Thursday, September 30, 2010

End-of-September Roundup of Stuff I Like

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

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

So here are some pictures.

iPhone : Jojo's Fashion Show 2

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

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

iPhone : Pocket Frogs

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

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

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

PC : Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale

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

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

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

PC : Aion

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

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

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

Xbox 360 : Magna Carta 2

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

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

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

StarCraft 2 Spoilers Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Cabaret. Unconventional, but entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hyperconnectivity and The Great Divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hamlet on the Holodeck - Welcome, Captain Janeway

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

Goodness, but Ms. Murray can turn a phrase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did games become such serious business?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: ???

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

Q: Incorrect systems of government?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: When are you syndicating?

H: No, I don’t have a face for radio.

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

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

H: What’s the best kind of government?

Q: One that works. (Laughter)

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

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

Q: How do you make people believe your government?

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

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

Q: [Long convoluted comment]

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

Q: How do you make that work?

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

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

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

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

Mike Williamson Freehold/That weapon

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a strange land

Julian Comstock

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

Frank Herbert, Dune

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

Aasimov, Caves of Steel

Ken McCloud

L. Niell Smith

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

Pandora’s star by Peter F. Hamilton

Kevin Anderson, Sage of the Seven Suns

Sheri  S. Tepper

Phoenix Café – White Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

WorldCon 2010 : The Eternal Border

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

Here's the blurb for The Eternal Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R: Old people aren’t supposed to swear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D: Didn’t King do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Is this okay for us?

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

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

Q: ???

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

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

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

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

Q: Autobiographical works?

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

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

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

Q: Rating – rape scenes?

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

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

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

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

Q: Polyamory?

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

Q: Suicide bombers?

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance vs writing as you go

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

Here's the blurb for Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance vs. writing as you go : 
"For some authors, the most important aspect of writing a story or novel is preparing a meticulously constructed plot. For others, the appeal of writing comes from developing the  story on the fly, and allowing the plot to develop as they go. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach, and the best techniques for plotting in a chosen way?
Stephen Dedman, John Scalzi, Melinda M. Snodgrass"

Also present were Lezli Robyn and Ian Tregillis.

M: George R. Martin describes this as the architects versus the gardeners.  Are you someone who builds from the ground up, or do you wander through the garden, smelling the flowers and getting inspired?  John’s already said he’s going to start a fight with Ian, so let’s start with you.

J: I’m totally going to kill him, oh my god.  No, I love him.  Having said that, gardening in the real world is a lot of work, and I’m not down for that. (Laughter)  My way of writing largely comes from a strategy of work avoidance, I think about it for years and I have A and I have Q and I have X, and I just have to find a way to link them together, and for me it’s about exploring the story.  Sometimes a character I thought was only incidental will become a main character, and that’s better for the story as a whole.

L: I’m pretty much the same.  I write with another writer, and he plans some of the elements, but usually the ending will change, but it still creates the feeling that we want to create.  I do the same thing with my short stories, I never do more than one draft, and I never edit, I go with the natural flow and then I move on.

I: I have a very limited supply of neuro-transmitters in my brain, because I think if I had to think about what I was writing while I was writing it, that would be tragic, because I’m not very spontaneously creative.  I need to know the beginning and the end, at least, and I’ve found over the years that it works best for me when I have an outline at the levels of scenes, where there’s room for spontaneous creativity, but I’m not relying on it.

S: I’m not a planner, but I do like to have the A, the Z and some idea of how long the alphabet is going to be. (Laughter)  I’m not going to start writing page 1 before I know the ending.  But sometimes you come across a publisher who wants an outline, sometimes in non-fiction page-by-page, but for my first novel I had a wonderful editor who was married to a writer and understood the process, so in effect I’d rather not have an outline, but in one case they wanted me to write a novel, so I asked for 4 months, because I thought I could get it done in 3 months if there were no disasters in my life, and that was like, “Yeah, right!”  But I wrote out a plan and having a plan to follow allowed me to write the novel in 3 months with no hiccups, and I doubt I could have done that without that plan.

M: I’m a planner, having worked in Hollywood.  I don’t write my novels that way, but I like knowing what my job is for that day, so if I know what I have to do that day I’ll do it, but if I don’t have a plan I’ll go do the laundry or ride a horse, so having a scene plan makes me work.  So I’m interested in the gardeners, you have your tentpole scenes, but what happens with the rest of it? Do you rely on intuition?

L: Basically in a nutshell, I’m guided not by where the dialogue goes, but certain lines that make you go “This would be so much better.”

J: For me one of the things that allows me to basically make it up as I go along was that before I started writing novels, I was an editor for a year looking particularly at humorous novels, I spent a whole year reading a thousand submissions a month where I had 20 spots to put things in, and ironically I would keep working after those 1000 submissions, because 90% of what you receive is slush, and the 10% of it that isn’t, is broken.  What happens is, after having done that for a year, if you look at your own writing, if you’re honest and not an egomaniac, is that you will feel dispassionate about what you’re writing, and that will allow you to see what works and what doesn’t.  So I have an internal editor, who hates my writing. (Laughter)  I’m essentially lazy, and I’ll try to do lazy dialogue, lazy description, but I have a ruthless editor in my head that lets me know as soon as possible that this is not the way to go, which makes it easy to find the correct path, and if you’re beaten every time you step off the path, you quickly learn to stay on the path.  As a writer, I suggest for every writer, spend time as an editor.

S: My trick, and it’s something I’ve learned over the years, in when I set aside a day for writing, if I don’t write 1000 words, and something has to happen to advance the plot or help us get to know a character, and if I can do that, it does manage to fall into place, usually.  Sometimes, yes, the characters will talk to you, and they’ll say “No, you haven’t given me enough reason to do this.” And you know you have to go back there later.  I polish what I wrote the previous day, then I write, and that keeps me on track.

J: Part of my work is critiquing scripts for Stargate Universe, and if you don’t follow the advice you’re giving, some part of your brain knows you’re a tremendous hypocrite.

M: Let’s hear from an architect.  In Hollywood we use different coloured pens to highlight characters, that way we can see if someone drops out in the middle of the script, and I do that for my book, so how do you handle that?

I: I hate being called an architect, because that implies I know what I’m doing. (Laughter) I tried several things, but now I use notecards with different coloured ink for different characters, and Act 1 will cover the floor of my office, which is great because every time I open the window they fly everywhere and I end up writing a different book. (Laughter)  But when I got to the end of the third book, I’d been thinking about it for so long it kind of just rolled downhill and it ended up being longer than I intended because I didn’t have that nice efficient path laid out, I was more hacking through the garden with a machete, going “I know here’s a hidden city back here somewhere!” (Laughter)

J: It sounds like you’re making a mix tape, putting the songs in order.

I: Yeah, you want dance music, then something slower…

J: And then here’s the song that gets you to third base. (Laughter)

M: But it’s not just about stringing the pearls along the line, some authors say to keep their characters in line they get them to write letters to them.  I’m ruthless, they do what I tell them, but how do you deal with that?

S: I had two characters at one point, and they absolutely wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do, so I changed the setting and the characters and that worked, so I kept the original characters around for a year and eventually found a story they would bother investigating, she wanted to dance, he wanted to sleep with her, why would they go explore the valley of the monsters?  (Laughter)  I don’t usually start with the characters, I start with the plot, except my first novel where I could hear a voice in each ear, I knew the characters so well, and I remember thinking “If I could teach these bastards to type, I could go have lunch!” (Laughter)

J: I don’t generally have my characters talking to me, because when you start hearing voices, that’s psychosis. (Laughter) Recently I was having trouble creating Zoe’s character, because she’s a 16-year-old girl, and I’ve never been. (Laughter) She raises her eyebrows back there, “Of course not, you’re a man”, yes, I know. (Laughter) But every time I would try to write this character my fingers would lock up because my internal editor would say “You know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be” and if you create rules for your character and you break those rules, you absolutely know it.

S: One of the reasons that I do hear the voices of my characters is because I’m an actor and I started off wanting to hear what they would sound like.

J: Oh, you definitely want to hear them, they’re just not real. (Laughter)

S: But sometimes readers don’t know that! (Laughter)

I: I’ve never had the experience where a character said “No, I won’t do that” but I have spent 80,000 words of a first draft figuring out who they are and why they would do that, but hopefully once we get to that point, the characters should be driving the story forward.  I think character is the most difficult story to write.

M: Where does it begin for you?

J: To be blunt, for me it’s very much the first line, because if the first line has to be interesting enough for me to go “I want to see what happens” and an interesting example of this is when I got the idea for Old Man’s war, I was in the shower, which is where I usually have ideas because I’m just standing around anyway (Laughter) and this line just popped into my head, “On his 75th birthday he did two things: visited his wife’s grave and joined the army” and my head just exploded, which made the shower very interesting. (Laughter)  Then another book, Android’s Dream, Tor didn’t particularly mind what I wrote for my second book, so I thought “I’ll punish them.” (Laughter) But again, it was another line that just popped into my head, and that line was “Dirk Muller didn’t know if he could fart his way into an international incident, but he was ready to find out.” And so was I!

I: I think my style is very similar to Lesli’s, in that I think about a story and then think about who would be the most damaged by it, and follow that character.

S: I’ve started almost every way possible, as long as I have an ending or a beginning, I can make it work.

I: Melinda and I are in the same writing group, and John has heard me whine about this, and in my current series I have a character who can see the future, and she’s so good at this that people have no idea how far ahead she’s looking, and when you start book one, she’s already solved book one and is looking forward into books 2 and 3 which meant that she knew what was going to happen which meant that I had to know, which meant a lot of outlining.  One of the good things about having a precognitive character is that foreshadowing becomes really easy. (Laughter) I actually had to cut it back, because it was too easy to think of ways she could be cryptic and set things up that would be very cool, in 3 years when the book came out, if anyone remembers. (Laughter)  But you know what, after finally getting through it, I’m glad I’m done.  Never again. (Laughter)

J: I would very shoot myself. (Laughter)

I: In fact, it was historical, as well as seeing the future, so if I ever offer to do either of those things ever again, just shoot me. (Laughter)

Q: Multi-series books?

J: Often you don’t know the book is part of the series until the publisher comes back and asks you to do a sequel. (Laughter)  Maintaining internal consistency, I make edits as they come up, in a continuous draft, so I don’t need to keep track of the things that I have t change at the end, they’re just done, so internal consistency is easy within the same book, but the problems come when you’re writing a sequel to something that’s already been published.

S: The one hard science fiction novel I’ve done, I kept notes about the planet and the science of the universe, but the rest of it was written just by immersing myself in the novel and writing while I was still enthusiastic, and writing a novel part time is something I never want to do again, which is why I write so much short fiction now.

Q: Software you use?

M: Scribner – Apple – It has this fantastic capacity to make notes, and you can put things like how characters look and where people are mentally, and that really saves you when you’re writing several books and you need to recall and certain character’s eye colour.

I: It’s very embarrassing to get two-thirds of the way through a book and remember that one of your characters only has one arm. (Laughter)

Q: Linear writing?

J: so you’re asking why don’t I do more work than I have to do? (Laughter)  But you have to keep the future in mind, and it’s easier to work forward because it gives you a lot more flexibility, because I might have a tentpole scene that, when I get there, absolutely doesn’t work, and I can change it, whereas if I’ve already written the scene, I’m locked in and have to undergo contortions to make it work.  You may be a far more complex writer than me, sir.

Q: Or I only write 4,000 words.

J: That too.

M: That would drive me crazy, what you’re describing.  I know George writes that way, and it absolutely amazes me, but I need to experience it at the same time as my characters.

L: If something good comes up, I make a note and get to it when it fits in.

I: I have an outline, but I like to have room work around it, and I work in a kind of fractal pattern until I get to the centre of the plot, and people watch me work and apparently it’s very interesting.

Q: Left-brained planning, right-brained write as you go.

J: I wrote an entire novel in notepad.  I find that all the doodads and gewgaws are fun to fiddle with, but essentially you just need to get it down.  The left-brained, right-brain thing, I’m wary of compartmentalising people, oh my god, you’re left-brained, I’m left-brained, let’s have sex. (Laughter) It’s simply as an individual you find what works, and most of the time I’m both left and right-brained, and some things I do just work and I don’t know where they come from, but you just need to find the process that works for you.

S: Back when I used to write poetry, I wrote by hand, but for scripts I used word processing software for the formatting, but that’s it, very basic software.

Q: Graphical representations of characters?

M: I have cards for my scenes, but I also have cards for my characters, and I have kind of graphs of relationships and graphs for  breaks, and I can see the break coming up, once I have my scenes and my tentpoles, it’s really about the relationships between the characters, because that interests me, as a writer.

Q: Does the plot make the character, or the character make the plot?

J: I mentioned earlier I had a similar character in the Ghost Brigades named Kayden, it was essentially a James Bond ending and he was supposed to get zapped by the humans, but later on I needed someone to deliver a huge hunk’n’chunk of exposition, as you do. (Laughter) And as I was writing I discovered that this character had a really strong moral conscience, and I found that later on when my main character needed some wisdom dropped on him, this character came back again and became integral to the plot, and the story changed to a great extent to accommodate what turned out to be an extraordinarily necessary aspect of the plot, so yes a character can change the plot.  What we say here is that a good character can make a good plot better, and the story would still be there without Kayden, but it might not be as good.

M: We could do an entire panel about those, I have a friend who says story is about information control and releasing information as it’s necessary.

S: Occasionally, you need to tell something earlier than you thought  you would, but that comes in in the rewriting, if you need another character to make the story stronger, you do it, if you need to rewrite a character’s backstory to make his motivations make sense, you do that.

Q: Architects – I like finding out how things happen, not as much fun to write if you know what’s going to happen.

I: I’ve not had that problem because when I talk about leaving enough room for my subconscious, maybe this is to do with dumb luck, but there have been enough points where I’ve been writing something and I’ve thought “Oh my god, this scene is almost set up, and if I do this, it’s going to make it look as if I planned it!” (Laughter)  Something like I give a character a nickname and it turns out later that there’s a good reason for it, those little moments give me an emotional high, that’s my favourite part of writing.

M: Some people can’t talk about a story before they write it, otherwise it becomes just dead leaves in their hands, but I find that having a plan gets me through those Kansas and Nebraska chapters where they’re not exciting, but they have to be there. (Laughter)

J: I share your pain because at the point where I get 2 thirds through the novel I need to write really quickly because the bloom is off the rose so I need to get it done as  soon as possible, otherwise I’ll just go “Ahhh, fuck it.” (Laughter)

S: If I do write an outline, I need to get the story out as soon as possible, while I’m still excited about it.

L: You’re trying to make the best version of your story as you can, and that’s exciting for me, even if you know the ending.

WorldCon 2010 : From Gilgamesh to Fallout 3: How new technologies bring new narrative techniques

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

Here's the blurb for From Gilgamesh to Fallout 3: How new technologies bring new narrative techniques:

"As new technologies arise, storytellers learn (sometimes to their embarrassment) which techniques can be adapted from old media, and discover new possibilities. Join our crew of passionate storytellers as we navigate the history of narrative from Stone Age campfires to  the interactive multiplayer future.
Chris Lawson, Grant Watson, Peter Watts, Ben Chandler"

C: This is a look at how a change in medium has affected the stories we can tell, for example the novel didn’t exist before the printing press, so how have videogames changed the landscape of narrative?

C: I want to discuss new techniques for the way we tell stories.  The Epic of Gilgamesh is the 2nd oldest piece of writing we have.  Many modern things are apparent in the way Gilgamesh was written.  People think foreshadowing is modern, but there is a lot of it in Gilgamesh.  Rhythm and rhyme were used to remember stories better (like Shakespeare written in verse).

G: Shakespeare says the same thing in different ways to try to ensure different people in the audience understand the concept.

B: Was it true that they didn’t do much in the way of costumes and sets?

G: Each place is announced when the characters arrive.  Any new actor to the scene is introduced as who they are meant to be.  The audience buys into that as that’s the way theatre was at the time.  They’d say “This is the king,” [Pointing left, at Ben.]  “And this is the queen.” [Pointing right, at Chris.]

C: Thank you. (Laughter)

G: But the audience bought into this, and it wasn’t until we got theaters set up in the one place and they could do crazy things to like release live rabbits, and you get to the 1900s and you have these massive plays set in the one place because the stages are so elaborate it’s going to take them forever to change it.

P: Video games are kind of like a film negative of what theatre was, the dialogue in video games sucks because the computer can’t react to the player and the computer is dumb when it comes to dialogue.

B: I think this is because video games aren’t a storytelling-driven medium like theatre is, and if you’ve ever worked in video games production, the first thing they cut is story.  They might want to cut levels 3, 7 and 9, and you’ve got all the climaxes in level 7 and the denouement in level 9, what’re you going to do?

P: You’re lucky if you ever get brought in that early, usually they go “We’ve got all these great levels, and it gets flooded in level 5!” and you have to point out that three levels earlier you came ashore and there were no dams, and it’s not going to work.

G: Is it more difficult because you’re putting control of the narrative in the player’s hands?

B: Well, yes, because for every choice the player can make, you have to program it in.

P: And sometimes there will be only one way out of the cave-in.

B: Exactly, and just bringing it back to Shakespeare, we’ve recently moved from text-based storytelling to voice-based storytelling, and you suddenly have a performance, and some of those performances are bad.

C: They’ve realized now that they need to hire proper voice actors…

B: Yeah, because going back a couple of years the voices were done by the animators or the programmers and their brothers and sisters.

B: People are starting to list videogames on their CVs now, in addition to films and TV, and you’re starting to see things like big Disney names having worked on games, and that’s a good thing.

P: This may tend to be too radical, but I wonder if we may be thinking it’s too radical a divide between text-based and voice-based, and the visuals of video games.  I like to think I’ve developed a style, and the reason people love science fiction because it takes them to new worlds, and they need to work hard to bring those ant scratches to life in their head, but with videogames and Crytek and Dreamworks, we don’t need to do that anymore, it’s all there in front of us.

B: I think the assumption there is that storytelling is meant to be efficient.  I play videogames and I read, and when I go to see a movie adaptation of the book, I enjoy watching the director’s interpretation, and I thought the Golden Compass was visually stunning, the story was lacking, but it was a beautiful film.  It wasn’t the way I imagined it, but I still enjoyed it.

P: But storytelling needs to be evocative, isn’t it like trying to describe a sunset via smoke signals?

B: Yes, but I hate the saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, because yes, a picture is a shortcut, but if you enjoy reading, nothing compares to the joy of reading a well-written paragraph.

G: I just want to point out that no new storytelling technology has ever phased out another, Greek tragedies still exist, not often, but they do.

G: The thing about prose is that I think one of the joys of creation is abstraction, I can show you a photo of Peter, and it will be exactly him, or if I draw him, it might still be a good representation, but it will appeal to a wider audience, they will be able to identify it better, then if I draw it like this… [Draws a smiley face.]

C: That’s not Peter. (Laughter)

B: Doesn’t Peter have a nose? (Laughter)

G: But you can tell it’s a human face, and you can identify it.

P: So you’re saying we exist not to tell the reader what to imagine, but to give them space to imagine the story based on what they know.

B: Getting back to the previous example, photography didn’t kill painting.

G: No, but in my mind there’s a very clear distinction of photography being where Picasso and cubism came from.

[Art talk.]

B: But this was back in the days when you had to wait a year for the storyteller to come around, and these days you can access thousands of narratives with the touch of a finger.

C: And share fictional universes, like Wikipedia.  (Laughter)

B: And people while they were waiting for the storyteller to come around, they made up their own stories, like fanfiction, and most of those fanfictions are lost.

C: Or collected by people like the Brothers Grimm.

G: Going back to Shakespeare, there were about 30 plays called Richard the Third, but they all changed to reflect Shakespeare’s version, because he had a lot of money and a lot of friends at the time.  We’ve found older plays where Shakespeare has lifted entire sections of the plays from their work, and these days we’d consider that plagiarism.

B: It’s easy not to plagiarise when your work is the only writing getting published. (Laughter)

C: But back in the day that was seen as homage, not borrowing, it was seen as a tribute to use someone else’s work or play someone else’s song.

B: I have inspirations from other things in my book, but I can’t include footnotes, it’s not an academic paper, and it would slow it down if I did.

P: In my last novel there would be quotes, and some would be made up and some would be real and I deliberately tried to l keep it ambiguous.

G: I recently directed a play of Julius Cesar that I changed to reflect an American presidency…  [borrowing without getting sued]  And Shakespeare can’t sue me because he’s been dead for 400 years. (Laughter)

G: I think if you’re going to use an homage, you need to actively conspire with the audience to create that understanding.  One of the most irritating films of recent years was 28 Days Later, which borrowed so much from Day of the Triffids that it was embarrassing, then denied that it ever happened.

B: I think that’s why we can have discussions of narrative technique, because we’re all telling there same stories, over and over, and there are certain common elements that we use and if we avoid them, it’s something we’re actively trying to do.

Q: Reading a novel that is in first person, the reader is still an observer, whereas in a game the player is the main character. (Somehow this was a question?)

B: Growing up as the centre of attention via video games. 

G: There’s a strong correlation between video games and the player, and acting.  The game can only progress if you, as the player, play the role of Master Chief. 

P: I always get the sense that your role in a video games is not to move the story forward, but to solve little problems that help the story move forward by itself. The story seems to happen between the game.

G: One of my favourite games of recent years was Prince of Persia, Sands of Time, you have the priest narrating.

B: That’s similar to the Legacy of Kain series.

G: Right, but one of the things that happens is that when you die, there’s a voice that says “No, no, that’s not how it happens” and you load your game, but at one point 8 or 9 hours is, you die and the voice says “Yes, that’s exactly how it happened! He just pranced in and died!” (Laughter)

P:As an experiment I made a made a game about my cat, Banana, and you run around you need to attack rodents, and when you kill one you get a blood splatter and he looks up at the camera looking really proud, and the more you eat the fatter he gets and the harder it is, but when you eat enough you explode, and level 2 is you as a maggot in this mess of intestines as a crow is pecking at you, and you need to pupate into a fly while avoid the crow.  (Laughter)  That’s as far as I got with it, though, because I got tired of it.

B: People don’t treat MMOs as a sandbox or story space, they’re treating it as a competition they want to win.

P: Theirs is a very interesting development just happening in MMOs, [WoW plague idea], and behind every single data point there was a human-level AI – clerics going in to heal their friends – Science, one of the most prestigious magazines ran an article on it, and we’re moving into a territory that’s becoming narrative as scientific exploration.

C: There was an example of this in Eve Online where players infiltrated another corporation over the process of several months and completely destroyed it from the inside out.  And this was something the players were doing to each other, it wasn’t in the game’s story at all.

G: [Ergonic vs interactive?   Theme park vs sandbox.]

B: Experiment –hands up if you play MMOs.  Okay, now hands down if you read the quests.  That’s what I thought.  It’s not about storytelling.

G: They’re making a WoW movie.  It’s directed by Sam Raimi.

B: Are we all going to be in it? (Laughter)

B: I find it interesting that the basis of these online economies is based on going from nothing to something. 

Q: Everquest 2 is the 77th strongest economy in the world.

G: It’s stronger than Russia.

C: What economy isn’t? (Laughter)

Q: Sims 3 fanfiction.

B: It was popular in the days of my undergrad to have entire Buffy households in the Sims, and Buffy would be there, and Spike would come over, then Spike and Angel would make out… (Laughter)