Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Podcasting Update

Things have been pretty busy on the podcast front in the last couple of weeks. Firstly we have the Dissecting Worlds: Drugs Special with our guest David Wynne from Particle Fiction.

Away from DW I also got to guest on the lastest on Scrolls Book Group: Jennifer Government which was blast, and notable as its the first podcast I've done without my DW co-host, so that was a bit wierd for me. But had a good time, and we found out this morning that Max Barry, the author of Jennifer Goverment, has actually listened to it! Which is kinda terrifying...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Thinking: Gaming Narratives and Narrative Gaming.


Over at the Dissecting Worlds Two Towers we are engaged in sporadic discussion over the contents of our next batch of episodes, which in part consists of mutual wish-lists of stuff we want to cover, alongside a desire to keep it varied and interesting to listen to. In nearly thirty episodes (gosh!) I think we’ve managed to cover a wide range of bases, but it all that time, we’ve only covered one Gaming universe. And given how big the gaming industry is these days, that feels a little odd. 

Now obviously there is a lot of factors at work here – Gaming is a hobby still in its awkward adolescence and maybe doesn’t have the long history that comics or TV or movies have. My partner in crime, the Witch-King of Angmar to my Saruman of Many Colours, isn’t much of a gamer, and I had to pretty much force him play Mass Effect for the podcast we did on it. But I am a gamer, one who probably spends more free time a week gaming than watching telly or reading books, and I can’t think of many that I’d like to cover, largely because so few have enough narrative depth to get any mileage out of. 

So why is that? Well some of it is the nature of the beast – a lot of games have next to no narrative at all outside of “get gun, shoot baddie, smash crate” or “kill pigs for exp, level up”, or even “jump on platforms to collect mushrooms that help you rescue the princess.” and don’t need to. That’s not what they are about. A lot of games are set in the real world, or approximations thereof. A lot of games are so abstract expecting any sort of fiction around them is silly. But more than a few games but a huge amount of effort into their surrounding fiction and make a big song and dance about it, with wildly varying levels of success. 

Anyone who’s played any Role-Playing Games out of Japan will be well aware of the labyrinthine plots and worlds that these games bring with them, padding out already long games with hours and hours of elaborate cut-scenes and exposition, so much so that they can be like watching a very long movie in which you need to do the action sequences yourself. Western RPGs tend to live in variations of the Western Fantasy tradition – very recognisable to anyone who ever play Dungeons and Dragons – and led by Bioware as far back as the Baldurs Gate series seem more interested in personal “choice” in how you move through the world. For me, the former has stagnated over recent years whilst the latter has become more and more interesting, but ultimately what has made is so isn’t the worlds themselves but the increasingly complex way with which you can interact with them. 

Almost the polar opposite is the First Person Shooter, a genre that feels like it hasn’t overly evolved, gameplay wise, in about 10 years, bar the odd innovation like recharging health or sticking, Velcro-like, to cover. What it has done however, is tried to compensate for that by varying the scenery you wobble around in shooting people quite a lot. Besides the seemingly endless parade of World-War 2 and modern-day shooters, we’ve also seen a large number of surprisingly complex backdrops, that are really tangential to the business at hand. Halo sets great store by its (quite generic actually) Space Opera background to the point of tie-in books and extra merchandise, but there really isn’t much mileage in it compared to any of the backgrounds that it is riffing off. More successfully, Bioshock’s Objectivist Paradise of Rapture, along with its clever meta-narrative and striking visuals makes it the sort of game I would love to cover, alongside places like Half-Life 2’s City 17. 

This isn’t meant to sound dismissive of any of these games. After all, they’re games – the best background and plot in the world isn’t going to keep my playing if the actual gameplay is dull or clunky or broken. Starcraft II was hugely successful and great fun to play but its story is un-engaging and it’s universe derivative. The Darkness had great atmosphere and story but iffy controls and level design. I know which one I preferred, as a gamer, to be playing. But if I had to chose one to talk about, I’d pick The Darkness

But The Darkness is based on a comic. The Dawn of War series is based on a wargame. Knights of the Old Republic is set in the Star Wars universe. LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption are both stylised period pieces where you can point directly to the source material and talk about that instead. The Witcher is an adaptation of a novel series. Most MMORPGs are based on established properties and I’m not mean enough to pass on my World of Warcraft addictions to anyone. All of these have big, immersive universes or strong narratives (or both) but talking about them is largely redundant because I feel we should be talking about the direct source material, and what has built that. 

And I think that’s the frustration when it comes right down to it. Games can clearly put you in fictional universes in a way that no other medium can, and can tell great stories in the process. Many do, but as yet there are very few that are wholly of the medium, not imported from outside and adapted. I think it’s changing – I think there is a breed of developer out there that strives for it to change, to make universes and tell stories organically in the way that only that immersive experience can – but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. 

So I guess there is nothing else for it. I need to buy the Witch-King a copy of Bioshock...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

So I Guess Introductions Are In Order

Um. Hello.

I'm Matt, and I'm a Geek. (Hello, Matt). Actually I've been one for a while, and even kept a blog for a few years, but it's mostly personal, freinds locked and full of dull things like photos of the kids and what I did last weekend and so on. But it's a little unfocused, and so I've set up a new home as a space to let me post longer rambles about wider geeky issues that interest me. And it seems prudent - and polite - to explain a little.

For the last 18 months I've been the co-host of the Dissecting Worlds podcast, whose main focus is to take a sideways look at various Geek Fiction, from any genre and any source, and fit into the real world a little bit. We look at inspirations, real-world equivalents, and try and fill the gaps around the material where we find them. I'm very proud of it, not only because it is fun to record in itself, but because its put me in touch with a lot of new and interesting people in the Geek Community.

It's also shifted my perceptions a little bit; I find it hard to watch something now without analysing it, peering into the cracks a little bit, and that needs an outlet other then boring the wife and kids with it, which is were this blog comes in. There's already a handful of posts I've moved over from my old blog and hopefully more will come when the need to write long-winded commentaries overwhelms me, as well as any reviews and other comments I feel compelled to write up.

But thats all for now, back to tinkering with the design tools. 

Thinking: What's the Point of Critics?

I have come to the slightly sobering conclusion that in the great ecology of the internet opinion I’m more of a critic than a creator. I mean sure, Dissecting Worlds is original content but its whole premise is analysis and discussion of existing material, without which we wouldn’t exist. But I’m not sure I’d want to describe myself as a “critic”, for reasons at first I found hard to express, but, thanks to the wonder of the movies, I think I have the answer.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
-          Anton Ego, “Ratatouille”

First off I think of all the film studios in the world, Pixar is the one with least to fear from critics, and the one with the most spotless record I can think of, so making a film which has, as its centrepiece, a battle between art and criticism is a little pre-emptively defensive. But its valid conflict, and one that is close to the heart of anyone who sticks anything out there for the public to review. I've been through phases where I have been productive enough write material for submission to various publications, and what you crave is constructive and honest feedback, and critics, in their traditional role as arbiters of taste and quality are the big beasts of the feedback world.

The problem with traditional critics, and where I think my distaste for the label comes from, is that their roles is increasingly irrelevant in some ways, and as vital as ever in others, and what they do, and what I think they should be for, seem to be drifting apart. Let’s use the movies as an example, but it applies to most areas of culture, both “high” and “low”. Back in the seventies, films opened small and ran for long periods, and critical to success was syndicated reviews. Critics like the legendary Pauline Kael could “make” or “break” films with bad reviews, and critics feature largely in any history of film especially the “New Hollywood” of 70s. But all this changed with the rise of the Blockbuster, and patterns of how films were released changed, with wider and wider openings, and often shorter and shorter release windows.

And now we live in a world where often the opening weekend is seen as “all”, especially over the long summer months. Films can open one weekend, run for a fortnight, and then vanish again, and still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars (or not, depending on the film). Critical opinion is secondary to massive advertising budgets and pre-sold franchises, internet-fuelled word-of-mouth and often-questionable reviewing in media outlets owned by the same companies that made and distributed the film in the first place. Now I’m not dumb enough to believe that there was once a golden age of enlightened taste and debate, but the point I’m trying to make is that our consuming habits have changed hugely, and it’s left the traditional critic with a much smaller voice.

Of course this is, in many ways a good thing. Critics like Kael could anoint films as somehow more artistically legitimate than others, when in reality it’s often a matter of opinion, not objective fact, or worse, about personalities and networking, or intent over content, just being downright snobby against anything that is populist. The modern age, especially the internet, bring a democratic freshness that gives my voice the same weight as The Guardian’s film critic, which is the same voice as whoever watches all those Twilight movies, and the same voice as anyone else with a web browser and an opinion. Obviously all of the above gets hugely different viewers, but the growth of the importance of sites like metacritic means that you can get a decent assessment of the mass of opinion, very quickly. Sure it tends to be a bit safe and a bit middle of the road, but its a good indication of crowd-pleasers and a good health warning for when Superhero Action Movie IV turns out to be a bit pants.

But I do worry we are losing something as well. A lot of traditional critics are just that – traditional, and with the best will in the world I’m not going to find out if Green Lantern is any good from a bloke who is into his foreign-language art-house flicks, any more than I can get an opinion on the new Iron Maiden album off my Dad. The narrow release windows mean we lose perspective as fans, it’s easy to excited about seeing the X-Men on screen, and caught up in that hype but it’s only once you’ve walked away for a day or so that either hidden depths, or hidden shallows reveal themselves. And in the internet age of the “now”, a review for a film that came out two weeks ago is already far too late; the next big thing is here.

So what role for criticism in this new age?  Is it destined to be relegated to just a slightly-better-informed voice amongst the cacophony?  I’m not so sure. Metacritic may be a great “one stop shop” aggregator but is the tip of a more interesting iceberg; the host of community sites, big and small, do the same job, not only covering the stuff that everyone has heard of, but allowing people to see things they may well not have. The internet increasingly supports small media outlets, downloads, streaming services, indie gaming, a vast and diverse comic scene and the like that you’ll never find without help and just as critics of the past have had a key role in bringing new talent forward then that need remains today.  

There’s another role too, as analyst and preserver of our heritage. When you rush forward, it is important to take what is valuable with you, and now Geek Culture seems bigger than ever, as film and TV strip-mine it for pre-built franchise opportunity, it feels important to take that sudden recognition that say, Fantasy or SF TV shows can be intelligent and complex, or Superhero movies can be Dark and Challenging, and be clear that has always been so, that the source material has been there along, and that there is more of it and it is worthwhile having, in its original form as much as its new one.

It’s not enough, I feel, to simply say something is good or bad, or worthy or unworthy. It’s not the decision of the critic to appoint one thing as art and another as trash. The internet puts all that information at your fingertips, lets you find a dozen opinions in as many minutes, and whilst writing 500 words and a star rating is an integral part of informing your community, I don’t think it’s enough. Hell, I do it, and I don’t think its enough! The real job, to me, the job that is hard to do, is provide context and legacy. Sure it can be pretentious, and wordy but look at the multiplexes this summer, look at the onslaught of geek culture mined out for blockbusters and toys and fast-food tie ins. It looks like victory and acceptance but it’s also disposable and hollow in the face of the next craze and key to is moving past the sheer joy of seeing it up there and giving it meaning and weight.

And that’s a critics job.

I’ll give the final word to the film that got me onto this line of thought, as Ratatouille’s newly converted villain answers his own question.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.
-          Anton Ego, “Ratatouille”

Thinking: Shhh! Spoilers! (Does Not Contain Spoilers)

Spoilers. Not only one of the most divisive topics in a lot of geek conversation these days but also one of the hardest to actually quantify. Creators particularly seem get riled about them, Doctor Who’s Stephen Moffat probably being the most recent, but he’s far from the only one – I know people who won’t read the episode summary in the TV guide for fear of being spoiled, and I know people can’t stop themselves reading up the Wikipedia summaries of shows long before they’re watched or always skip to the last page of books first.
But what is the fuss about?

When I was on holiday the other week I saw a bloke in the pub wearing a t-shirt that sums up the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a couple of sentences, and a couple of thoughts sprang to mind. The first one can be summed up as “wanker!”, at least in part because if you cared about such things you’ve just found out without your consent. Which is inconsiderate. But then I thought “actually, who cares?” And that’s what got me thinking further. Do spoilers actually ruin a story?

Because if the answer is “yes” then isn’t that a bit of a damning verdict on the story? It’s like saying that the story simply boils down to its ending, that the journey is nothing – and clearly that’s a pretty daft position to hold. Of course Harry is going to triumph and live happily ever after; it’s that sort of story. The nature of that triumph of Good vs Evil is what makes Deathly Hallows work, not the simple fact of it. Sticking with the theme, the more famous “twist” ending of Half-Blood Prince caused all sorts of spoiler “griefing” across the internet and beyond but millions of people still went to see the movie, and I've read the book twice, so once again, knowing the end hardly spoiled my enjoyment.

And the idea that not knowing what is coming is integral to enjoyment clearly doesn’t hold water. Speak to anyone and they’ll talk about favourite books or films they’ve seem dozens of times, and the massive boom in both TV and film adaptations of established properties speaks of the mileage in such familiarity. More personally, we watch a lot of TV behind the times, often whole series or more, and whilst I don’t seek out spoilers they’re hard to avoid, just in general discourse. I didn’t enjoy Lost any less, nor Fringe, despite knowing most of the major plot points, and they’re both “mystery” shows that leverage their secrets and story-arcs as key selling points.

Now I’m not advocating some sort of spoiler–heavy lifestyle, because I do like to be surprised, and I do like guessing at the mysteries put in front of me. And many creators go to great lengths to build in twists and surprises and it feels disrespectful go against that. And there are many examples of stories that do live or die on their twists, especially when you get into murder mysteries and the like. If you ever read any Agatha Christie, the great strength of her books is that they are structured like a puzzle you read; both Poirot and Marple can be slightly passive, underwritten figures that keep their knowledge close to their chests, leaving the reader in the position of trying to decipher the clues themselves. And that’s brilliant, and almost certainly a big part of Christies’ success. But re-readable? Not so much.

The way we absorb modern storytelling however seems to making this a bigger issue. I suspect most people are moderately relaxed about minor spoilers but we seem to spend time in elaborate dances about what people know and what they don’t. George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a current culprit – some people are torrenting the US versions (or live in the US), Some people watch it on UK telly. Loads of people timeshift it. Some people have read the book, others haven’t, and some of each camp have different views on what’s a spoiler for the TV version of a book they’re read! Never mind the additional confusion of who has read how far down the whole series, something that’ll get worse in July when A Dance with Dragons comes out. I don’t know about anyone else but I find it safer not to talk about it than get into tentative “so...how far through are you?” conversations.

It’s interesting that the adaptation of The Walking Dead is trying to split the difference, and made some big changes to its early storylines to try and get around this problem. This leaves viewers uncertain of where it is going other than its stated aspiration to hit some of the big stories on the comics, but maybe in a different way or in a different order. I think that’s a sensible course for a show like The Walking Dead, but of course this leads to criticism from some quarters that they’ve messed with what wasn’t broken, and we fall straight into the other great trap of fandom – the desire for more of the same, just different.

But thats a different story...

Thinking: Why doesn't God get to go into space?

One of the things that struck me as I was reading A Canticle for Leibowitz was that amongst its other qualities was a pretty distinctively benign view on religion and faith. And that set me thinking about other examples in genre fiction and then that set me thinking about why it is such a rare thing.

So we can start with the easy answer – that there is a general belief that as we travel out into space, as a grown up species, that we will put away childish things like region (and racism, and sexism and all those other prejudices that SF likes to discuss under cover of analogy) and therefore 25th century space farers will be as far removed from going to church and praying as 21st century geeks are from mucking out the midden pits. But I’m not sure that washes. For a start, faith and spirituality have been part of human society as long as we have records, and I’m not sure that the invention of jump-warp-light-speed-drives will shake something that seems that primal. And when geeks were relegated to clearing midden pits pretty much every major religion now was a major religion then.

I think the more likely answer is more cultural – insomuch that religion and faith are seen today as largely anti-science and therefore the march of technology will lead to an inevitable victory in that war, But it’s not always been so – Leibowitz has this debate in the novel, far better than I can here – and even today there is a danger in judging a religion or its followers by the more ranty extremists you can find in the press, just as its dangerous to judge science fiction fans by the guys you find hanging outside Star Trek premieres. And then if we do bring religion into space then it is generally portrayed very negatively.

There is obviously something enticing about the imagery of religion, as it is certainly lifted enough times and used for universes too many to list. Frank Herbert definitely got in early with the Dune series, of course, and its many spiritual descendants, cumulating with things like Warhammer 40k, or 2000ad's Nemesis the Warlock, grand, gothic madness and corruption festooned the heavy imagery of oppressive, enforced faith and doctrine. But I think theocratic villains must only come second to “Generic Space Fascists” is the great list of genre villains, and the few examples of a more benign spirituality appearing in genre shows (Galactica springs to mind, but also others) tended to divide the audience when they were pushed to the fore.

Fantasy, with its litany of gods and religions, doesn’t fare much better. Tolkien wrote in a lot of pseudo Christianity into the mythology of Middle Earth, and well as using a lot of very Christian themes, and CS Lewis is a (very long) essay to himself, but as Fantasy has moved forward its gone down the route of pagan and shamanic gods rather monotheistic ones, and the modern trend towards gritty and grim either negates them altogether or lines up with Robert E Howards Hyborian vision of lots of gods, all of them mostly bad. Christianity-alogues certainly appear but are mostly based around what feels like a Reformation-era view of Catholicism; big, rich, and impossibly corrupt.

There are writers whose own faith (or aggressive lack thereof, which is nearly as bad) seeps into their work and often it can be intrusive. I've read criticism laid against CS Lewis, Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, Julian May, Phillip Pullman and Marion Zimmer Bradley (to name but a few) where their views on religion seep into the story with effects ranging from distorting otherwise good stories and series to turning them into outright polemics. And the point at which it “gets in the way” varies massively from reader to reader – I agree more with Pullman’s viewpoints than Lewis’ but would read Narnia over His Dark Materials any day of the week, and the issues with the end of Julian May’s Galactic Milieu series are larger than just overuse of religious allegory, as much as that’s a handy shortcut if you want to have a rant about it.

Oddly I’m not sure this applies as much to politics. There’s a lot of societal analysis in genre fiction, underneath the Elves and Space Ships, and a lot of strong opinions, but it feels both more par for the course overall and seems to be reviewed with a more dispassionate eye. Sure there is the odd polarising outlier, but when mainstream writers include British lefties like Grant Morrison and American Conservatives like Bill Willingham sitting on the same comic shelves it makes you think that maybe it’s not as firey an issue, even though both writers’ views permeate their work.

Now I’m not saying that we need a wave of religious genre fiction. I’m certainly not saying that we should somehow “leave religion alone” or start having token religious characters in everything. But what I find interesting is that when religion and its associated imagery appears it’s so often unexplored and short-changed, or just flat out ill-used. And lets be honest, there’s enough instances of religions of all stripes needing a good slap. But as I said earlier, Religion and Spirituality have been part of human society for thousands of years, and both SF and Fantasy are perfectly set to explore that shorn of using actual religions that carry a lot of baggage with them. We may not like it but it is part of the human condition, deep down and whilst we may “grow out of it”, equally we may not, and there are stories in that – good stories, stories worth telling.

Maybe we should be telling them.

Edit: Its been pointed out to me that Dune does have a good stab at talking about the difference between religion, and faith, and yes, i've probably dismissed this particular series a bit easily in passing. (i've basically ignored the whole point of Dune Messiah at the very least, which is careless of me). but i stand by my latter point that a lot of later universes have borrowed Dune's style without importing it's substance.

and theres a lot of good reasons creators avoid it as a subject - i think there is a strong atheistic streak in modern geekdom which may be fond of reading stories with religious themes; and a lot of "christian fiction" is overly defined by the "christian" bit, rather than the "tell a good story" bit. and has also been pointed out that religion tends to be an intrinsically personal thing, which can make people wary of being inadvertantly offensive.

All that said i still find it odd that a lot of near- and mid-future SF just assumes that religion is something we'll leave behind without talking about why or how. i guess that's the root of this particular ramble...!

Thinking: What is Geek Culture Anyway?

We (finally) saw the end of Lost the other week, and as often happens since being involved with Dissecting Worlds, and faced with a book or show that I liked, I was thinking of how we could fit it in to one of the series. And then I thought, “Well, really we are looking at Geek Universes, and does Lost really count?” Now of course Lost features time travel, mad science gone mad, parallel universes, as well as a good dollop of spiritualism and supernaturalism, so I’d say pretty much “yes” but it doesn’t feel as geeky enough to fit right in. Which led me onto the larger question of just what is Geek Culture anyway?

So, leaving aside Lost for the moment, I think it’s fair to say that being “a geek” is a state of mind and broad set of shared interests, and as such can be hard to pin down. I know many people who watch the same shows as me, read many of the same books, and like the same films, but would shudder at the thought of being lumped in with out-and-out, “bought the t-shirt” geeks like me on some arbitrary social hierarchy. At the same time I've met many pretty obvious geeks who embrace their fluffy inner geek but only in a narrow context, finding it hard to reach outside of their own boxed-in subculture-within-a-subculture.

This makes it hard to draw lines as to what content to cover. Another personal example – I write up sometime book reviews for the Geek Syndicate site, based on genre-themes. Last year I did Fantasy novels, no question there, but this year, looking at Dystopias, I’m clearly in the realm of science fiction, but few of the writers and books, especially going back into the genre, are what you’d call “geeky” books. What they are, however, is often hugely influential on the writers creating modern geek culture, who are themselves often squeezing surprising amounts of “proper culture” into their work, further blurring the gap between the mainstream and a culture that lets face it, a lot of the mainstream looks down on. When they’re not watching Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica, of course.

The latter point is a key one for me. Geek culture is often astonishingly smart, and of course most geeks are astonishingly intelligent and good looking people. Um. Right. But they do seem drawn to intricate, involving worlds, which goes with the territory of being a fan of SF or Fantasy, and it’s a short hop from there to a gilt-edged show like The Wire, or Rome, or The Sopranos, which will be just as alien as Westeros or Caprica to the average viewer, for all they are set nominally in the “real world”. All that is really different is the odd Killer Robot or two, although I have to concede that this seems to make a difference.

So, where are these lines? I mean, doing a podcast on The Sopranos clearly isn’t in the remit, and doing one on say, Star Wars clearly is. But shows like House or CSI have so much technobabble in them they could well be re-skinned episodes of Star Trek: TNG and we wouldn’t touch them, and yet any sort of comic, even something like Maus or Palestine, which are a long way from what the man in the street expects from a funnybook, we’d be all over.

Which brings me back to Lost, a show which seems to sit a little bit in that grey area. In some senses, it’s twisty mythology, strange science and dabbling of sci-fi concepts make it very geeky indeed, but its sometimes perverse refusal to pursue this lines in favour of character drama and an esoteric spiritualism that seems to really get the back up of a certain wing of genre fans for whom Science and religion should never meet (unless the former is debunking the latter of course). It’s a little like the books and films that occasionally crop up in awards list that are clearly a genre product pretending not to be, although with less pretensions of grandeur. It’s also interesting that many of Lost’s ill-fated successor shows; The Event, Fast Forward, etc have all suffered from the same perceived flaw of being if anything more geeky, more mystery heavy, and somehow missing that a lot of Lost’s audience watched because they cared about its character stories. And I guess the creators knew that too, given the decision to focus on an emotive resolution rather than an explanatory one!

So is there any conclusion to what subjects are properly geeky and which ones aren’t? Well no, and I suspect that there is no answer, and what the “geek culture” assimilates as its own may not be as simple as content producers asking people dressed as Stormtroopers at Comic-Con what they want to see in a film or show (which is I think how Sucker Punch was written!) and then sticking it up on a screen or out in print. Which I find quite heartening, really and proves that whilst we have clearly been pegged as an affluent market that needs exploiting, we’re not quite as easily swayed as all that, and we can remain refreshingly hard to predict. And makes it hard for us decide what subjects to podcast about, which, if I’m being honest, is part of the fun.

Go Us.