(Constantly) Great Expectations

be kind

Regrettably, Robin Williams took his own life on August 11, 2014.

Williams was one of the most prolific actors and comedians of his generation, and his body of work speaks for itself, so I won’t damn the man with faint praise by attempting to eulogize him.

Looking around online at the moment, all I can find are articles singing Robin Williams’ praises. Yet, a similar search just a few months ago would have yielded very different results. While Williams proved himself as a brilliant performer several times over–both in comedy and drama–in recent years he had chosen to work on films that weren’t very well received.

Indeed, looking at Williams’ page on RottenTomatoes, he’s been in 29 films in the last 10 years, only 10 of which currently have a “fresh” rating on the site. And the public’s perception of Williams seemed to have shifted to reflect this.

Now understand, I’m not bringing this up to speak ill of the deceased, but rather to make a point. Many people seemed to regard Williams as a has-been, and treated him rather harshly when discussing his career trajectory. It’s only now, since Williams’ passing, that suddenly everybody seems to remember all his good work and sing his praises once again.

Really, this has nothing to do with Robin Williams, and everything to do with his audience, because I can name numerous actors that this has happened with. Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin and Chris Rock have all been taking heat from fans for the shift in their output from the comedy that made them famous to safe, family-friendly films. 

And even actors whose quality of work hasn’t diminished have fallen out of favor for incidents that have tarnished their public persona, such as Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson.

But I would bet any amount of money that as soon as any one of those actors passes away, there will be an immense outpouring from grieving fans remembering their past accomplishments. Suddenly, people who had taken these performers for granted will realize that they miss them.

So, if that’s the case, why can’t fans simply appreciate these performers now? Why wait? Why waste energy lamenting a favorite artist’s career trajectory, instead of appreciating the great work they’ve made in the past, and in many cases, continue to make now?

I realize society has always had a paradoxical relationship with celebrities; we elevate them to an exalted status, only to try and tear them down the moment they show any sign of human weakness and fail to live up to expectations. 

But from the outpouring of grief, support and remembrance surrounding Williams’ death, it’s obvious that underlying all of that antipathy lies a great deal of admiration, love and respect. After all, if we didn’t like what that performer or artist was doing, why did we elevate them to celebrity status in the first place?

Fixating on the foibles and flaws of great artists, especially to the exclusion of the enjoyment of their body of work, is a waste of mental energy and does nothing but harm the fan who does so. 

So for my part, I’m going to make a concerted effort to accept that nobody’s perfect, regardless of how much success they attain. I’m going to remind myself that artists, no matter their status, can make a piece (or a few) that are just not my bag. After all, as a author, I hope the same freedom will be afforded me one day.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Williams. And thank you for sharing so much with us.

 

Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker 1

Before I dive into this review, I’d like to take a moment to dedicate this write-up to my cats, Pepper and Panda, both of whom passed away recently while I was in the process of playing through Wind Waker. I can’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent playing games with either Pepper or Panda warming my lap and feeding me purrs and positive vibes. Here’s to you, sweetie girls.

Pepper Panda

I briefly talked about my experience with Wind Waker in my review of Skyward Sword however, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the context of Wind Waker’s release. When Nintendo released the Gamecube, it was a huge step forward in terms of hardware power and visuals from its predecessor, the N64.

That increase had Nintendo fans excited for what their favorite franchises would look like on this new system, perhaps none more so than fans of The Legend of Zelda. Prior to the launch of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed a hardware demo reel featuring animated videos of Nintendo characters rendered on the Gamecube; not actual game footage, mind you, just canned video running on the hardware.

One of these clips was of Link sword-fighting with Ganondorf in a realistic style, similar to how the characters were conceived in Ocarina of Time. This was the world’s first look at what a Gamecube Zelda title might look like, and it got fans excited. Sure, it honestly looks kind of crappy now, but back when this footage was released, it was cutting-edge; just as Ocarina had taken Zelda into the realm of 3D games, this new (hypothetical) game promised to make a much greater leap into the realm of realism.

Cut to a year later, and at Space World in 2001, Nintendo revealed another demo, this time one rendered in a cartoony, cel-shaded style. Unlike in the previous demo, Link was once again rendered as a child, and the visuals were bright, sharp and colorful, unlike the darker, dare I say, grittier demo of the previous year. This demo turned out to be the one that actually represented the new Zelda sequel, Wind Waker.

The new art direction, to put it mildly, was…divisive. Some fans loved it, but others were taken aback that the series’ visuals appeared to be going in a less realistic direction…and to be honest, I fell into the latter camp.

After all, video games are serious business.

After all, video games are serious business.

Chalk it up to the ironically youthful impulse to resist anything squarely targeted at children, but I felt like a bright, cartoony game starring a child character was a step in the wrong direction. The visuals didn’t put me off enough to keep me from trying the game, but they certainly didn’t help my opinion of it. And while the game was critically-acclaimed and sold three million copies (low by Zelda standards, but good for the time), many fans would go on to proclaim it the worst game in the series to date.

In my last review, I touched on what I call the “Mario 3 Effect,” where new Nintendo games are considered “failures” because they fail to live up to the standards set by an earlier title in their series. There’s a corollary phenomenon known as the “Zelda Cycle,” where in each new Zelda title is considered, at least by a vocal faction of fans, to be the “worst Zelda ever.”

Inevitably, a few years after the game’s release, this faction starts to relent and admit that the game is, in reality, actually pretty good. Then, by the time the next game releases, the previously-vilified title is considered brilliant and the new game inherits the distinction of “worst Zelda ever,” and the cycle continues ad infinitum. Wind Waker could very well be the poster child for the Zelda Cycle, with fans now recognizing the brilliance of the game’s art direction and admiring how well it’s aged over the years, especially compared to other games of the time.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve changed my tune about “Celda.” The visuals of Wind Waker are one of the game’s strongest aspects. I played through the recently-released Wii U port of the game, Wind Waker HD, and it’s amazing to see how, with the addition of a few modern lighting effects and increased resolution, Wind Waker looks like a game that might have been developed one year ago instead of ten. There are some moments, when the light catches the scenery just right, where the game is truly breathtaking.

Wind Waker 3

Cartoon pigs never looked so good.

But as the age-old console gaming rallying cry goes, I don’t play pixels, I play games. The prettiest game in the world can still be terrible if the gameplay and story don’t hold up. So, enough about the visuals, how does Wind Waker hold up as a game?

I’ve written a brief primer on the Legend of Zelda series as part of my review of Skyward Sword, so if you missed that review, I’d suggest reading it over if you’re new to Zelda, because I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and don’t want to bore you with repeated material.

Basically,  in the Zelda chronology, Wind Waker takes place after Ocarina of Time, in a branch of the timeline where Ganon escapes imprisonment and wreaks havoc on Hyrule with his armies. No incarnation of Link steps forward to fight Ganon, and in desperation the Goddesses of Hyrule (apparently being big fans of the Old Testament) instruct the people of the land to flee to the highest mountains and flood the world, sealing Ganon’s forces under the waves.

This naturally lasts just long enough for the descendants of the original survivors to completely forget about Hyrule and Ganon, at which point Ganon manages to break out of imprisonment anyway, bring his monsters to the surface and attempt to re-unite the pieces of the Triforce in order to give him absolute power.

Part of his evil quest involves a scheme to kidnap girls with pointed ears, in hopes of finding the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, who still carries the Triforce of Wisdom. This leads to a girl named Aryll being abducted, who just so happens to be the sister of Wind Waker’s incarnation of Link, who goes on a quest to rescue her.

After a miserably failed attempt to assault Ganon’s fortress and save his sister (which includes the aforementioned forced stealth section), Link is rescued from drowning by a talking boat called the King of Red Lions. The King agrees to help Link rescue Aryll, in the process guiding Link through the necessary hoops to allow him to recover the Master Sword and claim the power to defeat Ganon once and for all.

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though...

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though…

The story is certainly serviceable, and Link meets a variety of interesting characters during his journey. I’m not as fond of this cast as I am of the cast of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, but there are some stand-out characters like the spunky pirate queen Tetra and her crew, Link’s grandmother and sister (aside from A Link to the Past, this is the only Zelda title where any members of Link’s family are actually present in the game), and possibly my favorite side character in any Zelda title to date, the comically under-enthused carnival game operator Salvatore.

The story also offers a bizarre glimpse into what happened to the races of Hyrule following the flooding of the world. The childlike Kokiri from Ocarina of Time apparently evolved into the tiny, tree-like Korok and learned to fly around with giant leaves, while the water-faring fish-like Zora instead became land-dwellers and learned to fly, becoming the bird-like Rito.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

I will say that the game’s ending felt very weak to me; I’m still on the fence as to whether Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time has the worse finale, but neither of them really did anything for me (though to Wind Waker’s credit, the final battle with Ganon does end rather spectacularly).

As I discussed a while back in my post on the ending of Red Dead Redemption, a weak ending really undercuts the strength of the overall story, especially in the case of an epic fantasy tale like Wind Waker, so this is definitely one of my biggest problems with the game.

As for the gameplay, while the core overworld-to-dungeon flow of play mostly remains intact, it’s shaken up by a much greater emphasis on overworld exploration. As mentioned previously, Hyrule has become a series of islands on the ocean, and much of Wind Waker’s gameplay revolves around sailing the King of Red Lions from island to island, discovering new islands, filling in Link’s Sea Chart, and exploring these islands for hidden treasures.

There’s also a lengthy sidequest revolving around Link obtaining Treasure Charts, which show the locations of hidden treasures in the waters near these islands, which Link must salvage from the ocean floor. On paper it sounds rather tedious, but I actually found it to be the most exciting, enjoyable part of the game, charting the world, exploring strange new lands and hunting treasure. It’s one of the best open world concepts I’ve come across in a video game and it’s something I’d dearly love to see replicated in future Zelda titles, in spirit if nothing else.

Anybody else hear the "Pirates of the Carribean" theme? No? Just me, then?

Anybody else hear the “Pirates of the Carribean” theme? No? Just me, then?

As for the more traditional Zelda-style gameplay, it’s as satisfying as ever here. While the dungeon design and boss battles aren’t as brilliantly done as those of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they’re still good and will put your puzzle-solving skills to the test. Sword combat is fleshed out a little more than it was in Ocarina of Time, but it’s still not up to what it would become in TP and SS. Defeating most enemies is more dependent on clever use of items than it is on swordplay.

Speaking of, the item selection is noteworthy in Wind Waker, in that it has one of the smallest inventories I’ve seen in a Zelda game, but each item has multiple applications and uses. For example, bombs function as on-foot demolitions and ammo for the King of Red Lions’ cannon, while the Grappling Hook is used for swinging and climbing through the environment, for stealing from enemies, and for treasure salvage.

It’s very thrifty from a game design standpoint, and it makes each item feel more important, unlike some Zelda titles where items are used in one particular dungeon and then almost never again (looking at you, Spinner).

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn't make tops cool, nothing can.

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn’t make tops cool, nothing can.

Also, the game has one useful feature that makes running through the dungeons less of a headache. One big problem that the Zelda games have always had was a limited number of continue points; when you save and quit your game in most Zelda titles, while it saves your progress, Link will only re-appear at a handful of overworld locations, or the entrance to the dungeon you were working on.

So unless you can take the time to go through a dungeon in one shot, you’re going to wind up doing some backtracking, which is a hassle. Skyward Sword finally introduced save points to the series, something that I hope they keep in the next installment, since it allowed you to save, quit, and return to a dungeon at the last point you left off.

Wind Waker still starts you over at the beginning of the dungeon when you load a save, but it makes a concession to people with lives beyond video games in the form of warp pots. These are a series of three pots that, as you progress through the dungeon, you can open up, with one at the beginning of the dungeon, one at the midpoint, and one right before the boss chamber. So, if you have to save and quit in the middle of a dungeon, you can jump into the warp pot near the entrance and end up much closer to where you left off. It’s a helpful feature, and one that’s curiously absent in the next game in the series,Twilight Princess.

The controls are very solid overall; from movement to combat to sailing, Link moves responsively and quickly. Having three mappable item buttons is nice (especially after playing through Skyward Sword, which only had one button for items), though I found myself having to change my item load-out very frequently. And playing Wind Waker after Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, I cannot emphasize enough how much having a controllable camera mapped to a thumbstick improves the Zelda experience.

There were a few context-sensitive commands that didn’t detect my movements as well as I would have liked and led to more than a few cheap falls and failures in the game’s forced stealth segment (which was, admittedly, easier than I remembered), but all in all, the controls and core gameplay are very solid. And the additions to the Wii U version, namely the touchscreen menus and gyroscopic aiming mechanics, worked beautifully and added a great deal to the overall experience.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

The sound design and music were strong, as always. There are some excellent renditions of classic Zelda tunes as well as some catchy new songs (I’m particularly fond of the theme from Dragon Roost Island). Much like its visuals, sound design is one area where Wind Waker stacks up very favorably against other Zelda titles I’ve played.

So, what’s my final verdict? I’d say that Wind Waker ranks fourth on my list of Zelda titles that I’ve finished, below Skyward Sword but ahead of Ocarina of Time. In terms of mechanics and story, I don’t like it quite as much as some of the other titles in the series.

However, with excellent visuals, a strong score, and an unparalleled sense of freedom and exploration, Wind Waker is very much a worthy addition to the Zelda series, and I’d heartily recommend it to any fans out there. It has its own special charm that makes it an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. And for those who own a Wii U, I’d definitely recommend the HD edition.

Seeing as this is the third Nintendo game in a row I’ve reviewed, I think I’m going to take a break from the Big N for a little while and shift focus to another developer–one whose work dominated my youth with great games, but fell victim to bad game design and poor writing. I’m going to have to take a literal trip to the dark side of the moon to find another good game from them. See you soon!

Writing: A Team Effort

A booth with a view.

A booth with a view.

Two weekends ago I attended Tokyo in Tulsa to promote my novel, The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship! It was a busy three days–my first con appearance–and I was happy to meet many people and talk about the book with them.

I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years now, but promoting a book is something entirely different, so this was a brand new experience for me. I was excited to see so much interest and excitement about my work. I left the con feeling energized and excited about reaching out to new readers and continuing the Bobcat series as a whole!

However, the con wasn’t all about handing out promo material and making pitches. I was able to get away from the table long enough to attend some panels on writing and publishing. 

These presentations were hosted by RPG writer Stephen Radney-McFarland, anime ADR director, voice actor and adaptive screenwriter Terri Doty, publisher Carlos Moreno of Falkor Publishing, and Falkor’s newest published author, Steven Mix, writer of the zombie apocalypse novel Goodbye from the Edge of Never (buy it here!). There were laughs, excitement, insight into all kinds of facets of writing across multiple industries. All in all, it was a great time.

But between working the Bobcat booth with my wife/manager Okcate, our cover artist Tallulah and my brother Jacob, and listening to what Stephen, Steven, Terri and Carlos had to say, I came to a realization about writing, and it’s one that I’m not sure most people get. 

When we hear the word “writer,” most of us probably have the same image; some lone, iconoclastic figure, sitting at a desk, scribbling away with a pen or tapping at a typewriter or a word processor. We picture Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King pouring their tortured souls out onto the page all by themselves, or J.D. Salinger alone in his house, writing reams for himself and nobody else.

Whoever pops into your head, they probably have one thing in common; much like every hard-boiled detective ever written, they work alone. The writer as a popular figure is envisioned as somebody who shapes people and worlds in isolation on their own, with nobody to help them. 

And at Tokyo in Tulsa, I learned that image could not be more wrong.

Now, I’ve worked with my team for some time now, but TnT taught me just how many people it takes, putting in hours of time and effort, to see a story through to publication. No book you have ever read made it straight into your hands directly from only the writer. It went through editors, likely several of them, poring over the text, looking for problems with grammar, syntax and (if the writer/publisher are doing their jobs right) continuity and story. 

The layout, design, and cover art were provided by people who specialize in making books look just right. Promoters and advertisers tirelessly worked their butts off to help the author get the word out, and make you, the reader, aware that there was a book available for purchase in the first place.

While a writer may create the content, he relies on other people to mold it, to refine it to its purest form, and to dress it up and make it presentable for the general public. In other words, a writer needs a team to help make his work the best it can be. And perhaps more importantly, he needs readers to appreciate it.

So, thank you to Okcate, Tallulah and Jacob for all your help at the convention, and everything else you’ve done to make The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship into something worth reading. And thank you to everybody who stopped by our booth to talk us; I hope you enjoy the book.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get back to work. After all, I have a team I don’t want to let down.

 

Fashionably Late: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Mario & Luigi 1

Okay, I know I hinted in the last review that I would be reviewing The World Ends With You as my next Fashionably Late game. It’s a game that I got from my brother years ago as a Christmas present that I still haven’t finished (sorry, Jake), but I got sidetracked from that title.

I plan to come back to it, but in the meantime, I’m reviewing another game that my brother introduced me to years ago that I never finished until now; a game, appropriately enough, about two brothers: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

It’s impossible for me to talk about Mario & Luigi without first talking about the title that kicked off Nintendo’s franchise of Mario role-playing games, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Back in 1996, before they were alienated by Nintendo’s decision to stick with the cartridge format for games on the soon-to-be-released Nintendo 64, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) released all their games on Nintendo systems.

Many people bought a Super Nintendo for such classic Square games as Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger just as much as they bought one to play Mario titles. Eventually, the two companies decided to do a collaboration, and the result was Super Mario RPG, a console-style RPG starring Mario characters.

SMRPG is one of my favorite video games of all time. It’s a charming game with excellent graphics, memorable characters, delightful music and exciting gameplay. But more than that, SMRPG was a hugely influential game for me. It introduced me to the genre of roleplaying games, which is still one of my favorite game genres.

Even the sewer level was fun!

Even the sewer level was fun!

Without SMRPG, I might never have played titles like Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, Lost Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles, Radiant Historia,The Last Story, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout 3. I might never have tried my hand at tabletop roleplaying. More than most other games, SMRPG had a huge impact on my life, so its successors had a lot to live up to.

This legacy, however, created its own set of problems. Nintendo is one of the oldest companies in the game industry, and it has some of the longest-running franchises in the history of video games. That’s impressive, especially in today’s climate where game franchises often don’t last for more than one console generation, but it does have its drawbacks. 

Once one of Nintendo’s franchises hits a high point, many people consider any sequels they release to be inferior to that early game. I call this the “Mario 3 Effect,” after Super Mario Bros. 3, which is generally considered to be the best Mario action title ever released (though “Mario 64 Effect” would also be applicable).

And the Mario RPG franchise definitely falls prey to this pattern, at least for me. Rather than team up with Square again and make another title in the vein of Super Mario RPG, Nintendo instead had Intelligent Systems, developers of Fire Emblem, do their own take on a Mario RPG. The result was Paper Mario, a game so named for its art style, which used flat, 2D sprites in a 3D polygonal environment, resulting in “paper” characters. 

Even Bowser is shocked they're re-hashing this plot again.

Even Bowser is shocked they’re re-hashing this plot again.

Now, Paper Mario was by no means a bad game; it’s certainly a fun title in its own right. But it dumbs down the already-simplified RPG elements from SMRPG, replaces the fairly complex plot from SMRPG with yet another variation on the “Bowser kidnaps the Princess” storyline, and portrays a world that, while charming and fun in its own way, lacks the grand scale and quirkiness of SMRPG’s world and its inhabitants. In short, while good, it underperformed my expectations.

The Paper Mario franchise would continue in 2004, with the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which was an improvement on the original PM game with a much better story and a new land to explore, and later with Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which, curiously, stripped down the RPG elements even further. But in the meantime, Nintendo, with developer Alpha Dreams, released a portable branch to the franchise for the Gameboy Advance in 2003, titled Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, which spawned its own series of sequels for the DS and 3DS.

I originally played M&L when it came out back in 2003, borrowing my brother’s copy of the game. I ended up putting it aside partway through and not returning to it until recently, when I played through it again as a re-release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. And playing it again, I can understand why I gave up on it at the time. Mario & Luigi is a very different game from its sister series, and this is both a good and a bad thing.

The plot centers around a (naturally) never-before mentioned neighboring nation to the Mushroom Kingdom called the Bean-Bean Kingdom. An ambassador from the Kingdom arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, ostensibly on a goodwill mission to meet with Princess Peach. However, when the ambassador arrives, she reveals herself as the evil witch Cackletta (along with her malaprop-spewing sidekick, Fawful), and steals Peach’s voice, replacing it with a voice so hideously awful, Peach’s speech becomes literally explosive.

Princess Peach literally dropping F-bombs.

Princess Peach, dropping some F-bombs.

Naturally, it falls to Mario to pursue Cackletta back to the Bean-Bean Kingdom, thwart whatever designs she has for Peach’s voice, and fix the princess’ pipes (wakka-wakka!). Surprisingly, Bowser allies himself with Mario and agrees to give him a lift to Bean-Bean on his Doomship, on the grounds that if Bowser were to kidnap Peach in her current state, she could destroy his castle just by screaming. And Luigi, who initially plans to let his brother do the rescuing, gets mistaken for one of Bowser’s troops and dragged onto the Doomship, so he’s along for the ride, too.

I will say that the plot is actually one of M&L’s strong points; it starts off rather unpredictably and has a number of twists and turns that keep you guessing up until the final act. It’s not the most complex plot I’ve seen in a video game by any means, but it’s practically Inception by Mario standards.

Like Paper Mario, Mario & Luigi puts you in control of two party members, the titular Mario Brothers. However, while Paper Mario had a large cast of party members who joined Mario in his quest, Mario only has his green-garbed brother to rely on in M&L. And the entire game is designed around the concept of the brothers working as a team.

For starters, the player controls both brothers simultaneously; on the world map, Mario and Luigi move around in a short conga line, with either brother able to be swapped into the lead position, and the A and B buttons each controlling one of the brothers’ actions. At the beginning of the game, Mario and Luigi only have their trademark jumping abilities at their disposal, but as their quest progresses, they get access to progressively stronger hammers, as well as elemental “hand” powers, with Mario getting to shoot fire from his hand and Luigi mastering lightning.

These abilities are used to solve environmental puzzles, with jumps being used to traverse platforms and hit switch blocks, hammers being used to shatter boulders and hit wall switches, and the “hand” powers lighting torches and powering dynamos. Additionally, Mario and Luigi learn to use these abilities as a team, which expands the puzzle-solving out even further.

Trust me, Luigi's not just working out years of frustration here...

Trust me, Luigi’s not just working out decades of frustration here…

For example, Mario can team up with Luigi to spin like a helicopter and take a flying jump over large gaps, while Luigi can bounce on Mario and reach higher ledges. Mario can hit Luigi with a hammer to pound him into the ground and let him pass under obstacles, while Luigi can squish Mario down with his hammer and let him enter small gaps. These “Bro Techniques” become a means of opening up the world map even further and exploring previously unreachable places, as well as solving some nasty puzzles.

All of this carries over into the combat as well; whenever Mario and Luigi enter battle against an enemy (who are visible on the world map and can be preemptively struck, just like in Paper Mario), the player controls Mario with the A button and Luigi with the B button. Combat is turn-based, and each brother’s menu is controlled with their respective button.

Mario and Luigi each have access to all the abilities they have available on the field, including their jump, hammer and hand abilities (each enemy in the game being vulnerable to specific types of damage), as well as their Bro Techniques, which allow Mario and Luigi to double-team an enemy for extra damage and special effects, similar to Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs.

The Bros Attacks can look...awkward out of context.

The Bros Attacks can look…awkward out of context.

The combat system also retains the “action commands” which have long been a staple of the Mario RPGs. In essence, this means that by performing a specific action at the right time, Mario or Luigi can increase the damage of their attacks, or by jumping an attack or parrying it with a hammer, they can avoid taking damage or even counter-attack.

Again, Mario and Luigi’s action commands are each controlled with their respective button, so the player needs to learn to read enemy movements and correctly command Mario or Luigi (or sometimes both at once) to avoid attacks to prevent them from taking damage. It’s a system I’ve always liked, because it keeps battles engaging where they can often become a tedious chore in RPGs, and Mario & Luigi takes it even further.

Visually, M&L is a gorgeous game. The sprites are bright, colorful and well-animated. Mario and Luigi never speak a word of dialogue (well, Luigi actually does speak, but he’s disguised as somebody else at the time, so that doesn’t really count), but their expressions convey enough personality and emotion that it doesn’t really matter.

The environments are creatively designed and the other characters are interesting to look at; in particular, the Koopalings have some surprisingly well-designed sprites, considering that this was their first game appearance in more than 10 years (though strangely, they don’t have a single line of dialogue).

Looking good, kids!

Looking good, kids!

The music, however, is rather disappointing…which is surprising, because it’s composed by Super Mario RPG composer and video game music powerhouse Yoko Shimomura, who ranks alongside such luminaries as Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda as one of my favorite game composers. The issue isn’t that Shimomura’s tunes are bad; they’re certainly serviceable, even if they don’t measure up to some of her other work, and certain pieces, like the battle music and boss battle themes, are certainly catchy.

I think the main issue is that these pieces are short and loop a lot…though I’m not sure why, as there are plenty of other titles on the Gameboy Advance that have many lengthy BGMs. The short, repetitive nature of a lot of the tunes got on my nerves at times, which didn’t help my enjoyment of the game.

Story-wise, the game is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, as I said, the story is much more complex and involved than other entries in the series. On the other, there aren’t as many memorable, interesting characters as there have been in other Mario RPG titles. There are stand-out characters such as the noble Prince Peasley, villains Cackletta and Fawful, and comic-relief villain Popple, but the cast pales in comparison to games like SMRPG and Thousand-Year Door, with the memorable characters they introduced in almost every location you went to.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call ’em like I see ’em.

On the subject of locations, while the ones that appear in M&L are pretty interesting, there aren’t many of them, and you’ll be backtracking to locations to re-visit them frequently, which makes the game feel very small in scope. I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair of me to pick on the game on that last point since it is a portable game, but it is what it is.

Another thing that bothered me about this game, plot-wise, is how it treats the character of Luigi. Now, up until recently (as of the time of the game’s release), Luigi hadn’t been playable in a main Mario title for several years, and this was his first appearance in a Mario RPG as a main character. But the way the developers decided to deal with him was by treating him as cowardly comic relief. This sort of expands on Luigi’s characterization in his first solo game, Luigi’s Mansion, where he spent most of his time scared out of his mind…because he was in a haunted mansion! There, the portrayal of Luigi as a scaredy-cat made sense.

But here, the developers decided to expand that schtick further to the point where Luigi is afraid of everything, and would be more than happy to ignore the call to adventure and let Mario handle dangers for himself if circumstances permitted. Sadly, this seems to be the interpretation of the character that Nintendo has stuck with over the years, turning Luigi into an overlooked, under-appreciated joke. It just rubs me the wrong way with its mean-spiritedness, even if it can be funny at times.

As you can see, I'm a bit of a fan.

As you can see, I’m a bit of a fan.

And while I praised the game design earlier, I have to contradict myself a bit when I say that this game becomes something of a chore to play towards the end. The last few dungeons of the game become massive marathons of tricky puzzles and battles that can easily party-wipe you if you’re not an expert at dodging attacks and well-stocked with healing items. Now, I’m not one to complain about difficulty in a game, provided the difficulty curve is well handled, but in M&L, the difficulty spikes so sharply towards the end of the game that it’s astounding.

This difficulty spike is compounded by the fact that, like later Paper Mario games, M&L eliminates or downplays a lot of RPG elements. Presumably this is done in an effort to simplify the game and appeal to a wider audience, but a lot of times this streamlining leaves the game with features that feel more vestigial than functional.

For example, there are only a few equipment and item shops in the game, to the point where I almost wonder why they bothered to keep equipment in the game at all, since the scaling of power is minimal and you can go for hours of game time without ever upgrading your armor or badges.

This issue is also exacerbated by the fact that one of the brothers’ core statistics, the ‘Stache attribute, gives Mario and Luigi a discount at shops…which is great, until you realize that there’s not a lot of shopping to do in the game and you’ll rarely be short on money, even with a lower ‘Stache score.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck's Stache score is 255.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck’s Stache score is 255.

There are also no inns to rest up at and restore your health and Bros Points (the resource that powers your Bro Techniques in battle), which discourages the player from using special techniques regularly and leveling them up, removing a lot of depth from combat. This shortcoming, combined with the emphasis on timed attacks and dodges, results in a combat system that rewards fast reflexes and timing more than planning and strategy, which may be preferable for some people, but left me wanting something a bit more cerebral.

All in all, Mario & Luigi is a solid game, certainly good enough for me to want to play its sequels when I get the chance. But it still pales in comparison to the game that started it all, Super Mario RPG, and leaves me wondering if one of my favorite games of all time will ever get a truly worthy successor. Unfortunately, at this point it seems like no amount of wishing on a star will ever make that dream come true.

Hero Worship at Tokyo in Tulsa

cropped-Chicago-Skyline3.jpg

A little less than a year ago, I debuted The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship to my first live audience and reflected on what an experience that was. After doing some more appearances since then–some planned, some on the fly, (note to authors: keep a digital copy of your work accessible on your smartphone; you never know when a spot at a showcase will open up) I have actually begun to dig the whole public reading thing.

As of today, I am looking forward to my very first con appearance at Tokyo in Tulsa in July, 2014. I’ll not only be talking about the current novel, but I’ll also have news about the soon-to-be released second book. Please come by my booth and support me as I step into another role–promotor. I’ll be the brand new author sweating bullets. See you there!

Post-E3 Reflections 2014

It’s E3 time! Again…

Last year, I wrote my first real post to my blog about my thoughts on E3 2013. Since E3 continues to have significance as a kind of holiday among video game fans, and since this month marks the one-year anniversary of my blog, I thought I’d talk about my thoughts on this year’s E3 conference.

To avoid rambling like last year (first blog post and all) I’ll go over each of the major conferences in chronological order, talk about anything I found noteworthy (or not), and then I’ll close out with a summary of my thoughts. Let’s dive right in:

Microsoft: 

While I haven’t made a secret of the fact that Microsoft drove me away as a fan about halfway through the Xbox 360’s tenure, and I have no plans to ever buy an Xbox One, I will try to be objective here and talk about what I thought was intriguing and what wasn’t, instead of just writing the whole conference off.

First off, I have to give Microsoft credit for covering games and only games at their E3 presser.  This decision alone made it one of the best conferences they’ve had in years. Their fumbling attempts to rope in both casual players and enthusiasts with their presentations for the last few years has led to some absolutely painful, boring conferences, and I’m glad they decided to stick with things that the crowd who actually tunes into these conferences will be interested in.

And Microsoft featured a few games that actually did pique my interest. Sunset Overdrive, the latest game from Sony alum Insomniac, looks colorful, bombastic and exciting. It’s a nice change of pace from their last outing, Fuse, where they let the pressure of industry trends turn what could have been a unique shooter with a lot of personality into something incredibly generic, and stylistically it’s like nothing else on Xbox at present.

Additionally, Microsoft had one of the biggest surprises at the show (at least for me), when they announced a sequel/remake to Phantom Dust, the original Xbox exclusive arena fighter/CCG. They only showed a CGI cutscene teaser for it (I’ll talk more about this later), but the fact that they’re even releasing a new game in the franchise is kind of amazing in this day and age, since the original Phantom Dust’s sales were…underwhelming, to be kind.

They also announced an exclusive game from one of my favorite studios, Platinum Games, called Scalebound. Again, another CGI trailer with no gameplay whatsoever, but I’m kind of surprised that Microsoft would reach out to Platinum for an exclusive; as much as I love Platinum’s games, they certainly aren’t system-sellers for most people and outside of a loyal cult following, they tend not to sell that well, especially among Xbox die-hards.

And that’s it for the positives. For the rest of what got featured at Microsoft’s conference, my response was “don’t care” or “I can get it on another platform.” This is the primary reason I gave up on Xbox; there just isn’t enough there that interests me to warrant a purchase, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

Ubisoft:

Ubisoft had exactly one game to show that I cared about: Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It’s a 2D adventure game, similar in mechanics to Double Fine’s recent title The Cave and animated in a storybook style using the UbiArt engine that powers Rayman Legends. It purports to tell the story of five individuals who save the life of a soldier in World War I, supposedly based on actual letters from these people sent during the war.

Ordinarily I detest war games. As someone who comes from a long line of veterans, I find it offensive to turn actual war into a perpetual toy for people to play soldier with online. I don’t even like war movies (with very few exceptions) for similar reasons. But Valiant Hearts looks to be taking a different approach and telling a meaningful, heart-felt story about the war in an artistically tasteful way, not unlike how Art Spiegelman’s Maus tells the story of the Holocaust through cartoon analogues of mice, cats and pigs. So Valiant Hearts is one title I’ll be watching with great interest.

Everything else was boring to me: sequels to franchises I’m not interested in, new IPs that I equally don’t care about (most of which were featured at Sony and Microsoft’s conferences anyway), fitness and dance games. In other words, typical Ubisoft. 

EA:

Given EA’s track record of late, anything positive I have to say in this segment comes with the unstated caveat of “…if they don’t mess it up.” So just bear that in mind.

That said, there were a few games in EA’s conference that did interest me. The first is Battlefield: Hardline, which uses the Battlefield 4 engine to make a cops-and-robbers tactical shooter. As much as I detest war shooters and movies, I’m actually a big fan of heist films and cop films and the few games that have attempted to utilize that kind of setting, so this is one Battlefield title I might be interested in picking up…after I’m sure that the online is working correctly.

Second is a new Mirror’s Edge game. Now, I still need to play the original Mirror’s Edge, but I was intrigued by the first-person parkour title when it came out, and the sequel (what they showed of it) looks to be in much the same vein. When I get around to trying out the original game, I might give Mirror’s Edge 2 a shot if I like what I see.

Finally, there’s the new Dragon Age game, Dragon Age: Inquisition. I loved the first Dragon Age, and I own and have played (but not beaten) its divisive sequel. I’ve been a big fan of BioWare’s work since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the original Xbox, but I’ve noticed that their work seems to have declined in quality or at least shown more problems since EA bought them out. So, I’ll be approaching this one with caution.

As for the rest, it was just sports games and sequels to franchises that aren’t up my alley. 

Sony:

Aside from their decision to showcase Playstation-exclusive TV and movie stuff, Sony’s conference was very similar to Microsoft’s; a few games I’d like to play, a lot that I probably won’t  or that are going to be available elsewhere. Having said that, there were definitely some games at the Sony conference that caught my attention.

First, Sony announced a new stand-alone DLC for Infamous: Second Son, sort of like what they did with Infamous: Festival of Blood a few years ago. I think that’s a cool idea. If/when I get a PS4, I’ll definitely be picking up Second Son and downloading this DLC. Not much else to say on that front.

Second is LittleBigPlanet 3. I like the first two LBP titles, and this new game looks to be pretty cool, adding new characters with new abilities and promising to port over all the user-created levels from LBP 1 and 2 with improved visuals…though the visuals are one thing that left me kind of scratching my head. I’ve complained before that a lot of the games for the PS4 and Xbone look like they could have been achieved on the PS3 and 360 with a minimal downgrade in visuals, but this is especially true for LBP 3. It looks almost identical to LBP 2, and really does nothing to justify the new hardware. I know LBP has never been a visual showcase, but it’s such a transparent move to sell more PS4s that I can’t help but roll my eyes at it.

Third is a new game from gonzo action game developer Suda51, titled Let It Die, which is going to be exclusive to PS4. It was just a teaser trailer that showed no gameplay, but I’m a fan of Suda51’s work, so on one hand, I’m definitely intrigued by this one…on the other hand, it’s since been revealed that the game is going to be both always online and “free to play,” which are major no-nos for me in a console title, so I’m very much on the fence.

Fourth is a title called No Man’s Sky, a “procedurally-generated” space exploration game that’s supposed to create new content as players explore the game’s universe. I’ve heard this kind of hype before from games like Spore, so I’m more than a little skeptical, but the footage they showed did look very nice. I’ll be interested to learn more about this one as it comes out.

Finally, there was a teaser trailer for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I’m a big fan of the Uncharted series (in fact, I’m sitting next to a curio cabinet holding my limited edition Nathan Drake figurine as I write this), but this was just a CGI teaser trailer and showed no gameplay footage whatsoever. Beyond showing that Uncharted 4 is on-track for a 2015 release, there really isn’t much more to say about this one.

As for the rest of what Sony showed, it was all either third-party titles that will be available elsewhere, new IPs that don’t interest me (The Order: 1886 comes to mind) or CGI teasers that didn’t do anything other than announce the fact that a game was in development. 

Nintendo:

As you may know, I’m definitely a Nintendo fan, and the Wii U is the only 8th generation console I currently own. Having said that, I think Nintendo had, hands-down, the best presentation of all three console makers at this year’s E3.

There was no plugging of third-party titles with exclusive DLC, no talk about TV shows or movies, just tons of exclusive games and content, coupled with great, funny presentation, including sketches by the creators of Robot Chicken and a Matrix-esque kung fu battle between Nintendo President Satoru Iwata and Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime. If you like Nintendo at all and you haven’t seen it yet, clear thirty minutes or so from your schedule and give it a watch. I promise you it’s worth your time.

There was new footage and information on previously announced titles, including Hyrule Warriors, the newly-christened Yoshi’s Wooly World, new Smash Bros info, the Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire remakes, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Bayonetta 2 (which will ship with Bayonetta 1 on the same disc). And there were a ton of surprise announcements, including a new game based on the Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World, a stunning first look at the upcoming Legend of Zelda game, a sequel to Kirby: Canvas Curse for the Wii U, a Mario level-creation game, and a brand-new third-person shooter called Splatoon that looks pretty exciting.

Nintendo also unveiled their previously-discussed NFC figurine toys, which they’re calling “amiibo.” These are little figurines of Nintendo characters that, similar to Skylanders toys, when brought into contact with the Wii U Gamepad’s NFC reader (or an upcoming NFC peripheral for 3DS), will enter that character into the game and allow it to interact with the game and player in unique ways. Amiibo is going to be supported by a number of titles, the first of which will be Super Smash Bros, which will launch along with the figurines. I’m not sure how much I, as a 29-year-old man, will get out of this new toy line, but it’s pretty cool-looking and I’m sure it’ll print money for Nintendo, which is something they really need right now.

Final Thoughts:

All in all, I’d say this year’s E3 was a lot more encouraging than last year’s. I’m significantly less disillusioned about the state of the game industry than I was a year ago.

That being said, this year’s conference brought into sharp focus some trends in the gaming industry that simply need to die. I’m sick of console-makers, rather than producing their own content, claiming third-party titles on the grounds of temporary exclusivity or exclusive DLC or early betas just so they can pad out their presentations. Likewise, I’m also tired of CGI teaser trailers that tell us nothing about the game itself and show no actual gameplay; every conference except for Nintendo’s was rife with teaser trailers like this, and it was a massive waste of the audience’s time.

Additionally, and this is more directed at Sony, the increased emphasis on “free-to-play” titles at major E3 conferences over the last few years is disquieting. F2P is a dangerous business model; for every game that does it right, there are ten games that become “pay to win” or “free to play…for 5 minutes unless you pay us.” It’s also a model that console owners don’t historically respond well to, so if these platform holders aren’t careful, they could wind up alienating the very people who keep them in business.

Finally, and this is probably going to make me sound like an old man, I buy game consoles to play games. I don’t buy them to watch TV or movies, and I certainly don’t buy them so I can watch a particular show that’s exclusive to that platform. Maybe those kind of tactics play with a wider audience, but those aren’t the people who are going to tune in to watch an E3 conference. So Sony, Microsoft, please just give it a rest with the TV shows and spend that time talking about games, because your TV shows and movies aren’t going to convince anybody to spend $400+ on one of your consoles.

…Unless you’re planning to make 6 more seasons of Firefly. Then we can talk.

 

The Scary Truth of Dangerous Insecurity

Outdated ideas deserve an outdated reference.

Because outdated ideas deserve an outdated reference.

A few weeks ago I posted this piece discussing the fact that our fiction fails to reflect the continually-evolving state of gender relations in modern society, and alluding to the problems that logically could follow from entire generations of men being conditioned to expect to relate to women in an archaic way, and having the rug pulled out from under them when they find out the world doesn’t really work like that. I’d said my piece on that subject and was prepared to move on to other topics.

Then, not even a week after I had put up that blog post, the UCSB shooting happened. Elliot Rodger shot and killed six innocent people and then himself, and his own “manifesto” and YouTube videos revealed that he had done this to “get revenge” on the world because he didn’t have an attractive girlfriend (or any girlfriend, but he placed major emphasis on the “attractive” part), and he felt that he was owed one.

That, in the parlance of our times, is some spooky shit. Suddenly, and understandably, I think, I was less inclined to immediately move on from this topic.

After I wrote a blog entry discussing the problems that arise when entitlement and gun ownership collide, and as I did a little more reading on these subjects, I quickly found that Rodger was involved with the so-called “Men’s Rights Movement,” a group of loosely-connected (and often opposing) online communities who ostensibly speak up for men’s rights in a feminist-dominated world. Anybody with a basic knowledge of history will immediately understand why that mission statement is so absurd.

My previous experiences encountering this self-described “Movement” mostly amounted to running into one of its advocates on a message board or in an online comments section in a thread dealing in some way with sexism, or reading about them conducting cyber-attacks on feminist websites. I hadn’t fully realized the depth and breadth of this phenomenon. But after the UCSB shooting and learning of Rodger’s motives and who he was talking with online, I felt a need to dig deeper.

Apparently after Rodger’s affiliation with them came to light, the MRM forum that Rodger had been a part of, PUAHate (short for Pick-Up Artist Hate) had been shut down by their former webhost. Through doing some reading, I found this article by a woman who tracked down the new message board where the members of PUAHate had re-congregated. The writer created a profile and lurked there silently for eight hours, documenting the highlights of what she saw written by the community.

Fair warning, the article is a difficult one to stomach. For those who’d rather not feel like their brain needs a shower today, or for those who’d simply prefer to avoid giving a click to a Gawker site (understandable), I’ll briefly summarize the main “points” made by the PUAHate members below:

  • They believe that they are entitled to an attractive woman with whom they can have sex.
  • “Attractiveness” is apparently not in the eye of the beholder, but rather measured by a series of physical measurements and invented metrics that would be more at home in benchmarking computer parts than in discussing another human being.
  • If a woman is sexually active (or perceived to be sexually active), then she should be servicing all men everywhere. If not, she is a “slut” and “parading” her sexuality in front of lonely men.
  • Men who are not having sex (“involuntarily celibate” or “incel”) are an oppressed group, and the entirety of modern society is a feminist construction that exists for the purpose of cock-blocking them.
  • Rape is a dominant alpha male behavior, particularly date rape, and is to be encouraged and admired.
  • All men feel this way whether they’ll admit it or not, and killers like Elliot Rodger and Richard Ramirez are simply taking the next logical step and should be emulated.

To paraphrase Alan Moore, if that last bullet point fills you with an intense and crushing feeling of fear and disgust, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane.

PUAHate is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many forums out there just like it, separated only by the thinnest of ideological differences, and all of them spewing the same drivel and hate. All of them are full of lonely men who, rather than take charge of their own lives, accept responsibility for their own failings and becoming somebody worth loving and who can love in return, prefer to externalize their insecurity and self-loathing, blaming others for causing their problems and embracing hate instead of love.

And that’s all it is. In the entire ideology of the “Men’s Rights Movement,” there isn’t anything about what it means to be a man, about what men should be able to do, about fatherhood, about courage, about building and creating and growing. There is nothing but hate for women. It is misogynist in the truest sense of the word, and it all stems from these men believing they are not receiving what they are owed. They were taught that they deserve an attractive sexual partner, and they’re not getting what they feel they were entitled to.

This problem of perception is very real. It’s not going to go away on its own. And as long as it’s around, there will be more people like Elliot Rodger. More innocent people will die, and these “activists” will lurk in their dark corners of the Internet and cheer the killers on.

So I must re-iterate my call to action; writers everywhere, we need to make a change. We can’t, in good conscience, take part in warping another generation of men into these hateful creatures that applaud the deaths of innocents.

Our stories will teach the next generation, and we need to make sure they’re being taught better values than the belief that women are a debt that’s owed to them. We need to teach that worth comes from self-improvement, not the possession and destruction of others. And most importantly, we need to teach that hate is not a substitute for love.

Absolute Right?

...regardless of the cost?

…regardless of the cost?

As most of you are aware, last Friday a young man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara–killing six innocent victims and then killing himself. This was the act of a deranged, hateful person, motivated by misogyny, racism and general misanthropy, and it resulted in a terrible loss of life.

People have different ways of grieving and dealing with terrible events like the UCSB shooting. Some have chosen to examine the killer’s motivations and discuss them in order to gain a better understanding. Some, like the father of one of the victims, Richard Martinez, chose to call for legislation and action to prevent more senseless acts of gun violence in the future.

And some, like former Presidential campaign prop turned political commentator Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, chose to write an open letter in response to Martinez’s heartbreaking plea to say “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” Or no, actually, it was just him.

I deliberately chose not to link to Wurzelbacher’s letter itself, mostly because I don’t want to give it more clicks than it already received. Having read it myself, it’s honestly hard to tell if Wurzelbacher believes what he says, or if this is just him trolling in an attempt to exploit the deaths of several innocent young people to prolong his long-since-lapsed 15 minutes of fame.

He barely touches on his pro-Second Amendment argument before going off on a tangent about whether the shooter voted for Obama and complaining about media bias against “conservative Tea Party Republican Christians,” and implying that Martinez cares more about his political agenda than he does his dead son. Suffice to say, it’s one of the more ignorant, illogical and hateful things I’ve read on the Internet.

But for the purposes of this post, I’ll both assume Wurzelbacher is serious and focus on his briefly addressed and completely unsupported thesis, that the well-being of other humans is not paramount to his right, as guaranteed under the Constitution (or at least his interpretation of the Constitution), to own a firearm.

I wouldn’t even give “Joe the Plumber” the time of day if it weren’t for the fact that this argument keeps coming up over and over. Every time one of these shooting sprees happens (and they are frequent these days), a certain segment of the pro-Second Amendment crowd decries any discussion of gun control or restrictions of gun ownership on the grounds that the Second Amendment grants them the absolute right to own guns, in any quantity, quality or type they desire.

The problem with this argument is that there is no such thing as an absolute right. Every right recognized by the government of the United States of America, and by the United Nations, is qualified and modified by law.

Even though the First Amendment grants me the right to freedom of speech without “abridgment” by Congressional law, that doesn’t protect me from being criminally liable for damages, injuries and loss of life resulting from me yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t permit me to threaten people with violence, or print falsehoods about other people, or to practice a religion that involves human sacrifice. My rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of religion do not take precedence over the well-being of others who have done me no wrong.

What Wurzelbacher is arguing, and what everybody who repeats this claim is arguing, is that, though the very Amendment that guarantees their ability to say these ignorant, hateful things and rub salt in the wounds of grieving parents is subject to restrictions and limitations, the Amendment that protects their right to own a firearm is not.

That is horseshit.

A person’s rights, under law, end when they infringe on the rights of others. Even the right to life, recognized by both the United States government and the United Nations as a basic human right, is not guaranteed in the event that a person chooses to use their life to bring harm to another. This is the very cornerstone of law. It is the mortar that holds society together. If we were to adopt this attitude of doing what we want without any thought of the harm to others under every circumstance, the end result would be anarchy.

So what, exactly, makes the Second Amendment so special that the very precepts of law and human society, observed by every culture since the dawn of man, don’t apply to it?

The simple answer is, it’s not. Like every other right, the right to bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment is and should be subject to restriction and regulation. But Wurzelbacher and people like him don’t view the right to bear arms as a right. They view it as an entitlement, something they are guaranteed regardless of its impact on others, not unlike how Elliot Rodger shot innocent people to “get revenge” on the world for denying him what he believed to be his entitlement to an attractive woman to be his sexual partner.

Please understand, I realize that “Joe” and others like him aren’t speaking for every gun-owning American citizen. I understand that the vast majority of gun owners, and even the vast majority of NRA members, support gun control legislation. I imagine gun owners and non-gun owners have different ideas about what the details of that legislation should be, but that’s precisely why we need to have this conversation, and it’s a conversation that loudmouths like “Joe the Plumber” and lobbyist groups like the NRA aren’t allowing to happen.

The deaths of six innocent young people on Friday, May 23rd, 2014 were a terrible loss of life, and a horrible crime committed by a hateful, disturbed individual. The fact that we’re allowing people like Wurzelbacher and self-interested industry lobbying groups like the NRA to drown out the voices of the victims is a tragedy.

LINETS

Your participation trophy, sir.

Your participation trophy, sir.

Recently, my wife had a night out with some of our friends, and this event prompted a realization; of the women in our circle of friends, she’s one of the few who is married. And of our female friends, the majority of them are single. This observation was interesting both to her and to myself, since really, this is a scenario that, a generation or two ago, would have been surprising. We’re all in our late 20s and early 30s; in the mid-20th century and earlier, most of these women would have been married by now.

I started thinking about that change, and its broader implications, and I came to an interesting conclusion; in modern society, a woman no longer needs to be in a relationship with a man to function and thrive.

Now, don’t misunderstand me and think that preaching the “men are unnecessary” slogan. I’ve always been of the opinion that human society needs everyone to be on equal footing for society to function properly. All genders bring something to the table that the others don’t, and in an era where critical thinking and new ideas are becoming increasingly important, that’s incredibly valuable.

But prior the the last 60 years or so, a woman was expected to get married to a man and start a family, not to start a career and pay her own way. It simply wasn’t generally feasible for a woman to get a job that she could earn a real living at, due to wide array of social pressures and realities. But even though pay inequality between men and women hasn’t gone away and the “glass ceiling” still looms in many workplaces, that situation has changed. Women are not only able to earn their own way in society, they’re expected (and many desire) to make just as much as men do.

In other words, women no longer require a man in their life to be the breadwinner and provide for them just because they were born without a Y chromosome. A fundamental reality that characterized centuries of human civilization has, within our lifetimes, dramatically shifted.

My wife’s observation brought into focus a concept that had been rattling around for awhile: Why doesn’t our fiction reflect this change?

Pick any story off the shelf at random, regardless of the time in which it was written, whether it was written by a man or a woman, or what medium it’s conveyed in, and odds are the story you picked has a male lead and a female lead who fall in love and wind up in a relationship, if not married, by the story’s close.

It doesn’t have to be a love story, and indeed, the relationship between the characters doesn’t even have to be a key part of the story. This is such a common trope in fiction that a term has been coined to describe it: LINETS, or “Love Interest Non-Essential To Story.”

And it’s not just that the male and female leads almost always end up together, but these stories are mostly told from a male perspective, and the female has no agency in this relationship. She’s not another character who makes a choice or falls in love; she will be with the male lead. She’s a prize for reaching the end of the tale, a trophy for the hero. And as the old saying goes, everyone is the hero of their own story. This kind of thinking can apply to real life as well.

You may see where I’m going with this…

Fiction is many things: entertainment, an industry, an art form. But first and foremost, it’s a teacher. People tell stories because it’s one of the easiest ways to learn information. Our histories are constructed into narratives with villains, heroes and climactic battles, abstract concepts of mathematics and science are taught through simple stories, even simple bits of information from our daily lives are conveyed through anecdotes.

And perhaps most importantly, stories are how we convey our morals and social norms to our children. This is the reason that every religion has a canon of stories and parables associated with it; we teach our young by examples as demonstrated in stories, and children absorb what they see and hear. It shapes their understanding of how the world works.

So, we have an enormous, constantly-growing body of fiction, much of which is consumed by young boys, and almost all of which is telling them that simply for being what they are, the hero of their own story, they are entitled to, nay, guaranteed a woman to be their love interest. And boys are being taught this lesson in an era in which, strictly speaking, women no longer need a man by default.

There’s a lot of talk about what dangerous lessons fiction might be teaching our children. People worry about violent films, television and video games turning children into school shooters. Religious fundamentalists decry what they believe to be pro-gay messages that could turn their children into homosexuals, or books about magic like Harry Potter turning kids into Satanists.

But nobody seems to be talking about the dangers of teaching young boys that, when they grow up, they are entitled to a relationship with a woman by default. And to me that seems like a far more dangerous message, because it’s insidious.

Even the most forward-thinking young men, who support gender equality in every way possible, can fall prey to this misconception, because it doesn’t inherently conflict with a pro-feminist value system. After all, sticking up for women’s rights makes you a nice guy, a good person, a hero. And doesn’t the hero always get the girl?

It’s insidious because, even for writers, it’s hard to get away from. It’s everywhere. In many ways, it’s become as intrinsic to storytelling as the three-act structure. But like that structure, this trope of the woman-as-trophy can be subverted. It can be played with. It can be changed.

As writers, it’s our duty to do so. As society changes and progresses, so must the lessons we teach. A society should move forward because of its stories, not in spite of them.

Compulsive Storytelling

Nothing to do now but wait. *Sigh.*

Nothing to do now but wait. *Sigh.*

Recently, I started watching the anime series Attack on Titan, which just recently began its US television run on Cartoon Network…and by “started watching,” I mean that I shotgunned the entire first season on Netflix in about four days. Attack on Titan is one of the most compelling, compulsively watchable shows I’ve ever seen, and once I finished watching the first season, and after the realization sank in that now I was stuck waiting for the second season to be released when it hasn’t even started production yet in Japan, I began to think about why that is.

Even those of you who haven’t seen Attack on Titan yet (which you totally should) can probably relate to this. I think everybody has found a TV show they can’t stop watching, or a book that’s almost impossible to put down until you reach the last page, or even a video game whose story grabs you and won’t let you go until you finish all 30-odd hours of it. Every storyteller’s desire is to create a story like that; something that grips the audience all the way through and leaves them wanting more.

I’ve been to a few writing workshops with authors who shared their opinions on how to achieve that effect, but I’m not sure that there’s a magic formula to create that “can’t put it down” quality, so much as it’s the result of a kind of synergy, an effect of a work being greater than the sum of its parts. So here are my thoughts on the assemblage of individual parts that can combine to form a Voltron of an awesome story, just based on the works I’ve experienced this feeling with.

The first element of any show or book that grabs me this way is always the cast of characters. These compulsively-consumable stories, for me, at least, are always character-driven more than they’re plot-driven. They tend to revolve around an ensemble cast, all the members of which get enough time in the spotlight to be developed, all of whom have some room to grow at least a little, and all of whom interact in interesting ways. In some ways, this may be the easiest element to achieve; even stories that aren’t that interesting overall often have a solid core cast. As long as a writer doesn’t make his characters boring or unlikeable, this is very doable.

The second element that I’ve seen is having long-term questions that need to be answered over the course of the story. Now, I need to clarify this with a few qualifications. First, the number of questions needs to be fairly limited, typically to just a few items, or only to one. Attack on Titan has the looming question of what the Titans actually are, and a few sub-questions I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the show yet. Firefly mostly deals with the ongoing question of what had been done to River and what the government wanted her for. The Dresden Files has had a series of these questions, introducing new ones as old ones are resolved. A long-running mystery gives the audience reason to get invested in the story.

However, introducing too many questions often results in a show where everything is a question, and typically means the writers haven’t bothered to figure anything out beforehand. The poster child for this formula is Lost, and many shows have tried to follow in that tradition. Typically this bogs down a show and results in a situation where nobody in the audience has any idea what’s actually going on, which I know is entertaining for some people, but many (including myself) find it incredibly frustrating and dull. I find that this works best when the number of questions is kept small, and when new questions are introduced only as old ones are answered, thus creating a sense of progression and deepening mystery for the audience.

Speaking of Lost, the second major caveat is that all the story’s important questions need to be answered at some point. Some ambiguity can be okay, but any major question that’s been driving the plot at any point needs a definitive answer. Additionally, the writer should know the answer to a question when the question is introduced. There are few things more frustrating than watching through several seasons of a TV show only for the overarching mystery to have an answer that the writer clearly pulled out of his ass at the last minute. A writer doesn’t need to outline his plots with a Dickensian level of detail, but he should at least have a general idea of where the story is going; it’s never a good idea to fly by the seat of your pants when writing a mystery.

Finally, the third essential element I’ve found to a gripping story, and perhaps the hardest of all to achieve, is pacing. The right pace to one of these stories will have an episode or a chapter leave the audience wanting more, but also make them feel like that episode or chapter wasn’t a waste of time. The story needs to move fast enough that things happen quickly enough to keep the audience from being bored, but not so quickly that not enough time is devoted to individual character or story elements. Also, there needs to be an incentive for the audience to keep going, an ending that has some resolution, but also leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.

A story that hits the sweet spot will have its audience saying, “OK, one more chapter before bed,” or “Just one more episode…” And really, I think that’s every writer’s dream come true; to create a story so good that the audience never wants it to end. It’s certainly a goal worth striving for.