Friday, December 23, 2011

Self-reporting in the interests of transparency

Of course, this entire test is self-reported, but in the interests of my previous post, my scale on Baron-Cohen's empathy test is 71/80.

So I'm at the top of the bell curve, nyah nyah. :P Post your scores in the comments, if you like.

The Sociopath next Door or the Sociopath Within?

Strange to say, but a recent trip to the library has renewed my interest in neuroscience. Nothing seemed to be happening for a while there, but by goodness, a lot has happened now. Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Science of Evil is a good stepping-in point, but it's a shame the research is progressing so slowly. There's a lot to look at, I know, and even though the science is further along than I thought it would be, it's still in the disappointing, "Here are some ideas backed up by evidence, but we don't have any conclusions" stage.

Nonetheless, combining that with reading The Sociopath Next Door has raised some interesting questions. Namely, when discussing the content of both books with people I know, they almost always err on the side of assuming they are the injured party. Baron-Cohen states that, in terms of empathy, there's a bell curve, starting at 0 and ending at 6, that places people in terms of their ability to empathise. 0 is psychopathic territory, while 6 is hypersensitivity. Whenever I explain this concept to people, they say, "Oh, I'm definitely a 6." Let's just dwell on the statistical abnormality of that, shall we?

In all seriousness, I understand the need to feel special. We all would like to think we have more ability to feel than any other human being. That, however, is not what empathy is about. Empathy is not your ability to feel. It is your ability to understand and sympathise with what other people are feeling. People either seem to forget this, or to not understand it in the first place. In the larger scheme of things, empathy is almost always a guessing game, but some people are better at it than others, either through nature or nurture or, as this most recent research suggests, a combination of both. This is somewhat of a relief to parents the world over, I'm sure, but it does raise certain troubling questions, i.e. if your 'empathy circuit' is limited to level 3 or 4 (the average), is that a bad thing?

You can learn empathetic behaviour. Certain wonderful friends of mine who have Asperger's are proof of that. They are the kindest people I know, while simultaneously understanding my emotions the least. But I can always count on them to listen patiently, and to cheer me up, even without doing anything in particular. I think part of this comes from not knowing what to do, but I think a larger part of it comes from unselfishness, because they may not be able to understand what I'm feeling, but they respect my right to feel it, and that some feelings take time to process.

Not so with people who would consider themselves a level 6 empath. They will try to cheer me up by telling a joke, or try to solve my problem, or just not really be listening in the first place. To me, this seems like a disconnect. So why do we do this? What makes someone a good listener, apart from training?

First, there are circumstances that can undermine empathy. Baron-Cohen describes several sets of circumstances that can cause a person to have 0 degrees of empathy temporarily. The question at that point is whether the damage is irreversible or not. In many cases, it is - for example, depression is likely to put many people in a 0 empathy state, which is ironic, because empathy can be a wonderful way to cheer up. I recently decided to wean myself off my anti-depressants (with approval from my psychologist) and I'm surprised at how much easier it has become to empathise. In a way, this is very scary. Given that I'm the kind of person who usually empathises with inanimate objects, not even realising I didn't have that empathy was like being in a state of temporary sociopathy, at least in comparison to my normal state.

In The Sociopath Next Door, the author states that sociopaths can have now knowledge of what they are missing. Their empathy circuit (to borrow the term from Baron-Cohen) is so under-developed that they simply have no concept of emotion as a driving force. Unfortunately, they do understand it intellectually, and are very good at using it to fuel other people's actions, just not their own. But this makes me wonder: if someone can't know they are a sociopath, can any of us truly know that we aren't?

Well, much like being crazy, the ability to question one's actions in light of their motivations generally offsets the ability to be whatever we fear. So if you fear you're going crazy, you probably aren't, because crazy is as crazy does, and it doesn't question itself. Sociopathy would be much the same, I imagine - you would never question your level of empathy, because you would simply assume everyone feels the same way as you do, which is substantiated by interviews with sociopaths, who see themselves as the only genuine people in a sea of phonies; they assume everyone feels the same way, completely self-focussed, and that anyone acting in someone else's best interests is only lying.

So how can you tell if you're a sociopath? Well, for starters, you probably wouldn't be reading this. But, if you're curious, here's Baron-Cohen's own questionnaire. Feel free to go and learn something more about yourself. :)

But as for the sociopaths who do exist, there are further troubling questions. Often these people get away with what they're doing, since their actions are neither criminal nor anything beyond 'a feeling'. If they are discovered, most often people just let them go without comment, and without retribution. Why is this? Apart from the fact that the sociopath is eminently pitiable - they will never know love, or even companionship - they are also dangerous, and ruinous to the happiness of otherwise decent people. But what is to be done? 'Being a jerk' isn't a crime, or we would need to build a lot more jails (and probably be the happier for it, but I digress).

What would you do if your child turned out to be a sociopath? What if, from an early age, you could see the signs, and neurological testing confirmed it? You have on your hands someone who can do terrible things without the slightest hint of remorse. They will never know love. They will never feel any emotion toward another human being. They'll feel emotions themselves - glee at outwitting a smarter colleague and making them look bad, psychopathic rage when their plans go awry - but only fleetingly. They will take risks, and convince others to take risks, just to feel alive. And if someone gets killed as a result of their actions, they will shrug, and forget about it by lunchtime.

How do we deal with this kind of person, believed to be as much as 4% of the population of Western society? We can't just lock them all up. They would convince panels of experts that they are reformed, and go free. Despite that, it's surprisingly difficult to diagnose someone as a sociopath. We all have people in our lives that we would like to believe are sociopathic, simply because the things they do to other people are so incomprehensibly cruel. We would rather attribute them a sorrowful ignorance than a knowing evil. It makes our lives easier, but it still doesn't deal with the problem.

As for what we should do, I don't know. As someone considering having children within the next couple of years, this is a question that has been troubling me since I first considered it. I suppose the way that I will deal with it, when the time comes, will be to raise my children in an atmosphere that emphasises connectedness between all things - shown in Eastern populations to decrease the incidence of sociopathy to as low as 0.04% - and to have them tested when they are of an age to be so. But how selfish is my fear that my children will be sociopaths?

Pretty much entirely self-motivated, I will admit. I don't know what I would do. I wouldn't want to raise a child that will never understand love, but the same can be said of high-level Autism, which I do not have a problem with. But having been the target of several sociopaths (again, in my not-entirely-informed, but analytical opinion) I would not wish that on anyone else. In personal relationships they are devastating, and in professional capacities they can destroy careers invisibly. I do not mean that they are clever - some sociopaths are, but not all - but that their actions are so beyond our scope of understanding that they become invisible.

However, I do prefer the side note in The Sociopath Next Door: sure, we can be terrified that as much as 4% (or 1 in 25 people that we meet) is likely to be a sociopath, or we can be reassured that at least 96% of the population are capable of empathy, and likely to behave in decent, understandable ways. I'm still trying to determine for myself whether that 96% offsets the other 4% or not. Since I person I identify as having sociopathic characteristics is the reason I was on anti-depressants in the first place, it's a difficult tug-of-war right now.

And, for those of you wondering, there's no sure-fire way to tell a sociopath, but there is one thing to watch out for: the pity play. Anyone who consistently acts in a pitiable manner, while behaving callously or inconsistently toward other people, has a higher chance to be a sociopath. So next time you take on extra work just to help out that colleague who seems like they always have too much work to do, yet never actually seems to be doing anything during office hours, wonder if you might be propagating something more sinister than a poor work ethic. As for your personal relationships, beware the continuously impulsive, dangerous person. They are likely to be more dangerous than you know.

And on that light-hearted note, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ICIDS Day 1 - Paper Session #3

Paper Session #3: Virtual Characters and Agents

Talk 1: A Knowledge-Based Framework for the Collaborative Improvisation of Scene Introductions

How do improvers do their stuff? i.e. reach shared understanding, reason about the scene, co-create a narrative?
Built a game called Party Quirks
Three Line Scene? Tiny West?

Talk 2: A New Approach to Social Behaviour Simulation: the Mask Model

Social performance – different roles in different contexts
Each mask contains a level of influence from 0 to 1, for example, religion as a mask – a low value would describe a moderate believer, while a high value would correspond to a fanatic.
If a character has a certain role, when a pre-condition is triggered, an action on an entity is suggested with a certain strength, for example, if I come here to present, I could get up here and be silent, but the strength of the pressure to present is quite high.
It is also important to note that the character will usually have access to the rules denoting other character roles, even without possessing those masks themselves, e.g. we all know we should not take other people’s computers, even though few of us may actually be thieves.
There are three layers to each character – self-perception layer (can model self-deception) is always active, social layer (including religion, politics, culture, etc) which includes beliefs and their respect for social constraints, and the interpersonal layer (persistent, or only active in the presence of a certain character, e.g. mother, girlfriend or boss).
Need to manage the conflicts between the masks – e.g. Romeo’s different masks say he should love Juliet, but his other mask that he shows toward his parents says no. How do we decide how he will act in a given situation?
What is the perceived possibility of him being in a given social situation where this conflict will arise? What are the pros and cons? What is the interpreted morality of each action, and which one better suits with the needs of the character?
Ego-esteem – desire to do the thing, moral soundness of the thing, possibility of getting caught
When two opposing factors result in one of the factors being subverted because the other is far stronger, this becomes a dramatic turn in the plot.
 It’s more efficient to create stereotypical masks, then assign several of those to each character, rather than custom-designing each mask for each character.
This could also be used to create personalized NPCs, based on interpreting the moral actions of the PC within the culture of the simulated world.
Murray – “This is akin to modeling all the muscle systems of a dog so you can get an accurate representation of a dog’s choice of actions, but the cartoon dog, that behaves like a dog, is far more convincing. Where is the value for the interactor in including all of these extra systems?”

Talk 3: Perceived or Not Perceived: Film Character Models for Expressive Natural Language Generation

Dialogue generation – I want to flatter you, I’m a friendly person, but I’m feeling hesitant. Can you generate dialogue that reflects all of that?
Deconstructing elements of language to provide subtext – long or short sentences meaning terseness or pontification, use of larger words indicating education, etc.
More parameters = better dialogue?
… Why try to generate natural dialogue by creating caricatures of particular stereotypes and applying them to generic dialogue? Someone has to write that generic dialogue in the first place.

Talk 4: Representing Dramatic Features of Stories through an Ontological Model

Extracting generic information from video clips – i.e. actions, characters, motivations, content
Automatic segmentation of narrative units? Automatic storyboarding and previs?
DMO – Dramatic Media Object?
Polti’s situations?

ICIDS Day 1 - Paper Session #2

Paper Session #2: New Authoring Modes

Talk 1: A Method for Transferring Probabalistic User Models Between Environments

Choice is related to preference; mathematical psychology tells us preference is related to utility – changes in choice behaviors are reflected in changes of utility and vice versa
The Strict Utility model – determining preference given utility
Reciprocity – if I do something nice for you, even unsolicited, you’re more likely to do something nice for me. Can this be used in IF? Is it a case of ‘liking’?
The Fechnerian Utility model – if you ask someone to commit to doing something, then come back and ask them to do it again, they’re more likely to do it. The comes from Greenpeace – doing a mailout, they would get 18% donations. If they sent a mail 3 weeks earlier that asked if they were committed to the environment, then did their mailout, they received 35% donations. – CIIGAR Lab

Talk 2: Being in the Story: Readerly Pleasure, Acting Theory and Performing a Role

Digital stories are not created by the actor, they are enacted – this means there is no conflict between interaction and narrative.
Readerly pleasures – loss of agency vs. authorial (interactive) pleasure – unrestricted agency
IF research focuses on authorial pleasure because the researchers are almost always writers/designers.
More research needs to be done into method acting as being similar to what a player undergoes when enacting their character.
Method acting is not having had the experience, but in taking pieces of one’s experiences and transmuting them into an approximation of an experience. This makes the process imaginative, rather than just mnemonic.
… This was a PhD confirmation presentation, not a paper.

Talk 3: Supporting Rereadabillity Through Narrative Play

How to encourage repeated, satisfying experiences of interactive stories?
Reread for variety, for closure, for achievements?
Challenged-based games – replay to do better (get a higher score)
Card game – Once Upon a Time – be the first one to finish the story
But how to keep narrative from becoming subordinate to gameplay? Create narrative moves and gameplay moves, and make it impossible to win through only one kind of move or another.
Introduce narrative and gameplay elements, then remove those once they are carefully planned and watch the participants react – they want to do better next time
Jones in the Fast Lane…
Challenge connected to the story – motivated to do better next time
The cards will be available for download eventually

Talk 4: Extensible Tools for Practical Experiments in Interactive Digital Narrative

ASAPS engine
Tech demo? Ren’Py engine?

ICIDS Day 1 - Paper Session #1

Paper Session #1: Interactive Storytelling Theory

Talk 1: Research in Interactive Drama Environments, Role-Play and Storytelling

Why so few complete narrative systems? Fa├žade and what else?
“Story management as defence of authorial vision.” As opposed to:
“Story management shapes dynamic generation of engaging experience.”
Storyfication of the experience is stored in the participant’s autobiographical memory.
Creation of dramatic structure (ensured, but brittle), versus creation of characters (no dramatic structure ensured, but very flexible).

Talk 2: Why Paris Needs Hector and Lancelot Needs Mordred (Janet Murray! – Georgia Tech)

New book – Inventing the Medium
I consider myself a recovering AI researcher, though I’m having serious relapses.”
Reliving Last Night – 2001 – Sarah Cooper
Vladimir Propp – Morphology of the Folktale (1928)
The tale of two boyfriends – ties of duty vs. the forbidden sexy guy
The doubling up of Hector/Achilles over Paris/Meneleus greatly heightens the dramatic tension
The double betrayal of Guinevere and Lancelot to Arthur creates tension, as does their initial refusal of each other – Mordred is Lancelot’s dark side. He just wants Guinevere, and to take over the kingdom, while Lancelot is virtuous.
The Miller’s Tale? The foils, in effect, heighten the characteristics of the original forbidden sexy guy. E.g. Wickham vs. Darcy.
Abstract roles and functions to create a series of classes that can be applied to a moral sliding scale, so that characters may foil each other at multiple points while creating meaningful character interactions, e.g. the number of different proposals Elizabeth receives in Pride & Prejudice.
Cultural roles are systems of abstraction – you do not need to reproduce the social world, you want to reproduce story atoms, not social knowledge which already exists within these story atoms.
Agency does not come from freedom to do anything, agency comes from scripting interactions that are meaningful and suitably rewarding.
Telling more complex stories expands our humanity.

Talk 3: Agent-oriented Methodology for Interactive Storytelling

Fuzzy cognitive maps for exploring causal-related concepts (inference engine).
Done in Oblivion AI – scaled back because it made the world too unstable.
Also more recently done in The Snowfield by MIT Gambit Games Labs.

Talk 4: Back-Leading through Character Status in Interactive Storytelling

User agency vs. authorial control – i.e. will a player as Anna Karenina be willing to kill their character to make for a better story?
Why do we expect novice storytellers (i.e. players) to create a good story when provided with no clues from the designers as to how to proceed? Especially when it takes writers years to acquire the skill that allow them to tell a good story in the first place?
Improvisational theatre – e.g. Tiny & Tony’s Wedding, Turtle Talk with Crush – designed to act with novice audiences who have little experience in creating stories.  You can sometimes provide input, but it’s still designed to be observed.
Inter-actors vs. spect-actors – back-leading is leading while appearing to follow
Interactive theatre – designed to be experienced, not observed, e.g. The Second City
Status shifts create drama – changes in dominance or submission, one-upmanship, etc – use status to back-lead the audience without explicitly telling them how to react
Force Dynamics in Language and Cognition
Could very easily be used in one-on-one confrontations between player and character!
E.g. civilians in WoW – “Too good to wait in line like the rest of us, Mage?” prompts the answer of “Yes.”
(Performance) Keith Johnson, “People tend to minimize status gaps.”? Does this still apply in virtual environments?

Talk 5: Rereading in Interactive Stories: Constraints on Agency and Procedural Variation

IF tries to maintain agency, immersion and transformation, which leads to the need for variety across instances that, nevertheless, maintain coherence within themselves.
Reframing: The Sixth Sense, BioShock – the twist that changes everything and makes people want to re-experience
What additional constraints does this impose on the variations you can create when the reader has this new knowledge and they’re re-watching/re-playing?
You need to maintain coherence not just within, but across all sessions.
Events relevant to the reframing must remain the same, e.g. Bruce Willis can never be not-dead.
Some player/reader actions may be limited by revelations that have not yet happened – why can the character not do certain things? How do you communicate this without ‘giving up the ghost’?
There are also constraints upon what must be omitted, or what can be omitted.
The reader will be looking for different things, e.g. if the anniversary dinner scene wasn’t in The Sixth Sense the second time you watched it, you would feel disappointed, because you want to find out how you were fooled.
Constraints on the ordering – the reframing must occur in the first reading, otherwise there is no impetus to re-experience. Fight Club?
There needs to be sufficient discourse time between the reframed event and the reframing – if The Sixth Sense was only 10 minutes long, you wouldn’t need to re-experience it, because you could remember.
Versus constant reframing, i.e. Memento?
Reframing in Heavy Rain? How did I miss seeing who the killer was? Coherence lacking – when did he go into the back room? Why is the moment prolonged? Is it there? It seems natural the first time, but the second time suspicious. Does he leave twice?
Unreliable narrators? How do these work in IF? The Jade Smiley story – based on King Lear

ICIDS Day 1 - Keynote: Keith Oatley

Keith Oatley – Stories as Simulation in Print Fiction, Movies, and Interactive Media

University of Toronto – Physiological psychology, HCI, novelist
Fiction: something that’s been carefully constructed to create a certain psychological outcome
Writers of fiction were continuing the play of childhood – all mammals play, but not lizards or birds (how sad!). Brian Boyd, in 2009, said play is the origin of stories.
Art in general is the more or less conscious externalization of metaphors – this thing is something that it isn’t. A banana is also a phone to a child in play.
Paint factory 100,00 years ago; beads from 82,000; flute from 43,000, ritual burial from 40,000; cave paintings from 31,000.
The power of fiction is that metaphor can apply to oneself, as well as the world.
Donald Winnicot – Playing and Reality
Throughout childhood, one learns to define oneself by conceptualizing the other (caregiver) as a comparison to what one is not. This is mentalization. We understand others as we understand ourselves.
Beatrice Beebe – mother-child interactions on a second-by-second basis – the prototype of play
Interactive fiction beings in infancy – it is indivisible from play.
“Fictional stories are simulations that run on minds.” (Oatley, 1999 – Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact)
“Such Stuff as Dreams” – The Psychology of Fiction – Keith Oatley
Fiction has binocular vision – we see the surface level, but we also understand some of what happens beneath the surface, and all of this is based on what we see in others and in ourselves, within the interactive frameworks we’ve come to recognize throughout our lives.
Flint & bags – 2,500,000 years ago; conversation – 250,000 years ago; writing – 5,000 years ago; printed books – 500 years ago; computers – 50 years ago; iPhone – 5 years ago.
There is a scale of involvement from a roller coaster ride (passive) to a novel (active emotional involvement)
Play: interact with another; games: carry out (competitive) action; oral storytelling: engage with storyteller; theatre: engage with drama model; print fiction: identify, sympathise; film: identify with desire; video games: carry out action, visit scenes; digital narrative: choice of action
Reflection, skills, listening, audience/discussion, reflection/discussion, listening/audience, skills, reflection
“Stories are trajectories of desire.”
Patrick Hogan (2003) – three kinds of stories are human universals – love story, heroic story (anger & conflict), suffering & sacrifice for the community
Fiction isn’t description – the writer’s job is to offer cues/instructions – a metaphor that evokes an idea. In turn, the reader’s part is to mentally create the imagined world – to start up your simulation and keep it running. They need to bring alive a simulated world and take a personal part in it, otherwise it’s all just marks on paper.
Each technology has three parts – the external object, the skills required for use and the cultural conventions surrounding that use.
You only really need three objects to create a vivid scene – people took cues of 6 phrases that described a room, but brain activity decreased after the first three, to the point where it is possible to infer that the room is as vividly imagined as necessary at that point.
Demis Hassabis – rising star?
The brain takes clues and applies to them previous understanding – it follows models and then reapplies them to the current situation. (time-saving processes - semiotics)
Fiction piggy-backs on this ability of the mind to recognize cues and create something understandable.
Kuleshov effect – if you want to scare the audience, don’t have the actor look scared – have him look passive, then cut to the view of the object – this creates metonymy – feeling something that isn’t actually there.
Current rate of changing shots in movies is about one shot per 4 seconds
The real interface is not between us and the visual world, but between us and each other, primarily language.
Ilya Sutskever – neural networks for predicting upcoming text
“What relation would you like between understanding how to make things happen (computer programming) and understanding how to enable things that happen (writing simulations that run on minds)?
What you want to be able to do is enabling people to feel what they feel, to think what they think, not telling them when and what to feel and think and how.
Psychology of Fiction –
If using a flight simulator can make you a better pilot, reading fiction could make you better at socializing (simulating environments). Do people who read fiction have improved theory of mind?
The more fiction you read, the better you are at recognizing cues given by people’s eyes (Simon Baron Cohen’s test). The more non-fiction you read, you’re not necessarily better, but it’s an expertise factor. Reading about genetics will make you better at identifying genetics, so reading fiction about relationships will make you better at identifying relationships.
Maja Djikic  - reading Chekov’s story The Lady with the Little Dog and a non-fictional version
After reading, each person changed a little. More importantly, each person felt and changed in their own way, not in a uniform emotion or sense, but in a way that meshed with their personality.
“Art enables us to change, not in a way desired by others, but in our own way.” Chekov believed ‘stating a problem correctly’ was better for an artist than ‘solving a problem’.
Fiction is not making things happen, it is enabling things to happen. [Paraphrased] Fiction gives us the ability to read within ourselves.
Avril Thorne – narrative psychologist
“As a psychologist, I can tell you what to think in a given situations. As a novelist, I don’t want to do that – I want to say, “Here’s this situation, what do you think?”
Stories do not end – culminations occur to episodes of interaction.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Splice (2009) - Freud is to blame for GM

Oh dear. We just watched Splice. First: don't. Second: spoilers.

There are just so many things wrong with this moralistic tale of 'what has science done??!' It stars Adrian Brody, so it gets one star for that, but unfortunately it loses the rest of them on pacing and content. Maybe I'm not reading far enough into it, given the generally positive response it seems to have gathered from elsewhere. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, which is far more likely, but here are a list of the topics it covers:

1. If you're a woman who doesn't want to have a normal, biological child, there's something wrong with you.

2. An abusive past will ALWAYS transfer into how you treat your own children.

3. Men can't resist the temptation to sleep with their daughters.

4. Women don't like competition from their daughters.

5. If you have a son, he will grow up to rape you.

6. If you sleep with your daughter, who isn't technically your daughter, even though it was entirely consensual, you deserve to die.

7. Men are predators.

8. Women are helpless when their maternal instincts kick in.

9. Rape leads to pregnancy.

10. Experimenting on your own child is a good way to make money.

Freud seems to have co-written this script. Throw in a main character who gets to experience both the Oedipus and Electra complexes in the one lifespan, and you get the fears that every parent is supposed to have. I don't know if the writer/director was struggling with some odd impulses toward his children, or was trying to convince his wife/girlfriend not to have children, but I'm a little bit concerned at this stage.

Nevermind that the main female character gets penis envy and castrates their daughter (odd enough), the idea that she's carrying a child that's her own biological data, somehow transferred by a male version of her, plus some animal parts for good measure, is cause for concern. The fact that the embryo attacked her as she was trying to remove it from the false womb at the start of the movie doesn't seem to enter into her mind as she decides to carry the baby to full term. Sure, maybe she has self-destructive impulses after allowing her husband to be killed, but I can think of less painful ways to fulfill them. Granted, I haven't killed my husband. Maybe I would feel differently then.

Horror is about crossing boundaries and breaking taboos. I have no problem with that. I do resent the implication that it's the 'child's' fault the main male character sleeps with her. Children never know what they're doing. They practice flirting with adults, but they don't know what it means. The guy knows it's wrong, but he gives in. I have never seen such a clear endorsement of parental sexual abuse. It doesn't matter that they're not technically related, nor that she's a clone of his wife. She is his child, he treats her as such, he watched her grow up from a (hideous) baby and she relies upon him for moral guidance and comfort. There is no way in my mind that he is not her father.

So, sure. Cross those boundaries. Make us aware of our taboos. But never, ever justify the pain of people who have been sexually abused by their caretakers, related or not. The rest of the movie falls into the category of just plain silly, but that one idea stands out as a serious flaw. It doesn't matter that the character dies as penance. You've already glorified the act, by making sex with his daughter much more erotic than the sex with his wife. She's prettier, sexier, and more wanton. That last is a taboo in itself, but from a child? There is a line you do not cross.

People need education about these topics, not sexual sensationalism. You're not helping to raise awareness by making an awful act erotic. If you can justify this behaviour, then you can justify anything.

And, of course, it all comes back to the 'she was asking for it' defence. I don't think there could be a combination of morally reprehensible ideas than the combination of child sexual abuse and justification.

So, yeah, I'm pretty angry. Take my analysis with that grain of salt. I was expecting far more from the director of Cube, but I guess 12 years and a bigger budget doesn't mean the ideas will be any better. For my part, I don't believe that the script writers knew what they were implying, or at least I certainly hope not. They were trying for horror. They achieved it, in a way that made me feel sick to my stomach, but not in a lasting way. They simply managed to make me angry at them for not thinking their ideas through, or thinking about how they could be misinterpreted. It's carelessness, not malice, but it can be harmful all the same.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Event Horizon is one man's fight against his moral upbringing

And why Dr. Weir is sitting in a padded cell, cackling maniacally.

I know I'm a bit behind the times - 14 years, actually - but I just watched Event Horizon today. My goodness. Does that movie have an R18+ rating? It should have, for the violence and gore. But I digress. I'm going to spoil the movie here, so if you haven't seen it, feel free to take a 90 minute break and come back to me.

The story didn't make much sense, or at least in the way that I wanted it to, until I thought about it afterward. In the tradition of Silent Hill 2, I believe the entire episode takes place in Sam Neill's head. Yeah, I know Sam Neill is the actor, but it's an easier name to remember than "Benny Weir" which, actually was the name of an ex-student of mine. Well, that's disturbing.

Anyway, the ship is called the Event Horizon and it goes missing 7 years before the movie starts. Sam Neill wakes up from a nightmare and takes a photo of his wife off the wall, adding it to another, different wall which is already covered in photos of her. Go figure. Maybe he's counting down the days, or something, which in an odd way, as I'll explain later, would make sense.

So, to cut a long story short, she killed herself because he was too engrossed in his work. His work was apparently this experimental jump drive that folds space by using a localised black hole. This is the drive that was on the Event Horizon when it went missing. Sure, except that he never actually built the ship.

Throughout the film, the Event Horizon affects them all in different ways, but not everyone is affected. Two or three of the characters experience no symptoms at all, for no discernible reason. How odd. What's also odd is that Sam Neill gives in so blasted easily - at the first sign of a demonic presence, he tries to open the door to let it in. Smart man. There was some mumbo-jumbo about him being hypnotised by the jump gate right at the beginning, and that's why he's so susceptible but, really, as the one who built it, surely he could have done his research beforehand.

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is the good guy, the Captain who keeps his cool. He symbolises Sam Neill's superego. The doctor, Peters, represents his paternal instincts (as far as is evidenced, he and his wife never had any children, a fact I'll look at later). DJ, the trauma surgeon, is his impassive side - the part that can become emotionless and engrossed in work. It's no wonder he eviscerates him toward the end of the movie. And Justin represents his innocence, the part that can't live with what happened. With me so far? Good.

Let's go in reverse. Justin is the first to give into the jump gate - the first to go to hell. He comes back in a coma - shock - then starts babbling about the 'darkness within him'. He then tries to commit suicide, and ends up being put in stasis for the trip home. If we think of this in terms of Sam Neill's reaction to finding his wife had killed herself in the bathtub, it looks pretty similar. The young man/boy inside him doesn't know how to react, how to cope, and so he shuts down. What follows is self-blame, self-hatred, and then a kind of death. We don't seen Justin revived at the end of the film, and they say he's severely wounded. There's a chance he might not survive. Sam Neill's innocence has been torn to shreds by his wife's betrayal.

DJ is the doctor who's not a doctor, the tough guy who doesn't seem to feel much but can keep a level head. He does at one point, however, threaten another crewmember with a scalpel to his neck, without seeming to realise he's putting the guy's life at risk. This will be relevant later.  He's not otherwise a blip on the radar, being so impassive, but toward the end when Sam Neill finds him in the med bay, he doesn't really put up a fight, either. He gets thrown against a wall and across a tray of supplies, and then the next thing we know, he's dead (with some gore in between). Not for the faint of heart: Sam Neill hangs him from the ceiling in a semi-crucifix pose, and pulls all his insides out. You gotta hate someone a lot to do that to them. Sam Neill hated that part of himself that didn't notice he was hurting his wife, just as DJ didn't realise he was hurting the guy he had at scalpel-point. Sam Neill is getting revenge on himself through gratuitous torture. It gets weirder.

Peters is completely attached to her children, yet she's far away from them. The first hallucination she has is of her son with ugly-looking lacerations all over his legs. She only gets to see this by pulling a cloth off of a medical table after hearing a scratching sound and seeing a small hand pawing at the material. What else is that reminiscent of, hmm? Her son is also a cripple in all of her videos, and is being pushed around in a wheelchair, which has to do with a sense of imperfect creation. Peters longs to be with her children - Sam Neill's fathering instinct coming to the fore - but she can't be - his wife was barren or he was impotent. He doesn't see this as fair, hence when Peters dies it's because she's betrayed by her 'child' - a child who then smirks cruelly down at her as she lies broken underneath the jump gate, in a huge puddle of blood. Yay, miscarriage.

Morpheus is the most noble of them, but even he is haunted by his own fears. He left a man to die once and promised he'd never leave another man behind. Where does one burn? Hell. What does Sam Neill want to do, since he feels he drove his wife to commit suicide? Kill himself. His sense of what he feels is right and just tells him that he will burn in hell if he chooses to kill himself. This metamorphosis is complete when he says the apparition can't be the man he watched die, because he's dead - the flaming man then morphs into a more sinister Sam Neill, complete with self-inflicted facial lacerations. They're obviously partially healed, and look suspiciously like whip marks, which could be a form of self-flagellation - penance. Here is a man who has punished himself, over and over, yet found no redemption. The last coherent words he says to Morpheus are 'Do you see?' Morpheus then chooses to sacrifice himself in order to let the other two crewmembers - the two relatively unaffected by the Event Horizon - escape. He says, 'Yes, I see.' His sense of decency sees that he has to escape this fantasy world if he's ever going to be able to live normally again. It chooses to destroy the fantasy for a chance to escape back to reality.

The escape is incomplete, however. The remnants of the crew - in effect, a return to sanity - cannot escape from the horrors he brought them. He chooses to remain mad rather than return to normality. It's his coping mechanism - he can be sane, and choose to kill himself because he can't face the darkness within, or he can embrace that darkness and go irrevocably insane. He chooses the latter. In essence, he has the two walls of his original cell - the wall with the photos of his wife, and the wall with the other photos. He chooses his wife, the weight of which can already be seen at the beginning of the movie through the sheer number of photos. Him moving her photo across at the beginning is tipping the balance further in favour of insanity. Good job.

A note on the gouging out of eyes and the depictions of hell - in the video that shows what happened to the crew, nothing much makes sense, except that several physically impossible things are happening, and the men appear to be raping the women, but no one is having a good time. This harks back to Sam Neill's moralistic upbringing. Sex is not to be enjoyed, dammit, and people who indulge in it are going to hell. The gouging out of eyes is a self-hating reference to the fact that he was blind to his wife's distress. The naked bodies wrapped in barbed wire could by symbolic of the fact that he was still attracted to his wife, even though she was dead. She was naked in the bathtub, after all. There's also the question of how he slept with her without realising something was wrong, and so the rape could be an imagined projection of how he thinks she felt whenever they made love.

Terribly, terribly long analysis short: Sam Neill should totally have known what the jump gate did and being trying to secretly resurrect his wife. Using government funds to commit starship necromancy - brilliant! Instead it was pretty lackluster, except for its shock value. The above is my attempt to make it make sense. Ce la vie. No one said a universe of chaos had to be full of gore-porn, but there you have it. Now I'm going to go and see what other theories people have come up with to give this story more substance. The premise was interesting, but inadequately executed. Such a shame, really.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A failure, of sorts (personal commentary on the Brisbane collapse)

So, with the recent shutdown of THQ Australia in Brisbane and Bluetongue in Melbourne, I find myself at a loss. I worked with THQ as a freelance writer for several years, before they closed their handheld gaming department. The loss of some 200 staff at the beginning of 2009 saw most of my friends and colleagues moving to new jobs, but the trouble didn't begin there. The collapse of the Brisbane game industry has been a slow, but not inevitable, tumble toward the ground. It could have been halted, but it wasn't. There are two reasons for this - neither of them faults. They are simply the way things are.

I have to admit, I've taken this pretty personally. I've watched every company I've loved break down into separate pieces, have a hope of building back up, then slide once more down the rocky slope of financial ruin. The only company I've worked with that's still alive and kicking in Brisbane is Halfbrick. My friend is working on Fruit Ninja Kinect. Have what opinion of that you will. I'm just glad he still has a job.

But things began back in 2007, with the closure of Auran. All of their staff were let go, two weeks before Christmas and, from varying third-person accounts, without severance pay. I don't know what the games industry is like in other cities - in general, the developers seem to be a bunch of really nice, down-to-earth guys and girls - but Brisbane was like one little furry critter - wound one leg and the rest would react. Pandemic, THQ and Krome all took on Auran employees to help them get through this tough patch, and to save the talent Auran had acquired from drifting away, either to other capital cities, or back overseas.

Now, when I was working at Pandemic, a lot of people were brought in from around Australia, and from overseas, especially Canada. So this fear that all of the talented people would evaporate and leave our industry stifled under its own ideas was actually pretty relevant. Again, this is my outsider's perspective. I was working at Qantm and EB Games at the time, while also freelancing with THQ. I got the educational, retail and developer perspectives, but none from ground zero. What this makes me is very good at repeating hearsay and drawing my own conclusions, so I just want to reiterate this is my opinion. There have been enough articles about all of this for you to form your own, much more informed opinion. This is mine. Okay? Okay.

See, I had friends and even my brother working at Pandemic. I heard a couple of stories, but the news that they were going under was actually broken to me by a reporter friend of mine. She called me up to ask if the collapse was real. What a way to find out. I'd also been told, only a couple of months previously that I was expected back to work on their upcoming title - the ill-fated Batman - but whether that was ever going to happen or not, I'll never know. Let's suffice to say work as a games writer is hard to come by. I'd just lost what I then saw as my one way back into full-time games industry work. I was in complete shock.

My brother wasn't let go in that first round, but most of my friends were. Krome and THQ began collecting Pandemic employees. No one wanted to see friendly, talented, dedicated people out on the street. It didn't feel right. And so, when Pandemic finally went belly-up in another couple of months, Krome and THQ were already pretty full-up. But, again, the games industry in Brisbane just doesn't want to leave people in trouble. More hiring followed.

Things were reasonably quiet for the next 8 or 9 months. I worked with THQ on Avatar: The Last Airbender: Into the Inferno, and things looked good. That was released at the end of 2008, and I left the studio at the end of the project feeling reasonably confident that things were going to turn themselves around. Then, in January 2009, my producer friend from THQ asked to meet up to discuss a new idea he had for a game. When I asked if I would be working with the people I'd already come to know, he told me they'd all been let go that morning. He and one other person were the only people I knew who still worked there. He had tears in his eyes, and I did too. Those were good people, are still very talented people. So many of them had gotten their big breaks there, and they were utterly dedicated to the company and their jobs. It didn't make any sense, but I guess it does now.

Krome followed with layoffs, then more layoffs, then more. My brother was let go and re-hired two or three times, from memory. Then Krome shut down and KMM rose up in its ashes, but quietly, and with a reduced staff size. I don't blame them. By now there were more unemployed game developers in Brisbane than there were employed, but it must have been hard to be one of those who got picked to stay on. I was only watching from the outside, and it was breaking my heart. I couldn't imagine how things could get any worse.

Well. Here we are. 2 years later, a year after THQ Aus shut down their handheld gaming department for good, I'm halfway across the world and more than halfway to another broken heart. I've cherished the times I've spent working on every game, and each time one of those companies collapses, it feels like someone has died. I loved Pandemic. It was my dream come true. I thought, and still do think, that I must be one of the luckiest people in the world to ever have landed a job there as a writer. I cannot be grateful enough to the people who made that possible. And, for that reason, it's also so hard to let go.

I know a company is its people, not an entity of itself. I also know that the devs I met in Brisbane are some of the nicest people I've met anywhere, and their collective caring for each other is so strong that it catapulted the industry to ruin. I can't say I'd prefer to work in an industry where one company collapses and the others just let its employees fade away. It certainly wasn't a talent-grabbing frenzy, as some thought. It was dinghys and yachts gathering around a sinking cruise ship, trying to save everyone. They failed.

So my two faults for this collapse, as I perceive them, are this : the state government, for trying too little too late and for giving it to the wrong people, and our Australian games industry, for caring too damn much. I love you for it, at the same time as I hate you. If you were a little more selfish, I wouldn't be so close to tears. But then I wouldn't be so proud, either. I can't tell what I would prefer, but I can say this :

Brisbane has lost one of the most vibrant and friendly communities it has ever had in losing all of our game devs. I hope many of them go indie, but I also know from too many friends that it's not an economically viable option. They have houses, families, living costs. An iPhone app a month, even two, isn't going to make a dint. Maybe some of the dispossessed can get together and start a new company, but with what? And this is where the government fails us. Unless you want to be making educational games - the definition of which is so loose that it changes monthly - or projects that record local history, you're out of luck. You can apply for a NIS grant, but that's, what, $15,000? Get everyone together to all apply for grants and you could scrape together maybe $300,000, over the course of a year. And you still have to eat.

Victoria's state government has a better idea - the Film Victoria grants in particular say that you just have to prove a product will be economically viable, and promise to repay the money as soon as you start making a profit - but I've still seen too much money go to people who have no idea what they're doing. I've worked with too many of them. Luckily, my current project doesn't suffer from such inadequacies, but there are far too many that do. Qualifications don't seem to have any bearing on the grant approval process. You can write a grant application to make a video game if you're a novelist, and they won't check if you've got the team or knowledge to back it up. Or, more distressingly, I've had my name put to projects that should never have been approved, and had my 'presence' count toward people getting grant money that they then choose to piss into the wind because they know nothing about game development and don't even have a design document for a two-year turnaround to ship a AAA title. Then the government sees all their failures, and decides not to invest in the game industry anymore. It's a stupid cycle of failure.

Stricter regulations for grants, and more specific grants targeted at bolstering the video games industry specifically would go a long way to getting all those Brisbane devs back on their feet. I know we had a state-wide disaster at the beginning of the year, and all that money has to come from somewhere. I just wish there had been processes in place earlier to stop this slow slide from happening. I'm hurting, and it makes me angry. The Brisbane games industry didn't deserve this. But maybe nothing could have been done, and in any case, it's moot now.

So here's a salute to the industry I loved, in the place where I lived. To all the wonderful people I worked with, and who I hope I get to work with again at some point, to the talented artists and inventive programmers, the erudite designers and the kind-hearted producers :

The Brisbane industry will return. Next time, we'll do it better. We'll take care of each other without losing our own battles, and we'll still have the compassion I've come to love so well. If anyone can do it, I know you can. Chin up, Brisbane. It's a long road ahead, but you know what to do, now. Start with one foot in front of the other, and I'll see you in a couple of years.

xoxo L~

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heavy Rain, Fable 3 & perceived value

I've been thinking about this for a while. Not just because I always seem to spend more time on Facebook games when I've vowed to give them up, nor because I play them over console games, neither of which makes me particularly happy about my personal gaming habits. I've just been remembering fondly a scene from the very opening of Fable 3. Not the chicken scene, because that broke my heart - no, the scene with the character's brother.

At the beginning of the game, your brother, the king, makes you choose between the lives of three random strangers who were heading a riot to protest his tyrannical rule, and your boyfriend/girlfriend. Once you make your choice, your character says, "I'll never forgive you for this!" Your brother replies, "Good. Then you'll never forget it."

In Heavy Rain, Ethan's quest is determined by the value the player places on his son's life. Treat Shaun like rubbish, and he'll tell you he hates you. When he goes missing, would you really care? Personally, I would - I would want to make things right. But I treated him the way I would like to be treated in the first case, and instead, he told me he loved me. It shouldn't matter, since he's fictional, and all of my actions are meaningless, but the experience had meaning for me. The entire game has a high perceived value on my end, because of the way it made me feel.

This is something a lot of non-gamers don't agree with, but I'll get to that later. I'm more interested in the relationships that can arise between characters when they have a disparity of values. In Fable 3 (spoilers) it turns out your brother saw completely alienating you as a means to an end - an end that involves fighting a greater evil than you would have been aware of had he not pushed you out into the big scary world. You wouldn't have believed him if he'd just told you. The experience was necessary to your understanding and growth, and so he took the steps necessary to ensure it, even though it made you hate him. I think I fell in love with him then, just a little.

Of course, I made the decision to forgive him. Perhaps if you don't the feelings won't be nearly so warm and fuzzy. But to me, his actions - his selflessness - made him of worth. I won't say my own brother treated me similarly, nowhere near it. But it's a tragic line from manga everywhere to make the ones who love you hate you so they'll act in everyone else's best interests. It's a plot in Gentleman's Alliance Cross, and in pretty much every film with a Dark Mentor. Of course, it only matters if the character had a bond with the protagonist to begin with, and if their perceived betrayal hurt them in some way. A character who puts the hero through trials with no fellow-feeling cannot truly be a Mentor, in my opinion. To be a sympathetic character, it should hurt them more than it hurts the hero, otherwise where is their stake? If they have nothing to lose, why do they care?

I remember at this point Bastian, and the Childlike Empress. Despite the name he gives her being Moonchild - really? That was his mother's name? - he starts off as a passive observer who becomes so deeply entrenched in the story and the world that the destruction of Fantasia wounds him more than it does any other resident. Sure, they don't want to die, but in a way Bastian is the one who'll be worse off if they do. He's just lost his mother, and he needs something to hold on to. That he finds value in Fantasia moves him to act. Whether or not it makes him a better person is arguable, but that's also not the point.

Value differences are, at a surface level, what separates the hero from the villain, but if they're one and the same, we get a greater sense of sympathy. As it seems I keep on quoting, inevitability + irony = win, as far as endings go. How much greater then, the unexpected-but-inevitable? The king in Fable 3 would not have done what he did if he did not care - deeply - about the welfare of the kingdom. I would say he cares even more than the protagonist, who was uniting them in an attempt to usurp the throne. The king knew he could never unite all the tribes, so he put in motion the machine that would, at great personal cost. If that isn't love, I don't know what is. It's a very movie-worthy, dramatic kind of love, and it's selfless as history has shown us is rare, but it is love nonetheless.

Who does the hero love? If they are the player character, as they must be in a game, is it really anyone? Can I love a boy made of pixels so much that I will cry when he is rescued? What is gaming as a character - not as a silent protagonist - but a slow, aching, forever-unfulfilled kind of love? We place our own emotions on them, it's true, in the same way that Gordon Freeman is the coolest guy ever. But these games show us a part of ourselves that we hope exists and, in turn, allow us to feel good about ourselves, even if it's only strangers in Megaton increasing our load times to give us Nukacola.

What is the value of self-love? Maybe my perception of its value is higher than for others, but when games teach me about who I am, I don't think there is a price I can put on that. Those instances are few and far between, but they keep me playing. For many others, I hope that's also the case. I like to think our collective goal is not just escapism, but enlightenment. Does that make us the villains in our own game? That we act in Maslow's 5th hierarchy, in our own self-actualising interests?

Well, that's up to others to decide. In the meantime, I'm going to think about this some and work it into my Masters project.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What are the unforgivable sins?

This is something I come across a lot in movies, and which is immediately a deal-breaker for me : I don't believe any action is so evil as to require death.

Sure, there's the argument that the character feels as though they could never forgive themselves, and so they purposely get in the way of danger. But there's also the typical betrayal scene, where someone important to a main character wounds them irreparably. By the end of the movie, that person will be dead. I don't know about you, but I don't want all the people who upset me to die, or I'd be swimming in my very own Dead Sea.

Let's take a look at some examples. I recently watched Category 6: Day of Destruction. Spoiler alert, but the main character's daughter's boyfriend accidentally shoots her in the shoulder. Oh no. Well, they're locked inside a bank without power and all of the hospitals have been evacuated so, yeah, it's pretty grim. But first of all, it was an accident. One of the other characters says, "You point a loaded gun at someone, that's no accident." But he shot her because the security guard tackled him. So he's an idiot who doesn't know what he's doing who just happens to have a gun. Welcome to the USA, if movies are to be believed. Does he deserve to be crushed by a giant falling girder, mere metres from safety? No, I think not. Is what he did unforgivable? The girl lived. She didn't even seem to blame him that much. Do you think she would be happy he was dead? It is really the best outcome for everyone involved?

I certainly don't think so. I think people like the idea of karma, which is why games like Fallout 3 and Fable treat you like a king when you're a good person. No one ever runs up to you in real life to give you a free Nuka-Cola just 'cause you're a swell guy. Similarly, the people who betray you don't deserve to (and hopefully don't often) get crushed by falling girders. It's escapism, but it's also self-aggrandisement in a very upsetting way - I'm better than you, you should die. Or, in most cases, you betrayed me, you should die. Really? I would have no friends and not even any enemies if that were the case. Let's look at some other examples.

Taken : the blonde girl who decides that she's going to sleep with every guy she can because she's on holidays gets killed, while the brunette virgin is fine (not even traumatised).

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade : Elsa is a Nazi. 'nuff said, apparently. Come to think of it, a lot of Nazis get killed in Raiders of the Lost Ark, too.

Cloverfield : everyone. The sexy girl for being sexy, the cameraman for not paying attention and trying to hit on the sexy girl when he's overweight (so, like, omg, gross, yeah?), and pretty much everyone else except the main characters, and the jury's still out on them.

Spiderman 3 : Peter's friend - "They're my friends, I'd die for them." Way to sign your own death sentence. But you know something that's inconvenient to the hero. How much easier is it for you to die than to relive the angsty tension of the last film? A lot easier, apparently. This becomes a lot more sinister when you come to the conclusion Peter Parker probably let him die.

The Mummy Returns : I love it, I do, but Imhotep's betrayal at the end does not warrant eating to death by scarabs. Benji in the first Mummy was greedy - he got himself killed. Anuk-sun-namun's reincarnated self just didn't want to die. Considering she lived through thousands of years as a spirit just to reincarnate to be with Imhotep it's a bit of a stretch, but sure. She's only human. I wouldn't plunge toward the chasm to hell, either. Does that really mean I deserve horrible scarab death? I hope not.

The Dark Knight : Two-face. He's such an interesting character. Can't you let him be a ridiculously unstable corrupted influence for just a little longer? No, he has to die because he betrayed his morals. Sigh.

Of course, there are cases where death absolutely makes sense : Dragonheart, The Reader, Kung Fu Panda, Star Trek, Aliens ("You always were an asshole, Gorman."), BioShock 2, Fallout 3, and countless others. Syd Field says that the best endings combine inevitability with irony. Sucker Punch has an amazing ending, for just this reason. Where it is the only outcome, then it is forgiven, even cherished. Where it is an easy way out, because explaining would take too long (or perhaps the writer doesn't have the skill to explain it succinctly?), then it should be boo'd and hissed from popular media.

Why? Because we shouldn't expect that in our lives. We don't want that. It seems like 'poetic justice', but about as many people understand that phrase as understand the saying 'that begs the question'. There's an episode of Family Guy where a pub owner gets caught after framing Peter for insurance fraud. Lois says, "Whatever he gets, it'll be too good for him." Well, he gets hanged and his daughter is put into an orphanage. I was delighted, because it shows just what a gap there is between our expectations and what we actually want to happen. We say a lot of things we don't mean. If all of them came true, the world would be a horrible place.

But when death is the inevitable end, as in American Beauty, Benjamin Button, Ghost, The Time Traveller's Wife, as, yes, Fallout 3, then we have time to appreciate life's beauty, to understand the sacrifice and to be grateful that such a difference was made in such a short time. We seem to forget, in most movies, that good people die too. It's watering down the issue to use death as a solution. What it is, is inevitable. And we should never hurry the inevitable. It has a funny way of catching up with us anyway.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Star Trek and the Lady of Pain

"It's hard to believe that a man could die from loneliness."- Bones, Star Trek, Dagger of the Mind

But this, the Lady of Pain knows all too well. I've just finished reading Troy Denning's Pages of Pain (Planescape). As D&D-related novels go, it's excellent. As normal novels go, it's outstanding. Granted, it took me a while to get through - the pages of pain being, perhaps, painful also for the reader, though that's as intended - but the end result was well worth the struggle. Not that Denning's writing style is anything to lament, though I did have to re-read the fight scenes on many occasions. It's merely that so many bad things happen, and then worse things happen. And then worse things. And then things you didn't believe could happen. It's like the section in Men in Tights where Blinken outlines what happened to Robin's pets - the dog was run over by a cart, the goldfish was eaten by the cat, and the cat choked on the goldfish - though this version is anything but funny. It doesn't make for happy reading, but it does make for a compelling story.

I'm certain there must be speculation which I'm too tired to go searching for now, but the story of Pages of Pain also strikes me as very similar to that of Planescape: Torment. Though, and this is a salient and invaluable point, the Lady of Pain is one of the main characters. She's narrating the story of the main character, and she even speaks to the reader. When she did, my blood ran cold. This is the Lady of Pain we're talking about. I don't want her looking at me, not even for a second. But when she did, I couldn't tear my eyes away. She dared me to keep reading on penalty of pain. I did. She was right.

It seems impossible to relate the soul-crushing discontent I feel at the story having reached its conclusion. Not that it doesn't end well - it does that - but throughout many promises are broken, pacts between reader and narrator. The Lady lies. She says things will turn out well. She tells us the future, only to disprove her own words. She holds out hope, only to conceal a dagger. Pain Unending is the title of the final section. I can see why.

Couple this with Star Trek's Dagger of the Mind episode - where a device in a psychiatric hospital is used to subdue patients' will and make any suggestion become true in their minds - where a man can die of loneliness and you have an unhappy parallel. Wouldn't one go mad, lost in one of the Lady's mazes? It seems so simple in the game - find your way out using gates. In Pages of Pain, the exit is more metaphorical, but the pain is no less real. It's impossible to describe without relating events and, in so doing, robbing them of their power, but I'm humbled and terrified by the emotions wrought so craftily by mere words and a steady mind. I could have stopped reading at any point - did, several times - and yet here I am, my heart within me burning for people who never existed, hope betrayed to despair.

There is something incredibly powerful here, in this sadness. Can a man die of loneliness? Yes. And broken-heartedness, of a certainty. It wastes away your resolve, your longing, your desire and your will, leaving only an infinite sadness that draws you ever deeper. Grief is a bright, searing agony compared to the void of despair. When we become sentient enough, and wise enough, to know that everything will change, that we will lose the ones we love as inevitably as the tide rises and falls, and to understand our own mortality, what else can we do but fall? The brightest spark is a candleflame in darkness, and no solace from the storm.

So, what do we do? Where do we turn? To religion? To fantasy? To knowledge? To power? Each person chooses their own path, and we are each our own raft or anchor. There must be land out there somewhere. In the words of Paramore: "And the worst part is / before we get any better we're headed for a cliff / and in the freefall I will realise / that I'm better off when I hit the bottom."

This is why we have cats. They are the natural life buoys of the ocean of despair. Behold, ye mighty, and tremble.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Derrida and a fair conversation system

Not to throw names around but, hey, I know some pretty cool guys. Guys like Derrida, Barthes and Foucault. We're best buds. It might help that they're all dead, and can't disagree, but I like to think we've progressed beyond that.

The Communications Design course I teach has recently been re-routed to the wonderland of semiotics. It's been a learning experience, to be sure, the least of which was uncovering the correct pronunciation for synecdoche, and one of the greatest of which was researching Derrida's ides on binaries. I'm only about 40 years behind modern thought, I know, but it got me to wondering - if the human brain is wired in terms of opposites, is that why so much neutral dialogue sucks?

In D&D, the hardest characters to play are True Neutral. What does a True Neutral character want? Probably nothing. Don't ever play a True Neutral Monk, because you will lose all of your powers. Chaotic Neutral, yeah, or Lawful Neutral, sure. Those are fine. But True Neutral? I've never met anyone who can actually tell me what that means. Someone once described them as Vulcans. The thing is, we have an inherent problem with Vulcans, and it's one that come up time and time again in the original Star Trek - they're 'bad' when compared to our human emotional 'good'.

Somewhat ironically its this capacity to lack emotion that would save Vulcans from giant space catastrophes. You can bet in their horror movies the girl who sprains her ankle gets killed because the others calculate the odds and run away. We see that as cold and unfeeling. We see that as bad. How can we write from that point of view?

Only in Fallout 3 have I ever been allowed to play a neutral character. In games like Mass Effect, playing neutral means you wind up in more battles, because you have neither Charm nor Intimidate. It matters less in Dragon Age, because your companions will choose to approve or disapprove as they will, but taking the neutral route usually results in no one really noticing. Kill a few babies and Morrigan loves you; save a few burning orphans and Alistair's on your side. Set a few babies on fire then put them out and neither of them will be happy with you.

Fable is just as guilty of this, as are myriad others. It seems to me that being a neutral character in one of these games is like being the quiet achiever in class. No one notices you, and you might not get any help, but you don't get in trouble, either. Where does that leave us?

Would a game that forces you to be neutral be possible, or even worthwhile? From what I've heard, Fate of the World may be headed in that direction. If we take with us the idea that there is no right answer, what does that mean for the current state of in-game dialogue? There usually seems to be an optimal path. Should there be? Should any one dialogue path be privileged over any other, simply because that's the way you're intended to play? How many binaries are at work here, and how many can we counteract?

Why are games still teaching us moral values when we're not children anymore?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tiny Wings and the Horror of a Death Carried out in Public

Recently I've been playing a new game on my iPhone, Tiny Wings.

It's very simple and utterly charming. An auto-runner in the long line of Cannabalt clones, it manages to distinguish itself through delightful visuals, soothing audio and a make-believe fairytale story. As the image above says, "You've always dreamed of flying - but your wings are tiny. Luckily the world is full of beautiful hills."

As I write this, Tiny Wings is on the top of the Australian iPhone charts. I could not be happier. Here is a story so beautiful in its simplicity and so elegant in its execution that I spend far more time plying it than I would it if were another run 'n' gun. Even Mirror's Edge didn't hold my attention for this long. I simply want to help that little bird fly.

I could get all sentimental and talk about how he represents the hope in us all, but you're intelligent enough to come to those conclusions on your own. One thing has struck me as odd, however, and when I thought of it today, I burst out laughing in the middle of a very serious conversation.

What if that bird is a jerk?

We always assume that people with dreams are nice people, especially people with unachievable dreams. I automatically assumed the bird keeps trying every day because he's optimistic that this time, this time, he'll make it. What if he's just dumb?

But, really, I'm playing Devil's Advocate here. I love the idea of an optimistic bird who doesn't know his dream can't come true, and so makes it come true in bits and pieces. It's endearing, and it makes me want to help, which is a good marketing strategy indeed.

Thinking about jerks, however, got me to thinking about Ugly Betty. I've recently been watching Season 2 and (spoiler alert), just finished the episode where Bradford has a heart attack. It's bad enough that he's getting married at the time, but the part that really made my heartstrings twang was that the fact that the entire process of Daniel trying to revive his father was televised. I don't mean simply because it's part of a TV show - within the show, the wedding was being televised, and so was Bradford's heart attack.

Watching someone try to save a loved one's life is chilling. I've seen it once, and I never want to again. All credit to Ugly Betty, but they got it right. Horribly right. As soul-destroyingly, gut-wrenchingly right as can be. And this is why I love the show. The drama gets too much for me a lot of the time, but amongst all the jokes and purely stupid moments are glimmers of pure humanity. I've never seen a TV show bring it across so clearly. I just wish most of their moments of humanity didn't bring me to tears.

Monday, January 31, 2011

How Chick Lit Supports Queer Theory (and a bonus trip to Fallen London)

I've just finished reading Chasing Harry Winston, by the author of The Devil Wears Prada, and I have this to say:

If women are as insidious and insipid as portrayed in this book, it's no wonder so many of us have problems.

I'm not going to launch into a critique of the book's literary faults, because you're either the kind of person who will read it and love it, or ignore it and hate it, so my opinion is neither here or there. What troubled me the most was that the three main characters, who are supposed to be BFFS4L(!!!!11!!!!!1) spend a lot of their time bitching about one another in their internal monologues. Do we really do that? Or is this another social commentary by the woman best known for her candid portrayal of the Manhattan fashion scene?

All it really left me with was a vague sense of unease, and a feeling that I should be making more bitchy comments at waitresses. This book was partially the reason for my rant about not wasting time on things you aren't enjoying - I should have taken my own advice, but I was already 200 pages in, dammit. There was that little voice, egging me on to find out what happened, which then turned around and questioned me why I bothered when I did. What a jerk.

Queer Theory, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that we should get to know people as people foremost, and not concern ourselves with silly things like gender and sexuality. We are all human, you see. What better grounds on which to begin a relationship? If we were in a post-apocalyptic space dystopia no one would blink at befriending the nearest human as a symbol of our long-lost Mother Earth. Sometimes I think those chaps on the Enterprise have got it pretty good.

Star Trek, of course, being one of the big proponents of Queer Theory in the 1960s, is commonly cited as the first TV show to include interracial kissing, and Deep Space Nine included a lesbian kiss in the early 1990s. Just as the recent adaptation of Gulliver's Travels failed because it lacked the social commentary of the Swiftian original, so too have I never felt quite as removed from my gender as when reading Chick Lit. All women want the same things, right? We all struggle with having a fulfilling job while finding a supportive partner and also desperately wishing we had tonnes of babies?

Perhaps I've only been recommended books that don't suit my taste. Given that my taste generally includes epic quests and horrible things happening to characters I care deeply about - I'm looking at you, Robin Hobb and Joe Abercrombie - this is probably a given. But it would be nice, so nice, to be interested in people and not care what gender they were interested in themselves. To read a romance novel that goes through the same insecurities that each person has, regardless of their gender. Unless you're supremely confident, you will always wonder what that other person thinks of you, at least until you know for sure. Men suffer from it too, guys. Women just complain more. Do we really need an entire genre based on that one fact?

Enough. I doubt my impassioned appeal is going to turn back the wheels of the money-making printing press, so it's all just really a request for something that's targeted at my gender that actually makes me feel good about being female. Like Castle, for example. There, that's a happy place, where women are respected based on their merits. Ah, much better.

In the meantime, I also stumbled into Fallen London, due to an Extra Credits video. Like many others, I blindly follow James Portnow's trends (he's lovely - I met him at AGDC and he was an absolute gentleman) so I clicked through to Echo Bazaar to give it a try. Half a day later, I'm still not sure what I've wandered into, but it seems to be holding my attention nonetheless.

As part of an article I read earlier today stated, however, I do wonder why they've gone with the somewhat archaic use of an energy bar, and limited actions. I can only undertake so many actions a day. On top of that, I can only do ten at a time, with one energy refilling every seven minutes. I assume this is to add proper pacing to the ongoing narrative, but it feels a little bit too much like a game, if that can be a complaint. I'm horribly interested in the world they've introduced me to, and just want to get out and explore. Since exploration (e.g. gaining information) takes the form of completing quests and quest chains, this means my hunger for story is barely fulfilled.

The fact that I also have to undertake repeated tasks to level up a certain skill in order to unlock the next (invisible) tier of jobs/tasks is also something I find a little odd. I didn't enjoy it in Mafia Wars. I'm not sure why it's in here. Possibly to make it more of a game and less of an interactive narrative, but I really am wondering if that's a good decision or not.

Whatever the case, my interest is piqued for now. Further to the Extra Credits video about non-combat interaction, I'd say it's because you don't have to sit through the dinner or the chess game that Echo Bazaar works without necessarily initiating combat. Even the Sims 3 allows you to speed to the end of the chess game, rather than waiting for it to finish. Moments that require refined dignity and a keen interest in the other party are difficult to fake. I'm not saying it isn't possible, just that if a game developer somewhere can convince me to enjoy a virtual dinner with someone inside my computer as much as I would enjoy a real dinner with a charming stranger, the world is suddenly going to be a very weird place.

Castle: Bringing Sexy Back in a Button Down

It's not often that I'm able to look at something in mainstream media and be pleased by the portrayal of my gender. Sure, there are sexy women around - many of them - but in terms of personality, conduct, and self-respect, I tend to come away feeling disgruntled. My most recent favourite has been DI Drake from Ashes to Ashes, the somewhat-sequel to Life on Mars. Even she, however, leaves me feeling a little seedy for watching her on-and-off-again not-quite romance with Gene Hunt, in the same way that you feel embarrassed watching a particularly pretty friend with low self-esteem get drunk and crack onto a mutual acquaintance. Sure, DI Drake is going through a lot, but I still have to go make a cup of tea every time she starts asserting her independent, modern-woman ways.

Enter, then, Kate Beckett from Castle, who manages to be witty, job-oriented and forceful, while maintaining her allure. I've only seen the pilot, but that second-to-last shot of her walking away, having just made a very confident statement about her sexuality, and managing to be sexy a) because she doesn't look back, b) with short hair and minimal makeup and c) in an untucked, untailored light blue button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black trousers, gives me hope that maybe a show has got it right.

What is it about games that means we can't have women in this kind of situation? The closest I can imagine is Alice from Alan Wake, and then the most frequent shot of her is in her underwear - granted, not sexy underwear, and it does make it feel as if she's in greater peril than she would be if she were fully clothed, but even she suffers her husband's frequent temper tantrums. She's more complex than that; I'm not denying it. But at the same time, she isn't sexy. I feel something for her, sure, and I want to save her, but she's not attractive in the same way as Detective Beckett.

A lot of this comes from the Male Gaze which, arguably, should now be re-branded the Female Gaze, but that's another post entirely, and one I'm not qualified to cover. Basically, what it comes down to is this: we want what people we respect or like want. That means that if your friend, who you greatly admire for their job, house or family, decides to buy a certain painting or brand of clothing or makeup, you're more likely to gravitate toward that brand in order to attain whatever success your friend has that you want. It's the whole fake-it-'til-you-make-it scenario, and it works. We become better people by modelling positive behaviour.

So the reason that Detective Beckett is attractive, and this is where the Male Gaze comes in, is that Rick Castle (a.k.a. Mal from Firefly) wants her. As a woman, perhaps we'd like Nathan Fillion to look at us that way. As a male, we'd like to be a spaceship captain cowboy. What's not to want? This desire taps into both genders, but more importantly, it also empowers women.

Castle doesn't want Beckett because she's easy, he wants her because she's not. I realise this is giving a contrasting message to men - chase what you can't get - but the reason that Beckett is sexy and not sexual, from a woman's point of view, is because she's the one in control. She dresses conservatively, doesn't seem to care about her appearance, and certainly doesn't care about Castle's opinion, which makes her attractive to both him and us - it's her confidence that does the trick. I'd write another post about how women can never look too good if they want to be taken seriously, and if she does ever wear makeup it's either going to have to be 'undercover', or else change her character entirely, but I don't think that would be much fun to read. Suffice to say I'm happy a reasonably well-groomed, well-dressed, well-situated female detective as the sexy to Castle's smarmy. That's really it.

Can we do that in games, do you think? Stuff gender differentiation - power armour should make everyone look like a man. Unless the women in the army have some seriously amazing genes, they can't be athletic and stacked enough to require an entire extra plating cavity in their armour just to show they have breasts. Shouldn't all soldiers be treated equally in the future, anyway? Should you prioritise saving your comrade, who is wearing a helmet, because of a little extra chest bulge? No way, otherwise men are going to start wearing women's armour, too, and that will just be unfortunate, least of all because that extra little air pocket will work great with incendiary ammo.

Can we have a female character who is not at all interested in the player apart from in a professional capacity, who is sexy without showing more than her neck and her arms, is good at her job, and doesn't suddenly fall apart or need to be rescued? Do you think we can do that, games industry?

I'm willing to try if you are.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Makes Writing Worth Living?

Every time we open a book, load a game or start a movie, we're opting in for some kind of writing. Even if you're playing Tetris, it once was an idea, that would have been written down at some point. For those of us in the Western, first-world countries, writing is something we take entirely for granted. This isn't a post about illiteracy, however; it's a post about making the most of what time you have.

Not every game is going to be your Heavy Rain or Alan Wake. Not every movie is going to be Casablanca or The Princess Bride. In an attempt to save you more time so you can spend it doing things you enjoy, here is a simple check-box list you can take a look at to determine whether you're really enjoying the story you're living :

1) Do you relate to the main character?

Can you understand where the main character is coming from and, more importantly, are you interested in where they're going? If not, put the media down and walk away. You're essentially living with the Hated Ex.

2) Do you feel like you understand enough of what's going on in the story?

Do you feel like you're being drawn into a mystery, or are the character motivations clear enough to keep you engaged in the storyline? No one wants to take tea with Master Yoda, especially if he's not going to teach you to be a Jedi. Chances are, whatever you're reading/watching/playing ain't gonna, so move on.

3) Is it frustrating you?

Now, some games use frustration as a technique. I don't mean vague I-need-to-beat-this-level-or-get-a-better-score frustration. I mean killing you over and over, having a protagonist who never learns anything or just plain not going anywhere anytime soon. If you like that kind of thing, go ahead, but I like my stories to have a direction other than 'standing still'.

4) Do you laugh in a pitying way?

If you giggle inadvertently when the space captain says, in all seriousness, "They want war, we'll give 'em war," chances are it's either out of character, out of context, or just generally poorly chosen. Voice acting or animation may come into it in a game, but, generally, if you're laughing at things that aren't meant to be funny, you're either watching a B-Grade horror movie or wasting your time.

5) Did you lose track of time?

If yes, keep going, within reason. If no, that's not a bad thing, necessarily. If you ticked off every five minutes of the intervening hours, quit it. You have better things to do with your time.

6) Are you also playing Facebook/texting/reading webcomics?

If you're multitasking, it's not gripping you. Move on.

7) Did your friend like it?

If yes, accept that you may not. Move on.

8) No, they really, really, really, really, REALLY liked it!

Is this someone you're trying to impress? If yes, cut it out. Have the guts to tell the truth. If no, why are you bothering? The nature of any form of expression, games in particular, means you will never have an identical experience to someone else. Just because my friend loves Descent doesn't mean I will, and he will still hate the Sims 3 no matter how exciting I tell him interior decorating is. We're different people. That's okay.

9) Do you feel empowered by reading/watching/playing your whatever?

If you don't feel good after your jaunt into imagination, then I would argue it wasn't worthwhile. Feeling good comes in many flavours - not just the warm 'n' fuzzies, but feeling whatever you want to feel, such as feeling sad at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or angry at the end of BioShock. If you come away from a story-based interaction feeling awful - or worse, feeling nothing - then that's a sign to spend your time elsewhere in future.

10) Did it change your life?

I mean this. Has reading/watching/playing this book/movie/game made you rethink some aspect of your existence? Surely not all recreation needs to be for self-improvement... right? Considering you take in information from so many sources at so many times during all of your waking hours, yes, everything should be helping you determine either who you are or who you want to be. Planescape: Torment changed my life, but not in the same way as Confessions of a Shopaholic. Planescape set me on my current career path; Confessions made me want to go shopping, while showing me the dangers of doing just that. I learned from both of them, so if you're not learning, what are you doing?

There are arguments for experiences. I agree. You may just want to be someone else for a while. That's okay too. What's not okay is wasting your precious free time on bad or mediocre writing, just because you don't know any better. Now you do. Go forth and be joyful.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Life in pre-apocalyptia

As many of you are no doubt aware, most of Queensland is currently flooded.  Over the next couple of days, that will include a nearby town, Ipswich, and the state capital, Brisbane, where I live.  The floods are set to be as bad as or worse than the floods in 1974 that left the Brisbane CBD looking like this:

There have been heartbreaking stories all over the news since yesterday, when an 'instant inland tsunami' descended on the nearby town of Toowoomba.  Luckily, we Brisbanites know what's coming.  It's weird.

I had to go to Coles this afternoon for kitty litter, and made a decision before I arrived to only buy items that I normally would, in an attempt to distract the rising fear in my local area.  After all, that Coles will be underwater in less than 18 hours.  A little last-minute shopping may be called for.  When I arrived, I was a little surprised to find rows and rows of shelves like this:



Longlife milk.

Paper towels and toilet paper.


Fruit (there are only pomegranates left).

Wow.  Okay.  This was 3pm on a weekday.  Bottled water was completely gone, many soups were disappearing, instant noodles were all but extinct and quite a few people were buying chocolate.  I was the only one to buy fresh flowers.

I've been playing Fallout: New Vegas recently, and watching The Walking Dead, and while I love post-apocalyptia, pre-apocalyptia is something I've never really thought about.  Well, a little, because I'm afraid of zombies.  But while I would like to see the world crumbled in the way of Fallout, highways shattered across the landscape and people working together to rebuild their lives, it's pretty incomprehensible to imagine the actual event that leads to such a society.

Don't get me wrong.  Obviously, floods are nothing compared to a nuclear holocaust.  My house isn't even in danger.  We'll probably be isolated for a couple of days, but I have food, and the internet, and my cat.  If the roads remain open for just that little bit longer tomorrow morning, my partner might even manage to make it home before everything turns brown-coloured.  I'm in a pretty good position.

But the frenzy at the supermarket, coupled with the weary resignation of the people waiting for sandbags a couple of blocks away, certainly made it feel like the end of the world.  People were buying similar things to what I imagine they would buy in the event of a nuclear war.  Canned food.  Bread.  Longlife products.  Meat.  Water.  It's only reasonable, and a good idea.  Maybe that's what's so scary.

Queues of people, standing with their groceries, silently watching the pelting rain outside, clutching loaves of bread, worry on their faces, as their children held onto single bottles of water and tried not to put them down. The diminishing pile of sandbags as the line grows longer.  A tightness around people's eyes as they smile, searching the supermarket for anything that may have been left behind.

Luxury items were.  Blueberries were cheap, and the table was full.  Fresh flowers were all on sale.  I bought a beautiful bunch of pink roses and carnations for five dollars.  Juice was apparently not high on the list, either.  I had a fine time, choosing the foods I would normally choose, most of which were on sale.  Toward the end, however, even I became a bit spooked.  I bought two jugs to fill with filtered water, since all of the bottled stuff was gone.  I considered batteries, then realised my torch is kinetic.  I wondered how long it would be before I would taste fresh apricots again.

For us, there's an end.  The uncomfortable silence lies in the waiting, in the inexorable march of a wide brown wall of water, bearing down on our city.  But it will be over.  Life will return to normal, hopefully not too much for the worse, or too slowly.  We'll get bread again.  I don't want to imagine circumstances otherwise.

And that wall of water keeps getting closer.  I'm one of the lucky ones, not having to fear waking up with my books floating across my bed, or my loved ones trying to escape and needing to be rescued.  I want to help others, if I can.  Would I feel the same if the circumstances were more permanent?  Probably not.  Would I have fought harder to get bread?  Yes.  Would I survive?  I doubt it.

Lucky for me it's not the apocalypse just yet.  It only feels like it.

Please donate to the flood relief appeal if you can.  It doesn't take the best of us, only each of us, to make a difference.