Turning dreams into gold, one jot & scribble at a time.


An Open Letter to Online Gaming Fans

Dear Mr. or Ms. Online Gamer:

I’m writing to express my disappointment in your behavior towards games journalists and reviewers. How you behave within your games is your business; if I object to how people are treated within a game, chances are I won’t play that game, unless I find it really compelling on its own or several friends of mine play. However, how you behave outside of games is something that needs to be addressed, especially when it comes to people trying to inform and protect you.

Let me be perfectly clear. Yes, games journalists and some very fortunate reviewers do, in fact, get paid. They get paid to report on games, to discuss them and inform you of their merits and flaws. And 95-99% of games have both: few and far between are truly peerless games like Portal or true ludonarrative abortions like Ride to Hell: Retribution.

The crux of this letter is, however, the following:

Video game journalists are not paid by video game companies to write particular reviews.

There are a lot of reasons a particular feature is not mentioned in a review. The review could have been rushed. It could have been based on an early build of the game. The feature in question, for example the number of maps in the game or the available customization options, might not have factored into the reviewer’s reasoning and therefore was excluded from the review. You know what none of these things indicate? Greased palms.

Roger Ebert never got a payout from MGM for a positive review of a film. Rolling Stone doesn’t get sacks of cash from record companies or bands to talk up a particular album. Amazon reviewers aren’t given gift cards for five star reviews. I could go on.

Games journalists do have privileged positions. Nobody would deny that. Press passes and junkets do exist, and in some instances, companies will hold events or parties to try and ingratiate themselves. That’s part of business. But direct payouts between companies and journalists rarely, if ever, happens. And when these incidents do occur, any journalist worth their ink would scoff at the offer and stick to their wordy guns. I think you can look at the back history of any games journalist out there to see evidence of said journalist’s integrity.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a few of the people in this industry. I can tell you first hand that they work hard. They often have to work uphill against public opinion to discuss the truth. And as much as fat sacks of industry cash would make paying their bills easier, the ones I know wouldn’t take it. Their dedication isn’t to making money. Their dedication is to the truth, and to you, the video gamer at home, and whether or not your cash is going to be well-spent on a particular game.

Shame on you. Shame on your inflammatory words and questions of journalistic integrity. Stop being blinded by your loyalty to a particular game, and look at the situation objectively. Remove your inflated ego from the equation and realize that not everyone is going to share your opinion. There are other, more positive ways to get the attention you are clearly seeking, and all you do when you accuse an establish games journalist of this sort of unscrupulous behavior is come off looking like an absolute prat at best, and a bullying cretin at worst.

You can do better than that. And you should.

Best wishes, etc.

500 Words On Productivity

Courtesy Sona Charaipotra - http://www.sonacharaipotra.com/

To be honest, I kind of hate the word ‘productivity’. I hate the connotation that human beings need to produce to be valuable. Tireless housewives & househusbands produce nothing other than hot meals, clean laundry, and support for their hard-working spouses. Why should they be valued as lesser than someone who spends 18 hours of the day in an office?

That said, there’s a part of me that continues to romanticize the idea of freelancing as a career. Leaving the flat only when I want to, or I need more half-and-half or Johnny Walker Black. And maybe not even that, if I can move to a state that doesn’t have such strict laws regarding alcohol. Anyway, that in and of itself is going to involve some legwork, some networking, some time carved out around my current schedule to try and line up more work from various places to keep myself fed and housed.

I really can’t complain too much about my position at current, at least in terms of my specific dayjob as related to a certain skill set I possess. Everything I wrote about this morning is general, head-space stuff that would apply to any corporate gig. Nothing specific is wrong with my current situation in and of itself. I’m being deliberately vague. I hate doing that. But it’s a necessity of things like NDAs and not wanting to put my problems on other people when I can avoid it. Meh.


It’s been a long day. I only just now got in from the office and running by the store. Not literally running, of course. I don’t live that close to the office. Be kind of funny if I did, though. How would the days I suit up work, though? Would I have to strap a garment bag to my back? Roll up in my gym shorts and running shoes, then duck into the men’s or the VP’s office to change clothes? Not everybody likes me after a run. I tend to feel good, but apparently the sweat I generate is just too much for some.

Anyway, I’m home now, and I still have more ‘productivity’ ahead of me. Revisions to Cold Streets, freelance seeking, maybe even a first stab at some things for a new novel. Something, anything, to get me out of the creative ditch I’ve been in for roughly half a year. Maybe more. I really don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seriously given up entire mornings or afternoons or evenings to what I really want to be doing with my life.

But I have to start somewhere. Or, more accurately, start over somewhere. I’m told it’s never too late to start over. I really hope that’s true.

Incidentally, the Friday 500 seems to be more stream-of-consciousness than anything, and I think that helps me. It almost feels Thompson-esque to write this way.

Don’t worry. If I start seeing phantom iguanas, or rambling about bat country, someone’s bound to call the cops. Or an agent.

I Like Big Bots (And I Cannot Lie)

Courtesy Warner Bros

The more I think about Pacific Rim, the more I like it. Yes, the characters can be somewhat stock, and the plot is fairly straightforward, but the scope and spectacle of the film are awe-inspiring. I think if you had told me even five years ago that big robots would be on the big screen in America all on their own without an anime series behind them, I would have balked at the idea. As much as I’ve been a fan of big robots since I was a child, and piloted robot fiction for a decade or two, I didn’t think it would happen. It’s something of a niche genre.

Still, big ‘bots have been a part of my entertainment since I was young. The original Transformers animated series made me look at boring old traffic in a new way. A sports car, a tractor trailer, even a construction vehicle could, at any moment in my young mind, become a giant robot ready for a fight. My first piloted mecha show was either Voltron or Robotech. As much as I enjoyed all three of the series that got jammed into the latter show, the portion in the beginning, Macross, captured my attention the most.

One of the first shows I sought out on my own was Macross Plus, the OVA (original video animation) that followed the Macross series. With beautiful animation, a haunting score by Yoko Kanno, interesting character dynamics, and Sharon Apple, it remains very much up my alley to this day. I was introduced to Neon Genesis Evangelion and my first Gundam series (Gundam Wing) at about the same time. Evangelion is very different from just about any other mecha series you’d care to name, damn close to a perfect deconstruction of the genre. It’s still talked about today, 18 years after it premiered. That’s right – there are people today, who might be reading this, who do not know what it was like to live in a world without Evangelion. Or the Internet. … Let’s move on before I feel too old.

It was always a shame to me that The Big O didn’t get more than a second season from Cartoon Network. The infusion of noir sensibilities and greater mysteries into piloted robot antics worked very well. Not long after that, I saw some of the massive body of work that is Getter Robo. It and Mazinger Z are pretty much the urtext of the other series I’ve mentioned, and while I haven’t checked out any Mazinger, I’m a fan of Go Nagai’s other work. And then there was Shinkon Gattai Godannar, which may take the prize for the most fan-service in a series that isn’t adults-only that I’ve seen. I mean, it’s a good series outside of the fan-service, and that theme song is catchy as hell, but… damn.

And then, most recently, there is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. I went over that one in detail previously, and looking back on everything I’ve seen already, I do think that it stands head and shoulders above the rest. Maybe it’s just that stories that involve the indomitability of the human spirit get under my skin in ways others don’t. A lot of mecha tales approach this idea, from revolutionaries refusing to give up to human consciousness overcoming programming and restraint, but Gurren Lagann feels unique in the way it treats the fighting spirit of the human heart as a power source, and a nearly inexhaustible one at that.

I think that’s one of the things that sticks with me about Pacific Rim. Arch as the characters might be, many of them have that never-say-die attitude that I can’t help but admire. There’s also the fact that these shows are at their best when the big robots are less important than the people inside them. As cool as the Jaegars are, they are only animated when their pilots enter the Drift with one another. It’s something the film has in common with shows like Evangelion or Gurren Lagann, and why it sticks out in my mind as a good story, and one worth watching again.

Though, I could simply be biased towards big bots.

Drill, Baby, Drill

Courtesy Rabbitpoets
Courtesy Rabbitpoets, will credit original artist!

When I encounter a new story that I find myself enjoying thoroughly, there’s a part of me that can’t just leave it at that. I have to look deeper than my superficial glee and take a look at what really calls to me about the tale. I have to examine characters, plot points, meanings and development. I don’t know if it’s my background in doing so for years at university, or my desire to better understand other stories so I can write mine better, but in any case, it’s what makes me review and critique stuff on a regular basis.

Case in point: I just finished watching the anime series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

I’m no stranger to big robot anime. Voltron and Robotech (Macross in particular) were staples growing up. When I hit university I was introduced to more – Macross Plus, Gundam Wing and the brilliant but bizarre Neon Genesis Evangelion. There are plenty of other mecha anime out there, and plenty of anime that get classified as shounen – aimed primarily at young or teenage boys with exciting action and plenty of fighting. One might think, with a cursory glance, that Gurren Lagann is in the same vein as these, even with its unique aesthetic, but it doesn’t take long for the series’s true strengths to reveal themselves.

In a few other series I’ve dipped my toe into and even enjoyed, the main character gets his special power or destiny, and pursues it with dogged determination that, while admirable, does not vary his character much. Gurren Lagann, on the other hand, lets its characters develop naturally. The character of Simon, in particular, goes through a lot of growth from the beginning of the series to its end. In addition to the respect I give a story for the willingness to actually end legitimately and well, there’s the fact that the Simon at the end of the story is a different person, a more developed person, than he was at the beginning. The same goes for Yoko; a character that easily could have been relegated to simple fan service is also allowed to grow, breathe, develop, and take on a life of her own.

Another way in which the series sets itself apart is in the fact that actions have consequences. Each victory that our heroes gain take them deeper into a world they did not anticipate, and as much as the show likes to treat the laws of physics more like loose guidelines than actual rules, there’s no cheap resurrections and no going back. Changes are irreversible, and consequences must be dealt with. In a general genre and specific sub-genre that is usually all about an empowerment fantasy free of consequences, seeing a show that drops the hammer on its character multiple times for things they do is refreshing.

As cool as it would be to pilot a giant mecha, Gurren Lagann seems to treat its unique and strikingly designed machines as exactly what they are: vehicles. They’re the means by which the story and its meaning are delivered, and the meaning is this: it’s okay to be yourself. In fact, the ideal way to live one’s life is to forge ahead making one’s own destiny with a sense of self-belief. Believing in yourself can be hard to do, especially when it feels like the whole world is against you, but when people have faith in you, and you have faith in yourself, there is literally nothing you can’t do. Rather than relegate such things to occasional character moments or after-credits messages, Gurren Lagann makes this the driving force behind its narrative, a massive drill that bores a hole right through your expectations. The individual’s sense of self-worth is a weapon in and of itself; when fully realized, it’s an extremely potent one.

I may be reading too much into an anime series, or drawing an inordinate amount of inspiration from it, but that’s who I am. I take the lessons I find from what I experience and I try to make them a part of my life. I am, as always, a work in progress. I will never stop learning, never stop growing, and never stop writing about it. That’s what I do. And the more I do it, the more proud I become of what I’m doing and what I will do in the future. I may not live up to some expectations, I may make mistakes, but I will make my future my own, because that’s what you do when you come to realize who you are and what that means to you and to the world around you.

I’m a writer. I’m a fanboy. I’m a critic and a philosopher and I fight for what I believe in.

Who the hell do you think I am?

Stubborn Stinkbrain

Courtesy Disney

I used to be really, really good at quitting.

I can think of several instances in my past where I would be attempting something, run into the first real obstacle, and just give up. I would avoid putting myself in positions where I would have to deal with any major difficulties or consequences. I hate to admit it, but I was something of a coward. While I still remain afraid of screwing up, letting people down, or hurting the feelings of those I care about, I’ve learned that giving up before all alternatives are exhausted yields only more doubt, disappointment, and is generally less favorable than making legitimate efforts.

It feels a bit odd for me to talk about hardships and difficulties when I’m a white cis male in the first world, which is about as privileged as you can get. I’m not really wanting for food, shelter, clothing, or any of the essentials a human being needs. It should be an easy life for me. I’m choosing to make it more difficult by involving myself in the things I choose to be involved in, and in that I am engineering my own defeats. And yet, I know if I simply enjoy my privileges and do not take steps to share what I can with the world around me, I am no better than a day-trader on Wall Street or a corrupt corporate executive. So I try to make the world a better place, and sometimes, the world seems determined to remain terrible.

Case in point: I’ve made the choice to be an Enforcer, part of the PAX volunteer staff, and by extension, I am tangentially connected to Penny Arcade and its creators. Mike (“Gabe”) has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to sensitive issues, and this was the case yesterday. He made a comment that was offensive to the transgender community, and the resulting exchange has caused people to call for PAX boycotts and, if I understand the situation correctly, several of my fellow Enforcers have quit in a show of solidarity with those offended by Mike’s comment. They more than likely see Mike’s apology and exchange with Sophie Prell as half-hearted or perfunctory or some other word for insincere.

I for one am willing to give Mike the benefit of the doubt. As I see it, the possibilities are that he makes comments that he thinks are funny and only occasionally gets it right; he puts his foot in his mouth more often than not by tweeting before he thinks; or he’s a deplorable human being through and through. What I have seen and heard of the man leads me to believe that the first two cases are the most likely. Considering his brand is one that is mostly comedic, the first is the logical conclusion for me to draw. Penny Arcade has done a lot for the gaming community, children’s charities, and a more inclusive Internet in general; why would I want to disassociate from that?

Don’t get me wrong. Anybody who feels strongly enough to quit or boycott has my understanding. Not everybody is wired the way I am. And, to be frank, I could be wired completely wrong. I’m willing to consider and even accept that, if presented with sufficient evidence.

But I refuse, to the core of my being, to quit now. Not when I can try to change things for the better.

I know that I can’t change people who don’t want to change. And I know that my words and actions may have zero effect on the people or world around me in general. I accept that. What I will not accept is the idea that I cannot change anything at all on an individual level. I don’t want to muck around with people’s brains to make them what I would consider “better” – each individual is entitled to be and think and feel however they want to be and think and feel. I have no claim to change things within another person’s being by force. That isn’t right.

All I can do, all I want to do, is be the best human individual I can be, engage as often as possible in what I consider to be better behavior, exemplify compassion and understanding for my fellow human beings, and do what I can, small as it may be, to make the world around me a better place. Every person deserves to be treated with respect, and the best way for me to get that idea into the heads of others is to be as respectful as I can with everyone around me, especially strangers. As an Enforcer, I meet thousands of strangers. This, to me, is an excellent way to ensure that I am doing as much as possible to be the change I want to see in the world. I may affect even more if I can get more writing off the ground; time will tell on that score.

But I’m not going to quit either, I’m not going to quit giving people the benefit of the doubt, I’m not going to quit being me, even if I can be overly optimistic and occasionally gullible and something of a stubborn, tactless, somewhat arrogant stinkbrain from time to time.

This is who I am. This is who I choose to be.

Take it or leave it.

The Myth of Misandry

Males of the Internet, I submit to you the following:

If you think you’re the target of misandry, you’ve probably done something to deserve it.

Before I elaborate, let’s cover some trigger warnings. I’m going to talk about misandry, obviously, but I’m also going to talk about misogyny, degradation and devaluation of women, acerbic Internet culture, racism, homophobia, defamation, and rape. Just so we’re clear before I start rambling.

There are some folks out there who would like to tell you that gaming culture has always been ‘a certain way’. The prevailing sentiment is that everything from teabagging in first-person shooters to calling someone a faggot for inadequate game performance is normal. You can tell someone they’re about to get raped or suggest they kill themselves or get cancer when they beat you, and it’s fine. That’s “just how it is”. “Oh, you know how gamers are.” “Don’t be a little bitch, learn to take a joke.” And so on.

Lately, some folks have been fighting back against this. Everything from Anita Sarkeesian’s series on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games to posts about sexism and misogyny in areas outside of gaming (like this great stuff from Chuck Wendig) has emerged to fight back against this rather callous and insensitive habit of men to use the defamation of women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community as a source for humor that reinforces their need for cultural dominance. And what has their response been?

The threats of rape, I get. That’s a knee-jerk, juvenile reaction from a knee-jerk, juvenile culture. It’s a three-year-old stomping their feet while screaming and maybe chasing the cat with a crayon intending to draw dicks in poor kitty’s fur. It’s as tasteless as it is pathetic and useless.

Guys saying they won’t watch/read/buy anything from the person again, also understandable. I’d even say that’s a reasonable response. Sure, it’s usually wrapped in the sort of puerile drivel I’ve mentioned above, but people expressing themselves with their wallets is legitimate.

But guys saying they’re victims of misandry?


How is this even a thing?

Let’s look at the big picture, here. Until the 19th century, in most parts of the world that were affluent enough to do so, it was perfectly acceptable for people to own other people. Most if not all of the time, the owners were white males. Democracies began to emerge around the same time, and guess who got to do all of the voting? White males. Before then, we had a lot of dictatorships and monarchies, and most of them were controlled by men. And then there’s the institution of religion, especially in the form of the Catholic church.

Looking at that, men have had it pretty sweet for centuries. White men, especially. As our global population and culture continues to grow, and barriers of communication and distance break down, it’s logical for more people of different races, genders, creeds and outlooks to become involved in every level of living life on this planet, from governing the populace to charming diversions. To try and hold onto a position that’s been held through intimidation, abuse, defamation, character assassination, and the myth of “tradition” or the excuse of “that’s how it’s always been” is selfish, childish, and pretty damn unfair.

I’m not saying that misandry doesn’t exist. I’m sure there are people out there who hate men vehemently and violently. What I’m saying is that misandry as a tactic to be used against the ‘traditional’ gamer culture (and entertainment circles in general) does not exist. There is no great movement to rain hatred and destruction on men in entertainment. There’s no feminist conspiracy to take your games away. Just like the ‘gay agenda’ that FOX News loves to bang on about in their little corner studio in the asylum, misandry in gaming and entertainment is a great way for guys to deflect the thrust of the main issue at hand, which is that as our culture changes and evolves, those participating in it as creators or audience need to change and evolve with it.

And some men are either too lazy or too scared to do it.

That’s right. This talk of misandry, these threats of rape against rational voices pointing out the flaws in our culture, the pedantic and obstinate words that continue to get thrown around the gaming table; all of this is born out of fear and sloth. I know I’m going out on a limb here a bit, and I won’t be correct in every case, but from everything I’ve seen and heard, for the most part, guys who continue to use these words, spew this hatred, make these threats and “jokes”, are too lazy, too scared, or too dumb to change their ways. They’re not as powerful as they’d like people to think they are. They’re cowards, frightened to be placed on an even level with women and people of color and folks born with orientations other than “heterosexual”, and every time they tell a female gamer to get back in the kitchen or talk about getting ‘gypped’ in a game or indulge in other racial slurs, they prove it.

Misandry, as a general mode of behavior, is a myth, gentlemen. We don’t hate you because you’re men. We hate you because you’re behaving like spiteful, scared little boys. This isn’t the schoolyard anymore. It’s time to put away childish things. It’s time to grow the fuck up.

Memento Mori

American flag

For two years running I’ve made the same post on Memorial Day, which starts something like this:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have the country we have today because people got pissed off enough to fight for it.

America’s military is based entirely on volunteer service. People enlist for various reasons, from pure-hearted desire to serve the country to paying for a college education. And those who can already afford college can embark upon a career as an officer right from the start. The important fact, though, is that none of it is compulsory. Nobody is making these young men and women sign up for service that could ultimately mean they’re going to die far from home, in some foreign land, possibly alone with no one to remember them save for a line item in a report listing them as “Missing In Action”.

Other countries compel their citizens to join the military from an early age. There’s no choice in the matter. Regardless of how you feel about your country, you’re going to be serving in its military. As much as I admire Heinlein, the idea of compulsory military service being the only route to citizenship is a pretty scary one. But unless I’m mistaken, no country has gone completely that far yet.

Here, though, every person who puts on that uniform, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, left or right, does so for the same reason. They want to serve. They chose to answer the call to duty. Nobody made them.
And if they died on a foreign shore, they did so as the ultimate result of that choice. As lonely, painful, cold and dark as it might have been for them, it is a deep hope of mine that they do not consider themselves forgotten.

We have not forgotten.

Read the rest here

It may seem we have forgotten to some veterans, though. If they make it home, they tend to bear scars, and not always obvious ones. It’s shamefully easier to sympathize with a soldier who’s lost a limb or suffered major facial trauma than it is one who seems intact in body but says nothing about what’s going on in his or her mind.

These are people who, because of a choice they made, have stared death in the face, and been told, ordered, demanded not to flinch.

We hold soldiers in high esteem. Most see them as brave or even fearless. But they’re human beings, just like you and me. They have our doubts, our fears, our weaknesses. They, like us, are mortal. They’re going to die, and some die on foreign shores because they’re told to be there.

They fight for us anyway, and that’s what makes them great, and worth remembering.

I don’t have any particular charity or cause to champion here, nor do I know how easily one can get to some place like Walter Reed to see what becomes of those who only partially make it home. All I ask is that you remember them, not just today, but every day.

Is Gatsby Great?

Courtesy Warner Bros

I will not be writing up a full review of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for several reasons. One of them is that this far past the release, most critics have already gotten their works out there and I really have nothing new or interesting to say in that overall regard. I will say that the movie’s quite good, and you should go see it. Leonardo DiCaprio has a screen presence that completely cements him as a Hollywood leading man on par with classics like Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, with an intimacy and humanity in many of his roles that pulls the audience in without visible effort. His Jay Gatsby is no different. But I find myself pondering something about this self-made man: is Gatsby great?

We’re certainly lead to believe he’s great. His wealth, opulence, and movement with ease amongst high society’s best and brightest certainly seems great by the standards of our materialistic, superficial culture. If he kept a bevy of attractive women in his mansion, he’d be the Roaring 20′s Hugh Hefner. A person in his position in our current day and age would probably be one of those odious Kardashian or Jersey Shore types – rich and famous for no reason, and vacuous as a result. Yet Gatsby is so smooth and polished, so classically debonair, so relentlessly likable, that envious as we might be, we can’t hold his success against him. His charm is, perhaps, his greatest weapon, especially in the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway.

Nick, for his part, is so close to Gatsby almost from the beginning, and so overwhelmed by the man and his image and achievements, that it’s very difficult for him to see past the facade to the truth underneath. This is, in fact, one of the few quibbles I have about the film version: the audience is so wrapped up in Nick’s perception of events that close attention must be paid to see Gatsby’s shortcomings as true, crippling flaws rather than obstacles for this great man to overcome. The difference is a subtle one, but Nick’s glasses are so rose-colored that even Gatsby’s worst moments as seen as tragic moments rather than revelatory turning points.

The biggest problem between Jay Gatsby and objective greatness is his objectification of Daisy. As much as he fell in love with her five years ago, his inability to let go of his idealized version of her and his placement of her in a central role of his life without her knowledge strikes me as incredibly unhealthy. Instead of focusing on building himself up for his own sake, bettering himself in order to be a more successful Gatsby today than he was yesterday, he strives towards the distant goal of reclaiming Daisy. Instead of self-determination or ambition, his driving force is obsession, an all-consuming focused idea that if he just acquires this person, his life will be perfect, matching or exceeding the nearly fantastical recollection he has of his past. He sees Daisy as needing to be rescued and swept off of her feet and back into his life.

However, before Gatsby reveals himself, Daisy doesn’t seem to be all that interested in rescue. Her husband may be a racist asshole, but he provides her with all the comforts of a rich life and she gets by just fine with that. Gatsby does not reawaken some spark of an old flame within her, he merely presents her with something new and exciting and interesting in her life. In truth, neither of them is really interested in the other as a person, as they are now: Gatsby desires the Daisy he used to know, and Daisy desires the distraction of this mysterious rich man who shows more affection than Tom tends to. Nick cannot see how pathetic and doomed Gatsby’s obsession has become; Daisy simply doesn’t care. When Gatsby’s facade begins to crack and Daisy sees more of who he really is, she immediately retreats to Tom. As Nick puts it, the Buchanans are careless people, in that they do not care about the affect they have on others. Gatsby, too, is somewhat careless, but he spends so much time trying to carefully proceed in his own way that, by extension, he prevents himself from truly harming others. He may be wounded, stunted, and held back by his own selfish desires, but the glimmers of good in him shine all the more brightly due to these internal shards of darkness.

In the end, no, I don’t think Jay Gatsby is a great man in the same way world leaders or true altruistic souls are great. I think that his life-defining plan was flawed from the beginning; I think he suffered from a serious case of tunnel vision; I think his inability to check his ambition and see the Buchanans – both of them – for the shallow and worthless people they are prevents him from putting his wealth and charm and hope towards a more worthy end. However, it is these very flaws and shortcomings that make Gatsby a great character, and a great protagonist. His charisma puts us squarely in his corner, his ultimate plan fills us with concern, and as much as we can feel him reaching towards something he both should not have and will fail to achieve, we can’t help but wish him the best. Because who among us can say we’re truly great? Who has not had moments of obsession, of selfish needs, of failure that’s threatened to cripple or destroy? Jay Gatsby is all of these things, and he’s endearing for it. He may not be a truly or objectively great man, but he’s great for us to relate to and connect with, he’s great in his determination and his successes and his endless and overwhelming capacity for hope, and he is the central reason that The Great Gatsby is a true Great American Novel.

Let’s Discuss The Mandarin

Courtesy Empire Magazine

It should go without saying that the following contains SERIOUS SPOILERS for Iron Man 3. Fairly be ye warned. I’ll put it under the appropriate tags anyway, but I thought I’d remind you.

I’ll also remind you that I’m something of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to my status as a fan of Iron Man, which may color my perceptions somewhat. Still with me? Then read on.

In the lead-up to Iron Man 3, it was revealed that Sir Ben Kingsley would be billed as The Mandarin, who is perhaps Iron Man’s most iconic foe. A holdover from the days of Cold War paranoia of everything communist, the Mandarin was the personification of Western fears of Chinese aggression – cunning, ruthless, steeped in Chinese iconography, and possessing powers of an alien nature. Detractors of the character have pointed out that, for the most part, the Mandarin’s something of a racist caricature, but with the casting of Kingsley, these detractors were silenced under the torrent of fanboy excitement at this classic character brought to life in a modern telling of Tony Stark’s ongoing story.

And then they saw the movie…

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…and the Mandarin they were promised turns out to be a red herring.

Aldrich Killian, Guy Pearce’s mad genius Extremis creator, used the Mandarin as a proxy face for the “bombings” caused by his experimental soldiers going haywire. He created the character of the Mandarin as an amalgamation of the 21st century fears of terrorism and anarchy, found a washed-up stage actor to play him, and began a media blitz to deflect any possible attention that might come his way. It is, upon reflection, an ingenious plan.

It is also perhaps the most divisive thing to be done in a comic book movie to date.

Comic book fans can be some of the most devoted people on the planet. The word “fan” after all derives from “fanatic”, and if any group could be described as fanatical in their devotion to a fictional property, it’s the devotees of comic book lore. Shane Black yanks the rug out from under them, and some of them are very upset about it. There are no alien rings of power, no grand maniacal scheme worthy of Ming the Merciless, no throwdown mano-a-mano between Stark and this iteration of the Mandarin; there’s the reveal, a total transformation in Kingsley’s performance, and the realization that Killian’s been the mastermind all along.

For my part? I love it.

Not only is it a bold move on Black’s part in the face of the fandom, it shows rather than tells us about Killian’s intellect and ability to plan ahead. It elegantly solves the problem of taking what could be a rather offensive character to some and putting it on a movie screen. It allows Sir Ben Kingsley to show off a bit in his acting both as the malevolent terrorist and the Z-list actor. And it demonstrates that the people behind these adaptations are not afraid to make radical changes if it means good storytelling.

That’s what I think ruffles my feathers about the dust-up. As I said, I’m something of a newcomer to Iron Man’s fanbase, but I can understand how attached people become to iconic characters from the past. Hell, part of the reason I bristled at The Amazing Spider-Man is that Andrew Garfield didn’t quite have the aw-shucks boy-next-door charm Tobey Maquire had, at least in the first Sam Raimi movie. A lot of people still can’t get over how Bane was portrayed in The Dark Knight Rises. I may never forgive Bret Ratner for what he did to the X-Men. So on and so forth. In the case of Bane, however, and now the Mandarin, the changes that were made were overall a good move. It made for a better story. It got people talking. It made sense both within its own universe and as a narrative decision. And, at the end of the day, more people paid to be entertained by this tale of a rich mechanical genius going up against genetically modified fire-breathing human bombs.

For my part, I think the movie works. I think this change works. And I would happily see Iron Man 3 again.

Good Games Never Die

Courtesy LucasArts
Badass biker antiheroes with chainsaws never stop being awesome.

The announcement came down yesterday that Disney is pulling the plug on LucasArts. While it seems unlikely that Star Wars games are going to go anywhere, because it’s a cash cow that never seems to run out of milk no matter how past expiration it might be, the prospect that many of its adventure games will never see new content or sequels. No new Full Throttle. No new Grim Fandango. No new Day of the Tentacle. Even TIE Fighter and its ilk seem to be fading into the annuls of gaming history, never to return. We’ll never see games like these again.

… Okay, that’s hyperbole, because good games never die.

The fact that LucasArts has finally been given the mercy of being walked behind the shed and bade farewell before Disney pulled the trigger on Walt’s old scattergun doesn’t mean the developers of the beloved games also got sent to a farm upstate. Tim Schafer‘s Double Fine is doing just fine, and as I write this something flavored like an old adventure game is supposedly being developed with all of that luscious Kickstarter cash. Likewise, a spirital cousin to TIE Figher was Wing Commander, and Chris Roberts is also using crowdsourced funds to develop the eagerly awaited Star Citizen. Here and there, the minds behind the games now locked away in Disney’s vaults are still working to make new and interesting adventures for us. Not all of these games will be perfect, of course, but there’s plenty of hope for the future.

They’re not the only ones working on it, either. TellTale Games is becoming a company whose hallmarks are high quality games with either great, broad appeal (Poker Night) or the resurrection of high-quality adventure gaming (The Walking Dead). With their growing success and attention given them by various “top games of 2012″ lists as well as being featured on Extra Credits, it’s clear that good adventure games are still something gamers want. To paraphrase what James says, to declare a genre of game (or just about anything else) ‘dead’ is a declaration of rather silly hubris; things of the past don’t necessarily lose their appeal just because they’re old. If you want a good example of something of quality never truly dying, look no further than the Muppets.

Finally, even if another new adventure game were never to hit the shelves, be they real or virtual, the old ones haven’t really gone anywhere. Some of them, however, have been so outstripped by technology that it can be difficult to get them running properly on modern machines. Enter services like Grand Old Games, or GOG. From Gabriel Knight to King’s Quest, from Myst to Sam & Max, many of the nostalgic cravings of adventure game veterans like myself can be sated by this service. It’s where I got my playable copies of Wing Commander, after all, and I was playing System Shock 2 in preparation for BioShock Infinite. Once that and some other modern games are out of the way, I have my sights set on nostalgic trips into Stonekeep and Beneath A Steel Sky.

I believe that good games never die. And if someone calls them dead, I’ll be one of the first to raise them. Once a necromancer, always a necromancer, I guess.

Objective Criticism

The Critic

I don’t consider myself a critic. I don’t have the experience, the background, or the clout to saddle myself with that label. I’ve taken a stab at the life before, and as fun as it can be to put my thoughts together and then spew them out into a microphone, more often than not it got in the way of what I truly should have been doing. Part of that could have been time management issues, ones with which I continue to struggle, but I do have some inkling of what goes into the work of a successful critic.

Simply put, a critic is someone who’s paid for their opinion. I’ve discussed the nitty gritty of criticism several times, and I’ve taken in all sorts of critical analysis. I’ve read over the opinions of those who’ve carved out an entire career from criticism, and I’ve listened to the diatribes of those who have picked up a rather broad audience through one means or another. The most in-depth and compelling analyses I’ve seen come from those who remain objective throughout their writing, or at least encapsulate their more personal feelings and keep them from being a huge influence on the overall critique. What moves one person to tears, another might find laughable or contrived, yet if a story element is solid or a character’s performance earnest and realistic, it can be agreed upon by both people that said element was objectively good.

Objectivity, however, can be seen as cold or too intellectual. In recent years, critics who allow more subjective verbiage to move through their writings have become far more popular than mostly objective ones. The angrier they get, the more sarcastic and cutting their jibes, the more histrionic their behavior, the more hits they get and the more they get paid. While I do understand the logic behind this shift, and can appreciate how noble an effort it can be to bridge the gap between critic and entertainer, from time to time I catch a glimpse of something happening to some of these popular figures, and it worries me.

The problem is that if the critic in question allows their histrionics or eccentric behavior to color their objectivity as a critic, their merit as a critic becomes questionable. Having a knee-jerk reaction to an announcement from the industry is one thing; allowing that reaction to color one’s opinion of an entire entertainment enterprise from conception to execution over a production period of years is quite another. If you do this, I can’t take your opinion seriously. You may continue to get entertainment value out of this sort of material, sure, but how much can you trust the opinion of someone on a game or movie if you know for a fact they dislike the game’s developer, or have a particular hatred for the film’s director? Some content creators have a certain track record, sure, but going into an entertainment experienced with a pre-conceived notion when your job is to be objective about said entertainment, in my opinion, ruins the merit of the criticism that will emerge.

Now, I know it’s impossible to completely divorce emotional responses from objective observations. Hence my use of the word ‘encapsulation’ earlier. This is what I would advise others looking to review or criticize to do: isolate your emotional responses, and let them supplement, rather than inform, your opinions on the work. Judge the work by its merits from an objective standpoint: the construction of the narrative, the execution of timing, the dimensionality of the characters, and so on. Then, add your personal touches where they fit. This will allow the actual criticism to shine through the trappings. Simply put, don’t let the fact that others might read your work overwhelm the reason you’re writing the work in the first place. Stick to the facts and what you can prove and stand by, rather than hanging all of your opinions on your own perceived popularity. Avoid the cult of personality, or worse, believing you have one. If you go for the obvious jokes and let your reactions prejudice your observations, you may get some hits for comedic value, but your overall work and reputation are likely to suffer. This can be corrected, in time, but first you have to admit that the problem exists at all, and not everybody’s going to do that.

Just a piece of advice from a fellow amateur.

Do It Different

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

Breaking into any extant field can be a daunting prospect. The argument that there’s nothing new under the sun can be made when discussing fiction, film, commentary, web series, criticism, journalism, comic books, you name it. You might look at the shelves at a bookstore, the offerings on Steam, the content on YouTube, or the blog of an eminent Internet personality, and believe there’s no reason to follow through on your creative idea.

The problem with this belief is that it is provably false. Tolkien and Lewis have already written about fantastical worlds, but that has not stopped Martin, Jordan, or Hickman & Weis from doing the same. Asimov, Dick, and Heinlein were pretty much pioneers of long-form science fiction, but if you look on those same bookstore shelves, you’ll see names like Abnett, Stephenson, and Zahn. And as one of my favorite cybernetic characters once said, “The Net is vast and infinite.” There’s plenty of room to start up a new web show if you want to.

The way to be successful with it, in my humble opinion, is to do it differently than others do.

I don’t mean completely change the format or your approach to the subject matter strictly to be different from what’s already being done. That can quickly become gimmicky or trite, and you’ll lose more audience than you’ll gain. What I mean is, instead of copying a methodology or setting or theme wholesale, use it as a starting point and let your own idea grow out of it. The idea should continue to grow, as well, and become its own entity, rather than remaining completely tied to the original inspiration.

I think that was part of the problem with IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! – I wasn’t doing anything to grow or change the idea. I was, for the most part, going through the motions of trying to gain traction and an audience for a medium that, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m cut out for. I may be passionate about things like gaming and politics, but a lot of people are, and a lot of people are also not qualified to talk about them from the objective viewpoint of a professional journalist or critic. I think most people would agree that most if not all of my attempts at criticisms are amateur at best.

Does this make them invalid? No. Does this mean I’ll never criticize something again? Of course not.

What I’m getting at is this: I don’t do enough differently as a critic or journalist to justify asking people to pay me for it. From where I stand, my voice is not unique enough to stand out in the ever-growing universe of online critics, and while I could possibly cultivate it to make it stand out more, it would take away from my calling to write fiction, an area in which I do have unique ideas that are working and will get me paid.

I simply need to focus on what I’m good at. I’m better at telling stories than I am writing objective journalistic breakdowns of what’s wrong with this movie or that game or this aspect of our culture. I can do all of those things, sure, but it’s never going to be more than amateur dabbling and a little running off at the mouth from within my little isolated bubble in an obscure blog perched on a corner of the Internet. And I think I’m okay with that.

I do not want to prevent anyone else from going that route, though. So, if you do, if you really want to set up a platform and podium from which to get the word out on something you think is really wrong out there, by all means, have at it. Just find a way to do it different, do it better, do it right. Don’t just imitate, innovate. And don’t be afraid to pimp yourself. Remember, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.

Shadow of the Bat

Courtesy Warner Bros

The Dark Knight trilogy is over. Nolan’s Batverse is closed, and its story concluded. In the end, what was it all about? What, in the end, was the ultimate point of stripping out the more superfluous and ridiculous elements of Batman, from blatantly supernatural enemies like Clayface to the presence of easy-to-access Bat Anti-Whatever’s-Trying-To-Eat-Bruce-Wayne’s-Face Spray?

Going by The Dark Knight Rises alone, you might be tempted to conclude “Not very much.”

But unlike some movie series who tack a couple movies on after their first one was a success (*cough*THE MATRIX*cough*), I think Nolan had a plan from the beginning with these films. I believe there is a theme that permeates all three stories, in addition to their individual themes of fear, chaos, and pain (in chronological order). By removing the more comic book oriented portions of this comic book story, Christopher Nolan focused more on the characters of this world, and the city they inhabit, showing us what it takes to be these extraordinary people and what sacrifices they must make to preserve their ideals, their homes, and their loved ones.

Ultimately, the Dark Knight trilogy is about perseverance. It’s about never giving up.

Hell, there’s an exchange that happens multiple times in Batman Begins that underscores this very sentiment:

Bruce: Still haven’t given up on me?
Alfred: Never.

The events of Batman Begins shifts Bruce’s focus from personal vengeance to protecting the city his beloved parents built and tried to defend in their own way. But this is only a course correction; he doesn’t really give up or change his mind. He still has the determination to do what he must to become what his city needs, instead of using that determination to fulfill the desires of his own rage. We’re shown this aspect of Bruce rather than being told about it, and it’s why so much time is spent on his training and travels in comparison to his gadgets and gizmos. It’s why Batman Begins works as well as it does.

The Dark Knight raises the stakes by adding another figure who is just as determined, every measure as fanatical, and more than willing to cross lines that keep Batman from becoming a dark reflection of the crimes he fights. What Heath Ledger did with the Joker was put Batman up against a funhouse mirror, a distortion of his will and never-say-die attitude. Throughout the running time of The Dark Knight, Batman and the Joker play a psychological game of Chicken, each daring the other to divert from their course to cause them to fail. The Joker wants to see Batman destroy himself; Batman wants to see the Joker sabotage his own plans. This makes it not only a tense, involving story from start to finish, but the best movie in the trilogy by far.

What, then, do we do with The Dark Knight Rises, if the stakes were already raised so high?

Here’s where Christopher Nolan posits a keen question, one that might have been missed, if we take this overarching theme to its logical conclusion.

“What happens when Batman does give up?”

When The Dark Knight Rises begins, Batman’s been retired for years. Gotham City is being controlled by the draconian measures of the Dent Act, and it seems like Bruce’s type of justice is no longer necessary. He’s let himself decay, felt his resolve erode, and he’s even begun to lose faith in the people he so vehemently defended against the menaces of Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, and Two-Face. He lets his guard down. He thinks peace can last.

And that’s when Bane slips into the City to tear it down from within.

Bane is the indicator that Bruce giving up was a mistake. He throws Bruce’s lack of vigilance in his face. If he had stayed out there, if he had been prepared, Bane might never have gotten into Gotham in the first place. Instead, Bane sets his plans in motion with only minimal resistance, obliterating every obstacle in his path and nearly killing Commissioner Gordon. And when Batman does confront him, Bane breaks him. Bruce’s body matches his spirit, and he is left a wreck festering in the bottom of a pit wondering why he’s still alive.

This is why the second half of Dark Knight Rises is not, as some might posit, a re-tread of the first. When Bruce dons his cowl for the first time in the film, it’s reluctantly. He steps out of retirement because nobody else can do it, and he doesn’t even want to himself. Even Alfred knows Bruce’s heart has gone out of the fight. When he’s broken and left to rot, he must reach inside of himself and find that ember of rage that sparked the fire inside of him, that part of himself that he tried to bury when he gave up being Batman. He has to find his determination again, and when he does, he rises. It’s the whole point of the film, and of the entire trilogy.

Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.

Nolan’s always been a cerebral filmmaker, espousing the notion of mind over matter. I believe that his Batman films are no different. Behind the trappings of comic book heroism and colorful villainy, Nolan is telling a story of the power of the determination, of never giving up, never saying die. He shows us where that power comes from, how it behaves when taken to its extremes, and what happens when we lose sight of it. It makes the story complete, coherent, and meaningful. The Dark Knight Rises has its share of problems, but in the end, it stands well on its own, and as part of Nolan’s trilogy on the Batman, rounds out the tale of one man’s determination to make a difference.

While Joss Whedon may have the chops to pull off this kind of storytelling without taking three movies to do it, I think it’s safe to say that most if not all other superhero films coming up in the next few years will be standing in the shadow of the bat.

In Memoriam 2012

I know it may seem a bit lazy to rehash an old post, but this one is special and my sentiments towards our veterans has not changed. It’s likely I’ll do the same this Independence Day, but we’ll set off those fireworks when we get to them. In the meantime, please read, enjoy, and remember. Thank you.

American flag

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have the country we have today because people got pissed off enough to fight for it.

I think this country has a long way to go before it fixes all the bridges that have nearly been burnt to the ground because of the actions we’ve taken in the name of securing our borders. That doesn’t mean that the men and women who died in service to the country should not be remembered, or that their sacrifice should be downplayed or marginalized. They were called upon to do their duty, to fight while others stand idle, and they answered.

America’s military is based entirely on volunteer service. People enlist for various reasons, from pure-hearted desire to serve the country to paying for a college education. And those who can already afford college can embark upon a career as an officer right from the start. The important fact, though, is that none of it is compulsory. Nobody is making these young men and women sign up for service that could ultimately mean they’re going to die far from home, in some foreign land, possibly alone with no one to remember them save for a line item in a report listing them as “Missing In Action”.

Other countries compel their citizens to join the military from an early age. There’s no choice in the matter. Regardless of how you feel about your country, you’re going to be serving in its military. As much as I admire Heinlein, the idea of compulsory military service being the only route to citizenship is a pretty scary one. But unless I’m mistaken, no country has gone completely that far yet.

Here, though, every person who puts on that uniform, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, left or right, does so for the same reason. They want to serve. They chose to answer the call to duty. Nobody made them.

And if they died on a foreign shore, they did so as the ultimate result of that choice. As lonely, painful, cold and dark as it might have been for them, it is a deep hope of mine that they do not consider themselves forgotten.

We have not forgotten.

Wars are horrible things. The necessity of force to further political or economic gain is an indication that cooler heads and well-spoken reason have not prevailed over base, animalistic instincts. Canny leaders and generals will at least do what they can to end the fight as quickly and directly as possible. Sun-Tzu teaches us “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” He was right 2000 years ago and he’s right today. However, this doesn’t mean that those that fight in wars are as horrible as the wars they fight.

Indeed, war can show the very best of human nature. Comrades helping one another through the battlefield, nobility in the face of unstoppable odds, compassion for one’s enemies; these are all things I feel we do not see or read often enough. In the pages of dry, procedural after-action reports are many such stories yet untold. In finding and telling them, we help to remember what it is to be a volunteer soldier, to choose to fight, to exemplify in our conflicts who we are as a country and what we stand for.

It’s probably my idealism creeping back into my rhetoric, but I’d like to think that, more often than not, on the front lines in foreign lands, the men and women of the American military ‘being all they can be’ means professionalism, respect, audacity and resolve. These volunteers should represent the best and bravest of us. They chose to defend our interests and our country, and we in turn are compelled to remember. For them it was voluntary; for us, back at home, living our lifestyles the way we are due to countless sacrifices born of their choices, remembering feels compulsory.

To all the men and women of the past and present who have chosen to serve America, making sacrifices from a few lost years to the one that means you’ll never see us again:

Thank you, and God bless you.

The Abuse of Opinion

Courtesy Penny Arcade

We live in a day and age where it can be scary to think for oneself.

This should not be the case. Today’s world is more connected and coherent than ever before. Some countries are still outside of certain loops, of course, and there are those individuals who simply refuse to participate in the new public consensus because they’d rather sit in their dark homes and reminisce about simpler times before everyone had Internet access and women so openly thought for themselves. This constantly evolving society continues to grow as more people share, confer, and disagree with one another.

It’s those disagreements, however, that can make things a bit scary.

Each individual has the right to maintain their own opinion. It’s a simple fact. And it’s also a fact that not everybody is going to share that opinion. When someone is in a position to transmit that opinion, it would be ludicrous to assume that all recipients of said transmission are going to agree. The mature thing to do is accept or discuss those disagreements and, at the very least, part ways with the understanding that individuals differ. And yet, this is how wars get started. This is how accusations are lobbed against skilled professionals. This is how young people feel so trapped and isolated that they’d rather take their own lives than face the people who disagree with them. We have the right to disagree with one another. Seeking to harm one another over a disagreement is another matter entirely.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of this going around. It’s becoming unfortunately rare for the response to a stated interpretation of a fact or a broadcasted opinion to simply be: “I disagree, and here’s why.” More often that not it’s accompanied with some form of dismissal or derision. “This person’s getting paid to say the product is better than it is.” “They’re being overly sensitive feminazis over something that is actually empowering to women.” “These people are going to burn in Hell for not believing the universe was created over 144 hours.” “Little Jimmy has simply been brainwashed by the liberal media and it’s our job as his community to pray, shout, and beat the gay away.”

Each of these stances, and those like them, are knee-jerk, immature, misguided, and ultimately destructive. They’re all born from fears. Resorting to accusations of bribery, dismissal of progress, condemnation, shaming, and violence is clear indication that the opinion being promoted in this way is too weak to stand on its own. Subjective viewpoints and individual experiences do not constitute irrefutable evidence. Resorting to the aforementioned weapons of the ignorant is, unfortunately, easier than forming one’s own opinion based on the evidence that does exist, even if does at the very least make you sound like an entitled or bigoted moron.

Yet these moronic voices are so loud, so prevalent, and so forceful as to make the venturing of an opinion frightening for some. Professionals do their utmost to maintain their opinions in the face of such stupidity, and God bless them for it. There is support out there for kids who feel bullied based on something they’ve said or the way they live. But it’s still pretty scary. You can ignore some of the stupidity up to a point, but there’s always the chance that insecure jerks looking for power and validation will flock to some focal point of negativity just to be part of this damaged culture, and rather than adding an individual viewpoint or piece of evidence to support the dissension, the newcomers just lob words at the target intended to harm, like “whore”, or “heathen”, or “faggot”.

It’s very difficult for me to get into the mindset of hating an individual. Yes, I can get upset at being cut off in traffic or someone out-performing me in a game, but these things pass. I can’t even say I hate the individuals to whom I’m referring that participate in this stupid and damaging behavior. I hate the behavior itself. I hate the culture that looks down on intellectualism and enlightened opinions. I hate the fact that I continually see professionals I respect dealing with or suffering because of this behavior. I hate the fact that children kill themselves because they get bullied. I hate the fact that people in the 21st century don’t realize the world has changed and some ideas just need to be left in the past.

I am an individual. I believe what I choose to believe. You have no obligation to believe the same things I do. And if you don’t, that’s cool. You don’t have to like everything I like. You can adore something I despise. It’s part of what makes the world a beautiful and interesting place in which to live. We all deserve to be treated like human beings, and if you treat me like one I promise I’ll do the same for you.

Just stop abusing your opinion. You are ultimately not helping your case. And, in the end, it makes you look really fucking dumb.

Let Go Of Your Hate

Courtesy LucasArts

Star Wars, as a franchise, is just a bit older than I am. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve loved it dearly and loathed its existence. I’ve appreciated the ability George Lucas had to conceptualize a universe that felt lived in and diverse, and palmed my face at the utterly stupid things he made come out of the mouths of his characters. And in this cynical, Internet-fueled, post-Plinkett world of critics and criticism, it’s trendy to hate on things, older things being remade even moreso, and Star Wars most of all.

But is it really worth hating?

I mean, yes, Lucas going against the final product he originally gave the world in ’77 is utter bullshit. And there are some monumentally stupid decisions that were made in Attack of the Clones. But let’s rewind the clock. Come back 13 years with me to the premiere of The Phantom Menace in theaters. I wasn’t as experienced, hardened or jaded as I am now; I’d yet to go through a few experiences that lead me to who I am today. However, I still tended to watch movies with the mindset that if the things I liked outweighed the things I didn’t, I’d declare it an overall success. Since it was harder for me to focus on aspects I disliked, I maintained my focus on Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman and the lightsaber fighting more than I did Jar Jar, Jake Lloyd, the tedious plot points and the tepid, stilted dialog. In fact, when I saw the movie for the first time, I liked it.

Yes. I liked The Phantom Menace when it first came out. And there’s no reason I should be ashamed of that.

I know I’ve pointed you in the direction of a certain Z-list Internet celebrity several times, so this may come as something of a surprise. But I don’t always agree with Bob Chipman. I don’t like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra as much as he did, I think he can get a bit nitpicky when it comes to superhero movie hype (then again, somebody has to as we can’t all be gushing fanboys) and I don’t quite understand the sheer amount of bile he continues to spew at first-person shooter video games. However, I highly recommend you check out his episode of Escape to the Movies where he discusses The Phantom Menace and why hating on it is a zero sum game.

In addition to all of that, there is a part of me that loves pulp adventure without a hint of irony, especially pulp science fiction and fantasy. I know that Flash Gordon and Krull are cheesy as hell, and there are elements of Stargate and the new Star Trek that go for broad, somewhat shallow action and adventure instead of deep character-driven introspection. I’m okay with that. In fact, I think that when we eschew that sort of entertainment entirely we lose some of the whimsy that gave rise to science fiction and fantasy in the first place. And The Phantom Menace had that.

Yeah, the kid’s acting was wooden, a couple story points were unnecessary or tedious, making the Trade Federation obvious stereotypes was an ignorant move and I still want to flatten Jar Jar with a cricket bat. But when the movie stops trying to tie into existing Star Wars canon while ignoring the hard work and imaginations of its own expanded universe and just lets itself be Star Wars, it’s fun. Chases though space ships are fun. Duels with laser swords are fun. Big, flashy space battles are fun. These are the things that Lucas showed us way back in the original Star Wars (I guess I should give up and just call it A New Hope), and The Phantom Menace tapped into that whenever it stopped getting in its own way.

It’s not great. In fact, it’s kind of mediocre. I’d still watch any of the aforementioned movies before The Phantom Menace. But I think it’s better than we’ve let ourselves remember. I think we should weigh the good as well as the bad. I think it’s time we let go of our hate.

And Loki Wept

Courtesy Marvel Studios
We needed to see more of that smirk.

I’ve now seen Thor twice. And while I stand by my assessment that it’s an enjoyable if simplistic fantasy romp, I’d be lying if I didn’t hold the likes of Captain America, X-Men: First Class and Spider-Man 2 as higher in the Marvel movie line-up. The Avengers has me hopeful, especially in light of the release of the trailer yesterday, but I must admit that something’s bothering me about the Asgardian aspect of it.

I still think that casting and presenting the Marvel Universe’s iteration of the Norse pantheon the way they did was bold in concept and competent in execution. But, thinking about it, there’s something huge I would have changed to make it more than just decent. If Marvel had done this, either back in the Lee/Kirby days or under Kenneth Brannagh, the end result would, I feel, have been fantastic.

The problem, you see, is Loki.

Tom Hiddleston played Thor’s half-brother and the lord of lies in the film. I don’t want to take anything away from Tom, as he did well with what he was given. But the true tragedy is this. The writers of the movie adaptation of Thor characterized him like this:

Courtesy DEG

…when, really, Loki should be more like this:

Courtesy the excellent xeedee

For those of you who don’t know, that’s the representation of Coyote from the excellent webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court (which you really should be reading). Coyote is a trickster. He speaks honestly, but doesn’t always tell the truth. He never comes across as jealous of anybody else’s station, powers or prestige, only asserts his own will when necessary and contents himself with engaging in playful banter, timeless stories, cryptic but informative riddles and the occasional well-meaning bit of lechery.

In other words… he kicks ass.

Loki and Coyote, traditionally, have a great deal in common. They are characters who get by on clever wit and fast thinking alone, rarely engaging in direct confrontations unless it can’t be helped. Loki was known in his myths for mischief and lies, not because he was malevolent but because he was the antithesis of many stoic, straight-forward, unsmiling Aesir, including Thor. His cunning was supported by a massive set of godly testicles – after all, who but Loki would have the balls to put Thor in a wedding gown? (That’s a long story.) His motivations are largely unknown, making him a complex and perplexing but still compelling character for scholars of folklore as well as for his fellow members of the Norse pantheon.

Not the sort to blatantly make a grab for power no matter how darkly charismatic he is.

I’m not against taking old myths in new directions. I’ve got an anthology sitting here that says I’m fine with that. What I’m against is undermining a good story turn for an easy one. Making Loki into a jealous step-brother with the straightforward ambitions and motivations of a dime store Bond villain doesn’t sit well with me upon reflection. The frustrating part is, there are moments in the film where so much more could have been done with him.

Take his scene with Thor in the interrogation room. There’s good tension, emotion and chemistry there. Instead of being part of a megalomaniacal master plan for Asgardian domination, however, this could have instead been a ruse on Loki’s part to help teach Thor some much-needed humility. Perhaps even discussed with Odin before slipping into the Odinsleep? Wouldn’t Loki think twice about what he said when the Jotun find a way into Asgard in force?

Speaking of which, instead of some sort of convoluted traitor/backstab ploy, have the Jotun ally with, say, dark craftsfolk from Svartalfaheim to accelerate Ragnarok or piss on Odin or something. Let Loki suss this alliance out when he goes to speak to his birth-father (which should be a shock, as Loki can easily assume Aesir form and others to blend in anywhere he goes). No need to send the Destroyer to Earth to try and kill Thor, either… there are a dozen ways to put Thor at Hel’s doorway and prove himself worthy of Mjolnir without Loki needing to drop one on Midgard. Perhaps in his exchange with Laufey, Loki indicates Thor is on Earth, and Fafnir overhears this and finds a way to try and assassinate the thunder god.

I’m just spinning ideas off of the top of my head, here. My point is that Loki could have been so much more than Marvel’s masters made him out to be. Even in previous Marvel appearances, particularly in the Asgardian Wars arc that set the X-Men against him, Loki was never a transparently evil villain. He wheeled and dealed. He operated on veiled promises and half-truths. Rarely did he raise his own hand against any of the heroes, and his goal in doing so was almost always temptation or subversion instead of outright destruction. The more I think about it, the more I realize the cinematic Loki has been done a disservice, and I find it hard to believe that Marvel could have gotten the character so wrong, in my opinion.

I have no doubt Tom will continue to bring at least some mischief and aplomb to the part, but I think when Loki looks down from Asgard to see what we’ve made of him, he’ll either laugh… or weep.

Trek Through Trek: The Next Generation


It’s coming up on two years since I last wrote in-depth about a Star Trek series. And it was even longer between our last discussion, on The Animated Series, and the return of Star Trek in the late 80s. I was 8 when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and sitting down with my parents to see the 24th century come to life pretty much blew my fool mind. Looking back, there’s still a lot to love about the show, but it had more than its share of growing pains.

Courtesy Memory Alpha

The starship was still named Enterprise, but this vessel and crew were a far cry from the rickety Wagon Train to the Stars we saw back in the 60s. No, this was a more advanced time, when mankind went to space in floating shopping malls. But don’t use that word, because the United Federation of Planets (or Earth at least) has evolved past the necessity for things like money and material goods! When you can replicate or reproduce via holodeck just about anything you’d want, I guess money sort of becomes obsolete. Not that it stops other races from using money, like the Ferengi.

We can’t talk about antagonists without protagonists, though, so let’s start with the man in charge. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is not a two-fisted adventurer like Kirk. He’s a diplomat, strategist and history nut charged with exploring the edges of the galaxy on one of the best ships in Starfleet. Most of the adventuring, lady-bedding and quipping is done by first officer Will Riker, from whom we learned the power of growing the beard. Once he let that chin curtain set in around season 2, the show began to improve.

Good thing, too, because for a while things floundered a bit. It took the show a few years to figure out what to do with Worf, and even longer to finally write Wesley Crusher off of the show. Creative differences required them to replace the chief medical officer in season 2, which caused such an outcry that they all but begged Wesley’s mom to come back. And the ship’s counselor had to find things to do during episodes outside of pouting her lips and moaning about how much pain the crew was in. Seriously, go back and watch a few season 1 episodes. You’ll either laugh or cry.

Courtesy Memory Alpha

Season 1 also floundered a bit with the character of Q. Introduced in the pilot, the writers seemed to have difficulty deciding if he would be a distant, authoritarian judge with omnipotent powers, or a trickster spirit in the vein of Coyote, Loki or Mister Mxyzptlk. It would be a few seasons before he settled into something of an odd mix, but developing a relationship with Picard I’ve discussed at length previously.

While the new series did bring over the old foes of the Klingons and the Romulans, the Klingons were now allied with the Federation (as evidenced by Worf being on the bridge) and the Romulans kept to the shadows. We were, instead, introduced to the Ferengi, who thankfully were evolved beyond base, venial savagery quickly into profiteering, scheming chaotic neutral scavenger-merchants; the Cardassians, an authoritarian but charismatic people who clash with the Federation ideals of fair justice and individual freedom; and the Borg, a cybernetic hive-mind race bent on the assimilation of all technology they do not already possess.

While the Ferengi and the Cardassians don’t really come into their own in Next Generation, the groundwork is laid for later development. And on its own, Next Generation is nothing to sneeze at. The crew does have good chemistry and their performances and staying power allowed them to rise to the realm of Kirk and Spock, overcoming the walls of genre fiction to be recognized by the mainstream. It delivers powerful stories within its own universe (“Best of Both Worlds, Part I & II”, “Cause & Effect”), and plays well on themes of individuality (“I, Borg”), willpower (“Chain of Command, Part II”), the precious nature of the moments of our lives (“Tapestry”) and unique ways to explore the human condition (“The Inner Light.”).

The best of the series, I feel, emerged when it shook off the trappings of the old series and attempts at overt preaching. “The Naked Now” was a shameless callback to a weaker Original Series episode, “The Neutral Zone” had a misfired treatise on materialism competing with some more interesting things and episodes like “Justice” and “Code of Honor” were full of unfortunate implications as well as showing some of the seams in the budget of the show. Some of these things faded more quickly than others, and towards the end of the series the spectre of technobabble began to creep into the dialog of these characters we came to know and love over seven seasons.

Courtesy Memory Alpha

As I mentioned, Next Generation rose to similar heights to the original Star Trek series in the eyes of the general public. Most folks who know who Kirk and Spock are also know about Picard and Data. The success of the series paved the way for more feature films and several new series. One of which I’m in the process of watching again as I write this. And by “watching”, I mean “watching my mailbox and hoping the next disc doesn’t get lost the way those Magic cards did. CURSE YOU USPS!”

I mean. Er. “Make it so.” Or something.

Kids These Days & Their Stories

Columnist on WSJ is a jackass! Read all about it!

Plenty has already been said about this WSJ article pertaining to young adult fiction. As usual, Chuck has written what we’re all thinking with an extra dose of profanity and buckshot. Instead of adding more fuel to the fire by talking about how wrong this opinion is, I’d like to furnish you with an example of contemporary fiction, aimed at a younger audience, that works effectively and is well-written without being saccharine-sweet and ‘safe’ all the time.

The example is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

… Yes, I watch My Little Pony. Get it out of your system now.

Anyway, I vaguely remember the original cartoon from the ’80s. My sisters were into it. I was more of a mind for Transformers, as I’ve mentioned, because robots that become cars and change back were far more gnarly than girly ponies. I was too young to pay attention to things like plot (which was non-existent), characters (who only rose above ‘broad archetype’ on rare occasions) and Aesops (that got beaten into your soft heads every episode) when things were exploding in a colorful fashion. But that was kid’s programming back then. It was safe.

Fast forward about twenty-five years and some hard-learned lessons about what does and does not make for good storytelling. When I was first made aware of the new Ponies, I was skeptical. I’d seen what they’d done to Star Wars and my beloved Transformers, after all, and besides it was ponies. I didn’t indulge or even glance at the show for the longest time. Then my wife got into it. I figured I’d try at least one episode, make her happy, secure the future of my sex life, maybe have a laugh.

I wasn’t expecting to get hooked.

I wasn’t expecting good characterization. I wasn’t expecting well-done animation and decent voice-acting. I wasn’t expecting legitimately funny, frustrating, joyous and touching moments.

And I certainly wasn’t expecting dragons, hydras, a cockatrice or a griffon so bitchy I’ve never wanted to roast a lion-bird on a spit so much in my gorram life.

My Little Pony isn’t afraid to go shady places. It deals with jealousy (a lot, I guess that’s a problem for girls growing up), isolation, growth from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, fear and even crisis management and racism, all in the context of the magical kingdom of Equestria and without being terribly overt or insensitive about things. Sure, there’s an Aesop every episode but they range from mildly anvilicious to rather well-presented. I mean, they do a Clients from Hell episode. I wasn’t all that inclined to like Rarity (the seamstress unicorn) but watching her put up with the demands of her friends as customers made me a lot more sympathetic and that feeling hasn’t gone away. Clients suck, whether you’re building websites or magically assembling pretty dresses for your pony friends.

Courtesy Hasbro
She’s not a shopaholic. She’s an artist. HUGE difference.

…Where was I? Right, children’s lit.

My point, other than these ponies being awesome, is that the show and its writers go into the darker corners of a girl’s adolescence and drag some pretty nasty issues kicking and screaming into the light so that the girls in question can face them without fear or shame. As I said, some of the Aesop-dispensing is a tad on the overt side, but when this show cooks it does so with gas as well as gusto. The relationships of its characters, the way they handle situations and the delivery of their lines is handled so adeptly and consistently that I can’t help but feel very strongly about the show. This is how children’s entertainment should work. This is how you write young adult lit well without sacrificing decent characterization, complex themes and dark subject matter.

The writers and animators of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are wise in that they handle their stories in this way, and also in the way they keep the humor working on levels other than juvenile slapstick for any adults that watch and in the very adept and clever ways in which they handle character relationships and their reactions to the subjects at hand. While some cartoons and even major motion pictures and triple-A video games look at writing as a necessary evil to string together a series of flashy spectacles, this show knows its writing is the foundation upon which its appeal and meaning are built. Those other, flashier, more ‘masculine’ forms of entertainment could take a lesson or two of their own from this humble, pretty, bright and very awesome girl’s cartoon.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do something manly. Like bench-press something, or drink really crappy beer while yelling obscenities at a sporting event.

Dresden Zen

Courtesy the Dresden Files

In the process of writing Cold Iron, which is still in progress, I’ve reached for inspiration and motivation from contemporaries in the field of supernatural detective mysteries. First and foremost and long overdue is my reading of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, a series of novels about a Chicago-based wizard who operates a private investigation practice. Beyond the appeal of Harry Dresden himself is Butcher’s take on the supernatural world. The more I read these excellent books, the more I find Harry encountering situations in such a way that can actually inform the life of the reader. It could be a case of me reading too much into some works of genre fiction, but as far as I can tell, Harry’s got some lessons to teach, and not just about the proper care and use of one’s blasting rod.

Lesson: True power comes from within.
Book: Storm Front

One of the first and biggest uses of magic we see in the series takes place about two-thirds through the first book. A demon comes calling on Mister Dresden at home, and our hero is unfortunately not dressed for the occasion. In fact, he’s not dressed at all. His magical implements are not at hand and he needs to muster a defense lest a series of novels quickly become a short-lived one-shot. He taps into the elemental powers of the thunderstorm outside and his own emotional power to find a way to succeed. Without much preparation, without tools, without even clothes, Harry prevails. It’s not just a testament to the power of magic but also to that of the human spirit.

Lesson: Keep an open mind; things aren’t always what they seem.
Book: Fool Moon

Having introduced his version of vampires in Storm Front, the natural thing for Butcher to do in his second book is introduce werewolves. In pursuing a particularly nasty lycanthrope called a loup-garou, Harry goes down a bunch of blind alleys of reasoning and supposition. He always realizes his mistakes and checks himself afterwards, but it does lead him into some bad situations with far-reaching consequences. In later books we see Dresden taking a bit more time to discern what’s going on around him, and it saves his bacon more than once.

Lesson: Unlikely friends can be the best friends.
Book: Grave Peril

In hunting down poltergeists and investigating why they’re so violently prevalent all of a sudden, Harry teams up with a man named Michael Carpenter. Michael is a literal knight in shining armor, though he often wears jeans and a flannel shirt instead of the mail & tabard. He carries a holy sword, Amoracchius, and chides Harry for his habits and occasional disrespect for the Almighty – without being a dick about it. He’s a legitimately nice guy, and turns out to be one of Harry’s best and most trusted friends. You wouldn’t think this to be the case, given the tension that often exists between people who live in the Bible and those who gather the forces of the world unseen, but this sort of unlikely alliance yields a deep and abiding partnership that borders on bromance. Of course that could just be my take on it because I have a soft spot for Christian characters acting like actual Christians and not being Bible-thumping douchecanoes.

Lesson: Nature is both beautiful and fearsome; treat it with respect and wonder.
Book: Summer Knight

The very nature of the Fae is that of nature herself – breathtakingly gorgeous, timelessly alluring and very dangerous. Harry knows this from experience and, coupled with his growing skills of discernment, wades into what amounts to a turf war between camps of Fair Folk with open eyes and canny thoughts. He appreciates the wonders he sees but controls himself accordingly to get his job done. It shows his growth as a character and helps the audience realize that, even when it comes to pixies and water-clad nymphs, this world he protects us mundane folk from is an extremely deadly one.

How To Succeed At Failure

Courtesy verydemotivational.com

Chances are good that, if you’re reading this, you’re a human being. I mean, you could be an automated online process looking for SEO terminology, but if that’s the case you won’t get much out of this post. I tend to write more in coherent thoughts than barely-connected keywords. Anyway, the majority of my audience are human beings, and if there’s one thing all human beings do, it’s make mistakes.

Okay, all human beings do a lot of other things too, but I don’t have much of a knack for poop humor.

When mistakes happen, as they inevitably do, a lot of energy is generated. Disappointment, rage, confusion, dread; all of these emotions tend to fall towards the negative end of the spectrum. But like any energy source, it can be redirected. But how, and to where?

The Questions

When you fail, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is “Why?” Provided that your failure isn’t due to some sort of natural disaster, there’s a human being that can be referenced as the cause for the failure, be it yourself or someone else. Note that this is not about assigning blame, it’s about understanding the cause that lead to the effect of you feeling at least somewhat drained and broken.

Examine the circumstances. Was it something you said or did? Does the product you’re offering require more polish? Did you miss an essential bit of data in the process of assembling your solution? Did you approach the wrong audience? Was your timing off? Did you forget anything?

Quite a few of these questions, all expansions upon “Why?” are largely personal. There may be some navel-gazing involved. However you appoaching answering this first overarching question, as you hunt down the causes you will collect data. Your failure may be time-sensitive and require a rapid response, so you might not have too much time to gather all the facts. Still, the more data you can reasonably collect, the better you can answer the second question.

That question is: “What now?”

True Failure

The impulse in light of failure, especially repeated failure, may be to quit. Why band your head against the wall repeatedly? You won’t get anywhere, it tends to start hurting and someone else might own the wall and sue you for damages while you nurse that concussion. Better to quit and do something less frustrating with our time, right?


Quitting is the only true failure. It’s surrendering, admitting defeat. It’s saying that whatever it was you were trying to do, that you had devoted time, energy and talent to doing, simply isn’t worth that expenditure, and you were wasting it before you decided to run up the white flag.

Now, not everything we do is going to have a profound impact if we keep at it. The world isn’t going to end if you decide a puzzle has stumped you or a game is too difficult to overcome even on the easiest settings. However, creative endeavors and the potential fruits of labor at the workplace tend to have deeper meanings, even if it’s just how we’ll be seen by those who write our paychecks.

So more often than not, I would encourage you not to quit. Tenacity is a virtue that can be hard to find in an age where more creature comforts, distractions and products focused on ease of use help people become lazier. There are those who simply don’t see the point of doing something they can’t excel at or aren’t the least bit passionate about, and quit before they’ve even begun.

In other words, they’ve failed without even giving themselves a chance to try.

You Suck

This isn’t to say that everybody shoud do everything they can or have the inclination to try. There just isn’t time. But people who develop ideas for a narrative, or a career, or a new artistic endeavor, or a unique community initiative, or an unexplored workplace solution and do nothing with it after it’s emerged from their imaginative centers tend to baffle me. Why don’t they do something with their ideas? What’s stopping them from seeking further inspiration, time to develop those products or at least finding a partner with whom to collaborate?

If they’re anything like me, they’re probably reminded themselves that they suck one too many times.

It’s imporant to be humble, there’s no doubt about that. Having the attidue of “I don’t know everything but I want to know more” when it comes to creating something or playing a game or being a better driver or just about anything is a much healthier one than “I know everything and am always right.” But the exact opposite of that unfavorable mentality is “I don’t know enough and never will so I’m just going to give up.”

I mentioned in yesterday’s post how demoralizing the realization of just how much you suck can be. You get schooled in a game. Your art or writing doesn’t turn out how you thought it would. You get nowhere in a project at work, and the deadline is breathing down your neck. Encountering resistance is going to happen, and when it does many people (myself included) feel the impulse to just give up.

But I’ve learned to do something else with that impulse. Other than kicking it square in the teeth.

The Internet Is For More Than Just Porn

We are more connected to one another than we have ever been. While the world is running out of space and resources for the human race, it’s also shrinking in terms of distance between people in terms of communication. People who might never have met just ten years ago can now trade information, pleasantries or insults instantaneously.

It’s one of the best tools you can use for turning your failures into fuel.

Chances are there’s a community based around your area of enthusiasm. Find one and start asking members for help and opinions. Since the community is full of other enthusiasts, chances are at least a couple will share your passion, understand your struggle and have advice to give. There’s all sorts of help and encouragement available to you, you just have to hunt it down and ask for it.

The Path Ahead

Again, I want to stress that you should not feel obligated to treat every single one of your failures like this. Time is a limited resource and we each only have so much in our lives. Choose what truly interests you, what makes you come alive, and leverage that into a hobby or even a career. And when you fail along the path to achieving your goals related to this empassioning interest, that’s when you should ask yourself why, figure out what’s next and seek help and encouragement. To me, that’s how you succeed at failure.

If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

The Nostalgia Factor

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Yesterday on The Big Picture, MovieBob brought up the recent incarnation of Transformers on the big screen. He wondered why the bulk of both films seemed much less concerned with the mythology, characterization and interaction of the titular characters than it did with Shia LeBeouf allowing millions of frustrated teenagers to vicariously court Megan Fox. It’s relatively common knowledge that the Transformers grew out of a toy line from the 80s, and the animated series primarily aimed at moving more of those toys spawned a movie of its own. It was certainly no great gift to cinema or even to genre fiction, but at least it let the Transformers be the actual stars in a Transformers movie, instead of shoving them aside for gratuitous shots of US military hardware, misfiring bodily humor and Ms. Fox or some other walking wank material providing shallow titillation.

Let me reiterate that. The original Transformers movie was slightly better than the modern movies, but it still wasn’t all that great.

I mean, sure, I can watch it and smile but that’s mostly due to the memories. I can remember being a child, clutching a plastic toy, eyes full of the characters I retreated to daily coming to life. I spent even more time in my head back then than I do now, and seeing things I’d only imagined manifesting in front of me with full stereophonic sound and professional voice acting blew my adolescent mind right out of the water. Nowadays I’ll pick apart the plot, shake my head at the silliness and laugh at the effects, the acting or both. But there’s still a part of me that wants very badly to love the movie. It’s the part of me that’s never grown up. The Randal Graves part.

Just because something was first experienced when we were young does not necessarily mean it’s better. We just remember it fondly as a bright spot in a more innocent time. We didn’t have responsibility, the weight of obligation or the guilt of past transgressions getting in the way of our joy. We didn’t have to suspend our disbelief because, for the most part, we didn’t have much disbelief yet. I’m sure there are some kids who are growing up skeptical, questioning and very smart. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Some of us just didn’t come into our critical thinking skills until later. And we look back on the times before those skills developed, on what we enjoyed, and don’t necessarily apply our critical minds right away. In a way, we don’t necessarily want to.

Case in point: Tron.

The original Tron as one of the many, many films that debuted in 1982, the year for genre films. I was introduced to many of the titles of that year at a very young age. When I first saw Tron, nothing like it had been seen before. The special effects employed laid the groundwork for the plethora of CGI methods to come, and many digital artists in cinema and video games today owe much of their craft to some of the techniques pioneered by works like Tron. The concept of a world inside a computer, populated with programs capable of interacting like people and battling it out in disc duels and lightcycle wars was overwhelming to my young mind. That idea stuck with me and colored my recollection of the film even as I re-watched it a few times. Things have changed for me. I can tell you that the original Tron suffers from badly aging effects, some questionable acting and characters that are nearly non-existent. You can name them and know them by sight, but you don’t get a really good sense of who they are.

Now, compare it to Tron: Legacy.

The concept of a living world inside a computer remains intact and gets a lot of fleshing out, but more importantly, we have characters who are not only given depth but also come across as somewhat realistic. The leads have good chemistry reinforced by solid writing, the effects look gorgeous and the score is absolutely phenomenal. The execution still isn’t airtight and it feels at times like the film is more concerned with either invoking old-school fans’ nostalgia or trying to lay the groundwork for sequels than remaining in the story in front of us. While this is also a problem in a movie like Transformers or G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra, Legacy pulls it off a hell of a lot better than either of those two. I wasn’t wondering when they’d get to ‘the good stuff’ or why we should care about the lead protagonist.

It’s not great, but it’s very good. It’s no Inception but it’s far, far better than many other attempts to revitalize older concepts and play upon the nostalgia factor of nerds like myself. It shows that the techniques of modern storytelling, from cutting-edge digital tools to the experienced hand of a writer concerned with character and pacing instead of merely concept, are superior to those used years ago. In other words, if you want to create a story with its roots in something that’s come before, you must remember that the nostalgia factor should only be an incidental concern, not an overriding or guiding principle.

Or as Yahtzee put it once, “Nostalgia’s a mouthful of balls.”

It’s Just Too Easy

Courtesy SUDA 51

I know this is an issue that has been addressed elsewhere. In the majority of modern first-person shooters, even ones touted for their realism, all you have to do in order to survive a firefight in which you’ve been wounded is crouch behind a chest-high wall. Your health regenerates by itself. I’m not entirely sure when this trend began, but it’s removed an element of risk from those games and made them easier than they necessarily need to be.

A similar problem crops up in storytelling from time to time. Rather than carefully constructing the narrative with disparate and possibly contradictory plot threads in the beginning to be woven together at the end, some stories have no qualms about stating everything for the audience as plainly as possible. And some of these tales become embarassingly popular, as the bland plotlines and flat characters spoon-feed ‘entertainment’ to the waiting masses. Go back and watch how many times Anakin & Padme say they’re in love in comparison to the times when they actually show it. Watch Shia LeBouf project danger and tension by yelling a lot instead of wearing an expression other than dull surprise. Listen to the delivery of lines in a Gears of War, God of War or Call of Duty sequel and see if you can discern emotions other than those related to macho swagger.

Now, I’m not saying every game has to be a Killer7 or a BioShock. Not every film will be able to match The Usual Suspects or Inception. Few novels will measure up to A Game Of Thrones or Oryx and Crake. Consider me to be of the opinion that writers who make an attempt to show what’s going on instead of just telling, who opt to challenge their audience rather than making things easier on them, are going to be met with more success and repeat business. Let doubts linger in the shadows of the narrative and characters keep their agendas hidden until the last possible moment. This will engage the audience and make them invested in seeing the story through until the end.

Going back to the bit about regenerating health, the point I’m trying to make is that the player should be empowered to determine how much they risk and how often. If I’m playing Half-Life 2, I might pass up a health station because I know there’s a hard firefight right around the corner. In Dragon Age I churn out health poultices and study Spirit Healer spells to keep my party alive during combat. Some forethought has to be invested, but the end result is a more rewarding experience that I’m interested in repeating.

Writing really isn’t all that different.

Ninety-Nine Cent Round-Up

Courtesy US Mint
I support $1 coins, incidentally.

There’s been a debate going on amongst some of my fellow writers, and it’s past time I put in my two cents on the subject. Before I get to my thoughts on the matter, though, I highly recommend you do two things.

First, go on over to Terribleminds’ “The Care And Feeding Of Your Favorite Authors” and follow the instructions encased therein. Don’t worry, it just involves reading a few posts, nothing involving shotguns or whiskey or hobos or 4 D-cell powered vibrators.

Second, read this Mess Of Free Words On The Whole 99 Cent Thing on Going Ballistic. Come on back here when you’re done.

Lots of good stuff, there. I especially like Cat’s point that folks willing to spend $5.99 on a latte should be okay spending it on a book (just in case you missed it in Chuck’s post). And an anthology of short fiction shouldn’t differ in price too much from a novel; it can be just as tough to write one coherent 80,000 word narrative as it can be to write 8 10,000 shorts. Still, I have to admit I’m in agreement with most of my peers: $0.99 is too little for full-length fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the economical reasoning for wanting to spend less for more. Me and my ilk are not called starving artists because we’re flush with disposable income. So any opportunity we have to keep from going under while drawing in entertainment to help maintain our sanity is a good one. That doesn’t necessarily mean that dollar book on the e-store is a decent read, however.

The few e-books I’ve picked up for that low a price have been promotional or sale items from known quantities. Chuck and Seth Godin have established reputations, at least in the circles I travel through. It’s the unknown that makes me leery, the as-yet-unpublished authors tossing full-length novels on the Kindle store for less than a dollar with one five-star review from their mothers. I know this might seem like a nasty, negative attitude to have towards my fellow burgeoning bards, but the fact of the matter is my time is as precious as my money, and there’s only slightly more time than money for me to spread around. I’d like to avoid wasting it, if I can, which means being discerning about what and when I read.

It’s one thing to undercut the competition, like the big-name publishing houses asking $13 for the e-book version of a $12.99 hardcover when the $6,99 paperback is about to be released. It’s another to do it to the degree of seeming desperate. You have to sell your work, sure, but you don’t want to sell yourself short.

Self-publication on the electronic market seems more and more like the business model of freelancing in general. You won’t be charging as much as the big guys, but you need to be realistic in just how little you can charge. In order to earn, you need to set both your price points and end-user expectations appropriately. You want people to feel like they’ve made a worthy investment, that the services or entertainment they’ve paid for was worth the money. At the same time, we want to be paid what we’re worth and keep ourselves fed to do more work and, you know, keep on living.

It really boils down to a matter beyond market research and profit analysis, to one of personal confidence: How much to you stand behind your work? How much would you expect to pay for something similar? How willing are you to market it, to get out there and sell it? What are you offering that nobody else on the Kindle store can, and how much do people need it even if they don’t know they do until they see your listing?

I don’t think e-books are going to replace the real thing any time soon, and I’m going to continue to pursue many ways of getting my words in front of fresh new eyeballs. This might be another way of doing it, but I’d like to try and do it right, without selling myself short in the process.