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Archive for June, 2012

Friday Fun

This is a followup on a Big Bear Butt post over thisaway, wherein he suggested some art based on World of Warcraft PvP fickleness, and then I went and made some art.

Here are the basic pieces, Horde and Alliance…

Go Alliance!

Go Horde!

And here are some desktop images from them…

And then here are the two-sided shirts.  Mostly just because the idea of them made me smile.  Those are in my Zazzle storefront, Tish Tosh Tesh Toyz, where I have a variety of other artstuffs, so if you do go check out the shirt, please poke around and see if anything else piques your interest.  Oh, and incidentally, shirts are on sale over there for the 4th of July holiday, so it’s a good time for shirts.

(Edited to remove shirts; may as well not flirt too much with trouble.  They weren’t up for profit anyway, but Zazzle doesn’t have a “demonstration only” setting.  I still love the idea of a two sided two-faction shirt.  Maybe I’ll make a sufficiently noncopyright version one of these days. )

Happy weekend!

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A little while back, Syl mused about how World of Warcraft has changed her in an article thisaway.  Others chimed in like Victor, over here, and Rakuno over here.  I figured I’d jump in, since I haven’t done enough navel-gazing lately.  To dig into what MMOs have done to me, I need to go back to the 90s, before I did anything with them.

I work in the game industry.  I play games.  A lot of different games.  MMOs are just a small slice of my game library and vocabulary (though they tend to consume a disproportionate amount of time), but they have had some significant effects on me over the last 6 years or so.

My background is primarily in RPG games and tactical games.  I’ve played RTS, FPS, driving, fighting, puzzle, and other games, but most of my gaming time before MMOs was with epic RPGs like Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, Star Ocean 2 and the like.  Back in… 2002? or so, I remember seeing an advertisement in a magazine for the upcoming World of Warcraft.  It wasn’t the first online game I’d heard of (Sierra’s The Realm gets that honor, I think, and I was aware of Ultima Online), but it looked really good, and I liked the Warcraft IP, having spent many fun hours with Warcraft and Warcraft 2.  That was the draw, really, the ability to prowl through the jungles at ground level as a single character, rather than the third person nonentity I was in the Warcraft RTS games.  In short, I was captivated by the idea of exploring the WORLD of Warcraft.

Of course, the blasted thing is an online game, and the only place I had internet access was at school or work.  Those were the only places I had a computer capable of then-modern gaming as well.  Yes, I spent a lot of time with classics like Master of Magic, Master of Orion 1&2, X-Com (the old, good one), Privateer and the like well past their heyday.  I’ve always been a late adopter of games, really.  It’s better on the wallet.  Anyway, while WoW looked appealing, there was no way I was going to be able to play it, so I ever-so-slightly wistfully pushed it aside and ignored it.

In the meantime, I graduated from college in 2003, then got a full-time job that let me buy a then-powerful laptop that I fully intended to play games with.  I still didn’t have an internet connection (and to this day, I still think the darn things are too expensive), but I had a computer that could finally play Morrowind.  I was hooked, finally happy to be wandering through a fantasy world that was so much more interesting to me than my FPS experience in Wolfenstein (the old one) and Doom (also the old one).  I got lost along the shores outside of the starting town, died a few times, and then downloaded a few hacks.  I found I wasn’t all that interested in playing the right way, I just wanted to putter around in a fantasy world.  Imagine that.

It was while I was working in that first post-graduation job that I ran into someone actually playing that World of Warcraft thing.  He played during lunch, mining, mostly.  I watched him maneuver his zombie-ish guy around some barren-looking canyons, mining some sort of rocky nodes.  I think, looking back, that it was maybe in Thousand Needles, one of my favorite locations in the game before the Shattering.  He showed me around a little, noting that his “real” character was an Orc Shaman.  He offered me a ten-day buddy key to try out the game, and I graciously accepted.

I still didn’t have an internet connection.

So, I installed it on my office computer and played a little during lunch like he did.  Yes, we played games at work.  We were working in the game industry, and every one of us were gamers.  One guy played Magic the Gathering Online for lunch, and sometimes we all played the actual card game for lunch.  And it was good.  The bosses didn’t play games as much as we did, but they didn’t mind us playing, even with company assets like the computers and internet connection, so long as we got all our hours in and got our work done.

Anyway, I had ten days to play, only during lunch, only at work.  It was little more than a taste of the game, really.  I fired up a Tauren Shaman and puttered around.  I learned what the WoW notion of quests were, and I followed some breadcrumbs around the hill to a small Tauren town, then made my way up the road to Thunder Bluff, still my favorite capital city in the game.  I learned Skinning and Leatherworking, charmed with the ability to make my own gear.  It felt like my Tauren was a self-sufficient adventurer in a larger world.  It was good.

The game’s reality lurked in the wings, though.  I wanted some more backpack space since I kept winding up with lots of junk I picked up off of the critters I killed, but I couldn’t buy anything from the auction house and vendor bags were too expensive.  I figured I’d use Leatherworking to make some kodo hide bags, since there were kodos just downhill.  Silly me, I figured it should be easy.  Just go kill and skin a few kodos (they are huge, and should have plenty of leather apiece) and then stitch together a bag or four.

…the last three days of my trial were spent trying to make those stupid bags.  I had to skin several dozen critters to qualify for skinning kodos.  I had to kill dozens of kodos just to get one scrap of kodo leather.  I needed six such pieces to make one bag.  I stuck with it because it was my “endgame” goal for the time I had.  I never actually did finish even a single bag.

It was stupid.

That, in a microcosm, is the WoW experience, I think.  Fascination with the world and its potential, ownership of your own little avatar in that world, seeing new sights and new monsters… then running face first into the soul-crushing time sinks that the game uses to suck people into that next sweet month of subscription money.  I learned enough about the game to know I still loved the idea of the World of Warcraft, but that the game itself got in the way.  Even if I had internet access at home at that time, I still wouldn’t have bothered with the game because of the absurd subscription business plan… and to be honest, I did want to keep playing, but I was already getting burned out a bit, just because of the stupid grindy pacing of the crafting system.  It was probably good that I didn’t keep going at that point, since I was still on the edge of still liking the game for what it could be, and could go on pretending that it was exactly what I hoped it was.

Soon after that, I found Puzzle Pirates, and it was like I had found a home I never knew I was missing, and I didn’t have to pay a sub for it.  It’s still my MMO home.  I was hooked there by the gameplay, not so much the sense of the world, though I did love “memming” the ocean solo, still scratching that Explorer itch.  It helped that I was pretty good at the game (skill is more important there than time investment), and that I got my own ship without reaching some arbitrary “endgame”.  I didn’t much mind that I was missing out on the WoW craze.  I had something that fit me better, and really, it still does, seven years later.  In fact, last night I finally won my first Swordfighting tournament.  Sometimes it’s the small goals that make the most fun.  It is also the only MMO that my wife has played with me for more than a half hour.  She gave Guild Wars a good try, but it just didn’t stick.

It wasn’t until… 2008 or so, when the ten-day passes were obsolete and anyone could just sign up for a ten day trial, that I tried the game again.  I played another ten day trial, this time with my home desktop and internet connection (albeit a cheap one, which made the game laggy… which didn’t help).  The game still looked nice, and it was fun to make a new character, hoping for good times.  This time I did a little more research on the game and fired up a Druid.  I’ve loved Druids ever since.  I have a soft spot for Hunters and Shaman still, but I’m a Druid player at heart.  I had fun, learned Bear form, messed around a bit shifting between forms as necessary… then my time ran out.  I still mostly liked the game, but still wasn’t going to pay to keep playing.  I was mad enough that I had to pay $50/month for the internet connection.

The wider world of MMO gaming had been opened to me, though.  I tried a bunch, from Dungeons and Dragons Online to Guild Wars to Lord of the Rings Online to Atlantica Online to Star Trek Online to Allods Online to Wizard 101 to Neosteam to Free Realms to City of Heroes to DC Universe Online to my latest experiment, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and others in between that I’m not remembering at the moment.  I (quickly) grew tired of the DIKU grind, always chasing levels and loot.  I decided that playing with others can sometimes be OK, but that I’m still a soloist at heart.  I studied game design, business models and the game industry.  I found some MMO blogs as I studied the silly things and their communities, and eventually started a blog of my own.  This is why this blog still has a backbone of MMO analysis, but it’s not devoted to any one game or even stuck solely on games at all.  I came to this blogging world because of MMOs.

I may not be a MMO groupie, but I still find value in the sociality involved with the games and blogging in general.

So that’s what MMOs have done for me.  They have introduced me to bloggers I consider friends, they have increased my knowledge of the game industry and game design, and given me well over 6000 screenshots that I can use for inspiration (I’m an artist, after all).  My knowledge of games, my chosen career, has been enhanced by the wider world of the internet and how games work in that shared social space, whether or not they are designed for it.

My life is richer, not necessarily for having played MMOs, but for what they have led me to.

…but I still hate subscriptions.

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I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function.  I think rules are important to creativity.  You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is.  If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article.  I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.

Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.

First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“.  I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?”  This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me.  I consider it to have a fatal flaw:  it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“.  In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.

In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story.  Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one.  Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories.  That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter.  Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances.  Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part.  The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions.  When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.

If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe.  There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were.  That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.

One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book.  I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do.  Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers.  Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses.  I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out.  It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power.  Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications.  Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.

These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do.  The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility.  That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems.  That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.

If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story.  To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem.  Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying.  Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools.  This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no.  This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.

Case study:  the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work.  Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.

This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic.  It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense.  The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be.  That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much.  Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices.  I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative.  I suspect other authors do as well.

Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too:  Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler:  he answers in the affirmative)

Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices.  This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate.  Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion.  As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding.  That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!

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Professor Beej, a professor, a Beej, a writer, a gamer, and an all-round good guy, is writing a series of novels that I’m really looking forward to, starting with Birthright.  He has a Kickstarter page up and running, which he describes over at his place at this link, and he’s been making the blogging rounds writing about his writing, like this post over at Syp’s Bio Break and this one over at Ferrel’s Epic Slant.  He has graciously offered a great post on writing for me to share here, which is just the sort of background analysis of the production process that I love.  So without further ado, Professor Beej, class is in session!

Three Rules of Worldbuilding and Design

When you’re a kid, and you think about authors and writers and how they get to tell stories and make stuff up it sounds awesome. Because that’s their job. To make stuff up.

Then, when you’re an adult, and you think about authors and writers and how they get paid to make stuff up, it sounds even awesomer. Because, come on. They’re getting paid to make stuff up. And you think to yourself, I can do that.

So you sit down to write your novel, to make stuff up. And you do. You have rocketships and dragons and wizards and bugbears, but not one single, eency-teency thing you’ve written down makes a bit of sense.

Because you made stuff up. You made it up good. You just didn’t make it up well.

You see, there’s something you didn’t think about when you were fantasizing about how awesome making stuff up for a living could be: fictional worlds, even science-fictional and fantastical worlds, have to be governed by rules. And you have to be the one to enforce those rules.

Kind of sucks the fun right out of it, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. It’s a bit of work, sure, but I came up with 3 guidelines that helped keep my characters, technology, and narrative on track when I was working on The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright).

They worked for me, so I think they will for you, too.

1. Write in Limitations from the Start

Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring couldn’t affect anything made out of wood, and Hal Jordan’s was baffled by the color yellow  In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic only works by characters burning flakes of metal in their stomachs–no more metal, no more magic. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard spells are often one-offs and have to be relearned for each new use.

By having magic or technology be intrinsically fallible, you can avoid Superman or Luke Skywalker syndrome. Kryptonite is cool and all, but when Supes can grab an entire continent made of the stuff and fly it into outer-space, that limit ain’t so limiting. And Luke Skywalker…well, you tell me where the glass-ceiling is when size matters not.

In Birthright, the technomages get their power from nanotechnology. The really powerful technomages have had their blood replaced by nanites, while newbies have to wear a thin sleeve of nanites like a second-skin. What this distinction did for me as an author was rein in the power-levels between various characters so that their interactions and conflicts actually meant something.

Where one character might be able to Conjure wings and fly himself or herself out of trouble, the newbies in the sleeves simply don’t have enough nanomachines to do the job. They can try, but they can’t succeed because the rules of the universe forbid it.

2. Find a sweet spot between technobabble, pseudoscience, and good-old-fashioned analogies

Birthright is a difficult project to describe because I try to blend multiple genres into the conventions that make up the narrative. There’s a fantasy plot in a science-fiction world–kind of like how Firefly is a western in space. As awesome as that is, it also presents a number of problems in terms of marketing and comprehension.

Namely, will fantasy fans know what I’m talking about when I mention hyperspace? Will science-fiction fans rage if I simplify this theory to make it fit in my universe?

With that in mind, I had to make a compromise. I wanted Birthright to read like a story, not a mathematical proof (I’m looking at you, Ringworld), but at the same time, I didn’t want to be accused of “teching the tech” with scads of meaningless technobabble. So every bit of technology and “magic” within The Technomage Archive is based on some kind of real science–proven or theoretical. Whether it’s nanotechnology, pocket universes, or even hyperspace, the world of the novel is based on science.

Note the key phrase there. “Based on science.” Like fan-favorite movies and made-for-TV crime dramas, I’ve taken the science and boiled it down to its consummate parts. Because damn it, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a scientist.

And neither are you (unless you are a scientist, in which case, I’m sorry for making hasty generalizations). I had to find that sweet spot between verisimilitude and narrative accessibility.

For instance, when one character is trying to explain hyperspace travel to a group of disoriented and frightened technomage recruits, he can’t very well start throwing around PhD-level jargon. He breaks it down into a rudimentary analogy so the recruits–and the readers–can understand.

Here’s an excerpt of that scene:

“Right now, we are traveling through hyperspace—“

“What are you talking about?” asked another voice from the crowd.  “Hyperspace?  Did you just make that up?”

Roman was nonplussed.  He was used to that kind of disrespect during these initial moments.  This was a lot to take in, so he forgave the kids a little rudeness.  “No,” he said. “I didn’t.  Hyperspace is pretty easy to understand.  Think about it like this.  Have you ever rubbed your hands together and felt heat build up, that burning sensation?”

The student said, “Well, yeah.”

“Well, it’s friction doing that.  Now, have you ever rubbed your hands together with something between them?  Like some water, jelly, anything like that?”

“I guess.”

“Does it make it easier to rub your hands together?  Does it stop the burning and make you not blister?”

“I guess.”

“Well, think of that jelly, water, or whatever, as hyperspace.  If we were to move through normal space, we’d be slowed down by what you can basically think of as friction.  There’s a limiting force to how fast we can go without destroying ourselves, kind of like that burning when you run your hands together too fast.  However, if we coat ourselves in jelly, so to speak, we can move far more quickly and far more smoothly to where we’re going without burning ourselves up from too much friction.  Does that make sense?”

“So we’re in a spaceship that’s covered in jelly?” the student asked.

“It’s not a perfect metaphor,” Roman said.

“It’s a stupid metaphor.”

3. Screw it.

Just make sure that you keep some perspective. Worldbuilding can be frustrating and thankless. But you’re the one in control. You make the rules, and by that same logic, you get to decide when to break them. Just make sure that whether you are making the rules or breaking them, there is consistency and logic in what you do. Your readers will thank you.

At the end of the day, when you’re irritated that your characters aren’t playing nice with each other and the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, just remember that people are giving you money to make stuff up.

And that’s pretty freaking awesome.

B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness atwww.professorbeej.com.

 

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I’ve nailed down the ruleset for Zomblobs!, and I’m making some final touches to the files so I can present it as a PDF file that anyone can print out and play with.  This means making a few maps, and a few map features for variety.  As it will be a public beta of the game, it will inevitably need a little tuning and a lot of playtesting, so I’m hoping to get it out to as many people as possible.  I’ll be making a big announcement about it here in a bit, once I get the presentation polished.

In the meantime, though, I’m left to think a little bit about filling the gaps.

Have you ever played the license plate game?  There are probably a few different ones, but the one I play involves looking at license plate on cars as you pass by them and try to make a word out of the letters that are on the plates.  It’s a bit of a cross between a literary Rorschach test and a vocabulary test.  Something like the following on a plate might produce a variety of results.

498 MNM

The first thing I thought of was Mmrnmhrm… showing my 90s gamer roots.  If I had a craving for chocolate, I might fudge the rules a little and think of M&Ms.  If I were a psychologist, I might think of monomaniacal.  If I were a monomaniac, I might think the rules don’t apply to me, and think of Mini Me.  If I were a Star Wars geek, I might think that license plates don’t apply to a galaxy long ago and far away and think of Mon Mothma.  If I were a historian, I might think of monuments.  If I were an anthropologist, I might think of manmade.  If I were a mathmetician, I might think of minimizing something.  If I were a zookeeper I might think of monotremes.

Whatever my background, whatever my vocabulary, it would inform my selection.  With minimal information to start with, and a few simple rules, there are a lot of paths to try.

That’s what I’m angling for with Zomblobs!  Some simple rules, some simple actions, some relatively simple units, some simple state tracking, all brewing up a nice storm of gameplay options to make tactics interesting.  Time and testing will tell if I manage it well, but that’s my goal.  It may well require players to bring something of their own to the table, or at least, the willingness to read the rules and try things out.  They may need to fill in the gaps a little bit and play nice when the rules don’t quite cover all possible corner cases.

Maybe I’m just making excuses, but then, even the most tenured of tabletop wargames have disclaimers in their rulebooks that suggest players use their own judgement when the rules prove insufficient to curious situations.  I have tried diligently to compose a playable ruleset that should answer most questions, but I simply don’t know all the weird things that can happen as players try to break the rules.

It’s actually a good thing for the players to try to break the game.  That’s the point of beta testing.  I’m relying on testing situations to fill in the gaps where I just didn’t foresee everything.  I’ve mapped things out as well as I can, but exploration is necessary for the rest.

So thank you for your interest!  I still have a lot of things going on at the moment, but the light at the end of the pre-beta tunnel is getting brighter.

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A little knowledge goes a long way sometimes… and maybe not in the direction we’d like.

As I’ve noted before, my college degree is in computer animation, specifically geared to film making.  In the course of earning that degree, I learned a lot of film making tricks and tactics, as well as the extra layer of tomfoolery that computer graphics permits.  As such, it’s very hard to watch a movie these days and not see all the little hacks and cheats.  I can’t help but see behind the curtain because I’m so familiar with what goes on back there.

I have a similar problem with games.  Since I work in making games, usually creating, texturing and animating 3D models, and I’m very familiar with the industry, I see all the little tricks that other game developers use in their games.  Even if I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and just be entertained, it’s a reflex to see, catalogue, and examine how things work, and perhaps more importantly, how they don’t work.

Similarly, since my degree is technically a Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts, and I’ve been an artist who studies art for a long time, I have a lot of experience with art, both creating it and in analyzing it.  I see art problems way too easily.  Even my hobbyist knowledge of astrophysics, physics, math and science makes some things hard to swallow, like the awful science in that recent Star Trek movie.

This is the effect underlying the Uncanny Valley effect.  Y’see, we’re all experts at being human, just by virtue of, well… living life.  When we see something that doesn’t agree with our experience, it just seems wrong, no matter how well-crafted it is.  It need not even be conscious; we notice the inherent wrongness whether or not we want to, and it colors our experience.  Even something like basic kinesthetics can be thrown off, as is the case with the Kinect motion sensor control system for the XBox.  The functionality is wrong compared to what we know so well, and it just doesn’t work.

So when we see something like this, where a psychotic nutjob’s murderous actions are blamed, in part, on video games, as gamers, we cannot help but shout:

OBJECTION!

We know enough about the reality of games from our own expertise to call “shenanigans!” on the media narrative.

Of course, there’s a flipside to this.  If we don’t have personal expertise in a topic at hand, and don’t want to bother informing ourselves about it, it becomes very easy to just go with the flow, accept fallacious authority, and accept whatever we’re told, especially if it’s something we think we agree with and fall prey to confirmation bias.  If we want to hate someone or something, we’ll find reasons to do so.  If the narrative suits our taste, we’ll happily ignore facts.  We embrace ignorance and live in our own little perception bubble, because we’re happy there.  Manipulative agenda-riddled media is more than happy to play along.

This is certainly obvious in politics and the so-called “mainstream media”.  This is one reason why blogging is changing the world and why it’s important to protect in the face of political opposition and Big Brother control; the “news” networks get called on their lies and matters of public policy can get a bit more transparency with concerned citizens involved.  Nothing quite dies on the internet, and it’s increasingly easier to do a bit of research and do a little fact checking.  Of course, even then, so-called “fact checkers” are usually biased, too.  You really have to go do your homework and proper research if you care about something.

Remember the murderer who played WoW?  When there’s a causal link implied by shoddy reporting and poor courtroom procedure, and you know the argument is pure crap, you don’t trust the narrative, and you are right to be distrustful.  You know better, no matter what the talking heads on the magic light box try to tell you.

The really crazy part is when you see through the curtain sometimes, but decide to let it slip back into place later, say, if the same media outlet reports something you want to hear.  They are no more trustworthy than they were before, but this time, since it’s something you agree with, it doesn’t matter what goes on behind that curtain.  The narrative is what matters, not the truth.

WoW subscription numbers down 300,000?  The game is finally dying!  Thanks for the brave reporting, guys!

WoW subscription numbers steady next quarter?  Must be a statistical blip or someone cooking the books.  They are desperate to show they aren’t dying!  Lousy lying media!

So what?  Just sayin’…

Trust, but verify.  Understand your own bias and get past it… at least, if you care about truth.  Sometimes, we just want to be lied to.  Being able to swallow the lies, benign or otherwise, certainly makes it easier to be entertained.

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I’ve been reading up on Prometheus and the Alien movies lately.  Why?  Well, here’s a Tesh secret: I’ve never seen any of them, and I never will.  I simply do not watch R-rated movies (or play M-rated games).  Still, they are sort of a Big Deal in the film industry, with echoes through the game industry.  My college degree was aimed at letting me work in film.  Maybe someday I still will, but for now, I work in games.  It behooves me to understand the cultural touchpoints that the Alien storyline offer to my professional interests.  If nothing else, understanding a bit about Aliens means I can communicate a bit better with those I work with.  “Ripley in a Powerloader” isn’t exactly “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“, but the principle is the same (and if you get that reference without looking at the link, you understand what I’m getting at).

Some of this is simply being aware of the linguistic and cultural effects of the Aliens IP, but I’ll admit, I’m also a bit curious as to why they became such a Big Deal.  I find horror movies to be… very distasteful.  It’s noted sometimes that the first Alien movie was a horror movie that happened to be cloaked in science fiction elements.  The sequel was apparently more of a prototypical Action Movie with Alien overlays, and the others were action…y.  Prometheus sounds like it’s more of an Alien-like film, in that it’s more about the horror with a little sci-fi musing for flavor.  Not having first-hand experience with these, I’m only speaking to what I’ve read about them over the years, so if those hasty generalizations are inaccurate, well, I’m not maliciously and intentionally misrepresenting them, at least.  I’m just wrong.

So why do I care?  Oddly, I find myself fascinated not with the subject material so much as why they are even hits in the first place.  It’s the same sort of fascination I have for trying to figure out the appeal of the endless zombie movies and games, like Romero’s stuff, F.E.A.R. or Silent Hill (and Shamus has a handful of really good articles on horror in games, especially Silent Hill).  Y’see, I don’t like zombies, but I think zombie game mechanics are actually a fair bit of fun.  They also serve as interesting social commentary sometimes.  Still, horror is not the sort of content I’m looking for when I think of “entertainment” or “enlightenment”, and it’s strange to me that these things make as much money as they do.

It seems to me that there are a few key concepts to dig into.  One, Fear.  Two, Horror.  Three, the difference between the two.  Four, catharsis.  Five, killing monsters.  Six, voyeurism.  Seven, schadenfreude.  Eight, fiction as a coping strategy for avoiding awful, horrible truths.  I haven’t really wrapped my head around all of it yet, and it’s a low priority with everything else I’m working on, but still, there’s something there or else this particular flavor of entertainment wouldn’t be making any money.

Also, a thought question I proposed on Twitter a little while back:

What would a horror film look like if there were no gore, no monsters, and most importantly, no death?

To which I might add:

What would the horror genre look like if death itself became unhinged in any of a variety of curious ways?

All this to ask, ultimately:

What makes horror stories most interesting, and why?  Can that be explored outside the realm of R-rated and M-rated schlock and actually be approached in a truly mature manner?  (I reject the ESRB’s definition of “mature”, which is a prime example of Orwellian doublethink, where most M-rated content is deeply immature.)

Also, and maybe more importantly, what really constitutes “horror”?

It seems to me that there are significant differences between Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven and Ridley Scott, but all seem to play within the “horror” frame at some level.  I have a very strong dislike for the gore, profanity and “torture porn” that might constitute the bulk of modern horror, but at the same time, I am often fascinated with stories that chase down the implications of bad decisions and how people deal with crisis, tragedy and their own failures.  That said, I prefer stories that show people learning, or walking a path of redemption, rather than stories that are dystopic, deeply cynical or calculated to be offensive.

I think there’s value in stories and entertainment, value in learning from someone else’s mistakes… but delighting in those mistakes and the often dark, soul-crushing trappings of the horror genre seems to me to be unhealthy.  I think understanding horror and fear is important to understanding life, so there’s undoubtedly value in fiction exploring them.  There really is Bad Stuff out there, and sometimes we have to deal with it.  It’s just… I think there’s a line between understanding it and embracing it, and flirting with that line seems like a bad idea.

This isn’t all just academic, either.  It’s practical, as I’m writing what will likely become a series of novels, largely dealing with a fictional alternate history’s huge war and how key characters deal with it.  Death is a bit unhinged there.  My characters will wind up living through things that nobody should hope to live through.  It’s important to face the horrors, though, and ultimately, to prevail in spite of them.  As in so many stories, understanding the psychology of these characters will be essential to selling the events and character arcs as interesting and believable, even in unbelievable settings.

So… I’m getting there.  I’m not angling for the horror market in any way, but I want to understand the psychology of fear and horror so that I can make the most of them without sliding into the Nietzscheian abyss that waits out there in the dark.  It’s good to know where the dark is and how to fight it, but delighting in the fight is dangerous.

Edited to add this link to a comic summary of the first Alien movie, just because it’s good.

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I’m doing a new Thing here.  OK, it’s something I’ve already done, but now I’m calling it TEShots.  (For now, anyway.)  I take a LOT of photographs of the world around me, and every once in a while, I feel like sharing.  Today, it’s the Minecraft Edition.

We’re excavating a smallish pit on the back of our house, so we can make the existing window into a proper bedroom window, so we can remodel/finish the basement and squeeze in another bedroom.  It’s actually something that’s bugged me since we bought this house; there’s no proper escape from the basement in the case of fire.  Ah, the building code of the late 70s.  Anyway, to save $2000, we had the concrete cutter people cut a chunk out of our back porch, and I’m digging out the new window well so they can come back and cut out the window space.

It turns out that excavation is way easier in Minecraft than in real life.  Weird, huh?

Big Rock, Small Pit

Yes, that’s a 100-pound rock I pulled out, and the one still in the pit wound up being over 200 pounds.  I had to get help for that one, since it turns out that hitting it with my fist didn’t break it into small blocks.

The crazy thing is that those rocks, though the biggest ones I’ve had to deal with, were hardly the only rocks.  By weight, I’ve pulled probably about a literal ton of rock out of that hole, and I’m not even done yet.  My father-in-law helped with the top layer of busted concrete and the top layer of obvious rocks, and my brother and his friend helped with that biggest beast of a rock, but there has been plenty for me to do in between.  There was a bit of soil and clay in there, too, but the ground here in the Rocky Mountains is, well… rocky.  It’s also fairly compact.  Speaking of volume, I’ll probably have pulled out the equivalent of two of these trailers… which sure seems like a lot more than should be in that hole to a depth of 5 feet.

Trailer o’ Fun

Apologies for not getting more shots of the project in progress.  In the meantime, here’s a photo of where the rocks wound up.  It took that bulldozer two pushes to get our load on the pile.  Less than a minute for weeks of work to be just another part of the crowd.

Assimilated

Yeah, we have rocks here.  Lots of rocks.  I’m just glad my father-in-law is letting us use his trailer.  This would have been even more of a project without it.  Yay for summertime house projects, hm?

Rocky Mountain High

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