Why I Read

There are uncountable articles online about why reading is good for you, and specifically about why reading fiction is good for you. I’m not going to repeat any of the empirical evidence or clinical facts about how reading is good (although it definitely does exist). Instead, I’d like to share my own personal experience with reading.

Reading, for me, began as a way to alleviate boredom. As a young child, I grew up in a sheltering home that provided everything I could want, but also simultaneously shielded me from risk. This shielding at times hampered my childish curiosity and desire for risk and adventure. I would often sit at home, staring up at the northern Utah mountains, wishing I was trekking through the high forest groves, finding unexpected nooks and crannies, climbing trees, making friends with bears, etc. However, my parents didn’t really have time to cater to those fantasies, and so I mitigated my yearning with reading.

As time went on, I settled into the circumstances that my life lead me into, and I became more independent so I could fulfill more of my own desires. As a young adult, I have gone on many mountain adventures, explored many nooks, and even met exactly one bear. The initial desires that drove me to read have been satisfied (and continue to be satisfied on a regular basis), but I had formed the habit. I continued to pick up books and chug through them on a regular basis, and I began to notice an interesting effect that reading was having on my mind.

Like so many people, I live in an over stimulating environment. I eat tasty food, listen to music with emotional riffs, play exciting video games, get involved in passionate discussions, worry about bills, and watch interesting films. Most of my life, I am in a state of emotional excitement of some kind or another. My mind is an anxious torrent of ideas, each displacing the last more quickly than I am capable of inspecting them.

The medium of literature demands that you focus your eyes and mind on the words and ideas of another person, that you take the time to figure out what they’re saying. When I read, my chaotic emotions are pushed to the periphery of my attention. There they can rest and, basically, just chill the heck out. It’s very similar to mindfulness meditation (which I also recommend for quieting the anxieties caused by overstimulation), except that you also get to have some fun while doing it.

There are a couple things you have to bring in order to have this benefit though. First, you have to read deeply. This means reading every word, comprehending every sentence, and building up the entire meaning of the author in your mind. Avoid reading first sentences and then skipping through the rest of the paragraph. To enjoy the calming benefits of reading, the reader has to try and fully comprehend the text.

Secondly, read books that don’t dumb it down. Get books that require in depth reading, that ask a little bit more of you. I don’t mean that they should be difficult or confusing to read, but instead that they simply ask that you pay full attention. Read books that require more than minimum effort to get the point of the story.  This doesn’t mean they have to be literary classics (although I do encourage reading those too). Something as fun and easy to get into as Harry Potter will have the same desired effect if read closely. Just read something that respects you and expects you to be smarter than a bag of bricks.

In my life, I’ve found that the ability to turn down the stimulation and put my anxieties out to pasture has been really helpful. Reading novels according to these two guidelines has helped me do that in an enjoyable and consistent way, and I hope it works for other people as well.

AI Art

A while back I saw a video of some Japanese animators trying to do a similar experiment, and both of these experiments have gotten me thinking.

When AI can create characters that are human enough, when they can render scenes that are realistic enough, and they can stumble into interactions between these objects that are interesting enough, will they completely replace human artists? Will entertainment basically become just watching an AI play a system like Minecraft (with much higher fidelity)?

On the one hand, it’s an exciting idea. Set up the right systems with the right kinds of actions and interactions (or heck, let an AI figure that out too, why not), and let the AI loose to explore all the different possible things that can happen. Create another AI that can recognize which of the possible set of actions would be interesting to an audience, and boom, you have an infinite content machine. You could do things like create a model of Middle Earth and have millions of stories about dwarves and hobbits (but not elves; they’d be removed by the interest recognition system).

On the other hand, it would rob the humans of the joy that comes from creating media. Like it or not, anything we can train a machine to do, it will do better than us. This is the whole reason we made them. I don’t think that the automation of media would effect the “high arts,” because the idea of high art is based entirely upon a social construct*.  The people who would suffer would be the people who do the media jobs that effect us all. It would harm animators, film makers, and game creators. It could very easily be a blow to illustrators, pop musicians, and novelists as well. These jobs require audience attention and retention in order to function, and if there are infinite content machines that can be tuned to create content that is massively appealing (or–even more dangerous–content that is specifically appealing to every individual), I find it very hard believe that human creators will be able to keep up.

A way to work against this potential outcome is that audiences come to value the people that are creating things as much as they value the thing being created. This may inoculate the pop music industry, for example, because pop music isn’t about artistic appeal, but human interest. The obvious problem with this, is that when value of media is determined only to the person performing it, you’ll end up with objectively simplistic media. Once again, see pop music. The media being created isn’t the product, the person is. The media is just an excuse for the audience to throw money at the one sided relationship with an idol.

Another thing that may happen is that human made media will continue to be consumed by niche audiences that follow it specifically for the meta-content that it contains. The story of how a piece came to be in the context of the culture and media tradition are what they’d really be consuming. I also find this troubling, however. I prefer as little context as possible when consuming content, because I like to let content speak for itself. I want to bring my own context, and have content speak to me on its own without being bogged down by meta analysis.

Anyway, it’s reality, and it’s problematic. Media creation has already been made crazy by the destruction of local markets, why not add some more craziness in by introducing robot creators as well?

 

* The AIs wouldn’t be able to prevent people from wanting to show their differences in class based upon their art consumption.

Castlevania Season 1 Review

Castlevania Season 1 Review

Castlevania is a pretty big freaking deal for me. I may not be the biggest fan of the franchise, and I may not have played every game (especially not the 3D ones; this franchise did not make an elegant transition from its two dimensional beginnings). Regardless, the 2D Castlevania games are creations that really get what games are and execute very well in that medium. So to say that I was excited when I found out that Netflix was getting a Castlevania anime* would be an understatement.

Does the show deliver on my expectations? The short answer, “In a way. Kind of. Mostly. Depends on what you focus on.” I’ll start with the stuff that worked for me, just in case you’re the kind of person who gets bored easily and doesn’t finish this short review.

What really worked for me, in general, was the aesthetic of this show. You can tell that the creators really poured over the source materials and pulled out all the inspiration they could from the artwork released with the games. The main characters’ designs harken back to the lavish artwork that came packaged with the games, and the setting had the same kind of atmosphere that you would get while playing.

This show is also very violent (and at times just straight up horrific), which doesn’t necessarily add a lot to the experience, but I feel like it’s one of those situations where to leave the violence out would have created dissonance between the goals of the story and its visual representation. There is a little gore just for its own sake, but for the most part it seemed like it was working toward the goals of the visual story telling.

Another thing that was pretty awesome was the animation… during the fight scenes. The gratuitous flourishes of the Hunter Whip filled my inner fanboy with delight, and the choreography was convincing enough that it never felt like a staged fight. As the characters battled with each other, they carried real weight and impact that is missing from so much fantasy animation these days.** Each footstep shifted the character’s weight, every parry and counter attack had momentum and drama. It was obvious that the people animating the action scenes had watched some martial arts and knew enough about it to make their scenes look like a fight.

Which is why the animation during the rest of the show is so disappointing. When the characters aren’t fighting or there isn’t some big magical effects show going on, the character’s motions are just ugly. They look like the cheap fast crap that you’d find on TV too late at night or too early in the morning. During these moments it became obvious that the characters were designed to look cool standing still, but when you try to get all those little details moving, it looked really bad. The walking animations were especially confusing. Why did everyone in the show stomp around like they couldn’t extend their knees all the way? They didn’t have that problem when they were fighting.

The writing was pretty bad, and despite the fact that Richard Armitage has the voice of a musky, angelic badger, most of the lines sounded really stupid. The number of times Trevor Belmont said, “I don’t care” to show us how non-chalant and “cool” he was (despite the fact that we know from the beginning that he was going to end up murdering a bunch of monsters because that’s what Belmonts do) was trite. Often a character would say something, just to have it repeated again by another character, or the conversation would just go around in circles to fill time.

The plot and pacing felt like a half hearted fan fiction more than a professional production. There was a lot of soliloquy and drawn out talking head scenes in the middle two episodes, which was particularly weird when you think about how the last episode rushes headlong through a battle and then an underground adventure all in twenty minutes. It seems like the pacing of dramatic moments could have been handled much better in order to prevent the need for filler blabber in the middle (especially considering that the whole series is under two hours long).

To end on a high note, I’ll end by saying that I liked all the parts in the first episode when they made Dracula’s head appear in various ways (first formed out of fire, and then created from a flock of crows/ravens). I also thought it was kinda cool that they showed him as more of a tragic character than a simple metaphor of “evil,” but I feel like the presentation of those ideas could have been more eloquent. Maybe trust the audience to pick up on ideas sprinkled tastefully throughout the story rather than smacking us with an info dump when all we really want to see is a Belmont whacking things with a whip.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. The series is really short, so it’s hard to think of anything else right now. Trevor Belmont is sexy. Richard Armitage is my bishi. This show’s writing sucked, but I liked the parts with the whips and the swords.

* I’m gunna call it “anime”, because it obviously follows the Japanese animation tradition. Fight me.
** I blame computer games and computer animation. CG always looks so dang floaty.

On the Reality of Fantasy

I was wandering around the internets when I came across this quote from Hayao Miyazaki (Golden Times, English translation from RocketNews24).

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life. If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.

This got me thinking, and the problem is more widespread than just anime. I get the feeling that in some ways, all fantasy media is headed in a direction that is more navel gazing, more insulated, and more distant from reality.

Disclaimer: I really enjoy a lot of modern fantasy. I read Brandon Sanderson all the time, and I play fantasy games almost constantly. Many current fantasy creators are extremely talented, and I tip my hat to their abilities. That doesn’t mean that the current state of the genre is above criticism, though.

My criticism is that modern fantasy fiction is being written for and by people who have a hard time with reality, and fantasy is their catharsis. This is shown in how these stories use fantastical elements to abstract away and simplify reality, or how the protagonists often have super powers (or super features) that make them “better” than the normies.

While part of the point of fantasy is to talk about reality using symbolic or abstract metaphors to simplify otherwise difficult ideas to express, I feel like many of the abstractions in modern fantasy simply blur reality rather than illuminate it. Rather than put an idea in a new light that makes it easier to see, these abstraction simply paint over the stuff that the creator doesn’t want to deal with. Are the realities of intergender relationships too hard? That’s fine, have your protagonist take three wives and have nobody care. Is it too inconvenient that in your medievalist setting that information spreads slowly? No big deal, just have a wizard make fantasy email. Are you stuck in a situation with no rational way to the conclusion you want? Better write a fantasy where your characters can become gods whenever you want.

The problem with this is that it makes stories boring in (at least) two ways.

The first is that when all conflicts are solved by godlike powers, there’s basically no stakes. The drama is completely gone. Even in stories where you KNOW the protagonist is going to succeed, even the satisfaction of finding out HOW they succeed is gone. In a better story, the slow revelation of new information, new aspects of the setting and characters creates an ongoing trail of discovery. In worse stories, the people who are “supposed” to succeed simply gain the ability to do so (or in some particularly stupid stories, had the ability from the beginning) for no rational reason.

The second problem is that it creates art that is meaningless. This is similar to the problem of coming up with “original” ideas. If an idea is completely original, completely disconnected from prior experience, then it’s going to be basically meaningless. This is because meaning only comes from connecting new experiences to previous ones. Likewise, if the creator uses fantasy to gloss over human experiences–either because they don’t understand them or find them too difficult–then that removes a connection between the creation and experience. It makes it harder for the fantasy creation to be meaningful.

This may, however, be simply a symptom of wider cultural trends than a problem specifically with fantasy. As humans amass into larger and larger groups, and streamline our lives with technology, by necessity we have to simplify the kinds of interactions we have. To do otherwise would be to live in an increasingly and unmanageably complex world that we are not equipped to handle. Abstraction is used to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps that’s all this boils down to then, the improper use of a necessary tool. Let’s leave it there for now, and I’ll let that thought simmer. Maybe I’ll make another post later.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I may be a little late to the party here–I’m not a professional game journalist, so I don’t get games before release, and I didn’t want to rush through just to get a review out quicker–but that’s not going to stop me from writing a little bit about the biggest release of the year.

In brief, I love this game. It’s basically the game I’ve been wanting for years, and it delivered on my dream. Is this game amazing? Yes. Is it the best game in the Zelda franchise? Objectively, yes. Is it the best action adventure game I’ve ever played? Definitely. Does that make it above critique? No. There are a couple of small things that I’d like to to talk about that I saw as small flaws in an otherwise flawless experience. To be fair, compared to all other games like it, it’s by far the best, but that doesn’t make it perfect.

If you forced me to give it a grade, I would give it a 10/10 when compared to other games available, and a 9.6/10 when compared to my specific taste. I guess it just depends on how you want to grade it.

As a game, it does many things well. In case you didn’t see my reaction to the trailer and demonstrations at E3 2016, you can find it here. Basically everything I said there about gameplay turned out to be true and implemented exactly as well as I hoped, so I won’t go over how all that stuff is awesome again.

Visually, it’s amazing. We’ve known that since the 2014 E3 trailer, though, so I’m not going to belabor this point, other than to mention that the technical art is pretty awesome. I love how Link’s hands and feet would move to be correctly positioned on climbing surfaces, even in awkward little nooks. The rag doll effects when Link falls are also surprisingly impressive, and I actually enjoy watching him get flung off cliffs and fall like a dead leaf. These little details didn’t necessarily add much meaning by themselves, but they do help prevent players from being distracted by potentially weird looking moments.

Character designs are on point in this game, and I feel like the characters are iconic in ways that haven’t been seen for a long time. I loved how the use of simple silhouettes matched with a diversity of body shapes creates a diversity of instantly recognizable characters. There is no need for giant helmets or pauldrons to create recognition, because the game was brave enough to allow its people to look like different people rather than super models or body builders. Even the Zelda character (who is off the charts adorable, btw) is shorter, larger hipped, and less willowy than your run-of-the-mill Marvel or Blizzard heroine. By leveraging a larger scope of the human (and nearly human) form, the game creators have made characters that are both instantly recognizable and memorable without the need for idiotic ornamentation.

The soundtrack is pulled off in an equally tasteful way. Rather than try to force you to feel anything, it is reserved and holds off until only the exact moments when impact is desired, and does it ever create impact. The sparse music of the game world helps to reinforce the feeling of space and freedom that the game is trying to create by not imposing any conceptions about how the player should feel at any given moment. Anywhere that has constant background music is instantly more atmospheric and emotive than other places. This is most obvious in Hyrule Castle, where the combination of iconic motifs from previous Zelda scores come together to create an extremely moving piece to underpin the finale.

The story, especially the story of Link and Zelda’s interactions, is adorable and notable for the Zelda franchise, if not particularly unique in the larger scheme of fantasy stories in Japanese media. I feel that it is a very good performance of an already established genre, and I have no problems with it being what it is, even if it’s not particularly mind blowing.

So that’s the short version of the things that I love about this game. The exhaustive list is, well, exhausting–both for me to write and you to read–so I won’t go through it all.

Moving ahead to the critiques! Just to reiterate, this game is amazing and I love it. Even the largest flaw in this game is much smaller than the smallest flaws in other games, but there are a few things that I feel could have been different.

The one big critique: Zelda is not in the game. Now you may be saying, “Of course she is, she talks to you in your head all the time,” or, “Literally all the story moments in the game have Zelda or revolve around Zelda,” and that is correct. What I mean is that Zelda is non-interactable, she’s not part of the gameplay. Instead, she is relegated only to the filmic elements in the game. This isn’t true of any of the other characters from the main plot. The king is a ghost you can talk to, the companions each lend you a special power that allows you to summon them, and every other character in the plot is an NPC you can talk to whenever you want. Zelda is none of these things.

The reason this is a problem is because it basically removes Zelda as a “real” entity in the game. She is incapable of any action, even simple ones, like talking to the player. Robbing the primary female character of her ability to act continues to perpetuate the idea that men take action, and women can only react to the actions that they take. Basically, not allowing Zelda to have any kind of gameplay actions reflects and reinforces a larger cultural trend of not seeing women as agents with agency.

In the future, I would actually LOVE it if Zelda and Link were seen more as partners. The best model for the kind of relationship I’d like to see between them is a Frodo and Sam kind of dynamic, with Zelda being very obviously the person with a duty to fulfill, and Link being the devoted servant who does everything he can to make her desires come to fruition. I just find those kinds of stories very touching. In that kind of framework, it would also be pretty easy to make either Link or Zelda the playable character (which would be the best thing ever), or even to have a co-op mode.

My second critique is that the game ends like all Zelda games do. You defeat Ganon, and then the game ends. If you load the save file that’s created when you finish the game, you’re put back right before the Ganon fight. The problem I have with this is that this isn’t how open world adventure games work. The entire time the game is teaching you that you can do things and then they’ll be done and you can move on to the next thing. Except that doesn’t happen with the biggest, most important thing in the game. Because of this, you never get to feel like that quest is finished. Zelda is never REALLY saved, Ganon is never REALLY defeated.

The peskiest part is that there is so much potential for awesome stuff in a post-Ganon game. In the (spoiler warning) extended, “full” ending, Zelda even says (basically), “Omg, so much work to do, Ganon really messed everything up!” Rather than telling that to the players in a film, why not let them beat the castle, have it be cleaned out, then they can go visit Zelda there (or wherever her NPC sets up camp), and discover that idea for themselves. The whole point of the game is to discover stories, so why not allow the main story to behave the same way that the rest of the game does? It would also set the stage for a bunch of really cool “post-Ganon” DLC or expansions.

Those are my only two big critiques, what comes after are small things that could easily be resolved in future games, or just require a few more iterations of thought to perfect.

The first is that it’s kind of silly that I can just carry infinite extra health (in the form of food and elixirs) in my backpack, and that it can be instantly applied. I have nothing against the idea of items restoring player power, but I do think it’s kind of silly, and a little bit cognition breaking, to be able to apply them all at once. Other games have ways around this: the recovery items either work over time, or they have cooldowns, or the player can’t act while using them, or (like previous Zelda games) you can only carry so many of them. Any of these would have fixed the gameplay problem of being able to take infinite beatings. Of course, some of this is mitigated by the fact that the player is often brutally murdered in one or two hits (which I’m totally a fan of), so it doesn’t seem like a huge flaw.

The second small critique is that the English localization could have been better. That’s not to say I thought the voice acting was bad. Obviously, some of the voice actors were better than others (Zelda’s actor did pretty dang well, the King….. not so well), but that’s always going to be the case. I’m referring more to the classic localization problem of matching voice actor performances to on screen character motions. In English this causes all kinds of weird sentences, and is just an unfortunate side effect of localizing films. However, this is a game, not a film. They could have, pretty easily, written the English script, gotten a solid, unfettered performance from the English voice actors, and then gone and matched the animations to the performance. Unlike in traditional cell animation, where that would have required redoing literally all the work, with 3D game animation, most of the work is the creation of the art asset and getting it to move nicely. That work would not have to be redone. The animators would have to do a little more work, but it would be more like using a puppet than redoing the whole thing.

As it is, I kind of wish I could have the Japanese voices just so that the vocal performances matched the animations. Since Japanese was the original language for the work, I don’t think it’s a ridiculous request to make, and maybe the ability to switch to the Japanese vocal script will be available for download at some point.

That’s my review, and I’m sticking to it. In spite of the critiques I put forward (nothing is above critique), I love The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s a great game that demonstrates what’s possible with the franchise and genre, is great fun to play, creates deeply moving and emotional experiences, and makes me excited to see what’s to come (those DLC can’t come soon enough).

 

 

 

Word Choice

When I was in middle school, I read a biography of J.R.R Tolkien. The biographer took a few pages to describe how fastidious Tolkien was when choosing the exact wording for his writing. This is probably the only detail from that biography that has stuck with me over the years. Compare:

  • “Dwarf doors are invisible when closed.” -Gimli, The Fellowship of the Ring, film directed by Peter Jackson
  • “Dwarf-doors are not made to be seen when shut.” -Gimli, The Fellowship of the Ring, text from the book

I find the differences here interesting. The first is definitely simpler to understand and faster to say, but the second feels much more evocative to me. Just compare the word “shut” vs “closed.” Shut feels more decisive and exclusive (from phrases like “shut out,” “shut up,” etc). I don’t feel like my writing skills are advanced enough yet to make much use of this observation, but it’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as I proceed.

Warcraft 4 before Diablo 4

Warcraft 4 before Diablo 4

There’s been  a rumor floating around that Blizzard Entertainment will be announcing the next installment in their Diablo franchise at Blizzcon this year. I find this highly unlikely, but the idea of a Warcraft 4 announcement along with a new Diablo 3 expansion (or stand alone) pack is much more probable.

Here are the reasons that Warcraft 4 makes sense right now. Warcraft has immense brand recognition. There are many, many people out there who love Warcraft, but who don’t want to play World of Warcraft (for many different reasons). World of Warcraft is still earning plenty of cash and lots of people still like it, but it’s a known quantity and everyone who wants to play it already is. It’s reached its maximum potential.

Warcraft 4 would be able to appeal to the audience of disenfranchised Warcraft fans. There are literally millions of players who have already tried out (and like) the Warcraft franchise, but who aren’t currently engaged with it. That’s a lot of mental real estate that Blizzard has invested tons of marketing and franchise development in that isn’t being leveraged.

Another reason for Warcraft 4 to come next is that the Starcraft 2 team recently finished their great big awesome project, and its time for them to move onto a new one. Blizzard representatives (including Mike Morhaime during a Blizzcon interview) have teased multiple times that they would consider a Warcraft 4 game once the Starcraft 2 expansions were complete. Guess what, that time has come, so it’s time to see some Warcraft 4.

The Warcraft film recently came out, and while it wasn’t super mind blowing, it had some very good moments, and lots of advertising. Right behind that was the very successful World of Warcraft: Legion release. The franchise has some very serious momentum right now, and it would be wise to keep riding the wave as long as possible.

The fact that Heroes of the Storm exists could be seen as another indicator that Warcraft 4 is around the corner. It’s entirely possible that Blizzard has been using this game as a technology playground to experiment with new tech / art / ideas to be used in a Warcraft 4 game.

Additionally, it’s been twelve years since the last NEW game in the Warcraft franchise was released. That’s about on par for how long Blizzard takes to make sequels to their games.

Now here are the reasons that a Diablo 3 expansion pack is more likely than Diablo 4. The first one is that Diablo 3 only came out four years ago, and for the last twenty years, Blizzard has never released a next installment in a franchise that quickly. Diablo 3 only recently started to get a stable leg underneath it. Now it’s in a place where it can strike out with some cool new content to bring back some of the audience that was missed during the shaky launch cycle. An expansion pack would be able to do that with a much smaller development cost.

Speaking of that missed audience, I believe it is very unlikely that Blizzard would invest so heavily in an IP that is currently hurting the way that Diablo is. It needs to polish the franchise up a bit more before it makes sense to make the huge investment that it takes to develop and market a brand new game.

Lastly, if Diablo 4 is in the works right now, it is highly unlikely that it will be the game that the people disappointed by Diablo 3 want. The last three new games that Blizzard has released have been competition oriented, money chugging machines, not the individual focused deep experiences that role playing gamers prefer.

These are the reasons I’m more excited about the prospect of a Warcraft 4 announcement over Diablo 4. Blizzard’s been teasing us about a Warcraft 4 for years, and Diablo isn’t in a position to support the amount of cash that it would take to bring a new game to market.