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500 Words on Conventions & Community

500 Words on Conventions & Community

Conventions and exhibitions almost feel like another world. Within the walls of the buildings and skyways, tens of thousands of like minds gather. It is wonderful and terrifying and energizing and exhausting, all at the same time.

A lot of communities come together, especially if individuals within said communities often feel that they’re alone. Seeing so many people gathered in the same place for the same reason refutes that feeling through sheer fact of numbers. Even so, it can be overwhelming, and as much as an individual can see plainly that they are not alone, other feelings can lead to unintended isolation.

I have felt this myself, and the fact is that the more involved you become in interactions with others, the less isolated you feel. I would remind you, if you feel this way, that it’s okay to be nervous. You’re allowed to have time and space to yourself, but it may not necessarily be for the best if you stay there. Remember that everybody is there for the same reason: a celebration of common ground, shared interest, and collective excitement.

The gaming community in particular has come under fire before. There are certainly incendiary elements. There’s a reason some of the best advice a YouTuber can follow is “Don’t read the comments.” Fans of things in general, and gamers in particular, feel entitled to their opinions and are convinced of the rightness of their causes. While it’s wonderful we live in a world where we can speak and think as we like, that can occasionally lead to uncomfortable situations.

Thankfully, you have just as much right to ignore what someone says as they have to say it. Or, even better, say something that refutes what you disagree with.

As long as we’re communicating honestly and without overarching judgment, we have very little reason to remain silent. Broadly, the way we conduct ourselves be it in the comments or in person falls under Wheaton’s First Law:

Don’t be a dick.

I’m sure this will seem like common sense to a lot of folks. This is a good thing. Still, it’s much like what I’ve said about consent – the more people that know these things, the better the community will be overall. Like I said, there is little reason to remain silent. As long as you’re being positive about what you’re saying, and saying it with the intent of increasing awareness and decreasing worldsuck, by all means, speak up! You will be glad you did.

I’m not sure what else I can add. PAX East is in full swing and I am busier than ever. I’ll be outside Bumblebee Theatre in the Boston Convention & Expo Center. Becoming an Enforcer has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and has lead to some incredibly invaluable and completely unforgettable changes, both now and in the future.

But that is a story, and a post, for another time…

From the Vault: The Video Game Singularity

I’m on my way to Boston for PAX East this morning. While I make my way through several states on what are certain to be lovely roads, have a look at my thoughts on the lines between video game developers and video game players, and what might happen if they get blurred.


X-Box Kitten

I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.

The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.

Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?

Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.

From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.

Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.

That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”

Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.

The question is: should they exercise it?

Let me put it another way:

Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?

I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.

As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.

We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.

I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It would be easy, far too easy at this point, for Marvel’s creative minds to just churn out one-note sequels to its successful movie franchises. Just rehash plot points, stick in named villains no matter how they’re written, and ride the wave of money all the way to the bank. But they tried that once, with Iron Man 2. And it backfired. Iron Man 2 is the worst movie of the set so far.

My point is that Marvel’s people had to get smarter about their stories, especially in the wake of The Avengers, and they did. Iron Man 3 is a character piece with expertly-timed comedy juxtaposed with an inward realignment on the part of Tony Stark. Thor: The Dark World lets Chris Hemsworth demonstrate true heroic gravitas and, I will reiterate, acts more like Superman than Superman does in Man of Steel. And now comes Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a very smart, very intense, very electric action-thriller about conspiracies, betrayals, secrets, and what happens when you drop the ultimate Boy Scout into a very deadly cloak-and-dagger scenario.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

The scenario begins with Captain America working with SHIELD as part of a special ops strike team. He and Black Widow run covert operations to subvert things like hostage situations. However, when Captain Rogers realizes that his operations are getting ‘compartmentalized’ by Nick Fury, as in some of his guys follows his orders and others have different orders to follow, he gives SHIELD’s director a piece of his mind. In turn, Fury shows Rogers Project Insight, SHIELD’s new helicarriers meant to neutralize threats before they happen. Rogers, maintaining his stand on the moral high ground, raises his hackles even more, and Fury actually calls for Insight to be delayed. This was apparently an unpopular move, as both Fury and Rogers become targeted for assassination, specifically by the terrifying, heavily-armed spectre known only as the Winter Soldier.

For once, Marvel’s iconic heroes are in a situation that does not involve laser beams, magic hammers, or monsters of myth. This is a complete and total shift in tone, theme, and atmosphere from anything we’ve seen before in this cinematic universe. Superheroes stories always have their share of violence, perhaps more than their share given all the creatures and demigods and megalomaniacs who get punched in the face, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier goes down a different road. The violence is delivered through the entirely mundane and somehow more visceral means of blades, bombs, and bullets, and the victims of that violence are not always the bad guys. This is not a negative aspect of the movie, mind you – but it’s worth knowing beforehand so you know what you’re in for.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
It’s very cool to meet someone who has a lot in common with Captain America despite the age gap.

Tales of intrigue, betrayal, secrets, and revelation have lasted for millenia, long before the advent of superheroism as we know it, as characters compromise themselves morally and legally to do what they feel is right. This is especially true in this modern, cloak-and-dagger world, where secrets are even better concealed by technology and businessmen and bankers lie as a matter of course. That said, Captain America is a completely straightforward, honest person living in a thoroughly dishonest world, but given his skills, notoriety, and fortitude, he’s in a position where he begins to unravel conspiracies just by being himself. For all of the film’s well-timed and well-executed reveals and double-crosses, when you drop Captain America into a story like this, the conspiracies start coming apart almost immediately.

The movie spends about two-thirds of its running time on this very tense, very visceral spy thriller, and then seques very easily into rather straightforward action for its final act. I’m trying to avoid hyperbole in the name of something resembling objectivity, but i just used the word ‘very’ three times in the last sentence – this film makes an impression. From the realistic bent of its firefights to the sharpness of its dialog, Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes it clear that no punches are going to be pulled. Thankfully, beneath the callbacks to the works of John LaCarre and Tom Clancy and cleanly shot, well choreographed fights, which would make this film stand alone as an above-average action thriller, there’s even more to enjoy.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
He’s not only displaced in time, but out of his element.

Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow really steps out on her own here. While we’re still waiting for what is certain to be a fantastic solo outing, she and Chris Evans make a great double act especially throughout the middle of the movie. She always seems a step ahead, approaches her challenges with confidence, and lets the facade of cold, calculated confidence crack now and again to reveal the very human character beneath all of the flash and guile. Anthony Mackie is a breakout star, definitely feeling more like a supporting and necessary character than a sidekick, as Falcon often was in the comics. He’s a modern soldier, mostly courteous with just enough bravado to make him compelling and endearing at the same time, and his wing-suit is weaponized cool not seen since Iron Man. Samuel L. Jackson gives Nick Fury more depth and complexity than ever, and while I’m not sure how in the world a mainstay leading man like Robert Redford got into a Captain America movie, he does fantastic work and demonstrates that he is still one of the best in the business. As for our title roles, Chris Evans continues to impress as Captain America, simultaneously the sort of upstanding person you wish existed more often in real life and the kind of selfless hero that can’t help but inspire. Finally, the Winter Soldier doesn’t get as much screen time as you might expect given his name is in the title, but his role as the ultimate vector of the villainous plans afoot is superbly executed, and he has real on-screen menace and intensity when he’s around.

Over and above everything else, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is smart. Its ties to the rest of the Marvel Universe are more implied than explicit. If you’ve been along for the ride from the beginning, you’re going to pick up on a lot and be left wanting more. If you’re new, you’ll want to know more. Names, when dropped, feel a great deal more subtle than they have been in the past, we see more of SHIELD than we ever have before, and even the superscience bits have weight that don’t interfere with the drive of the narrative. I don’t think the tonal shift is for everyone, and some viewers may get turned off by the running time or the subject matter, as I mentioned before. But in terms of objective flaws, the movie has very few, so few that none are springing immediately to mind.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
One of many perfectly executed ‘oh SHIT!’ moments.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is some of the best work Marvel has done to date. It’s gripping storytelling from start to finish. If this is any indication of how strong ‘Phase 2′ is going to continue being in relation to ‘Phase 1′, I am even more excited for Guardians of the Galaxy in August. It doesn’t have the all-ages appeal and pure fun factor of The Avengers or the truly deep and intimate character focus of Iron Man 3, but with its very strong cast, excellent writing, engrossing action, and monstrously influential implications for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in spite of the 1200 or so words I’ve just written, there are no words with which I can recommend Captain American: The Winter Soldier any higher than this: It’s not the best superhero movie ever made… but it comes damn, damn, damn close.

Consent, Cosplay, and Cuddles

Courtesy The Mary Sue

I don’t think I’m very influential.

This site tends to get just under 100 views a day. Some days it’s lucky to hit 50. So in some ways, this may simply be preaching to the choir. I’m aware of this. But I also know that some of the people who read this are folks I don’t know personally, and may help spread the word to people who would otherwise be unaware of the following. So with that in mind, and simply wanting to promote positive behavior as much as possible, let’s talk about consent at conventions.

Convention season is in full swing. It’s great to meet people there. You may even be compelled to shake hands or even hug someone.

Make sure they’re cool with it first.

You may think it’s fun to give someone a ‘surprise hug’ but the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of people who have had bad experiences when it comes to being touched. An unexpected brush or contact can bring all sorts of unbidden memories and emotions roaring to the surface of the mind, and nobody wants that to happen. We gather in these placed to have fun together, not to hurt one another. It doesn’t take a lot – “May I shake your hand?” “Would you like a hug?” – but it will mean a world of difference to people if you act with courtesy and wait for consent.

Courtesy The Mary Sue

This especially applies to cosplayers. A lot of people spend months preparing costumes to show off in large public places where people have shared interests. They do it for fun and to celebrate their fandoms. They, too, deserve the respect of being approached like a human being, rather than sized up like a piece of meat. If you catcall a cosplayer, or worse, impose yourself physically on one without your consent, you’re being part of the problem.

Remember: cosplayers are not wearing their costumes for you. They’re doing it for them, and they deserve to be proud of that without having to worry about getting creeped on by strangers.

Courtesy The Mary Sue

Everybody needs contact, reassurance, even cuddles. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. As long as there is communication and consent, we can make our gatherings positive and memorable experiences. We have to work together to do it, and we have to look out for one another. That doesn’t just mean communication between the parties involved, but also communication with those that can help.

If you see something questionable, if someone’s getting hurt or being made to feel uncomfortable, tell someone. If you yourself are put in a position of which you do not approve, tell someone. Staff members are there to help you. There’s bound to be one disconnected from all of the goings on who will not only hear you out, but speak up on your behalf. Yes, there are bad experiences, and yes, sometimes things go sour even when you try to do the right thing.

What’s the alternative? Give up entirely?

If we all did that, if we all just gave up when things got frustrating or didn’t turn out the way we wanted, we’d get nowhere, and communities would crumble, all the good and positivity they create dissolving into nothingness and leaving this world a colder, more empty place. I think that dissent can be a good thing, and those who have a legitimate beef that goes unheard have the right to say what they have to say. My point is that, if we’re all working together, offering consent and speaking up for one another, it shouldn’t have to get to that point. Things can and will get better, but only if we all contribute towards making it so.

We all have to work together. One person, alone, can change very little, but again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Ghandi once said “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” The more we work to make the collective experience better for everyone involved, the greater our influence on the flow of events and the lives of others becomes. We can, and will, change both how our communities work, and how they are perceived by others. And believe it or not, it all hinges on asking one simple question.

Can I have a hug?

(Images courtesy The Mary Sue; featured Enforcers are RGB, Ysterath, oogmar, and NotHanz. Original images hosted by Auspex on her Tumblr. Many thanks to Uhura Jones for pointing out the shortcomings in the above post.)

Flash Fiction: 666 Steps

For the Terribleminds Flash Fiction challenge, “Life Is Hell“.


The stairs under the curio shop go down, down, down.

Marcia didn’t mind the exercise, and the decent actually helped her clear her head. The ambient noises and constantly guttering lights no longer set her on edge, as was certainly their intent. She was able to screen the flickering incandescence and barely intelligible pleas for mercy out as she mentally prepared herself. When it came to these negotiations, even moreso than with the fae or the vampires, one had to word things in a very particular and precise way.

Demons loved loopholes.

She finally arrived at the bottom of the stairs, 666 steps from the trapdoor in the curio shop’s back room. Demons loved shit like that, too. Marcia wasn’t in the mood for any of it. She pricked her finger with her knife, knelt in the semi-darkness that dominated the space outside of the stairwell, and touched the groove set into the stone floor.

Dark red light blossomed from the pentagram carving as the beacon activated. The star was pointed towards the stairs, making it inverted from Marcia’s perspective. An upright pentacle, like the one around her neck, was a symbol of protection. Its opposite was anything but. A howling noise from deep in the darkness beyond the pentagram began to rise and increase in volume, and after a few moments, the ground began to shake.

Marcia crossed her arms impatiently, and waited.

Symbols and script of an unspoken language began to float above the circle, and from the midst of them a gaunt figure slowly emerged. It towered over Marcia, clad in tight black leather, a dire cassock stained with blood that caught the light in a disturbing fashion. Its collar was high and tight, jutting its chin permanently upwards. It bared its teeth without choice as it had no lips to speak of, and its eyes were bound with what appeared to be vinyl, held in place with iron spikes through the eye sockets. Air hissed between its blackened teeth, and pale skin stretched as it spoke.

“WHO… DARESSSSSSS…”

Marcia rolled her eyes.

“Not today, Bee. I’m not in the mood.”

Silence, for a moment.

“WE HAVE SSSSSSSSSUCH SSSSSSSSSIGHTSSSSS….”

“Did you watch the Hellraiser movies again last night? I’d say you do that religiously but I don’t want to be that insulting.”

“INSSSSSSSOLENT MORTAL…”

“Come on, Beelzebub. Cut the bullshit.”

There was a pause. Then, all of the black leather burst outwards, taking the form of bats and flying away with squeaks and squeals. Underneath them was a gentleman slightly taller than Marcia, wearing a suit that, if it had been bought in one of the boutiques far above their heads, would have easily cost $10,000 or more. The man’s eyes, set in a deceptively handsome face, mirrored the red glow of the circle he stood in.

“You should have seen the last would-be summoner that happened down here. Making your lot piss themselves never gets old.”

“Hilarious. I told you I’m not in the mood.”

“Dear Marcia, when are you ever in the mood?” The Arch-Duke of Hell sighed. “This is why you can’t get a date.”

“No. I can’t get a date because I have to keep cleaning up your messes.”

An ancient mason’s hammer hit the stone floor without Marcia breaking Beelzebub’s eye contact.

“I found this in the home of a murderer. For some reason, when he killed someone, the spouse or nearest next of kin got pinched. Evidence and everything. I’m sure you know what that is.”

Beelzebub’s smile didn’t waver as he glanced at the hammer. “Well, well. These are increasingly rare.”

“I want to know what it is, in full, and I want to know what it’s worth.”

The demon crossed his arms. “I don’t think I like your tone.”

Marcia raised her chin. “Do something about it.”

For a moment, they stood and regarded one another. Then, Beelzebub started laughing.

“This is why you stay around, Marcia. I may not care for such disrespect, but I do admire your courage.”

“You can’t moisten me up that way. Tell me about the hammer.”

“It was one of many tools used to build Gomorrah. When the city was destroyed, so were most of those tools, along with their people. A few survived, including this one, saturated with the brimstone that fell from Heaven. As it was most often wielded by wicked men…”

“So it’s magical.”

“If you wanted to be utterly pedestrian about it…”

“What’s it worth?”

“Name your price.”

Money meant nothing to demons. A snap of their fingers could make extra zeroes appear in any number of bank accounts. But Marcia knew that if she wanted to maintain an edge in this game, she needed more than that.

“I want to add a clause.”

Beelzebub shook his head. “You keep doing this, we’ll have to redraft the entire contract.”

“That isn’t an option and you know it. The original stipulations stand. I just want to add a clause. My sister just had a baby boy. He’s off-limits.”

“Hmm. A good job keeping that hidden from us, girl. I didn’t even see anything on Facebook.”

“Do we have a deal, or not?”

The demon glanced down at the hammer. “You said this was used in murders? Recently?”

“Yes.”

“Where is the murderer now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you like to?”

Marcia hesitated. Beelzebub smiled.

“We can’t have a loose end running around, Marcia. This is the deal: leave the hammer and kill its wielder when you depart this place, and your clause will be added. The contract itself remains unmolested. What say you?”

Marcia frowned. She wasn’t a killer by nature. Part of the reason she was in this situation in the first place was because she’d been too chickenshit to go after her assailant on her own. But after the contract had been signed, it’d been frighteningly easy. And now Beelzebub was telling her to kill again.

She thought of her radiant sister, and the innocent baby.

“Okay,” she said. “Deal.”