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.

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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.

Self Promotion

I’m finding more and more that the business of creativity is less about actually making good stuff, than it is about getting your stuff noticed. The best successes happen when your stuff is good AND gets noticed, but even moderately ok creations can become a person’s life if they have enough attention.

This is all just a preamble to what you know must be coming: please buy all my stuff (if you’ve seen Homestar Runner, this is the part where The Cheat Commandos theme song “buy all our play sets and toys!” should be going through your head).

I really would love to be able to be a creative full time. I’ll settle for someone who does it for the passion of it, and it isn’t a complete waste.

 

Complicated

Another day gathering wood. Alan’s back ached under the weight of the bundle he carried along the dusty forest track. This was just the first of several loads he would carry back today. It was tiring work, and so hot that he had removed his shirt and was now trudging along in only his braies, hose, and shoes.

The midday sun sprinkled down from above, casting shadows of many leaves upon the ground. Motes hung in air where the light made its way through the canopy. Birds sang all around, and the smell of plants and dirt filled Alan’s nostrils. Sweat covered his body, running down in little rills, and his body strained beneath the load.

It was an idyllic setting, but he had no time to appreciate it. The more fuel he hauled, the more excess he could sell. He needed new clothing, and he wanted to pay someone to help patch up his old roof. Every week he had one day to take a break from farming in order to gather fuel.

The stillness was broken by the sound men’s voices. It wouldn’t go well for him if he was found gathering firewood where he didn’t have a license. Alan picked up his pace; he didn’t fancy being whipped just for trying to earn a couple extra coins.

 

Awakening

Water was everywhere. Clouds overhead unleashed a deluge, and the dark, churning ocean mirrored them.

She was wet. Her hair clung to her face, and water lapped around her ankles. She lay on something solid, and her hands felt gritty.

Her boat strained against the storm. The single sail had broken loose and was fluttering in the wind. She managed to grab hold of a ragged length of rope, a part of the sail’s broken rigging, and wrapped it around her arm. She steadied herself against the mast as she struggled to bring the sail back under control.

Hot oppressive sunlight beat down on her, and as she flexed her aching muscles, she felt her tight and stinging skin. She heard the sound of small waves lapping against a shore, wind blowing across the sea, and shore birds calling to each other. The smell of briny water filled each breath.

She was thrown to the deck as the boat lurched up toward her. The horrible sound of wood creaking, twisting, and breaking reverberated through her body. Waves crashed over the deck, and the boat stayed beneath them. The waves swept her from the deck, spinning her down into the water. Her feet scrambled beneath her, and she kicked off the rocky reef that her boat had struck. She bobbed to the surface and took a breath before another wave buried her again. 

She licked her lips. They were completely dried out and the skin was starting to crack. Her eyelids flickered open and squinted into the bright evening sun. She tried to sit up, but only succeeded in raising her head slightly. She was lying on a beach she had never seen before, the wreckage of her ship washed up all around her. Groaning, she rolled onto her belly, and pushed herself up. Slowly, she shifted into a kneeling position and tried to stand. Her legs wouldn’t hold her, and she fell back onto the sand, panting. She closed her eyes and lay still.

She awoke to the sounds of someone moving nearby. She blinked her eyes open and found  a young man with long blonde hair and a simple green tunic over a white shirt looking down at her. He sighed with relief and smiled at her when he saw her eyes open.

“What a relief!” he said, “I thought you’d never wake up!”