Saturday, 31 January 2015

Books vs Video Games: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

One of my discoveries this week is that the Guardian now seems to have a dedicated science fiction column, written by Damien Walter. This is a nice development, as I do think it's nice to have someone talking about SFF literature in a forum that's widely distributed. Hell, I'm happy to have any medium talking about books to a wide audience - this is one of my favorite things about the Daily Show, for instance.

Back in November, Walter wrote a piece talking about how SF writers must battle video games to capture eyeballs. It was kind of interesting, noting that games like Halo are winning pretty easily because they can present the fantastic visually, whereas books have to make do with exposition, description - essentially large blocks of words.

I generally disagree with the thesis, however. Sure, everybody has a finite amount of time to entertain themselves, and there are a lot more options now than there were a century ago. Books, frankly, have no chance - but then, neither do movies or TV or radio. And when the next entertainment medium comes along, video games will find their popularity dropping too.

What I really disagree with is the idea that competition for readers' attention translates to less work for writers. The games I've been playing lately (mainly Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, as well as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim and Mass Effect 2) are pretty story-heavy, although this means different things in each case.

Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are pretty linear and plot-bound, while Skyrim offers a deeper world to explore and interact with. But each of these games relies very heavily on world-building, whether in the form of codex entries (for Mass Effect and Dragon Age), books (for Skyrim) or simply inserting the occult and the paranormal into historical settings (for Assassin's Creed). Walking around the meticulously recreated Renaissance cities of Florence, Venice and Rome, I've been impressed with how much research Ubisoft must have done to get so many details right that my dad can recognize the landmarks I'm climbing.

At the same time, I remember hearing on a podcast recently (I think it was the Indoor Kids) how the developers of Skyrim or Dragon Age basically had a staff of writers who were sitting there writing the history of the world you're meant to play through. And those writers have churned out millions of words on the history of the setting, far in excess even of what George RR Martin or Robert Jordan have managed. It kind of makes me feel bad to skim through the interminable books I keep finding in Skyrim.

My point is, the conflict between videogames and books is more a case of "if you can't beat them, join them" - the two art forms are very similar, as both require active participation by the consumer, much more than movies or music. The difference is that video games are much more collaborative than books - but the point is both are simply trying to immerse consumers into their stories.

While I didn't go through the entire comment section (nobody sane does that on Guardian comment sections), I thought it interesting that nobody, including Walter himself, brought up the idea of writers working on video games. A couple of games recently have tapped writers to help them with the plot (Richard K Morgan is the main one I'm thinking of), and I think that a number of writers would jump at the chance to do the same. It may be a function of age, although from his website Walter doesn't seem too much older than I am.

Still, I'm not too worried about the conflicts between various media - books will always be able to do things that video games can't, and vice versa. Switching between them should let writers tell their stories as completely as possible.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Hoping 2015 Will Be the Year

Quick one today, as I've been flat on my back most of the weekend (and large parts of last week) with my traditional post-CES illness, with the added fun of something I picked up off a fellow party-goer on New Year's Eve (and not the fun way, either).

But in all that rack time I've been accruing, my thoughts have ranged across the insanely ambitious array of writing projects I've set for myself this year. Folks, it's gonna be a tough one:

1. Revise/rewrite last year's 4 screenplay treatments
2. Write 3 new screenplay treatments
3. Write a 4-6 issue comic based on one of last year's treatments
4. Write a 90k-word novel I've had gestating for a while now, and do it in 3 months
5. Submit short stories 20 times (which is turning out to include revising and rewriting certain stories, because my current pool of submittable stories is two)

And that doesn't include my reading goals, or blogging, or getting out to SF/F author events. It also doesn't include my goals in other areas of my life, like dating and fitness and travel.

Now, I'm not mentioning this to boast about how busy I am, but rather to note that I'm really hoping all the reading I've been doing on story structure, and all my practical work outlining my movie ideas, will translate to the comic and the novel. Comics are a new (ish) medium for me, and although I've written novels, I've never attempted to plot so much out before I write the damn thing. It might work, or it might be an epic disaster.

In essence, I'm hoping to put to use all the stuff I've been reading about the last couple of years now - Robert McKee's Story and Syd Field's Screenplay and talk of plot points, inciting incidents and act transitions. Lack of three-act story structure may not have been the crucial factor in why those early novels didn't work, but it can't hurt to know how it works now, right?

And the real goal, which I left out because it's hard to articulate in a non-vague form, is for this to be the year that I finally start down the road to writing for a living, rather than as a hobby. To be honest, it's been my goal every year since I started writing long-form fiction back in 2001. But, although I haven't quite achieved it yet - I'm still makin' money for the man in my 9 to 5 - I hope I'm making progress.

Frankly, that's all I can hope for - writing is a subjective enough thing that one can be really good but really unlucky. I may or may not be good, but as long as I stick to the old Robert Heinlein rule (read a lot, write a lot, send out what you write), I should be able to make my own luck.

Fingers crossed!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Some Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Like so many people, I spent this week following the developing story around the massacre at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, which ended yesterday when they were killed during a hostage standoff, and one of their accomplices was also killed while holding hostages at a Jewish grocery in Paris. I've also read so many words of commentary on "what this means" that I thought it would be worthwhile adding my own two cents.

Generally, I feel that this incident has become yet another instance for commentators (like myself, I suppose) to air their own deeply held and often misinformed opinions. It's also turned into one of those moments where people who don't respond the exact same way as everyone else gets categorized as "aiding the enemy".

For instance, there's this story, which started with USC professor Marc Cooper calling New York Times editor Dean Baquet a coward for not publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and ended with Baquet calling Cooper an asshole. While I've previously suggested that sometimes the NYT and other US news outlets twist themselves unnecessarily into knots to avoid using swear words, I feel in this case Cooper was being self-righteous - a lot of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published really were offensive, and some to the point that they ceased to be funny but just mean-spirited. You may say that's the point of satire, but the point of living in a free democracy is that you can also choose not to speak (a choice I wish a lot more people would make).

The best reaction I've seen came from Will Self, speaking to Vice:
"Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons [of Muhammad] I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from H. L. Mencken's definition of good journalism: It should 'afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.' The trouble with a lot of so-called 'satire' directed against religiously motivated extremists is that it's not clear who it's afflicting, or who it's comforting. This is in no way to condone the shooting of the journalists, which is evil, pure and simple, but our society makes a fetish of 'the right to free speech' without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right." 
In his response Self hints at the most vexing aspect of Charlie Hebdo's output, which is that in insulting Muslims this paper run by white, middle-class French people was going after France's immigrant underclass. If some paper here regularly ran cartoons insulting blacks or Hispanics, most Americans would justifiably be disgusted - but here we're blinded by our own principle of integrating people, so we're unaware of just how alienating European cultures are to their own immigrants. People who say immigrants should "just integrate" miss the point that the wider societies in places like France, Britain, Germany or wherever aren't willing to do their own part to integrate newcomers.

My former J-school classmate, Ed Krayewski, writing in Reason, seems to miss this point when he suggests that the original cartoons were fine because Middle Eastern satirists publish the same kind of thing. There is a question of context here, as Middle Eastern satire targeting ISIS or Islamic fundamentalism is aimed upward, at the power structure, rather than downward, at those crushed by it. The examples Ed cites are also from countries bordering but not currently ruled by ISIS, and make fun specifically of the terror group, rather than of the Prophet Muhammad or of Islam itself. Or in other words, it's on the same level as this:

The other piece I saw that showcased Western ignorance and bias was this one from, which starts with the phrase "If you thought the Arab world celebrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a blow against blasphemers, some Arab-language newspapers tell a different story."

It's stupid because it assumes, as seemingly a lot of Western (and particularly American) people do, that the Arab world is a single entity that agrees on everything and has exactly the same viewpoint, stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Any Arab will tell you that this is flatly not the case. The piece gets better, as it depicts a number of cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and criticizing the idea of killing over cartoons, but I can't get over the premise (and what's worse is that in the original piece's lede the word "celebrate" links to Fox News on September 12, 2001, reporting on how Palestinians celebrated the attack on the World Trade Center).

To close, I also want to discuss the perpetrators for a moment, as it's so easy to dismiss them as thugs with no sense of humor (which they became, of course). But I can't help feeling a sense of lost potential there, as I saw an NBC report showing Cherif Kouachi's early life before he turned to terrorism and murder. In some home-made music videos (he wanted to be a rapper), Kouachi's smiling and clowning, arm around his friend as he raps.

Whether he'd have made it in the music business or not is irrelevant, but it's a shame that so many youths are being twisted and perverted to the side of fundamentalism. If we really want to stop more of these attacks from happening, the answer is not to silence Charlie Hebdo, or to spy on every young man at risk of becoming radicalized, but to find avenues for these guys to express themselves beyond violence.