in the first place, let alone convinced her to give him a second chance.

It reminded me of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang meets The Wonder Years, where you have the moments of hatred-laced pity, combined with the sudden awesomeness of breaking the fourth wall.  Unfortunately, Robert Downey Jr. still gets my vote for universe president, if only because he's also Ironman and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a modern-day film noir parody with a gay Val Kilmer in it.  And, as a point of interest, the first ten minutes of Kiss Kiss are absolutely not PC enough to show in class as an example of an excellent voiceover.  So I hear.  Just a heads up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Illusions gone widdershins

One of the very first things you learn about when you take any writing course is something called the 'willing suspension of disbelief', attributed to Coleridge.  One of the first things you hear about when beginning to play or work on games is the 'illusion of choice'.  A close second, if not a scouting party to this idea, is that of immersion.

Immersion is the state in which the player is absorbed in the game.  It's characterised by specific brain patterns that put a player into a state recently termed 'flow'.  Colloquially, it's the feeling you get when you're so engrossed in a book, movie or game that you lose track of time.  That is immersion.  Janet Murray likens it to floating in water, in navigating and submerging oneself in a new kind of space, as alien to us as water is to air.  This is what developers are striving for, because immersion means the player is 'in the zone', they're having fun, they're not going to put the controller down any time soon and, hey, they just might recommend the game to their friends.

There are a lot of arguments centred around immersion.  I'm not going to get into them.  It's an interesting subject - look it up.  But what I'm concerned with is the idea that, somewhere along the way, we lost our freedom to choose.  Think about games like Mass Effect and, more recently, Dragon Age: Origins.  They're dialogue-heavy, but not necessarily customisation-heavy, in that you can do whatever you want, but the ultimate climax will always happen.  Your relationships with different characters will vary depending on the types of conversations you have any how many gifts you give them, but that's essentially it.  Okay.  Let's take a look at some older games, such as Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment.  The ending is still the same, but how the player arrives there makes all the difference.  What the player knows - or doesn't know - will cast the ending into a whole new light.  There are dialogue options, and party customisation, but they're window dressing to the main quest line, albeit expertly executed window dressing.  The main focus is on the narrative.

It may sound like I'm comparing apples and apples here, but, let me assure you, I'm not.  I dropped Mass
faster than a retail copy of Days of Our Lives when I realised that, no matter where I went or what I did, I'd always be "Commander Shepherd".  People who I'd never met before just plain didn't like me, but not through any fault of my own.  No thanks.  A similar thing happens in Dragon Age - simply by virtue of being a Grey Warden, people will insult you.  Awesome.  Some people will like you, too, but even though my mute DA character is vastly preferable to her smart-mouthed space-faring counterpart, people still didn't react to what I was doing.  I go into the house of a well-known monk and come out covered in blood - what?  No reaction? Really?

In comparison, Baldur's Gate had you as a child of Bhaal.  You can't change that, but everything else is pretty much up to your discretion.  Imoen is your half-sister, always, but if you want to become a master thief, she's cool with it... to a point.  Certain other characters will berate you for your lawless ways and, at least in my party, they got the chop about as quickly as Mass Effect did.  Then you could have Tiax, the evil halfling intent on taking over the world, who seriously clashed with the neutral good druid Jaheira.  Fun times.  In terms of customisation, Dragon Age is probably the closest of the recent releases, if only for the ability to swap party members, but there are nowhere near as many party members in Dragon Age as there were in either of the Baldur's Gate games.  In Baldur's Gate you had alignments, so choosing the correct thief was important, since party harmony was integral to success.  In Dragon Age, your party members might hate each other, but they won't leave the party because of it, whereas if you keep Tiax around too long, Jaheira (and hence Khalid, one of the best tanks in the game) will give you the flick, which can be seriously damaging in the middle of a quest.

The choices in games have become not so much about action, but about dialogue.  Call me crazy, but as a games writer, I don't like a lot of dialogue in a game.  Any game.  It's usually not that well acted, I can read faster than they can talk, and a lot of it is simply extraneous to my enjoyment of the game.  I seem to be alone in this feeling, since they keep making games like this, but there's a serious question floating around in the back of my mind : why is story doing the work that gameplay should be in charge of?

Think about it.  Your choices in conversations determine whether or not people like you.  You gain paragon or renegade points in Mass Effect, and you wrangle rewards or punishments from people in Dragon Age.  In the older RPGs, dialogue was important, but it was what you did that mattered most.  Kill Pharod when you had the chance?  No bronze orb for you!  Kill Noober?  Miss out on some sweet XP!  Try to reconcile with your evil half-brother?  Oh.  Oh my.  Get accused of killing those guys in the library?  Load the game and go kill them, since you'll be accused of it anyway!  Dialogue was present, but it was about the player.  Now it's about winning.

Don't believe me?  Let's take a look at some further examples.  Early RPGs were about exploration, and that included dialogue.  Oftentimes, the dialogue was simply a prelude to a quest, so choosing different options merely provided more information or a 'get out of quest free' card if you weren't interested.  Now there are multiple different options, which lead to multiple different paths, but they're easily identifiable, so I find myself playing to get the ultimate outcome, rather than looking forward to seeing where the quest takes me.  In an effort to give the player multiple options for the same quest, we've gone from the illusion of choice to the certainty of choice.  We're so sure we should be allowed to choose that we're insulted when we're not.  When's that get fun?

Nothing can compare to the moment you meet the Transcendent One in Planescape: Torment, especially if you've uncovered all of the lore.  It had to happen.  You couldn't escape it.  All paths lead to this.  There's a certain comfort in inevitability that I think we've lost in recent games.  We're so hung up on choices that we don't get to make the decisions that really matter, because they're surrounded by fluff and nonsense.  I spend most of my time in Dragon Age playing through conversations, each one of which could have some unforeseen impact on the game, but probably won't.  In comparison, one of the first side-quests in Planescape: Torment is to help a lady get home.  You don't have to, and if you do, you don't get anything for it but her gratitude.  It's about the player, not the game.  The game is a vehicle for the story, rather than the story attempting to carry the game.

I think this is an important distinction to make.  Stories in games have been doing far too much heavy lifting lately.  It's time to write smarter systems, to better integrate gameplay with story, and to write context-sensitive dialogue that has multiple meanings depending on the player's perspective.  That way, the experience is just as unique, but with relatively less effort than branching dialogue trees and entirely different quest lines.

Games are possibility space.  They contain essentially unlimited amounts of information that it's up to the player to discover.  The boundaries can be as wide as a dream.  In a game, the illusion of choice should be so absolute that it isn't until the second playthrough that you begin to see the gilded bars of your cage.  And if it's written correctly, the view will be far more captivating, anyway.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Salt the movie : as damaging as the real thing

I try to be positive in my reviews. No one likes a whinger, after all, and if I don't have anything positive or constructive to say, I generally keep it to myself. In this case, though, I'll make an exception.  Kurt Wimmer, what happened?

Salt, the movie, is a waste of many things - a relatively decent actress, quite a large amount of money and, most importantly, my time. The best part of the movie, in my opinion, was the credits. It would have been better if she'd died in Korea - a twelve-second masterpiece! The budget still would have been more than I'll ever make in my lifetime, though.

From the shoddy camera work - the movie is riddled with camera cuts that make no sense and, in fact, completely change the meaning of some scenes - to the terrible, terrible logic flaws - she grabbed a hat, where did the shawl come from? Why were the security guards in America wearing what looked like the yellow Star of David from WW2 and if so, why were they all Asian? - the movie is nothing short of mind-bogglingly ridiculous. This might be acceptable if it didn't take itself so damn seriously.

Let me ruin the plot for you : everyone is a spy. There, you didn't miss much. Angelina Jolie's a spy, that other guy is a spy, the guy sitting next to you is probably a spy, and somehow it takes THREE GODDAMN DAYS to determine if someone is dead or not! It's action movie-ism at it's absolute worst, because it seems like they honestly think the audience isn't going to have a problem with the flawed premise, the lack of character development, or the fact that firing an on-impact explosive somehow means the aforementioned impact explosive will only explode on your enemies, rather than when you hit it with the thing you're using to fire it from. Audiences are smarter than that. At least, I sincerely hope they are. Then again, given the reaction in the cinema, it may be a false one. I was actually going to write this blog post while the movie was still going, but I was afraid of getting lynched.

If this movie makes any kind of profit, I'm calling shenanigans and nuking the entire world from orbit. It's the only way to be sure all the dumb is erased.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Terror Vs. Horror - Fatal Frame Vs. Cthulhu

The title of this post is misleading, but let me clarify.  I'm not sure how it happened, but I apparently love horror. My favourite games include Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly and Dead Space, and one of my favourite movies is Silent Hill.  Given that I spent 4 months terrified of zombies after watching Shaun of the Dead, this is a little odd.

However, the reason I love these stories is the same reason I love Alan Wake.  It's the same reason I can never play these games.  I'm quite highly anxious, quite a lot of the time, so the idea of picking up a controller in one of these 'unsafe' environments causes me to hyperventilate.  When playing the intro section of Dead Space - even before everything happened and everyone got killed - I was pausing the game every five seconds to take a breather.  Yet they're my favourite games, and Cthulhu, like so many other people, is my favourite littlest elder god.  Why?

The reason the title of this post is misleading is because Fatal Frame/Project Zero combines elements of both terror and horror - terror is the immediate fight or flight impulse that gives you that sick feeling in your stomach, makes your mouth dry, and gives you adrenaline.  Horror is the creeping dread, the fear in the dark, the flicker of a shadow at the edge of your vision.  Terror lasts for up to ten or fifteen minutes, after which the feeling dissipates.  This is the theory behind 'flooding', a method to reduce people's phobias.  Horror lasts for much, much longer.

You see, terror is a physiological reaction.  Fatal Frame does this very well.  Horror is a psychological reaction.  Fatal Frame also does this very well - amazingly well, in fact.  Minor spoiler in the links.  You see, terror can be included in horror, as a gut reaction, but horror is what sticks with you, much like my reading of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.  It's the things you think about that become more creepy the more you think about them.  This is why I prefer Cthulhu to any kind of slasher flick.  Cthulhu is believable.  That's where the horror lies.

Despite the fact that Fatal Frame is steeped in Japanese lore - the reading of which both makes the games make more sense and adds to the entirely sinister feel - one of the elements in common between these titles is the aspect of the familiar.  Travelling to Japan, we stayed in an inn like one of the houses in All Gods' Village.  We crossed a bridge like the long, wooden one, over the fast-flowing, freezing water.  At night.  In the mist.  I could barely breathe.  Silent Hill and Alan Wake are both set in middle-America.  The fictional town of Silent Hill is actually based, in the movie, on the real-world town of Centralia.  Dead Space, while science fiction, has an aura of credibility based, only in part, on the fact that Unitology is based purely on Scientology (as evidenced by a typo in the pre-release comic, as if it wasn't obvious enough).  To have a good horror, you have to create belief.  I would argue that, in a good horror, you have a harder job of creating belief, since your audience is going to be resistant to the strange ideas you're trying to convince them of, and actively looking for ways to not be scared.  Horror, like comedy, is incredibly difficult to get right.

Alan Wake is so good it inspires me to write.  Despite the fact I was the one watching, I was the one on the edge of my seat, watching the screen and stifling screams when enemies appeared, sitting back and sighing with relief when a battle was over, and my friend, who was actually playing the game, was leaning back in his chair, eating M&Ms.  That was a whole-game process, much like Heavy Rain.  I can't do anything else when Alan Wake is being played nearby.  It sucks me in.  I can't look away.  I don't want to.

It's that compelling element of horror, the need to keep watching, that most fascinates me.  Silent Hill was the first horror movie I watched the whole way through.  It so expertly navigated the waves and troughs of the panic-release endorphin combination, sticking almost religiously (ha ha) to the ten to fifteen minute rule of anxiety that, every time I thought I couldn't take it anymore, it gave me respite, and I was able to keep watching.  There's a balance, here, between scaring the player, and letting them explore the landscape of the story.  You may wander off the path to collect coffee thermoses in Alan Wake, but you know you're going to pay for it with both ammunition and health, since a group of enemies is almost guaranteed to spawn behind you when you take too long.  It's risk reward, but the danger is very real.  Alan Wake and Isaac Clarke both don't respond instantly to feedback, giving the game that delicious half-second of inertia that would be hopelessly frustrating in other games, and which is hopelessly frustrating to many players, but which lends the world its sense of realism.  I love Uncharted as much as the next Nolan North groupie, but I also spent the first fifteen minutes of the game making him run around in circles (his head stays in the same spot and his body revolves around it) and making him jump (he jumps like a monkey).  These aspects of animation may be good in terms of gameplay, but I certainly didn't think he was a real character any more than I expect to see Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie at my local Coles.

So, I suppose, for me, Cthulhu is more real.  I can't see the cover of Crimson Butterfly in my house, or I have nightmares - once, I'd already had a nightmare, and my mum came in to comfort me, wearing a long, white nightdress such as Sae wears in the video above; I did not stop screaming for minutes - but these games gave me something that I find sadly lacking in other games or common stories.  They give me belief in something different to what I know.  More than stories about superheroes or dream invaders or the advertising executives of the 1960s, these horror movies and games give me an insight into a world that may be, and that I desperately hope is not.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  How better to create belief by suggesting something abhorrent to be true?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Alan Wake Special Feature 1 of 2: The Signal

First, spoilers.  Read no more.  If you have not finished The Signal DLC for Alan Wake, don't read any further.  It won't spoil the awesomeness for you, but, as anyone who's ever heard or read a spoiler before will tell you, it will ruin the surprise, which is a crucial part of many stories, and especially Alan Wake.  You have been warned.

I have loved Alan Wake all along for its portrayal of a super-star author.  From the fact that he's essentially a rock star to the terrible, terrible pages of his first draft of Departure (I'm surprised there weren't any spelling errors), it's been a fun and somewhat sobering look at the creative life some of us choose to lead.  Writing is a solitary profession.  I don't believe anyone's said contrary.  I do enjoy working in a group - I love brainstorming, in fact - but the actual writing, for me, must be undertaken in silence and solitude.  Anything else simply interferes.

The Signal is a chilling look at the self-hatred that shadows Alan throughout his first adventure.  During the game itself, there are references to how he feels about not being able to write, how he feels like a fraud since killing off his most popular character, Alex Casey.  The Signal makes this self-hatred entirely apparent.  Alan is hunted by flying versions of his own books, similar to the crows from the game, he's typing light-activated words that turn into enemies and try to kill him, and he's constantly cursing himself from inside the TVs scattered across the level, talking about how he's walking himself into a trap, how he's going to die, how the darkness is coming for him.

All of this is creepy, and there's some wonderfully subtle horror-movie-style work going on in the clips of Alan on the TV, but none of that compares to the ending.  Thomas Zane (his name having taken the place of the Poets of the Fall on the occasional in-store poster) is trying to direct Alan... somewhere.  He keeps telling him he's going too deep, and while the premise of the DLC is that the darkness is trying to kill Alan now that he's no longer of any use, Zane eventually tells him that, no, actually, this is Alan destroying himself.

He wrote himself to the bottom of an ocean.  He's trapped inside a cabin somewhere in depths unknown, after having banished the darkness at the expense of his own life - he avoided the mistake that Zane had made, the unwriting of himself that allowed the darkness to break free.  He trapped himself to save the world.  And now he's down there, down in the black, alone with his thoughts and his memories and his pain.  The last scene of The Signal is Alan lying on the floor of the cabin, surrounded by glowing manuscript pages, the camera tilting and swooping at crazy angles, and him saying, "There's no way out."

While spellbinding, this performance struck a slightly uncomfortable chord with me in terms of what it means to be a writer.  To be a writer, one has to let their imagination run free.  In many cases, that can be a terrifying thing.  No one imagines only nice situations.  No one is happy all of the time.  So, for a writer, or for any creative person, being trapped in your own subconscious, especially if you're plagued with doubt as to the extent of your creativity, will be a nightmare from which there is no waking.  Alan is correct.  There's no way out.

I sometimes wonder if only people with good imaginations are afraid of the dark.  Otherwise, really, what is there to fear?  I'm only afraid of the dark because I imagine monsters and zombies.  They don't exist, I know that.  But in the dark, they could be real.  Darkness is possibility space, simply because we can't see what's around us.  Suspended in darkness, a thousand feet down, Alan is very much in a world where anything can become real.  He's going crazy because of it.  Couple this with the higher instance of psychological illness amongst writers, and it starts to look eerily familiar.

I myself have often wondered if I'm crazy.  The only answer I have, and that I keep coming back to, is that if I'm still able to question my sanity, I can't be insane.  Right?  But who else would spend their free time talking to imaginary people?  And who else would enjoy so much seeing an imaginary character in a similar predicament?

I think, for any creative person but for writers in particular, because I have a certain bias there, being locked away with only your imagination would be the ultimate Grecian hell.  Just look at Inception.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beating back the heathens in My Empire

So I've discussed multiculturalism in games before.  Well, specifically, Dragon Age.  This time I'm going to take a look at my much-loved Facebook city-sim My Empire.

You may recall I recently discussed the inclusion of violence in their game, which, up until now, had been about peacefully building a city and making sure everyone was happy.  I was concerned they would introduce PvP, but, thank goodness, it's just PvE.  Still, when you win, the barbarians 'run away', in keeping with the child-like nature of the game :

Similarly, your soldiers 'run away' when defeated :

Now, I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure the Huns and the Romans never met.  I know this is fantasy, but it bothers me.  I'm white, middle-class, relatively white-collar - surely I've got nothing to complain about, right?  Well, no, everyone has things they want to complain about in their lives, but in this case I'm complaining about the misrepresentation of ethnic 'minorities'.

Remember that test where African American children were offered a white doll and a dark-skinned doll and asked which one was 'nice' and which one was 'bad'?  Then they asked them to point to the doll that looked like them, and some of them began to cry?  It's an extreme example, but My Empire is no different.  Sure, the internet is mostly the domain of white people, but... Romans?  Versus swarthy barbarians?  Let's look at the physical features that differentiate them : 

1) The nose - the Roman nose is aquiline, as always, while the barbarian's nose is flattened, round and large
2) The eyes - Romans apparently have pretty brown eyes, while barbarians have beady, stalker eyes - add to this the fact that the Roman is staring off into the distance in a statuesque manner and the barbarian is looking at the player, and you have quite a lot of disparity.
3) The skin colour - Romans have pink skin, the barbarians have darker, more 'olive' skin
4) Dress - Shiny gold versus fur and metal.  No contest there.
5) The cities - Romans build palaces and churches (seriously - check it out) : 

While the barbarians can't build something that doesn't need to be held up by other planks of wood : 

6) Last, but not least - the Roman carries no weapons.  The barbarian carries a (sheathed) sword, has a bone through his ear, has a rather disfiguring scar, and is surrounded by a background of spikes.  Let's not even get into the fact that the Roman is fit, while the barbarian is pretty darn pudgy, or the fact that the Roman is clean-shaven while the barbarian has an unkempt beard.  Heck, both of their hats are decorated with horsehair!  It just looks different, because the Roman is neater.

This bothers me.  Romans weren't Christian, not until after the first century AD, and probably not when they were at the peak of their power.  To be honest, I don't know enough about the rise of Christianity in early Rome to make a definitive call, but when it's a fantasy game, leave religion out of it.  Secondly, Italians/white people versus Mongolians/Russians - isn't it the Cold War all over again?  I mean, that's when you get this kind of crazy stuff happening, when people believe you're headed toward mutual destruction.  Or, in a worst-case scenario, you get Venezuela insisting a game by Pandemic is a plot by America to prepare their citizens for an upcoming invasion.  People take this stuff seriously.

But it all comes back to one simple idea - people with technology are better.  In the case of warfare, that's true.  Muskets versus swords is a battle I wouldn't even bother betting on.  But 'less technologically advanced' doesn't mean 'uncultured'.  It certainly doesn't mean 'bad'.  And once again, we have the possibility that a culture will wind up viewing itself a demonised.  Nothing is made of the cultural heritage that was lost when the Romans took over.  Why?  Quite simply, because there's nothing left to wonder about.  People don't think about the preservation of the society they're conquering, and why should they?  Everything changes.  But dressing me up as a handsome, righteous Roman soldier who's forcing barbarian scum from their own lands makes me distinctly uncomfortable.  I'm not interested in the land ownership debate that's forever ongoing in Australia, and I sure as heck don't want to see it creeping into my fluffy little Facebook games, either, especially when I'm the bad guy, and it's taken me this long to realise it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Animal Crossing and the Great Divide

I love Animal Crossing.  When I heard that it was coming to the 3DS, I let out peal upon peal of girlish, *squeeeee!*-ing delight.  There's something about the tiny people, with their tiny lives, making up nicknames for me and giving me random pieces of unwanted furniture that makes my life that little bit better.  Of course, I first started playing it when I had A) a full-time job B) was in a pretty serious World of Warcraft guild and C) was drinking about 12 double-shots of coffee a day.  Ah, the rose-tinted remembrances of game development.

Popping the cart back in recently, I was struck with the realisation that the boy I tutor wiped my save file, oh, a good 3 years ago now.  It was an accident, and he felt too guilty to bring it up for two years, but it was still a shock to seem my house reduced to only one room.  Sigh.  Time to start collecting oranges and peaches.

I dumped all of my inventory on the ground (as you do when your pockets are full, especially in real life), and started collecting fruit.  Now, I may have mentioned I've recently started the very, very preliminary stages of my Masters, and that's what I was meant to be doing last night, but, knowing that Tom Nook closes up shop at 10.00pm, I was hauling fruit for a good 20 minutes before I'd finally had enough and decided to do work again.  And the weeds!  Don't even get me started on the weeds.

It reminds me of a comic I can't find anywhere of a guy who goes back to Animal Crossing after he's been away for a year.  The city's overgrown with weeds, his house is full of cockroaches, and the townsfolk start accusing him of abandoning them.  Yeah.  My half an hour of gameplay was like that.

But, you know, it wasn't all bad.  Lobo the wolf was plenty happy to see me, and the others didn't stay mad at me for more than a perception round or two.  They were just happy I was back.  I've got to say, I do remember why I used to play it so often, and for so long - the relationships you build up with those silly little critters refuse to go away.  I remember the first time one of them moved town.  I was heartbroken.  Lobo is from my friend's town, originally.  I mean, if you keep sending them rotten boots in the mail, they'll eventually leave, but it was simply the case that she stopped playing before I did, and we'd connected once in the past, so he moved on over to my town.  He still has the catch phrase she gave him.  Unfortunately, all of my townsfolk call me by the nickname she had set up for me, too, but we can't have everything.

Then there's the faceless cat, who used to get ping-ponged around our office, each time with a face more ridiculous than the last, or the little mum and baby cat who get separated - the shooting stars you can catch if you try, the presents that float by randomly once and hour, and that you have to knock from the sky with your slingshot; the aliens in UFOs that do similar, but at night time, and the constantly moving bug and fish population, that change not only with the time of day, but with the seasons.  There's a lot to do.

I guess it's the unhurried pace I used to love the most, and now somewhat resent.  You take things in your own time, and it will take you forever to pay off your home loan if you don't diligently collect fruit and sell all the other items you find.  I was up to the largest level of housing, so I'd paid off 848,000 'Bells' for the latest upgrade (2,611,800 Bells in total).  When you stop to think that each 'exotic' fruit - e.g. fruit not native to your town - sells for 500 Bells, and you can only carry 15 items at a time, you being to realise what a time investment I must have put in.  I begin to realise it, too.

Is it worth it?  Probably not.  Am I absolutely rapt that there's going to be a 3DS version?  Yes.  Am I going to play during the Acorn Festival and try to get all of my old furniture back?  You betcha.  Every Saturday in August between 7pm and 12am there are also in-game fireworks.  That will be a nice bonus, if I happen to be signed in at that time.

So, what's the difference between Animal Crossing and the Facebook games I curse?  Well, I can't spend real money in Animal Crossing, the characters I interact with at least pretend to care about me and remember the things that I did earlier in the game, like catching a certain fish or bug, and there's no real punishment for not signing in, apart from weeds and cockroaches that I can get rid of if I want to.  If I don't want to, that's equally fine.  Basically, Animal Crossing makes me happy, when I have the time - everything is so simple and pretty, and the people are so nice.  It makes a very big change from the frantic pace of full-time work + taking care of house + cooking + Masters + cat.  For that reason, I feel as if I've outgrown it a little.  I'm hoping the 3DS version might bring me back in, but unless I can convince my friends to play it, too, I get the feeling my little avatar's going to be pretty lonely.

The other thing that makes Animal Crossing what it is, is the sincerity of its being.  It doesn't try to be another type of game, and it's not trying to cheat me out of my time or money.  It simply is, and if I want to be part of its existence, then that's wonderful.  If I don't, it will be waiting for me, just as it always was, perhaps a little dirtier and lonelier, like a favourite childhood toy, but it will welcome me back just as warmly.  When was the last time your video game gave you a virtual hug?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cooking is like storytelling for hungry people!

Further to Hannelore's insightful and oh-so-adorable comment, I submit that cooking is like storytelling (for hungry people).  There are certain elements you need to set up first - characters, world, rules of conduct - that are akin to the garlic, onions and other spices you saute before beginning to cook.  Then you have the things that take a long time to pay off - the plot, the beginnings of sub-plots, character introductions and intrigue - which are things like meat or particularly troublesome vegetables.  Next come the little details that add flavour and nutritional value - common vegetables, mostly - which account for the actions that happen along the way to your dramatic finale.  Last, but not least, you have the garnishes - sauces, parsley, the presentation of the dish, etc - which finish off your story, wrap everything up and add the last little pieces of deliciousness that make a good meal great.

Having said all that, however, I'm a thoroughly mediocre cook, possibly because creativity - my favourite element of writing - doesn't translate necessarily well when attempting to follow a recipe.  I suppose the same would go for someone trying to be creative with narrative theories before they understand those theories, but when you write a poor story, you at least have something to salvage.  Burnt chocolate lasts forever.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Programming and the sacrifice of kittens

I'm not a programmer.  Despite having grown up in a house with no less than three avid Basic/C++ aficionados, programming is as alien to me as bacon-flavoured ice cream.  We just don't get along, you see.  I'm all about the grasp of English grammar and constructing a well-tempered sentence, when programming is... not.  You wind up with terrible things like :

void main {
GetIsMelted     (

if (GetIsMelted == TRUE)       {

SetIsDelicious  (
if (GetIsMelted != TRUE)       {

SetIsEaten      (

You know what?  That's not even anything.  I made it up.  My parents and brother are all shaking their heads right now, I bet, disappointed in my ability to parse parameters like a good little quaternion.  Yes, I know that's not what quaternions do.  Ruin all my fun.  Go look at a hypersphere.

Despite the above attempt at code looking amusingly like a bunch of tiny people with far-flying boomerangs, I doubt it would run in a proper fight, even if I had pre-defined the variables and functions.  I just don't understand.  It's not for lack of trying - I've tried for years - it's just that it makes absolutely no sense to me.  I can stuff around and write things about chocolate, but I don't know how I would actually create those functions, whether calling them like that (are they even integers?  Surely being melted is more than a binary state!) would have the effect that I want, or if it's all just gibberish.

This all arises because I'm trying to do something incredibly simple in the Dragon Age toolset.  It turns out that to create custom local variables - which is all I want to do, really - you need to create a 2-dimensional array, convert it into *.gda format, import it, then write the associated functions and scripts to call the silly things, before you apply those variables anywhere else.  It's maddening.

I'm a writer, dammit.  I'm not saying I can't program, but I've got about an emu's chance at a turtleneck convention of finding a style that suits me.  I've been told Dragon Age uses a scripting language akin to C.  It could be banging moon rocks together over my head and I'd still have just as big a clue as to what's going on.

But, alas.  As a games writer, it's evolve or bust.  Possibly Dragon Age isn't the most useful in terms of functionality or ease of learning, especially when its predecessor (the Neverwinter Nights Aurora Toolset) was such a joy to use in comparison, even in all its buggy glory.  Unfortunately, however, Dragon Age does have a very good conversation editor, if I ever make it that far.  I'd settle down and use the StarCraft Galaxy Editor, or the Elder Scrolls Construction Set, but, honestly, they wouldn't let me do what I'm imagining.  Maybe what I'm trying to do isn't that simple after all.

Enough whining.  Back to memorising functions.  This is the dark side of games writing and academia that no one ever tells you about - if I don't post tomorrow, it may be because my family and friends have confined me away from the computer for my crimes against syntax.  Semi-colons, why dost thou mock me?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday interlude: my MS Paint skillz

I'll be honest.  I was reading something the other day, and it was terrible.  Really, truly, 'I can't construct a sentence' terrible.  After checking that the author was, in fact, Australian, a series of images began to form in my mind.  Inspired by this post from a fellow grammar devotee, those images began to take shape.  This is the result.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent, e.g. me.  The sentences appear exactly as they were written, with no editing, except truncation.  I honestly couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.


I think I missed the wagon-train

I finally saw Donnie Darko tonight.  I know, I'm only 9 years late.  But if I have learned anything from my belated movie experiences, it is this :

I hate hype.

Donnie Darko is a film I would have quite enjoyed, had I not been told it was 'teh best thing evarrrrrr!!!11!!!' repeatedly.  The same goes for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and just about anything my students recommend.  I think the effect is compounded when it also comes from social media, peers, and the people you actually care about.

One of the things I cover in my lectures is the individuality of experience.  You can never explain to someone why something made you feel the way you did, nor force them to experience the same emotion from the same content..  That's just the nature of disparate realities.  Sorry, folks.  But when Donnie Darko is a favourite movie of several people I very much love and respect, I feel a little sad knowing I don't feel the same way.  It's zeitgeist, indeed, but not pathos, for me.

Life itself is a series of seeking for these kinds of formative and transformative experiences.  That, ideally, is why we recommend something to the people we care about, because it touched us deeply in some inexplicable way, and we're hoping they will experience the same feeling.  I feel a little like I'm letting the team down, then, if I don't comply.  However, given that my boyfriend is one of those people, and he will never understand the effect that Dragonheart or Planescape: Torment had on me, the give and take seems more fair.

As practical advice, my advice is this - if you love something, don't talk it up.  Don't tell your friends how absolutely amazing it is, or at least be sure to couch your reaction clearly as your reaction, not, as above, 'it r best movie evar win for you!'.  If the person is open to discussion, qualify (or quantify) your opinion with some facts about your reaction, without giving the story away.  This may all sound like sensible, boring advice, but it's more difficult to put into practice than you might think.  The things that excite us necessarily demand we get excited, and that will come through.  There's nothing wrong with that.  But allowing the people you care about to make an informed decision should be part of your goal, as well.

I didn't dislike Donnie Darko.  I just think, having someone on hand, who had memorised the extra content and was able to answer all of my questions which, at the time, would have been a mystery to entrance me, is both convenient and disappointing.  Sometimes the best things in life shouldn't be easy.  Would I have enjoyed it more if I'd had to do my own research?  Perhaps.  Do I begrudge my friend the chance to discuss something he loves?  Not at all.  The experience wasn't ruined, but it wasn't transformative, either.  Not like The Darjeeling Limited.  Now, on that count, my friend certainly does win.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tale of Tales

I've mentioned Fatale and The Path, and now I've acquired Vanitas, for iPhone. I know many people who dislike ToT for their player-meaning-centric design philosophies, but that's exactly why I like them.

Of course, the case can be argued that until you 'get' what message the designers were trying to impart, the exercise is futile. As my friend described to me this evening, there are two distinct styles of learning prevalent in modern students. Those who are process-based, and those who are product-based. Product-based people will hate ToT 'games'. "But what's the point?" they'll ask or, more commonly, "It's just trying to be arty, there's no real meaning to it." Well, then, which games do have 'real meaning'?

Being a process-based person, I adore ToT. I'm not concerned with what they want me to experience. I'm interested solely in me, in how I feel, and why I feel that way. I'm a very selfish gamer, in that regard. So I will pay $6 for a game with two levels, or $1.20 for an app that's about opening a box to discover 3 random objects, because, to me, my experience makes those prices acceptable. I get out of these games what I put in, which may be why I get a lot more out if them than many other people, designers be damned. It's my experience to have. The game is just the framework.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My not-post on Inception

I saw Inception for the second time today.  Major spoilers ahead.

I was going to write about why everything that happens in Inception is a dream, citing evidence such as the fact that the maze that Ariadne (e.g. the woman from Greek mythology who leads her lover through the minotaur's labyrinth by giving him a ball of string) first builds of the city layer is oddly similar to the city Dom and  Mal built in Limbo.  In fact, I kept a record of the quotes from the movie that support this, as my theory is that everyone's wish for Dom to be back in reality is based on one false assumption :

No one said you wake up when you die in limbo.

As far as we know, it might simply take you back up one level.  There are 12 levels - and a basement - in Dom's consciousness.  We don't know how deep he went with Mal.  It could simply be that they killed themselves in Limbo, thus ending up in level 13 - the Basement - where Mal killed herself, either waking up or just bumping herself up to level 12, one level above Dom.  She's still gone, and he's still trapped, but the important thing is this : everyone he meets actually comes from Mal's subconscious.

They could be projections of his own subconscious, but given how shocked Ariadne is when she finds out Dom used inception on his own wife, I don't think it could be his own projection.  A lot of the time the other characters ask Dom questions, such as "What's down there for you?" and say things like, "Don't lose yourself." or "Come back to reality."

Anyway, a summary of my thoughts, for the most part, can be read at these two sites, which were the first two that came up in a Google search for my topic.  Something I do find personally alluring about the world of Inception, though, is an idea (ha!).  It's much nicer than in the Matrix, and when the question is, "If it's all a dream, does it really matter?", the Matrix says no while Inception says yes.  The other thing I find comforting is the idea that, when we die, we might really have been asleep, and get to do it all again.  For me, Inception is fantastically optimistic.  I wish other movies left me feeling so overwrought, but content.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Intermission : My New Bookend

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and when a friend's birthday dinner gives you a late night, you post funny cat pics.  First rule of blogging.

Somehow I think I'm going to have trouble matching this bookend, though.  I might have to start looking here : 

Yeah.  That's definitely an excellent match.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Life as a hack

You know those books that you read sometimes, and you can see what it could have been, if only they'd had a real editor?  This is what I'm struggling with in my current project.  As you may have seen from my most recent Twitter post, I recently hit 20,000 words in my attempt to write an 80,000 word novel.  This makes me a bit of a liar, according to my previous posts where I said I have neither the time nor the patience, but I'm also continuing game writing on the side, so it's not my only outlet.

Still, trying to write something quickly has exposed me to the terrors of something I rarely encounter, because I so rarely work up the courage to try : the crappy first draft.  My book is crap.  Utter rubbish.  I say this only because I can see in my mind what it should be and, indeed, what it will be - if I can edit.  I know where the story is going, so it's only the in-between sections and the minor details that remain unwritten - I have a chapter plan, you see - and I'm finding that invaluable in knowing where I am in terms of the story.  Never again will I come back to a draft, ready to write, and wonder, "What was this idiot thinking?"  I know exactly where I am, all the time.  I just don't know what my characters are doing.

And they're doing strange and possibly wonderful things.  The bumbling idiot has become the competent saviour, and a new character has introduced himself as a temporary antagonist.  The problem is that, even though I've done all my planning and story arcs, my characters haven't.  They react suddenly, and with exclamation marks!  They do things no sane person would do!  They expect me to make sense of it!

And I will.  Later.  I'm encountering what has been my biggest hurdle, now and in the past - editing kills my will to write.  So, it stands to reason, if  want to write, I must not edit.  It sounds simple, right?  When you spend 8 hours a day moonlighting as an editor for 230 students who are 17-something-years-old, not really, no.

But, by not editing, I've given myself something  of a holy grail in terms of getting my story down on paper.  I've given myself permission to write a crappy first draft.  As Jack Black says in his Acceptable TV tutorials, no one even has to read it.  The important thing is that it's keeping me writing, rather than losing track, losing patience, or losing interest.  Don't like that metaphor?  Too bad!  Write it anyway!  I'm sure the cringe factor of this final draft will exceed almost anything else I've ever written.  I'm also sure that it'll be okay.  I can fix it. As Nora Roberts has said, "I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page."  Here's hoping she's right.  I'll let you know.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The craft of the craft

This weekend has been a weekend of writing about writing.  I just got home from the Rockhampton GameOn weekend, and the first half of my blog post about writing for computer games is up at Ripping Ozzie Reads.  The second half will be posted on Tuesday.

I've also decided that, now I have an ultra-portable laptop, I absolutely adore airports and plane trips.  Well, plane trips longer than the flight to Sydney, because once they give you a drink and a muffin, and you finally manage to open said laptop, it's time to close it again.  I think I'm actually looking forward to the next time I fly to the US.  I wrote 1,300 words in my half-hour prior to boarding, and then another 1,700 during the actual flight to Rockhampton.  I'm learning I have a pretty good WPM average when I get into the swing of things.

The kids I had in Rockhampton were so bright, too.  Toward the end of the workshop, I explained, on paper, the flow of multiple-path dialogue, and they understood it right away.  They even told me when the conversation was done, because al of the nodes were linked to each other.  Such clever little cookies.  I'm a little jealous.  Goodness knows I didn't understand branching dialogue trees at their age but, then again, I don't suppose I had anyone show me how to do it, either.  Ah, well.  I hope they make some modules in Neverwinter Nights and send them to me.  That would be very exciting.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got another 1,500 words to write before bedtime - 20,000 milestone ahoy!